Sunday, August 31, 2008

MGM makes a Warner Brothers movie

TCM rounds off this year's Summer Under the Stars with 24 hours of Spencer Tracy movies. Coming up overnight tongiht, at 12:45 AM ET (that's still late Sunday evening in the rest of the US) is a movie Tracy made the same year as San Francisco, but which has a totally different atmosphere: Fury.

Tracy stars as Joe Wilson, a man from Chicago whose fiancée, Katherine Grant (played by Sylvia Sidney), has gone to Texas to earn a better living since Wilson currently doesn't have the money to marry her. He goes into business with his brothers, promising Katherine that when he earns enough money, he'll get married to her. Eventually, he does get enough money, but suffers a problem on the way south to meet her: there's been a kidnapping in a small town through which Joe is passing, and the police have some circumstantial evidence to believe that Joe could be a suspect. So, they hold him for questioning. Unfortunately for Joe, it was a particularly brutal crime, and the townsfolk, thinking Joe is guilty, form a lynch mob and storm and burn down the prison.

The story doesn't end here, of course. Unbeknownst to the townspeople, Joe actually survives the fire and escapes, vowing to extract revenge on them for trying to kill him. A courageous prosecutor goes after the leader of the mob (Bruce Cabot, formerly of King Kong) when the real kidnappers are found, trying them for the murder of Joe, for which they could face execution. For Joe, this is a perfect shot at revenge: do nothing, let them be found guilty, and be executed. There's a problem with this, of course, in that it's an extremely immoral thing to do. Worse, Katherine begins to realize that Joe is actually still alive....

Fury is a fascinating movie with an interesting cast, and excellent direction from Fritz Lang, making his Hollywood debut. However, what's even more interesting is that MGM would make such a movie. As can be seen in San Francisco, MGM was the most prestigious and glossiest of the studios, putting out highly polished musicals and elegant dramas; even movies such as Hide-Out, about a criminal on the run, have a look of class above and beyond what the real-life social status of the characters would warrant. Fury, on the other hand, is the sort of social commentary movie that Warner Brothers would have made. (Indeed, one of Spencer Tracy's few movies for Warners was the 1932 prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.) Louis B. Mayer generally didn't like movie with social commentary, in part no doubt due to political views, but also by the perfectly reasonable assumption that people went to the movies to be entertained. Make no mistake, though: Fury is very entertaining. It's also available on DVD, so if you miss TCM's showing tonight, you can still watch it whenever you want. (Just be careful not to confuse it with John Cassavetes' 1978 horror movie The Fury.)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What a beautiful disaster

The title of this post is taken from the final line of Second Chance, which I recommended a few weeks back. However, it's also a fitting title for my next recommendation, airing on TCM on August 31 at 6:00 AM ET: San Francisco.

Clark Gable stars as Blackie Norton, the bad-boy owner of a nightclub/saloon in 1906 San Francisco. Into the city comes wannabe opera singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald). She's not able to get a job doing her preferred singing right away, so instead she's given a job at Norton's club as the featured star, through the intercession of Blackie's childhood friend who is now a Catholic priest, Fr. Mullin (Spencer Tracy). The next bit of the plot is obvious: Blackie falls in love with Mary, despite the fact that he's all wrong for her. The next two bits of the plot are also fairly predictable: there's a love triangle, in that the much higher-class impresario Jack Burley (played by Jack Holt) "discovers" Mary, and wants to get her a job doing opera, even though it will take her away from Blackie. Also, Fr. Mullin is continually playing on Blackie's conscience to try to get him to do the right thing, even if it means letting Mary go.

The story is set in the San Francisco of 1906, so we know what's about to make a cameo appearance, even if the characters don't: the Great Earthquake of 1906. And when it does, it's fairly spectacular, at least by 1936 standards. MGM was the biggest and best of the Hollywood studios at the time, and clearly spared no expense in putting together the special effects in portraying the earthquake. Despite this, there's still something wrong with the earthquake. Don't get me wrong; it's very well done. However, the earthquake just looks too glitzy. Hollywood simply wasn't able to portray squalid conditions of the past accurately during the studio era, unlike more recent period pieces.

Still, it's only a minor quibble. San Francisco is an excellent movie with good acting all around, well-styled singing by MacDonald (if you like that sort of singing), and special effects that are fun to watch. It's also available on DVD, so if you don't feel like getting up early to watch it tomorrow, you can watch it any time you like.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Stars trek

The Fox Movie Channel's lunchtime movie today was The River's Edge. The basic plot is that Ray Milland plays a robber who comes in to the life of Arizona rancher Anthony Quinn, asking Quinn to take him across the border to Mexico. Thanks to a plot twist, the two men end up going with Quinn's wife (the lovely-to-look-at Debra Paget), who just also happens to have been Milland's ex-girlfriend. One scene involves the three main characters waiting out a storm in a cave, which reminded me that this plot of a trek (especially with spending a night in a cave) is a cliché I've sen several times in the past.

It's been done in The Naked Spur, which I recommended about a month ago. Instead, I'd like to recommend a third movie with a similar trek, River of No Return.

The basic story of River of No Return involves Robert Mitchum as a widowed farmer who is living with his son in an area where there's a gold rush on, and where the Indians have not been fully subdued. Into his life one day raft Rory Calhoun and his girlfriend, saloon singer Marilyn Monroe. Apparently, Calhoun is taking Monroe with him to the biggest town in the area to get married, but he's also got a bit of a dark past. Mitchum does, too, having shot a man in the back. Calhoun takes Mitchum's horse and rifle just in time for the Indians to come and attack, and everybody else, having no other option, take the raft and set off down the river.

It's here that the movie gets fun. The whole bit about the love triangle you can see coming a mile away can be ignored; instead, watch the movie for the trip down the river. You see, the river is about as impassable as the river in The African Queen, but our heroes try to go down it anyhow. And in River of No Return, the cinematography is frankly better in The African Queen. Both are movies that could benefit from being presented in a wide-screen format, but The African Queen was made before the advent of Cinemascope. River of No Return, on the other hand, was released in 1954, and with the big stars it had, it was only natural that Fox would go all out and film it in Cinemascope. The result is a really fun ride down a river bookended by a pair of contrived stories, about a love triangle and about a father's struggle to redeem himself in his son's eyes.

River of No Return is available on DVD, and is a fun movie to watch on a rainy day.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades

TCM is airing Soylent Green overnight tonight, at 1:30 AM ET. You probably know the story; the setting of this 1973 movie is the New York City of the year 2013, when the population is 40 million, all living cheek by jowl in dreadful circumstances (except, of course, for the super-rich). It got me to thinking about how the future is all too often presented as dystopic.

This goes back to at least Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and I could name a whole host of movies both from Hollywood and from other countries. The ironic thing is that most of these movies get it horribly wrong: even if you include the entire metropolitan area of New York City, you don't get anywhere near the 40 million people the movie posits for the population of the area. (In fact, you'd need almost the entire populations of New York state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut to get to 40 million. As one who lives in the Catskills, I can tell you there's quite a bit of open space here.) The 1960 version of The Time Machine claims Earth will be destroyed by nuclear war in 1966, while HG Wells' 1936 movie Things To Come posits a thirty-year-long war beginning in 1940.

Not only that, but it's depressingly predictable. The future's bad, and it's because of those wicked industrialists. The politicians in Soylent Green are allegedly bought and paid for by the Soylent Corp.; and in Things to Come, it's the rich who have pushed Britain into the war. I can't help but think this is an offshoot of the movies' (and especially Hollywood's) aversion to business in general. I cringed every time I saw the commercials for the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, when Denzel Washington made his comment that "This is what happens when you have rich people doing bad science".

Still, Soylent Green is a fun movie, in part because of how wrong they got things. Heston is fine, although the acting honors really go to Edward G. Robinson in his final movie performance. (He died before the movie was released.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


TCM aired Touch of Evil last night. It was directed by Orson Welles, and had to be restored in the 1990s after cuts had been made before the original theatrical release in 1958, prompting Welles to write a long memo pleading for the cuts not to be made. To be honest, I can't judge the cuts, since I haven't seen the producers' version of Touch of Evil. However, I've long felt that Welles gets a bit more of a boost in his repuation than he deserves, largely for the fact that he fought constantly against the studio execs. Some of Welles' work is not very good, like F For Fake. And yet, I know a lot of people think F For Fake is brilliant. F For Fake is one of those movies that tries to throw in arty touches, and I think that's part of the reason some people give it such praise: it's a pretension to wax effusive about obscure movies, one that I find myself having to resist. There are a lot of pretentious movies out there that really aren't all that good.

