Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September 30, 1955

Today marks the anniversary of the death of James Dean. For some reason, Dean has become a legend, and I don't quite understand why.

Obviously, he died young, and there is the question of "what might have been". However, James Dean is by no means the only actor to have died tragically young. I've mentioned Laird Cregar before, and child star Brandon de Wilde died in a car accident, like Dean, too (although he was already 30 when he died, six years older than Dean). And yet, neither is remembered to the extent that Dean is.

Perhaps it's because Dean died in 1955, and has a certain cachet for the Baby Boomers. I think I've mentioned before that I believe there was a generation in America that was born too late to fight in World War II, and that as they came of age around 1950 or so, they really started to rebel against those who had come before them. Marlon Brando, for example (even though he was born in 1924, he didn't make his first movie until 1950) clearly represents a different style of acting than what had been popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and for the people born in the early 1930s, Brando and his acting would have been one of the formative experiences.

However, Dean wasn't the only up-and-coming actor to die in 1955. Robert Francis, who had played a young ensign in The Caine Mutiny, died in a plane crash at the age of 25 -- two months before Dean. So, Dean can't be the legend because he was the first to die. And yet, Dean is well-remembered to this day, while Francis is largely forgotten.

What accounts for this difference?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Walter Mirisch

Robert Osborne sat down with producer Walter Mirisch for a Private Screenings episode that will be airing tonight at 8:00 PM, with a repeat at 11:00 PM. I really enjoy the Private Screenings series, and am looking forward to another one with somebody who wasn't an actor. Norman Jewison was interviewed last summer, and it was quite the treat.

TCM are also showing three Best Picture Oscar winners produced by the Mirisch brothers as part of the night of movies, and each of them is highly worth watching:

In the Heat of the Night at 9:00 PM, which won the Best Picture in 1967. Sidney Poitier is excellent at Virgil Tibbs, the Philadelphia homicide detective who gets roped into helping a racist white cop solve a murder case that occurs when he's passing through Sparta, Mississippi. As good as Poitier is, though, Rod Steiger is even better as Police Chief Gillespie.

West Side Story at midnight, the Best Picture winner for 1961. Sure, the story is nothing more than a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but that's a timeless story, and there's a reason why it's still famous four hundred years on. At any rate, West Side Story is a movie that should be watched for the dancing, if not the acting. (It's much like The Young Girls of Rochefort in that regard.)

The Apartment, at 2:45 AM, 1960's Best Picture. Jack Lemmon is fine as the man who wants to climb the corporate ladder, and is willing to lend out his apartment to do so, until he finds that it hurts elevator girl Shirley MacLaine. However, the most fun to watch is Fred MacMurray, who plays Lemmon's evil boss, and is the most evil he'd been since Double Indemnity. It's sad that MacMurray was soon to go on to TV and My Three Sons. Being in sitcoms gave him a reputation that MacMurray didn't want to harm, and so he spent the rest of his career sticking to light comedy, and movies that were "easy" to do during the times the TV show was on break between seasons.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Retirement was a good idea

Tonight, TCM are showing Doris Day's final movie, the 1968 family comedy With Six You Get Eggroll, at 10:15 PM ET tonight. It was probably the right move for Day to retire from making movies after this dud.

The story line is that Day plays a widow with three sons. She meets Brian Keith, a widower with a teenage daughter. Does this sound familiar? It's much the same plot as Yours, Mine, and Ours, only with fewer children. It was released a few months after Yours, Mine and Ours, obviously with the idea that if the earlier movie was successful, another movie with much the same material would be just the thing for audiences.

Unfortunately, it comes across as thoroughly unoriginal, and not all that funny. It really doesn't help, either, that they decided to put some hippies into the movie (in the form of Jamie Farr and a bunch of his screen friends), presumably under the thinking that they had to appeal to the teenagers. Yours, Mine, and Ours was aimed squarely at the squares, with the result that it's a really nice, warm family comedy that still hits its mark 40 years on. With Six You Get Eggroll, on the other hand, fails in all these regards, and seems like a product of its time that bears viewing only as a historical curiosity. Indeed, one of the few bright spots is when Keith's daughter (played by Barbara Hershey) complains to her stepmother that she wants to be more independent and adult, Day responds by giving her all the household responsibilities for the day, including things that no housewife of 2008 would do, even if she were a stay-at-home mom. (Polish the silver? Does anybody actually use silver silverware any more, even on fine occasions?) Having made her stepdaughter do all the chores one day, Day then gives her a set of responsibilities for the next day that turn out to be all the fun things that Hershey wanted to do. On the other hand, there's an extended sequence of Brian Keith running around town in just his boxers. It's as though the writers though, "Ooh, the man's got sex appeal. Let's figure out a way to use it in the plot." Instead, the finished product is just tedious.

The one other bright spot is that With Six You Get Eggroll is the feature film debut of the late George Carlin. It's available on DVD, so if you miss tonight's airing on TCM, you can always get the DVD and judge for yourself.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

The death has been announced of actor Paul Newman. He was 83. Newman's most famous role might be in the movie Cool Hand Luke, although he was nominated for several Oscars, in movies such as Hud and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. The only time he won was for The Color of Money in 1986. Newman is survived by his wife of 50 years, fellow Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward.

TCM haven't yet announced which movies they're pre-empting for their tribute. One that most likely won't be showing up is the Fox movie From the Terrace, in which Newman and Woodward play a husband and wife in a marriage that's loveless, but enables him to become an executive. It's silly soap-opera stuff, and pretty badly dated, too, but it's not the fault of the actors, who were given a tawdry script. The movie also has Myrna Loy playing Paul's alcoholic mother, who is much less fun a drunk than she got to play in the Thin Man movies. (Although, watching her is a hoot.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock régit des films!

Overnight tonight, at 1:15 AM ET on TCM, is one of the more interesting movies Alfred Hitchcock made: Aventure Malgache.

As part of the UK's war effort, Hitchcock returned to England in 1943, to make some propaganda films. What he ended up doing is working with exiled French filmmakers, making two short movies (about 30 minutes each); this one, and Bon Voyage.

The story in Aventure Malgache is set in Madagascar, which was a French colony at the start of World War II. The Vichy government, as in metropolitan France, is in charge, and collaborating with the Nazis. But also as in France, there's a resistance movement, which is weak because of the fact that tyrannies are good at using the tactics of dividing and conquering.

Unfortunately, Aventure Malgache is constrained by its being a short film; there's only so much Hitchcock can do to make it good. It's not nearly as good as Bon Voyage, and it's a bit of a shame that TCM decided to show only this one of the two. However, for those who are fans of Hitchcock, it's still a very interesting artifact. Also, both movies are available on DVD, so you can watch Bon Voyage even despite that fact that TCM are not showing it tonight.

