Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We only look like Leopold and Loeb

The Fox Movie Channel is showing the movie Compulsion tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM.

The movie is based on the notorious 1920s "thrill killing" case of Leopold and Loeb, although Fox went to great pains to claim that any similarities to real people was only coincidental. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman star as two young students at the University of Chicago who believed in the Nietzschean philosophy that some men are supermen, burn to be superior than others, and that the laws of mere normal men didn't necessarily apply to such supermen. They decide to prove their hypothesis by actually going out and killing somebody and getting away with it just because the "normals" who are the cops are so unbelievably stupid. (If this sounds familiar, it's probably because Alfred Hitchcock's Rope was also based on the Leopold and Loeb case.)

Needless to say, Leopold and Loeb (or their substitutes) weren't so smart, as they left a critical piece of evidence on the body of the adolescent boy they murdered. The police find this evidence and are quickly able to link it back to the two college students, who are summarily arrested and face the death penalty. Their parents don't want them to die, so the parents hire Hollywood's best Clarence Darrow substitute, played here by Orson Welles. Welles has the two defendants plead guilty and waives their right to a trial by jury, figuring that a judge is more likely not to sentence them to execution than a jury....

Compulsion is a movie that's very interesting at times, although it's also not without its flaws. In real life, Leopold and Loeb were not just friends, they were homosexual lovers. The strictures of the Production Code didn't really allow the filmmakers to explore this in the late 1950s, and while Compulsion does try to explore the relationship between the two men (Stockwell is portrayed as a pretty extreme "bottom"), it doesn't go far enough. Instead, the Stockwell character is shown as more of a social misfit, trying to foster a friendship with a woman (Diane Varsi) who also happens to be friends with journalist/student Martin Milner. That having been said, Stockwell does an excellent job with his character, who is much more interesting than Dillman's. Welles gets top billing here, although the movie bogs down when he shows up, which fortunately isn't until about 65 minutes in.

Ultimately, you could do much worse than to watch both Compulsion and Rope to get two different angles on the same case. Fortunately, both are available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

But he's an auteur!!!

Something about the whole Roman Polanski case really bothers me. I don't understand why the California authorities have waited until now to try to get Polanski extradited to California. But I really don't understand why so many people are so quick to defend the guy.

The folks at the libertarian magazine Reason seem to share my puzzlement, and I can't help but think it's pretty damning if a bunch of libertarians think you should go to jail for a sex crime. Sure, the details have been muddled (probably deliberately by those taking Polanksi's side), but it seems clear that as part of a plea bargain deal, prosecutors dropped more serious charges in order to get a swift conviction on the statutory rape charge (and not have to put the accuser on the stand), and that it was only when Polanski thought the judge might give him "too stiff" a sentence that he fled the country. Personally, I do tend to have a mistrust of prosecutors, especially when they seem to prosecute cases for political reasons, but if anything the Polanski case seems like one where his celebrity got him a less bad sentence than a normal person would have gotten.

The feeling I get is that there's a good portion of the Culture War involved in the defense of Polanski. You have people -- especially in Europe -- who want to portray the Americans as horrible sexual puritans. Not only that, but Polanski is an artist, and who goes after Hollywood artists? It's those wicked right-wing whack jobs. (As the Reason article points out, would Polanski be getting this sort of support if he were a Catholic priest?) Some of the defenses of Polanski have been downright ludicrous, such as the idea that Polanski suffered enough because he lost relatives in the Holocaust, or because he wife (actress Sharon Tate) was brutally murdered -- albeit at least a half-dozen years before the rape case.

That having been said, Polanski isn't the only sex offender/moviemaker out there. 15 years ago, when Disney released the movie Powder, there was controversy over the fact that the director, Victor Salva had been convicted of sexual misconduct involving the young star of one his earlier movies.

Perhaps the best way to deal with Polanski would be for him to serve a brief portion of the setence in order to allow the authorities in California to save face, like Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The generation gap, 1940s style

TCM is showing The Youngest Profession at 9:45 AM ET on September 29. It's an interesting look at how MGM thought they could lure the teens into theaters during the early 1940s.

Virginia Weidler stars as a high-school student who is president of the school's celebrity fan club. Her day, and those of her friends, seems to be filled with no more concern than trying to get the autographs of all those wonderful MGM celebrites. Her father (Edward Arnold) doesn't quite understand, and frankly, he's right not to: there's a war going on, and you'd think that high-school boys would be concerned about going off to fight, with the girls concerned about their boyfriends going off to fight in the not too distant future.

But, of course, the studios wanted to keep up the people's morale duirng the war, especially the moral of our impressionable young people, so we get nearly plotless piffle like this movie. But, if the teen plot line wasn't enough, MGM felt they could lure people in to theaters with the promise of more stars than there are in the firmament. So, in Weidler's search for autographs, we get a slew of MGM contract players showing up in bit parts, notably the Minivers (er, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon), as well as the typically glamorous Lana Turner. Granted, this isn't the only cameo-filled movie from that era. But at least films like Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen had good reason for featuring cameo after cameo after cameo.

The end result of The Youngest Generation is a weird little period piece that isn't terrible, but, other than the cameos, also doesn't offer anything of enduring value. That lack of value would probably explain why a movie like this isn't exactly a candidate for DVD release.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday briefs

TCM is showing Charley Chase shorts again as part of their Silent Sunday Nights feature, overnight tonight (ie. between Sunday and Monday).