One that came to my mind this morning is Robert Mitchum's Track of the Cat. The movie is in color, but director William Wellman decided to use color sparingly. Most of the set pieces are, if not in blacks and whites, in shades of brown (wood) and off-whites. The only exception to this is Mitchum's bright red coat. It doesn't help save what is a turgid family drama with a tacked-on plotline involving predatory big cat.

TCM "Essentials" co-host Rose McGowan made an interesting comment when presenting Paths of Glory. It's directed by Stanley Kubrick, and she commented afterward that she finds herself hesitant to praise some of Kubrick's later work so highly, if only out of a contrarian impulse. It seems, so she argued, that everybody thinks Kubrick is always great, and there's a part of her that reflexively rebels against such conventional wisdom. It's a courageous remark to make, and I'm glad she did. (I'll admit, though, that part of my reason for liking the remark is that I tend to feel the same way myself.)

I also believe that we're more likely to see people wax pretentious about foreign films: the language is a barrier, leading people to want to see being a fan of foreign films as making them somehow more knowledgeable about films, and thus part of an "in" crowd. Sure, there are excellent foreign films, although it must be said that we in the United States only get to see the best of other countries' output for the most part. The stuff that's designed to be everyday production for the domestic market doesn't get exported. (Although, if you watch some of the Spanish-language TV channels, you can see some pretty lousy Mexican movies.) Even then, some of the foreign films aren't as good as they're cracked up to be. I remember seeing The Damned show up on one of the local PBS channels, and hearing from the critic/presenter that it was supposedly some great movie. It's the tale of a debauched industrialist family (based on the Krupps) at the beginning of the Third Reich (although the movie is in Italian), but it's little more than a two-and-a-half-hour look at excess, with a pointless scene of the Night of the Long Knives thrown in seemingly so they could show a bunch of nearly-naked young men. It's movies like this that lead me to say, "judge for yourself" when I recommend a movie for which I don't particularly care.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Modern period movies again

In my post on Sunday about Chariots of Fire, I mentioned that it had a much more authentic look than the period movies of the Hollywood studio system. Perhaps an even better example of this is the visuals of the 2003 movie Girl With a Pearl Earring, airing on August 27 at 8:35 AM and 2:00 PM ET on IFC.

The movie takes its genesis from a 1660s painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, giving a highly speculative answer to the question of just who the subject is in his painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows the answer to this question, and there's even an entire site dedicated to the painting. In the movie, based on a novel by writer Tracy Chevalier, the girl is presumed to be a maid in the Vermeer household named Griet (played by Scarlett Johansson). Not long after Griet starts working in the house, she finds that Vermeer (played by Colin Firth) has taken a liking to her, asking her to help with his paints. Apparently, this version of Vermeer was one randy bastard; he already had something like six children with another on the way. Burdened with a constantly pregnant wife, he trusts in Griet instead, which makes poor Mrs. Vermeer insanely jealous.

The story, according to scholars, is implausible at best, although it's not actaully a bad story. It would be perfectly fine if all the characters were fictional. However, there's a better reason to watch the movie, which is for the cinematography. The real-life Vermeer was highly interested in the play of light and shadow, effects which show up quite a bit in his paintings. The movie tries to reproduce this, and we get not only beautiful colors, but some excellent work with shades as well. Further, the film's portrayal of 17th century Delft, Holland, is visually a sight to behold. Life in the 17th century was not easy, even for people in the upper-middle class, which is where Vermeer (or at least Mrs. Vermeer) aspired to be. For the servants, it was a life of constant drudgery. The filmmakers do an excellent job of not romanticizing the 17th century, the way Hollywood studios would have done in the 1930s and 1940s.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a moderately interesting movie about the 17th century wrapped around a silly love story. If you don't like the love story, turn the sound off and watch the visuals instead. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hello Dali

Yes, it's a hideously bad pun, but as part of Ingrid Bergman's day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, TCM is showing Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 movie Spellbound at 10:00 PM ET tonight.

Ingrid Bergman stars as Constance Petersson a doctor in a Vermont psychiatric institution. A new administrator, Anthony Edwardes, played by Gregory Peck, comes to take over the place from Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), but it turns out that Peck isn't quite what he seems. It's eventually discovered that the man who is supposed to be the new administrator was in fact shot, and Peck is portraying that man but has a terrible case of amnesia. Worse, he has to flee the institution because the police naturally believe that he was the murderer. Meanwhile, he and Constance have fallen in love, so when he runs off to New York City to escape from the police, she follows in order to try to figure out both who he is, and who the real murderer was. Eventually, the two travel to several places across the northeast US, all the while falling further in love....

Alfred Hitchcock has some really difficult material to work with here, and gives his best shot at it, making a pretty darn good movie out of Spellbound. However, it's not without its problems. Psychoanalysis wasn't quite as well-known in 1945 as it is today, and Hollywood's portrayal of it leaves a bit to be desired. Sigmund Freud had a much bigger reputation then than he does now, meaning that Spellbound has quite a bit of Freudian-inspired imagery that seems dated now, or worse, risible. Of note is Peck and Bergman's first kiss, which is a double exposure of them and a hallway of doors opening up. But there's also Peck's hangup, of anything where there are lines on a bright white background. It drives Peck nuts, and he's almost as bad as Tippi Hedren in Marnie.

The highlight of the movie, however, is probably when Constance, aided by her former college professor (humorously played by Michael Chekhov, who comments, "Any husband of Constance is a husband of mine, so to speak"), analyses Peck's recurring dream (which is one of the keys to solving the mystery of who killed Dr. Edwardes). The sequence is full of strange images, and was designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The dream sequence is a huge contrast from the rest of the movie, and is visually quite stunning.

Spellbound isn't quite at the top of the list of the best Alfred Hitchcock movies, but it's still wonderfully entertaining, and a fun enough love story with that outstanding Dali sequence. It's highly worth watching if you haven't seen it before, and it still worth a repeat viewing if you have seen it before (indeed, I intend to spend my entire evening with Miss Bergman). However, if you only have the time for one Hitchcock movie tonight, I'd suggest watching the movie that precedes Spellbound at 8:00 PM ET, Hitchcock's 1946 masterpiece Notorious.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Olympics are over

Today saw the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and so today will see the recommendation of one more movie about the Olympics: Chariots of Fire, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1981.

You probably know the story; Chariots of Fire tells the story of the British track team at the 1924 Paris Olympics; specifically focusing on two of the team's members: Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), and Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson). However, it's much more than a story about running and winning Olympic gold; it's really a story about drive, determination, and moral dilemmas. Abrahams is Jewish in a class-conscious Britain which didn't treat Jews nearly as well as it treated Christians. (There is, however, some debate as to whether the real-life Abrahams suffered as much discrimination as the movie version does.) He runs, apparently, to prove that he's just as good as those Christians who run everything. Eric Liddell, on the other hand, is the son of Scottish missionaries (and was actually born in China). He runs not only for glory of Scotland, but to serve God as well. Both athletes eventually qualify for the Olympics. However, there's a conflict for Liddell in that the heats in his event are scheduled for a Sunday, and as a devout Christian, he refuses to run on Sunday. He's even so devout that he's willing to turn down the exhortations of the Prince of Wales to run for the glory of Britain. (This section is one of the parts of the movie that is not entirely factual; the real-life Liddell was always scheduled to run in the 400-meter race he ends up running in the movie.) I won't give away the ending, except to say that you can find out the results of the 1924 Olympics in any good reference book such as an almanac or encyclopedia.

Chariots of Fire has gotten a knock in its reputation in the quarter-century since it was released; one which in my opinion is unfair. A large part of the reason for this is probably due to the fact that certain sections of Chariots of Fire are eminently parodiable; one particular sequence involves the British team training by running along the beach, a scene iconic enough to make the movie poster, DVD cover, and the cover to Vangelis' single of the theme music (the song reached #1 on the US pop charts). The synthesizer-based theme, with its memorable opening strains, is probably another reason why the movie has come in for so much parody. The music by itself doesn't particularly evoke the idea of running, but because it was the theme to the movie, it has since become almost instantly recognizable and iconic. There's also the filming of the actual Olympic races, which don't seem to be in real time, allowing us to focus on the facial expressions of the athletes as they're running, much in the same way we see the skin of anybody subject to high g-forces being pushed back.

