Sunday, February 28, 2010

TCM schedule warning

TCM is listing the short Calgary Stampede as airing at 5:41 AM ET tomorrow morning (March 1). It's a two-reeler looking at the famous Calgary Stampede rodeo as it was back in the late 1940s.

However, TCM's schedule also lists Lolita as starting at 4:30 AM ET on March 1. Lolita runs 153 minutes, which would put the ending at just after 7:00 AM. The feature that follows Lolita is Madame Bovary, which according to the schedule airs at 7:30 AM. That leaves a 25-minute or so gap between the two features, which is more than enough time to fit in the 18-minute Calgary Stampede.

Assuming Calgary Stampede does come on, it should be airing at just after 7:00 AM.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


By now, you've probably heard about the earthquake that struck Chile in the early hours of this morning. Truth be told, I can't think of any Studio Era Holywood movies that dealt with Chile. For the most part, when Hollywood went to South America, they either flew down to Rio, or went to Argentina (Don Ameche in Down Argentine Way or Greta Garbo in The Temptress). So, that leaves us with movies about earthquakes.

The obvious first movie to think of is San Francisco, one of the movies that dealt with the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. However, California isn't the only part of the world subject to seismic activity. The other edge of the Pacific is, too, and Japan got hit by an earthquake in Penny Serenade. The earthquake sequence is small, but pivotal to the plot: it causes Irene Dunne's character to have a miscarriage, and apparently makes her unable to bear children of her own at all, which leads her and husband Cary Grant to adopt a child, which is the main thrust of the movie.

There are earthquakes in Italy too, although Hollywood movies dealing with geologic activity in Italy have generally dealt with the volcano Mount Vesuvius, thanks to its eruption having led to the destruction of Pompeii. However, The White Sister, originally made as a silent with Lilian Gish and remade with Helen Hayes, deals with an earthquake in Naples.

Real earthquakes have also figured in the history of Hollywood. In March, 1933, an earthquake struck Long Beach, California, not too far from Hollywood. One of the movies which was filming at the very moment the earthquake struck was Gold Diggers of 1933, specifically the "Shadow Waltz" number seen in the photo here with the ridiculously curving staircases. It apparently caused quite a scare for all those dancing violinists on the stairs.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Island in the Sky

I've briefly mentioned the John Wayne movie Island in the Sky a few times in the past. Considering the snowstorm that finally came round these parts, more or less, it might be an appropriate movie to watch. However, there was an earlier movie also titled Island in the Sky, which has nothing to do with the John Wayne movie, other than sharing a common title. This earlier movie is airing tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

A young Gloria Stuart (yes, the same woman who would go on to appear as an elderly lady in James Cameron's Titanic) plays a woman engaged to a district attorney. While celebrating their engagement, he gets called to investigate a murder. She, being his secretary, goes along, but quickly begins to get a sinking suspicion that the police have gotten the wrong man. So, she begins to investigate the case herself.

It's a trite plot, but the sort of thing that B movie makers were doing a lot of in the 1930s. In the case of Island in the Sky, it's not bad, but there's nothing memorably great about it either -- just a little movie that's good enough to pass 70 minutes with. Well, there is the fact that Gloria Stuart is in it, too.

This version of Island in the Sky hasn't been released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch it on the Fox Movie Channel.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Young Burt Lancaster

Or, at least as young as you're going to get him. TCM is showing Burt Lancaster's first movie, The Killers, tonight at 8:00 PM ET. It made Lancaster a star, and rightfully so.

Lancaster plays "Swede", and at the beginning of the movie we find him in a dirty rooming house in a small town in New Jersey. There are two people looking for him, having stopped off at the local diner to find out where Swede is staying, and when they find out, they go up to his room... to kill him! More surpisingly, Swede is not only expecting these two men to come for him, he seems comfortable with their coming and resigned to the fact that he was going to die. All this happens in the first five or ten minutes of the movie, and if that's all there was, it wouldn't be much of a story.

So, we quickly find out that the deceased Swede had taken out a life insurance policy. Word of Swede's death reaches the home office of the insurance company, who have to pay out, which presents a bit of a problem. Nobody's really quite sure where to find the beneficiary, or the exact circumstances of Swede's murder. So, it's up to insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) to get the answers.

It's here that the story really picks up. As Reardon investigates, he meets people who had known Swede, and we learn about Swede's life in a series of flashbacks. It turns out that Swede started out as a boxer, but things didn't go so well for him, so he ended up getting involved with a bunch of criminals. As we've seen in movies like The Asphalt Jungle, this is bound to go wrong, and eventually, the members of the gang turn on one another, with Swede coming to the small town where he'd get murdered to try to get away from the gang.

Lancaster is quite good in his first movie, but he's not the only good one. In fact, the entire ensemble cast is pretty darn good. In addition to Lancaster and the already mentioned O'Brien, there's Ava Gardner as the femme fatale; veteran character actors such as Sam Levene and Albert Dekker (as a cop and the gang capo, respectively) and, as the hired killers at the beginning of the movie, Charles McGraw (whom you might recall from The Narrow Margin) and future TV star William Conrad.

The Killers has been released to DVD, but it's part of the Criterion Collection, which means it's a bit pricey.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rooms at the top

I'm snowed in today, and have a good deal of shoveling to do, so this morning only sees a lazy list post. I recommeded the movie Room at the Top last May, and would have thought about doing a full-length post on the movie today if I hadn't already done so. That's because TCM has it on the schedule for 5:15 AM ET tomorrow.

There are other rooms at the top of buildings, however, and another one features in a movie TCM is showing: The Diary of Anne Frank, which comes up at 8:00 PM tonight. An attic also plays a pretty important part in Gaslight.

