Thursday, December 31, 2009

TCM's delicious irony

It's New Year's Eve, which means special programming on many channels, and TCM is no different. They've put a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock movies on in the morning and afternoon, starting with a short he made in the UK during World War II as part of the war effort, Aventure Malgache, at 6:00 AM ET. The salute concludes with Thelma Ritter eating James Stewart's toast points in Rear Window, at 6:00 PM.

Now, you may ask, what's so special about a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock movies? Especially when Hitchcock is one of the people whose work I've recommended the most over the past two years? In and of itself, nothing. However, somebody in the TCM programming department decided to be a bit evil in a delightful way: the Hitchcock movies are followed by five of The Thin Man movies.

I wish I had thought of it first.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The world against two

The first night of TCM's Star of the Month salute to Humphrey Bogart included Two Against the World, in which Bogart played a member of the sensationalist media. Tonight's prime time Bogart lineup starts with a movie looking at much the same issue, only from a diametrically opposite perspective: Deadline USA, at 8:00 PM ET.

Bogart stars as the editor of The Day, a struggling big-city newspaper that's on the verge of folding in its current format: the publisher has died, and the publisher's widow (Ethel Barrymore, in a very good performance) has decided on the advice of her lawyers to sell the paper to a rival publisher who wants to turn it from a "serious" paper into a tabloid-type newspaper. Worse for poor Bogie, he's been so busy married to the paper that he's almost forgotten about his legal wife (Kim Hunter), who's about to walk out on him.

Into all of this floats a lovely dead body in a high class fur coat. It's fairly obvious that this as some gangster's moll, and while all the tabloids will be thrilled to run the story with screaming headlines and lurid photos, Bogart wants to do more: he thinks this is the perfect story to use as an entry into an exposé on the mob. That having been said, there's not much time for Bogart, since he's up against the deadline of The Day's sale, as well as the obvious people who don't want the story to be told. But Bogart's editor character is the stereotypical righteous and incorruptible man who will go to the ends of the earth to pursue his story and get it out, even if it means standing athwart the presses yelling "STOP!" (And yes, there is a "Stop the presses!" scene in this movie.)

Despite the fact that Deadline USA plumbs a lot of the same depths that the newspaper dramas of the 1930s and 1940s did, and succumbing to many of the stereotypes, it's still a pretty good movie. Bogart gives a good performance, the aforementioned Barrymore is excellent (it's too bad she made about 20 movies from None But the Lonely Heart in 1944 through the end of her life, but almost nothing in the 20 years before that), and there are a lot of good stock newspapermen here: Ed Begley, Paul Stewart, Jim Backus, and the like. Unfortunately, Deadline USA has not been released to DVD, so you're going to have to see it on TCM tonight, or not at all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I see dead people!

TCM's prime-time lineup is honoring some of the people who died in 2009. The night kicks off with On the Waterfront at 8:00 PM ET, which included Karl Malden in the supporting cast, and which also won an Oscar for its writer, Budd Schulberg; both of them died over the summer. I don't know that I've written a full post on On the Waterfront; at least, a search of the Blogger site claims that I haven't done so yet.
Following On the Waterfront, at 10:00 PM, will be TCM's tribute to director John Hughes, Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Then, at midnight, you can watch the late Ricardo Montalban in the excellent World War II movie Battleground.
The last honoree of the night is Patrick McGoohan, who appeared in Ice Station Zebra, which TCM is showing at 2:15 AM.

There are a lot more people who died this past year, of course, but it would take TCM several days to honor them all with more than just a film clip.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Speaking of Marlene Dietrich

The Fox Movie Channel is showing one of Dietrich's smaller performances: that in No Highway in the Sky, tomorrow at noon ET.

The star of the movie is actually James Stewart, playing Theodore Honey, a widowed American aeronautics engineer living and working in the UK with his daughter. He's been working on the design of the Reindeer, a new type of commercial airplane that's gone into service recently, and has come to a frightening conclusion: there's a design flaw that will lead to metal fatigue, and a component failure after a relatively small number of hours of service. His colleagues don't believe him, largely because he's terribly absent-minded and somewhat aloof, too. His suspicion grows, however, when one of the planes breaks up over Newfoundland, and the company sends him across the Atlantic to investigate. Unfortunately for him, though, he's on another Reindeer plane, and one that's perilously close to the amount of service at which it will suffer equipment failure? What's an absent-minded mad scientist to do? Well, one thing Dr. Honey has done is to set up an experiment in the lab, subjecting the plane components to similar stresses as it would suffer in real-world service, although the experiment hasn't had enough time to run its course before Honey has to board the flight to Canada, and it might just fail anyway.

This is James Stewart's film all the way, and he does a fine job. His Dr. Honey is the sort of character that Stewart excelled at playing after his service in World War II: it's a darker character, with an uncomfortable side to him, and not entirely likable despite the fact we know he's the hero and presumably going to be right in the end. It's a much more real person than appeared in a lot of Hollywood movies, but one right up Stewart's alley. As for Marlene Dietrich, she plays one of the passengers on the flight who's seated next to Stewart. The good engineer spends as much time as he can on the flight trying to explain to her that everybody's in mortal danger, and for fairly obvious reasons, she doesn't particularly believe it, although as the flight wears on, she does grow more sympathetic to Dr. Honey's plight. Also appearing is Glynis Johns, playing a stewaress on the flight. Both actresses do a fine job, although it's only in support of Stewart's character.

No Highway in the Sky is an interesting if not perfect movie, and one that somewhat surprisingly hasn't made its way to DVD, so you'll have to catch the Fox Movie Channel's showing.