However, Chariots of Fire really does deserve its place in the pantheon of great movies. It's an outstanding movie not only about sports and the Olympics, but about two individuals with burning passions. It's also one of the movies that made the idea of historical movies set in the Britain of the first third of the 20th century -- after the death of Queen Victoria and before the beginning of World War II -- commercially viable, and probably helped pave the way for all those Merchant/Ivory films and even the lush adaptations of British novels from earlier eras. Chariots of Fire has a much more accurate look to it than all the historical movies made on the Hollywood studio backlots and soundstages decades before. Happily, Chariots of Fire is available on DVD for you to watch whenever you wish.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Trevor Howard on TCM

Yesterday was British actor Trevor Howard's day on Summer Under the Stars. Thankfully, TCM didn't show Brief Encounter, a well-made movie that is unfortunately irritating as a chick flick. One of the best Howard movies they did show, and which is available on DVD, is the delightful mystery Green For Danger.

Howard isn't the star of this 1946 British movie; that honor goes to Alastair Sim, who plays Inspector Cockrill, a Scotland Yard detective who is sent to a makeshift small-town hospital in the waning days of World War II to solve a murder. Apparently, during one of the German V-bomb raids, a postman was injured, and died on the operating table for reasons seemingly unrelated to his injuries. Naturally, everybody who was in that operating room (including Howard, who plays one of the surgeons) is a suspect -- and every one of them also has motives for having committed the murder. You wouldn't have a good mystery without that, of course. This isn't the only murder, though. One of the nurses declares that she's got evidence that will lead to unmasking the murderer -- and she promptly winds up dead, herself.

As is the case with any good mystery, there are a lot of twists and turns, and it turns out that the good Inspector Cockrill figures he can solve the murder of the postman (and by extension, the murder of the nurse) by recreating the conditions of his death in the operating theater, leading to what is in some ways trite: the suspense of a "patient" nearly dying before it's determined who the actual murderer was. Still, the ending is well-crafted.

Green For Danger is highly enjoyable on a number of levels. Alastair Sim is excellent as the Inspector, bringing the same mix of humor and resolve to his crime-solving that Barry Fitzgerald would show a few years later in The Naked City. The rest of the cast is good, filled with the British stalwarts who populated British films in the postwar era. There's some excellent set design, notably in turning a mansion into a hospital; and some very good cinematography too -- watch especially for the murder of the nurse. All in all, Green For Danger is a prime example of the movies the British movie industry was turning out after 1945: constrained by lower budgets than Hollywood could have, but more than making up for it by experience on the part of the cast and crew; and ever-so-slightly eccentric. As mentioned above, Green For Danger is available on DVD, but being in a genre of less interest than the traditional Hollywood movie, it's been released to DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection, which makes it more pricey. However, it's well worth renting.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Cecil Kellaway, 1893-1973

August 22 marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of actor Cecil Kellaway. A nice way to celebrate it would be to watch him in what is probably his best movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Kellaway isn't the star; indeed, he spent most of his career playing supporting roles. Here, the stars are John Garfield, playing drifter Frank Chambers, a man who's got hot feet and can't stay in one place very long. At the beginning of the movie, he's hitchhiking, and gets dropped off at a roadside gas station/diner that's looking for help. Frank takes the job, and quickly finds that there's trouble brewing. That trouble is in the form of a blonde, the steamy Cora Smith, played by Lana Turner at her hottest. Frank and Cora immediately fall in love (otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie), but have a slight problem: Cora is married. The two come up with the brilliant idea of killing her husband Nick (played by Kellaway), and trying to make it look like an accident. Obviously, they were too busy to watch Double Indemnity, or they would have realized what a stupid idea this was.

Eventually, the two do kill poor Nick, but as Edward G. Robinson would have told them from Double Indemnity, Frank and Cora are stuck together, all the way to the end of the line. There's a trial, at which the two amazingly get off, although they -- and their attorney's investigators -- know that they're actually guilty. They can never run away from that guilt, either, and try as they may, it eventually winds up doing them both in. Crime really doesn't pay, at least under the Production Code.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was based on a novel by James M. Cain. The references above to Double Indemnity are intentional; Cain also wrote the novel on which that movie was based. Tay Garnett directed, and does an excellent job doing so, making Frank and Cora's sexual tension sparkle despite the restrictions that the Production Code placed on filming such stories. He was, however, certainly helped by the fact that he had an excellent cast. Garfield and Turner sizzle when they're on screen together, and Kellaway is excellent as the friendly, but rather naïve diner owner. Amongst the supporting cast, Hume Cronyn plays Turner's lawyer during the trial, and is quite good, too.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, being a major motion picture, is naturally available on DVD, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The other Fred Astaire movie

Last Friday, I mentioned Flying Down to Rio as one of the Fred Astaire movies I can recommend for being different from his normal movie. There's another type; the movie in which he doesn't dance at all. That Fred Astaire movie would be On the Beach, airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM.

Based on a novel by Nevil Shute, On the Beach tells a post-apocalyptic story of the few remaining survivors of nuclear war. They've all made their way to Australia, the only place that hasn't been affected by the fallout. However, they all know that eventually -- and it's not too far in coming -- the fallout is going to come their way too, dooming them to a horrible death. The cast is full of stars: Gregory Peck plays an American submarine commander; Anthony Perkins plays a junior officer in the Australian navy; Ava Gardner plays an Australian woman with whom Peck enjoys a brief, ill-fated romance; and Astaire plays a cynical scientist who knew that this is what the a-bomb was going to come to.

Although everybody knows that the end is near, there's a split of opinion as to what to do. The military types are still trying to look for a way out of the situation, leading to Peck's taking his submarine back to the US West coast in order to see investigate a radio signal coming from San Diego. Even though all we see is desolation, there are still some pretty uncomfortable scenes, proving once again that you don't need to show blood and guts to have a good fright. In contrast to the military, there are a lot of civilians who just want to live out their final days in comfort, enjoying the things they used to know, as shown in a very sad sequence involving people fishing while singing "Waltzing Matilda", and a car race in which Astaire takes part. The most chilling of these sequences, however, is when Perkins realizes what the radiation sickness is going to do to his wife and young daughter, and tries to leave cyanide capsules for his wife to administer to herself and the baby should the radiation sickness come when he's not around.

Perkins might be the weakest of the major stars, because he was still fairly young and not yet up to the task of playing an Aussie; indeed, he looks like an American fish out of water, even though he's trying hard. Peck and Gardner are quite good, but Astaire really shines. Who ever knew that he could do such serious stuff? As a whole, On the Beach is very good, too, although it runs a little long. We know that the end is near, but director Stanley Kramer tries to draw this end out by showing the world be increasingly less populated, in the form of a "repent now"-style religious revival. The intended message, that nuclear weapons are bad, is fairly blunt, but at the time, the moviemakers had no idea that the theory of mutually assured destruction might actually be a correct one and that it was the presence of nuclear weapons which was preventing another European war. (Of course, one could argue that the Great Powers simply decided to use Vietnam as a proxy instead.)

Politics aside, On the Beach is a well-told, visually engaging movie, with an outstanding performance from Fred Astaire. It's available on DVD, too, so you can still watch it even if you miss TCM's showing tonight.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ginger Rogers without Fred Astaire

I mentioned yesterday that TCM is kicking off prime time tonight with two of the movies in which Edward G. Robinson plays gangsters. The third sees a reversal of roles: Tight Spot, at 11:15 PM ET.

Here, Edward G. Robinson plays a district attorney whose job it is to get the gangster's moll (here played by Ginger Rogers) to testify at his trial. The plot is formulaic: it's known that the prosecutors want her to testify, meaning that she's in danger of being rubbed out by the gangsters, so she's holed up in a hotel. There's also the plot point that she's reluctant to testify, as well as the plot point that one of the cops assigned to protect her seems to be falling for her instead.

It's all fairly standard stuff, but not all that great. Rogers was in her mid-40s when this movie was made, and she's sadly too old to be playing the gangster's moll. In watching the movie, I found it hard to care either way about what happened to her. This material had been done a bunch of times before; perhaps most notably in The Narrow Margin. There, the movie is tense and the characterizations excellent; in Tight Spot, it seems more as if Rogers is going through the motions and almost playing a caricature. Robinson is fine, but not used enough. The cop is played by Brian Keith, who also does a reasonable job.

Tight Spot is not available on DVD, so if you want to judge for yourself, you'll have to watch TCM's showing tonight. Owing to its mediocrity, it's probably unlikely to make it to DVD any time soon despite the star power of the leads.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Edward G. Robinson's range

Several months ago I mentioned how Edward G. Robinson played a very broad rage of ethnic characters during his career, from Greek to Portuguese to American, in addition to all his gangster characters. TCM's Summer Under the Stars honors Robinson on August 20, giving us an excellent opportunity to evaluate that range.

