Saturday, February 28, 2009

More young Spencer Tracy

I mentioned several months ago that Spencer Tracy spent the early years of his career at Fox, before coming to MGM where he became a big star. Some of those Fox movies, however, are quite good, and one of the best, Dante's Inferno, will be airing at 7:30 AM ET on March 1 on the Fox Movie Channel.

Tracy starts off the movie playing a ship's stoker, but gets himself fired, before getting a job being a carnival barker for veteran character actor Henry B. Walthall. Walthall's carnival "ride" is a re-enactment of Hell, designed as an educational and cautionary experience for its viewers about how they need to be more virtuous in their lives. Tracy, however, has other ideas. He sees the exhibit as too bland, and figures that it needs to be spiced up to bring in the patrons. This sets Tracy off on a journey not only toward immense wealth, but immense tragedy as well. Perhaps he should have heeded the lessons of The Inferno.

Spencer Tracy is quite good in Dante's Inferno, and it's quite easy to see why he was about to go on to bigger and better things in his career. However, there are more interesting things to the movie. There is some very good art direction, both involving the elaborate carnvial rides, and a climax involving a gambling ship that catches fire. In the middle, there's an outstanding dream sequence involving Tracy's vision of Dante's Inferno, after Walthall gives him a copy of that book.

Also interesting is the supporting cast. While this is Tracy's movie all the way, Walthall is notable, as is the woman playing his daughter (and eventually wife to Tracy). That's Claire Trevor, a dozen years before she won an Oscar for her role in Key Largo. Even more interesting is Marguerita Cansino, who shows up briefly as a ballroom dancer aboard Tracy's gambling ship. You may not recognize that name, because it was changed to further the actress' career. The changed name: Rita Hayworth.

This is the sort of movie that Fox really need to put out on DVD. They've got a rich library, and with a name like Spencer Tracy heading the cast, Dante's Inferno would be of interest to a lot of classic movie buffs, as well as possibly to the more casual fan who might not recognize other names of the 1930s. Sadly, though, it's not on DVD, meaning you have to look out for it on the Fox Movie Channel.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Presidents' Day: The Final Chapter

I didn't really discuss fictional presidents much in my previous Presidents' Day posts, other than to make brief mention of the 1964 movie The Best Man. I can go into more detail now, as The Best Man is airing overnight at 2:30 AM ET on TCM.

Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson play two presidential candidates. They're members of the same party, and the convention has arrived, but neither has locked up a majority of the delegates. This, of course, means that there is going to be horse trading with the candidates who came in third or worse, but collectively earned enough delegates to block the top two candidates from having that majority. As such, The Best Man is an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes.

The performances are all quite good, but unfortunately the story takes clear sides. Henry Fonda plays the candidate from the party's (it's never mentioned which party's convention this is) more liberal wing. However, he's got some skeletons in the closet, namely in the form of mental illness. Robertson, from the party's anti-Communist wing, is portrayed as having no scruples whatsoever, and has no problem about using Fonda's past against him. For this, the dying ex-President (Lee Tracy, formerly of Dinner at Eight), has no respect for Robertson. However, Tracy has no respect for Fonda either, as Fonda seems unwilling to stand up for what he believes in. Still, the screenplay, written by well-known author Gore Vidal (who was also well-known for his left-of-center political views) makes Fonda out to be almost pure, to the point that we're obviously supposed to root for him and not Robertson. This is the one flaw of the movie, and while it is substantial, the movie as a whole is still quite good, and keeps the convention's outcome in doubt until the end.

There are a lot of good supporting performances buttressing the fine work of Fonda and Robertson. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) plays Fonda's campaign manager. There's also Edie Adams as Robertson's wife; Mahalia Jackson opening the convention with a song, and correspondent Howard K. Smith playing himself. These last two lend an air of docudrama to the movie, which serves it quite well.

The Best Man is an interesting, if imperfect, look into political intrigue that is in some ways relevant still today. True, candidates' dirt comes out well before the convention, but the politics is still just as dirty. Barack Obama had no qualms whatsoever about using his surrogates to portray Hillary Clinton as racist every time her campaign criticized him, and then had no problems speaking out of the other side of his mouth, calling himself post-racial.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Betty Hutton, 1921-2007

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of actress Betty Hutton. Probably her best-known movie today is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, from which this photo with actor Eddie Bracken was taken. She was also in the Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth; but I'd like to recommend a different movie: The Stork Club.

Hutton plays Judy Peabody, a hat-check girl at the famous Stork Club, a New York City nightclub. She's got a boyfriend who's currently overseas in the army. One night, Judy happens to see an old man fall off a pier into the river. She jumps in to save him. What she doesn't know is that the man she's saved is wealthy lawyer Jerry Bates (played by Barry Fitzgerald). He wants to thank her properly, but doesn't want her to know whom she saved, so he anonymously sets her up in one of the finest New York apartments money can buy. Needless to say, this causes problems for Judy and her boyfriend once he returns....