Tomorrow morning at ET, the Fox Movie Channel is showing Titanic. You know the story about the ship that hits an icerberg and sinks. Indeed, I've even mentioned a Nazi version. The movie Fox is showing is the 1950s version, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as a couple trying to save their doomed marriage aboard the doomed luxury liner. It's not the greatest version of the movie, but at least it's not the James Cameron version with the dreadful Céline Dion music.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stealing from soundtracks

You may have missed the news that Arthur Ferrante died last week. He and his duettist, Lou Teicher, became famous in the 1960s for their two-piano versions of many popular movie themes, most notably the theme to Paul Newman's Exodus. However, their music doesn't appear in many movies; instead, they were doing remakes of movie songs.

This is by no means the first, and certainly wouldn't be the last, either. You've probably heard Roger Williams doing the theme to the Joan Crawford movie Autumn Leaves. Well, his piano rendition isn't the theme we hear in the movie, which is sung by Nat King Cole and has lyrics. The same is true for orchestra leader Percy Faith's huge hit of 1960, the theme from A Summer Place.

Perhaps one of the more extreme examples would be Meco. There were two things that were huge in 1977: the original Star Wars movie, and disco music. What better idea than to combine the two? The result was a huge hit, and an entire series of albums of disco versions of movie tunes. Prepare to be frightened.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Aldo Ray, 1926-1991

Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray in 'The Marrying Kind'

September 25 marks the birth anniversary of Aldo Ray. Ray's first big performance was as a slightly slow boxer in Pat and Mike, and off of that got a leading role opposite Judy Holliday in The Marrying Kind. However, his career never really went anyplace big after that. Sure, he worked steadily for the rest of his life, but despite the bit in the credits at the end of The Marrying Kind saying that the studio hoped you'd watch for their new star in his next movie, Ray's work wasn't as a big star.

Looking through the list of movies that he made, I think I'd like to see Riot on Sunset Strip show up on TCM Underground. It sounds delightfully warped.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pre-Code Mysteries

TCM is showing The Circus Queen Murder tomorrow morning at 9:45 AM ET. It's entertaining enough, if not a great movie, but perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the man who solves the mystery: Adolphe Menjou.

Mysteries were surprisingly popular during the early years of the sound era. Perhaps the golden standard of the early mystery would be The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as the urbane crime-solving couple Nick and Nora Charles. This was not Powell's first go at a mystery series; he had played detective Philo Vance a few years earlier. As I mentioned then, the Philo Vance series saw several actors playing the part of the detective, but was by no means the only detective showing up in the early 1930s. There's also the Perry Mason movies.

Women and children got involved, too, with character actress Edna May Oliver playing detective Hildegard Withers in six films in the early 1930s, or, after the introduction of the code, Glenda Farrell as crime-solving reporter Torchy Blaine. And who could forget those Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew. (True, the Nancy Drew movies aren't pre-Codes, either.)

Perhaps the most interesting, though, might be The Maltese Falcon. Everybody remembers Humphrey Bogart calling the statue "the stuff that dreams are made of". But, that's not the original version of the movie. Sam Spade had been played by Ricardo Cortez nine years earlier. (That's something to think about whenver anybody complains about classic movies being remade.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A near-perfect movie

I've mentioned The Adventures of Robin Hood briefly a few times in the past. It's airing again tonight at 8:00 PM ET on TCM as part of Claude Rains' turn as Star of the Month. It's a movie that deserves every mention it gets, because everything about it is so good, and it's one of a very small number of movies that I find difficult fo spot any real flaws. Rains, in the foreground of the photo, plays Prince John, who's ruling England as regent while Richard the Lionhearted is being held captive on his way back from the Crusades.

Of course, you probably know the rest of the story; Prince John is taxing the people of England into penury, allegedly to pay for Richard's ransom; Errol Flynn's Robin of Locksley prevents that by "stealing" from the Prince in order to give the money back to the people. Both Flynn and Rains are perfectly cast, as is almost everybody else in the movie. Olivia de Havilland is radiant as Maid Marian; Una O'Connor is suitably matronly as her governess; Patric Knowles is dashing, but not upstaging of Flynn, as Will Scarlett; Eugene Pallette is almost as cuddly as an overgrown teddy bear in the part of Friar Tuck; O'Connor gets a love interest in Herbert Mundin, the innkeeper Much. Throw in Alan Hale Sr. and Basil Rathbone among others, and you've got a cast that looks as though it's having an enormous amount of fun making the movie.

The ancillaries are also pitch-perfect. Erich Korngold's score fits like a glove, and The Adventures of Robin Hood is precisely the sort of movie for which Technicolor was made to order. The action scenes are auitably active and thrilling, and there's a lot of action. There are maybe a few scenes, mostly with Marion and the governess, that come close to dragging, but that's about the biggest "flaw" the movie has. The Adventures of Robin Hood is, in short, an outstanding movie, and one that's perfect for the whole family. But you already knew all of this anyhow -- it's one of those movies that has rightly earned its exalted status in Hollywood history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

All of the suspense, none of the drunken anti-Semitic rants

TCM is showing Ransom! early tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM ET. No, not the Mel Gibson movie from the late 1990s, but the original Glenn Ford version from 40 years before that.

Glenn Ford stars as the father of a stereotypical 1950s father: a well-off business man with a trophy wife (Donna Reed), servants, and a young son. Unfortunately for him, his life is about to be turned upside-down when that son doesn't come home from school one day. The kid has been kidnapped, and soon enough, Ford gets a ransom message: the kidnappers want a cool half million dollars. This is the 1950s, when America had not yet been so desensitized to such crime, although the beginnings of that show up in this movie. There's the usual question of whether to pay the kidnappers the ransom, or to refuse, and run the risk of the victim being killed. (Of course, there's also the risk that you pay the ransom, and the kidnappers kill the victim anyway.) Ford soon finds the new media camping at his doorstep, led by newspaperman Leslie Nielsen in one of his earliest movies, and eventually decides to use that new media to his advantage, going on TV to taunt the kidnappers, telling them that he'll never pay the ransom, and hunt them to the ends of the earth if they kill his son.

