Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The final night of Ginger Rogers

Tonight is the final night of TCM's salute to March Star of the Month Ginger Rogers. The movies continue into Thursday, concluding with Tight Spot, at 2:30 PM ET Thursday. Several hours before that, though, is a Rogers classic I apparently haven't blogged about before: The Major and the Minor, at 11:30 PM tonight.

Rogers plays Susan Applegate, a woman who tried to make it in New York City, but wasn't able to, so she's decided to go back home. She had saved the price of a return ticket home for just such a contingency, but what she didn't think about was the possibility that the cost of a ticket would go up in the meantime. So, she's out of luck -- until she sees a mother and her kid buying tickets, with the mother buying a half-fare ticket for the kid. All that twenty-something Susan needs to do is pass herself off as twelve-year-old SuSu. Needless to say, this is no easy feat, and the conductor doesn't trust Susan one bit, especially when he catches her smoking. (You mean it's not normal for 12-year-olds to smoke? I thought everyone smoked in movies back in those days.) Susan tries to escape and, in her attempt, runs straight into the compartment of Kirby, a major at a military school played by Ray Milland. Major Kirby takes pity on poor "little" SuSu, keeps her in his compartment, and takes her back home.

SuSu immediately proceeds to fool almost everybody about her identity, except for Lucy, the kid sister of Kirby's fiancée. (The fiancée is played by Rita Johnson; the sister by Diana Lynn.) Worse for poor Susan, all the cadets think she's much more sophisticated than all the other adolescent girls out there. (If they only knew.) How is Susan going to keep up the ruse until she can get home? There are other problems, too. Kirby wants to serve in the real Army, not at a military school, since there is a war on, but his fiancée, who happens to be the daughter of the head of the school, is using all of her influence to keep Kirby at the school. Also, Susan is falling in love with the major, but at least here she has some help. Lucy likes Susan more than she does her real sister, so Lucy is willing to help Susan out in sabotaging the sister's attempts to derail Major Kirby's military career.

The Major and the Minor was the first movie directed by Billy Wilder, and it's a glittering comedy at that. Sure, Ginger Rogers is about as believable a 12-year-old as Julie Harris. But we're not supposed to accept Rogers that way; that's part of the point of the humor. Rogers had long shown herself adept at comedy, but Milland does a pretty good job, too. And the cadets are a hoot. The Major and the Minor has been released to DVD, and is a delightful little comedy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Foriegn horrors

There's a lot that IFC doesn't do very well. Although the name originally stood for "Independent Film Channel" (does it still stand for anything? Or, like ESPN, are the initials now officially just a meaningless set of initials?), if you look at the schedule you can find a lot of stuff that's probably not independent, and stuff that's definitely not film, such as the seemingly endless reruns of the TV show Arrested Development. That, and the fact that they run maybe three movies a morning and repeat them two or three times times in the afternoon. Once in a while, though, the programmers do dig out a gem. One of those gems is airing tomorrow morning at 6:05 AM ET and 11:00 AM: the original version of The Vanishing.

You might know that Hollywood remake that stars Kiefer Sutherland, but accept no imitations: the original is vastly superior. For those who don't know the movie, the plot involves a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation driving through France. The two get in an argument, and stop at one of those roadside service areas, where Saskia gets out to do an errand. Quite some time passes, and she doesn't come back. Rex goes in to investigate, and it seems as though Saskia has vanished, without a trace. The case becomes a bit famous, although Saskia is never found, and three years later, Rex has found another girlfriend, settling into some semblance of normalcy.

That is, until he gets a letter from Lemorne, a man claiming to have information on what happened to the disappeared woman. This turns Rex's life upside-down, as the new girlfriend has difficulty understanding just how much the old girlfriend's disappearance affected him. Lemorne's, who is leading a seeming double life as a high school teacher and family man on the one hand, and a possible adbuctor on the other hand, offers Rex the chance to find out what happened to Saskia, but at a price. Rex will have to come back to the scene of the crime, and possibly become a victim himself all over again, in order to discover the truth about Saskia. However, if the need to know is that great....

The Vanishing is one of the more interesting horror movies out there, although it's not horror in the traditional ways Americans have come to expect from a horror movie. Val Lewton liked to talk about the horror that is unseen, but the horror of The Vanishing isn't really even about that. Lewton meant it in the sense of horror being what we imagine, but in The Vanishing, it's more horror in the sense that we all have a dark side: Rex's dark side being his obsession with having to know what happened, even if his curiosity could kill him; and Lemorne's dark double life.

The Vanishing has also been released to DVD. It's one that's well worth watching.

Monday, March 29, 2010

June Havoc, 1913-2010

I was sorry to read this morning of the passing of actress June Havoc. She was better known for her work on Broadway, but she did appear in supporting roles in the movies, notably in Gentleman's Agreement, (from which the photo at left is taken) where she plays Gregory Peck's secretary, a woman who is hiding the fact that she's Jewish (and who has to remind herself to "stop being so kikey", one of the odder lines in the movie).

Havoc's personal story is quite interesting too. She was a child star, having been pushed into vaudeville by her mother, along with her sister, Louise; Louise would later go on to become Gypsy Rose Lee. Louise wrote her autobiography, which was turned into a musical and later movie. June, however, is only in the beginning of the movie, as in real life she ran off at a young age to elope (and presumably to get away from her mother). One of June's memoirs, about that period after she eloped, forms the basis for the movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They.

The Young Doctors

I briefly mentioned the movie The Young Doctors about a year ago, in conjunction with a post on the acting skills (or lack thereof) of TV host Dick Clark. It's coming up again this afternoon at 6:15 PM, and even though Clark isn't much of an actor, the movie is still well worth watching.

The Young Doctors is set against the backdrop of one of the less glamorous parts of the hospital: the pathology department. (This is in the days before CSI made forensic science seem sexy.) Fredric March and Ben Gazzara play two doctors who are in a de facto competition, in that March, the head of the department, represents the old way of doing things, while Gazzara has a more progressive attitude towards running the eternally cash-strapped department. Dick Clark's character is an intern with a pregnant wife; he's concerned about the baby, and is insistent that a certain new test be performed on his wife to determine if the baby is going to have a specific medical problem. Clark files the form, but when Dr. March throws it in the trash, we know what's going to happen with the rest of Clark's story line.

There's another case running throughout the movie, that of a nurse who's got a problem with her leg. Doctors perform a biopsy, but the results are inconclusive. The young lady may have a malignant tumor, or it may be beningh. This is a critical difference, because the less advanced state of medicine as it was in the early 1960s meant that a malignant tumor would result in amputation of half the leg. Drs. March and Gazzara can't agree whether the biopsy results show cancer or not, and that forms another part of the "competition" the two doctors face.

