Monday, August 31, 2009

Not Bond. Not James Bond.

One of the more cynical spy movies of the 1960s, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight on TCM as part of the final day of their Summer Under the Stars look at the films of British actress Claire Bloom.

Richard Burton stars as Alec Leamas, a British spy working in West Berlin. He's part of an operation that goes wrong, and as a result, he gets sent into retirement, trying to live a life as a library assistant. It's not much of a life for him, and he's quickly recruited for one more mission, a complicated one that appears to have him become a double agent for the East Germans, while in fact he's really working for the British, trying to figure out what's happened to one of their agents in East Germany and see if they can rescue him.

Or, maybe it's all part of a much bigger plot to use Leamas, who by now isn't of much value to the British spymasters, as a pawn for.... Well, who only knows what for? Those nasty spymasters don't care about the little people like Leamas. (Not that the little people in the spy business like Leamas care for anybody but themselves.) As for Bloom, she plays Nan, a co-worker at the library who falls in love with Alec. She's a committed socialist or, more accurately, a dupe who fell for the idiotic communist propaganda being peddled by the Eastern bloc in the first half of the Cold War era. Because of both her love for Alec and her communist leanings, she's the perfect person to become part of this whole plot.

Truth be told, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold isn't my favorite movie, in part because Richard Burton has never been one of my favorite actors. The distinct impression I've gotten on watching this movie is that the makers were trying hard to send an earnest message about the futility of the whole spy business, and this message gets in the way of the story it's trying to tell. There are worse spy movies, but there are better ones, too.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

If You Could Only Cook

A lesser-known Jean Arthur comedy that I don't think I've recommended before is If You Could Only Cook, airing at 11:45 PM ET tonight.

The movie starts with Jean Arthur on a park bench, unemployed and looking through the want ads. Into her life walks Herbert Marshall. He's an engineer/executive at an automobile manufacturer, who has just had one of his radical new designs rejected by the board. He doesn't tell Arthur this, however, instead sitting down to read the want ads with her. Eventually they come upon an ad for a house that needs both a cook and a butler. On a lark, Marshall decides to join Arthur in applying for the jobs, pretending to be married to her. This causes problems right away, because he's engaged to be married. But, he's about to find out that he's got much bigger problems.

When the two arrive at what is to be their new job, they discover that the place that hired them is actually a group of gangsters! Worse, in an attempt to impress Arthur, Marshall returns to his office to get some of his car designs -- which Arthur promptly takes to a rival company to try to sell. They know that if they tried to use these plans, they'd have the pants sued off them by Marshall's company, so they assume the plans have been stolen, and have Arthur arrested. By this time, Marshall has begun to realize he might be falling in love with Arthur, but can't figure out whether to marry for love or, for the sake of his company, go through with the marriage to his current fiancée.

If You Could Only Cook is a pleasant little movie, but not one that does much to distinguish itself as outstanding. This was 1935, when a whole slew of screwball comedies were released, and it was easy for a smaller movie like If You Could Only Cook to get lost in the crowd. Despite seeming to put every screwball comedy device in the plot, and having a plot that zigs and zags all over the place, If You Could Only Cook is never less than entertaining and, at a little over 70 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Silver Horde

For those who find early talkies interesting, TCM are showing a particularly notable one early on Sunday: The Silver Horde, at 6:00 AM ET on August 30.

Top billing is given to Evelyn Brent and Louis Wolheim, both of whom had been popular silent film stars; two of the supporting cast were people relatively new to Hollywood, the new faces and voices for the sound era, who would go on to much bigger things: Joel McCrea and (in a relatively small role) Jean Arthur.

The plot is a fairly simple one. McCrea plays a man sent to Alaska to help start up a new salmon cannery. He has aspirations of a high place in society, and indeed has society girl Jean Arthur as his fiancée. However, this is rough-and-tumble Alaska, which is no place for a girl like Arthur. Indeed, Brent is probably the woman who can help him, as she has the experience dealing with the rougher edges of society that show up in a place like Ketchikan, Alaska. This is important, because there's already a cannery in Ketchikan, and McCrea has to compete with the people running that business, who naturally want to drive McCrea out of town. However, she's also a woman of questionable morals, the sort that McCrea naturally thinks is wholly unsuitable for him, despite the fact that he finds her "interesting" to say the least.

To be honest, in addition to being a simple plot, it's a fairly unadventurous plot, which ends up making The Silver Horde more a curiosity than anything truly great. It's a lot of fun watching the always sturdy and dependable McCrea early in his career, before he started doing all those westerns. It's even more interesting watching Arthur at the very beginning of her career, before she was given the chance to show off her outstanding comedy chops. And, there's some location footage of Alaska that shows up in documentary-style footage of canneries. Unfortunately, the story never quite gets to the level of, say, Red Dust a few years later. For those who aren't into 1930s movies, starting with something like Red Dust might be a better choice. But for people who are already movie buffs looking for something less-known, The Silver Horde isn't a bad choice.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Donald O'Connor, 1925-2003

It was on this day in 1925 that Donald O'Connor was born. I've already recommended Singin' In the Rain before so instead, I'd like to mention what was to be his final film, Out to Sea.

O'Connor isn't the star; that honor goes to Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, making one of their many appearances together in a movie. Lemmon is a recent widower, having lost his wife to a long illness. Matthau plays his scheming brother-in-law, and decides that his late sister's husband could do with some cheering up, so he convinces Lemmon to accompany him on a Caribbean cruise. What Matthau neglected to mention though, is that he was able to get such a good deal on the trip because he signed the two of them up to be dance hosts, spending their evenings dancing with any of the elderly widowed women who don't have a dance partner of their own.