One more that I've recommended in the past is Baby Face, which shares with Room at the Top the idea that once you get to the top, it's not all that it's cracked up to be.

I also saw the movie Penthouse (nothing to do with dirty magazines) the last time it aired on TCM, but I have to admit that it's one of those movies I don't remember too well.

What's your favorite attic or rooftop movie?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Charles Laughton doing comedy

TCM's prime time lineup tonight kicks off with the interesting comedy Ruggles of Red Gap, at 8:00 PM ET.

The title is interesting in that Ruggles refers to the name of Laughton's character, Marmaduke Ruggles, as well as the name of one of the other stars, comic actor Charlie Ruggles. Charlie Ruggles' character is not named Ruggles, however, but Egbert Flout. He's a cattle rancher from Red Gap, Washington, USA, who's been dragged to Paris by his overbearing wife Effie (Mary Boland) who is attempting to get her husband some culture in him. However, he'd be happer playing poker, and in one of the poker games, he wins the contract of Marmaduke Ruggles, who is the valet of and English earl (played by Roland Young).

Egbert doesn't really need a valet, but the Mrs. could certainly find a man around the house to do some of the chores helpful. So, the two bring Marmaduke back to the American West with them. Having been introduced to the USA, though, and not particularly caring for Mrs. Floud, Marmaduke if anything becomes the embodiment of the American melting pot. He becomes just as American as everybody else in town (accent aside), and decides he wants to get his own piece of the American dream by opening up a restuarant, helped ably by ZaSu Pitts, with whom he's also beginning to fall in love.

Charlie Ruggles, you'd expect to find in a comedy; Laughton, not so much. One of the results of this is that Charlie Ruggles does just as good a job as you'd expect him to do (and it's a pretty darn good job at that). Laughton, on the other hand, surprises. He was such a good actor that he could do all sorts of things, and comedy turns out to be just one more thing he could do well. The only false step he makes isn't even really his fault; it's a scene in which he shows that he's become more American than everybody else in town by reciting the Gettysburg Address. It's a stilted scene, and one that looks as though it was shoehorned into the movie, but Laughton does the best he can with it.

Ruggles of Red Gap has been released to DVD, but is apparently only available at Amazon.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Hollywood Revue is airing again

It's been a good 18th months since I recommended the movie The Hollywood Revue of 1929. If anything, it means that this is one of those movies that TCM airs very rarely. However, it's showing up again today, at 4:00 PM ET. It also says something about the folks who did the Oscar nominations that The Hollywood Revue got a nomination for Best Picutre! The movie that won, The Broadway Melody, is airing immediately before The Hollywood Revue, at 2:00 PM. As I also mentioned a long time ago, both of these movies are very creaky early musicals, with the camera basically set at the back of the theater filming the action on stage. It wasn't until Busby Berkeley came along and did the choreography for 42nd Street that the Hollywood musical really took off. 42nd Street happens to be airing tomorrow morning at 8:45 AM.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I thought I'd already blogged about...

The Solid Gold Cadillac. TCM is showing it overnight at 2:30 AM ET, and I was going just to mention the fact that it was coming up, with a link back to the old blog post on it. But, there doesn't seem to be any "old post" on the movie, so I have to blog about it now instead.

Judy Holliday, that great comic actress of the 1950s, stars as Laura Partridge. She's a small shareholder in a large conglomerate, and she exercises her right to speak at the annual shareholders' meeting. And boy does she pester the board with questions. She's not evil, to be sure; if anything, she's just a bit ignorant about the way big business works, and so asks so many questions that the board just wishes she'd finally be done with it already. They'd like to shut her up, but that would be bad PR. So, they come up with a better idea: give her a make-work job, specifically one of being a PR director, dealing with all the questions of the other small shareholders. She'll spend so much time answering the shareholder questions that she won't have time to bother the board any more.

Still, Miss Partridge takes her job seriously, including getting in touch with the former CEO, Edward McKeever (Paul Douglas). He's been sent to Washington on a "dollar a year" job that basically involves lobbying the government to get contracts for his old conglomerate. This begins to get Laura concerned, but she becomes even more concerned when she learns from a small shareholder married to an employee that one of the many subsidiaries of the conglomerate is being driven out of business. When she investigates, she discovers that the subsidiary is being annihilated -- by the conglomerate itself! What's a woman to do? Well, she figures that the only thing she can do is to get all the small shareholders together and debate this at the next shareholders' meeting, voting in a new board if push comes to shove.

Solid Gold Cadillac is an enjoyable enough movie, but it suffers a bit from being too predictable. You know that the movie is going to have a happy ending, as well as that Partridge and McKeever are going to fall in love along the way. If anything, it's almost too reminiscent of Born Yesterday, in which Holliday plays another woman who learns a thing about the business world and its nexus with politics. Still, Holliday doesn't fail to deliver a delightful performance. Paul Douglas is one of those actors who played a lot of great secondary roles, but never got to be as famous as the quality of his work would have merited. It's probably because he wasn't the best-looking man out there. Thankfully, we have his work, which stands the test of time.

Solid Gold Cadillac was released to DVD several years ago, but has apparently fallen out of print.

Belated Sadie Hawkins Valentine's Day

TCM is showing On the Waterfront at 8:00 PM this evening. They've been running a "Word of Mouth" piece about the movie in which several more current actors discuss the movie and the influence it had on them. One of the actors (I think it's Edward Norton) comments that it's actually a good movie for women, and the wouldn't go out with any woman who doesn't like On the Waterfront. It's an interesting thought.