Everything works out more or less in the end, but the way they get there is entertaining enough. Dick Clark couldn't really act, but it's still fun to see how somebody who became so famous in a closely related field got to try his hand at the movies. When Clark finds out his baby has been born with a medical problem, he's rushed back to the hospital, and as he's being brought back, there's a shot of him in the passenger seat of the car, looking like he's been put on tranquilizers or something, which I guess was his way of showing shock. March, on the other hand, delivers a creditable and professional performance with what wasn't the very best material he was ever sent. The same holds for true for Gazzara; and, in smaller roles, Eddie Albert as a surgeon, and 1930s actress Aline MacMahon as a head nurse. Eagle-eyed observers may want to watch for George Segal as one of the many doctors making his way through the hospital, as well as figure skater Dick Button as an intern in the operating room. (Amazingly, there's a figure skating scene, although Button is, if memory serves, not involved with that.) The movie is based on a novel by Arthur Hailey, who also did the book on which the later all-star disaster pic Airport was based.

The Young Doctors still hasn't been released to DVD, which is understandable, since it's one of Fredric March's lesser movies. But that's still a shame, since he gives a worthy performance, and the subject material (pathology) itself offers interesting possibilities.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A pair of Buster Keaton movies

This week's Silent Sunday Nights feature on TCM brings us a pair of movies made by Buster Keaton. Sherlock, Jr. kicks off the night at midnight ET tonight, and is followed at 1:00 AM by The Navigator.

The Navigator follows Keaton's well-known plot formula: Boy loves Girl, but some circumstances prevent Boy from getting Girl. This time, Keaton's Boy is a member of the idle rich, who love the similarly idle rich Girl (Kathryn McGuire, who also plays The Girl in Sherlock Jr.) who lives across the street from him. Boy proposes to Girl, but she refuses. Boy tries to drown his sorrows by taking the sea cruise he would have taken had he gone on his honeymoon with Girl, but makes the mistake of getting on the wrong ship, one that's being scrapped, and finds himself the next morning adrift at sea. Interestingly, Boy gets the distinct feeling that there's somebody else aboard. It turns out that there is: it's The Girl. Drawn together by fate, the two have to try to survive aboard the ship, while getting somebody to find them and take them back to safety.

It's an environment that's fertile ground for Keaton's brand of physical humor. Keaton had apparently wanted to do a ship-board movie for some time, and when one of his close associates found out that the US Navy was going to be scrapping a ship, it was decided that this would be the perfect chance for Keaton to have ready-made ship sets for a movie. Indeed, there is quite a bit of opportunity here for Keaton to give us some great visuals. First comes the scenes where his Boy thinks there's somebody else on the ship. We see The Girl, and we see how she too has come to believe that she's not alone on the boat. Both are searching for the possibly nonexistent other person, and they both just keep missing each other. Later, there's a scene of the two trying to make breakfast for two in an industrial galley, where everything is designed for two hundred. Finally, the ship runs aground, and Keaton has to get out and go underwater to repair the propeller. It's pretty remarkable underwater photography for 1924.

The Navigator may not be Buster Keaton's very best movie, but it's quite good, and can be enjoyed by young and old alike.

The original Kettles

I mentioned a week ago, in conjunction with the airing of the movie Ma and Pa Kettle, that they had first appeared as supporting characters (opposite Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) in the movie The Egg and I. TCM is showing The Egg and I tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Before I was a movie buff

Many years ago, when I was just a snotty know-it-all teenager, there was a Final Jeopardy! clue, and I remember it well. In a category on the movies, the clue read something like, "Using only two letters of the alphabet, it's the Best Picture Oscar winner with the shortest title". I knew the correct response right away, and as the contestants started revealing their (wrong) guesses, I was even more convinced of the rightness of my response. Well, then, imagine my surprise when, after all three contestants were wrong, Alex Trebek revealed the correct question: "What is Gigi?"

I was shocked, since I was so sure the correct question was, "What is 1,000,000 BC?" OK, you can all stop laughing now. I was young, and this was well before TCM came along, and even before all that many movies has made it to VHS, the DVD still being many years away. I had distinctly recalled seeing Raquel Welch running around the screen wearing next to nothing, and dammit, that by itself should be enough for an Oscar! This was before I realized that there had been an earlier version made. Nor did I remember at the time that the Welch version had actually been titled One Million Years BC, written out in letters and using an extra word. (The original doesn't include "Years" in the title, but is still written out in words.)

At any rate, I note this because Gigi is showing up tonight at 8:00 PM ET as TCM's Essential for the week, kicking off a night of Louis Jourdan movies. I have to admit that Gigi exemplifies much of what I dislike about musicals. The plot is trite, the music is shoehorned in, and frankly, the Maurice Chevalier character comes across as a pervert. Never mind Leslie Caron fondling Louis Jourdan's... cigars. The old Sigmund Freud quote about cigars may or may not apply here. Still, I realize there are a lot of people out there who do like musicals, and they will probably enjoy Gigi.

As for me, I'll be staying up to watch the following movie, Letter From an Unknown Woman, as it's one I haven't seen before. That will be followed at midnight by Julie, a movie that I have recommended before, and from which the photo at left is taken. When I blogged about it two years ago (has it been that long?), Julie had not yet been released to DVD, and it still hasn't. So the infrequent TCM showing is your chance to catch it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

TCM and advertising (and a question)

TCM proudly proclaims that it shows its movies "uncut and commercial free", which is largely true. There aren't any commercials in the movies (Joan Crawford Pepsi placement aside), and movies only get cut if TCM gets the wrong print from the distributor. That's not to say there's no advertising between the movies. Much of it is self-promotion -- how many more spots do we need for the TCM Classic Film Festival? There's cross-promotion too; every time you see the "entertainment news for the classic movie lover" spots which promo books or new to DVD, you can bet that the other studios are getting those mentions in exchange for something. Ditto when TCM tries to sell us the DVDs such as the early Cary Grant box set, which contains three movies he made at Universal. Happily, that "something" for which those mentions are being exchanged is almost definitely more movies from other studios. I don't particularly mind TCM hawking DVDs of vintage Fox, Columbia, or Universal movies it that's the price for being able to show more movies from those studios.

There's a second kind of cross-promotion, which comes when TCM programs its schedule to coincide with some event. TCM has been running a spot for a new DVD box set of four Marx Brothers movies. Sure enough, they're also showing a night of Marx Brothers movies this coming Monday. Tonight, however, is interesting. They're showing more Ray Harryhausen movies, including his last film, the early 1980s version of Clash of the Titans. By now, you've probably seen enough commercials for the new super-duper IMAX 3D remake of Clash of the Titans, which is coming to a theater (or 100 theaters) near you on April 2. It seems natural for TCM to promo a remake by programming the original, although doing it a full week early seems a bit odd. In the past, TCM have programmed appropriate "classic" movies on the same night as the new film premiered; this happened with the Sherlock Holmes movie last Christmas, and a year and a half or so ago with a night of Bonita Granville's Nancy Drew movies. Since new movies generally premiere on Fridays, it makes me wonder whether the new version of Clash of the Titans was originally scheduled to be released on March 26 instead of April 2.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wacky Tabacky

An interesting movie that's recently returned to the Fox Movie Channel's lineup is Tobacco Road, which shows up again on the Fox Movie Channel tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET.