Thus begins the comedy. Fraternization between the dance partners and the women outside of the confines of the dance floor is strictly forbidden, per the rules of a martinet of a cruise director played by Brent Spiner (best known as Lt. Cmdr. Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Matthau, schemer that he is, came on the cruise specifically to find a rich woman he could persuade to marry him. Instead, he finds Dyan Cannon, who is herself a gold digger and thinks that Matthau is actually a rich man. Despite being a recent widower, Lemmon also falls in love all over again, with Gloria De Haven. As for O'Connor? He's one of the fellow dance hosts (along with Hal Linden), and even gets a dance all his own, in which he, despite being a septuagenarian, completely shows up everybody else.

Out to Sea isn't great by any means; it's the sort of movie Lemmon and Matthau could have done in their sleep. They, and everybody else in the cast, however, are professionals, and give us a really nice little movie with a nice ensemble cast of actors in their golden years (Spiner, at 48, is by a good ways the youngest of the main cast members). Like most more recent movies, it's also been released to DVD.

Another airing of Suddenly

It's been a good 15 months since TCM aired Suddenly. It's airing again, but as with last time, it's showing up in the overnight hours; this time, at 4:30 AM ET Saturday, August 29.

Normally, TCM are pretty good about trying to vary the hours at which they air movies, so that people on the east
coast and those out in the Pacific Time Zone can each get a chance to watch a movie at a reasonable hour. So, it's a bit sad to see Suddenly at such a god-awful hour. But at least it's available on DVD.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ida Lupino vs. Bette Davis

As part of Ida Lupino's day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, you can watch The Hard Way at 10:00 PM ET tonight.

Lupino stars as a woman jumping off a bridge, with a seeming case of amnesia. When the doctors revive her in the hospital, she eventually starts revealing who she is in a flashback.... Years earlier, she had lived in a grimy midwestern industrial town with a husband who had little prospects of greatness. Her kid sister (Joan Leslie) had a bit of talent, and when a travelling vaudeville team (Dennis Morgan and the always-underrated Jack Carson) show up, Lupino decides that if she can't make a name for herself, she'll make a name for her kid sister by being the world's most overprotective stage sister.

And boy is Lupino pushy. She has no qualms about stepping on anybody's toes, first getting her sister a job with the vaudeville troupe, where Leslie falls in love with and marries Carson, and then getting Leslie to leave her husband because dammit, Broadway beckons. Eventually, Lupino and Leslie do make it to what seems like the top, but as is so often the case, life at the top isn't all it's cracked up to be.

There are quite a few parallels here. The story sounds a good deal like All About Eve, as Leslie's rise to the top is bound to push out of the way people already at the top, much like Eve Harrington took over Margot Channing's job. Bette Davis had to fight for everything she got, along the lines of Lupino in The Hard Way, and it's interesting to note that the epitaph at Davis' grave reads "She did it the hard way". What might be more interesting, though, is that legend generally has it that Bette Davis' career is not the allegory for the movie. Instead, that "honor" is generally given to Ginger Rogers, who had a very active stage mother.

The Hard Way is not a perfect movie by any means, but Lupino's performance is quite good, and the movie is never less than entertaining. Sadly, it doesn't seem to have been released to DVD.

W. R. Burnett

I mentioned High Sierra yesterday. One of the screenwriters wsa W.R. Burnett, who also wrote the novel from which the screenplay was adapted. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen it on a bunch of great movies.

Burnett wrote the novel on which The Asphalt Jungle is based, and that was aired as recently as this past Saturday. But that is by no means all; Burnett's long career includes the novels and stories for such previous recommendations as Little Caesar and The Whole Town's Talking.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dead Kennedys

By now, you've probably heard that US Senator Ted Kennedy died overnight. They say not to speak ill of the dead, so I'll posit that the most appropriate movie would be Dark Victory.

Of course, Hollywood has had its share of actors named Kennedy. I'd love to recommend something by Tom Kennedy, who played Torchy Blaine's friend, Officer Gahagan. But, those movies aren't available on DVD, and because of their relative obscurity, aren't likely to be released any time soon.

There's also Arthur Kennedy, who was nominated five times for an Oscar, although he never won. One of his earliest performances, as the gangster Red in High Sierra, is coming up overnight tomorrow, at 2:00 AM ET Friday, August 28. (That's 11:00 PM Thursday out in the Pacific time zone.)

As for a Kennedy who did win an Oscar, there's George Kennedy for Cool Hand Luke, but he's not dead yet.

Westworld again

I know that I mentioned Westworld almost a year ago, but it's showing up again overnight tonight at 12:45 AM ET on TCM as part of their Summer Under the Stars day of Yul Brynner movies. Watch also for Majel Barrett (Roddenberry), who died earlier this year, as the matron robot running a brothel.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Birthday coincidences

Today marks the 79th birthday of Sean Connery, who is probably most famous for playing James Bond, although he had quite a distinguished career in other movies as well. It is, however, an interesting coincidence that today also marks the birthday of Maurice Binder (1925-1991).

You may not recognize the name, but you've certainly seen his work. He was a title designer, and designed the opening sequence for Doctor No, the first of the Bond movies. Binder was later brought back to do the titles for Thunderball, and continued to do the titles up until Licence to Kill, the last of the Bond movies made before his death. Binder is the man who probably bears most of the responsibility for all those opening credits "washing" against the bodies of scantily clad Bond girls.

Binder wasn't the first to come up with inventive opening titles, although it was particularly uncommon before the middle of the 1950s. Saul Bass came a few years earlier, with the angular lines revealing the opening credits to The Man With the Golden Arm, and used a similar idea when he did the credits to Psycho. Bass is also responsible for the spirograph patterns at the beginning of Vertigo, as well as the New York skyline that changes color which opens West Side Story.