Ransom is a jarring movie. Unlike a movie such as D.O.A., there's never any examination of why this nice little family should be a victim; instead, it's presented more as random violence that could happen to almost anybody. Nowadays, we all expect the 24-hour-a-day news media to be hounding the put-upon victims of crime, but 50 years ago, nobody could really be prepared for it, despite any number of Hollywood movies from that era dealing with the subject (see also Ace in the Hole). Glenn Ford is excellent as always; and Nielsen isn't bad, as he hadn't had any time to become the acting parody we've seen ever since Airplane!. Donna Reed is underused, though; unlike Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, she spends much of the time in the background instead of taking part in the effort to find the kid. Also in the cast is Juano Hernandez as the servant, who had recently worked with Ford in the excellent Trial. The only problem the movie has is the ending, which comes across as the writers not having any idea how to wrap up the plot.

Sadly, this version of Ransom! doesn't seem to have been released to DVD.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I don't think I've recommended Buster Keaton before

Surprisingly enough, in the 20 months that I've been blogging, I seem not have done a post specifically on any of the movies of Buster Keaton. TCM is showing two of his movies tonight, selected by "Guest Programmer" Richard Lewis: Sherlock Jr. at 8:00 PM ET, followed by Steamboat Bill, Jr. at 9:00 PM.

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton plays Bill, the college-educated and somewhat foppish son of a stereotypically masculine steamboat captain. Bill is returning home from college, to see his father for the first time in a long time, and to learn a bit about running a steamboat. Unfortunately, this isn't easy, as Bill Sr. is in the middle of a business war with the owner of a much fancier steamboat and is being driven out of business. Not only that, but Bill Jr. has fallen in love with a girl who just happens to be the daughter of his father's business rival. Last but not least, it doesn't help that the son is, in true Buster Keaton fashion, terribly incompetent at running any mechanical device.

Truth be told, the movie isn't just about a steamboat. Indeed, quite a lot of the action takes place on land, as Bill Sr.'s rival has him put in jail on trumped-up charges, forcing Bill Jr. to spring him. Then comes the big storm which threatens to destroy both steamboats. The storm, which forms the movie's climax, is the best part of the whole movie, as Keaton did his own inventive stunts, including one involving a house falling around him that he had to get right the first time, or it probably would have killed him. It's not a joke to say the stunt could have killed him, either. One of the stunts in Sherlock Jr. involves Keaton hanging from the water spout of a giant locomotive watering-can at a train depot. Keaton didn't realize it at the time, but when he did that stunt, he broke a bone in his neck.

Thankfully, much of Keaton's work, including both of tonight's movies, is available on DVD.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mama told me not to go

TCM is showing one of Hollywood's more interesting World War II movies overnight tonight (or very early on the morning of September 21) at 4:00 AM ET: Bridge to the Sun.

Bridge to the Sun is based on the true story of Gwen Terasaki, played here by Carroll Baker. She's a debutante in Washington, DC in the 1930s, and at one of the many diplomatic parties, she meets Hidenari. Terasaki (James Shigeta), who is a low-level employee at the Japanese embassy in Washington. Despite the differences between American and Japanese cultures, the two rapidly fall in love and get married. War is brewing, and there's an internal struggle among the various Japanese diplomats over how nicely Japan should play with America, with nobody being able to trust anybody else. Mr. Terasaki is one of those who absolutely doesn't want war, which as we'll see later has consequences for him. History of course proves that the Japanese eventually attack Pearl Harbor, with the result that all of the Japanese citizens in the US have to return to Japan.

This causes a serious dilemma for the Terasakis. Gwen is still a US citizen, and has a child by her husband. She's urged by her relatives to stay in the US with them for the duration of the war, as it will be safer. But, being in love with her hasband, not wanting him to have to abandon his child, and frankly out of a sense of naïveté, she follows him to Japan to live with him. Life in Japan during World War II isn't very easy for anybody, especially once the tide of war turns against them. However, it's especially tough for a gaijin, especially one with a politically suspect husband. It's fairly well-known in the important circles that Mr. Terasaki is pretty much against the war, which by now is almost a treasonous position.

Fortunately, the two principals were able to survive the war, although the ending isn't particularly happy. Instead, it's a poigniant and heartbreaking love story. However, both of the lead actors do an excellent job, displaying their characters' honest emotions for each other in the face of two cultures that are incredibly hostile to their love.

Sadly, Bridge to Sun doesn't seem to have been released to any video format, which is a huge shame.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Goldwyn Follies

It's been over a year since I've mentioned The Goldwyn Follies, and I would be remiss in not pointing out that TCM is going to show it again at 8:00 AM ET tomorrow (September 20).

The $1.98 movie

One of the lowest-budget genre of movies in Hollywood history would have to be the "B" science fiction movies of the early 1950s. One of the lowest-budget directors would have to be Edgar G. Ulmer. What do you get when you combine the two? The surprisingly watchable The Man From Planet X, overnight tonight at 1:30 AM ET on TCM.

Astronomers have spotted an asteroid that's going to make a close pass of earth, and have determined that when it makes that close pass, the observatory best sited to view the asteroid is one on an isolated Scottish island. A reporter who's engaged to the daughter of an astronomer hears about this, and sets off to that island. It turns out, however, that it might not be an asteroid, but a spaceship from another planet -- and an alien from that planet has landed on their little island! Needless to say, strange things start happening....