Frank Capra repeats

TCM has been honoring director Frank Capra on Monday nights this month, and tonight is the final night of that tribute. There are repeats in more ways than one: Capra remade some of his movies over the course of his fairly long career, and TCM is playing the originals followed by the repeats. I've already recommended Lady For a Day in the past, and even then I pointed out that Capra later remade it as Pocketful of Miracles. The two movies are airing back to back, at midnight ET and 1:45 AM respectively.

Before that, however, TCM is showing a pair of movies I haven't seen about heiresses and horse racing: Broadway Bill at 8:00 PM, with Myrna Loy falling in love with Warner Baxter over a horse; followed by the remake Riding High, with Bing Crosby as the male lead.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Marlene Dietrich, 1901-1992

I notice that today marks the birth anniversary of the lovely Marlene Dietrich. I've recommended a few of her movies, but was surprised to see that when I recommended Witness for the Prosecution, I hadn't been bothered to find a photo that goes with the movie, which is a bit of a shame since both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton give such good performances in the movie. So, here they both are.

Of course, in Witness for the Prosecution, we only see Dietrich in black and white. She did make a few movies in color, and when she was younger, she was even more lovely to look at. Such a lovely movie is The Garden of Allah, which I've also recommended in the past. At least in that case, I had the good sense to find some photos, since the movie is so gorgeous to see. (But not so much to watch, since the plot is so inane.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Asphalt Jungle

It's only been four months, but if you missed The Asphalt Jungle the last time it showed up on TCM's Essentials, tonight gives you one more opportunity. It airs at 8:00 PM ET tonight.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cavalcade is back

Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin in 'Cavalcade' (1933)It has been quite some time since I've mentioned Cavalcade, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1933. It's a Fox movie, and I've commented in the past about the Fox Movie Channel's apparent strategy of showing a relatively small number of movies from its library, running them over and over for several months, and then retiring them for a few years. It's been years since Cavalcade aired, since I would have brought it up earlier had the Fox Movie Channel shown it more recently. That having been said, it's finally back, airing at 7:30 AM ET tomorrow. As evidence of FMC's strategy, Cavalcade is currently scheduled for another airing on New Year's Eve, and two more airings in January.

That having been said, January 1, 2010, in being the first day of the new year, also seems to be the first day for some of Fox's old movies to show up again on the FMC, including some I've recommended here in the past.

A Pete Smith specialty

TCM is showing the short Let's Talk Turkey at approximately 2:00 PM ET today, following Christmas in Connecticut. This is one of the hundred or more shorts produced by Pete Smith for MGM from the early 1930s through the early 1950s. Smith had a comedic talent for finding the humorous aspects of everyday life, and his shorts usually have the actors remain silent while Smith provides the humor in his voiceover.

In the case of Let's Talk Turkey, that humor revolves around a newlywed man who has to carve his first holiday turkey -- and, the wife wants him to carve it in front of her family, because she's oh so proud of him. Smith first has an "expert" show us how the task is correctly done, and that expert performs the task accurately and efficiently, quickly ending up with very nice and appetizing pieces of meat, much like on those TV cooking shows. Of course, whenever you try reproducing what the TV chefs do, the result never quite seems to live up to what you see on TV, and that's the case in this short.

It's perfectly entertaining for a one-reeler, and doesn't overstay its welcome.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

J. Carroll Naish learns the meaning of Christmas

TCM is sprinkling a number of Christmas-themed shorts in among the Christmas movies they're showing up until 8:00 PM Christmas night, such as Star in the Night, which will be airing about 12:35 AM overnight tonight, following Chicken Every Sunday.

This retelling of the Nativity tale stars Naish as the proprietor of a desert inn, proud of the big new lighted star he's put on his roof as an advertising symbol. It's Christmas Eve, and our innkeeper is dealing with problems of his own, as well as the fact that the place is full up, and everybody who's a paying customer has problems of their own that are weighing on the proprietor too.

Into all that walks a young couple conveniently named José and Maria. Maria is highly pregnant, and might just have the baby tonight. This puts a pretty big crimp on everybody's plans, but, it's Christmas, so everybody decides to pitch in and make some scrificies of their own for the couple that's got even bigger problems.

It's hokey stuff, to be sure, but then again, it's also Christmas. I've been arguing that a lot of the great Christmas movies are pretty silly, but we watch them because they're also comforting. Star in the Night is no different, except that it's got to pack all of its schmaltz into two reels and the incredibly tight budget that the shorts were under.

Star in the Night has also made its way to DVD, as an extra on a release of Christmas in Connecticut (which I recommended last week, but will be airing againt at 12:15 PM ET on Christmas).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Making faces

1930s comedian Joe E. Brown was known for making strange faces in his movies, but that's not the kind of face-making I have in mind today. For, coming up at midnight ET tonight, TCM is showing Dark Passage. The basic gist fo the story is that Humphrey Bogart has been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, and breaks out of jail in an attempt to clear his name. In order to stay a step ahead of the police, he undergoes plastic surgery, and comes out of it looking amazingly like Humphrey Bogart. This works because the film has a gimmick: the first 45 minutes or so (until Bogart wakes up from the plastic surgery) are filmed as though we're looking through Bogart's eyes. We never actually see what he looked like before the surgery, so for all we know he could have looked like James Cagney, or even Marie Dressler.

There are actually quite a few movies dealing with plastic surgery. Perhaps the best of them all is Eyes Without a Face, although the criminal here isn't the person undergoing the surgery, but the surgeon himself. For an example of escaped convict undergoing plastic surgery in order to conceal his identity in classic Hollywood, there's always Raymond Massey in Arsenic and Old Lace.

The face is the obvious way of concealing one's identity, and Raymond Burr uses this idea in His Kind of Woman: he lures Robert Mitchum to Mexico, with the idea that Mitchum will undergo surgery to be made to look like Burr, at which point Burr would have the Mitchum character killed off so that the authorities would think the ganster had died. (Ever heard of fingerprints and dental records?) A more exotic form of plastic surgery would be Roger Moore as James Bond getting a superfluous third nipple to look like the bad guy in The Man With the Golden Gun.