Robinson is generally best known for those gangster roles, and two of the best-known of his gangster roles kick off prime time: Little Caesar at 8:00 PM ET, followed by Key Largo at 9:30 PM. Of course, he also played good guys, as in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, at 8:00 AM. Here, Robinson plays Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the German scientist who found the first effective treatment for syphilis. It's typical for the Warner Brothers movies of the era: excellent production values, with a dash of social content thrown in, and a cast of true professionals doing a fine job from top to bottom, with Robinson standing out amongst them all.

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet will be followed at 9:45 AM by the even more interesting Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. This movie is in many ways reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie, except that it's more contemporary, being set in World War II-era Wisconsin. Robinson plays Norwegian immigrant farmer Martin Jacobsen, living with his wife Bruna (played by Agnes Moorhead, who's also cast against type but puts in an excellent performance) and daughter Selma (Margaret O'Brien). The story is mainly told through Selma's eyes, as she learns life's lessons by seeing the trials and tribulations that the various adults go through. Not only those of the farmers, but also those of the new teacher, the newspaper editor with whom she falls in love, and Selma's best friend Arnold, the son of the farmers living closest by. Selma and Arnold, in fact, get into the same sorts of scrapes you could see little Laura Ingalls getting into in Little House on the Prairie

It's all lovingly told; the characters are for the most part kind and generous, but still have the same human failings that we all do. It's got good family values without being preachy, and is an excellent movie for family vieweing, especially with younger children. (Older children may find it a bit young for them.) Unfortunately, I erred in my February post when I said Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is available on DVD. The IMDb page lists a DVD link to Amazon, but the Amazon link reveals that the movie has in fact not been released to DVD -- which is really a shame. The TCM showing is your only chance to see the movie, and it's a chance I strongly recommend taking.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Breaking the glass ceiling

Opening credits of The Jeffersons

Avid TV viewers will recall the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons, and its theme song:

Well we're sleeping our way (sleeping our way)
To the top (sleeping our way)
To a deeeee-luxe apartment in the sky-y-y

We're sleeping our way (sleeping our way)
To the top (sleeping our way)
We've finally got a piece of the pie

Well, that's not exactly how George and Weezy got to that "deluxe apartment"; they actually worked legitimately for it, unlike the lead in our next movie, 1933's Baby Face airing at 3:15 PM ET on August 19 on TCM.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as Lily Powers, a woman who hasn't had a very easy life. She's working in a speakeasy literally on the wrong side of the tracks in a small town, not only serving liquor to the men, but also being expected to "serve" the men in other ways. Indeed, Lily hates her father because he's been pimping her since she was a teenager. Fortunately for her, though, an accident happens that causes the place to burn down, killing her father in the process. One of her few male friends (Alphonse Ethier) gives her a book by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, telling her with a wonderful German accent, "Use men... to get the things you want!"

Lily immediately takes him up on that advice, going to New York, getting a job in a bank, and sleeping with every man in the building -- as long as it's somebody who will help her advance up the career ladder. (One of the interesting scenes details this progress by actually showing a shot of the outside of the building, moving from a window on a lower floor to one on a higher floor.) Eventually, she falls for the fiancé of the bank president's daughter, but things go wrong when he storms into her apartment while she's with the president, leading to both men's deaths.

Unfortunately, the film starts to bog down here as it develops into a more conventional love story. Bank president Courtland Trenholm (played by George Brent) sends Lily to the bank's Paris branch to hush up the controversy, but eventually ends up in Paris himself, falling head over heels for her, and using money that could be better used by the bank to buy her expensive gifts.

Even if the ending is a bit weak, Baby Face is one of the most fun pre-Codes out there. It's filled with implied sex, and other topics that just a year later couldn't be talked about at all. Even so, the original version of the movie was controversial enough that some cuts were forced. The missing footage was found a few years ago and restored however. The restored version has been released on DVD, as part of the first volume of the Forbidden Hollywood collection. (I've mentioned Volume 2, which contains Stanwyck's Night Nurse, before; that movie is airing at 10:00 AM on the 19th.) Watch Baby Face carefully, to see a brief scene with Nat Pendleton, and another about 20 minutes in with John Wayne.

Sometimes a cable car is just a cable car

The cable cars of San Francisco may not have any special meaning, but those aren't the only cable cars out there. You can see the other kind in Second Chance, airing at 6:30 PM ET on August 18 on TCM.

Robert Mitchum stars as a boxer trying to rehabilitate his career in Mexico. That's not much of a movie plot, so of course there's got to be a woman with a past involved. That woman is played by Linda Darnell. Her past is that she's a gangster's moll, who's escaped to Mexico partly so that she doesn't have to testify against her boyfriend, and partly because she wants to get away from that boyfriend. This being a Hollywood movie, you know that the man and woman are going to fall in love, and that things aren't going to go smoothly. In this case, that means that the moll is being chased by the gangster, in the form of his hired gun, played by Jack Palance. Our two heroes escape to a mountain resort, only to find that they haven't really escaped; the gunman has found them. So they try to escape back down to the valley below by taking the cable car.

Of course, once they're in a hanging cable car, you know what happens next. Sadly, this makes the last 20 minutes or so of the movie even more predictable than it otherwise would be. The fact that the movie was billed as being in 3D makes what happens next even more predictable. (Think about it: why would they want the capability of 3D?) That's really too bad, because the movie really deserves a better fate than it gets. There are a few nice scenes, such as a slow chase through the hilly and stairwell-laden streets of town, and scenery that ought to look nice. But even here, the Technicolor they used just doesn't look so brilliant, taking away from the beauty of the Mexican locatoin shots.

I've commented on other movies that they're great for watching on a rainy day when there's nothing better to do, sitting back with a bowl of popcorn. Second Chance fits that bill, although it also means it's just a mediocre movie. Despite having Robert Mitchum as the male lead, Second Chance has never been released to DVD, meaning that if you want to see it, you're going to have to catch the TCM airing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A place where nobody (not even TCM) dared to go

Today is Gene Kelly's day on TCM, with TCM showing a lot of his musicals while he was working with the Freed Unit at MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. I've recommended some classics like Singin' In the Rain before, while there are movies for which TCM might not have been able to acquire the broadcast rights, such as The Young Girls of Rochefort. However, Gene Kelly's last musical isn't airing on TCM today -- and even if they could get the rights to it, they might not show it. It's the classic 1980 mess Xanadu.

The basic plot is taken from another movie recently aired on TCM, Rita Hayworth's Down to Earth: a Greek muse helps a man live out his dream, falling in love with him along the way. Now, in and of itself, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Help from above has appeared in some of the all-time greats, like It's a Wonderful Life. However, Xanadu has a lot against it. First off is the dream that the male lead has: to open a roller disco. This was 1980, when disco was already dying, but I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that Hollywood got on the bandwagon too late. It wouldn't be the first time they missed a trend, and given how derivative everything in Hollywood is, it hasn't been the last, either. Our male lead himself is a problem, too: it's now little-known Michael Beck, who would go on to a long but undistinguished career playing one-episode roles on TV. Here, he fits what Hollywood apparently though women found sexy in the Man of 1980: long, wavy, dirty blond hair; and a shirt unbuttoned halfway down the chest. (Just watch the old Match Game episodes on GSN and see how many of the male celebrities are wearing unbuttoned shirts, including those in their 50s. It's truly frightening. At least the pencil-thin ties of the 1980s looked respectable.)

Anyhow, Beck is helped by that Greek muse, played by the lovely Olivia Newton-John, who is really here for her looks and for the fact that she can sing. She provides half the soundtrack, and is pretty good in that regard. The other help is Gene Kelly, playing a retired big-band clarinetist who is apparently trying to relive his youth through helping Back open Xanadu. Kelly's musical numbers are visually the best part of the movie, perhaps the only parts that aren't a mess. There's one relatively imaginative number involving a "franchise glitz dealer" in which Gene tries to enunciate his idea for the look of the club, and we get to see him transported back to the 1940s for one final time in his career.

But perhaps the best of all is the final musical number, once Beck and Kelly have finally gotten the club opened. Kelly walks in in a tux, and then gets to spend the rest of the scene on roller skates, prancing around to the title song, trying gamely to make this musical into something halfway decent. Lord knows he's trying, but even Gene Kelly couldn't save Xanadu from being anything more than a "so bad it's good" cult movie.