Yes, the movie is mostly about men, and very masculine topics. Not only is it set on the docks, with manual labor, but there's a good deal of violence in the form of the union-initiated violence, and the fact of Marlon Brando's having been a boxer. Some of that boxer's violence comes out later in the movie when Brando goes running up to Eva Marie Saint's apartment, where he breaks down the door and kisses her against her will when she won't let him in.

That kiss, however, is part of what makes the movie one for women. Well, not just that women want to see kissing and cuddling on the screen more than men do, but that this is emblematic of the fact that On the Waterfront is about more than the violence, but about one man's struggle against that violence, helped both by a man of God (Karl Malden), and the woman he falls in love with.

I don't know that I would go quite so far as to have the attitude that how dare women not like On the Waterfront, but it is a movie that, in spite of it violent themes, offers a lot for women.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Thank you IMDb

Normally, if I can't think of an idea for a blog post, I go to IMDb and look at the list of people who were born "on this day". Unfortunately, IMDb have changed this list. In the past, there was a nice two-colum list, with the people listed in chronological order. Child actors (that is, those who are only turning 10 or 12 or even younger) would be at the top of the first column, with the second column usually starting off with people born around, say, 1950, and going progressively further back in time. It's a pretty good way of sorting the people, especially if you want to see who has a milestone birthday. I suppose some people might prefer all the people to be listed in alphabetical order, and that wouldn't be such a bad idea, either. Indeed, I've long wished that when several people share a date and year of birth -- and with people in the 30-50 age range, there can sometimes be as many as two dozen people with the exact same date of birth -- they would be sorted alphabetically.

IMDb has changed all this, but not in a good way. When I looked at today's info, there were ten people listed as having birthdays today and ten listed as having died, with links to the full lists. (Seemingly gone are the marriages.) The ten seem to be listed in some order of fame; at least a few well-known people like Sidney Poitier are listed for today's births, and almost all of the deceased are pretty famous. (Although, I'd never heard of Lauren Ambrose or Willie Garson.) The links to the entire list are similarly jumbled, making it difficult if not impossible to find a character actor or costume designer. Worse, there doesn't seem to any way to have the list be changed to either alphabetical or chronological, which ought to be a pretty darn easy thing to do with a database.

So, I went over to the IMDb boards to comment on this and ask how to get the old lists back. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I've got cookies set to keep me logged in, when I tried to start a new thread, I got a message saying they wanted to "verify" my account, which would involve giving them credit card information or allowing them to send me a text message, neither of which I really want to do.

Thank you for screwing things up, IMDb.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kathryn Grayson, 1922-2010

Kathryn Grayson seen with Gene Kelly (l.) and Frank Sinatra (r.) in a publicity still from the 1945 movie Anchors Aweigh

Kathryn Grayson, the star of a string of MGM musicals from the 1940s and 1950s, died earlier this week at the age of 88. To be honest, I'm not that familiar with her work, since I've mentioned before that I'm not such a big fan of musicals. But that's not to say that the people who made the musicals weren't talented.

In Grayson's case, one of those talents was her operatically-trained singing. (Perhaps she should have done some of the singing on Carmen Jones.) Grayson had intended to become an opera singer, but signed a Hollywood contract when she was young, and delayed those opera dreams by 15 or 20 years. Grayson retired from Hollywood in the mid 1950s in order to go back to opera, though.

TCM hasn't announced any change in their lineup to honor Grayson, which is unsurprising since they're in the middle of their annual 31 Days of Oscar salute.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Free Soul

It may not be Lionel Barrymore's best performance, but it's the one that won him an Oscar: that of alcoholic defense attorney Stephen Ashe in A Free Soul, airing at 9:45 PM ET tonight.

The movie starts off quite provocatively, with the lawyer wondering how his daughter Jan (Norma Shearer) can fit into some flimsy clothing. It turns out that while they have a close relationship, he's the black sheep of the family, due to his heavy drinking and the fact he has no qualms defending gangsters, while her bohemian nature hasn't won her too much sympath, either. Indeed, that work gets him in trouble when, at what is supposed to be a dinner for Jan and her fiancé Dwight (Leslie Howard), Stephen shows up with the notorious gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable, in the role that made him a star), having just gotten Ace off a murder rap.

It's fairly easy to figure out what happens next: Jan finds Ace exciting, especially compared to the strait-laced Dwight, and runs off with him. This won't do for anybody, as Stephen at least has some morals, realizing that Ace is not the right man for his daughter. So, he makes a deal with her: he'll stop drinking, if she promises to stop cavorting with Ace Wilfong. The two go to the mountains to get their respective vices out of their systems. And, it works for a while, until Stephen starts drinking again, at which point Jan decides to go back to Ace. But he's not so good to her any more, and she finds that when she wants to break away from him, he's not about to let her....

The conflict is resolved by poor milquetoast Dwight. Having lost his girl, he feels he has nothing to live for, sohe gets a gun and shoots poor Ace in cold blood. This was Hollywood in 1931. A few years later the Production Code would be strictly enforced, and Dwight would be forced to pay for his sins, with no doubt about it. However, at this time, it was still theoretically possible to get away with murder, and the writers give Dwight an unrealistic self-defense alibi that ought not hold up in a real court of law. And it shouldn't hold up in A Free Soul either -- unless Stephen can make the case for Dwight. Of course, Stephen is a drunk again, and defending Dwight may just kill him.