Perhaps Humphrey Bogart should just have dressed up as Lauren Bacall once he got out of prison. Of course, that's been done multiple times.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Arnold Stang has died

Veteran voice actor Arnold Stang has died. IMDb list his date of birth as 1925, but his family revealed the actual date to be 1918, making Stang 91. Stang did voices for one-reeler cartoons in the 1940s and 1950s, although perhaps his best-known voice work was as Top Cat in the Hanna/Barbera cartoon of the early 1960s. Stang also did live-action work on both TV and in the movies, although almost all of it was in supporting roles of the sort that would have been filled by character actors in a previous generation. The picture at left is Stang, with Frank Sinatra, in The Man With the Golden Arm. Stang also appeared as one of the gas station attendants who sees his station destroyed by Jonathan Winters in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and as a gangster who's a houseguest of Jackie Gleason in Skidoo.

Monday, December 21, 2009

To oomph or not to oomph

Or, Jane Fonda does comedy. One or both is the message of the movie Sunday in New York, airing at 4:00 PM ET this afternoon on TCM.

Fonda plays Eileen, a woman facing a bit of a moral quandary. She's engaged to be married, but her fiancé is pressuring her to have sex before marriage, which she's not so sure she should do. So, she goes down to New York City, to get some advice from her older brother. (Like that's a good idea.) Big brother Adam (Cliff Robertson) tells her she really doesn't have to have sex, and probably shouldn't. But that's a pretty big double standard. Adam, who is a pilot, has his one day off on this Sunday in New York, and he's determined to spend it bedding his girlfriend. And his little sister's visit has put a pretty big kink in his plans. He and his girlfriend go out to try to avoid getting the dreaded call that he has to sub for another pilot on a flight, and when that call comes, lil' sis goes looking for him, literally running into writer Mike (Rod Taylor) along the way. It's love at first sight....

Eventually, our heroine ends up back at the apartment with Mike, having taken him there to get him out of his wet clothes and into a bathrobe so that he can dry off before going back home. But before his clothes can dry, who should show up? Eileen's fiancé Russ (Robert Culp)! She can't tell him that she's got some strange man in just a bathrobe in the apartment, so Mike and Eileen go forward with the lie that Mike is actually Adam. This might just work, if only Adam doesn't suddenly show up (well, it is his apartment). Oh dear, what's a girl to do?

Sunday in New York is a movie that's a bit dated now; after the sexual revolution, almost nobody would be worried about the idea of having sex before getting married, and the ones who didn't want to would seek each other out to the point there wouldn't be any problem. Not only that, but the movie, while possibly seeming a bit racy compared to TV fare of the day like The Dick Van Dyke Show, is really quite tame by 2009 standards. And let's not ask how somebody living on a pilot's salary can live in such a posh Manhattan apartment. Instead, what Sunday in New York shows is that you've got quite a few actors who are better at comedy than one might normally think. Fonda did Cat Ballou and a few other light comedies in her younger days, but Robertson and Taylor didn't do so much. It's nice to see that they were able to carry it off fairly well. Sunday in New York is by no means the best movie ever made, and there's nothing groundbreaking about it, either. It's just one of those competent, enjoyable movies.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Speak of the Devil!

TCM is showing a bunch of "epics" today, and I don't particularly feel like commenting on any of them. The Fox Movie Channel isn't showing much of interest, either. So, it's off to IMDb to see who's got a birthday today....

And wouldn't you know it, but somebody I've mentioned twice within the last week has a birthday today: Dennis Morgan, who was born on this day in 1908.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dinner and a movie

Tonight's TCM Essential, at 8:00 PM ET, is the wonderful comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner.

That man is Monty Woolley, here in the form of popular radio critic Sheridan Whiteside. He's on a speaking tour, and as part of a stop at some small city in the Midwest, he's been invited to dinner at the home of social climbers Ernest and Daisy Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke). However, as he's walking up to the steps into their house, he trips on the ice, breaking his leg. This forces Sheridan into a wheelchair, as well as being forced to stay in the home of the Stanleys for some weeks.

Sheridan immediately sets about becoming the most obnoxious houseguest ever. Since he thinks the Stanleys are at fault for his predicament, and because he's naturally arrogant and self-centered, he insists that they give over the entire ground floor of the house to him and his personal assistant Maggie (Bette Davis, who gets top billing even though Woolley is the real star). This enforced stay in the Midwest has actually been good for her, as she finds herself falling in love with local newspaper reporter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). When Sheridan discovers this, he imports actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to try to take the man away from Maggie. That, however, is not the only thing Sheridan imports; he gets poor put upon nurse Mary Wickes; a brief appearance from Jimmy Durante, doing his best Harpo Marx impersonation; and even several penguins.

The penguins are evidence that The Man Who Came to Dinner is a fairly wild comedy, but it's also a very urbane comedy. It's based on a Broadway play that was hugely popular in the early 1940s, with Woolley in the main role, and includes a lot of references to events and people who would have been well known to the literati of the time. Despite the fact that this dates the movie for younger viewers, most of the comedy translates to any time, making The Man Who Came to Dinner one of the great underrated comedies.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Robert Wagner's bad hair day

One half of the above photo is a publicity still, the other half is a comic strip. I'm not sure which is which. Both, however, have to do with Prince Valiant, a movie version of which was made in 1954 and is showing tomorrow at noon ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Set "in the days of King Arthur", the story in this version involves Norse Prince Valiant (Wagner, complete with a ridiculous wig) having to deal with the fact that his father (Donald Crisp) has had his throne taken from him. So, Valiant goes to England to enlist the help of King Arthur (Brian Aherne), or at least become a Knight of the Round Table and solve problems himself. Valiant's love interest, Aleta, is played here by Janet Leigh, who at least looks the part, while Aleta is also being chased by Gawain, who is played by a terribly miscast Sterling Hayden. There's also evil, in the form of James Mason....