However, before that, most opening credits were on flat, often gray, backgrounds. Sometimes, when Hollywod was adapting a novel, they would get so inventive as to have the opening credits seem to be on the pages of a book. Or, in a movie like Mildred Pierce, the titles would appear to wash ashore with the waves, only to be washed back out to sea when the next wave crashed in to the strains of Max Steiner. One of the few early innovative opening credit rolls might be in the 1930s version of My Man Godfrey, with the credits appearing to be in light-bulb signs, either on the tops or sides of buildings.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More lazy Hollywood

I've commented several times about how Hollywood has remade its own movies for decades. Of course, there are other ways that lazy people can get movies made in Hollywood, as a look at today's TCM lineup of Fredric March movies shows.

The day kicked off with We Live Again at 6:00 AM. The title and story may not sound that familiar, but the movie is actually an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection. It's not the only adaptation of a Tolstoy novel that March made and TCM is showing today; his appearance in the 1935 version of Anna Karenina is showing up at 11:45 PM ET tonight.

Indeed, Anna Karenina is the last in an evening of literary adaptations. Prime time starts at 8:00 PM with Fox's 1930s version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; as further evidence of just how lazy Hollywood could be, Fox remade Les Miserables in the early 1950s. Les Miserables is followed at 9:45 PM by the 1932 version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is another movie remade by MGM, in the early 1940s with Spencer Tracy. It must be nice not having to pay for the rights to a book in order to make a movie out of it.

Of course, if books aren't your thing, you can always go to history for your Hollywood inspiration. Fredric March played Christopher Columbus in a 1949 biopic, which TCM is showing at 3:30 PM ET, and appeared in Mary of Scotland, which shows up at 11:00 AM.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Another bizarre Essentials, Jr. choice

Tonight at 8:00 PM ET, TCM is showing as its Essentials, Jr. movie... the 1944 version of Gaslight.

Now, I happen to love this movie. It's got excellent performances, and a good mystery story, too. But I don't know that it's really suitable for kids. There's murder, an attempt to drive somebody insane, and a strumpet of a maid (Angela Lansbury in her feature film debut). I can just imagine parents trying to explain all this to their kiddies.

As an aside, Blogger's search function is still having hiccups. It claims I haven't written any posts about Gaslight before, but when I go to Google's search engine (which should be the same thing, since Google owns Blogger now) and have it search "" for "gaslight", I get three entries.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

When good crime goes wrong

One of the dicta of the Production Code was that "crime does not pay". Still, people kept trying to buck the system, coming up with the "perfect" crime that just couldn't go wrong. One of the great examples of such a movie is The Asphalt Jungle, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET as part of TCM's Essentials.

Sterling Hayden stars as Dix, a down-on-his-luck gambler who needs money to pay off a debt. Fortunately for him, there's a good way to get a bunch of money quick: notorious mastermind "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just gotten out of jail, and corrupt lawyer Alfonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) has an idea for a heist that can net everybody tens of thousands of dollars (well, this is 1950, so "tens of thousands" would be worth a lot more today). Dix's job is to find the right people to fill several of the roles needed in the conspiracy. Fast forward to the night of the heist. At first, everything seems to go according to plan, but then, an alarm goes off, and when the police get there, one of them gets shot. Worse, things unravel much more whtn they get to Emmerich's place to divvy up the loot: Emmerich and his lawyer have decided they're going to double cross everybody else and take all the loot for themselves. But, needless to say, the rest of the gang try to turn the tables on the two turncoats, and, like most conspiracies, the bad guys wind up in an every man for himself situation. (Perhaps they should have watched Double Indemnity first, and they would have known they were supposed to go to the end of the line together.)

In real life, none of the characters would be appealing; there's no way we'd want to have any of them as friends. But this is a Hollywood movie, and as such, the people that populate a movie like The Asphalt Jungle are all fascinating in their lives of failure: Dix, living in a rathole, but dreaming of the childhood he used to know, and hoping he can take his girlfriend (Jean Hagen) back to the farm he grew up on; Doc, who just wants to go anywhere to retire; and Emmerich, who lives in the mansion looking to all the world as though he's respectable. But, not only is he planning crimes; he's got a mistress on the side. It's Marilyn Monroe, in one of her earlier (and smaller) roles. Monroe's presence naturally leads to the marketing idea that this is "her" movie, as her name would sell better than any of the others in the cast to those who aren't huge movie buffs. In fact, she's a minor character, although she does do a more than creditable job here.

The Asphalt Jungle is one of the great underrated crime movies, and deserves more attention. Thankfully, it has been released to DVD.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Herbert Mundin, 1898-1939

Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin in 'Cavalcade'

Character actor Herbert Mundin was born on this day in 1898. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car accident at the young age of 40. However, he appeared in some memorable movies in his career in Hollywood. In 1933, he played the husband of Una O'Connor (and servants to the main characters) in Cavalcade, which went on to win Oscar's Best Picture that year. However, this wasn't the only time Mundin was romantically linked with O'Connor. Five years later, in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mundin played tavernkeeper Much, who was involved with O'Connor's character, the governess to Olivia de Havilland's Maid Marian.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trouble in Paradise

Tonight's TCM selection is Trouble In Paradise, airing at 9:45 PM ET.

Today's honoree in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, Miriam Hopkins, plays Lily, a pickpocket making her way through Europe. She meets and falls in love with gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall), and they start scamming people together. This would work, except that they have to keep moving from place to place to stay one step ahead of the law. Eventually, though, Gaston gets an idea. The two of them will go to work for Parisian perfume executive Marie Colet (Kay Francis), worming their way into positions of trust so they can later scam her.

At first, their scheme seems to be going to plan. That is, until Gaston starts to fall in love with Colet. Worse, one of Colet's former suitors (Edward Everett Horton) shows up. Not only does he want the girl back; he thinks he recognizes Gaston, having been one of Gaston's previous victims! From there, it's a frantic denouement as Gaston tries to stay one step ahead of the law, and get the girl.