It's the climactic courtroom scene in which Barrymore defends Howard (and, by extension, his daughter's honor) that won him the Oscar. Norma Shearer was also nominated, although she had won the previous year for The Divorcee. Perhaps the Academy didn't want to award the same person the Oscar in back-to-back years and, fortunately for them, they had another outstanding performance they could award, that of Marie Dressler in Min and Bill. (That's Dressler standing next to Barrymore, each of them holding their Oscars.) Barrymore's and Shearer's acting may seem a bit florid today, but the movie is still worth watching, especially for Gable's performance. It's been released to DVD, as part of one of the Forbidden Hollywood boxsets of pre-Code movies.

(When I wrote about Min and Bill back in August 2008, it had not yet been released to DVD. However, TCM has since put it out as part of the TCM Vault Collection.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Arthur Kennedy, 1914-1990

Arthur Kennedy (at the podium) drumming up support for a wrongly accused boy in a way that disgusts Glenn Ford in Trial (1955). Photo courtesy Life magazine

Today marks the birth anniversary of Arthur Kennedy, a veteran supporting actor who, like Thelma Ritter, was nominated several times without ever winning an Oscar. I've recommended his work in Trial before, one of his four Supporting Actor nods. Apparently, it still hasn't been released to DVD, not even to the TCM Vault Collection, which is a real shame. Another of the nominations came in Peyton Place, where he plays the drunken stepfather of Hope Lange. One of Kennedy's earlier roles came as the wrongly accused man that Dana Andrews gets off the hook in Boomerang!, although this didn't earn him attention from the Academy.

Unlike Ritter, Arthur Kennedy did get one Best Actor nomination, for playing a blind World War II veteran in Bright Victory.

Five Star Final

I've briefly mentioned the movie Five Star Final a few times in the past, notably for the fact that it's the original version of Humphrey Bogart's early One Fatal Hour. It doesn't air too often, but TCM is showing Five Star Final tomorrow morning at 8:45 AM ET.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reacting is acting, too

Sometimes, the purpose of a role in a movie is to serve as a bouncing-off point for the actions of the main character. I've mentioned the movie The Bellboy before, in which Bob Clayton's function as Jerry Lewis' boss is pretty much just an impetus for Lewis to perform each of his funny sketches. A different type of impetus comes in the comedy The Sunshine Boys, which TCM is showing overnight tonight at 12:15 AM ET.

Walter Matthau stars as aging actor and former vaudevillian Willy Clark, who was part of the famous comedy team Lewis and Clark back in the day, but is now struggling to find work even though he doesn't want to retire. Fortune smiles upon him though (or at least, seems to) when a TV producer wants to do a special on the history of American comedy, and bring back Lewis and Clark for one performance as part of that special.

The only problem is, Lewis and Clark haven't seen each other in a decade, and the duo broke up in part because of the death of Lewis' wife, and in part because they ended up at each other's throats. Lewis (played by George Burns) is retired now, and it takes quite some convincing for Clark's agent (also his nephew, played by Richard Benjamin) to convince Lewis to come out of retirement. We can see why when the two old comics first meet again. They quickly return to their old bickering ways, threatening the whole production.

It's here that George Burns really shines. In real life, he had played the straight man to his wife, Gracie Allen, and his role here is in many ways a straight man role, with a bit of a twist. That twist is that Lewis' deadpan, straight-guy delivery seems habitually to do nothing more than wind up the manic and almost scheming Clark (Matthau played variations on that theme many times). And boy does it get Clark wound up. Matthau is supposed to be the star here, and he's quite funny, doing an excellent job. But in many ways, it's Burns' understated delivery that really makes the movie work; indeed, while Matthau was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (losing to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Burns walked away with the Supporting Actor statuette. The Sunshine Boys is a movie that's warm at heart, although as a movie from after the studio era, it does contain some bad language.

That having been said, if you're a fan of classic entertainment, I think you'll love The Sunshine Boys. One benefit in addition to the story is that the opening features some footage from The Hollywood Revue. The movie has also been released to DVD.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscar loves the mentally unstable!

There's something about playing against type, and playing uncomfortably troubled people, that the folks doing the nominations for the Academy Awards seem to like. In more recent years, we've seen Oscars go to killers in movies like Monster and Silence of the Lambs, and a psychotic fan in Misery, among others. But even generations ago, fighting personal demons could get you Oscar notice, as happened to Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, which TCM is showing tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

De Havilland stars as a young wife in New York who ends up in a state mental institution, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to her. She's had some sort of breakdown, but she isn't as bad off as some of the other patients. This allows her to see more clearly the horror that mental patients had to go through: The Snake Pit is, above all else, a stinging indictment on the treatment of the mentally ill. She and the other patients are pretty much caged up, with treatment in many cases given to them whether they want it or not -- although for quite a few of the patients, they wouldn't have known what was going on. In other words, this is a view of mental institutions diametrically opposed to that in a movie like Love Crazy. Indeed, in one of the more harrowing scenes of the movie, de Havilland is subjected to electroshock therapy. The whole thing must have been deeply disconcerting to the audiences of 1948, much the same way Ray Milland's ugly alcoholic Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend challenged audiences a few years earlier.

De Havilland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but didn't win, in part because she had won a few years earlier (for To Each His Own) and because there was an equally outstanding performance to vote for that year, that being Jane Wyman's deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda. That having been said, de Havilland is superb here, but not the only one. The other patients, including Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, and a brief appearance by Celeste Holm are equally worth watching, as is the doctor who tries to help them (Leo Genn) and the nurse who thinks force needs to be used to keep the patients in check. (Shades of The Caretakers here.)

The Snake Pit has been released to DVD and, despite being 60 years old, is still a powerful look at mental hospitals, especially as it's based upon a real story.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

TCM celebrates Valentine's Day, too

TCM is showing some romantic movies for the Valentine's Day holiday. One that I don't think I've ever recommended before is Ball of Fire, airing at 6:00 PM ET tonight.