This movie has all the hallmarks of both the schlockly scifi movies of the era, as well as the budget-saving stereotypes. The alien looks like, well, what you'd expect an alien of that era to look like. He's got a ray gun, and two of the scientists clash over whether they should try to understand the alien, or destroy him before he can cause too much harm to the people of Planet Earth. As far as saving money goes, Ulmer presumably had the movie set on the moors of a Scottish island because it would be a place with a lot of fog. Use a fog machine, and the fog obscures everything else on the set -- or more accurately, the fact there there's nothing on the set! Ulmer also reused sets from a recently-completed version of Joan of Arc.

Overall, The Man From Planet X isn't great, but it's no worse than a lot of the other scifi movies being released in the early 1950s. That having been said, it's not quite up to the level of an Ulmer movie like Detour. As long as you know what you're getting into, though, it's a lot of fun.

Friday, September 18, 2009

You go, girls!

TCM is bringing back one of the great cult movies for this week's TCM Underground: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It airs overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET (that's early Saturday in the east, and 11:00 PM Friday out in California.

If you don't know the plot, it's not that difficult to follow. Three scantily clad and exceedingly buxom go-go dancers set off in their sports cars looking for some adventure in the Mojave Desert. Eventually, they wind up on a ranch owned by an old, wheelchair-bound man, who's got two sons looking after him. As the pretty young things spend some time there, they get the impression that the old guy has a substantial stash of money buried somewhere on the property. And dammit, these women want that money!

Faster, Pussycatt! Kill! Kill! is pure explotiation, through and through. The women are, as I mentioned, dressed in such a way as to highlight their "assets" -- but they aren't the only ones. One of the two sons is mentally deficient and referred to as "The Vegetable" (there's a nice value-neutral nickname), but is also musclebound, and costumed in tight shirts designed to show off some of his assets. The women are also delightfully violent, being perhaps the most assertive women you'll see on screen this side of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. The plot is quite frankly secondary to the flesh and violence, but that doesn't lessen the appeal of the movie.

True, it's not the greatest movie ever made. But then, the truly great movies don't become cult movies. It is, however, a very fun movie, and one that everybody should see at least once.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Final Jeopardy

If you watch Jeopardy! much, you might notice that a lot of the time they have movie categories, the clues deal mostly with movies made after about 1970 (if not much more recent movies), which isn't much of an advantage for those of us who are fans of the old stuff. As a result, last night's Final Jeopardy was a bit of a surprise.

In the category "20th Century Women", the clue was "This woman won gold medals at the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Winter Olympics, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame." If you enjoy old movies, you probably should be able to get the correct person in the alloted 30 seconds. In the actual game, only one of the three contestants got the correct response, with the other two guessing the same wrong woman. I suppose it shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since both women would have been well before the time of the Jeopardy! contestants.

Click on the links for the correct and incorrect questions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Six Degrees of Patrick Swayze

A Patrick Swayze movie that I failed to mention yesterday is Road House. That having been said, the other Road House is well worth seeing.

Made a few years before Swayze was born, this Road House stars Cornel Wilde as the manager (but not owner) of a road house where people can stop and get good eats. We should know from movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice that in 1940s Hollywood, such roadside eateries meant nothing but trouble. For Wilde, trouble walks in at the beginning of the movie in the form of Ida Lupino, who is to be the place's new lounge singer. Wilde suspects that she has no talent, and has only been given a job because their mutual boss (and Wilde's good friend) Richard Widmark is in love with her, and gave her a job to keep her near him. That's certainly a recipe for disaster.

However, Lupino brings the house down, setting up an even bigger disaster: it's obvious that Lupino is going to come between Wilde and Widmark in fairly short order. Predictably, this does happen, and just as predictably, when Lupino and Wilde falls for each other, it sends Widmark into a rage. (Wilde should have watched Kiss of Death. Perhaps he would have known not to rile up Richard Widmark.) Widmark responds by setting up a plot to frame Wilde for embezzlement....

At this point, the plot turns from noir to melodrama, but that doesn't really distract from the fun. Wilde gets convicted for embezzlement, but his punishment is having to go back to work for psycho Richard Widmark, who constantly taunts the two lovers, eventually taking them to his cabin not far from the Canadian border, which may give Wilde and Lupino an opportunity to escape.

Road House is not a bad little movie. Richard Widmark was always an effective nutcase in the early part of his career, and does that role quite well here. Lupino is also very good, and it's easy to see why both men would fall for her. Wilde is OK, but nothing more. Rounding out the cast is the underused Celeste Holm, who is a co-worker at the road house who had fallen for Wilde, but who is "just a friend" to him.

Road House has been released to DVD, so you can watch it whenever you wish.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Hitchcock movie I haven't recommended yet

TCM, as part of its monthlong salute to Bernard Herrmann, is showing the movies Herrmann scored for Alfred Hitchcock over the next two weeks. I've recommended most of them already, but TCM is showing another Hitchcock movie (not scored by Herrmann) that I haven't recommended before: Rich and Strange, September 16 at 7:15 AM ET.

Rich and Strange truly is a strange little movie, since it doesn't have any of the suspense or mystery that most Hitchcock movies do; not is it a straight-up movie like Juno and the Paycock (a filmed stage play) or even Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Alfred Hitchcock's attempt at a screwball comedy). It's got black humor, but it's not really a comedy; it's got a married couple doing exotic things, but it's not really a romance; it's got the married couple facing crises, but it's not really a drama; instead, it's a mishmash of everything and not really certain what it is, while still being very much a Hitchcock movie.