The Stork Club is a very light comedy, of the sort that was popular in the 1930s and early 1940s. The story line is at best a stretch, but it's the sort of thing that audiences of the day wanted. Hutton and Fitzgerald both do a good job in giving the 1940s audiences what they would have been looking for, although nowadays, the movie would seem not just old-fashioned, but with all of the bad connotations and none of the good that old-fashionedness implies. This is in contrast to something like It Happened One Night which, while clearly a product of the 1930s, is more "quaint" than "old-fashioned" in that it's still fresh today. In short, if you're a fan of classic movies or a fan of Betty Hutton, The Stork Club is a good diversion. If you want to introduce people to Hutton, start with The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

For those who are fans of Hutton and 1940s movies, The Stork Club is available on DVD.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

Last August, I briefly mentioned the 1940 movie Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, in which Edward G. Robinson plays the German scientist who finds the first effective treatment for syphilis. It's airing tonight at 6:00 PM ET. Unfortunately, it's not available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mardi Gras

Today is Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the last day before the Catholic fasting season of Lent. No, this is not a post about Tuesday Weld, although I wouldn't mind seeing the dreadful college comedy High Time again. It stars Bing Crosby as a widower who goes to college and swings with the young'uns, including Tuesday Weld. Yes, it's as bad as it sounds, and that's probably why it's not available on DVD.

Instead, I find myself thinking about some of the movies set in New Orleans, the city that gives us the ridiculous Mardi Gras celebration every year. One of the best is King Creole, in which Elvis plays a young man whose singing contract gets bought by a mobster, with disastrous consequences. Presley is excellent here, showing that he really could act.

An interesting New Orleans-style funeral occurs near the beginning of the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, as a funeral band marches down the street, carrying a casket. Of course, the funeral procession is actually for somebody standing on the sidewalk, about to become the victim of an espionage hit.

Hollywood made some movies about New Orleans during the studio backlot era, too. Probably the best of these would be Jezebel, with Bette Davis as a southern belle in love with Henry Fonda. It's got a pretty good Bette Davis rant. She's going to a party, and is supposed to be dressed in white as an unmarried woman. She insists on wearing a red dress, though, and when her family complains, she responds, "This is eighteen fifty-two! Not the Dark Ages!"

Monday, February 23, 2009

Game Shows and the movies

I've mentioned that I'm a game show fan. Even in spite of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, TV game shows aren't the easiest thing to write movies about, largely because the real thing is more interesting than the movie version. (Anybody who's yelled answers out at their TV will know what I mean.) Quiz Show, about the game show scandals of the 1950s, is probably the best known.

However, several prominent game show hosts appeared in movies as actors. There are, of course, the people who were originally actors, and then went on to host game shows. Richard Dawson was a TV star on Hogan's Heroes long before he hosted Family Feud; or you might recall that Groucho Marx had a comedy act with his brothers long before hosting You Bet Your Life.

But some of the people whose best known work is as a game show host also made some movies. Peter Marshall started off as part of a nightclub act with Tommy Noonan long before he became the host of The Hollywood Squares; in between he appeared in a few dreadful movies such as The Rookie.

If you watch Gregory Peck's biopic of Douglas MacArthur, keep your eyes open: the original Jeopardy! host, Art Fleming, has a brief role.

More interesting are the movies of Dick Clark. Host of several incarnations of Pyramid, it was his job as host of American Bandstand that probably got him his first big movie role, that of a young teacher in the high-school drama Because They're Young. Clark tries, but fortunately, the focus of the movie is more squarely on the students. Amazingly enough, it got him another acting gig, in the medical drama The Young Doctors. It's a movie about a hospital pathology department that's saved by a fine performance from Fredric March. Don't watch it for Clark, unless you're also a game show fan. You'll end up laughing at how stilted his performance is. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither of Clark's movies are on DVD.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the Oscar goes to...

So the Academy Awards are being handed out tonight. There's that little statue, and before that, the red carpet down which all the celebrities walk on their way into the auditorium. I've already commented on my not caring so much about the production of awards shows, and as a fan of classic movies I'd generally rather watch older stuff anyhow.

The statuette itself has appeared in a number of movies, although the Academy holds the rights to its image, so any moviemaker who wants to use it is supposed to get permission from the Academy. If you watch The Bad and the Beautiful, you'll see a title card at the end thanking the Academy for allowing the moviemakers to use the Oscar statue as part of the story.

Technically, every time you use the word Oscar to refer to the statuette, or the term Academy Award, for commercial purposes, you're supposed to use one of the trademark symbols. Thankfully, though, blog posts would fall under "fair use" provisions. Whether Mommie Dearest, as a biopic, would be subject to the Academy's imprimatur is an interesting question. After all, it's a matter of public record that Joan Crawford won an Oscar..

Red carpets show up in classic films as part of the dramatization of movie premieres. There's a famous scene at the end of the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, with Janet Gaynor and Adolphe Menjou walking down the red carpet together, after Andy Devine and Mae Robson. If you don't want to wait that long for your red carpet, you might want to watch Singin' In the Rain, where the red carpet shows up at the beginning.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Presidents' Day, Part 3

Moving pictures were commercialized in the mid-1890s, during the tenure of US President Grover Cleveland. A lot of the early American movies are very short subjects filmed by Thomas Edison, with many being documentary in nature. As such, there are more snippets of the Presidents of the era than one might imagine. The fact that Buffalo hosted a major exposition in 1901, with a lot of new inventions on display, meant that there was a prime target for both Edison's cameras and then-President McKinley. He spoke at the exposition on September 5, 1901, and the Edison company filmed a portion (silent, of course). That snippet has unsurprisingly made is way to YouTube. Sadly, McKinley would be shot one day later and die as a result of the wound and resulting infection on September 14, 1901.

McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was also a natural subject for Edison's films, although I think I prefer the phony Teddy Roosevelt of Arsenic and Old Lace. Much more interesting, however, is that Roosevelt also ended up in a color movie. The wonderful Wide Screen Museum site, which I've mentioned before, has the story.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Brenda Blethyn

Today marks the 63rd birthday of actress Brenda Blethyn. Our featured film is her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1996 movie Secrets and Lies.