Gary Cooper stars as Professor Potts, one of a group of bachelor professors working on an encyclopedia at the behest of a wealthy benefactor. They're living in the benefactor's old house, where they can be cloistered away from anything that will distract them from their work on the encyclopedia, notably women. The scholars are going through the encyclopedia alphabetically, and have reached the letter S, where they're struggling on an article about slang. How are a bunch of old fuddy-duddy professors going to learn about the hip slang of today? (Hollywood's fuddy-duddies have always had a problem figuring out how to appeal to the youth of today, but that's a different story.)

Their problems are solved when into their life walks moll Barbara Stanwyck. Her boyfriend, the gangster Dana Andrews, is involved with crime, and she could be subpoenaed to testify against him. In order to prevent that, she finds the old house with the professors and, when she discovers just who is living there, she figures it's the perfect place to hide. The fact that the professors can use her because she knows all the crazy new language of today is a plus. Now, the viewer can figure out what's going to happen next, which is that Cooper and Stanwyck are going to fall in love with each other, and that this is going to cause a whole host of problems. First, it disrupts work on the encyclopedia, and could cost the professors their jobs; second, there's that gangster boyfriend, who wouldn't like it if somebody horned in on his girl. Finally, there's also the legal problems that could still land the moll in jail....

Ball of Fire works on so many levels. It's one of the many great romantic comedies based on mismatches between the male and female love interests. The fact that this time, one of the characters has an interest in language means that there's a lot of opportunity for some interesting dialog. Cooper and Stanwyck were both capable actors who could do comedy even if that's what they weren't best known for. Last but by no means least, the actors playing the other professors are a great set of character actors of the early 1940s. There's S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (the connection to the following movie, Casablanca, at 8:00 PM); Henry Travers (the father from Shadow of a Doubt and Jimmy Stewart's guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life); and Oskar Homolka, among others.

Ball of Fire is a sparkling comedy that has been released to DVD.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another Fox love story

As I mentioned yesterday, the Fox Movie Channel is airing romantic movies all Valentine's Day weekend. One that aired this morning, and is airing tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET, is Me And My Gal.

The movie stars a young Spencer Tracy, who, as I mentioned in April 2008, spent the beginning of his movie career working at Fox Films (before they merged with 20th Century Pictures). Here, he's playing an Irish-American cop working the waterfront beat in New York City. He meets the cashier at a local seafood joint (Joan Bennett), and meets her again when he's called in to investigate a noise complaint at the wedding of her sister. This sister provides the dramatic plot line of the movie: she had been dating a gangster, but after he got sent to prison, she decided to marry right and got hitched with a sea captain whose father was wounded in the Great War and is now paralyzed. Unfortunately, while the husband is at sea, the old gangster boyfriend breaks out of prison, and comes to her place to plan a bank heist.

Me and My Gal has a little bit of everything, making it quite a curious little movie. The plot with the hiding boyfriend bizarrely comes together with the paralyzed father. He sees the gangster in the mirror when his daughter-in-law tries to spirit him into their garret, and when he tells the sister (ie. Bennett) and Tracy about it, he does so by blinking and winking his eyes in Morse Code! You'd think they'd devise an easier system of blinks for yes and no, and spell out the message that way, since they both make it clear they don't know Morse Code. The movie was released in 1932 and as such, has some pre-Code stuff, including an odd love scene on the lunch counter in the joint where Bennett works, and one where Bennett shows off her can when she adjusts the radio. There's a comedy element in the first 10 minutes involving a chronic drunk which doesn't do much to advance the plot other than giving a reason for Tracy to get promoted off the waterfront beat. And, there's a parody of an 1932 movie from MGM, Strange Interlude (which was based on a Eugene O'Neill play), in which the characters say one thing to eatch other, but the audience hears a second line from each, which is what the characters really think.

Tracy does about as good a job as he can with the material, but it's not all that great. It is, however, interesting in its flaws, and that makes it worth watching. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you'll have to catch this FMC airing.

Murder on the Orient Express

I mentioned Murder on the Orient Express briefly a long, long time ago. TCM is showing it again, overnight at 4:00 AM ET on February 14.

The brief rundown is that Richard Widmark plays a businessman taking the Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris in those glamor days of the 1930s when taking a train like the Orient Express was elegant. However, the train gets stuck in the snows of the Yugoslav Alps, and Widmark is found murdered in his cabin. It's up to detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney) to find the killer.

And, it seems as though everybody in the car could have been the killer. Not only that, but it's quite the all-star cast; as I mentioned back in April 2008, the suspects range from a nun (Ingrid Bergman, in a role that won her her third Oscar) to a Russian princess (Wendy Hiller) to a Hungarian count (Michael York) to a British colonel (Sean Connery). They're a motley crew of head-cases, and they make the movie utterly charming. It's helped by the art direction; there's something about the demise of the studio system that made period pieces better. As much as I like a lot of the historical dramas from the 1930s, the studio system makes the sets and locations look inauthentic.

Thankfully, Murder on the Orient Express is on DVD, so you don't have to get up in the middle of the night to watch this one.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Fox Valentine's Day

The Fox Movie Channel usually doesn't do much of a job a programming its lineup. Once in a while, though, they come up with a special block of movies that actually does a fairly good job. This weekend, for example, sees a bunch of more romantic movies, what with the Valentine's Day holiday, and a reasonable mix of old movies and more recent stuff. One of the older movies I haven't recommended before is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which FMC is showing at 12:15 PM Saturday.