Hollywood's "good old days"

Last night I watched Kay Francis star as Dr. Monica on TCM as part of the final night of Francis' stint as Star of the Month. What the movie showed is that what we think of as Hollywood's golden age wasn't so golden: the movies had some of the same major flaws as movies of today.

The plot is fairly simple: Francis plays Monica, an obstetrician who would like to adopt a kid and whose husband (Warren William) goes off to Europe to work on a book. One of Francis' best friends, a pilot named Mary played by Jean Muir, is at the ship's departure, and depressed because her lover is on the ship, too. (Yeah, you know who her lover is already.) Worse, Mary's gotten knocked up by her lover! Monica, of course, is too stupid to figure out what's going on, until Mary, just before she gives birth -- despite not looking one bit pregnant -- tries to telephone Warren William, at which point the jig is up.

Now, since we know Monica wanted to adopt a kid, we can see the plot resolution coming a mile away -- or all the way from Vienna, where Monica is planning on going to do some advanced medical study and send her husband a letter telling him the about Mary's kid and that this is the reason she's seeking a divorce from him.

Back in 2007, when Carrie Fisher was the co-host of TCM's The Essentials, there was a clip of her saying, "Just because it's old doesn't mean it's a classic". Dr. Monica is the sort of movie that illustrates this axiom quite well. Sure, it's nice to see stars like Francis who are largely forgotten today, and it's always interesting to see the topics Hollywood could still touch before the Production Code clamped down on the studios in 1934, but we should remember that they made some pretty glaring mistakes in their movies, too.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tora! Tora! Tora!

A month ago, I brought up the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! after it had aired on the Fox Movie Channel. As a heads up, it's airing again at 9:30 AM ET on September 26.

The movie is a clinical look at the events leading up to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as seen from both the American and Japanese points of view. As such, we know to a certain extent what is going to happen. Japan's preparations will end in success, while all the negotiations in Washington will be for naught. However, it's always interesting to see how the events of history are often decided by what seem like small coincidences. The US military, for example, kept their planes on the ground away from the perimeter fences, which was supposed to keep them more secure. On the other hand, this actually made it easier for the Japanese to destroy more planes. Overall, we see that there was a series of ultimately disastrous decisions on both sides leading to a long, drawn out war, although a lot of the moves on the American side probably couldn't have been seen at the time as leading to disaster.

The cast is fine. On the American side, it's full of stars, at least in the sense of the actors being well-known names: Martin Balsam and Jason Robards play Hawaii-based military commanders; Joseph Cotten plays the Secretary of War; other well-known names from the second level of older Hollywood stars include E.G. Marshall and James Whitmore (who appeared in great movies like The Asphalt Jungle and Them!, and will be turning 87 in a few days). I don't know much about the Japanese actors, but they all do a good job.

There's also the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. Special effects back in 1970 were nowhere near as advanced as what can be done today, but they're still quite good and effective here. The actual attack, to be honest, shouldn't be the most important part of the movie, even if it technically is the movie's climax. Still, Tora! Tora! Tora!'s portrayal of the attack is quite good.

In short, Tora! Tora! Tora! is an outstanding movie, perhaps the best look at the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. (From Here to Eternity may have a better story around the attack, but it's really not a movie about the attack, but about military men whose lives and personal relationships are shattered by the sudden attack.) Tora! Tora! Tora! is also available on DVD, and is well worth watching if 9:30 AM is an inconvenient time for you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Waiting

One of the bad things about my jury summons is that I have to call in to the county courthouse every evening to find out if there is juror selection the next day. It's a form of waiting for the axe to fall that I don't particularly like, although there's nothing that can be done about it.

There's some waiting in the movies. Generally, it has to do with medical conditions. Eithere there's a woman in childbirth, with the harried husband in the hospital waiting room, or else some other sort of surgery. A more grisly variation on this occurs in the wonderful No Way Out, in which hoodlum Richard Widmark waits for the autopsy of his brother to find out whether doctor Sidney Poitier killed him or not.

There's also waiting to die, notably amongst those on death row, in movies like I Want to Live! or Paths of Glory. However, the poor, doomed cast members of On the Beach were also waiting to die.

A completely different kind of waiting is the waiting on tables that occurs in a restaurant. Mildred Pierce is probably the classic restaurant movie, although I've recommended an even better waitress scene in Shadow of a Doubt.

What other classic examples of waiting can you think of?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mickey Rooney's birthday, too

Today isn't only Walter Pidgeon's birthday; it's Mickey Rooney's 88th birthday. However, it's a bit harder to think of a movie to recommend for him. I've already mentioned two of his standout younger performances, those in Hide-Out and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

As for some of his later work, I would like to have mentioned A Slight Case of Larceny, a really fun comedy in which Rooney and Eddie Bracken own a gas station. But, it's not available on DVD. I'm also not a huge fan of the musicals he did with Judy Garland, even though I did mention Girl Crazy.

Perhaps I should post on The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a 1954 movie about the Korean War in which Rooney plays a top hat and scarf-wearing helicopter pilot who rescues flyboys like William Holden. It shows that Rooney could do serious drama in addition the the comedies and light musicals he spent a quarter of a century before this doing.

Mickey Rooney is not only still alive; he's going strong in that IMDb list three movies in post-production. May Rooney have many happy years to come.

Walter Pidgeon, 1897-1984

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the birth of Walter Pidgeon, who played a series of stalwart figures throughout the 1940s and 1950s at MGM. TCM honored his birthday with three of his films. I suppose I could blog about Forbidden Planet, but I'd rather save that for another day. I've already mentioned Pidgeon as the executive secretary to Kirk Douglas' Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful. So then, today I'd like to blog about another all-star movie with Pidgeon as one of the supporters: Executive Suite.

Executive Suite is a very simple movie: the head of a furniture-making business collapses and dies of a massive heart attack, forcing the executive board to come together and find a successor. It seems obvious at first glance that the successor is going to be the ambitious Loren Shaw (played by Fredric March), a man who's been angling for the top job for years and has the company's bottom line firmly at heart. However, junior executive McDonald Walling (William Holden) isn't so sure. He sees the furniture that the company is putting out, and thinks that by sacrificing quality for today's bottom line, the current board is putting the company's long-term interests in jeopardy.

What makes Executive Suite such a good movie is the fabulous cast which is really more of an ensemble, although almost everybody is (or was) a pretty big star in his or her own right. Amongst the cast members I haven't mentioned yet is Barbara Stanwyck, pictured here with Pidgeon, playing the part of the daughter of the company's founder, and a major stockholder in the corporation. Pidgeon plays the man who's put in 30 years of his life to the company, and is torn between which side to take. In addition to all these, there's the fabulous June Allyson, once again playing the devoted wife, this time to William Holden. Paul Douglas plays a salesman having an illicit affair, and look who the woman is with whom he's having that affair: Shelley Winters, in a surprisingly small role. Well-known names like Dean Jagger, Louis Calhern, and Oscar nominee Nina Foch round out the cast.