Ernst Lubitsch directed this movie all the way back in 1932. Lubitsch was one of the earliest of the "elegant" comic directors, preceding people like Mitchell Leisen or Billy Wilder by several years, and even working his magic before the era of the screwball comedy. In some ways, it's amazing that a movie like this got made as early as it did. I think that it wasn't until the advent of Busby Berkeley a year later that Hollywood finally worked out all the kinks in converting to sound, and the possibilities of what could be done with the new medium of talking pictures. Before then, a lot of the feature-length comedies were either filmed stage plays -- with the stagy look (although Trouble in Paradise is based on a play, there's nothing stagy about it) -- or static drawing-room comedies of manners, movies which look incredibly dated today. Lubitsch's work, however, is a giant step forward.

Trouble in Paradise has been released to DVD, but it's part of the more expensive Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Remakes return

Not that you needed yet another example of Hollywood's unoriginality, but TCM is concluding its day of Red Skelton movies with yet another remake, The Clown, overnight at 4:00 AM ET (on the 20th). If the story sounds familiar, it's probably because this is a remake of an earlier MGM classic, The Champ, only with the setting changed from the boxing ring to the circus ring.

But wait! When they say, "Remake of The Champ", don't they mean that Ricky Schroeder movie? Well, sure, that too; and since that movie is also called The Champ, and more recent, it's probably the better-known of the remakes. And the sad thing is, having two remakes is nothing special. The Champ is by no means the first Hollywood film to get a third version, and certainly won't be the last. A Star Is Born was remade in the 1950s and 1970s just like The Champ, although the "original" William Wellman version of A Star Is Born isn't even that original, since it shares a lot in common with an earlier movie called What Price Hollywood. I've mentioned before that It Happened One Night was remade in the 1940s and 1950s.

As for not being the last, there are rumors that the Richard Pryor comedy Brewster's Millions is going to be remade -- again. The Pryor version wasn't the first; it was mentioned at the time of release that it was a remake of a 1945 comedy. But, that's only partly true. There were a few silent versions of Brewster's Millions, and even a British talkie from the early 1930s. Apparently, if Brewster's Millions does get remade, it will be the eighth version.

And spare a thought for Lana Turner's Madame X. It was a remake of multiple Hollywood pictures of that title, and a whole slew of foreign silents of a story that first came out at the beginning of the 20th century. Not only that, but it almost spawned an entire genre, as Helen Hayes' Oscar-winning movie, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, is not much different from all those Madame X's out there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Another not-entirely-accurate musical biopic

Having just mentioned Night and Day, I see that the Fox Movie Channel is showing one of its own biopics about a composer: Stars and Stripes Forever, at 7:30 AM on August 19.

Clifton Webb stars as John Philip Sousa, the musical director for the Marine Corps Marching Band, who left in order to focus on his composing and starting his own band. Sousa became known as the March King for composing such now-famous marches as the Washington Post March, and Stars and Stripes Forever.

However, one has to wonder just how much of the movie is accurate, and how much is there for Hollywood entertainment purposes. There's a subplot running throughout the movie about a young man (Robert Wagner) who joins the band, and falls in love with singer Debra Paget. Since Wagner's character is supposed to be a Marine, I can't help but wonder whether he could have done all the things he does in this movie. Also, the invention of the sousaphone, a tuba with the piping coiled differently so that one can carry the piping around one's shoulder, was probably not as pat as it's portaryed as being here.

Still, if you like march music, Stars and Stripes Forever is a fun little movie.

Monty Woolley's birthday was yesterday

I meant to write a post about Monty Woolley yesterday, but never got around to it. Not only that, but Woolley was in one of Jennifer Jones' movies yesterday, Since You Went Away. However, that's a movie that really ought to be mentioned at Christmastime instead of August because the key scenes near the end are set at Christmas. Woolley is also wonderful in another Christmas movie, The Bishop's Wife.

An interesting bit of casting occurs in the movie Night and Day. It's a biopic about songwriter Cole Porter, who studied at Yale with Woolley in the early part of the 20th century (Woolley was born in 1888). The character of Woolley does appear in the movie, and is in fact played by Woolley himself. However, as Woolley was pushing 60 by the time Night and Day was made, his character in the movie is portrayed as one of Cole Porter's professors. Not only that, but with the age difference, you'd think that the much older Woolley character in Night and Day would die of old age well before the end of the movie. Ah, the joys of Hollywood.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Portrait of Jennie again

Today's star in TCM's Summer Under the Stars is Jennifer Jones. TCM's prime time lineup kicks off with Portrait of Jennie, at 8:00 PM. I've recommended it before, but I don't think I've mentioned it since the end of last year, and it's one of those terribly underrated movies that deserves more attention.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


At 8:00 AM ET on August 17, the Fox Movie Channel is showing a movie with an interesting, but sad, backstory: Five of a Kind.

The ostensible stars of the movie are the Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934 and the world's first known surviving quintuplets. For reasons not entirely clear (although it was the Depression, and the Dionnes, being French-Canadian Catholics, had a very large family), the Province of Ontario stepped in and made the quints a ward of the province. The province then proceeded to treat the quintuplets as some sort of freak show, exhibiting them to a populace that was eager to see this miracle of modern medicine. Indeed, the province probably made a pretty penny off the kids by having them "star" in movies such as this, as Fox are alleged to have paid $100,000 for the use of footage of the Dionnes.