The always-lovely Gene Tierney stars as Mrs. Muir, who's recently been widowed and left with a young daughter (Natalie Wood). She takes a vacation on the English coast, and finds a little cottage with which she falls in love. She finds that the house is being sold at a bargain basement price. She buys the place, and soon finds out why it was such a steal: the house is haunted. (Sound familiar?)

The big difference between this ghost and the ghosts in The Uninvited is that this house's ghost (played by Rex Harrison) is at heart not a bad man. The man was a sailor, and died when he accidentally left the gas on. He still thinks the place is his, and only wants to scare away people who want to turn it into something of their own. Mrs. Muir, however, refuses to be cowed, and eventually she and the ghose come to an agreement: he'll stop trying to haunt her, as long as she keeps the place having a maritime theme, and if she'll write the man's memoirs. Mrs. Muir sets out to write the book, and begins to learn that those stereotypes about sailors are apparently true. (Thanks to the Production Code, the salty nature of the memoirs are only implied, although that probably makes the movie work better than if it had more explicit language.) Along the way, Mrs. Muir and the ghost fall in love, too.

That is, until she meets fellow author Miles Fairley on one of her trips to London to meet with her publisher. The two begin to fall in love, and he takes a place by the sea, too, much to the consternation of our friendly spirit back at the cottage. However, Mrs. Muir eventually discovers that Miles may not be the man for her after all.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a charming love story that's got something in it for almost everyone. For the women, it should be obvious: that love story. Younger girls should also enjoy the romantic story and the fantastic nature of it. I don't think teenagers would like it that much -- especially the boys -- although younger kids who enjoy boats or ghosts may tolerate it. As for the adult men? Well, they've got Gene Tierney to look at!

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is available on DVD, as is the soundtrack, which is a score by Bernard Herrmann. Amazingly, the DVD is cheaper than the music.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Alexander's Ragtime Band

Yet another Fox movie is showing up on TCM tonight: Alexander's Ragtime Band, kicking the night off at 8:00 PM ET. I've already blogged about it, and almost everything I'd want to say about it I said back in July, 2008.

One point I didn't mention back then is that, although it's got a lot of the songs of Irving Berlin, one that it doesn't have is "Puttin' on the Ritz". Originally used in a 1930 movie of the same name, "Puttin' on the Ritz" had a different set of lyrics than the ones that are well known today. (After all, Gary Cooper wasn't really that famous back in 1930.) The original lyrics refer to the black hired help strutting around on their night off, and perhaps the folks at Fox didn't want to use it for whatever reason. MGM, however, had no qualms about having Clark Gable sing it in Idiot's Delight a year later, with the original lyrics. The lyrics that are famous today were reworked by Berlin so that he could include the song in the 1946 movie Blue Skies, where Fred Astaire does a famous dance to "Puttin' on the Ritz". It should be pointed out that the song "Blue Skies" is not original to the 1946 film; indeed, it's one of the many to show up in Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kiss of Death

I see that TCM is showing Kiss of Death tonight at 8:00 PM, and that I've never done a full post on the movie. Time to correct that oversight.

Kiss of Death is generally remembered for being the movie that sees the screen debut of Richard Widmark, and made him a star. But more on that later, since he doesn't get top billing. The starring role goes to Victor Mature, who plays small time hood Nick Bianco. Nick is part of a gang of thieves who gets caught in a jewelry store heist while the others escape. When he gets sent to prison, the DA (Brian Donlevy) offers him time off in exchange for giving the authorities information on various crimes. In part because he shares a cell with Tommy Udo (the aforementioned Widmark), who has a hatred for "stoolies", Nick refuses to do so. That is, until he learns that his wife has committed suicide, and his two daughters have been put in an orphanage. Nick, wanting to be the one to raise his kids, relents, decides to name names in order to gain his release, and make right by his children. He gets let out, gets remarried (to Colleen Gray), and tries to live on the straight and narrow -- until he finds that the information he's given, on Udo, isn't enough to convict him.

Nick fears Tommy, and is right to do so. Tommy quickly begins looking for Nick, and will seemingly let nothing get in his way. Udo isn't just menacing, he's downright sadistic. In what is probably the most famous scene in the movie, Udo goes to the apartment of the wheelchair-bound mother of a fellow gangster (the mother is played by Mildred Dunnock). He wants information, and when she refuses, Tommy takes the poor old lady, ties her up, and pushes the wheelchair down a flight of stairs in order to kill her. Not only that, but Udo has a sinister giggle that quickly became the stuff of parody. Richard Widmark is just that good here. The role earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but he had the bad luck of being up against Edmund Gwenn playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. Widmark never got another nomination.

Despite stealing the show, Widmark isn't the only reason to watch Kiss of Death. The plot isn't a bad one, and Victor Mature does a pretty good job as well. Watch also for a youngish Karl Malden in one of his earlier roles, playing a police sergeant. (Thankfully with that nose of his, you can't miss him.) I've mentioned in the past that Fox released a lot of its noirs to DVD, and this is one of them.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sadie Hawkins Valentine's Day, Part 3

TCM is showing another of those military movies with no real war tonight: Stalag 17, at 10:00 PM ET. It's another of those movies that, because of its military setting and its lack of female characters makes it very much a stereotypical "man's movie", but because of the characterization and lack of violence also makes it pretty good for those who would like the stereotypical "women's movie".

The title Stalag 17 refers to a prisoner of war camp, namely one in Germany during World War II, with a bunch of American POWs. There's been an escape attempt which is to be expected; but, it's gone wrong, in that the escapees are caught by the Nazi guards, who conveniently know just where to look. It's clear that one of the POWs is a stool pigeon, and the POWs know just where to look, too: in the direction of William Holden. Holden is a fellow POW, but also the same sort of character Tony Curtis played in Operation Petticoat: the guy who can finagle almost anything out of anybody, by begging, borrowing, stealing, or wheedling people into giving him what he wants. He's the sort of guy who seems to profit on every deal, and that, combined with his naturally standoffish personality, makes him the obvious choice for the other Americans to suspect as being the informant. Holden, of course, knows that he's not the informant, and sets out to prove his innocence, which he can really only do by finding the real informant. And so, Stalag 17 turns from being a dark comedy about the war into more of a mystery/thriller.

Stalag 17 was directed by Billy Wilder, who was a master of making dark, cynical movies. Wilder was also excellent at getting great performances from his actors, and Stalag 17 is no exception. In addition to Holden, there's also Wilder's fellow director Otto Preminger, playing the German commander of the POW camp; and future director Don Murray as a new POW who is in danger because of how much he did to the Nazis before being captured, and whom Holden tries to help escape when Holden creates a diversion by exposing the informant.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Bullitt Car Chase

I mentioned Bullitt the other day, and how I hadn't seen it before. Sure, I had heard about the iconic car chase sequence in it, which is one of the things I was looking forward to. It surprised me a bit: the entire scene had no music in it! That, and it had almost no dialogue either; it's just the sound of gears being shifted and tires squealing. But it's the lack of music that I found more interesting, since most of the chase sequences that have come since then (and a lot of them beforehand) have uptempo music accompanying them, as if to try to reinforce the fact that the viewers should be getting a rush of adrenalin.

New to DVD

It was about 13 months ago that I recommended the movie The Killer That Stalked New York. At the time, it was unavailable on DVD. However, lists it as being part of a four-movie box set that will be released tomorrow, February 9. To be honest, The Killer That Stalked New York is the only one of the four movies I've seen, so I can't comment on the other three. But, the price is offering doesn't look too bad.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reinhard Heydrich

TCM is showing the movie Hangmen Also Die tomorrow at 1:30 PM ET. The movie deals with a plot by the Czech resistance during World War II to assassinate the Nazi leader of the Czech protectorate, Reinhard Heydrich. What happened in history is quite a bit different from what happened in the movie, but the movie is still enjoyable.

In the movie, Brian Donlevy plays the assassin, who eventually gets caught in a lie when he claims he was seeing his girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of a prominent professor (Walter Brennan). The Gestapo round everybody up and, well, you can guess what happens next. Or maybe not, as the resistance try to figure a way out of things. What happens next is more the point of the movie; Hangmen Also Die is less about the actual assassination than it is about the investigation of the murder and portraying what mean SOBs the Gestapo and SS were.

The Gestapo were ruthless, even more so in real life than they were in this movie, where they threaten to kill 400 randomly selected Prague citizens 10 at a time unless the suspects reveal the identity of the killer. What happened after the assassination in real life is that the Nazis picked two small villages just outside of Prague, and ordered the murder of all adult males and the sending of everybody else to concentration camps as a form of reprisal. Well over 1,000 people died as a result.

Could the makers of Hangmen Also Die have known all this? Some of it was known; obviously, the death of Heydrich was public knowledge. Also, the Nazis made the reprisal against the Czech village of Lidice a major news story, as opposed to many of their other reprisals. However, the folks in Hollywood probably wouldn't have known much about the actual assassination plot, which involved a coupld of Czech expats parachuted back into the country by the RAF. (You may recall the movie Dark Blue World which deals with the Czech exiles in the UK.) So writer Bertolt Brecht and director Fritz Lang had to guess about how the assassination actually happened. What they came up with is entertaining if inaccurate.

Ultimately, "entertaining if inaccurate" may be a good description of the movie as a whole. Fritz Lang shows off his mastery of the craft of moviemaking, and gives us a pretty good story at the same time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

TCM has The French Connection

TCM has been doing a surprisingly good job of getting broadcast rights to more and more movies from 20th Century-Fox. One of these includes The French Connection, which is airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET. I've blogged briefly about it before, so won't go into too much detail here. One interesting thing, however, is the famous car chase scene. In some ways, it's not a car chase at all, as you've got a car following... an el train. (It's not the first time you had a car chasing a train, either. There have been lots of movies with cars following trains, such as The Narrow Margin. And one that was displayed as more of a high-speed chase has a bus chasing a train in Number Seventeen, all the way back in 1932.) The French Connection is airing after Bullitt, a movie that I have actually not seen before.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sadie Hawkins Valentine's Day, Part 2

I wonder what women think of the movie Stagecoach.

The story is fairly simple: a bunch of people have their own reasons for wanting to take the stagecoach through the Arizona desert. The only thing is, that trip goes awry when the coach is attacked by a bunch of Apaches, led by Geronimo. For the most part, the movie would probably generally be thought of as one for the guys, thanks in part to the presence of male lead John Wayne, as well as the exciting action sequences involving the Apache ambush. John Wayne's character is a man who's escaped jail after being framed, and his reason for getting on the stagecoach is to get the gang that framed him; this leads up to a gunfight as the climax of the movie, even after the Apaches strike. All very testosterone-laden stuff.

Yet I can't help but think there's a lot in here for the women, too. The characters are for the most part well-developed, with realistic motivations. That, and you couldn't ask for a much better cast of actors who hadn't yet hit it big. (Stagecoach was the movie that made John Wayne a star; despite having been the lead in The Big Trail, it was a financial flop and that sent Wayne to Poverty Row for the rest of the 1930s.) Besides Wayne, there's Claire Trevor as a woman of loose morals heading west to provide "comfort" to the men. A bunch of veteran character actors appear, too, such as Donald Meek as a traveling booze salesman; Thomas Mitchell as the drunken town doctor; John Carradine as a professional gambler; and Andy Devine as the stage driver. And although there's a lot of action, the movie is just as much about those characters as it is about the action.

And on top of all that, there's the scenery. John Ford directed this movie on location in Monument Valley, that area in southern Utah which has stunning backdrops and looks far more western than the parts of California most productions had used previously. Indeed, westerns weren't so popular before Stagecoach because of the technical difficulties in making pictures on location in those days. Stagecoach made John Wayne a star, as well as Monument Valley and the whole genre. It's worth watching almost for that alone.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It's my party

Tonight's TCM selection is the interesting ghost story The Uninvited, at 8:00 PM ET.

Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as a brother and sister from London on vacation in a small town on the Cornwall coast. They find an empty house and fall in love with it, especially when they find out that it's on sale for a surprisingly good price. So, they buy the place, only to find out just why it was such a "bargain": the house is haunted! Not only that, but the ghosts seem to know and desire one of the local girls. That girl (Gail Russell) just happens to be the granddaughter of the man who sold them the house (Donald Crisp). She's begun to fall in love with Milland, much to the chagrin of Crisp, who senses danger for his granddaughter from the ghosts. Indeed, it seems as though every time she visits the house and the ghosts show up, they're trying to lure her to the cliff overlooking the sea in the back yard. What are two young lovers to do?

Well, old man Crisp knows what he wants to do, which is forbid his granddaughter from going to the old haunted house, and, if possible, buy back the place from the newcomers. When that doesn't work, he gets the idea of sending the young girl away to a sanatorium, where she can either recover while everybody figures out what to do with the ghosts, or else stay there much longer. That having been said, the lady running the sanatorium seems to have some secrets of her own: she knew the young girl's mother, and apparently has a pretty good idea of just why the house is being haunted. And she might not be so good for young Miss Russell, either!

That's about all of the plot I'll give away, as I don't want to say how the movie ends. That having been said, it's a well-made movie, and one worth watching; despite its dealing with ghosts, it's really not very frightening at all (although not as light as, say, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). Also, it doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you'll have to catch the TCM showing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

George Arliss

TCM's theme for 31 Days of Oscar this year is based on the "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, in that each pair of movies has at least one person in common. This means that TCM is showing a pair of George Arliss movies back-to-back in the early hours of tomorrow morning, starting with his Oscar-winning performance in Disraeli.

Arliss plays the title role, that being Victorian-era British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Based on a stage play, the movie deals with Disraeli's plan to buy the Suez Canal for Britain, despite there being machinations from Russia and its spies in London trying to prevent him from getting the canal. Along the way, Disraeli plays matchmaker to a pair of young lovers, played by the reasonably well-known Joan Bennett (the mother in the 1950 version of Father of the Bride, and the not-so-well-known Anthony Bushell. Also appearing is George's real-life wife Florence, playing Mrs. Disraeli.

The movie was made in 1929, at a time when the studios were figuring out how to adjust to the new process of talking pictures, which as always means that the production values an be uneven, as well as the acting. The one exception to this is Arliss, who shines above everybody else, and makes the movie worth watching despite all its technical problems. Of course, the role wasn't difficult for him, since he had created the role on the stage and already done it on screen once before in the silent era.

Disraeli has, as far as I'm aware, not been released to DVD yet.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sadie Hawkins Valentine's Day

Two years ago, I did a series of posts leading up to Valentine's Day on "chick flicks" for guys. It's not too difficult a topic to write about, since there are a lot of movies out there that get the "chick flick" label thrown at them, and as a guy, all I had to do was find some that I happen to like. Doing it the other way around is more difficult: being a man, I'm no expert in What Women Want, so finding a movie that's generally a "guy" movie that women ought to like isn't so easy. (I can't think offhand of any movies about putting the toilet seat down, although there is a scene in The Crowd where the couple argues over problems with the bathroom equipment.)

That having been said, I'll take my first stab at the subject with From Here to Eternity. It's about the military, has quite a bit of violence both before and after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, has boxing as one of the major themes, and deals with the men's relationships with each other just as much as it does with their relationships with women. All of those are things that should appeal to guys, and yet, it's really a picture that's just as suitable for women -- if not even more so. First off is that steamy scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach. We know you ladies are pervs and fantasize about being on that beach with Lancaster in one of those skimpy 1940s pairs of swimming trunks much more than you would about being on a beach with us dumpy guys of today in the trunks that go almost down to the knees. And despite the fact that there's boxing, a knife fight, brawling, and a war in the movie, the movie isn't really about the violence.

Suffice it to say that From Here to Eternity is a movie that can be enjoyed by any adult.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oscar-nominated shorts

Today is the first of TCM's 31 Days of Oscar. All of the feature films being shown were nominated for at least one Academy Award. However, they're also showing short movies that were nominated in the Short Subject categories. One example of this is Stop, Look, and Listen, airing at approximately 10:40 PM ET tonight, following Funny Girl.

The plot is simple, being a short and there being no time to develop much of a plot. A safe driver tries to get to work, only to be harassed by a thrill-seeking road hog. What makes this short so interesting, however, is the way in which it is told. Real human actors are used, but the story is done in stop-motion. Further, the actors are driving invisible cars, or as it were, doing a pantomime as though they were sitting in the driver's seat of an imaginary car. Pantomime is an apt word, too, as the movie has no dialog, only sound effects. It's an approach that works well for a 10-minute movie, but would wear out its welcome if it weren't a short subject.

Stop, Look, and Listen does not seem to have been released to DVD. That having been said, there does seem to be a lousy copy availabe on YouTube.