The movie starts with a man at his office job, leaving after the day is done. (This sequence has lots of people opening their umbrellas, with Hitchcock's use of umbrellas being reminiscent of a scene in Foreign Correspondent.) The man is bored to tears with his job, but has a wealthy uncle who is planning to leave him a trust when the uncle dies. So, the bored husband writes to the uncle, requesting an advance on the trust, which the uncle gives him, allowing the man to quit his job and take his wife with him to the British colonies in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, being rich isn't all it's cracked up to be. The husband finds that he's seasick, while both husband and wife find other people on their sea voyage who seem to have a romantic interest in them.

Fortunately, though, their marriage is saved by a shipwreck: one night their ship hits something and takes on water. They resign themselves to death when they're unable to get their cabin door open -- but the water stops rising, and the next morning, they find they're able to escape through the porthole. Perhaps the dull home life is better after all.

Rich and Strange is at best an acquired taste, with its threadbare plot and its look of an early talkie that was feeling its way around the new medium of sound. This latter flaw is surprising, since Hitchcock had already made several talkies, including the very good (and typical of Hitchcock) Murder! a year earlier. Still, in watching it, it's clear that Hitchcock had a distinctive style that he had already begun to develop. Rich and Strange has made its way to DVD, which isn't a bad thing since it doesn't show up on TV all that often.

Patrick Swayze

By now, you've probably read about the death of Patrick Swayze after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, ad the all-too-young age of 57. I briefly mentioned Swayze 18 months ago for one of his lesser-remembered movies, Sommersby.

Swayze, of course, will be better remembered for both Dirty Dancing and Ghost. Who knew that pottery could be so erotic?

Monday, September 14, 2009

An addendum to High School Confidential

One thing I had forgotten about in High School Confidential, and a lot of the other movies of the 1950s, is that the young women wear shockingly tight sweaters which make them look as though they've got very pointy and perky breasts.

I did briefly mention the slang, but forgot that there was a hilarious beat poem called High School Drag which is recited at the 50s equivalent of a poetry slam. The words are pretty funny:

My old man was a bread stasher all his life.
He never got fat. He wound up with a used car,
a 17 inch screen and arthritis.

Tomorrow is a drag, man.
Tomorrow is a king sized bust.

This goes on for several verses, with the jazz combo playing accompaniment for the poet. If you don't have the DVD of High School Confidential, you're not out of luck, as it's on YouTube. And note the sweater that the reciter (Philippa Fallon) is wearing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

More ammo for Loretta Young to go to TV

The Fox Movie Channel is showing the comedy Half Angel on September 14 at 9:00 AM ET. With material like this and Cause for Alarm, it's no wonder that she went into television, where she could presumably have more control over her self-titled show.

Young stars as a nurse who knows, but dislikes, a lawyer played by Joseph Cotten. At least, that's the way things are during the daytime. The problem for Young is that Cotten things she's in love with him, and has good reason to think that way: she sleepwalks at night, and when she sleepwalks, she goes to see him and flirts with him as though she's in love with him.

Sound like a silly enough plot? Just wait; it gets much worse. Daytime Young doesn't like Cotten's advances, to the point that she's willing to have him put on trial in a bizarre Hollywood look at the court system that seems in no way anchored to any reality. Worse, you know that the two are going to end up together at the and anyhow, so why are they going through all this?

To be honest, I have no idea why everybody involved decided to get involved. Perhaps they were just that hard up for the work. Either that, or they were all sleepwalking, and it was their sleepwaliking selves who decided to do the movie. Still, this is one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

High School Confidential

I've commented before on Hollywood's look at adolescents in the 1950s, and how hilariously inaccurate it was. One of the funniest movies in the genre might be High School Confidential!, airing at 10:30 AM ET tomorrow (September 13) on TCM.

The movie starts with a howler in the opening shot: Jerry Lee Lewis is singing the theme song, on the back of a flatbd truck in front of the students' high school. That's odd enough, but this high school is clearly just a random building on the MGM backlot, as this building looks nothing like any high school anywhere in the US. (I went to a school that was built in the 1920s, and it at least looked like a high school.) Into this school walks new student Russ Tamblyn, who immediately wants to learn who leads the local gang, apparently so he can muscle his way into it. That gang is led by John Drew Barrymore (son of John, and father of Drew), although we quickly learn that there's somebody much bigger in town: Mr. A, the local drug pusher, who's played by Jackie Coogan. Tamblyn wants to meet Mr. A out of ulterior motives. It turns out that he's not a teenage student, but instead a narc who's trying to bring down the drug ring.

High School Confidential! is full of the stereotypes that were common to the genre: Hollywood's idea of teen slang; twenty-somethings playing high schoolers; the BMOC; the local hangout where all the kids go; fast cars, and kids wanting to show them off on weekend nights; the "good kid" who tries to nag "bad" kids like Tamblyn into doing the right thing (played here by Michael Landon!); and of course, the aforementioned music. All of it seems off here, which serves to make the movie funny, if only because it's so detached from reality.

That, however, isn't the only bizarre thing about High School Confidential!. There are also the two older women who show up here. One, the students' teacher, is played by Jan Sterling, who is probably best known for playing the bored wife of the trapped miner in Ace in the Hole. The other is 1950s pin-up girl Mamie Van Doren, who was only in her late 20s when the movie was made. Here, though, she's cast as Tamblyn's putative aunt and guardian, who's also a libidinous lush.

High School Confidential! is a lot of fun, even if nobody ever lived like this. It's been released to DVD, and is well worth watching. Stick around for the final scene, if you do watch it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

May Robson vs. Clint Eastwood

TCM is airing the movie Million Dollar Baby tonight at 8:00 PM ET. May Robson stars as an aging boxing coach who teaches young Ronald Reagan....