Charley Grapewin stars as Jeeter Lester, a hardscrabble farmer in Georgia's tobacco country who's got problems both professionally and personally. He's about to be dispossessed of his land since he can't pay the rent to the former owner's son (a young Dana Andrews) or the banker (veteran character actor Grant Mitchell). If he can't come up with $100 by the end of the week, it's off to the poor farm for him and his wife (Elizabeth Patterson). Worse, he's still got to of his children living at home with him. Son Dude (William Tracy) hasn't found a girl yet, while daughter Ellie May (Gene Tierney) is too old to be marriageable. Indeed, Jeeter tried to marry her off to Lov (Ward Bond), but he thought she was too old, and married one of Ada's younger sisters instead. Unfortunately, Lov doesn't care for his wife, since she's too independent-minded. Finally, enter into all of this "Sister" Bessie (Marjorie Rambeau). She's a widow who's found God, and a bit of money from her late husband. Dude, not having anything better to do, runs off with Sister Bessie, and Jeeter thinks he might be able to wheedle the money out of his new daughter-in-law....

Tobacco Road is interesting stuff, although it deals quite heavily in stereotypes. As such, it makes some of the scenes seem wildly over the top. Notable in this regard is the opening scene of the movie, in which the Lesters are hungry, when someone comes walking by with a bag of turnips -- poor Gene Tierney is reduced to rolling around in the dirt, apparently trying to offer her sexuality in exchange for those turnips! Still, some of the actors try their hardest, and give pretty good performances, Grapewin notable among them. Patterson does a good job, too, although she doesn't have enough of a role. The same could be said about Dana Andrews, although this was very early on in his career; and Grant Mitchell, although he was only a lead in B movies, and the banker role isn't a difficult one to play anyhow.

Tobacco Road was released to DVD, as part of the box set of John Ford's films at Fox. (Unfortunately, it only seems to be available as part of that box set.) Ford directed this a year after making The Grapes of Wrath, another movie that deals with famers who fell on hard times during the Depression. But while The Grapes of Wrath is fully serious, Tobacco Road delves into the comic, having been based not only a novel (by Erskine Caldwell), but the stage version of that novel, which had been a huge hit. Ultimately, Tobacco Road is interesting in its own right, as well as for those who might be fans of Gene Tierney or John Ford; but while interesting, it's also certainly not without its flaws.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts on Spring

Astronomical spring arrived a couple of days ago, although it was just in time for the weather to take a turn for the worse here, as the temperatures dipped from the 60s, with a lot of sun, down to rainy 40s. But, being too lazy to do a review of any of tonights upcoming Ginger Rogers movies, I thought about some of the various meanings of spring.

Springtime shows up quite a bit in the movies. There's the dreadful early musical Spring Is Here, one of those pre-42nd Street musicals that's static and full of dated singing. Indeed, when I recorded it the last time it showed up on TCM, I found it so awful that I started fast-forwarding through the songs! It hasn't been released to DVD, and somehow, I doubt it ever will. More famous from the musicals might be the "Springtime for Hitler" number from The Producers. Paris in the spring shows up quite a bit, too.

Spring break is another obvious choice, as there were a lot of college movies from the 1960s that dealt with coeds going south for the break. Where the Boys Are would probably be the best-known of such movies.

IMDb's search doesn't yield too many matches for spring water, but then the keyword matching isn't the best. There are a few movies dealing with the horse racing at Saratoga, including Jean Harlow's final movie, but it should be recalled that Saratoga got its start as a spa, and the town is called Saratoga Springs.

IMDb also lists about a dozen titles for bed springs, although to be honest, the only bed springs I can remember come in cartoons, when a bed falls apart and you can see a spring popping out from the mattress. There should be some watch springs, although we don't normally get to see these up close. The closest example I can think of to showing the workings of a watch would be in the bomb sequence of Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage. (There's also The Big Clock, although I don't remember that clock having any springs.)

The one other Spring would be Spring Byington, who made a lot of movies from the 1930s to the 1960s. Since spring starts in March, I wanted to do a post on her and Fredric March, but the only movie they made together (and Byington doesn't even have a big part in it), The Buccaneer doesn't seem to have been released to DVD. Byington was actually nominated for one Oscar, that coming in You Can't Take It With You.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Today marks the 100th birthday of director Akira Kurosawa; some of his best-known movies are airing tonight in prime time on TCM, such as Rashomon at 8:00 PM ET. TCM is also airing Kurosawa's earlier movies all morning and afternoon, but I haven't seen any of those, so I can't recommend them.

So, I was going to do a birthday post for somebody else, and was pleasantly surprised to see another format change for IMDb's birthday pages. As I mentioned a month ago, IMDb used to have the births/deaths/marriages all on one page, with each set in two columns, in chronological order. In February, it changed to be in some arbitrary order, apparently based on fame. Now, it's closer to the original. The births are in chronological order, albeit in only one column, and also include the place of birth information.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this. Having everything in one column is great if you're looking for somebody who would have been born around the time when the information would have been at the bottom of the old first column or the top of the second column. If you want to look at the oldest births, just use the "end" key to go all the way to the bottom of the page. Also, the place of birth makes it slightly easier to differentiate between all those John Williamses. The only possible quibbles I'd have are that there's a lot of empty space on the page now, as well as the fact that the births and deaths are on separate pages, and there doesn't seem to be any easy link to the deaths. That, and since all the information is in a database, you'd think it should be easy to sort it any way the user wants: chronologically, or by alphabetical order. But at least they've improved the design.

For the record, probably the most famous person sharing a March 23 birthday with Kurosawa is Joan Crawford who, depending on the source, was born in either 1905 or 1908.

Monday, March 22, 2010

TCM's March 2010 Guest Programmer

I think I've mentioned before that I like the "Guest Programmer" as a way for TCM to introduce to classic movies people who might otherwise not realize how good classic cinema can be. This month's guest programmer is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a co-pilot who tends to get mistaken for a basketball player. He appears with Robert Osborne tonight, and his four selections are:

The Big Sleep at 8:00 PM ET, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall;
The Maltese Falcon at 10:00 PM, in which Bogart talks about "the stuff that dreams are made of";
The Shootist, John Wayne's final film, at midnight; and
Stagecoach, the movie that made Wayne a star, at 2:00 AM.

To be honest, I think I would have scheduled The Maltese Falcon before The Big Sleep. It's a better-known story, but more importantly, as a movie it's easier to follow than what's going on in The Big Sleep. Also, I'm very curious to see why somebody like Abdul-Jabbar would select a pair of John Wayne movies.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The death of the B movie

Some time back, I commented on how I thought TV helped lead to the death of the shorts and B movies as produced by the studios in an earlier time. One of the consequences of this that doesn't get mentioned is that, when something that would have been better served as a B movie got made later on, the result was a movie more likely to be panned than to be seen as what it really is. A movie that I think is a good example of a more modern B comedy is For Pete's Sake, which airs at 4:15 PM ET today.

Barbara Streisand stars as a housewife in the New York City of the mid-1970s (the movie was released in 1974), when inflation was running rampant, making ends meet was tough, and New York wasn't the most pleasant place to be. Not only is she struggling to stretch the budget, her husband (Michael Sarrazin) is working as a cab driver and is being browbeaten by his brother and sister-in-law, who have it better. One day, he hears of a commodities deal that could easily net the two of them several thousand dollars, if only they had the money to invest at the start. Streisand does the best thing she knows to do: she borrows the money from a loan shark. Unfortunately, the deal goes sour, and the naïve Streisand learns she's expected to pay the money back....