Having said that, the one other good thing besides Kelly is the music. I've mentioned the Olivia Newton-John songs, but the title song is a duet with her being backed by symphonic rock pioneers ELO. They add several songs to the soundtrack, all of which are a surprisingly good mix of symphonic rock and some slightly disco sounds. There's one other duet, the love ballad Suddenly, sung by Netwon-John and British favorite Cliff Richard. Unfortunately, this number is performed against a bizarre animated sequence that left me (and a lot of the other critics I've read) asking, "What the hell were they thinking?"

As I said, Xanadu is more of a cult movie than anything else. As long as you go into it not expecting a movie coming within a hundred miles of Gene Kelly's earlier works, you can sit back and have a lot of laughs, and hum some fairly fun songs. It's available on DVD, too, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Spoilers

The Fox Movie Channel aired Tora! Tora! Tora! this afternoon at lunch. It's a docudrama looking at both the US and Japanese sides of the run-up to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941....

Oh, dear -- I've just given the ending away. That's the one problem with historical fiction: you can have a backdrop, but you know what's going to happen in that backdrop. Just like the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, you know the Titanic is going to hit the iceberg and sink, and you know that the Nazis are going to lose the war. Still, there are a lot of good historical dramas about well-known events. Having mentioned the Titanic, there are excellent movies on the subject such as A Night to Remember, or even the 1943 Nazi version, which I've already recommended.

I've also mentioned biographies, expressly in conjunction with composers, although there are lots of good biographies. The bigger problem with biographies, though, is that Hollywood has an even greater tendency to change the events than with historical dramas. Still, you know how the stories are going to end. In D.W. Griffiths' Abraham Lincoln, you know John Wilkes Booth is going to shoot Lincoln at Ford's Theater. Mahatma Gandhi is going to get stabbed by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948. Anne Boleyn is going to lose her head. And on it goes.

Perhaps more fun, however, are the stories we think we know, but that Hollywood butchers so badly as to change them into something unrecognizeable. The best example of this might be the 1930 version of Moby Dick, in which John Barrymore plays Captain Ahab. To be honest, it's a remake of a 1926 silent called The Sea Beast, but while it kept the same basic structure of the silent, the name got changed along the way -- which is a shame, because in this whale of a tale, not only does Ahab have a girlfriend (the lovely Joan Bennett) that isn't in the Melville novel; more importantly, Ahab kills the whale and returns home a hero!

Oh, dear -- I've just given away the ending of a movie you probably don't know.

Friday, August 15, 2008

An Astaire movie I can recommend

As I mentioned in my first post this morning, I have a tendency to get the plots of the various Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies mixed up, because they're relatively similar. The movies, after all, were about the dancing, which is superb; my not giving a stronger recommendation to them isn't out of dislike. It's easier to recommend Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers when they're not the stars of the movie, which is precisely the case in Flying Down to Rio, whick kicks off's Astaire's day at 6:00 AM ET on August 16.

The nominal male star is Gene Raymond, who plays a bandleader who consistently gets in trouble because he's eying the ladies instead of paying more attention to his bandleading duties. He gets wooed by lovely Brazilian Dolores Del Rio (unfortunately, not showing as much skin as in Bird of Paradise), and follows her down to Rio de Janeiro along with his band. Of course, there's another man vying for her attention, leading to an anodyne plot about two men competing for the same woman, and our bandleader using a ridiculous Busby Berkeley dance number to try to win the girl in the end.

However, that finale is one of the big reasons for watching Flying Down to Rio. Our hero organizes a troupe of scantily-clad chorus girls to do their dancing on the wings of biplanes several thousand feet above fashionable Rio, and then parachute down to Dolores and her father. I suppose if that doesn't impress the man you want to be your father-in-law, what will? But even though it's clearly Hollywood fakery, it's still over-the-top fun.

Flying Down to Rio is also the first film that paired Fred and Ginger, and we see them here performing the hot new Brazilian dance of the day. Sadly, it's not the Lambada, but the Carioca. They're quite good, as they always are, and it's easy to see why they impressed the studio execs of the 1930s and quickly shot up to getting leading roles of their own. Technically, Ginger had already been a lead, in smaller movies like Rafter Romance, and getting substantial roles in bigger movies like Gold Diggers of 1933. But Flying Down to Rio was only the second movie for Fred, and he really shines.

Flying Down to Rio is available on DVD, and while it's not as polished as some of Fred and Ginger's later work, it's still a lot of fun.

More proof that I've seen too many movies

I've commented before on how one of the things I notice in movies is the character actors, and that sometimes I spot them even if I've missed the opening credits. That might be a sign that I've spent too much time watching classic movies, but I don't think it's the only sign.

On Tuesday evening, I sat down to TCM to watch the Kim Novak/Fred MacMurray noir Pushover, since the TCM description made it sound like an interesting movie. It was enjoyable, if not great. However, about 30 minutes into the movie, I suddenly realized -- I'd seen the movie before! Even more irritating was the fact that if I had realized I'd already seen it, I would have blogged about it -- it's not available on DVD for me to recommend to you now.

Worse, this isn't the first time I've had that feeling of déjà vu. Several months ago, I saw that TCM was airing Evelyn Prentice, which I wanted to see because the idea of William Powell and Myrna Loy in a drama sounded interesting. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I had already seen that one, too! (If you haven't seen it yet, you don't have to wait for it to show up on TCM. It's already out on DVD.)

And then there's Fred Astaire day on Saturday. I'm not recommending any of the movies in prime time because frankly, I can't keep the plots straight. Which scenes are from The Gay Divorcee, and which are from Top Hat?

Thursday, August 14, 2008


August 14, 2008 marks the fifth anniversary of the 2003 blackout that affected a good portion of the northeast US, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. The movie industry needs electricity to produce movies, but electricity itself isn't much of a plot element in the movies.

The one very obvious place where a lack of electric power shows up is in crime caper movies, where it's convenient for the power to go off just in time for the bad guys to come in under cover of darkness, steal whatever it is they're looking for, and get out before the power comes back on. One of the many examples of this plot device occurs in the original Ocean's Eleven, where we actually see two of the antiheroes on an electrity tower planting the explosive that will knock out power to the Las Vegas strip; another from the 1960s would be the original Pink Panther movie. But it's also common for the power to go out in horror movies, when the director wants to be able to increase the sense of fright by having the viewers, as well as the characters, not be able to see what's about to happen to them.

The other famous blackout, of course, is that in Britain during World War II, when people had to make certain to draw the curtains, and put heavy shades around the light fixtures so that no light would escape; the light would make it easier for the Nazis to find bombing targets. A painful example of this occurs in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve, although to be honest, it shows up in a lot of movies set in wartime Britain.

There are a few movies involving inventions in the earlier days of electricity. Thomas Edison is the obvious choice; two of the biopics about him are Young Tom Edison, in which the inventor is played by Mickey Rooney, and Edison, The Man with Spencer Tracy playing the title role. A less well-known movie about electric inventions might be 1938's White Banners, about the invention of an electric refrigerator.

Finally, the most fun use of electricity in movies might be the raw electricity itself. A portion of the climax of 711 Ocean Drive is set at the hydroelectric generating station at Hoover Dam. There's also Goldfinger, in which James Bond ingeniously uses electricity to stun poor Oddjob.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Peter Lorre vs. Drew Barrymore

Tonight's featured film on TCM is one of Peter Lorre's first American films, Mad Love, airing at 8:00 PM ET.

The plot of this 1935 horror movie is simple, but a heck of a lot of fun. Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein from the 1931 Universal version of Mary Shelley's story) plays a concert pianist who's engaged to a stage actress (played by Frances Drake). She's about to leave the stage to marry Clive, but life takes a turn for the worse for both of them when he gets injured in a train accident and is no longer able to play the piano as a result. Regular doctors are unable to help Clive, and Drake, by now desperate with bills mounting up, turns to maverick doctor Peter Lorre for help.

Unfortunately, whe she doesn't realize is that he's got an unhealthy obsession with her. Lorre, complete with shaved head, decides to get revenge on Clive for taking away the woman he loves by transplanting onto the concert pianist the hands of a guillotined knife thrower (character actor Edward Brophy, in a brief but highly enjoyable role). The result should be predictable: Clive regains the use of his hands, but not as a particularly good pianist; instead, he become an expert knife-thrower -- and is unable to control his newfound compulsion for throwing knives!