As for the movie itself, it's a fairly anodyne romantic comedy, about a pair of rival reporters (Claire Trevor and Cesar Romero) who each find out that there's a set of quintuplets out there, and both want to get the story. The Dionnes appear at the end, in what is pretty clearly tacked-on newsreel footage. That having been said, there's one other interesting thing, which is the presentation of that newsreel footage. The province, in one of its few smart moves, would only let Fox film the quints at their home, and so they couldn't have either reporter bring the quints to the big city, which the plot of a movie like this would normally call for. Instead, the audience at the big city theater is shown the footage of the girls courtesy of a "live television hookup". Despite the fact that this was only 1938, television had already been invented, although it wasn't in very wide use at all; and, thanks to the onset of World War II, it would take several years, until after the end of the war, until television could really begin to take off.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cary Grant vs. King Kong

Tonight's Essential on TCM is An Affair to Remember, at 8:00 PM ET. Sources usually say it's a remake of the 1939 classic Love Affair, but take a minute to think of it as a remake of King Kong instead....

Grant and the big ape are both characters who aren't entirely a part of society; Grant as a playboy who does whatever he wants, and the big ape terrorizing whomever he sees fit.

Grant and Kong both come from places far away by boat to New York City, and both fall in love along the way. In Grant's case, it's with Deborah Kerr; for Kong, it's Fay Wray.

Both of them cause quite the stir. Kong is declared the eighth wonder of the world; Grant, as the most eligible bachelor, is the subject of intense media scrutiny.

Both Grant and the ape end up quite lonely at the top of the Empire State Building; Kong because he has to worry about those damn airplanes trying to shoot him, and Grant because his idiot girlfriend got herself run over.

Granted, that's about where the similarity ends, as An Affair to Remember veers off into weepy chick-flick melodrama. But if anything, it's just the 14375074329865th example that Hollywood has always been derivative. If you've been watching TV lately and seen those ads for the new movie Gamer and thought to yourself, "They've remade Tron!", just remind yourself that there's nothing new under the sun in Hollywood, and hasn't been since at least the silent era. And even then they were busy doing adaptations of books and plays.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Mark of Zorro

The story of Zorro has been done on film quite a few times. An adaptation from Hollywood's golden age, the 1940 movie The Mark of Zorro, is coming up tomorrow at 7:30 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Here, the title character is played by Tyrone Power, who at this point in his career was getting put in a lot of period pieces, especially those that involved him swashbuckling. As the story goes, the new colonial governor (J. Edward Bromberg) is corrupt and abusive of his citizens; it's up to Power's Don Diego to do something about it because it's his father who has been deposed of what is rightfully his spot as governor. So, Don Diego dons the mask and becomes Zorro, and the rest, as they say, is the stuff of movie legend, even if we all know the story.

Ah, but at least even if you know the story, you can watch a cast of stars you've seen in a hundred different movies. Basil Rathbone plays the officer given the responsibility of tracking down Zorro, and ends up in a swordfight with Don Diego. Montagu Love plays Don Diego's father, but has no idea that his son is the one going around as Zorro. Indeed, the only person who does is the local priest, played by lovable Eugene Pallette. Along the way, Don Diego romances a young Linda Darnell, the new hot young thing on the Fox lot; she just happens to be the daughter of the evil governor. The governor's wife is played by Gale Sondergaard, who in that same year was extorting Bette Davis in The Letter.

The Mark of Zorro is, needless to say, a heck of a lot of fun. It's also been released to DVD, so you can watch it any time you wish.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


My mother needed to get a new pair of eyeglasses, and she wanted somebody along to let her know how the frames looked, since she wouldn't be able to see herself clearly with the lenses in the sample frames at the optician's. I found myself thinking not about her glasses, but about whether I could find frames like those ghastly 1960s glasses that Spencer Tracy wore late in life, and can be seen in movies like Judgment at Nuremburg or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. (My grandfather wore similar glasses late in life, but as he died in the early 1980s I don't have any digital photos of him with his wonderful glasses.) I distinctly recall Edie Adams wearing the female equivalent in The Apartment, but unfortunately haven't been able to find a photo of her in those glasses. The photo I've got of her in The Apartment has her sans glasses. I'm pretty certain the photo in that post is from the Christmas scene, and that she can be seen in those glasses near then end, just after she's been fired by Mr. Sheldrake, and is calling Mrs. Sheldrake to let her know about the mister's infidelity. (Does anybody have a screencap from that scene?)

As for other famous pairs of glasses, my mom wanted relatively narrow lenses, so Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie was clearly out of the question. (Mom, thankfully, also does not have such big hair.) There's also Harold Lloyd; indeed, if you see any of his movies on TCM you'll note that the copyright is held by the Harold Lloyd trust, which uses a stylized version of his glasses as a trademark. I don't think Mom would have appreciated that, either. Perhaps I should have suggested she get a monocle, like Charles Coburn wore in The Devil and Miss Jones.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Oskar Homolka, 1898-1978

Head shot of Oskar Homolka,

It was on this day in 1898 that frequent supporting actor Oskar Homolka was born in Vienna. (Being of Germanic descent, his given name was originally spelled with a K, although when he started working in British cinema and Hollywood, he got credit in a lot of his movies as "Oscar" Homolka, which is a joy for modern internet image searches.) He made several movies in German before going to England in the mid 1930s; however, it's one of those early British movies that I'm going to recommend: Sabotage.

Sylvia Sidney stars as an American woman who's moved with her kid brother to England to raise him, and is married to Homolka; together they're running a London movie theater and living in the apartment behind it. What Sidney doesn't realize is that her husband is actually an agent of a foreign country, involved in committing acts of sabotage. Don't worry; I'm not giving anything in the plot away by pointing this out. Hitchcock reveals right in the first few minutes that Homolka is an agent and has committed the sabotage. Added to the mix is the greengrocer's assistant in the shop next door (John Loder); he seems to have his eye on Sidney, although we quickly learn that he has other reasons for taking such an interest in the young lady and her brother.