Wait, that's the wrong Million Dollar Baby story. Robson and Reagan appear here, but the story is quite different. Robson plays an elderly woman who made all of her money the old fashioned way: she inherited it from her father. Unfortunately, she's just learned that Father made his money the other old-fashioned way, by defrauding a business partner, who subsequently committed suicide. Robson feels badly about this, so she instructs her lawyers to find any heirs of the defrauded man, so that she can give them money that's "rightfully" theirs. (Sure, this is an odd idea today, but back in the New Deal era, stories like this were more likely to be greenlit.) Eventually, she finds only one descendant, a woman working as a department store clerk, played by Priscilla Lane.

Robson moves into the rooming house where Lane lives, and at first, when Robson tries to tell Lane about the inheritance, Lane isn't quite certain what to believe. Eventually, though, she realizes it's the truth -- but there are still other problems. Her boyfriend, played by Ronald Reagan, is a struggling composer, who has a thing against other people's money, money being evil and all that. If Lane takes the money, she's going to lose Reagan's love. On the other hand, that would leave Robson's young lawyer (Jeffrey Lynn) to come in and sweep Lane off her feet.

This 1941 version of Million Dollar Baby isn't the greatest, but it's not bad, either, especially because it's got a nice ensemble cast. Robson is as good as ever, while Lane is more than adequate. The Reagan role probably calls for somebody with a bit of a dark edge to him, which Reagan's acting never really had. Reagan was a great eternal optimist type, but the composer he's playing isn't so optimistic. The bigger problem is the script, which starts off unrealistically enough, and then doesn't seem to know how to resolve the conflicts it creates.

Million Dollar Baby is the sort of movie that hasn't made its way to DVD, and isn't likely to for quite some time, if at all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Early Lucille Ball

Overnight tonight, at 4:45 AM ET on September 11, TCM is showing the movie Five Came Back. It's one of the movies that shows Lucille Ball to be a much better actress than she's usually given credit for, and one that really deserves watching.

Ball plays Peggy Nolan, a girl with a past who's trying to escape that past by running off to South America. Unfortunately for her and everybody else on the plane, it crashes somewhere in the jungle. Worse, this part of the jungle is inhabited by a tribe of headhunters, so they have to fix the plane as fast as possible. Eventually, they get the plane fixed to a point, but the bad news is that it's only going to be able to carry five people, which is much smaller than the number of people who were on it when it took off. Somebody's going to have to decide who lives and who dies....

This is not the sort of Lucille Ball movie most people would expect. She spent the second half of her career doing I Love Lucy on television, and zany comedies like The Long, Long Trailer when she did go back to movies. But early on, she got some chances to do drama, and here, she's quite good. Granted, it helps that the rest of the cast, despite being made up of character actors and other supporting players, is equally as good. Chester Morris plays pilot Bill Brooks; John Carradine plays a policeman escorting a revolutionary (Joseph Calleia) who's being extradited and faces execution; Patric Knowles plays a spoiled heir; and C. Aubrey Smith plays on old professor who's seen everything in life.

Despite having been made on a low-budget and using a cast of people who were not stars at the time, Five Came Back is a very good movie, so good that RKO later remade it as Back From Eternity. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have been released to DVD.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Loretta Young is leaving for TV

Loretta Young retired from making movies in the early 1950s in order to do a weekly drama anthology series on television. Perhaps her later movies, like Cause For Alarm, airing at 12:45 PM today on TCM, are part of the reason why.

Young plays Navy nurse Ellen Brown. She meets patient George Jones (Barry Sullivan), falls in love with him, and marries him. Unfortunately, due to his war injuries, he's a sickly man, and a bit of a paranoid to boot. She has to do a lot of playing nursemaid, while the family doctor visits frequently. Eventually, he gets convinced that his wife is carrying on an affair with the doctor. Not only that, he's convinced that the two of them are plotting to kill him! So, he writes a letter to the district attorney, detailing his belief, and keeping it to be mailed at the appropriate time. Soon enough, he decided to mail the letter, which he has her do for him, and then in an argument about it, he drops dead through no fault of hers.

The rest of the movie is Young's desperate attempt to get that letter back. Truth be told, it's all perfunctory, by-the-numbers stuff. The plot is fairly contrived, and the performances leave something to be desired. MGM was still churning out a bunch of this stuff in the early 1950s; stuff that would have played better as a B-movie in the late 1930s or the early 1940s. Here, however, it's quite a step down for Young, who a few short years earlier had made gems like The Bishop's Wife, or her Oscar-winning role in The Farmer's Daughter.

Somewhat surpisingly, Cause For Alarm made its way to DVD but, unsurprisingly, the DVDs are no longer in print.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pairing a movie with Leave Her to Heaven

Cornel Wilde may have regretted marrying Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. For a more comic take on regretting getting married, however, you'll do better with How to Murder Your Wife.

Jack Lemmon stars as Stanley Ford, a comic strip writer who is known for two things: acting out the scenarios in his strips, and being a confirmed bachelor. One night, however, he goes to a friend's bachelor party -- and gets so drunk that he gets married to the girl who jumped out of the cake (Virna Lisi). Worse, she only speaks limited English, having been born in Italy. The marriage makes life a nightmare for Stanley, as his valet (Terry-Thomas) is also a confirmed bachelor, and thinks Stanley should have remained unmarried.

Stanley decides to vent his frustration through his comic strip, writing a story line that will have his wife disappear. The only problem is that while he's doing this, his wife decides to go home to Mother in Italy. Since she's gone missing, and everybody knows how Stanley acts out the story lines ahead of time, they naturally assume that he's murdered his wife. How is he going to get out of this mess? (I'm not about to give the ending away.)

How to Murder Your Wife is a fun movie, although it's definitely a product of the 1960s. The Neal Hefti theme is highly reminiscent of his later work in The Odd Couple, and the swinging New York shown here doesn't exist any more, Gerald Ford having told it to drop dead. Not only that, but a lot of the humor-impaired people of today would consider this movie highly politically incorrect. And there's the minor problem of wondering how a comic strip writer could afford such a huge place in New York. Still, Jack Lemmon is as good as ever, and the supporting cast has quite a few names you've seen before: Claire Trevor as his lawyer's wife; Sidney Blackmer, whose work dated back to Little Caesar and beyond, as a judge; and Mary Wickes as the secretary to Lemmon's lawyer.

How to Murder Your Wife has been released to DVD, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it, since that won't be until November.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Fox Movie Channel's rotation

I notice that for the first time in at least a few years, The Fox Movie Channel has scheduled Leave Her to Heaven, September 8 at 11:00 AM ET. I've already blogged about this before, as it's one of my favorite movies, so I'd like to take another opportunity to talk about the way Fox programs its movie channel.

Frankly, and I think I've said this once before, I find it baffling. Granted, Fox doesn't have as much access to movies as TCM, but they've still got a reasonably-sized library, especially since they're more willing to show recent movies. I don't particularly have a problem with showing newer movies in prime time, since their aim is to bring viewers to the channel. However, their use of the studio's older product leaves a lot to be desired. They seem ot bring some of the old movies out of the vault, subject them to rerun abuse, showing them a bunch of times over, say, a six-month period -- and them stick the films back in the vault, not to be seen on FMC for another few years. Perhaps it costs less in rights management fees to do it this way. I happen to be a game-show fan, and I know that it costs less for Game Show Network to get the rights to, say, one years of Jeopardy! and show it three times through than it does to get the rights to three consecutive years and show them back-to-back. It also doesn't seem to make much of a ratings difference either way, which is why cable channels subject their programming to rerun abuse.

Still, it's maddening. Fox and TCM are about the only ones who have any interest in showing these old movies, and it's a shame to have them sit in the vault deteriorating.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Otto Kruger, 1885-1974

Head shot of Otto Kruger,

Today marks the birth anniversary of character actor Otto Kruger. You might remember him best as Charles Tobin, the rancher who owns the place in the California desert at which Bob Cummings shows up in Saboteur.

Reign of Terror

TCM is showing The Black Book (also known as Reign of Terror) at 1:00 PM ET on September 7. I've already commented on it before, so read the original post.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

World War II epics

Tonight's Essential on TCM, at 8:00 PM ET, is The Guns of Navarone.

Released in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was part of an emerging genre, that of the long, long action movie about World War II, that was a decided break from earlier war movies. Hollywood made these movies with a lot of stars and a lot of action, presumably in an attempt to get people away from the little screen at home and back into theaters. Movies like The Longest Day, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, or a dozen others like them, might be better-remembered today, but The Guns of Navarone came before most, if not all, of them.

As for The Guns of Navarone, the plot involves a joint operation between the British and the Greek resistance during World War II to destroy a mountain-top Nazi gun that's perfectly situated for destroying any unwanted traffic in the sea lane below. The movie has a lot of the action that viewers would have wanted, but also some of the tropes of the war genre, and especially the epic genre: a long exposition at the beginning building up conflicts between the main characters; an extraneous love interest who's really not important to the story; lots and lots of famous names (Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn lead the cast); a few up-and-coming actors who may or may not be able to act designed to bring in the younger demographic (in this case, that's James Darren); and so on.

If you don't mind sitting down to a two-and-a-half hour movie, The Guns of Navarone isn't a bad one. But if the great movies from the studio system days, like Captain Blood or Battleground could tell their stories in two hours, why couldn't the war epics from the 1960s?

Friday, September 4, 2009

More William Castle

Director William Castle was known for putting gimmicks in his movies to try to draw people in; Homicidal, which TCM is showing overnight at 4:00 AM ET, is no exception.

The movie kicks off at a hotel. A woman walks into the lobby, and asks one of the bellboys if he'd like to make some quick money. All he has to do is go with her to a justice of the peace for a quickie wedding which will be quickly annulled. The bellhop goes along, but quickly finds he should have, as his wife-to-be murders the JP!

Thus is the stage set for a lot of schlocky fun. The scene shifts quickly to a coastal mansion, where the killer is nurse to an old lady who had been the governess to the children of the house's late owner, who left a large trust fun to his one son. The dead man's sister, however, begins to have reason to believe that this nurse is the murderous thing we already know her to be, and that the governess is in grave danger.

Where's the gimmick in all this? Producer/director Castle promised viewers a shocking twist at the end. In fact, he claimed that the twist was so shocking that some people might not be able to handle it. For those, just before that shocking ending was revealed, there was a one-minute pause (complete with clock ticking down on-screen!) allowing people to get up and exit the theater. The truth, of course, is that the ending isn't that shocking, certainly not by today's standards, and probably not even by early 1960s standards. (Not that I'm about to give it away, of course.)

All that said, Homicidal is a fun movie, even if it isn't very good.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Anti-Nazi propaganda

TCM is showing the interesting movie Hitler's Children tomorrow at 7:30 AM. The title sounds like it would make for a wonderful exploitation movie, but unfortunately, it's not much more than run-of-the-mill World War II era propaganda about why the Nazis are so evil and why America had to be fighting them.