Yes, this is almost as silly as it seems. But part of the charm of 1930s horror movies is that they're not very graphic. We don't need to see much blood if there's a good plot driving the movie. The plot here isn't the greatest, but it's more than adequate, and all of the elements combine fairly well for an ending that you might be able to see coming, but works and satisfies the folks enforcing the Production Code. I don't know if I would show it to young children -- I wouldn't want to give them any ideas about throwing knives -- but I'd much rather show Mad Love to older children than the horror movies of today.

Those who have seen a lot of movies will recognize the title Mad Love as having been used in the mid-1990s for a movie starring Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell. That movie, however, has absolutely nothing to do with this one apart from sharing a title. It's also inferior in almost every way to the Peter Lorre movie.

The 1935 version of Mad Love is available on DVD and is a fun, if not very horrifying, horror movie. It you really want to be horrified, though, rent the DVD of an old, fat Lorre in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I haven't recommended a western in a while

To be honest, Westerns aren't my favorite genre, for whatever reason. I prefer a good comedy or mystery. But not being certain what I wanted to write about today -- and seeing that TCM is spotlighting Kim Novak, I knew I didn't want to write about Vertigo again -- I decided I'd look for a good western available on DVD, and thought of No Name On the Bullet.

Audie Murphy stars as John Gant, and starts off the movie by riding into town one day. The good people in town immediately recognize him, and know that he's a contract killer. It's obvious that he's come to town to kill one of them, but which one? This, needless to say, is a rather frightening proposition for the town. However, the people can't do anything about Gant. Partly this is because it's easy for a frightened populace to be divided and conquered, as in High Noon. However, there's a second, more important reason the people are powerless, which is Gant's modus operandi. Gant is meticulous about getting his victim to draw first, meaning that when Gant then shoots his victims, he's able to claim self defense. Indeed, any feeble attempts they as individuals make to do something about Gant are met with failure.

So, Gant calmly proceeds to terrorize the town simply by being there, while we learn that each of the cast members has some good reason to believe he or she might be the one for whom Gant has come. One of the big plusses about No Name On the Bullet is that the townspeople are an ensemble cast, and the story is allowed to be the thing rather than any of their performances. Eventually, though, Gant irritates the population enough that one of their number, a terminally ill judge, decides he's willing to take the fall for the rest of the town. After all, he's going to die, anyway. However, before he's able to extract his revenge, we learn that Gant has been sent to kill....

You didn't think I was going to give that away, did you?

I think one of the reasons I enjoy No Name On the Bullet so much is that it's a western in setting only. The plot (written by Gene Coon of Star Trek fame) is one that could easily have worked anywhere people would have had access to weapons, including in Gene Coon's Star Trek universe. As I mentioned, this movie is available on DVD, and is a very interesting movie indeed.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pickup on South Street

I mentioned Richard Widmark the other day in Don't Bother To Knock. Today he's the featured star in TCM's "Summer Under the Stars". Since he spent much of the early part of his career under contract to 20th Century-Fox, the day's fare consists mostly of his later work. However, TCM were able to prise one movie away from Fox: the outstanding Pickup on South Street, airing this evening at 8:00 PM ET.

Widmark stars as a petty thief who's been in trouble with the law quite a bit, and consistently has the police tailing him as a result. He doesn't seem to have any other ability in life, so he continues his thieving ways, by picking the pocketbook of a lovely young woman on the el train (Jean Peters). Unfortunately, what he doesn't realize is that the wallet he's taken doesn't simply contain money; it contains something else very important: a microfilm holding secrets that the Communists want. The Communists were of course just as vile and thuggish as the Mob back in those days, so when they find out that what they wanted has gone missing, they'll stop at nothing to get it back! Powers much higher than the regular police are in on the hunt, too, and at times it seems as though poor Widmark and Peters are destined to be little more than pawns. In reality, though, Widmark is much smarter than that.

The thought of criminals getting more than they bargained for is nothing new; this particular subgenre became a more popular brand of noir in the 1950s, both with the "perfect crime gone wrong" movies like The Asphalt Jungle, and the "person trying to make crime pay for themselves against the Mob" movies like Man In the Vault. Most of them are enjoyable, even if they're just B-movies. However, thanks in part to the work of Widmark, as well as that of Sam Fuller, who both wrote and directed the movie, Pickup on South Street might be the best of them all.

There's a third reason to watch: The always wonderful Thelma Ritter plays Moe, a police informant who's seen it all, and realizes that in having seen it all, she's seen too much. She, like Widmark, Peters, and the rest of the lot, are squalid little characters living at best on the edge of respectable society. It's an existance that, to quote Hobbes' Leviathan is nasty, brutish, and short -- and Moe is more than accepting of the fact that her short existence might be coming to a quick end. Ritter received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the fourth consecutive year, and might have given her best performance yet. Unfortunately, as so often happened back in the studio era, there was more than one performance that was worthy of recognition from the Academy, and Ritter had the bad luck of being up against such a performance: that of Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity.

Happily, Pickup on South Street is available on DVD, so if you miss tonight's showing on TCM, you can catch it any time you want.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Die Olympische Spiele

Time for another Olympic post, but this one slightly less about the Olympics than my previous post on Walk Don't Run. The 1938 documentary Olympia is the famous record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl (1902-2003) is the highly controversial director who made not only Olympia, but the propaganda movie Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Possibly the best starting point for learning more about the life and work of Riefenstahl is the German documentary made in honor of her 90th birthday in 1992 and containing extensive interviews with her, Leni Riefenstahl: The Power of Images. (Note that the movie has also gone under the title The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.)

In this fascinating three-hour movie, we learn that Riefenstahl really lived four lives in one. Born in 1902, she became an actress on the Berlin stage of the early 1920s, a relatively liberated era of the Weimar Republic. This led her into becoming a movie actress, and making several silent films in a genre known as "mountain movies", with some of the famous titles in the genre being The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Piz Palü, both of which are available on DVD. Perhaps the most interesting thing for us modern viewers about these movies is that the actors did their own stunts, which was very difficult on them.

Riefenstahl wanted to do more than act in the "mountain movies", so she decided to become a director. Her 1932 movie The Blue Light gained her the notice of the Nazis, who asked her to direct the record of the Nazis' 1933 party congress. This was a shorter movie called Victory of Faith, and apparently so impressed certain members of the Nazi Party that they asked her to make what would eventually become Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Party Congress. This is by far the most controversial part of Riefenstahl's career, and in the interviews she did she is given ample opportunity to explain and defend the work she did on behalf of the Nazis. Suffice it to say that I personally find it interesting, but unsurprising, that Riefenstahl comes in for much more criticism for pro-Nazi propaganda than do the makers of pro-Communist propaganda such as Aleksander Dovzhenko and his 1930 movie Earth. Olympia came about as a result of the success of Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl claims she was reluctant to make another movie directly for the Nazis, but claims she made it on the express condition that they not ask her again to make another movie for them. (In point of fact, she didn't direct another movie during the Nazi period.) Riefenstahl also claims that many of the cinema techniques she wanted to use, both in Triumph of the Will and Olympia, were vehemently opposed by some of the powers that be, notably Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' Propaganda Minister.

Everybody knows that Hitler eventually started World War II, which the Nazis lost. After the war there was an intensive process of denazification, with anybody perceived to have Nazi ties being blacklisted, a fate that befell Riefenstahl as well. Not being allowed to make movies, she took up photography, eventually spending a substantial amount of time with the Nuba tribe in what is now southern Sudan, taking photographs of them. She was obviously still obsessed with the human form as she had been when she made Olympia two decades earlier, and one of the results is that her book of photographs was almost as controversial as her propaganda movies for the Nazis.

Finally, when she was 70 years old, she took up another aspect of filmmaking: underwater photography. She claimed to be just 50 years old in order to be able to take scuba lessons, and having gotten a scuba certificate, proceeded to make documentary work about undersea life, which she was still doing into her nineties, at the time this movie was made. At least this time, for her sake, the subject material was rather less controversial. Still, it's striking to see just how interested a director can be in form and composition.

Leni Riefenstahl: The Power of Images is available on DVD, and even with a three-hour running time, is an excellent movie about one of the most fascinating, complex, and controversial figures of cinema history. I can highly recommend it, and would tell everyone to watch it and judge for themselves exactly how guilty Riefenstahl was or wasn't of complicity with the Nazis.

Julie! Julie! Julie!