Matters come to a head when Homolka gets his next assignment, involving a bomb. Unfortunately, by this time he's learned that the police are on to him (although his wife, who is completely innocent, still has to figure it out). He can't leave the house, since the police will nab him, and decides to use the kid brother as an unwitting courier, which leads to the climactic chain of events....

Hitchcock had problems with Sabotage, in that he regretted some of the decisions he made regarding the plot. I won't reveal those decisions, since it would give away more important plot details than should be mentioned, but in looking at the movie through more modern eyes, I think what Hitchcock did actually makes the picture better. (I can, though, understand why 1930s audiences might not have liked it.) The ending is also fascinating in that Sidney and Loder, who it turns out is not really a greengrocer but a Scotland Yard officer (this is revealed maybe a third of the way into the movie) both wind up having some moral ambiguity. On the face of it, it's a happy ending -- the espionage ring appears to be broken up, and Sidney looks like she's going to find love again with Loder. But deeper down, it's much darker.

Sabotage has been released to DVD. Please note as well that this is a completely different movie from Saboteur. (Not that Saboteur isn't a great movie; it's just that you need to make certain you're getting the movie you intend.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hugh Martin, still alive at 95!

Today marks the 95th birthday of composer Hugh Martin. The name might not seem familiar at first glance, but if you watch enough TCM, you're sure to have seen Martin. Every time TCM schedules the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, they pull out a piece they did with Martin sitting at a piano, telling how Arthur Freed wanted a song for Judy Garland to sing about the trolley. Needless to say, Martin and his composing partner, Ralph Blane, had difficulty coming up with such a song. Couldn't they just write a song for Garland to sing on the trolley? Oh no, Freed told them. They had to write a song about the trolley. As Martin tells the story, eventually one of the two of them saw a photo with the caption, "Clang, clang, clang, went the jolly little trolley," which gave them the idea for The Trolley Song. Truth be told, I can't stand The Trolley Song, but please don't let that stop you from enjoying it.

In addition to The Trolley Song, Martin also wrote Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Besides songwriting, Martin accompanied Judy Garland on the piano at many of her concerts, and also did arrangements for a number of Broadway musicals, some of which were later made into movies, including Too Many Girls, Cabin in the Sky and Du Barry Was a Lady.

More Summer Repeats

I haven't decided what to write a full-length post about yet today, so let me just mention two more movies I've recommended in the past that are showing up on TCM in the next 24 hours:

Roman Holiday, at 10:30 PM ET this evening; and
Manhattan Melodrama, at 8:00 AM ET August 12.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Quantitative easing

This afternoon at 2:00 PM, the Fox Movie Channel is showing the interesting little movie Mister 880.

Burt Lancaster stars as a Secret Service agent who investigates cases of quantitative easing. (Er, it's only called that when the government does it. When you or I do it, it's called counterfeiting.) There's a case in New York that's been driving everybody nuts because nobody's been able to solve it: Case #880, leading he authorities to refer to the counterfeiter as Mr. 880.

So, Lancaster heads off to the latest place where the mysterious Mr. 880 is alleged to have passed a bad $1 bill. (Yes, the guy is faking singles, not Benjamins. This is 1950, when a dollar would buy quite a bit more than it does today.) The first person involved is Dorothy McGuire, a translator at the United Nations, who is discovered in fairly short order to be innocent, although not in short enough order for the two to develop a romantic attraction for each other. This romantic attraction is not a bad thing, because it gives Lancaster a pretense to be around the neighborhood, especially when it begins to seem as though Mr. 880 is her kindly old neighbor, played by Santa Claus (er, that's actually Edmund Gwenn, but one wonders how Santa Claus got the resources to make all those gifts).

Mister 880 is one of those Fox movies from the late 1940s and early 1950s which were told in a docudrama style. They all seem to have been done on fairly small budgets, but are all very competently made and pretty good. Unfortunately, Mister 880 doesn't seem to have ben released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch it on the Fox Movie Channel.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

An underrated Cary Grant movie

If you didn't like Once Upon a Time, perhaps you might enjoy the little-seen Crisis instead; it's airing at midnight ET tonight (that's 11:00 PM tonight in the Central Time Zone).

Grant plays an American brain surgeon who happens to be on what he hopes will be a quiet vacation in an unnamed Latin American country with his new wife. However, this being the Latin America of 1950, there's quite a bit of unrest, as the country is ruled by a military strongman (José Ferrer), whose dictatorial rule is opposed by a group of rebels (led by Gilbert Roland). Grant would prefer to avoid the political intrigue, but fate has something else in store for him.

Ferrer is sick, with what is apparently a brain tumor. Needless to say, there's only one doctor in all the land who can operate on the dictator, and that just happens to be Grant the visiting gringo. So, Ferrer more or less kidnaps Grant and his wife, and tells Grant he won't let the two of them go until Grant agrees to perform the operation. Grant, for his part, has multiple internal conflices. First, Ferrer is a thoroughly dislikeable man. Also, there's the possibility that if he does perform the operation, that he'll become a target for the rebels himself. And, it's not as though the operation is going to be a routine affair: with the rebels closing in, Ferrer doesn't want to check into a hospital as that would pose a security risk and show a weakness which would embolden the rebels. On the other hand, there's that pesky little Hippocratic Oath telling Grant to do no harm. Eventually, Grant persuades Ferrer to let his wife go, although we know she's going to wind up kidnapped by the rebels....

Crisis is a fascinating little movie, and one that is thought-provoking, too. In fact, it doesn't really take any sides; by the end of the movie, we can see why Ferrer and Roland each think his side is in the right and, why each of them thinks the other side is in the wrong. There are no saints here, not even Grant, who if anything just wants to get the hell out of the situation he's in. Most of the performances are above-average, too. Grant gets the opportunity to shine in one of his all-too-infrequent straight dramatic roles, the ones which showed just how good an actor he could be. Ferrer and Roland are also good, although perhaps the second best performance comes from Signe Hasso, who plays Ferrer's wife, and is quite reminiscent of Evita Perón.