Truth be told, Prince Valiant isn't all that good; it's more fun to watch because of all the big names put in the wrong roles. If you want to ask yourself what poor Sterling Hayden was thinking, you'll get that in spades. If you like swashbuckling, Middle Ages style, with a lot of location shooting, the movie is enjoyable enough, but nothing great, being a bit formulaic and fitting into the genre like a hand in glove. (That's both a plus and a minus; the minus being that you wonder if everybody was just going through the motions.) It'll probably be fairly entertaining for the kiddies, too. If you're trying to introduce people to classic cinema, however, this isn't the movie to do it with. Start with the Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Amazingly, Prince Valiant got a DVD release.

Jennifer Jones, 1919-2009

Block photo Jennifer Jones in 'Portrait of Jennie' (1948)
Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones has died at the age of 90. I've posted a photo of her from Portrait of Jennie, since that's one of my favorite pictures in which she appears, but that's not the movie that won her the Oscar; that was several years earlier in The Song of Bernadette.

Jones was married first to fellow actor Robert Walker, and the two played young lovers in the 1944 movie Since You Went Away, hich must have been tough on them since by the time they were making that movie, their marrige was failing. Eventually, after the marriage ended, Jones went on to marry the film's producer, David O. Selznick, who exercised quite a bit of control in selecting parts for Jones (both before and during the marrigae). Indeed, it was only reading the obituaries that I saw Fox wanted Jones to play the role in Laura that eventually went to Gene Tierney.

Jones retired from moviemaking at a fairly young age, having stopped appearing regularly in the mid-1950s, and making only a few films in the 1960s before her swan song, the 1974 all-star disaster epic The Towering Inferno. Partly as a result of not having made movies for so many years, and partly because she by nature wanted to remain very private, Jnoes isn't as well-remembered today as other actors from her era.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas in Connecticut

TCM has been showing Christmas movies on Thursdays in prime time this month; tonight starts off at 8:00 PM ET with the enjoyable comedy Christmas in Connecticut.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as Elizabeth Lane, a woman writing a Martha Stewart-style column for a popular national magazine, constantly mentioning her Connecticut farmhouse and all the wonderful homestyle things she does there. This all goes well until her publisher, Alexander Yardley (played by Sydney Greenstreet), decides he wants to do something for the war effort at Christmastime. That involves having a sailor, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) spend the holiday with Miss Lane. There's only one problem with this, and it's a big problem. Elizabeth can't even boil water, and her food columns documenting her life in Connecticut have been a complete fabrication; in fact, Elizabeth is an elegant New Yorker with a fine apartment and a taste for the high life. What's such a woman to do? She knows she's going to lose her job if the truth comes out, so she decides to make a new truth, that being the one she's been writing about in her columns.

Needless to say, it's no easy feat. Things get even more complicated when the two leads fall in love, since Elizabeth has been writing about having a husband and baby! But, this is a Christmas movie, and you know that, despite all the comedic entanglements that come from trying to keep up a lie by spinning ever bigger lies, everything is going to come out right in the end. Along the way, though, we get a lot of fun from Stanwyck, who was really adept at comedy, and a supporting cast that glitters. In addition to Greenstreet, there's Una O'Connor playing yet another housekeeper; Reginald Gardiner playing Stanwyck's "husband", actually in love with her despite the fact that she feels nothing for him and a lot for poor Dennis Morgan (who can't quite figure out what's going on), and the ever-enjoyable S.Z. Sakall as the chef who has been providing Elizabeth with all her recipes.

Christmas in Connecticut is nothing groundbreaking, but at the holiday season, it's not always important to have something big and important and snazzy; the same old warm things often do. And Christmas in Connecticut does wonderfully; it's an eminently likeable movie that knows it's nothing more than entertainment, but good entertainment at that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How many times can I recommend Casablanca?

TCM is showing Casablanca once again, at 10:00 PM ET tonight, as part of the Star of the Month Salute to Humphrey Bogart. I've mentioned Casablanca quite a few times before, and am really only pointing it out today because tonight's entire TCM lineup is a good one for introducing people who don't know so much about classic movies to he topic. The night starts off with The Maltese Falcon at 8:00 PM ET, which is another movie that even the casual fan should have heard of. In addition to Bogart, it has Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (both of whom show up in Casablanca), as well as Mary Astor as the girl. The characters are wacky enough, and the story engaging enough, for the movie to be good and nearly timeless. It is, of course, a remake of a 1930s movie, and both are based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Plus, it's got the iconic line about "the stuff that dreams are made of".

The night continues aftre Casablanca with two more equally good (and fairly well-known) Bogart movies: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at midnight, and The African Queen at 2:15 AM. They're all good for the not-so-big fan of old movies. And, as I've argued a few times before, it's good that TCM spends some nights doing this, and not just programming the more obscure stuff like The Return of Doctor X. After all, how many people would realize they might want to try something like The Return of Doctor X without realizing that old movies can be a lot of fun in the first place?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bogart the vampire

TCM is honoring Humphrey Bogart as the Star of the Month for December by showing his movies in 24-hour blocks every Wednesday this month. Tomorrow has one of Bogart's more bizarre films, The Return of Doctor X, at 7:00 AM ET.

This movie was made before Bogart became a big star, so he doesn't show up for a bit. Instead, the movie starts with reporter Wayne Morris interviewing actress Lya Lys in her hotel, and returning later to find her dead! The only thing is, she's not actually dead, as she shows up later seemingly alive, albeit white as a sheet. Our intrepid reporter has some doctor friends, though, so he tells one of them (Dennis Morgan, another reasonably big star surprisingly stuck in a B-movie), who finally decides to join the investigation when a blood donor at his hospital dies. That investigation reveals that every patient with one obscure blood type is going missing. Why?