The scene starts not with Blethyn, but with actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a young black middle class professional in contemporary London. She was an adopted child, and now that her parents have died, she's interested in finding out about her biological mother. What she finds is very surprising: her biological mother is a white woman, Cynthia Purley (Blethyn). Needless to say, this is quite the surprise for Hortense, but she still makes plans to meet her biological mother.

It is not all happily ever after, of course, or else we wouldn't have a movie. Purley's is the mother of all dysfunctional families. She's a working-class woman with a rebellious daughter, and there's not really any father figure around. The closest there is to that is her brother Maurice, a photographer who owns his own studio and has risen above his working-class place in life thanks in part to his wife, who doesn't really care for his sister and niece. Cynthia is desperate for any love she can find, and learning that her newfound daughter has done reasonably well for herself, would like to have her in her family's lives. The presence of another daughter causes quite a shock for all of them, but not so much because Cynthia had a one-night stand with a black man, resulting in a black daughter. Instead, it's the fact that Cynthia has decided to spring this upon everybody (including poor unsuspecting Hortense) as a surprise at her younger daughter's birthday party.

Secrets and Lies is an outstanding film, largely because it feels so honest. All of the characters have very real, and understandable, human flaws. The story is also presented realistically, without lapsing into either melodrama or cloyingness. Although the movie ends on a hopeful note, it's open-ended, and not one that has everybody suddenly living happily ever after. The characters might keep close bonds, or (especially in the case of Maurice's wife) may not. The performances are quite good, too. Marianne-Jean Baptiste was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar, although to be honest, her part as an outsider is relatively straightforward. Timothy Spall, who plays Maurice, is good as the brother with a foot in both worlds, both the working-class world that he and his sister grew up in, and the more aspirational class that his wife wants him to be in. It's very easy to imagine him being torn between the two. Honors, however, go to Blethyn, who deservedly takes center stage as the sad woman with an enormous secret. She engenders both empathy and discomfiture in appropriate measure, and richly deserved her Oscar nomination.

Secrets and Lies has been released to DVD, although in an expensive edition, so it's another movie you might want to rent instead.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Presidents' Day, Part 2

Abraham Lincoln probably got more screen treatment than any other US President, because his place in history included the Civil War, which is a fairly easy event to make cinematically interesting. George Washington ought to be equally interesting, as should Thomas Jefferson. Yet, the two didn't show up all that often in classic Hollywood movies. One movie that does have both as minor characters is The Howards of Virginia.

The Howards of Virginia is a fairly predictable movie for Hollywood standards. It tries to be an epic about one Matt Howard, a Virginia patriarch at the time of the American Revolution. There's the typical Hollywood elements: Matt's father dies when Matt is just a kid; Matt struggles to make a name for himself, and meets and marries a woman above his station, taking her to the then-wilderness of the Shenendoah Mountains. Unfortunately for his family, their bucolic peace is broken by the Revolutionary War. There's strife between husband and wife, and between husband an in-laws, as Matt supports the Revolution while his in-laws are wealthy Tories. And, there's also the inevitable George Washington sighting in the War. (Jefferson appears first as Matt's childhood friend, and then as an adult, too.)

You'll note I haven't mentioned the actors yet. That's because Matt Howard is played by Cary Grant, who is incredibly miscast. (Wow, that hair is something else.) Grant was a good actor, but if there was one genre for which he was ill-suited, it had to be the costume drama -- especially one that would have required him to be a colonial American. Grant tries, but the entire time, it's impossible to get over the fact that this is Cary Grant. No matter what the rest of the cast does, and they're all perfectly competent, they can't steer the movie away from being a Cary Grant vehicle. (Grant, to his credit, realized afterwards that he wasn't suited to historical dramas and didn't make one for another 15 years.)

The presence of Cary Grant, combined with Hollywood's trying to shoehorn every plot twist you can think of in a Hollywood wannabe epic, make The Howards of Virginia more a curiosity than a truly classic movie. If you like Cary Grant, or are interested in the limited number of Hollywood movies about the Revolutionary War, this is certainly a movie for you. Just be warned of what you're getting beforehand. The Howards of Virginia was released on DVD several years ago, but is apparently out of print. As such, you'll probably have to rent it from Netflix instead of trying to buy it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Audrey Hepburn in a threesome

The movie that gives us the interesting idea of Audrey Hepburn as part of a threesome is The Children's Hour, airing at 2:00 PM ET on February 19.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as a pair of long-term friends from college who are now running a tony school for young girls. The school is struggling financially, so Hepburn's doctor friend, James Garner, has put off getting engaged with her. Also due to the financial problems, MacLaine's aunt (played by Miriam Hopkins) is living with them and helping out at the school. This arrangement isn't comfortable for any of them, but it seems as though everybody is getting along, with the school finally about to turn a profit, allowing for Garner to propose to Hepburn.

Unfortunately, that's all about to change thanks to the young girls. The students here are just as catty, gossipy, and back-stabbing as grown-up women are, and when one of them can't get her way for some reason, she tells her grandmother (Fay Bainter) a shocking secret. At first, we're not told what this secret is, but it results in Bainter removing her granddaughter from the school, followed by the parents of the other students removing their kids from the school in dribs and drabs, until there are no students left.