Crisis doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, which is a big shame.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Worse than The Howards of Virginia?

Cary Grant is the star for TCM's Summer Under the Stars all day and night on Sunday, August 9, and the day kicks off with what might be his worst movie: Once Upon a Time, at 6:00 AM ET.

The plot involves Grant as a slightly shady promoter who needs a new act to help him get out of a $100,000 debt. Lucky for him, he meets a young orphan boy who's got just the act for him: a caterpillar that dances to the tune "Yes Sir, That's My Baby". Grant doesn't see a poor orphan; he sees dollar signs, and damn the little kid. Along the way, Grant meets the kid's adult sister, who's been raising him; in one of the older Hollywood plot "twists", Grant falls in love with her, and she with him -- until she learns his darker nature.

Once Upon a Time is a train wreck on so many levels. It's got an unappealing Cary Grant -- not the evil Grant from most of Suspicion, mind you, but something much worse, a nondescript unappealingness. The movie is also filled with stale plot devices: the orphan; the adult sibling raising the kid; the love story with the orphan bring the two people together; and Grant's right-hand man (played here by James Gleason). It's also got a lousy ending which should be obvious: the first time I saw the movie, I found myself thinking, "Don't they know [what happens in the ending, which I won't give away]?"

So why am I recommending Once Upon a Time? Well, it's got Cary Grant, and James Gleason. Not only that, but a lot of times, train wrecks can be fascinating to watch.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Breakfast Club vs. The Graduate

It's the steel cage death match between two of the more well-known coming-of-age movies. In one corner, we have the late John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, and in the other, we have the 1960s movie The Graduate. Most judges would award the decision to The Graduate, but I'll take a dissenting view.

I've commented a number of times on my dim view of the 1960s. The Baby Boomers grew up rebelling against the system, fighting what they thought were very important fights in the form of the civil rights struggle, and against the war in Vietnam. The thing is, however, they still seem to want to fight the same [expletive deleted] fights. Look at all the comparisons between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the one in Vietnam, or the people who want to compare President Obama to John Kennedy. (The obsession with Michelle Obama's fashions certainly seems to be a parallel to the young and glamorous Jackie Kennedy. Am I the one person who doesn't give a patootie whether Mrs. Obama is wearing a dress that bares her arms?) Worse, the 1960s generation still has enormous influence within American culture. The people who were around for the student revolutions of 1968 haven't reached retirement age yet, and indeed are at the stage where they're the ones at the top of everything. They think they're anti-Establishment, but they're the new Establishment.

The Graduate certainly fits in those times. But a lot of what must have been shocking at the time seems to pack a lot less punch today. Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock not knowing what he wants to do with his life? Well, we have an entire generation of that with Generation X. The sexual mores have loosened more than enough that May/December relations aren't shocking anymore. (I suppose if they had really wanted to shock audiences, they would have had Mr. Robinson try to seduce young Benjamin.) This isn't to say The Graduate is a bad movie. It holds up about as well as the best screwball comedies of the 1930s which, while also a product of their time, are still quite funny today.

Fast forward to the 1980s. We had gone through Watergate, the last of the seminal events for the 1968 crowd (look at how the -gate suffix is still used at the end of every political scandal, and even non-political scandals). This caused the Republicans to lose control of the White House but, with Jimmy Carter being such an abysmal failure, the Republicans, in the form of Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency again in 1980. (I'm entirely convinced that a lot of the criticism of Reagan's acting has to do with his politics, and have discussed this before.) The 1980s were the polar opposite of the late 1960s, and that's something that must drive those rebellious 1960s folks up a wall. Where the hippies advocated peace, for example, Reagan had the unmitigated gall to stand up to the Soviets, and even call them the Evil Empire. People in hte 1980s seemed much more concerned with their pocketbooks than the 1960s folks, who insist they were thinking about great social issues. And on it goes, leading the 60s folks to denigrate everything that came out of the 80s. And since the 60s folk and their younger fellow-travelers have made it to the top of a lot of institutions, there's a lot of revisionist force pushing against the 1980s.

All of this does a huge disservice to a movie like The Breakfast Club. It, like The Graduate, is a product of its time. But, also like The Graduate, it can stand up well against a lot of the older movies. Adolescents have always been rebellious, and tried to assert their on independence; even in the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies, such as Girl Crazy, you can see them questioning authority. As such, The Breakfast Club is simply following a long line of movies about adolescence, and doing it quite well in an updated 80s form.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Hughes, 1950-2009

Another movie death has been announced: that of John Hughes, who directed such 1980s classics as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club.

I've had some thoughts about The Breakfast Club in my mind for a while, and have been meaning to write a post about those thoughts. But as I'm writing this late in the evening, that post will have to wait until at least tomorrow. As for now, I'll just hum (Don't You) Forget About Me....

Budd Schulberg, 1914-2009

Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg has died at the age of 95. Schulberg won the Oscar for On the Waterfront, but he also wrote screenplays for some other influential movies, such as the boxing movie The Harder They Fall, and a scathing look at the early years of television, A Face in the Crowd.

One of the bad things about TCM's Summer Under the Stars is that since every hour of every day has to fit a theme, there's not really any time to preempt the schedule should somebody die. TCM has faced a few such scheduling dilemmas in the past; director Ingmar Bergman died at the end of July and TCM had to come up with a very hasty salute just before the beginning of Summer Under the Stars. Deborah Kerr died not long before the Guest Programmer month, which had film series all morning and afternoon and Guest Programmers all evening, so she also only got a two-film salute a few days before the start of the new month.