Cast of Julie
From left to right: Louis Jourdan, Doris Day, Barry Sullivan, and Ann Robinson in Julie (1956)

Back in April, I mentioned that TCM didn't air the Doris Day movie Julie on her birthday, and that it was a shame that it hasn't been released on DVD yet. It still hasn't been released to DVD, but TCM are airing it as part of the "Summer Under the Stars" salute to Doris Day. You can watch Julie at 4:15 AM ET Monday, August 11.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock and the Oscars

TCM's Essential for tonight is Billy Wilder's The Apartment, airing at 8:00 PM ET. Wilder won another Best Director Oscar for the movie, beating out, amongst others, the great Alfred Hitchcock, who had received his fifth and final Best Director nomination for his masterpiece Psycho. I'd have to think long and hard about which of the two had the better directing job, but suffice it to say, either one would have been a worthy winner, and there's no shame in being beaten out by a movie as good as The Apartment.

But spare a thought for Hitchcock: despite those five nominations, he never actually won a competitive Oscar. (He later received an honorary Oscar in 1967.) Worse for him, regarding Psycho, is that this wasn't the first time he had been nominated, but beaten by Wilder. In 1945, Hitchcock had been nominated for Spellbound (which is airing on August 25 as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars salute to Ingrid Bergman), but had the bad luck to be beaten out by Wilder's truly remarkable movie The Lost Weekend. This time, at least, Hitchcock probably didn't deserve the Oscar.

You can say the same thing about Hitch's first and fourth nominations, too. The first came in 1940, when Hitchcock was nominated for Rebecca. It won the grand prize, beating out classic movies like The Philadelphia Story to win the Best Picture Oscar, but for direction, Hitchcock had to settle for watching the great John Ford take home a statuette for another all-time classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, in 1954, Hitchcock directed another outstanding movie in Rear Window. Unfortunately for him, he had the tremendous misfortune of being up against one Elia Kazan who had directed a thing called On The Waterfront.

Hitchcock probably did deserve to win one competitive Oscar, though. In 1944, he was nominated for Lifeboat which, being set entirely in and around a ship's lifeboat, shows a remarkable display of direction. But the Academy had some really warped thinking in 1944. The movie that won a lot of the major prizes was the dreadful Going My Way. It wasn't just the direction where worthy nominees got the shaft. Bing Crosby won the Best Actor Oscar, and thanks to a screw-up by the Academy, co-star Barry Fitzgerald was also nominated, meaning that one of the acting snubs was Fred MacMurray, who was the male lead in... Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity.

For the record, Wilder himself lost to some remarkable movies. The aforementioned On The Waterfront beat out Wilder's direction in Sabrina, while his even better directing job in Stalag 17 was beaten out by another even more outstanding movie, Fred Zinneman's From Here to Eternity.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics

Today saw the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. I'm not all that interested in the Olympics myself, but I figured it would be a good time to recommend a movie set against the backdrop of the Olympic Games: Walk, Don't Run.

This is well known for being Cary Grant's last movie, and in it, he stars as William Rutland, an English businessman in Tokyo for a business deal on the eve of the 1964 Olympics. Because of the Olympics, all the hotels are booked, and since Rutland arrived in Tokyo a few days earlier than planned, there are no hotel rooms available for him until his original reservation. So, he goes to the British Embassy, and finds a classified ad from a British expat willing to sublet half of an apartment. Rutland takes up that offer, only to find that it's been made by a woman -- Christine Easton (played by lovely Samantha Eggar). Worse, it turns out that she's engaged -- to a man who works at the British Embassy, Julian Haversack, whom Rutland knows because he was treated rather officiously by Haversack when looking for a place to stay.

Rutland, having some time to kill before his hotel room becomes available, decides to see a bit of Tokyo with his Japanese business associates. While at their factory, he meets, Steve Davis (played by Jim Hutton), a young American who has arrived a few days early for the Olympics himself -- he's in one of the events, although there's a running joke about exactly which event it is, not being revealed until the plot demands it. Having arrived early, he finds that the Olympic Village is not yet open, and so he too has no place to stay. You can guess what happens next: Rutland (who, it turns out, had an American mother), offers his American friend half of the half of the apartment that he's subletting -- without, of course, telling Miss Easton about it. Hilarity ensues. More hilarity ensues when Rutland realizes almost immediately that Steve is much better-suited for Christine than Julius, and sets about playing cupid for his two flatmates.

Walk, Don't Run isn't Cary Grant's best movie, but it's more than enjoyable. Grant is fine, but it's nice to see that the real couple here -- Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar -- have excellent screen chemistry together. Eggar's fiancé Julian is played by John Standing, who is perfect as the stereotypically stuffy Brit. The other huge plus is that much of the movie was filmed on location in Japan, and it's wonderful to have a color record of Tokyo as it was in the mid-1960s. One other face to watch for is that of a police desk sergeant who interrogates everybody near the end of the movie. That's George Takei, who would soon go on to play Lt. Sulu in Star Trek.

It's fairly well-known that Walk, Don't Run is a remake of the 1943 movie The More The Merrier, which is also available on DVD. I wouldn't say that one is better than another; each of that has its own superiorities, and to compare the two would take an entire blog post. The result, however, is that they're both well-worth watching, either by themselves, or together. The tagline of Walk, Don't Run was "Run -- don't walk -- to see Walk, Don't Run!" Paraphrasing that, I can enthusiastically say, "Run -- don't walk -- to rent Walk, Don't Run!"

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nicholas Ray, 1911-1979

August 7 marks the birth anniversary of director Nicholas Ray. In his honor, our movie for today will be his 1952 movie On Dangerous Ground.

Robert Ryan stars as a policeman in the big city. The only thing is, he's nearing the end of his rope, and as a result, he gets a bit violent with the suspects. His bosses finally get so sick and tired of this that they tell him it's in his own best interests that he go up to the mountains for a spell, where he immediately gets involved in a murder investigation. One of the first people he meets is Ward Bond, who is the father of the murder victim, and as such is just about as angry as Ryan, albeit for different reasons. The two, as part of their investigation, eventually end up at the isolated farmhouse of one Ida Lupino. They quickly discover that she's blind, which means that she must have somebody helping her around -- and it seems fairly clear to them that this person, Lupino's brother, is a good bet to be the murderer.

You can probably guess the conflict. The father is out for blood and would be perfectly happy to kill the young man, who is of course in hiding. Ryan can't allow this to happen, partly for professional reasons, since it's bad enough that his violent temper has already gotten him sent out of his normal job. There's also the practical consideration that they're going to need Lupino's help to find the killer -- and the requisite element of romance. While Ward Bond has been too busy being blinded by rage, Robert Ryan has been looking at Lupino and seeing her inner beauty. All this leads to the climax of the two men eventually finding the killer, with the requisite suspense of finding out which of the two is effectively going to get his way.

In some ways, On Dangerous Ground is like two movies in one, in that there's a hard-boiled police drama at the start, and an almost melodramatic thriller in the second half. But Ray's direction, combined with some fine black-and-white cinematography in the mountain scenes, help put to rest any idea that this might be a flaw. It's helped by the fact that Ryan is able to play both sides of his policeman well. Ida Lupino is superb as the blind woman, while Ward Bond is more than adequate as the enraged father of the murder victim.

On Dangerous Ground was a fairly low-budget movie, and was largely forgotten at the time of its release. It took half a century before it got a second look by the critics, who now tend to rate it even more highly than I do. (Not that I don't like it; it's more that if I give it a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, the critics and auteur-types of today give it an 11.) It's available on DVD, too, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The postman rings

TCM's Summer Under the Stars continues today with 24 hours of movies dedicated to Anne Bancroft. I've mentioned Nightfall before, and that's already aired, but it's not out on DVD. TCM don't have the rights to too many films from 20th Century-Fox, so one of the Bancroft movies they couldn't air is Don't Bother to Knock.

Bancroft isn't really the star; that honor falls to Marilyn Monroe. She plays a baby sitter for a New York hotel who, as we'll eventually see, has a dark past. The male lead is Richard Widmark, who plays an airline pilot who stays in this particular hotel whenever he's in New York. He's got some problems in his life, in that he's carrying on a relationship with Bancroft, who plays the hotel lounge act, but the relationship is quickly going south. So, Widmark looks out his hotel window, sees the lovely Monroe in the room on the other side of the courtyard, and calls her room. He probably shouldn't have.

Poor Richard Widmark soon discovers that Monroe has a screw loose. She only came to the big city to get away from the small town where she grew up: she had married a pilot who fought in World War II, and was killed in action; this caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown and slit her wrists. Her parents put her in an asylum, but after she was released, she went to New York because her uncle lives there; he (played by Elisha Cook) got Monroe the baby-sitting job. However, she's still mentally fragile, and loses it, eventually taking the kid she's supposed to be watching hostage.