As for that secret? Apparently, Hepburn and MacLaine were involved in some sort of lesbian relationship, although for a long time we're not told what that allegedly entailed. The girl, of course, saw nothing incriminating; she's just making crap up. But she's still able to blackmail everybody around her into corroborating her story, leading Hepburn and MacLaine to lose a slander suit against Bainter. (Garner is also blackballed for standing by the side of his fiancée and her colleague; it's at this point we get the interesting threesome as Garner suggests the three of them go away somewhere.)

I won't give away the rest of the plot, except to say that it's an interesting movie with a disappointing ending. Hepburn is an actress who couldn't look like somebody would stereotype her as a lesbian, but she tries her best. It's easy to see from this performance that she was a fine actress, but that this part wasn't well-suited for her. James Garner was better suited to lighter stuff, but he too tries his hardest. The two older women are quite good. Bainter received an Oscar nomination, while Miriam Hopkins seems to be reprising the role of the domineering older relative that she had played in The Mating Season a decade earlier. It also provides for some comic relief.

The best performance is given by MacLaine. She's helped by the fact that she's given a haircut and make-up job that makes her look like the butch lesbian stereotype, minus the Birkenstocks. Hers is the tougher role since she's got the overbearing aunt and is about to lose a friend without gaining anything in return, and she pulls it off as well as one can. Here, that means good but not great.

All in all, The Children's Hour is an interesting movie that tries hard, but can't quite overcome being a product of its time. If you're a fan especially of Audrey Hepburn, but also of any of the other cast members, it's well worth watching. It is also available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stop me if you've heard this one

TCM are showing the melodramatic Madame X at 1:00 PM ET on February 18. Ruth Chatterton stars as a woman married to a wealthy man, bearing him a son. Unfortunately, she strays and loses custody of the son. This sends her into a downward spiral, which continues until she kills a man who tries to blackmail her into keeping her past a secret, since her son is now a prominent attorney. She gets put on trial, and who has to defend her? Yes, you guessed it -- her son. Of course, he doesn't know that he's defending his mother.

If this plot sounds familiar, it's because it is. Ruth Chatterton's appearance as the fallen woman with the long-lost son is the first talkie to have this hoary plot. But, there were several silent versions in the 1910s and 1920s, and the story is based on a play that had premiered in 1908. Also, it's not by far the only talking version of the story. MGM, which did our 1929 version remade Madame X in 1937, with Gladys George starring. Just when you though a studio might come up with an original idea, Universal took the idea and made a much glossier version of the story in 1966, with Lana Turner (as hard as it may be to imagine her as a fallen woman) as the mother and Keir Dullea as the son.

And if you think that's not enough, the 1929 Madame X was one of a string of movies in the early talking period marketed at women known as "weepies", although today we'd call them chick flicks. The Madame X storyline was popular not under its own title, but under several other names too. Ruth Chatterton was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (but lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette). Two years later, Helen Hayes won for a very similar role in The Sin of Madelon Claudet. In 1933, Irene Dunne played a similar role in The Secret of Madame Blanche.

Of all these movies, only the Lana Turner version of Madame X seems to be available on DVD.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidents' Day, part 1

The third Monday in February is Presidents' Day here in the US. I wanted to recommend The Best Man, since this political convention drama starts off with a montage of all the US presidents up to the time the movie was made (during the Lyndon Johnson administration), but it's not available on DVD. So, we'll kick off the week with one of the many movies about Abraham Lincoln, since it's 200 years ago this month that he was born. The highly original title (spoken with tongue firmly in cheek) is Abraham Lincoln.

Walter Huston stars as the rail-splitting president in what is meant to be an ambitious look at the man's life. Huston does a commendable job. The major events in Lincoln's life are there, from those rail-splitting days to his time as a lawyer, to the Lincoln/Douglas debates (those were when the two were running for US Senate, not for President, and were superfluous, as Senators were elected by state legislatures at the time), through the Civil War and his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. As such, it's more complete than the studio system's two best-known films on Lincoln. Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln only focuses on Lincoln's time as a lawyer, while Raymond Massey's Abe Lincoln in Illinois ends with the presidential election.

Abraham Lincoln was made in 1930, by director D. W. Griffith. Herein is where the movie's big problems lie. Griffith was an acclaimed silent movie director, but already by the time of his last movie with the Gish sisters, 1921's Orphans of the Storm, his techniques were considered dated and not pushing the envelope of what film could do. Worse, in between then and the time of Abraham Lincoln, sound had come to the movies, making life difficult for all the directors, who had to learn new ways of doing things. Griffith tries, but isn't all that successful. The movie comes off as being very slowly-paced and stagey.

Still, it's well worth watching as a piece of movie history and for learning about the techniques of movie making. (That, and for Huston's performance.) It is available on DVD, but apparently it's only been released as part of a box set of Griffith's movies. If you only want to see Abraham Lincoln, you'll be better off renting.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

They Shall Have Music

Back in November, I recommended the Jascha Heifetz movie They Shall Have Music. It's not available on DVD, but you have another chance to catch it at 6:00 AM ET on Monday, February 16.

Kirk Douglas' range

Back in September I posted commenting on a number of the unsavory characters Kirk Douglas played in his earlier movies. Later on, though, he got to play some good guys, characters very different than what he had done in movies like Ace in the Hole.

I mentioned 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea earlier this week, and at 3:15 PM ET this afternoon, you can catch Douglas in Lust for Life on TCM. Douglas plays Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch artist famous for cutting off his ear, along with painting a bunch of very good paintings in his revolutionary style. It's a testament to Douglas' acting ability that he was able to pull off such diverse roles.