It's here that what comedy there is in the movie kicks in. Her loan shark seems a bit uncomfortable with the idea of killing a woman, so instead he comes up with a scheme by which she can pay off the debt. That scheme doesn't work, and the debt keeps getting sold from one loan shark to the next, each of which comes up with a more daft idea for getting the money back. However, circumstances combine with Streisand's general incompetence to make each of the deals go sour. For example, when she's expected to work as a prostitute and service the men from her apartment, one of the men comes there by taxi -- a taxi that just happens to be driven by her husband. There's also a courier plot which involves Streisand wearing a ridiculous wig and glasses reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and most wacky, a plot that has Streisand herding cattle through the streets of New York.

If For Pete's Sake had been made three dozen years earlier, it probably wouldn't be well-remembered, with only those of us who watch too much TCM recalling it, and thinking of it as an interesting B movie. (Of course, the things the Streisand character would be expected to do to get back that money would also be decidedly more tame.) However, it's got a pretty big star in Streisand, which changes people's perceptions of the movie. The result is one that's entertaining at times, but not particularly great. Streisand doesn't have enough to do to carry the movie by herself, and Michael Sarrazin is a bit stiff as her husband. Still, it's not a terrible movie. If you like Streisand, or if you want a nostalgic look at the way New York was in the mid-1970s, you'll probably enjoy the movie.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ma and Pa Kettle

I mentioned back in July that I had never seen Ma and Pa Kettle before. I finally watched it then, and now that it's airing again, tomorrow at 8:30 AM ET on TCM, I can recommend it with a full-length post.

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride star as Ma and Pa Kettle, the dirt-poor farmers with a brood of 16 or so children. They're about to be thrown off their farm, but things take a turn for the better. Pa had entered a contest to write a slogan for a pipe tobacco company, simply because he wanted the free pouch that came with every entry. However, the company decided that his was the best slogan, so he wins the grand prize -- an ultra-modern "house of the future". It's here that most of the humor in the movie lies, as the hillbillies are clearly unprepared to live in a push-button house, and so are fish out of water. Eventually, they begin to wonder whether this is really the house for them, and they might lose it anyway, since one of Ma's rivals is convinced Pa didn't really write the slogan. There's also a subplot about the oldest of the Kettle kids (played by Richard Long) having gone off to college, graduated, and returning home with the girl he's fallen in love with, a journalist concerned about the environment children are growing up with.

For the most part, the movie is good clean humor, but also inoffensive to the point of blandness. Perhaps some rural types back in 1949 might have been offended by the portrayal of the Kettles. After all, Hollywood had known for years that the folks in what we might now call "flyover country" didn't necessarily like how they were shown in movies; this was the basis for the famous "Sticks Nix Hick Pix" headline that appeared in Variety -- back in 1935. The rest of America liked the Kettles, however. They had appeared as supporting characters in The Egg and I, and their popularity in that movie led Universal to create Ma and Pa Kettle, giving them leading roles. It turned out to be so popular that they wound up in an entire series of movies stretching to eight more movies (although Percy Kilbride didn't appear in the last).

Ultimately, Ma and Pa Kettle is enjoyable enough for the whole family, if a little dated and vapid. It's made its way to a fairly inexpensive box set including The Egg and I and some later movies in the series, too.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Speaking of Peter Graves

I mentioned in the Peter Graves obituary post that he appeared in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17. That movie just happens to be airing on TCM tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM ET.

If you enjoyed The Snake Pit

A month ago I recommended The Snake Pit, about women locked up in the state mental hospital. If you want to see another good women-locked-up movie, this time about women who have actually committed crime, stay tuned for Caged, airing overnight at 3:30 AM ET on TCM.

Eleanor Parker stars as Marie, a young woman who's entering prison. She's a widow, to boot, having been pushed into crime by her husband, who was killed in the hold-up for which she's now in prison as an accomplice. Not only that, but in the brief time they were married, he managed to knock her up! Prison isn't an easy place, especially for a pregnant woman, and this prison is no different. The other women, who have experience with prison, have already become hard-boiled. Warden Agnes Moorhead tries, but as always seems to be the case in prison movies, the warden doesn't have the resources. And then there's the matron, played by Hope Emerson. She's one of the more chilling female characters you'll ever see on screen. (But more on that later.)

It goes without saying that Marie gets worn down, just as all the other women do. One of her cellmates commits suicide; she gives birth to the baby but loses it to adoption when nobody in her family wants to take custody; she gets a kitten smuggled in, but it gets killed in a prison riot; and she gets her head shaved as a result of that riot. Eventually, Marie does get parole, but even that doesn't seem so positive, as warden Moorhead doesn't have much hope for her.

The other prisoners are well played by Ellen Corby as a murderess; Jan Sterling as a prostitute; Betty Garde as the alpha female; and Lee Patrick as a society woman who got on the wrong side of the law. But the best of the supporting cast is undoubtedly Emerson. Her matron is so nasty and frightening that you'll probably be cheering when she gets her comeuppance. I believe the last time TCM showed Caged was back in June 2007 during the Screened Out festival on Hollywood's portrayal of homosexuality: this being a women-in-prison movie, there is a lot of lesbian overtones going around. Presenter Richard gave a story about Emerson that's probably apocryphal, but interesting nonetheless. At the premiere of Caged, the audience cheered when Emerson's matron bought it, and after the movie, they jeered her when she was walking out of the theater. This wouldn't be so bad, except the legend has it that Emerson was pushing her wheelchair-bound mother down the red carpet. (Sounds like a great story, but I'm not so sure it's true.)

Caged had the bad luck of being released in 1950. Parker and Emerson both give excellent performances, and each was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. Unfortunately, they were both up against a bunch of other outstanding performances that year. Parker had to contend with both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve; Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.; and the eventual winner, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Emerson, on the other hand, was also up against All About Eve (in the form of Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter) and Sunset Blvd. (Nancy Olson); these all lost to Josephine Hull in Harvey.

It's a bit of a surprise that Caged is being put in the TCM Underground slot since it's such a good movie. Still, you don't have to wait for the middle of the night to watch it, as it's been released to DVD.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

But does it include e and π?

TCM is showing one of Clark Gables post-World War II movies, that doesn't get so much attention: Any Number Can Play, tomorrow at 10:15 AM ET.

Clark Gable plays Charley Kyng, a man with a lot of problems. He owns the local illegal gambling joint, which only stays open because everybody who is anybody drops their money there, including a good portion of the political establishment. Not that it makes his life easier. His wife (the lovely Alexis Smith) wants him to give up the gambling racket; his son (Darryl Hickman) is going through the rebellious teenage years; and he's not only supporting a wife and son, but her sister (Audrey Totter) and her sister's husband (Wendell Corey). Worse, the brother-in-law, who's working for Kyng, has gotten in gambling trouble with underworld figures, who would like him to use his position at the casino to pay off his debts. If that's too much for any man to take, it's understandable. And, Kyng can't really take it, as all the stress is leading to a nasty case of angina pectoralis. Nowadays, modern medicine can do a pretty good job of treating it, but back in 1949, the prognosis for angina sufferes wasn't that good, so Kyng's doctor (Leon Ames), like Mrs. Kyng, wants Charley to give up the business.