On the other hand, when somebody like Schulberg dies -- a man who clearly has high achievements, but not necessarily the name recognition of the people in front of the camera -- it might not be such a bad thing if TCM takes the to craft a prime time tribute several weeks later. (By the same token, I don't think screenwriter Horton Foote has had a tribute yet. I wouldn't mind another chance to see Tomorrow.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

John Huston and directorial debuts

Director John Huston was born on this day in 1906. I was surprised to see that his classic The Maltese Falcon was the first movie he's credited as having directed. Perhaps, however, it shouldn't be such a surprise.

It was the case back in the studio era that people everybody started off learing the ropes before hitting the big time. In the case of wannabe directors, this meant either being an assistant director, or perhaps a writer. John Huston was a screenwriter of quite a few well-known movies before The Maltese Falcon; these include High Sierra and Jezebel. (I need to watch the credits more closely; I don't recall seeing Huston's name on either movie.)

Huston also helped write Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and Juarez; both of these had as one of the assistant directors another man who was cutting his teeth at the time: Irving Rapper. Rapper served as a "dialogue director" at Warner Bros., working on a number of their classics, before going on to direct his own classics such as Now, Voyager.

Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder wrote other people's comedy before feeling that their words would come out better on the screen if they had control over what the director was doing, which meant doing it themselves. Considering the classics that each wrote and directed, they were probably right.

Then, there are the actors who became directors. It wasn't necessarily a vanity thing; some of them were (relatively) failed actors who had greater talent at being a director. A decade before becoming a great director, Elia Kazan had a brief role as a wannabe lawyer in Blues in the Night, for example. (However, this is a topic I've already discussed.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Harold Lloyd returns!

When Charlie Chaplin got a day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars last August, I mentioned that I thought Harold Lloyd deserved more recognition. Well, this year, he gets a day; on Wednesday, August 5. As TCM need to fill 24 hours of programming, they're showing a mix of Lloyd's most famous work, as well as some of his lesser stuff. The more famous stuff was overlooked the last time there was a Lloyd tribute, but tomorrow, you can see Lloyd in Safety Last! at 10:30 AM ET, and The Freshman at 3:45 PM.

However, I'd like to recommend something a little less well known this time around: A Sailor-Made Man, airing at 7:30 AM. Here, Lloyd's character is "The Boy", although in reality he's an adult playboy. He's got the money to live independently, but he's fallen in love with The Girl (Mildred Davis), and The Girl's father doesn't like the fact that our hero doesn't have any real-life experience. Work in the real world, and maybe I'll let you marry my daughter. So, The Boy gets the bright idea to join the US Navy. Needless to say, Lloyd is one of the most incompetent sailors you'll ever meet -- and once you've enlisted, you have to serve out that enlistment, which effectively means that Lloyd is stuck as a sailor for years to come, seemingly with no hope of getting The Girl.

Until the ship docks in India, that is. As luck would have it, The Girl and her father are on their vacation yahct, and have docked in the same port as Lloyd's navy ship. Lloyd tries to impress his beloved, but in so doing, gets himself in trouble with the local maharajah. Is this the end of our hero? Will he ever get The Girl? Well, since this is a comedy, you have to assume that the answers are "No" and "Yes" respectively, but as with all of these silent comedies, the fun is in seeing how they get to the destination you know they're going to reach. And like all Lloyd comedies, this one is filled with a lot of fun sight gags, and plucky Harold Lloyd trying to save the day.

A Sailor-Made Man is generally considered to be Lloyd's first feature film. Before this, Lloyd had been producing two-reelers; for A Sailor-Made Man, he produced about 50 minutes of material, with the intention of cutting it down to a two-reeler. When the studio showed the 50 minutes of film to preview audiences, however, they enjoyed everything, and the producers were loathe to cut anything out, with the result that they released a short (by today's standards) feature film, running about 47 minutes.

A Sailor-Made Man has been released to DVD, as has most of Lloyd's work. But, it only seems to be currently available as part of a big box set.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Big Trail

About a year ago, I blogged on the movie The Big Trail, which is interesting in that it was an early Fox experiment in widescreen technology. The movie is back in the Fox Movie Channel rotation, and can be seen tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Another odd Essentials, Jr. choice

TCM's choice for Essentials, Jr. tonight is the 1970s version of Heaven Can Wait, at 8:00 PM ET. For some reason, I seem to recall it as having a bit more bad language than IMDb's parental guide implies, although that may have something to do with my bias in favor of older movies, and the fact that as a football fan, I know just how much of a toilet mouth football players really have.

Not that boxing is any better, I suppose. It's fairly well known that Heaven Can Wait is a remake of the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which I've recommended in the past.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Summer Under the Stars begins!

Today being August 1, it's the start of TCM's annual Summer Under the Stars feature, in which the films of a different actor run for 24 hours on each of the 31 days. I know from reading the TCM message boards that there are a fair number of people who enjoy the more obscure older movies who don't particularly care for Summer Under the Stars, and also because it preempts other features like Silent Sunday Nights and TCM Imports. (That having been said, Marion Davies is one of this month's selections, with several of her silents airing; Harold Lloyd also gets a day.)

The month kicks off with 24 hours of Henry Fonda movies. We've already missed Yours, Mine, and Ours, but still to come is the film version of John Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath, at 8:00 PM ET.

Or, you can watch Fonda's one movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, at 6:00 PM. This is a docudrama in which Fonda plays a man who is mistaken for a robber, and how he suffers in prison for it, as well as the effect it has on his family. It's a bit atypical for Hitchcock, since it's a very matter-of-fact movie, but it's still quite good.

The final Fonda film, at 4:00 AM Sunday, is The Long Night. It's a remake of the French film Le jour se lève, which I really wanted to do a post on. Unfortunately, Le jour se lève only seems to have been released to DVD as part of a ridiculously expensive 50-film box set.