It also says something about the state of Hollywood back in the old days. Van Gogh's artist friend Paul Gauguin was played in Lust for Life by Anthony Quinn. Quinn had a broad career himself, and won his second Oscar for this part.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Let's get subtle

Overnight tonight, at 3:15 AM ET, TCM is showing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I think everybody knows the story: Sidney Poitier plays a man engaged to a young white woman, who brings him home to meet her parents (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). This being the mid-1960s, and miscegenation still being illegal in several states (the movie was filmed before, but released after, the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia), the idea of your white daughter marrying a black man was considered shocking; the rest of the movie deals with both sets of parents' reactions to the impending marriage. The big problem the movie has is its lack of subtlety. Yeah, we get the point. Racism and discrimination are bad things. (On the other hand, the movie at least has Cecil Kellaway as Spencer Tracy's priest. That's a big plus) Hepburn won her second Best Actress Oscar for this, which is too bad, because the award could easily have gone to three of the other nominees: Anne Bancroft for The Graduate; Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde; or Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark.

It's not as though Hollywood couldn't be more intelligent in its look at discrimination. There are certainly some cringe-inducing lines in No Way Out, but on the whole, it's much more thought-provoking -- and came 17 years earlier -- than Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Britain, at least, had dealt fairly intelligently with homosexuality, in the recently-recommended Victim. On the other hand, it could have been worse. When Hollywood finally decided to make a "prestige" movie about AIDS, they came up with the thoroughly dreadful Philadelphia.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Shelley Winters and water don't mix

TCM is showing the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun at 10:30 AM ET on Valentine's Day. It's interesting to think about TCM's Valentine's Day line-up, since A Place in the Sun is being followed at 12:45 PM by Norma Shearer in The Divorcée. There are two movies that show you how to treat the people you love....

However, I find myself thinking about what happens to poor Shelley Winters. In A Place in the Sun, she gets knocked up by Montgomery Clift, who in the meanwhile has fallen in love with Elizabeth Taylor. When Winters confronts Clift, he tries to get out of his predicament by arranging for her to drown.

It wasn't the only time Winters was drowned. Robert Mitchum did it to her in Night of the Hunter, complete with a memorable shot of Winters underwater.

Winters had other bad luck with water, too. Despite the fact that she claimed to be a swimming champion in her younger days, in The Poseidon Adventure she's gained weight, and having to swim underwater gives her a fatal heart attack.

She should have learned her lesson when she was younger. In He Ran All the Way, she meets John Garfield at a public swimming pool, and likes him. Unfortunately for her, he's a criminal on the lam, and repays her by taking her family hostage.

He Ran All the Way is not available on DVD, which is too bad since it's a pretty good movie. The other three movies, however, are already on DVD.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pick your character actor

TCM are showing the 1938 melodrama Of Human Hearts at 6:00 AM on February 13. James Stewart is nominally the star, but the accolades go to a slew of Hollywood's great character actors.

Stewart plays Jason Wilkins, the son of a preacher who moves his family west to Ohio in mid-19th century Ohio. Unfortunately, the life of a preacher isn't very financially rewarding, so the family is always hard up for money. This is especially problematic when Jason finds that he likes the town doctor (Charles Coburn), despite the fact that Coburn likes to tipple too much and Jason's parents find the doctor a bad influence. Still, Jason wants to become a doctor, even if it means all sorts of financial hardship.

And it certainly is a hardship, especially after Jason's father (played by Walter Huston) dies. Jason's mother Mary (Beulah Bondi) scrimps and saves, and it never seems to be enough. Worse for her, Jason doesn't seem to be doing enough to show his gratitude. He was originally planning to come back to Ohio to practice medicine, but a little thing called the Civil War intervenes, and Jason decides to serve in the Union Army's medical corps. Eventually, after years of not seeing her son, Mary asks for intercession -- in the form of a letter to President Lincoln. If that seems unrealistic enough, it gets more melodramatic: President Lincoln (played by John Carradine) reads the letter, and actually summons Jason, telling him to go home to Mother.

Despite the fact that the plot is highly unrealistic and filled with melodrama that will cause the audiences of today to howl with laughter, it's really a pretty good movie. It's filled with the great character actors of the era. I've already named several of them above, and haven't included Guy Kibbee as the keeper of the town's general store, or Sterling Holloway in a brief role. All of them are good, but by far the best is Bondi as the mother. She earned a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, the only one in her long career.

Of Human Hearts has never been released to DVD; perhaps it will as part of some James Stewart collection in the future. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn't have such high name recognition now, which is a big shame, since those character actors do just as much to make the films of Hollywood's studio era worthwhile as the stars ever did.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Embarrassing animal performers

TCM aired the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this morning. It's not bad, even if it is typically Disney, adding touches that are designed to appeal to the kiddies. In this case, it's a trained seal named Esmerelda. In one scene, poor Kirk Douglas has to sing to the seal. Douglas was already quite the star by this time, and you wonder why he couldn't get a better deal than to serenade Esmerelda and feed her fish.

A lot of the animals that make life hell for the human actors are apes, largely because the apes are seen to be so close to humans. So, we get poor Ronald Reagan dealing with a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo. Reagan has come in for quite a bit of ridicule for this movie, largely thanks to Johnny Carson's mentioning it on The Tonight Show. In fact, Carson was poking fun at the movie's director, Fred de Cordova, who by the 1980s had become the executive producer of The Tonight Show. Reagan himself does the best he can, although it would have been difficult for almost anybody to pull off Bedtime for Bonzo.