Bonita Granville, trying to play more meaningful stuff, stars as a German-American girl caught in Berlin when the Nazis come to power. The Nazis try to declare her German and turn her into a mother for the Nazis, getting knocked up and bearing children for the master race. Interestingly enough, this last part about having non-Germans who appeared otherwise "Aryan" to the Nazis bear new Nazi children turned out to be somewhat of a reality. The Nazis had an organization known as the Lebensborn which, among other things, involved providing refuge for women in Nazi-occupied countries who had gotten pregnant by Nazi soldiers. (It's actually a pretty sad story, as in countries such as Norway, the children produced by such relationships would go on to suffer a lifetime of discrimination.) How much of this Hollywood would have known in 1943, however, is a matter for debate.

Hitler's Children is by far not the only piece of anti-Nazi propaganda masking as entertainment made by Hollywood. There was a slew of it in the World War II years, just as there would be a bunch of anti-Communist movies in the years after the war. And, like the anti-Communist propaganda movies, these anti-Nazi movies are of varying quality. Some, like Hitler's Children, are more of a curiosity than anything else. There are laughably bad movies, such as Tomorrow the World!, about an American family that takes in a German war orphan who winds up being a Hitlerjugend who tries to proselytize everybody around him to the Nazi cause.

On the other hand, there are some really good Hollywood movies that point out the badness of the Nazis. To Be or Not to Be is probably at the top of the list, more because it uses comedy to make the point about the Nazis. But, there are some good dramas out there, too, like The Mortal Storm.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Who should be Star of the Month?

Tonight marks the opening night of Claude Rains' turn as TCM's Star of the Month. Every Wednedsay night in September (and into Thursday mornings), they're showing a lot of his movies. Now, I happen to enjoy Rains, and think he made a lot of wonderful movies. Notorious, from which the photo at left is taken, is just one of them, and is airing overnight at 2:45 AM ET. It's preceded by some even better-known movies that he made, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kicking the night off at 8:00 PM, and Casablanca following at 10:15 PM. The only problem is that Rains has already been Star of the Month before, although it was all the way back in 1998. TCM have at least gone to the trouble of getting a new piece on Rains for Star of the Month, narrated by Richard Chamberlain, (who starred with Rains in Twilight of Honor at the end of Rains' career. (TCM have a piece from Rains' previous stint as Star of the Month narrated by the late John Gielgud, which may show up this month as well.)

It should also be said in TCM's defense that there aren't too many people who would make a good Star of the Month. The person has to be a star. Although I enjoy the movies of somebody like Eugene Pallette, he's really not a star. Star of the Month is one of the simpler ways to bring in people who don't necessarily realize they might enjoy older movies, too. If you can show them something recognizable like Casablanca at an easily accessible hour, they'll be more likely to watch than showing something like the Torchy Blane movies. Also, the person has to have made enough movies to fill a night of prime time every week for a month. No James Dean here, despite the fact that he'd still be recognized by even a fair number of the younger people of today. And, the Star of the Month is going to have to be somebody who worked at a studio from which TCM can get the broadcast rights to a lot of the movies they'd want to show. As much as I like the beautiful Gene Tierney, she worked at Fox, and TCM can't generally get quite that many Fox movies to show. Ditto Tyrone Power and Don Ameche.

So, who would make a good Star of the Month for TCM? I don't think Fredric March has ever been Star of the Month before. True, he spent a good portion of the early part of his career at Paramount, and those movies are now controlled by Universal, one of the worse studios for dealing with TCM. But March made a lot of stuff later in his career that shows up on TCM. There's also Charles Boyer, who probably ought to be recognized by younger views, at least as a source for the Pepe Le Pew cartoons. As for the women, I'm not sure if Lana Turner has ever been Star of the Month. I don't think I've ever seen the sort of piece on her that would have been recycled from a former time as Star of the Month.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bernard Herrmann month

I mentioned Bernard Herrmann's birthday back at the end of June, not realizing that TCM had already planned a month-long tribute to his movie scores for September. If you watch TCM religiously, you'll have seen the promo for the Herrmann festival of 23 movies scored by him, every Tuesday in September.

The festival kicks off tonight, with Hangover Square at 8:00 PM ET, and continues throughout the month. Herrmann wrote several scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies; those show up later in the month. Of the movies I haven't recommended before, tonight's highlight might be The Devil and Daniel Webster, based on the short story about Daniel Webster defending a farmer who signed a deal with the devil, and then wants to renege on it. That follows Hangover Square at 9:30 PM, and won Herrmann his only Oscar.

An East Germany movie I prefer

After yesterday's showing of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, it's nice to see TCM showing another movie about East Germany, and one that I enjoy, even if it generally isn't considered as good. No, not One, Two, Three, but Escape From East Berlin, airing at 4:00 PM ET this afternoon.

The title of the movie is quite accurate. After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, it understandbly became much more difficult for those trapped inside Communist East Germany to escape to the West. Still, people tried -- and got shot for it, something we see at the very beginning of the movie. Don Murray stars as Kurt Schröder a friend of a man who was shot and killed during an escape attempt. He's got a relatively cushy job as a chauffeur for party apparatchiks, but when the dead man's sister comes around wondering what's happened to her brother, Kurt begins to have a bit of a conscience. Eventually, this leads to an attempt to escape to the West -- by tunneling under the Berlin Wall! (In reality, there were people desperate enough to try this.)

The rest of Escape From East Berlin is fairly standard prison-break stuff: having to create ruses to cover up the tunneling attempt (in this case, an oompah band making enough noise to hide the sounds of the drilling), run the risk that there's a traitor in their midst, willing to turn them in to the East German authorities (and the Stasi had a huge reach in East Germany), and the fear of the tunnel caving in, among others. Still, the movie is competenly made.

That having been said, it might have been more interesting to see some escape stories that hewed closer to what really happened, since the truth was often times far more fascinating that what Hollywood could think up. Consider, for example, the family who escaped Czechoslovakia in a "raincoat balloon".