Got all that? Good, because "all that" is what makes the movie ultimately fall short. The otherwise excellent director Mervyn LeRoy has too much on his plate here, and is never able to give enough time to any one sub-plot. (I think I've missed two or three sub-plots to boot.) It doesn't help that the movie was made at MGM in 1949, which was a time of conflict between Louis B. Mayer, who wanted clean family entertainment, and Dore Schary, who wanted more of the socially relevant stuff that LeRoy had made over at Warner Bros.

Still, Gable does the best he can with the material, which is professional if not great. The other actors also try, and seem competent, if underdeveloped. It's a bit of a shame, since there are a lot of fine actors on display here. In addition to everybody I've mentioned above, Frank Morgan, Mary Astor, and Lewis Stone also get sub-plots. (See what I said about too many sub-plots?) Ultimately, Any Number Can Play is a competent movie full of reasonably good performances that would be better served by having a stronger focus. It's not unentertaining, and if you like a lot of the old character actors, there's bound to be at least one you'll enjoy here.

Any Number Can Play has not yet been released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch one of the TCM airings.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ginger Rogers and... Norman Foster?

Norman Foster is a name you might not recognize: he acted in the 1930s, but eventually became a director, making a lot of B movies in the late 1930s and 1940s. TCM, however, have paired two of the movies where he played the male lead opposite Ginger Rogers as part of Rogers' Star of the Month treatment. I've recommended the fun Rafter Romance before; that comes up overnight at 1:00 AM ET. Before that, at 11:30 PM tonight, is Professional Sweetheart.

Rogers stars as Glory Eden, the host of a popular radio show. Glory is supposed to be the apotheosis of the virtuous, all-American girl. The reality, however, is quite different, as she wants to spend her free time partying and drinking. This of course, presents a huge problem for the show's sponsors. Eventually, Glory's bosses -- the sponsors and PR people -- get an idea. They'll look through Glory's fan mail, and find a proper man to be Glory's boyfriend; somebody who can keep her on the straight and narrow.

That's where Foster comes in. He plays Jim Davey, a hillbilly from the backwoods of Kentucky. He's brought to New York, and falls hard for Glory, to the point that he actually intends to bring her back to Kentucky and have her be a real wife for him! It's not something Glory really knows how to do, but she's so miffed at her handlers that she's willing to run away and give it a try....

Professional Sweetheart is fun, if not truly great. Classic movie fans will particularly enjoy watching for all of the character actors who show up. Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian from All About Eve) plays one sponsor; his personal assistant is Allen Jenkins; Sterling Holloway and Edward Everett Horton play reporters; Franklin Pangborn, Frank McHugh, and ZaSu Pitts also show up. All of them are just wacky enough to make Professional Sweetheart an enjoyable ride.

Apparently, Professional Sweetheart has not been released to DVD. Even though it's one of the lesser-known Ginger Rogers movies, you'd think it might have made it into a Rogers box set by now.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Karlheinz Böhm

Karlheinz Böhm (r.) with Anna Massey in Peeping Tom (1960)

I haven't seen any of tonight's Akira Kurosawa movies on TCM, and I'm really not interested in tomorrow's schedule, so it's time to trawl through the birthday list again. Today marks the 82d birthday of Karlheinz Böhm, a German-born actor who made a few English-language movies, the most notable of those being Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. It's availabe on DVD, but it's a pricey one from the Criterion Collection.

Böhm retired from acting in the 1980s in order to start the charity Menschen für Menschen (sorry, but you'll have to read German), which aims to help the underprivileged of Ethiopia.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Miss Cleo

TCM is showing a pair of movies about psychics tomorrow morning. Neither has been released to DVD, as far as I'm aware, and they don't show up on TCM very often. I was going to write up a full post on one or the other of them, but with Peter Graves' sudden death and finding out about the interesting short airing early this evening, I don't have so much time.

The first of the movies is 1933's The Mind-Reader, at 8:45 AM ET tomorrow. Warren William plays the phony psychic here, working the carnival scene until he meets a woman who insists he go straight. He does so for love, but when regular work can't pay the bills, he has to go back to the con game, which winds up having disastrous consequences....

It's followed at 10:00 AM by The Clairvoyant. Claude Rains plays the title role in this 1934 British movie, that of a magician-type mindreader doing his tricks at a music hall with his female partner. However, he meets a woman who has a strange effect on him, that of making him actually able to see the future. Not that anybody believes him, of course. When he predicts a disaster that does happen, he's suspected of having deliberately caused that disaster in ordre to have his predictions seen as coming true.

The Clairvoyant has aired once or twice since I've started blogging, although I never got around to posting on it. However, I don't think The Mind-Reader has aired since Stephen Sondheim was TCM's Guest Programmer, which was back in March, 2005.

The Camera Speaks

If you want to see some interesting early cinema footage, look for the short The Camera Speaks, which is coming up on TCM today after Dark Victory, at around 7:45 PM ET.

The framing story is that of a night watchman at a movie studio who falls asleep with a camera in the room. Much like in A Christmas Carol, a spirit comes out of the camera, reminding the old watchman of the things that camera has seen. It's not much of a story, but this is really a short to watch for the old clips, which include one of William Jennings Bryan (I'd guess from either the 1900 or 1908 presidential campaign); a 1906 short of firemen parading in Newburgh, NY; and a few silent features including one with Gloria Swanson.

I'm not quite certain why this one got made, but it's nice to see that this archive footage got saved.

Peter Graves, 1926-2010

Actor Peter Graves, who is probably best known for his role in the late 1960s TV series Mission: Impossible, died at his California home yesterday, a few days shy of his 84th birthday. However, he was in several movies before that which would be of interest to classic movie fans. He was one of the POWs in Stalag 17, as well as the bank-robbing father who gives his kids a wad of money to stuff in the daughter's doll in Night of the Hunter, from which the above photo is taken.

Graves was also part of the 1980 spoof Airplane!, playing pilot Clarence Oveur, whose food poisoning forces Ted Stryker into the pilot's seat. Before getting sick, though, Oveur has some memorable lines talking to a kid who just wanted to visit the cockpit. I don't know, however, if the kid likes gladiator movies.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Another gratuitous photo thread

TCM is airing the movie Brute Force at 4:15 AM ET Monday (or overnight tonight, if you will). I've recommended the movie more than once, but both times failed to include a photo. I've had the picture of Hume Cronyn, stripped down to his undershirt and brandishing his truncheon, for some time, but for whatever reason have always neglected to use it here. Cronyn's character is a delightfully evil bastard, and one of the things that maked the movie so much fun to watch.

The other interesting thing about the movie is a calypso-singing prisoner. He's played by an actor who went by the name of Sir Lancelot, and is credited that way. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any good photos of him from Brute Force on the web anywhere, so have to post a more normal head shot of him instead. You may also have seen Sir Lancelot in the Val Lewton movie The Curse of the Cat People, where he plays Kent Smith's elegant-looking butler.

Another comment on IMDb

Today happens to be the 77th birthday of Quincy Jones, which I noticed while browsing the poorly-sorted birthday list. When I first looked at the list of credits for Jones, I was a bit surprised, in that it only listed about 30 things, many of which weren't movies. Then I noticed that was just Jones' credits for being in the "Music Department". The thing is, IMDb classifies the "Music Department" differently from being the "Composer". And, both of them are different from "Soundtrack" credits.

I have to admit it's a bit tough to determine where to draw the dividing lines. One of the problems is that, especially with modern movies, there can be a substantial difference between being a part of the soundtrack, and being involved with the score, especially in the cases of those films that use a bunch of pop songs by different artists to make up the score. There's also a difference between being a composer, and being an arranger. (Think Glenn Miller.) But is there really such a big difference between "arrangement" and "orchestrations"? Quincy Jones also gets credit under "Music Department" for several TV projects which list him as "composer" -- yet many of these aren't listed under Jones' credits in the "Composer" section.

I suppose I should have mentioned Walk, Don't Run when it aired the other day, since it's got a score by Qunicy Jones.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

TCM in heat!

TCM's Essential movie for tonight is one of the last great gangster movies, 1949's White Heat, airing at 8:00 PM ET. I mentioned it briefly quite some time back, and pointed out James Cagney's famous quote at the end, "Made it Ma! Top of the world!" when he's cornered at a gas refinery. The picture of Cagney's Cody Jarrett, silhouetted against the rising flames, is one that's made it to the Internet in a bunch of places. One other famous scene, which you've probably seen if you've seen George C. Scott's piece on Cagney that airs whenever TCM wants to promote an upcoming Cagney film, is the scene in which Cody Jarrett, in prison, learns that his beloved mother has died. The piece is available at the TCM Media Room. I couldn't find the George C. Scott piece at the TCM Media Room, but unsurprisingly, it's made its way to Youtube.

Anyhow, TCM's airing of White Heat serves as an excuse for them to show a bunch of movies with the word "Heat" in the title. That includes The Big Heat, at midnight. Glenn Ford is the star, although the movie is a lot more fun to watch for Lee Marvin, at his psychotic best, throwing a pot of hot coffee in poor Gloria Grahame's face.

In between the two is something a little more recent, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, at 10:00 PM. It's one of those silly 1960s caper movies, with the plot here involving James Coburn and his merry band of gangsters (including Aldo Ray) trying to rob the bank at Los Angeles International Airport while security is involved with the arrival of the Soviet Premier. It's typical for the genre, in that it's reasonably competently made, entertaining enough, but nothing particularly great or memorable.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mr. Sardonicus

I've recommended a couple of William Castle's films in the past. Another one's coming up overnight as part of TCM Underground: Mr. Sardonicus, at 4:15 AM ET tomorrow.

Ronald Lewis plays Robert Cargrave, a prominent doctor in Victorian London who's known for his scientific experiments. One day, he gets an urgent letter from a Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe), living somewhere on the continent, having married a woman Cargrave used to know (Audrey Dalton). Sardonicus needs medical help and, believing Cargrave is the only man left who can help him, is basically making Cargave an offer he can't refuse. Of course, there's also the chance to see his old flame, so he sets out to the creepy Sardonicus estate.

What he finds there shocks him. He's met by Sardonicus' assistant Krull (played by poor Oskar Homolka, making the viewer wonder how Homolka's career fell to having play parts like this) and, when he first enters the castle, sees a woman who's been the subject of experiments with leeches. Not only that, but Sardonicus is wearing a mask. Cargrave investiagtes and isn't so sure that he can help, but Sardonicus considers him to be the last hope, and because Sardonicus also has a mean streak in him, more or less holds Cargrave hostage until he helps Sardonicus. The problem turns out to involve an old winning lottery ticket that Sardonicus' father had, and with which he was accidentally buried. Sardonicus dug up the body to get that lottery ticket, and that somehow resulted in his medical condition....

I've avoided stating specifically what that condition is, in part because that's one of the highlights of the movie. I won't post the photo here; instead, you'll have to go to Photobucket if you want to be spoiled. That's one of the Castle gimmicks in this movie. The other comes near the end. Cargrave performs a medical procedure on Sardonicus, at which point Castle stops the movie and gives audiences the right to vote on whether that procedue should be successful or not. In theory, there would have been two endings made, one with the procedure working and one not, but apparently only one was made, and that's the one that always gets shown. A silly idea to be sure, but like all of William Castle's gimmicks, it's fun.

And fun is the whole point of Castle's movies. The acting isn't great, and the script is no better than most horror movies of that genre. But William Castle had a sense of showmanship that make his movies much more memorable today than the other horror movies from that era. Mr. Sardonicus is no different.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Henry Fonda does comedy!

TCM is showing a night of Charles Coburn movies tonight, kicking off with the Preston Sturges comedy The Lady Eve at 8:00 PM ET.

Fonda plays young Charles Pike, the heir to the Pike Ale business. However, he's not so interested in beer-making, instead showing an interest in herpetology. So, when the movie opens, we first see Pike coming back from an expedition to the Amazon. The boats to and from South America are filled with interesting characters, and tis one is no different, as a pair of card sharps shows up: Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), and her father the "Colonel" (Charles Coburn). They obviously know Pike is on the trip, and figure he's an easy mark for money. However, what Jean doesn't count on is that she's going to fall in love with him.

At first, Pike reciprocates, until he finds out the true identity of Jean, that she's a fraudster and not the high-class lady she's been making herself out to be. At that point, he breaks off contact with her and returns home to his family. However, Jean is still in love with him, and decides to get a measure of revenge by showing up at one of the Pike family parties as the Lady Eve. Although she's determined to pay him back for what he did, Jean/Eve doesn't realize that she's still actually in love with Pike....

This being a comedy, you know it's going to have a happy ending. However, it's the way we get there that makes this movie so much fun. Barbara Stanwyck could do almost anything, and she's as adept at comedy here as she wsa in Ball of Fire. Fonda's comedic style, if you can call it that, seems to be more that of the straight guy, the one who was the funny things happen around him or even to him. He's much less wacky than, say, the Lucille Ball character in Yours, Mine, and Ours. Still, it's not an easy thing to pull off, and Fonda did it a number of times in his career. Charles Coburn is a natural for this sort of role, that of the playfully scheming older gentleman. And the rest of the supporting cast is just as usually good as it always is in a Preston Sturges movie. Eugene Pallette plays Father Pike; Sturges regular William Demarest shows up as young Pike's valet; and veteran butler Eric Blore as one of Colonel Harrington's gang of conmen. They're all helped by a typically glittering script from Sturges.

The Lady Eve, like most of Sturges' work, has made it to DVD.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

TCM Star of the Month: Ginger Rogers

Thanks to 31 Days of Oscar, TCM can only devote four weeks in March to any special features, such as the Akira Kurosawa tribute, or the new Star of the Month, Ginger Rogers. Ginger made enough movies that, although she's being honored on Wednesdays in prime time, the movies continue well into Thursday morning. Such is the case this week, when TCM is showing 10 movies that Rogers made with Fred Astaire. The plot is secondary in most of them, and relatively similar: the two get involved in some sort of mistaken identity crisis that can only be solved by their dancing together. There are some exceptions to this, of course. Flying Down to Rio, which shows at 1:15 PM ET Thursday is a big exception, although it's natural, since Astaire and Rogers weren't the stars; instead, it was their dancing the Carioca together that made them a star dancing team. The other interesting exception is The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, which airs at 9:30 AM Thursday. What makes this different is that it's a biopic, about the famous dance team of the 1910s.

I've argued in the past that musicals aren't my favorite genre, but for those of you who do enjoy musicals more than I do, you'll have a blast tonight.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

TCM's Akira Kurosawa tribute

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (the actuall date of birth being the 23rd), and TCM is marking the occasion by showing Kurosawa's movies for the next four Tuesday nights in prime time. Tonight, I'm particularly looking forward to Throne of Blood, at 10:30 PM ET, as it's one that I surprisingly haven't seen before. The night, however, kicks off with a movie that I saw many years ago: Ikiru, at 8:00 PM.

The plot is fairly simple. Kanji is an old man who has spent his entire working life doing little to nothing as a government clerk, merely stamping papers, finds out that he's got incurable stomach cancer and that he's going to die in a matter of months. Well, his body is going to die; he soul has been moribund for years. Learning, though, that his body is about to give out, Kanji decides to spend the remaining time he has actually living, and to leave a legacy by trying to get a playground built for the neighborhood children.

Unfortunately, Ikiru is a movie that, like Brighton Rock, I don't remember quite so well. I first saw it maybe 20 years ago on one of the PBS stations, which would run classic foreign films. It's also where I first saw The Cranes Are Flying, Fritz Lang's M, and even The Seventh Seal. They had some more obscure stuff, and I think it was even my first exposure to Bollywood, which I distinctly remember not really getting at the time. (It didn't help that this was the late show.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Brothers Warner

TCM is showing The Brothers Warner tonight at 8:00 PM ET, with a repeat of it at 3:15 AM. I haven't seen this documentary, so I can't really comment on it.

However, they're showing three excellent movies in between, all of which I've recommended in the past:

The 1927 version of The Jazz Singer, at 9:45 PM;
Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, at 11:30 PM; and
Confessions of a Nazi Spy, at 1:15 AM. (To be honest, I thought about blogging on this movie, but it turns out I've already done it.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Big Knife

This being Oscar night, TCM is showing several movies about making the other side of the acting business. One that's interesting, if not necessarily great, is The Big Knife, airing at 10:15 PM ET.

Jack Palance plays Charles Castle. He's an actor who's been successful playing matinee-idol types, and the studio loves this because it brings in a lot of money for them. Castle isn't so sure he wants to keep playing such roles, and wants to do more "serious" stuff. Meanwhile, he's got a wife (Ida Lupino) who would be just as happy if he'd just leave Hollywood so that they can have a more normal life.

Into this comes producer Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), who presents another problem for Castle. Hoff wants Castle to up with the studio for another seven years, and is willing to do almost anything to get Castle to agree. This includes blackmail, as the studios knew quite a lot about the dark secrets of their actors back in those days. Those secretes here include relationships with actresses Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters.

To be honest, it's an interesting idea, but it doesn't quite live up to expectations. It's all based on a stage play by Clifford Odets, and the result is a movie that comes across as stagey, as most of the action takes place in one room of Charlie Castle's house. That, and it's Clifford Odets, who was never very subtle in getting his point across in his plays. The actors try, but don't really succeed. Still, it's interesting to see Palance, who had previously generally played heavies, trying to extend his range by playing a more sympathetic lead. Ida Lupino is good as always, as is Shelley Winters.

The Big Knife has been released to DVD.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I'm not a huge Tennessee Williams fan

TCM's The Essentials returns tonight at 8:00 PM ET. Alec Baldwin is co-host for a second season, sitting down with Robert Osborne to discuss movies that are "essential" for any self-respecting movie buff to see. This year's movies kick off with the 1951 version of A Streetcar Named Desire. To be honest, I don't care too much for it, in part because I'm not the biggest fan of Marlon Brando. His rending his shirt and screaming "Stella!" is the sort of thing that just screams for parodying. Not only that, but the movie as a whole comes across as too overwrought and melodramatic, and not in a good way. At least when Joan Crawford was doing things like Johnny Guitar or Queen Bee, it was campy fun. (Or at least, that's how it seems today; I'm sure she was dead serious at the time.) Then, there are the movies like last night's The Crowded Sky that are so bad they're funny. A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't even have that.

That having been said, A Streetcar Named Desire isn't the only Tennessee Williams-based movie I have a problem with. I tried to watch Baby Doll the last time it showed up on TCM, and after a half hour or so, I just couldn't take it any more. Even Suddenly, Last Summer, which I've blogged about before, has problems.

Still, if you're a fan of Tennessee Williams, or Marlon Brando, then I'm sure you'll love A Streetcar Named Desire. Besides, you've probably already seen it.

Sometimes I wish I had a good laptop

I hadn't seen The Crowded Sky, before; it was the first of last night's air disaster movies. I'd do a blog posting on it, but it's really the sort of movie that could use a live-blogging post. It's one of those unintentionally funny movies, and had me laughing out loud at times where the producers clearly didn't intend it, to the point that I should have taken notes as to exactly what had me laughing at what point in the movie.

Despite being a fairly unknown movie, it has been released to DVD as part of the TCM Warner Archive Collection.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Seminal movies: Airplane!

TCM is showing a series of movies about airplane problems tonight, including the classic comedy Airplane!, at 10:00 PM ET.

I think everybody knows the plot, so the question then becomes one of what makes it a seminal movie. Airplane! probably did more than any other movie to make the spoof genre viable in Hollywood. Sure, there had been some other spoofs before. Mel Brooks made High Anxiety, his look at the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, a few years earlier. Also, there's Brooks' Young Frankenstein which was even earlier, as well as movies like Murder By Death. And, some of the great cartoons from Warner Bros. and MGM back in the 1940s are clearly lampooning their studios' products.

But there's something about Airplane! that's made it well-known to the point that it's entered the cultural consciousness in a way that the other movies haven't. It was only after Airplane! that spoofs really started to become common: Airplane! spawned a sequel; there was the series of Naked Gun movies, followed by things such as Loaded Weapon and Scary Movie. More than that, though, are some of the scenes. One of the most famous would be the "Surely you can't be serious" joke; I think you all know the punchline. And when it came to the teaching of Ebonics, one of the ways critics lambasted the idea was to use Barbara Billingsley's famous "Miss, I speak jive" sequence from Airplane!. There is also a lot of other great word-play and sight gags, with perhaps my personal favorite involving a bunch of reports and a bank of pay phones.

As for the spoofing, Airplane! has often been compared to Airport and the other disaster movies of the 1970s. There is a good deal of that in the movie. But Airplane! is an even bigger homage to Zero Hour!, which will be following at 11:45 PM. Both movies have been released to DVD.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

TCM's John Garfield birthday salute

Having finished 31 Days of Oscar, TCM returns to normal programming with a March 4 birthday tribute: to John Garfield (1913-1952), who appeared in some 30 movies over the last 15 years of his life. One of his best-known movies is The Postman Always Rings Twice, and TCM is finishing up the salute with that movie, at 5:30 PM ET. (I'd argue that Garfield's other best-known movie is Gentleman's Agreement, even though his is only a supporting role. However, that's a Fox movie and not airing on TCM today.)

A movie that I've mentioned briefly is Between Two Worlds, having mentioned the fact that it's a remake of a movie I did a full review on, Outward Bound. (Has it really been two years since TCM has shown Outward Bound?) Between Two Worlds precedes The Postman Always Rings Twice, at 3:30 PM.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Girls' Day

Today is Girls' Day in Japan, which would be a good time to blog about a movie I've only mentioned in passing in the past: Too Many Girls.

Lucille Ball stars as Connie, the daughter of a wealthy man. She's in love with a writer with the ridiculous name of Beverly Waverly, a man of whom her father most definitely does not approve. How to keep her from seeing Waverly? Well, it seems as though the problem might be solved when she decides to go to her father's old alma mater, Pottawatomie College out in New Mexico. It's a "cow college" that just happens to have a male-female ratio of 1:10. Still, Daddy fears for his rebellious daughter's safety (or, more accurately, he doesn't trust her), so he convinces college jock Clint (Richard Carlson) to transfer to Pottawatomie, and serve as Connie's "bodyguard" unbeknownst to her. It's not too difficult an ask, since Clint has fallen in love with Connie himself.

However, he also gets a few more unexpected colleagues. When he met Connie's father, he was actually waiting to convince Argentine running back Manuelito (Desi Arnaz) to play football for his school. Two jocks from other schools: Jojo (Eddie Bracken) and Al (Hal LeRoy) had caught wind of this, and followed Manuelito. They, too wind up being smitten with Connie, and agree to become her "bodyguards" and transfer to Pottawatomie as well.

It's here that the action really starts getting wacky. Pottawatomie has a football team that's pretty bad (it's the lack of men on campus), and when it's found out that the four new students can play football, they kind of have to join the team, even though it will make their actual job more difficult. That, and they all fall in love, with Ann Miller, Frances Langford, and Libby Bennett. And when Connie finds out that the four guys have been hired by her father, she decides to quit Pottawatomie, which will force them to leave as well....

Too Many Girls has no grounding in any reality that I can think of. I don't think I ever knew a college like this. Nor was college football ever been this way. The closest I got to New Mexico was the Four Corners, but Too Many Girls isn't like any other cinematic rendering of New Mexico I can think of. That having been said, the movie is a riot, with Eddie Bracken getting a bunch of great lines, notably when he tells Hal Le Roy, "Get your own ten girls!", or after he catches Carlson singing the song "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" to Ball. Bracken goes back to the other two guys to tell them what he saw, and asks Desi to hold his hand while he sings the song, in order to get the atmosphere right! Then there's Desi Arnaz trying to guess what sort of perfume Ann Miller is wearing. And, of course Miller gets to dance, which is another highlight of the movie. The other dance highlight is the finale, which has the student body celebrate after winning a big game by... doing a conga line across the campus! (I suppose it beats storming the field.) Yes, it's silly stuff. But it's really fun silly stuff.

The movie has the songs of Rogers and Hart, and is one of the few directed by George Abbott. Abbott was better known for his work on Broadway, and indeed, this is an adaptation of a Broadway play. Abbott went on to live an extremely long life, getting trotted out once a year for the Tony Awards for the sole purpose that Broadway could show how it was honoring its past simply by having some old guy walk out and wave to the audience. He died in 1995 at the ripe old age of 107.

Too Many Girls has been released to DVD, as part of a box set containing all three of the movies that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made together. This was actually the movie in which they first met.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Operation Petticoat

I've made brief mention of the movie Operation Petticoat several times, but never done a full post on it. TCM is showing the movie again tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM ET.

Cary Grant stars as Lt. Cmdr. Matt Sherman, a submarine captain in the western Pacific at the beginning of America's involvement in World War II. Sherman and his portion of the Navy were caught just as unawares of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as were the folks at Pearl Harbor itself, with the result being that the good captain has a vessel that may not be very seaworthy, but one that he has to take to sea anyhow, or else the Japanese are sure to destroy it. So, his orders are to beat a hasty retreat and, if he can do any damage to the Japanese, so much the better. Sherman is helped by his second-in-command, Lt. Nick Holden (Tony Curtis). Lt. Holden is a user, a man who grew up on the tough streets and learned how to be manipulative in order to get the things he wants or needs. This turns out to be a good thing, as it makes him able to procure a number of supplies that the ship needs, even if he has to go around Navy regulations in order to do it. (That's putting it mildly.)

Eventually, the sailors set off, and the retreat is eventful, to say the least. Along the way, Lt. Cmdr. Sherman's sub meets up with a group of stranded Army nurses, and Lt. Holden does everything to make sure they get taken aboard -- after all, who wouldn't want women with them in the tight spaces of a submarine? This forms the basis of the bulk of the humor in the movie, as the male crew have their natuarl raging hormones which make them want to be with the women, even though it's really more important that they get away from the Japanese.

And even though it's beem more than 50 years since its release, Operation Petticoat still holds up as a pretty good service comedy. A lot of this is due to the acting skills of the two leads, Grant and Curtis, who were both adept at comedy, albeit different types of comedy. However, they are by far not the only good members of the cast. Several of the supporting players would go on to success in television sitcoms, notably Dick Sargent (Bewitched), Gavin MacLeod (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and Marion Ross (Happy Days).

Happily, Operation Petticoat has been released to DVD.

Monday, March 1, 2010

David Niven, 1910-1983

David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death

Today marks the 100th birth anniversary of David Niven, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a troubled retired army officer in Separate Tables. Somewhat surprisingly, I haven't recommended too many of his movies before. And when I recommended The Bishop's Wife, I used a photo of Cary Grant and Loretta Young to illustrate it.

Still, Separate Tables is a quite good ensemble movie, about a group of people in the fading glory of post-war Britain who spend their summer holiday every year in the same seaside hotel, knowing each other in a way, but never really knowing each other. Niven's army officer falls in love with a reserved young woman played by Deborah Kerr (who is really too old for the rold, but that's another story), whose introversion may be a sign of deeper mental instability. She doesn't know Niven's secret -- nobody there really does -- but everybody knows there's some reason to avoid the man. This is all set against the backdrop of a fine cast of other peoplw who have problems of their own: There's Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth as ex-lovers; a young Rod Taylor trying to spice up his relationship (with Audrey Dalton); Gladys Cooper as the overbearing mother of Deborah Kerr; Wendy Hiller as the owner of the hotel; and a few I've probably missed.

If you want to see the acting ability of David Niven, Separate Tables isn't a bad place to start. Unfortunately, Amazon claims the DVD is out of print.