Perhaps Cary Grant could have done it. He did a fine job with monkeys in Monkey Business, but a big difference between the two movies is that Grant was in a movie that was supposed to be nothing but comedy. Bedtime for Bonzo had a more dramatic message at the heart of it. Besides, Grant had made much the same movie a dozen years earlier, when he did the great Bringing Up Baby.

There's also the Francis series, starring the "talking mule". Donald O'Connor starred as the man who originally heard Francis talking, but apparently wanted out after the mule started getting more fan mail than he did! And you thought Mr. Ed was original.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Our next movie is the historically important 1961 movie Victim, airing on February 11 at 6:45 AM and 12:45 PM ET on IFC.

Dirk Bogarde stars as lawyer Melville Farr, getting involved in a case he'd rather not. It seems that a man who was arrested by the police for embezzling money from his boss had a scrapbook of Farr that he was trying to dispose of when the police arrested him. Worse, the man hangs himself in his jail cell. It's clear to Farr that the dead man was a victim of blackmail, and the reason for the blackmail is that the man was gay. This was 1961, and in the Britain of the time, it was strictly illegal to engage in homosexual acts. One of the side effects of this law is that unscrupulous people would blackmail homosexuals -- not so much because they were gay per se, but because by having the sexual relations they were, they were violating the law.

Melville Farr decides to go after the blackmailers, for personal reasons: the reason the dead man kept the scrapbook was because he and Farr had had sexual relations themselves several years earlier. Farr realizes that they're about to come after him, and that despite being married, his life is going to be turned inside out. As such, it doesn't matter whether he outs himself by trying to catch the blackmailers; he's going to be outed either way.

Bogarde gives an excellent performance in what is a significant, if somewhat dated movie. The attitudes that the characters have toward gay people might induce cringes in audiences fifty years on, but in point of fact those attitudes were probably not far off -- especially the sense of shame and self-loathing the gay men feel. (In that regard, it's very much like No Way Out.) London is also well-photographed. London was not entirely (and possibly not at all) the swinging city of the late 1960s that's portrayed in the Austin Powers movies. Instead, there's quite a bit of shabbiness and grayness, even in the more upper-crust areas where the Farrs and other wealthy Londoners live; the black-and-white cinematography captures this quite well.

Victim was also influential in getting Britain's sodomy laws repealed, at least as they applied to homosexuals. What could have been a career-ending move on Bogarde's part ended up being a triumph. If you don't have IFC, you're in luck; Victim is available on DVD.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Carmen Miranda, 1909-1955

Today marks the 100th birth anniversary of of singer and actress Carmen Miranda. She only made about a dozen movies in Hollywood, most of which don't show up all that often because she worked at Twentieth Century-Fox. Talk to most people today, and she'd probably be more remembered not for having performed in the movies, but for the outfits she wore. Carmen Miranda was to hats what Busby Berkeley was to choreography. Miranda's hats were elaborate, giant constructions with fruit motifs that are the subject of parody even today.

In fact, that parody makes finding Carmen Miranda photos on the web a bit of a pain. There are a lot of photos out there of people dressing up in similarly-styled outfits, which the people putting them up on the internet understandably refer to by Miranda's name. Unfortunately, computer search engines can't distinguish between the actress and the imitators. Having said that, it all makes me wonder whether it's a curse to suffer such parody, or an honor. We all remember Miranda, but who remembers the female leads in the movies in which she made an appearance, such as The Gang's All Here (Fox musical star Alice Faye) or the dreadful If I'm Lucky (Vivian Blaine)?

The Devil and Miss Jones

I mentioned the fine comedy The Devil and Miss Jones, starring Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, back in May. It's not available on DVD, which is a shame. However, it's airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET on TCM, which is a good chance for you to catch it.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

I've never recommended Marty

I'm surprised to discover that I've never recommended the 1955 movie Marty before. It's airing overnight tonight at 12:15 AM ET (that's still Sunday evening in more westerly time zones).

Ernest Borgnine plays Marty, an aging butcher who still lives with his mother. The rest of his siblings have gotten married, but Marty has never been able to find his true love, which is a fact that causes much consternation amongst everybody who knows him. One Saturday night, he goes out to the local dance hall with his friends, who as a bit of a mean joke dump him off with homely, aging teacher Clara (played by Betsy Blair). Of course, you know what's going to happen next: Marty and Clara are just bound to fall in love. But, even though there there are a lot of people who want Marty to find love and get married, the very same people are skeptical that this relationship isn't going to work.

Marty is such a wonderful movie because it's so real. First of all, the atmosphere is evocative of the New York City of the 1950s in a way that the studio movies of an earlier era weren't. Also, less glamorous people like Marty and Clara were never really depicted honestly in earlier movies. Sure, there were a lot of movies about people down the economic ladder, but even the great ones like Our Daily Bread have an air of Hollywood storytelling about them that Marty doesn't.

The portrayals are also quite good. Everybody around Marty, espeically his friends like Angie, are mean to him without even realizing that they're being mean, thinking instead that they're just engaging in friendly needling. It's something that could easily happen in real life. Likewise the skepticism of the parents, especially Clara's parents. But the film is owned by the romantic leads, especially Borgnine, who does an outstanding job both of making Marty into a man with a warmth that somebody like Clara can see, but also into the social misfit that everybody else around him sees; further, Borgnine shows the viewers the anguish that this causes, but to which everybody (except Clara) around him is oblivious. Marty has some mild sexual references (the male characters have a natural interest in hot women), but no bad language, nudity, or violence, or special effects. In short, it's a film for those of us with grown-up sensibilities who want something intelligent that will engage our brains instead of our reflexes. It's well worth watching, and it's also available on DVD.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A different Hope and Ball

TCM are showing The Facts of Life at 5:30 AM ET on February 8. No, not the popular TV show of the 1980s, but the 1960 movie starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. The movie is somewhat different from what they normally did, but both actors do a pretty good job at it.