Well, as is the case in any good horror flick we've got two mad scientists (or a mad doctor and his assistant) on the loose. John Litel is the respectable one, and Bogart is his extremely Caucasian and clammy assistant. That whiteness isn't caused by ethnicity, though; it's a result of a lack of his own blood. Bogart had, in a past life, been a doctor who was executed for his role in a crime several years earlier. Litel's doctor character has been studying synthetic blood, and the possibility of revivifying lower animals -- and even people! However, the blood isn't perfect, as it doesn't give humans the normal skin tone, and it's not a permanent solution either. That would explain why so many people go missing: Bogart needs more and more of their blood!

I suppose I've been a bit misleading in the post title, in that Bogart isn't really playing a vampire here. That having been said, what he is playing in The Return of Doctor X is something quite strange and interesting. This is the sort of movie that had been made the entire decade, with there even being an original Doctor X, which is pretty much unrelated to this one. It's not much better or worse than those other horror flicks, although because it came out much later, there's not much original to it. Indeed, it's the presence of Bogart that makes this film so interesting. This character is so different from everything else he did, and a testament to the studio system -- one can't imagine Bogart picking a role like this of his own volition (and supposedly, he hated this movie). Still, even if it's not that great a movie, it's enjoyable and, at just a little over an hour, not that big a waste of time.

The Return of Doctor X has made its way to DVD, even in a box set with a bunch of other fun horror flicks from the 30s.

Monday, December 14, 2009

More Frank Capra

TCM is putting the spotlight on director Frank Capra every Monday night in December. The movie I'd like to recommend this week is American Madness, airing at 5:15 AM Tuesday.

Walter Huston stars as Dickson, an unconventional bank director in the early days of the Depression. He's got the same sort of belief that George Bailey would have 15 years later in It's a Wonderful Life, that the true strength of the bank lay in the individual depositors, and that it was therefore important ot approve their small loans. This drove the other directors nuts, to the point that they wanted him to resign from the board so that they could merge with another bank. Some of the bank employees liked him, however, such as his secretary (Constance Cummings) and her boyfriend, Huston's assistant (Pat O'Brien). However, there's also another bank officer who's gotten into some financial problems with gambling, and the only way he can get himself out is to let them rob the bank. So, he fiddles with the vault's alarm system timer, implicating O'Brien.

This sets off a string of problems. In addition to O'Brien's being accused of the crime, the bank robbery starts a whispering campaign. Like a game of "Operator", the whispering from one person to the next results in ever higher amounts of money being given as having been lost by the bank, and the depositors become afraid that they're about to lose all of their money. So, they do the logical thing, which is to start a run on the bank. O'Brien, of course, has an alibi: at the time the bank was robbed, he just happened to be in the other officer's apartment. Conveniently, he also saw the other guy carying on an affair with Huston's bored wife -- which makes him reluctant to divulge his alibi, since it would devastate Huston if he found out his wife was cheating on him.

American Madness is never dull, although it's not quite as good as the social commentary movies that were being put out by Warner Bros. at the same time. Walter Huston is one of the more underrated actors of the 1930s, and he gives another very good performance here. Pat O'Brien is Pat O'Brien, which depending on your point of view is either a good thing or a bad thing. I'll be charitable and say he doesn't get in the way of the action. The woman are serviceable, and Gavin Gordon, the actor playing the officer with a gambling debt, shows why he was always relegated to secondary roles. (You can see him in another secondary role tonight, that of Barbara Stanwyck's fiancé in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, at 8:00 PM ET.) Those who enjoy spotting the character actors will also notice Sterling Holloway, whose voice made him somebody you can never overlook. The highlight of the movie, however, is probably the bank run scene, which is grittier than that in It's a Wonderful Life, and probably more realistic, too.

American Madness is one of Frank Capra's lesser known movies, which is one of the reasons it hasn't made its way to DVD yet. So, you'll have to catch the TCM showing tonight.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two more repeats tonight

I can't believe it's been 15 months since I recommended Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. It's airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight on TCM, as part of a tribute to notorious Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Despite having some stuff towards the end about sharing and the "evils" of wanting more, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes isn't nearly as strident as some of Trumbo's other stuff. One of those more strident movies is the second Trumbo movie airing on TCM tonight, Johnny Got His Gun. That, however, is not the second repeat I'm recommending.

Instead, the second repeat is the the Silent Sunday Nights feature, the 1925 version of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. This is the original feature version of the the Roman epic (apparently, there was a two-reel version made all the way back in 1907 that still survives); the four-hour marathon from 1959 starring Charlton Heston is better-known, and will be airing next Sunday (the 20th) on TCM.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Girls gone wild!

TCM is showing the fun romantic comedy Theodora Goes Wild tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET.

Irene Dunne stars as Theodora. She lives in a small town in Connecticut and, unbeknownst to the townsfolk -- or the spinster aunts she lives with (Spring Byington and Elizabeth Risdon) -- she's written a novel. The reason that nobody knows this is because it's a novel almost as steamy as Peyton Place. Having written the book, she has to go to New York City to deal with the publisher, although she's also got an uncle and cousin living there. At the publisher's, she meets the book's cover illustrator, Michael (Melvyn Douglas). He doesn't know anything about her real identity and she, not wanting to give away any hints, tries to portray herself as worldly.

However, things don't go according to plan, and Theodora leaves some ID at Michael's apartment, leading him to come out to Connecticut to figure out what's really going on. In order to buy off his silence, Theodora hires him as the family's gardener. But, it turns out that Michael has a secret too: he's estranged from his wife, and would divorce her if it weren't for the fact that his father is running for political office and the divorce would scupper his chances of election. Still, when Theodora's secret gets out, she decides to reveal Michael's....