The movie is a bit formulaic, which is a slight weakness, although that's more than compensated for by the outstanding cast. The film's one big weakness is that it takes sides, very obviously portraying Holden as the good guy and March and Calhoun as the bad guys. One notable bit of trivia about Executive Suite is that it lacks a musical score. Instead, the soundtrack is the normal sounds of the big city. Thankfully, Executive Suite is available on DVD, as it's not currently scheduled to air on TCM any time soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Jury Duty

By the time you read this post, I'll be sitting in a crappy old courthouse waiting to see if a bunch of lawyers want me to sit on a jury. Considering that I've already compared our previous Governor to Elmer Gantry, I should hope not.

The worse thing is that if I do, I'm sure not to get on an interesting jury, hearing Jimmy Stewart talk about women's panties the way he did in Anatomy of a Murder. If anything, I'd be more likely to end up on a jury like the one in 12 Angry Men, although that might be because I'm the twerp who's unwilling to go along with everybody else.

At any rate, the upshot is that I haven't had the time for more lengthy posts for some time, and may not for the next week. I apologize, and hope to resume normal service as soon as possible.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Want a New Drug

Hollywood has a way of making everything seem more glamorous than it really is. I watched Bigger Than Life on the Fox Movie Channel today, and couldn't help laughing through the whole thing. James Mason stars as a schoolteacher who develops a rare illness -- inflammation of the arteries. The only treatment is the new wonder drug, cortisone. Unfortunately, Mason becomes addicted to the cortisone, displaying constant manic, if not psychotic, tendencies. I suppose it gives a whole new meaning to "roid rage", though. The sad thing is that the movie is trying to be serious, much like Less Than Zero.

It's not the only time Hollywood has had a humorous portrayal of drug abuse. Many of them, like Reefer Madness, are not intended to be funny, but when it comes to alcohol, there's generally a lot more deliberate comedy. Just think of The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy drinking their way through a murder investigation. There's also the movie it inspired, Remember Last Night?, in which the characters get even drunker than in The Thin Man. And who could overlook the entire oeuvre of W.C. Fields?

Of course, there are some movies that do take drug addiction seriously, and as far as I can tell do a pretty good job of it. (Thankfully, I have never been addicted to any drug, and have never been close to anybody I know to be an addict, so I don't have much reference here.) The Lost Weekend is pretty damn grim, and by all accounts Hollywood knew this wasn't a typical film for them. Frank Sinatra is pretty good as a heroin addict in The Man With the Golden Arm, although I wonder just how realistic it really is.

And then there are the addicts who are roués, knowing fully well that they're addicts and perfectly willing to die of their addiction. Perhaps the classic might be that of Van Heflin, who played the cynical alcoholic sidekick in Johnny Eager, and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it.

Sadly, most of today's recommendations aren't available on DVD in the US. Bigger Than Life has been released in Europe, however.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Weird Science

I had forgotten that Monkey Business was on the Fox Movie Channel this afternoon. Cary Grant plays a very absent-minded scientist who discovers (thanks to some shenanigans from his lab chimps) a formula that makes people temporarily youthful again, making them act like teenagers.

One of the things I thought about is how science in the movies is rarely seen in comedies. There's also Fred MacMurray's The Absent-Minded Professor -- and frankly, I wonder how much the producers of that movie were ripping off Monkey Business.

Obviously, there's lots of science fiction. I've also mentioned how Hollywood has a dystopic view of science and the future. And there's also the horror movies with mad scientists.

But why so little crossover between science and comedy? I really don't know, and don't have much idea.

What's your favorite marriage of science and comedy in the movies?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Call Her Savage

The Fox Movie Channel are running another of their pre-Code rarities, Call Her Savage, at 7:30 AM ET on September 20.

Clara Bow stars as Nasa Springer, a woman who's a bit of a wild child. Well, "a bit" might be an understatement. We see at the very beginning of the movie that her grandfathef, who moved west with the pioneers, was wild himself, and the sins of the father are visited upon the children. At any rate, her father sends her to a finishing school in Chicago, which doesn't really help her finish anything, instead leading her to marry a rich man out of spite and find out that such a marriage is doomed to failure. Poor Nasa has to go through the same tribulations that more high-class women went through in similar pre-Code movies in what was called the "weepie" genre, except that in her case, they're a hell of a lot more fun. Fox stuffs a lot of pre-Code goodness into this, much more than we get in movies like Helen Hayes' The Sin of Madelon Claudet. There's prostitution, implied pedophilia, a gay bar, a husband with a venereal disease who says, "I get up every afternoon", and so on. Indeed, in the picture above, one of the first glimpses we see of Nasa, she's whipping another man and seemingly getting a thrill out of it!

Frankly, it's good that Fox put in all this pre-Code titillation, because the story can't stand by itself. It is, unfortunately, a trite story about the woman gone bad, having to learn how to redeem herself that was seen a hundred times in the early 1930s. Indeed, TCM has been showing a bunch of those movies this month in their salute to Kay Francis. If you watched Transgression last night, you'll see a familiar story, even if it isn't quite the same as Call Her Savage.

The one other good thing is the presence of Clara Bow, who is about as good as can be expected considering the plot nonsense. Bow is best known as a silent movie actress and the "It" girl, having starred in the 1927 silent film It (which is available on DVD). Call Her Savage is not yet out on DVD, and considering Fox's record at putting its early stuff out on DVD, I don't expect to see it any time soon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ripped from the headlines

I don't wish to get into politics, but I noticed one of this morning's news stories was the hacking of the email account of one of our vice-presidential candidates. I couldn't help but think about computer hacking in the movies, and how unrealistic it is. How often have we seen in the movies and TV somebody being prompted to enter a password, with a giant entry box that pops up in the middle of the screen and is in some font we've never seen on any computer before?

I would like to have written a full-length post about Sneakers, but I haven't seen the movie in 15 years, since I was in college and it first came out on VHS. This, of course, was in the days before the DVD, when the 'prestige' format was the 12-inch laserdisc; it was also in the bad old days of no-def TV. Speaking of TVs, I wonder how many of the under-30s remember TVs that had to warm up before they displayed an image, and shut off to a tiny dot. That, and vertical control. But I digress; getting back to Sneakers, my memory of it was the climactic heist, involving voice recognition technology, and a heat-sensing alarm system that required the protagonists to raise the temperature of the office they wanted to hack to body temperature, along with a motion sensor that forced them to move very slowly. What I didn't realize is how many famous names were in the cast of Sneakers. I remembered James Earl Jones, and the late River Phoenix; I had forgotten that Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford were also in it.