The story revolves around two married couples in California: the Gilberts (played by Hope and Ruth Hussey), and the Weavers (played by Ball and Don De Fore). The two couples are part of a group that does a lot of things together, including spending an annual vacation in Acapulco. One of those vacations changes everything for them, however. Mr. Weaver has to stay behind on business, urging his wife to enjoy her time with the Gilberts. Unfortunately, she doesn't consider Mr. Gilbert as much of a friend as her husband does. Worse, Mrs. Gilbert gets sick in Acapulco, forcing Mr. Gilbert and Mrs. Weaver to spend time alone together. Here, Mrs. Weaver finds that Mr. Gilbert isn't anywhere near as bad as she thought he was; in fact, she's beginning to find herself falling in love with him!

Oops -- that's adultery. And adultery is bound to cause problems for both of their marriages. The Facts of Life handles the subject well, taking a tone that shows both the funny side of life, but also the fact that cheating on your spouse isn't just a laughing matter. Both Mr. Gilbert and Mrs. Weaver feel bad about what they do, even though it's all happened so naturally.

The Facts of Life is also a movie that's rather different from what Bob Hope and Lucille Ball normally did. It's very much one with grown-up sensibilities, with the things the two normally did to please their audiences not showing up so much. There's none of the Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy here; instead, she's a mature, middle-aged woman who's fallen into the adultery trap. If you're looking for the scatterbrainedness of The Long, Long, Trailer, or even Yours, Mine, and Ours, you won't find it here. Much the same holds true for Hope. He spent much of the later part of his career trying to come across as still being hip, and failing miserably. I've mentioned the dreadful I'll Take Sweden before as an example of this. There's none of that in The Facts of Life.

In Hope's case, it's a huge benefit, making his performance much better than it otherwise would be. It doesn't hurt Lucille Ball, either, but she was a good enough actress that she was fine in both sorts of roles. Not that she got to play this more serious role very often, which is a shame. Also, it all makes the movie less dated than the other movies dealing with the sexual revolution of the later 1960s.

Since The Facts of Life is coming on very early in the morning, you might want to get the DVD instead.

More on Casablanca

Since I mentioned Casablanca yesterday, and also brought it up in my post on S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, I was remiss in failing to mention that TCM is airing it tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

(Although at times I feel as though I'm running out of ideas for blog posts, I do have a separate post planned for later today.)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Recasting Casablanca

February 6 is the birthday of Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor who went on to become a president in real life. (Hollywood's movies have portrayed a lot of US Presidents, both in biopics and fictititious Presidents; with the Presidents' Day holiday coming up in a few weeks, perhaps I'll get to a post on that topic then.) Reagan's political detractors often derided him as being a B-actor, and liked to bring up the story that he was originally penned in to play the part of Rick in Casablanca, a story which is apparently an urban legend. I'm not going to defend Reagan here, since he's scheduled to be TCM's Star of the Month in March, and I've been thinking about posting a defense of his work then.

Instead, I've sometimes found myself thinking about the serendipity of getting the right people to play the right parts. Casablanca was made at Warner Bros., and they could just as easily have gotten their two biggest stars -- James Cagney and Bette Davis -- to play Rick and Ilsa. After all, the two had just come off the successfull The Bride Came COD. Despite the fact that almost everybody has high praise for Cagney and Davis, they probably wouldn't have made a good Rick and Ilsa.

Or the rights could have gone to MGM; they apparently did try to by the rights to the original play "Everybody Comes to Rick's". In that case, the lead pair might have been played by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, who had just made the big hit Mrs. Miniver. Sorry, but Pidgeon is entirely wrong for the role. Worse, MGM could have tried to inject some comedy into the movie and paired William Powell and Myrna Loy. Or, in line with Dooley Wilson's singing "As Time Goes By", "Everybody Comes to Rick's" could have been turned into a musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. There's a frightening thought.

It wouldn't have been much better at other studios, either. At Fox, the part of Rick would probably have gone to either Tyrone Power or Don Ameche; maybe Henry Fonda would have gotten it. At Paramount, it would obviously have been yet another vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. A lot of these people are fine actors, but not right for every role.

So perhaps all of us (including myself in my posts) ought to take a few seconds to stop and think before being too critical of Hollywood actors, especially the B actors.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The earth's first cheesecake

TCM showed One Million BC early this morning, and I forgot to recommend it. That's a shame, since the movie hasn't been released to DVD. The story is fairly simple. Victor Mature plays a prehistoric man, part of the Rock Tribe, who gets banished from it and ends up finding love (in the form of Carole Landis) in the much more peaceful Shell Tribe. The movie is known for its special effective, which are very primitive, in that modern-day animals are used in rear-projection, made up to look like dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals (accuracy be damned!). The second thing is that there's very little dialog; what little there is is either in the framing story at the beginning, or in the form of grunting by the characters. Finally, there's Landis, who spends her scenes in the movie dressed in a pretty skimpy outfit. Yeah right.

Although you won't find One Million BC on DVD, it was remade. That 1966 remake, titled One Million Years BC, is available on DVD for your viewing pleasure. It's also in Technicolor, benefits from the special effects of Ray Harryhausen, and especially benefits from the presence of the buxom Raquel Welch. With people like Welch, who needs a plot?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Wanna Have Dinner With Gershwin

I've mentioned the 1945 movie Rhapsody In Blue twice, so I need not go into the plot details again. Suffice it to say that it's not available on DVD, so I'm mentioning it again since it's airing on TCM at 10:30 PM ET on February 4. It's a real treat if you enjoy the music of George Gershwin.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Berlin again

Our next movie takes us back to everybody's favorite spy capital, Berlin: Night People, at 8:00 AM ET February 4 on the Fox Movie Channel.

Gregory Peck stars as Col. Steve Van Dyke, a World War II army veteran now working in military intelligence in the Berlin of 1954. It's divided, but the Wall has of course not yet gone up. So, it's not too difficult for Soviets, or other people, to cause mischief in various sectors of the city. Somebody does just this by kidnapping a young corporal to ransom. It's Peck's job to get the corporal back.

Unfortunately, there are several things complicating matters. First is the fact that the Soviets, or whoever it is they're backing, want to exchange people, not money. And these are people who are walking around Berlin free, not prisoners. Worse, though, is that the young corporal's father has flown in from America. The father (Broderick Crawford) is a powerful industrialist who is prepared to do almost anything to get his son back, consequences be damned.

Also complicating things is a series of spy-thriller clichés: the dark cellars where some key scenes take place; the pointless love interest for Peck; the female spy who seems to have a thing for Peck, too; the people to be exchanged having a secret past of their own, and identities other than who they're supposed to be; the comic-relief buddy (played by Buddy Ebsen); the atmospheric scenes of Berlin, and so on. The last of these ought to be the best, but the movie is too set-bound. The movie was filmed in Germany, but unfortunately doesn't use enough of the locations.

The biggest flaw, however, is the ending. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson wrote a lot of good screenplays during his 35 years at Fox, but it seems that when it comes to Night People, he couldn't figure out how to end it. So, he simply comes up with something very abrupt, a something that strains credulity, even for the spy-thriller genre.

Still, Gregory Peck is interesting to watch, and the few location shots there are get the benefit of Fox's Cinemascope lenses, plus Technicolor. Night People is by no means the best of the genre, but it's not terrible, either. It also isn't on DVD, so you'll have to catch one of the showings on the Fox Movie Channel.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cuddle up with Cuddles

Scene from Casablanca

It was 125 years ago today that S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall was born. Sakall was born in Budapest, which at the time was part of Austria-Hungary, so he learned to speak German, and made a lot of movies in the German cinema in the 1930s. However, as with many talented people in the German cinema, Sakall left for America thanks to Nazi oppression. It's to Hollywood's gain, however, as Sakall brightened up a lot of movies. Perhaps his most famous role is as the waiter in Casablanca, seen on the right in the photo above with Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henried. Sakall also gets a scene where he's toasting America with two people about to emigrate: "What watch?" "Ten watch." "Such watch?"

Casablanca is by far not the only wonderful movie Sakall made. I've mentioned The Devil and Miss Jones before; he plays a butler there. He also shows up in movies as diverse as In the Good Old Summertime, a musical comedy; and San Antonio, a western.

Sakall's name may not be so well remembered, but his face is. He's one of the many character actors whom Hollywood utilized well back in the studio days, putting them in movie after movie after movie. The character actors always brighten up the movies they're in, and make them enjoyable to watch. Hollywood doesn't make such actors any more, and it's a shame.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Americans, USA

Five months back, I made brief mention of the movie The Last Angry Man, which is unfortunately not available on DVD. It's showing overnight tonight, at 2:30 AM ET on TCM.

Paul Muni stars as Dr. Sam Abelman, an elderly doctor living with his wife and nephew who has spent his entire life working in the tenement slums of his New York City neighborhood. His nephew is a budding journalist, and when nephew Myron sees his uncle minister to a woman who showed up on their doorstep late one night (that's an uncredited Cicely Tyson), having been attacked, he writes a column about her.

This column comes to the attention of TV producer Woodrow Wilson Thrasher (David Wayne), whose career has reached a crossroads. Either find a success, or lose his job. Thrasher, on reading the story, gets visions of instant TV success. The good doctor would be the perfect subject for a new reality show, "Americans, USA", dealing with the lives of real people. Thrasher plans to do an entire live broadcast about Dr. Abelman.

Unfortunately, there are several catches. The good doctor isn't so certain he wants to do the broadcast. Also, the network executives aren't so comfortable with the idea, either. It seems the doctor has some unorthodox ideas about medicine, specifically the pills put out by America's pharmaceutical companies, the sorts of people who are sponsoring shows like "Americans, USA". Would they really want to see the doctor speaking negatively about their products? Worse from a TV production standpoint is that Dr. Abelman is liable to drop everything to make a house call on a sick patient. One can only imagine the nightmares that would cause in the days of live TV, especially the TV of the 1950s, when live remote broadcasts were a much bigger logistical challenge than they are today.

Paul Muni, in his final movie role, put in a superb performance, and was nominated for an Oscar. (He lost to Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.) The rest of the cast is OK but not great. They don't need to be, however, as the focus is squarely on Muni. One character to watch out for is a young black thug who Dr. Abelman thinks has a brain tumor that's causing him to act the way he does. That's a young Billy Dee Williams.