Theodora Goes Wild is a pretty wild screwball comedy. Irene Dunne did quite a few of them, notably The Awful Truth, but Melvyn Douglas did slightly more urbane stuff like Ninotchka. Although the movie is a bit predictable in its attitudes toward the straitlaced small towns of the day, it's still quite enjoyable, thanks in no small part to excellent performances from the two leads. For whatever reason, though, Theodora Goes Wild isn't as well-remembered today as other screwball comedies of the era. Thankfully, however, it has been released to DVD, so despite its relative obscurity, you don't have to wait for TCM to show it again.

I knew I did this post before

TCM is showing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at 3:15 PM ET today. Jimmy Stewart stars as the man, and Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, in this story about how somebody becomes a legend in the Old West.

However, the movie starts with the funeral of John Wayne, and tells the story in flashback. I was going to do a story on how this technique has been used in the movies a number of times. But, I did that post back in July. However, at the time, I hadn't mentioned The Barefoot Contessa, which uses a similar structure, and which just showed up on TCM the other day.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I've made mention of D.O.A. in passing in a couple of my posts, and am pleased to see that it's airing today at 5:15 PM ET on TCM.

Edmond O'Brien stars as an accountant in a sleepy California town who has to go to San Francisco one weekend. On his first night out, he goes to a bar where he gets the hangover to end all hangovers: he wakes up the next morning sick enough to have need of a doctor, and the doctor kindly informs him that somebody slipped him "luminous toxin" in his drink, and that our hero now has only a few days to live. Who would poison a poor guy like O'Brien? And why? Well, the only way that this account will figure it out is to do the figuring himself. And so, he sets of on a journey into his past clients, believing that perhaps he had done work for somebody he shouldn't have, and hoping he can figure out who killed him before he actually dies....

D.O.A. is a very interesting little movie. It's one of those mystery-flashbacks like The Big Clock, except that it's got a budget that's quite a bit smaller. Still, it's got more than enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, and characters that are never boring, either. Interestingly, both D.O.A. and The Big Clock were remade in the 1980s.

D.O.A. has made its way to DVD, largely because at some point along the way, it fell into the public domain. So watch out that you don't get a bad print of the movie.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Compare and Contrast

I've mentioned in the past (has it really been a year already?) that Cary Grant's last movie, Walk, Don't Run, is a remake of a 1943 classic, The More the Merrier. TCM has scheduled the two movies back-to-back today so that you can watch both of them if you wish and decide for yourself which one is the better movie. The remake comes first, at 4:00 PM ET, followed by the original at 6:00 PM.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Speaking of Bogart and Cagney

I mentioned both Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in my post yesterday, and they starred in a strange movie together: The Oklahoma Kid, which TCM is showing tonight at 8:00 PM ET. What's so strange about it? As you might be able to guess from the name, the two made a western together.

Cagney plays the title character, the "Oklahoma Kid". He is a bandit who comes into town at just the right time: he's able to stop Whip McCord (Bogart) and his gang from committing a stagecoach hold-up. This bothers Whip, but he's got other things on his mind, such as running all the vice in town. Of course, he's got adversaries in the form of the local judge (Donald Crisp) and his daughter (Rosemary Lane), as well as the Kincaids; father (Hugh Sothern) is running for mayor, and the son (Harvey Stephens) is running for sheriff. Whip is going to have to get them out of the way, so he gets the Kincaids framed on murder charges. This is a big mistake though: nobody realizes that the Oklahoma Kid's real name is Jim Kincaid, and that he's the brother and son of the other Kincaids. Jim's finding out about the nefarious business is bound to lead to a western-style showdown, as well as Jim's getting the girl....

Truth be told, it's strange seeing both Cagney and Bogart in a western, even if it is one with a plot that would fit in with any of the gangster movies they were making in the 1930s. Bogart tries hard and doesn't do all that badly, but Cagney, for all his trying, always looks like the proverbial sore thumb, to the point that the movie is almost laughable. Surely, the folks at Warner Bros. knew that Cagney was miscast; legend has it that Humphrey Bogart saw Cagney in his ten-gallon hat and said Cagney looked like a mushroom! If the movie had been made as a straight-up gangster movie, it would be competent, if not as memorable as the other movies Cagney and Bogart were making in the 30s; as a western, though, it's a sight to behold, just to wonder what the suits were thinking.

Surprisingly, The Oklahoma Kid seems not to have been released to DVD. So, you'll have to watch it on TCM tonight.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Crime School

I've mentioned the Humphrey Bogart movie Crime School briefly in the past, as it's a remake of the fun James Cagney movie The Mayor of Hell. Now that TCM is honoring Bogart as Star of the Month, and showing a bunch of his movies, we have the chance once again to watch Crime School, at 8:45 AM ET tomorrow.

Guest Programmer: Neko Case

I'd never heard of singer-songwriter Neko Case before, but she shows up on TCM tonight as the monthly Guest Programmer, to sit down and discuss four of her favorite movies with Robert Osborne. Now, I've argued in the past that one of the good things about the Guest Programmers is that it's a good way to introduce people who might not normally be fans of classic movies to some great old films. So, it doesn't really matter whether or not somebody like me has never heard of Neko Case. If some of the peoplw who are fans of her tune in and find out that there's a wealth of great old movies out there, then great.

Actually, Case isn't presenting just four movies. Sure, she picked out four feature movies, but following each of those movies, she's also selected one of the Dogville shorts, which should be an interesting experience for non-movie buffs. (As for people who don't need the inducement of a Guest Programmer to watch lots of TCM, I know some would complain about Case's selection of feature films, but her picking the Dogville shorts is by itself worthy of making her a fun Guest Programmer.)