Don't Bother to Knock is very atypical work for Marilyn Monroe. She's pretty good at it, although not quite great. It was still early in her career when she made this movie, and if she had decided to try her hand at more serious dramas, she probably could have improved a good deal as a dramatic actress; I think she's even better in Niagara. Part of the problem, though, is that this isn't an easy role to play, and it's quite easy to veer into the maudlin or the parodic when trying to play mentally unstable characters. Widmark is fine, although the script doesn't call for anybody other than Monroe to do too much. Bancroft's role is small enough that there's nothing to be critical about.

The "spot the character actor" game is as fun as always. Jim Backus plays the father of the girl being baby-sat, while the aforementioned Elisha Cook is not only Monroe's uncle, but an elevator operator at the hotel. (An interesting bit of trivia is that he had also played an elevator operator 11 years earlier in Love Crazy.)

Don't Bother to Knock is available on DVD, and is well worth a viewing. Even if it's not a truly great movie, it's interesting to see three talented actors early in their careers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chick flicks

TCM's offering for tonight is Now, Voyager, which probably contains Bette Davis at her most obnoxiously over-the-top characterization. I've commented on Davis' hamming before, and how fun it is to see, but the bigger problem with Now, Voyager is that it's one of those movies that scream "Chick flick!" and won't shut the hell up. It's usually presented as this great love story, but I can't help but think of Davis' character as pathetically weak, even after spending time at Claude Rains' sanitarium. There's the famous scene in which Davis starts blubbering in Paul Henried's arms, and telling him that "these are only the tears of an old maid's gratitude for the crumbs" he's offering her. Every time I try to watch Now, Voyager, I want to smack Davis at that point.

It might have something to with the fact that I'm a man. Come to think of it, there are a lot of treacly love stories that make me want to retch. (And then there are those, like The Great Lie, which I don't even think of as love stories.) Perhaps the worse of these is Random Harvest, in which Ronald Colman plays an amnesiac World War I vet falls in love with Greer Garson, hits his head and develops a case of reverse amnesia in that he can remember everything that happened before his first case of amnesia, but nothing that happened after it. And you thought Hollywood only had good ideas back in the day.

Then there are the "drawing room" movies of the early days of the talking picture. One example that aired yesterday is 1930's Let Us Be Gay, in which a large portion of the action takes place in and around the same mansion. These seem to me to fit in better with the sensibilities of today's women than they do with the sensibilities of today's men. Sadly, most of the examples I can think of off hand aren't available on DVD. It's probably because these movies play out like filmed versions of stage plays, and seem terribly stilted nowadays.

It could be worse, though: I actually sat through an airing of An Unmarried Woman once so that I could comment on it for another site. I have absolutely no desire to hear Jill Clayburgh talking about getting her first period, thank you very much.

Monday, August 4, 2008

More Marie Dressler

Marie Dressler was a wonderful actress, and I could go on and on about her movies. Perhaps the best of the movies she was in is Dinner At Eight, which is on TCM tonight at 8:00 PM ET, but I'm not going to blog about that right now because it's available on DVD. (I'll only say to watch Dressler at the end as everybody is getting ready to walk into the dining room.) Instead, I'd like to recommend the movie which won her an Oscar, but which is not available on DVD: Min and Bill, which follows Dinner at Eight at 10:00 PM ET.

Dressler stars as Min, the proprietress of a rooming house at the docks for the fishermen. She's got a thing for Bill, one of the fishermen (played by Wallace Beery, seen in the photo at left), although it's the kind of relationship that by the 1980s would have been labelled with a buzzword like "co-dependent". The dockside life is one of hard work and relatively little money, and is definitely not the place for children. However, Min has a girl, Nancy, she's looking after; one who was abandoned by her mother as a baby (played by Dorothy Jordan). Min wants to do the right thing for Nancy, but at the same time doesn't want the state to take the Nancy from her. They do, however, and send her to a boarding school, where she begins to make good.

Alas, everybody's relatively happy lives are about to come to an end. Although Min has been telling Nancy that her mother is dead, the mother (Marjorie Rambeau) learns not only that Nancy is still alive, but that she's about to marry into wealth. No dummy her, she wants in on that wealth. So one day, she walks straight into Min's place and tries to get Min to tell her the truth about Nancy.

Min and Bill is a fabulous little movie. With a running time of only 66 minutes, it hits all the emotions, with some comedy, some drama, some melodrama, and some heartbreaking moments. Marie Dressler is outstanding as the woman who sadly realizes that she's going to have to make some terrible sacrifices in order to do the right thing for her girl. Despite being singularly unglamorous in a town like Hollywood that's promoted beauty almost to a cult, Dressler defeated much more glamorous nominees like Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich, and Irene Dunne. She deserved the award, too, and it's a good thing that Min and Bill won one of the big Oscars, or else it would probably be completely forgotten, instead of just terribly overlooked.

Wallace Beery was also nominated for an Oscar, and he too does a fine job. He's the right fit physically to play Bill, a somewhat rough and hulking, but also charming man. Berry and Dressler seem like they make a believable couple, too. Their popularity resulted in their making several movies together, including Dinner at Eight, although the two don't have too many scenes together in it. One interesting thing is to note how respected Dressler and Beery were in that they were promoted more than most of the rest of the cast of Dinner at Eight (which includes Jean Harlow and two of the Barrymores). In the little-seen Should Ladies Behave, which like Dinner at Eight was made at MGM in 1933, there's a scene about ten minutes in in which some of the characters step out onto a terrace during an intermission of a Broadway show. In the background is a very obvious product placement: Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gregory Peck talks!

A quick heads up on something airing during TCM's day of Gregory Peck movies: A Conversation with Gregory Peck, airing at midnight ET tonight (that's 11:00 PM tonight in the Central Time Zone and 9:00 PM out in California).

This 1999 movie is a behind the scenes look at Peck who, as an elderly man, is now making the rounds of speaking engagements, answering questions about his life and career from his devoted fans. If this were just that, a movie along the lines of one of Robert Osborne's Private Screenings interviews, it would be a nice document to have. But there's more to it. We also get a nice look at his family life including his wife of many years, Véronique (they met in Paris when he was on his way to make Roman Holiday), and his pregnant daughter. It's a nice, warm look at a fine actor. It's apparently a bonus feature on one of the DVD editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, but IMDb don't give a link to Amazon to buy it.

The Hollywood Revue

As part of Marie Dressler's day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, TCM are showing a remarkable early talkie: The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Monday at 6:15 AM ET. The title is accurate; this is little more than a revue and has no plot. The year 1929 was, of course, a little more than a year after The Jazz Singer became the first talking feature-length movie (although it wasn't completely talking, as sound was only used for several musical numbers); studios were worried about how to make the transition to sound pictures. As a result, MGM decided to give a substantial number of its stars a sort of screen test by putting them in an actual talking picture, but one which wouldn't be too taxing. Thus was The Hollywood Revue born.

Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel serve as the masters of ceremonies, introducing what was essentially a series of vaudeville-style acts mixed in between performances from the main MGM actors. Benny is quite good here, doing what was essentially the same material that would make him popular on radio, and then on television, for the next 30 years. Two notable scenes of his to watch for involve his attempt to play the violin, and a primitive special effects sequence in which he pulls actress Bessie Love out of his pocket. Other MGM stars include Joan Crawford hoofing it; Norma Shearer doing Romeo and Juliet with John Gilbert; Laurel and Hardy doing a comedy bit; and the aforementioned Marie Dressler amongst those who try to sing, some with more success than others. Amongst the few MGM stars not showing up is Greta Garbo, who was apparently still taking elocution lessons, and wouldn't talk on screen for another year, until Anna Christie. (Note that Marie Dressler is also in the cast of Anna Christie, which TCM are showing at 12:30 AM ET Tuesday.)

It would be unfair to judge the "serious" actors on their singing abilities; after all, one didn't need to be able to sing in order to act. However, there are also acts here that aren't very funny -- and frankly, I wonder whether the audiences of the late 1920s would have found them funny. One notable such act involves several women trying to play broken musical instruments.

The most interesting number comes at the end, however. There are two sequences in two-strip Technicolor that comprise the movie's finale; the first being the song "Orange Blossom Time", the second is the entire cast getting together and singing "Singin' In the Rain". The Hollywood Revue is the movie that premiered the song "Singin' In the Rain", and it actually shows up twice in the movie. The finale is more interesting, however, because of the Technicolor and because all of the cast shows up. They're all wearing yellow raincoats, and that's not a bad thing, as yellow is one of the colors two-strip Technicolor displayed reasonably well.