I'm not much into hacking, so I don't know how realistic Sneakers is, and would rather think of movies taking stories straight out of real life instead. Biographies are common, of course, but those aren't the fun ones. I recently mentioned one that occurred in Picture Snatcher; I've also recommended He Walked By Night and The Hitch-Hiker. Another such movie that I haven't yet recommended is I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.

Probably the most fun for the classic movie fan, though are a series of shorts called Crime Does Not Pay. MGM released about four dozen of these from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, in which a hypothetical police chief from a hypothetical large Middle American city talks about some category of crime that's the new scourge of America, leading to a two-reel short depicting one example of this crime and how detectives would go about solving it. It's interesting to see some of the crimes that got covered in the series. Some are obvious, like the hit-and-run driver, but others are less obvious: fraudulent used car salesmen, or even crooked hospitals for young pregnant women who don't want their parents to know they're pregnant. Sadly, TCM doesn't program the shorts as far in advance as the feature movies, and I don't see any of the Crime Does Not Pay shorts in the schedule for the next week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A walk in the woods

I live in the middle of nowhere, next to several hundred acres of state forest owned by the State of New York on which anybody is welcome to hike or ride their mountain bikes. The state land also borders a right-of-way for a high-voltage electric line owned by the local utility, which is a convenient clear path for part of the walks that I like to take. However, when I took my walk yesterday before dark, I was saddened to see that the utility had gone through and not only cleared a lot of the brush that had been growing underneath the power line; they cut off all the limbs on the trees that grow at the edge of their right-of-way. I know that it's something they have to do every several years -- if they didn't, the encroaching forest would present a danger to the power line, but still, it's terribly ugly, and made worse that one of the trees they cut down forms an obstacle to getting on the trails leading back to the state forest.

What does this have to do with classic film? Truth be told, not much, but my walks are always a good time for some clear thinking on one or another of my hobbies, including what I'm going to post on this blog. Interestingly enough, however, there have been a couple of movies directly relating to electric utilities. I discussed other uses of electricity back in August, but didn't mention either the 1937 movie Slim, in which Henry Fonda stars as a lineman helping build electric lines. A very similar movie is Manpower, with George Raft and Edward G. Robinson as the electric company crewmen. Sadly, neither movie has yet been released on DVD.

Another topic that my walk could bring up would be movies about lumberjacks, which actually had a slight vogue in the late 1930s. Possibly the most famous of these would be God's Country and the Woman, which is a very early three-strip Technicolor movie. That's one of the things that makes it more prominent; the other is that Warner Brothers is said to have assigned this movie to Bette Davis, who found the idea of playing the love interest in a lumberjack movie so beneath her that she ran off to England and tried to get out of her contract with Warners. (The lawsuit was probably over several roles, not just God's Country and the Woman; ironically, despite the failure of the lawsuit, Davis started to get the best roles of her career after returning to the States.)

There's also the eminent domain issues of a poewr company needing land for its power line. I'm reminded here of the Paddy Chayefsky black comedy The Hospital. One of the many problems facing poor hospital administrator Geroge C. Scott is that residents of a neighborhood bordreing the hospital are protesting the fact that the hospital wants their land in order to expand the hospital. This is the only one of the movies I've recommended today that is available on DVD, and is worthy of a post all its own.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Stepford Cowboys

From the campy 1970s comes our next movie, Westworld, airing on TCM tonight at 10:30 PM ET.

The scene is the vacation resort of the future, only it exists today. At the resort, one can live out one's historical fantasies of any of a number of periods, such as Roman World, Medieval World, or Westworld, based on the American West. One can live out these fantasies thanks to a new series of super-duper animatronic robots that can cater to guests' every need, but are perfectly safe. (Yeah, right. If they were really safe, we wouldn't have a movie.) Richard Benjamin and James Brolin play two of the resort's patrons, staying at Westworld, where they can engage in safe gunfights, seducing barmaids, and the like.

That is, of course, until a computer glitch causes all the robots to go haywire, attacking the humans -- not only the guests, but the people running the resort too! Leading the charge is Yul Brynner, who plays a ruthless, emotionless killing machine bent on chasing Benjamin to the end of the park. Brynner looks a lot like he did back in The Magnificent Seven, and that was quite deliberate. The story, however, is somewhat predictable, with robot cowboy chasing hero vacationer until the eventual showdown.

Westworld looks dated 35 years on, but in this case, that's not a drawback. This isn't a movie about the special effects, but about a simple bad guy/good guy pursuit that could have almost any setting. Benjamin and Brolin are fine, although they don't really have all that much to do. Brynner is excellent. It's probably harder to play having no emotion than it is to ham it up on screen. After all, we all know what joy, fear, or despair look like. But who among us has ever tried to be robotically efficient? That's the task given to Brynner, and he pulls it off well.

In short, Westworld is just a whole lot of fun. True, there's not much to it, but it falls into the class of movies you don't have to think much about, and just sit back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy. It was directed and written by sci-fi writer Michael Crichton, who would of course go on to much bigger things. It's also available on DVD, should you miss tonight's showing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Charles Coburn vs. Cary Grant

DVD art for The More The Merrier and Walk, Don't Run

TCM is showing The More The Merrier at 1:30 PM ET on September 16. As I've mentioned before, it's the original version of Walk, Don't Run. I greatly enjoy both versions, although each has its own advantages.

The More The Merrier is set in Washington, DC, in 1943, during World War II, when there was a severe housing shortage due to all the people coming to our nation's capital to do government work. Charles Coburn plays the wealthy businessman coming to the big city for an important meeting; Jean Arthur the woman with an oversized apartment; and Joel McCrea the young man also loking for a place to stay. One of the big differences between this version and Walk, Don't Run is that McCrea is playing an army officer, making giving him a place to stay a bit more likely than some random Olympic athlete. However, it's one of the casting decisions that makes The More The Merrier so wonderful: Charles Coburn as the older man. By the time Cary Grant reached the end of his career, he had been typecast as an elegant, but suave, older gentleman whom the ladies still liked. As a result, there's an expectation of romantic tension between Grant and Samanta Eggar that really doesn't fit in well with the plot. Charles Coburn, on the other hand, was never really a ladies' man in the movies. His movie career didn't take off until he was sixty, at which point he was in almost in constant demand for the next twenty years. Being known only as an older actor, he had none of the romantic charm that Grant had -- and in this story, that's a huge plus. Not only that, but several of Coburn's characters (eg. The Devil and Miss Jones and Heaven Can Wait) are mischievous, a trait that Coburn carries into The More The Merrier. And when your character is playing Cupid for an engaged woman and a man who's almost a stranger to her, mischief really helps. Grant doesn't quite have it.

The two young couples are a wash. Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar don't have the heft that McCrea and Arthur do, but they're both quite good, and do a fine job in what is really just a light romantic comedy. Heft isn't all that important. McCrea and Arthur, however, have the best romantic scene in either of the two movies, when they get a kiss outside Arthur's apartment that is surpisingly erotic, considering that the movie was released in 1943.

Walk, Don't Run has a big superiority in its ending, however. The two movies are supposed to be romantic comedies, and the point at which Coburn convinces McCrea and Arthur to go through with a wedding ceremony turns the movie into something rather more maudlin. Jean Arthur spends much of the last twenty minutes of The More The Merrier crying her way through proceedings, and it's something that really doesn't work. In Walk, Don't Run, things are handled much more deftly. Also, the very final scene, in which the two young lovers receive the ultimate get-together, is carried off much more naturally.

Both movies are available on DVD, so you can watch and judge the merits of the two for yourself any time you want. Even if you don't want to compare them, watching either is a night at the movies well-spent.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kirk Douglas' bad guys

TCM are airing The Strange Love of Martha Ivers tomorrow at 8:15 AM ET. It's one of the earliest roles for Kirk Douglas, and he plays a pretty shady character -- a district attorney who, with his wife, has a terrible secret to hide. Kirk's son Michael did a piece for TCM several years ago, and talks about how his father did an excellent job at playing unsavory characters.

I've already recommended The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Douglas plays a movie producer who lets nothing get in the way of his trying to get to the top -- and ehwn he comes crashing down, he still expects people to come running to his aid.

There's also Out of the Past. Here, Douglas plays a mobster who hires Robert Mitchum to find his girlfriend, who has fled to Mexico. Mitchum does that and thinks it's the end of working for Douglas, but years later Douglas decides he wants Mitchum for another job.

However, in both The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Out of the Past, Douglas only plays supporting roles. It really wasn't until Champion that Douglas got to be a star. In Champion, Douglas plays an ambitious boxer on his way to the top who, as in The Bad and the Beautiful, has no problem hurting anybody he sees as getting in his way.

Champion gave Douglas the stature to get more starring roles, and two more excellent roles are as bad guys in early movies. In Ace In the Hole, Douglas plays a reporter who plays fast and loose with the rules when somebody gets trapped in a mine, because he wants to keep the story going. It's a very ugly story, and one that was so unsuccessful in its first go-round at the box office that when it was re-released, it was given the title "The Big Carnival".

Perhaps the best of Douglas' bad guy roles -- and that's saying something, considering how good he is in all of these movies -- is in Detective Story. In it, he plays a cop with a violent temper, who finds out that a doctor he's trying to catch might also be responsible for his wife's inability to have children. What makes Detective Story extra special is its fairly limited use of sets, which requires much more work on the part of the actors. Douglas pulls it off quite easily.

Indeed, I don't think it was until Douglas went to Disney to make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that he got to play a good guy in a big picture.

Fortunately, Kirk Douglas is such a famous actor that all of these movies seem to be available on DVD. They're not all easy to sit through, but they're all excellent movies, and well worth the watching.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Picture Snatcher

TCM is showing Rear Window overnight tonight as part of a night of movies dedicated to Thelma Ritter. The story is well-known; James Stewart plays a photographer who's cooped up in his apartment after breaking his leg, and spots an apparent murder in an apartment across the courtyard. However, I'd like to recommend a movie about photography that's fairly obscure today: 1933's Picture Snatcher.

James Cagney stars as Danny, a small-time hoodlum who's just gotten out of jail and is looking for a good job. He doesn't have many skills, but the editor of a tabloid newspaper (Ralph Bellamy) decides to give him a job as a photographer. It turns out that Danny is good at getting the pictures the paper wants: he uses the same tricks of deception, if not outright larceny, to get a photo. He even promises to get a photo from an upcoming execution, something that would be highly illegal -- although this wass actually based on a real-life incident. (Warning: some readers may find the picture in the link disturbing.)

Picture Snatcher is in many ways typical for a Warner Brothers movie of the period. It's fast-paced, and it's a gangster movie, but also has a bit of a social message. In addition to the main story, there's also a love triangle that's not without its problems for Danny. On the one hand, there's a wisecracking blonde lady reporter who has a thing for Danny. His true love, however, is Pat, who just happens to be the daughter of the policeman who originally arrested Danny. It's an overused plot device, but what are you going to do? Cagney is excellent, as always, even if this isn't one of his best-known works. He easily pulls off Danny's bravado, making a fairly thin story a joy to watch. The rest of the cast is good, too, although to be honest, they mostly serve as foils for Cagney.

Picture Snatcher was released to DVD in 2008 as part of Volume 3 of the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection. It's quite a good thing that it's on DVD, too. Despite starring James Cagney, Picture Snatcher shows up all too rarely on TV, which is a shame since it's really a fun little gem.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I was flipping through the channels yesterday and saw an ad for the upcoming release Blindness. The ad made it sound as though the mass blindness that's the key plot point of the movie was caused by a military conspiracy, so that immediately turned me off to the movie. Actually, the ad made it look as though it combined that with plot elements of Kevin Costner's The Postman, which makes it sound even worse.

However, there are some wonderful blind characters in the movies. I've already recommended A Patch of Blue, in which Elizabeth Hartmann plays a blind girl who falls in love with Sidney Poitier.

There's also The Miracle Worker, telling the story of Anne Macy Sullivan (played here by Anne Bancroft), the teacher of Helen Keller (Patty Duke), the young southern girl who went both blind and deaf as a result of scarlet fever, but through Sullivan's teaching learned how to talk and became a famous lecturer. Both Bancroft and Duke won Oscars for their portrayals.

One of the clichés is of the blind person who can "see" more than the sighted folks around him. Such a blind man appears in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur. When our hero (played by Bob Cummings), comes to a house in the woods looking to get out of a rainstorm, he tries to conceal his handcuffs from his host, only to discover that his host (Vaughan Glaser) is blind. However, when the host's niece, and eventual love interest for Cummings (played by Priscilla Lane) shows up, we find out that the blind man knew Cummings was wearing handcuffs long before Lane did. Also, he knows Cummings is innocent where Lane takes a very long time before believing in Cummings.

One of the best blind characters is the one played by Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. Her husband has brought home a doll that he's supposed to deliver to a girl in a local hospital as a favor for somebody. What neither of them know is that the doll is actually filled with heroin, and that the drug dealers are looking for it. Hepburn is alone in the apartment with the doll, when the dealers show up to try to get it.... It's one of the great suspense movies ever made, right up there with the movies of Alfred Hitchcock.

I am pleased to report that each of the movies recommended today (well, maybe not Blindness, but I'm not actually recommending that one) is available on DVD.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11

Today marks seven years since the terrorist attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I wsa wondering how, if at all, this could relate to classic film. Sure, there are movies from the 1970s through the 1990 in which one can see the towers as part of the city's skyline. However, my personal opinion is that the single best use of the World Trade Center comes in a TV show: The Simpsons episode The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.

City skylines generally don't feature prominently in movie plots. Their appearance is usually in the form of an establishing shot. I've commented on the use of the Eiffel Tower, one of the symbols of the Paris skyline. As for the New York skyline, however, the most beautiful use of it isn't even the actual skyline. Instead, it's the animated, color-changing version that morphs into the real thing, constituting the opening sequence of West Side Story.

I guess we're left with "Things that aren't there any more". This is one of the good aspects of classic movies, documenting places as they existed as a certain time in the past and no longer look a thing like they used to. London, for example, was bombed during the war, and shots of the bombed out buildings can be seen at the beginning of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Paradine Case. Post-war London also features in one of the Traveltalks shorts, 1946's "Looking at London". And, of course, there's the entire city of Vienna, as seen in The Third Man.

However, looking at people who Hollywood thought were going to be the next big thing but didn't quite pan out that way is even more interesting. There's an MGM movie from 1966 called Eye of the Devil. To promote it, they created a featurette promoting its young new female star: All Eyes on Sharon Tate. It shows Tate enjoying the London nightlife, doing some of the work on Eye of the Devil, and brief snippets of some of the movie's co-stars talking about what a wonderful actress Sharon Tate is and what a bright future she was going to have. The poor producers. There was no way they could possibly know what was going to happen to Miss Tate.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Another dated 1960s movie

Last night I finally watched the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair for the first time. Caper movies can be fun, and I generally enjoy the conservative design style of the late 1950s and 1960s, which is much in evidence here. But, there's something about The Thomas Crown Affair that didn't quite do it for me.

Steve McQueen stars as Thomas Crown, a wealthy arbitrageur who is bored with life, and decides to liven things up by planning an executing a bank robbery in late-1960s Boston (seeing vintage Boston in color is one of the nice things about the movie). The robbery goes well, with all of the conspirators getting their money, until the insurance company comes onto the scene. They're represented Vicki Anderson (played by Faye Dunaway), a 1960s-beautiful insurance investigator who quickly plays a hunch that Crown is the man behind the robbery, and will stop at almost nothing to get her man.

It's here that the movie begins to falter. Crown and Anderson develop what is an almost impossible relationship, in which she is basically stalking him, and he more or less lets her. The height of the absurdity is reached during an extended sequence in which the two play a game of chess, during which Anderson seems to be doing everything she can to try to arouse Crown sexually. I almost expected to see Faye Dunaway knock all the pieces to the floor with a sweeping gesture of her arm, get up on the chessboard, and.... Well, The Thomas Crown Affair isn't a porno movie.

There are other dated touches to the movie. Dunaway's hideous bun (obvious even in the overhead shot) is far more intrusive than any of the ghastly hair styles that Sydney Guilaroff or Helen Hunt gave their actresses back in the 40s, and there's the MOR music. Much like the song "It's a Sometimes World" in Yours, Mine, and Ours, the opening song "Windmills of Your Mind" tries to be upbeat, but comes across as more of a dirge. Topping it all off is the camera work. This being a 1960s movie, there are a number of pointless long zooms. But more distinctive for The Thomas Crown Affair is the use of multiple images on screen at one time, with the screen being divided up like a Piet Mondrian painting, each section being filled with a different image (or, in many cases, some images taking up multiple sections). I'm sure director Norman Jewison -- a talented man whose other work includes In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof -- thought he was being clever. Instead, the technique comes across as silly and contrived.

The Thomas Crown Affair was remade in 1999 with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo taking the roles created by McQueen and Dunaway. (Dunaway as a small role in the remake as Thomas Crown's psychoanalyst.) Both versions are available on DVD, for you to watch any time you wish, and judge for yourself which is the better version.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hugh Grant's birthday

September 9 is the 48th birthday of British actor Hugh Grant, and on this day I'd like to mention one of his light comedies, the improbably-titled The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.

Set in Wales in 1917, the movie stars Grant as Reginald Anson, one of a pair of English surveyors sent by Her Majesty's Government to determine the elevation of a mountain in a small Welsh town. The being 1917, and Wales being an impoverished place, about the only thing around for them to have pride in is their mountain. They take bets on what Anson will calcuate the height of the mountain to be, and it turns out to be 980 feet. This presents a bit of a problem: accoring to government regulations, a mountain has to be at least 1000 feet above sea level, meaning that the town no longer has a mountain, but just a very big hill instead.

This horrifies the town's citizens, who come up with a startling idea: detain the surveyors in town so that they can't turn in their results to London, and use that time to move enough soil from elsewhere to the top of the mountain to make it 1000 feet tall, and have Anson and his partner re-measure it. Sure, it sounds silly, but it turns into a very pleasant little comedy that's got good enough sensibilities for us grown-ups. Naturally, there's the love interest for Grant, in the form of actress Tara Fitzgerald (seen above with Grant), but the rest of the town has interesting characters too. There's the shellshocked World War I veteran; the minister who's adamant about not working on the Sabbath; and the publican (whom Star Trek fans will recognize as Colm Meaney) who's consistently at odds with the good minister, and trying to keep Grant in town.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain isn't scheduled to show up on the cable movie channels any time soon, but it is available on DVD.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Indian call centers

I had a lot of fun (not) dealing with one of those Banglore-based customer service centers on the phone this morning: a voice-recognition menu, followed by being on hold for 15 minutes listening to a terribly sampled remake of Madonna's sone La Isla Bonita, only to be cut off. I never did get my problem solved. However, it made me think of some movies where telephones are a major part of the plot.

Judy Holliday's Bells Are Ringing, about a telephone answering service, will be airing at 12:15 PM ET tomorrow (September 9) on TCM. Sadly, it was Holliday's last film, as she died at the young age of 43 in 1965.

Ginger Rogers plays a telemarketer in the 1933 movie Rafter Romance. I never knew before seeint Rafter Romance that they even had telemarketers back in 1933.

Don Ameche invented the telephone when he played Alexander Graham Bell in Fox's 1939 biopic The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.

A rather less pleasant use of the telephone occurs in Sorry, Wrong Number, when invalid Barbara Stanwyck answers the phone and hears about a plot to kill her! In fact, overhearing things on phones is probably an overused plot device. Watch for the final scene of The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner, and Dick Powell all surround the receiver of a phone listening to producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) talking about his latest film proposal.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Anita Page, 1910-2008

The Broadway Melody (1929)
The Broadway Melody, 1929. From left to right: Bessie Love, Charles King, and Anita Page

The death has been announced of actress Anita Page at the age of 98. She started her career in silents; danced alongside Joan Crawford when Crawford was still hoofing it on a regular basis in her movies; and was one of the stars of the second winner of the Best Picture Oscar, 1929's The Broadway Melody.

I have not yet seen any announcement of TCM scheduling any of her movies in her honor.

The most over-the-top funeral

Now that the summer is over, TCM has finished its Essentials Jr. series and goes back to more grown-up movies on Sunday evenings. This first post-Labor Day Sunday sees the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, at 8:00 PM ET.

Lana Turner stars as Lora Meredith, a struggling actress with a young daughter. One day at the beach, she meets a black woman named Annie Johnson (played by Juanita Moore), who's got a daughter and is really looking for a job herself. The two eventually agree to live together while Annie works as Lora's maid.

Fast-forward a decade. Lora has finally made the big time, being one of Broadway's biggest stars and living in the lap of luxury. Unfortunately, life at home isn't so great for either her or Annie. Both of them have rebellious teenage daughters. Lora's daughter Susie, played by Sandra Dee, Gidgets her way through the movie being a self-centered you-know-what who doesn't understand the rest of the world, and has a crush on her mother's boyfriend (John Gavin).

Worse, however, is Annie's daughter Sara Jane, played by Susan Kohner. She's very light skinned, presumably of mixed race, although the movie never comes right out and says this. (In fact, Susan Kohner was not black, but the daughter of a Czech father and Mexican mother.) Sara Jane has a huge chip on her shoulder, not wanting to submit to the conventions that American society put upon black people back in the 1950s, and instead wanting to live a free life "passing" as a white woman. This is to the unending dismay of her mother, who simply wants to provide the best for her daughter, even though she continually runs out on her mother and says she doesn't want her around any more.

Eventually, the burden is too much for poor Annie, who dies, leading to one of the great film funerals. Singing at Annie's funeral is gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, a sign that this is supposed to be a serious funeral. However, poor Sara Jane has learned of her mother's death, and returned to show off just how distraught she really is.

Fifty years on, Imitation of Life is a fun, but somewhat campy movie. I can never help but laugh at the funeral, while Sandra Dee is also a hoot. There's also a scene in which Troy Donahue plays Sara Jane's boyfriend -- until he learns the truth about her racial background. Imitation of Life is a remake of a 1934 movie (both were based on an earlier novel), and my personal opinion is that the remake is better, largely because the relationship between the white mother (Claudette Colbert in the earlier version) and her daughter (Rochelle Hudson) is downplayed somewhat. It's much the lesser story, and Colbert doesn't overpower the scenes she's in the way the impossibly glamorous Lana Turner does. On the other hand, widescreen and color, combined with the better production values of the 1950s, serve to make the contrast between white privilege and black servitude much more stark.

Both versions are available on DVD, so you can always watch for yourself and decide which version is the better movie.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Hurricane

It looks as though Tropical Storm Hanna is going to cause some problems here in my little corner of the Catskills, so I figured I'd write up a quick post on hurricanes in the movies to make certain I'll have a post for Saturday in case the power goes out.

There was a 1937 movie called The Hurricane, which has nothing to do with any boxer going by that nickname. However, it's nowhere near as famous as Key Largo, the crime drams in which a hurricane spoils things for the assembled vacationers and staff at a hotel in the Florida Keys. Humphrey Bogart, of course, gets to play the hero, foiling the gangsters, led by Edward G. Robinson -- how original that Robinson was cast as a gangster yet again.... Claire Trevor won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the gangsters' moll.

Key Largo isn't the only movie in which Humphrey Bogart went through a hurricane. There's also The Caine Mutiny, in which the hurricane (technically, a typhoon) plays a key role in the mutiny, as Bogart's Captain Queeg orders his crew to go straight through the storm in order to maintain contact with the rest of the naval convoy, while his officers fear this will result in the destruction of the ship.

Getting back to hurricanes hitting Florida, however, there's Night Unto Night, in which Ronald Reagan plays a doctor diagnosed with epilepsy who moves to Florida to isolate himself from the rest of the scientific community since he doesn't want them to see his ailment, and rents a house where he can do his research. He falls in love with his landlord (Viveca Lindfors), and doesn't want her to know about his epilepsy, either; when the hurricane comes, though, he may have to tell her. Night Unto Night really deserves a full-length blog post of its own, for a whole host of reasons. However, it's not currently available on DVD, which is a big shame.

Frankly, though, I'd rather have a snowstorm than a hurricane right about now....

Friday, September 5, 2008

An appreciation of Kay Francis

Kay Francis is TCM's Star of the Month for September, meaning that they're going to be showing a lot of movies from the early to mid-1930s. They don't show up so often, as Francis' film career ended in the mid-40s and she's not very well-remembered today, so for the most part I can't comment on them. They're also generally unavailable on DVD, unlike the movies of those who went on to become bigger stars.

Indeed, Francis' career was in decline by the late 1930s, as she was overtaken by Bette Davis as the queen of the Warner Brothers' lot, and with America's entry into World War II in 1941, she started touring with the USO. This work was dramatized in one of the Francis movies that is available on DVD, Four Jills In a Jeep. There's not much to the plot; four female entertainers feign wanting to help the troops by going on tour to Europe to perform in front of them. The military commanders call their bluff, and so our four heroines get sent overseas. There's the usual trifling plot line about girls falling in love with soldiers, too, but that's not the reason to watch a movie like this.

Four Jills In a Jeep is like Hollywood Canteen, or other morale-boosters of the war years, in that the reason to watch them today is as documents of the performs in them doing their routines. The "four jills" are Francis, Mitzi Mayfair (in the photo above), Carole Landis, and Martha Raye (more on her later). In addition to them, however, we get a big band leader (in this case, Jimmy Dorsey); and entertainers like pin-up queen Betty Grable, or dancer Carmen Miranda, playing themselves. Probably the one drawback to Four Jills In a Jeep is that Fox didn't make this one in Technicolor.

As for Martha Raye, her career may or may not have been the subject of a Hollywood movie. In 1991, Bette Midler starred in For The Boys, about the long and tempestuous career of a woman who performed with the USO. Raye claimed that the movie was based on her life, and wanted financial compensation for her life story having been used without her permission. However, the matter was never settled, and Raye died after a long series of illnesses in 1994.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sudden death

I hadn't seen The Last Hurrah until TCM showed it last night. It was an interesting, but not quite great, movie about an aging mayor running for one more term as mayor of a large New England city. It's based on the life of Boston mayor James Curley, although the movie never actually mentions any city by name. The one big problem I had with the movie is that after the election, the script has Mayor Skeffington (played by Spencer Tracy) suffer a heart attack and a lingering death. Perhaps I'm just not nuanced enough, but the whole sequence seemed pointless to me. The movie would have been fine ending at the end of the election, after the results are announced. Having the mayor die doesn't seem to add anything to the movie.

It also reminded me of Tokyo Story, an early 1950s Japanese movie about an elderly couple who travel from their small town to Tokyo to see their children who have moved to the big city. Their attempts to cope with life in the big city, and the fact that they discover they're an incovenience to their children's lives by being there, make for a good movie on their own, and the movie could easily end with their getting on the train in Tokyo to return home. However, the movie then has them get home, only for the wife to fall ill and die, and an extended period of the surviving family members philosophizing about death.

The one movie I can think of where having the character drop dead works is The Last Angry Man. Paul Muni plays an elderly doctor in the slums of Brooklyn whose life is turned upside-down by a TV producer who wants to film a live broadcast about the man's life and work. The broadcast is scotched by the good doctor's heart attack, but in this case, a good case can be made that the heart attack was actually brought about by the producer's pressuring him to do the broadcast.

(Actually, I can think of D.O.A. too, but in that case, the main character was poisoned, so we know he's going to die.)

The Last Hurrah and Tokyo Story are both on DVD; The Last Angry Man does not seem to be available on DVD.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Are you ready for some football?

TCM's theme for this morning and afternoon is football movies. What I find most interesting is the casting of them, in that there are a lot of people who in no way whatsoever look like football players. Also, since most of today's movies are about college football, it's interesting to note that a lot of the actors are well above college age, a them I've discussed before. Ramon Novarro, for example, was 33 years old when he played a Yalie in Huddle, airing at 8:30 AM.

Andy Devine played a miner who was brought in to college and paid to play a lineman in The Big Game, which airs at 3:30 PM ET. Since he was playing a ringer, this is one of the few times where being overage isn't such a big deal, and Devine was one of the few Hollywood actors who could pass for being a football player: he had played semipro football in the late 1920s before going on to college. The Big Game is also interesting in that several big-name college football players of the day appear as players, including Jay Berwanger, the first winner of the Heisman Trophy.

Somebody who didn't look like a football player, but got cast as one, is Van Heflin. A 26-year-old Heflin appears in a movie with an unlikely plot, Saturday's Heroes, at 6:00 PM. Here, he plays a college football player who sees the corruption going on surrounding the college football team -- and the administration supporting it -- at his school, and doesn't like it. When he protests, he gets kicked off the team. How does he respond? He gets the local sportswriter to help him get a coaching job at the school's main rival!

Perhaps my favorite of the bunch is The Cowboy Quarterback, which follows Saturday's Heroes at 7:00 PM. It's one of the few movies of the era to deal with professional football -- but the team in the movie is the Chicago Packers! The movie, however, is a remake of 1933's Elmer the Great. A professional athlete gets brought to the big city, and quickly runs up a big gambling tab, at which point the gamblers try to get him to throw the big game.

It's only too bad TCM didn't choose to include 1929's So This Is College as part of today's lineup. In that one, the star football player is played by a young... Robert Montgomery!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

British World War II movies

Last night, TCM showed the 1943 movie Millions Like Us for the first time. I had never seen the movie before, and it's not available on DVD, so there was no way I could recommend it. It's a British movie about a woman drafted into the country's World War II era aircraft manufacturing industry, who falls in love with an airman. The closest Hollywood equivalent I can think of is something like <Since You Went Away, except that Millions Like Us is much less glossy and polished. Of course, life in wartime Britain wasn't so glossy and polished: to paraphrase a common refrain of the time, didn't Hollywood know there was a war on?

At any rate, watching Millions Like Us got me to thinking about British cinema's movies about World War II in general. They generally have a much different sensibility than Hollywood films on the same subject, which is understandable considering that the war affected the UK more more directly than it did the US. Even the movies about Britain's World War II heroes have an understated quality about them, a trait in evidence in the wonderful 1958 movie Carve Her Name With Pride.

Carve Her Name With Pride tells the more or less true story of Violette Szabo (née Bushnell; played by Virginia McKenna), a young woman born of an English father and French mother. When World War II breaks out, she does her part by joining the nursing corps, eventually meeting a member of the French resistance. They fall in love, marry, and have a child together. Sadly, though, he gets killed in North Africa, and Violette, being an excellent French speaker, is asked by British Special Operations to become a spy for them and carry out missions in France.

Despite having a child who has lost her father, Violette decides that the war is more important, and takes up more than one mission in France. It's here that the Britishness of the movie comes to the fore, as the spy work is much less glamorous than what we'd see in a Hollywood feature. Indeed, Carve Her Name With Pride is much more a biography than an adventure movie. Despite there being relatively less action than in an American movie, it's still very good, with McKenna doing an outstanding job. I had never heard of Carve Her Name With Pride until TCM showed it about 18 months ago, and am pleased to see that it has since gotten a DVD release.

There's quite a bit of information about the real-life Violette Szabo, including a museum dedicated to her, and a tribute from her daughter Tania.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day

The first Monday in September is, of course, Labor Day in the United States. So let's take a look at some Hollywood movies dealing with labor -- but not the organized kind.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. In this comedy, Betty Hutton plays a woman who gets so drunk that she gets married to and knocked up by somebody she's never met before, and can't remember who it is. Her best friend (Eddie Bracken) is forced to enter into a shotgun wedding with her. Not knowing who the father of your children is? Sounds about as funny as an episode of the Jerry Springer show -- although, as I point out in my original post on the movie, writer/director Preston Sturges does an excellent job of making the movie riotously funny.

One of the other funny things in Hollywood's stereotypical portrayal of going into labor is the daffy father who has a dickens of a time trying to get his wife to the hospital on time. TCM just showed Yours, Mine, and Ours last week; here, poor Henry Fonda sees everything around him go wrong when wife Lucille Ball goes into labor with what will be their 19th child. You'd think the idea of giving birth in a taxi or the passenger seat of a car isn't very funny. However, the possibility of it is.

Hollywood has used childbirth in some more serious movies. Spare a thought for poor Johnny Belinda. Jane Wyman's deaf-mute gets knocked up as a result of being raped, and has no idea what pregnancy even is. Thankfully, Hollywood didn't try to make this one a comedy.

A much more interesting movie about childbirth is the 1932 Loretta Young drama Life Begins, set in the maternity ward of a hospital for difficult cases. Young is good, although in all honesty the show is stolen by Glenda Farrell, playing a woman who doesn't want her kids and is completely rebellious, even filling her hot water bottle with hooch. Although the film is mostly drama, there is some scope for comedy, with the expectant fathers once again being the butt of the jokes. (Watch for veteran character actor Frank McHugh in the expectant father role.) Life Begins is unfortunately not available on DVD, although it would be a good candidate in conjunction with some of the other Warner Brothers pre-Codes.