For the record, the Dogville shorts will be airing tonight as follows:

The Dogway Melody airs just after 9:30 PM ET, following Radio Days (starting at 8:00 PM);
The prison-themed The Big Dog House is around 12:25 AM ET, after evil Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd at 10:15 PM;
Trader Hound will air at about 2:50 AM, after The Third Man at 1:00 AM; and
So Quiet on the Canine Front can be seen at approximately 5:25 AM, following The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Speaking of Frank Capra

I mentioned yesterday evening that TCM is showing Frank Capra's Why We Fight documentary series this morning and afternoon. In fact, TCM is spending the month honoring the director, by showing a bunch of his films every Monday evening in prime time. Capra won the Best Director Oscars, and TCM is kicking off the salute by showing those three movies tonight in succession, staring with 1934's It Happened One Night at 8:00 PM ET. That's followed at 10:00 PM by Mr. Deeds Comes to Town, and at midnight by You Can't Take it With You. I've also recommended Arsenic and Old Lace before; that's airing at 2:15 AM.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Correction and a recommendation

I'm sorry to say that I got the wrong date for Nightmare Alley. It's airing next Monday (the 14th) at 10:00 AM. This Monday at that time (the 7th), the Fox Movie Channel is showing the excellent, and already recommended, Night Train to Munich. (Actually, it starts at 9:30 AM.)

Over on TCM, they're honoring Pearl Harbor Day tomorrow by showing all seven parts of Frank Capra's Why We Fight series, staring with Prelude to War at 10:30 AM ET. (I have to admit I've never seen these, so I can't comment more about them.)

The original geek

Nowadays, we think of geeks as computer-savvy types, or other nerd-like people. The term actually dates back a century or more, however, and referred not to computer-types, since there were no computers then, but a type of carnival performer who shocked the crowds by biting the heads off of live animals. This use of "geek" can be seen in the movie Nightmare Alley, showing up tomorrow at 10:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Tyrone Power stars as a carny whose job it is to draw people in to the act of phony mentalist Zeena (played by Joan Blondell). She's got an alcoholic husband (Ian Keith), but stays with him because twenty years earlier, the two of them had a very successful vaudeville mentalist act based on an elaborate code. Everybody would like that code, but the two aren't about to give it out. That is, not until the husband dies when Power mistakenly gives him some of Zeena's wood alcohol. Power eventually learns Zeena's code, and falls in love with fellow carnival performer Coleen Gray, making her a partner in what is going to be his new mentalist act.

This act becomes a huge hit on the Chicago nightclub circuit, wowing the upper class of Chicago society, and intriguing psychologist Helen Walker, who knows there has to be a code of some sort, but is unable to figure it out. It turns out, as well, that she's got a secret behind her work as well -- namely, that she's been recording the sessions with her patients, and when Power figures this out, he engages in a mutual blackmail plot with the head-shrinker to bilk her patients out of their money; he using the information gleaned from her analysis recordings. Needless to say, this goes against all the virtues of the Production Code, so you know it's not going to end up well for poor Tyrone Power.

Power's fall is just as swift as his rise, and almost as shocking, as he ends up reminiscent of Zeena's late husband. Although his partner Gray is horrified by the way he's bilking those rich people, she's still in love with him and willing to stay with him, if only she could find him -- she's had to go back to the carnival. The psychiatrist's fate is left largely unexamined. Surely she should have her license revoked for what she did, but the film doesn't focus on this. That's because the movie is about Power and his character, and he give a performance to match.

Fox has released a lot of its 1940s noirs to DVD, and even though Nightmare Alley isn't quite as much of a noir as a lot of movies, it still got released to DVD as part of the Fox noir set. At least it's been released to DVD.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Richard Todd, 1919-2009

Richard Todd in 'The Dam Busters'

I just read the news that Richard Todd, who played the lead role in the great British war movie The Dam Busters, has died at the age of 90. The real-life Todd served in World War II, taking part in the D-Day invasion, before making a movie about that day, D-Day, the Sixth of June. Todd made several other movies at Fox in the US, but will probably be best remembered for The Dam Busters.

Richard Burton does Shakespeare

Richard Burton did quite a bit of Shakespeare when he was on stage, but not so much in film. So, it's an interesting historical document in more ways than one to be able to see Prince of Players, which the Fox Movie Channel is airing tomorrow at 8:00 AM ET.

Richard Burton stars in this movie as Edwin Booth, a name that should sound familiar to Americans at least. Edwin was the son of Junius Brutus (played here by Raymond Massey), and the brother of John Wilkes (played by John Derek). The father and both brothers were Shakespearean actors of the mid-19th century, although of course John Wilkes went on to something much more (in)famous.

Prince of Players opens near the end of Junius' life. This being the days before the movies, actors had to do extensive touring, and this combined with Junius' alcoholism cut Junius' life short, and forced Edwin to spend a lot of time looking after his father when in fact he'd rather be acting himself. Instead, it was John Wilkes who was being groomed by the family to be the actor. But, with Junius' sudden death while on tour, Edwin was forced into action and seized the opportunity, becoming the great Shakespearean actor of his generation. John Wilkes was rather less successful, jealous of his brother's success, and, as a southerner, began developing other interests....

Or so goes the story in Prince of Players. This being a Hollywood biopic, I don't know exactly how much of the movie is accurate, particularly the melodramatic final scene. Still, it's not exactly a bad movie. In addition, it's made more interesting by the fact that, as a movie about a Shakespearean actor, it's got several scenes that involve people performing the Bard's plays. We get to see Raymond Massey do Shakespeare at the beginning, and Burton several times over the course of the film, but no John Derek. (Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a question left to the reader.) Most entertaining might be a re-enactment of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, set here at a New Orleans brothel! However, the more worthwhile thing is watching Burton with a couple of people who had started on stage: Ian Keith (who did a lot of movies) plays the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Eva La Gallienne (who did very little film) plays Hamlet's mother.

Prince of Players hasn't been released to DVD, and what makes this doubly sad is that the last time the Fox Movie Channel showed it, they showed a panned-and-scanned version of it. This is particularly ironic considering that the opening frames that introduce the movie as a Cinemascope production, standard to all of Fox's stuff of that era, were left in.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What's not in a name?

According to the IMDb, today is the 92nd birthday of the actress Movita. Yes, that's just Movita; although the lady had a last name it was often not used. This isn't as uncommon as one might think; in addition to all the rapper who have made-up one word names today, there are other singers-turned-actresses like Madonna and Cher (who, to her credit, has actually won an Oscar).

But, as with Movita, it's also not a new phenomenon. Apparently, it was considered "exotic" to bring in a foreign actress, and use either only her surname or her given name. Ann-Margret has made a whole bunch of movies not using her familiy name (for the record, it's Olsson). When Alida Valli first started making English-language movies, such as The Paradine Case and The Third Man, she was only credited as "Valli". (At least audiences didn't get Frankie Valli in these parts.)

It's not just the women who do it; think of the famous Mexican actor Cantinflas. And, it's not just the people in front of the camera. Using just one name seems to be a surprisinly common practice for costume designers: Irene, Adrian, Renié, and Travilla (the last name of a man, William Travilla) all spring to mind; there's also the hyphenated Orry-Kelly and Jean-Louis.

Finally, there are a couple of composers who come to mind. In the movie Detour, composer Leo Erdody only uses her last name. And, of course, there's multiple Oscar nominee Frank de Vol, who later in his career ditched the last name, giving the screen credit, "Music by de Vol", as though this somehow made his music more elegant.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Comcast buying NBC/Universal

The news has been announced that cable giant Comcast and General Electric have apparently reached a deal for Comcast to get a majority stake of NBC/Universal and the various properties it owns.

What does this mean for us classic movie fans? Probably not much. NBC/Universal of course owns the Universal Studios movie library, as well as several hundred Paramount titles from the dawn of the sound era through the end of the 1940s, which Paramount had sold to MCA back in the 1950s when nobody realized just how big of a business showing old stuff on TV was going to become. NBC/Universal also runs a bunch of cable channels, although currently none of them that I can think of show much in the way of classic movies.

If the takeover does affect us, it's probably in a rise in the price of our cable or satellite bills. Comcast owns the sports channel Versus, and has apparently been trying to jack up the rice for carriage rights, to the point that DirecTV decided it won't pay what Comcast is asking. That having been said, I'm surprised NBC/Universal never even really seemed to try to figure out a way to make money of all those old movies. Apparently it really is more profitable to show crummy infomercialslate at night instead of the library of movies they own.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Star of the Month: Humphrey Bogart

TCM's Star of the Month for December, 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, and they're honoring him by showing some 60 of his movies. In order to do that, they need to devote one entire 24-hour block each week to him. That started at 6:00 AM this morning, and will continue every Wednesdy throughout the month. By the time this gets posted, you'll have missed Three on a Match, but of course I've already recommended it, and it's made its way to DVD as well. A Bogart movie that's even less known is One Fatal Hour (also known as Two Against the World), airing at 5:00 AM ET tomorrow morning.

Bogart stars as a programmer at a New York radio station that's losing the ratings war. In order to try to get people to tune in, they come up with a lurid idea: find Martha Carstairs, a woman who was involved in a celebrated murder case 20 years earlier, and run a series of programs about the case leading up to revealing the whereabouts of the real-life Martha in the last episode. Unfortunately for the radio people, the poor woman has tried to live a respectable life since the trial, remarrying to a good man, and having a daughter who is now engaged to be married into the uppercrust. It goes without saying that the intrusion of the media turns everybody's lives upside-down. Not only is Martha furious because she wanted to leave her past in the past; the incident threatens her completely innocent daughter's marriage.

Bogart was not yet an A-list star when he made One Fatal Hour, meaning that we "only" get him in a zippy B-movie here. That having been said, it is fast-paced and, while not without its flaws (the rest of the cast besides Bogart is decidedly even less than B-list), Bogart does a good job, and the under-an-hour running time means you'll never be bored. That having been said, One Fatal Hour is a remake of a much better movie, 1931's Five Star Final, which starred Edward G. Robinson and was set in the newspaper world. Neither movie seems to have been released to DVD, which is a shame.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

You have to love casting of historical movies

TCM is showing a night of movies about explorers tonight, starting at 8:00 PM ET with The Far Horizons, a movie about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Now, I have to admit that I haven't seen the movie before, and so can't comment much on it, but the casting looks hilarious: Fred MacMurray gets top billing as Meriwether Lewis. (Clark is played by Charlton Heston, who had played other historical figures in his career, notably Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady, and wasn't that bad playing Jackson.) If MacMurray is bad enough, consider that their Indian guide, Sacajawea, is played by... Donna Reed. Yikes.

There are lots of bad casting decisions out there, with historical movies being a good source for such miscasting. If you get the chance to see the Fox movie The Virgin Queen (about Elizabeth I of England) or Esther and the King (about the Old Testament book of Esther and ancient Persia), you can see in both movies... Joan Collins. I've also mentioned Cary Grant before, complete with dreadful wig, in the Revolutionary War movie The Howards of Virginia.

Of course, there are actors who were fine doing historical movies. Spencer Tracy showed up last week as the captain of the Mayflower in Plymouth Adventure, and was quite good in it. He also does pretty good work in the Revolutionary War movie Northwest Passage.

Charles Laughton, however, might be the best of the classic era actors when it comes to historical work. He was outstanding as Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII, did a good job as Rembrandt, and was even an enjoyable Emperor Nero in The Sign of the Cross. Never mind what might be his most famous role, as Capt. Bligh in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty.