Thursday, September 30, 2010

Arthur Penn has died too

Gene Hackman, Warren Beatty, and Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie and Clyde'
From left: Gene Hackman, Warren Beatty, and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

I just mentioned director Arthur Penn a few days back on his 88th birthday; he passed away the next day. He probably deserves a better obituary post than I can give him, with a nice big picture in addition to the still from Bonnie and Clyde. But, there aren't nearly so many good photos of Penn out there.

Penn is probably most famous for Bonnie and Clyde, which just happened to be on the TCM schedule as this week's Essential, airing at 8:00 PM Saturday. TCM has decided to take that as an opportunity to do a brief Penn tribute, making Bonnie and Clyde the second movie in a Penn double feature. The first, at 6:15 PM, October 2, is Mickey One.

Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

Tony Curtis, a Hollywood star in the 1950s and 1960s who stayed in the spotlight for the rest of his life and had a very interesting life, has died at the age of 85. It's a bit difficult to figure out just where to start an obituary post on Curtis, since he wound up doing so much in his life. Perhaps a good place would be with Curtis' service in World War II -- he eventually wound up in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender. TCM runs a piece from time to time in which Curtis discusses the influence Cary Grant had on his career, mentioning that it's Grant's 1943 movie Destination Tokyo that got Curtis in the Navy, and that Curtis was thrilled to work with Cary Grant the one time that he did, in Operation Petticoat.

From left: Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like It Hot'Curits also mentions his work in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, and that his millionaire persona was cribbed from Cary Grant, specifically Grant's performance in Bringing Up Baby. Of course, Grant cribbed the glasses from Harold Lloyd movies, and the piece on Some Like It Hot that you're more likely to see on TCM is the one that Jack Lemmon did on Billy Wilder, which mentions him and Tony Curtis being in drag for 85% of the movie (I don't think it's quite that much, but it's the whole point of the movie). But that shouldn't take away from Curtis' work, especially since he and Lemmon played so well off of each other. Indeed, Curtis's character has the same sort of scheming ways as the one on Operation Petticoat.

It wouldn't be fair to Curtis to mention only his comedies. Curtis got an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones, in which he plays a prisoner handcuffed to fellow prisoner Sidney Poitier, with whom he tries to make an escape, despite the fact each of them hates the other's guts, in no small part because of their race. There's also The Sweet Smell of Success opposite Burt Lancaster, which the movie that really got Curtis noticed. And who could forget a hilariously silly adventure flick like The Vikings, where Curtis plays Kirk Douglas' mortal enemy, and the two go around wearing those ghastly Hollywood tunics that show off most of their legs and arms? It's supposed to be a drama, but boy is it funny.

As for Curtis' personal life, in addition to serving in World War II, he would go on to get married six times, including one to actress Janet Leigh, which would of course produce daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, who went on to become a pretty successful actress in her own right. There were also the well-publicized bouts with booze and drugs and, later in life, work as a serious painter. Curtis and his final wife also operated a horse shelter in Nevada.

As far as I can tell right now, TCM hasn't announced a schedule change. They've got a lot on their plate in October, with four of the five weeknights devoted to various features, so I'm not certain when the tribute is going to come.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lizabeth Scott turns 88

Is that woman wearing a bra?
Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in a publicity still from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Today marks the 88th birthday of actress Elizabeth Scott, whose star burned brightly for about a decade before pretty much retiring from movies in the mid-1950s. She never quite got to be an A-level star or leading lady, but boy does she light up the screen in her supporting roles. Perhaps most notable among these is in her second film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, where she plays a woman on probation in Van Heflin's hometown who wants to get away with Heflin to better places, or as the femme fatale opposite Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning.

To be honest, there are quite a few famous birthdays today; if you saw TCM's schedule you'll realize that today marks the birth anniversary of Greer Garson. But I wanted to honor somebody else. I was also thinking of the 79th birthday of Anita Ekberg, but the photo I was going to post, from Man in the Vault, is actually of the other woman in the movie, Karen Sharpe. And speaking of Karen Sharpe, she's still alive at 76, and the widow of another September 29 birthday celebrant, Stanley Kramer (1913-2001).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

OK, I'm not a big fan of George Bernard Shaw either

TCM concludes its salute to September Star of the Month Vivian Leigh tonight with four more of her movies, including Caesar and Cleopatra, at midnight ET.

Based on a play by George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote the screenplay), Claude Rains plays Caesar, who comes to Egypt on one of his campaigns and finds the young Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh). Together, the two plot to get Cleopatra the throne away frmo her borther Ptolemy, who is leading the Egyptians against the Romans. The story line, however, is really just there in service of the epigrammatic writing of Shaw.

To be honest, this is where I find the movie a big problem. Other than that, it's an extremely well-made movie. Rains is as good as ever playing Caesar, and Leigh is good (if too old) as Cleopatra. Her Cleopatra is supposed to be a teenager, and Leigh does well portraying not-quite-mature, and smitten with Caesar. The supporting cast is good, too; you've got a young Stewart Granger as the Greek, Flora Robson as Cleopatra's servant Ftatateeta, and a bunch of names that might be more recognizable if you watch British movies. Appearing in small roles are Michael Rennie (a centurion), Jean Simmons (a harpist) and an uncredited Roger Moore as a Roman soldier. To top it all off, the set design is impressive, especially considering that this was made at the height of the Nazis' bombardment of Britain with its V-rockets. And, the movie is made in absolutely lovely technicolor.

The problem, though, is Shaw. He seems so enamored of his own writing that he allows his wit to overpower an otherwise interesting story and good performances. I found myself particularly irritated by the way everybody said "Ftatateeta" as if this odd name was the funniest thing in the ancient world. However, I'm sure there are people out there who like Shaw's work. If you're such a person, you'll probably love this movie.

Apparently, Caesar and Cleopatra has only been released to DVD in North America as part of a box set of Shaw's work.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gloria Stuart, 1910-2010

Gloria Stuart, the actress who is probably best remembered today for having played the old lady who appears at the beginning of James Cameron's Titanic, has died at the age of 100.

Of course, those of us who are fans of classic movies will probably remember that she made a large number of movies at Fox in the 1930s before retiring a first time a good half-century before Titanic. FMC has had Island in the Sky on their schedule from time to time, but doesn't air too many of Stuart's movies. And, sadly, TCM can't get the rights to show Fox movies anywhere near as easily as they can to stuff from MGM, Warners, or RKO. So I don't know that TCM is going to be able to do much of a tribute for Stuart.

Light work loads

Today is the 88th birthday of director Arthur Penn (still alive, according to IMDb). If you don't recognize the name, you at least will recognize some of the movies: Penn directed The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde, which earned him two of his three Oscar nominations. However, he only directed about 15 feature movies over a 35-year period.

This is a pretty big contrast from the studio era. Somebody like Mervyn LeRoy, under contract at Warners, would make that many movies in the 1940s alone, never mind what he did during the 1930s. Even later in his career, when he was less active, LeRoy made something like 20 movies in the last two decades of his career.

It's not just being under contract to one studio, either; Alfred Hitchcock worked at a whole bunch of studios after coming to Hollywood and still made about two dozen movies during the most productive 20 years of his career, from Rebecca in 1940 to Psycho in 1960.

And to be honest, it's not just the death of the studio system. Woody Allen has been churning out roughly one movie every year, even now that he's over 70. Not that I personally like all of them, although that's in part because I'm not much of a Woody Allen fan. But the movies are still good enough to earn the actors award nominations.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Doris Day builds her dream house

I'm always worried about doing a repeat full-length post on a movie I've already blogged about. However, both Blogger's search function, and Google, claim that I haven't blogged about Please Don't Eat the Daisies, airing this evening at 6:00 PM ET.

Doris Day stars as Kate Mackay, the wife of prominent New York theater critic Larry Mackay (David Niven). They live together with their four bratty sons in an apartment that's getting too small for the six of them. Sound like a familiar plot? To add to all this, Kate is jealous, thinking that too many actresses are making eyes at her husband. So, she gets the brilliant idea to move the family out to Connecticut.

What could go wrong? Well, if you've seen the movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House you can probably guess, although the house the Mackays buy isn't nearly as decrepit as what Cary Grant's Mr. Blandings bought. Meanwhile, there's conflict between husband, who would rather have stayed in the city, and wife, who is beginning to find that life in the country isn't quite as good as she had first imagined. She tries to throw herself into the local life, helped by one of her husband's rivals: before becoming a critic, Larry was a failed playwright. Producer Richard Haydn knows this, and when Larry criticizes one of Haydn's plays, Haydn convinces Kate to do a school production of one of Larry's horrid plays from years back.

Please Don't Eat the Daisies is a gentler comedy than Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, in that it doesn't depend on the construction humor to anywhere near the extent that Cary Grant and Myrna Loy do. Instead, this is a more mature comedy about a couple who have a real conflict over what life should bring them. I'm normally not a fan of Doris Day, but she's quite good and believable here. David Niven, of course, was understated in a role like this where he's playing the foil, something he's just as good at doing as Day was at her thing. It's not a particularly special movie, but it's more than nice enough.

Please Don't Eat the Daisies has also been released to DVD.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why I didn't blog fully on Butterfield 8

I hadn't written up a full-length post on Butterfield 8 to link to regarding Eddie Fisher's death; nor did I take the opportunity to this morning when I pointed out that Butterfield 8 is on the TCM schedule. The omission today was because of a more obscure movie I had already planned to blog about: Quiet Please: Murder, airing tomorrow morning at 11:30 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

George Sanders gets top billing, as a man who starts off the movie stealing a rare edition of Hamlet. Why steal fine art? Simple: so you can forge it, and then sell multiple forgeries for big bucks. After all, who is going to complain to the police about having bought a forgery of something they bought thinking it was a stolen item? Sanders fences them courtesy of Gail Patrick, a high-class book dealer. Unfortunately, the two of them make the mistake of selling one of the copies to Sidney Blackmer. Blackmer is representing the Nazis, who have their own reasons for wanting the Hamlet, and when the Nazis discover they've been defrauded, you know they're not going to stop at anything to find out who's defrauded them, and get revenge.

And so, an elaborate revenge plot is conceived, involving getting Sanders to the city's main public library. But before that can happen, Patrick meets Richard Denning, a police detective investigating the case. She tries to take him for a ride in order to get him to get the Nazis and save Sanders, while Sanders, having learned about the plot, has a few tricks up his own sleeve. The final 30 minutes or so are set in the library after hours, after it's been closed due to another murder, and are a complex plot of twists and red herrings.

Quiet Please: Murder is a movie that has a lot of potential. Sanders is excellent at playing characters like the forger he does here. It's almost as if he drew upon a character like this when he was playing Addison Dewitt in All About Eve several years later. A three-way dispute between a Nazi, a forger who doesn't really like the Nazis but doesn't want to get arrested, and the police is also an interesting idea. But, the movie falls a bit short. It's partly because the movie itself is short, only running about 70 minutes; it's the same fate that would befall Shock a few years later. Indeed, Quiet Please: Murder also suffers from the other big flaw that made Shock problematic; namely, the existence of the Production Code. You know that Sanders and Blackmer aren't going to be able to get away with what they do, while the writers are going to have to engage in some pretty several mental gymnastics to get Patrick out of her predicament and still satisfy the folks enforcing the Code. It's a task they weren't able to fulfill, which makes the movie a disappointment. It's an interesting disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless.

Quiet Please: Murder hasn't gotten a DVD release, and also suffers from a bad print. But it seems that's the only way we'll get to see it.

How could I have missed it?

In yesterday's obituary of Eddie Fisher, I mentioned that he played a supporting role to wife Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8. I should have realized that it happeneed to be on the schedule already: tomorrow morning (September 26) at 8:00 AM ET.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Eddie Fisher, 1928-2010

Now there's an interesting love triangle
Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds in happier times

Eddie Fisher, the sometimes actor who is more famous as a singer and for his celebrity relatives, has died at the age of 82. Fisher was the father of Princess Leia (er, Carrie Fisher), and also the "bad guy" in one of the more sordid Hollywood love scandals. Carrie Fisher was Eddie's daughter by actress Debbie Reynolds. As you can see in the picture above, they were friends with Elizabeth Taylor, who at the time would have been married to Mike Todd. When Todd died in a plane crash, Eddie Fisher consoled widow Elizabeth, apparenlty so much so that she fell in love with him, and he left Debbie Reynolds for her. Of course, Debbie Reynolds got to see karma. Not only did she get a lot of sympathy as the wronged woman, she got to see Fisher get jilted in a similar way when Taylor fell in love with Richard Burton and left Fisher for him.

Ironically, the two wives are responsible for Fisher's acting career, what little of it there is. Fisher appeared opposite Debbie Reynolds in Bundle of Joy, a pale remake of Bachelor Mother. As for Taylor, she got Fisher a supporting role in Butterfield 8, which of course won Taylor her first Oscar.

Hildegarde Withers

A genre popular in the pre-Code era was the zippy mystery; I think I've mentioned Philo Vance in the past. Vance wasn't the only detective popping up in the movies in those days; there were lady crime solvers too like Hildegarde Withers, a spinster teacher with an acerbic wit who was able to cut to the chase much more quickly than the police. She was first played by Edna May Oliver (pictured at left), and two of Oliver's appearances as Withers are airing tomorrow morning on TCM: The Penguin Pool Murder at 6:00 AM ET, followed at 7:30 AM by Murder on the Blackboard.

Oliver left the series when she signed a contract at MGM in 1935, and continued to make movies until illness cut her career and life short. But she got to play supporting roles in some of the great period pieces being made in those days. She's Juliet's nurse (and gets lines with Andy Devine, of all people) in the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet; she played Dickensian characters in a version of David Copperfield and a version of A Tale of Two Cities; and she might be best remembered as Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice. Or, that honor might go to the period piece that got her her one Oscar nomination: being lent out to Fox for Drums Along the Mohawk, where she played a tough, independent frontier widow. Thankfully, we have TCM to show us the works of fun character actors such as Oliver.

And speaking of character actors, watch The Penguin Pool Murder carefully. Quite a few of them show up, notably James Gleason as the police detective; but also Edgar Kennedy (you saw him recently in It's a Wonderful World) as a policeman, and Mae Clarke.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mickey Rooney turns 90!

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in 'Babes on Broadway'
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes on Broadway

It's hard to believe, but prolific juvenile star Mickey Rooney is today celebrating his 90th birthday. TCM is marking the occasion by showing several of his movies, although to be honest they're not quite the movies I'd prefer to see or recommend. Perhaps the best movie Rooney was ever in was not any of the many, many musicals he made with Judy Garland, but instead A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Rooney plays Puck, the impish fairy who makes everybody fall in love with the wrong people. Another juvenile role I would have liked to see again is in Hide-Out, although this one doesn't seem to have many (if any) photos of Rooney floating around on the Internet. Then again, as the kid brother, Rooney is clearly a supporting character in Hide-Out.

Rooney kept active into his adult years, and even as an octogenarian. I'm not sure which of Rooney's adult roles is his best. One that's certainly worth recommending is The Bridges at Toko-Ri, in which Rooney plays a scarf-wearing, top-hatted helicopter pilot rescuing downed American fighter pilots in the Korean War. For something lighter, you could watch him in a comedy like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Finally, for those who like Rooney together with Judy Garland, there's always Youtube, where you can watch them singing "Good Morning" from Babes in Arms.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More underrated Vincent Price

Most people today would probably remember Vincent Price for the silly horror movies he made, probably starting with House of Wax in 1953 and continuing through all those William Castle movies. Price actually did serious work in the first 15 years of his career, and didn't do that badly, although most of the roles were supporting roles, as in the recently-recommended Laura. One movie in which he did get a leading role is Shock, which you can see tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Anabel Shaw opens up the movie, playing Mrs. Stewart, a very nervous woman checking into a hotel to meet her husband. She's nervous because she had long considered her husband (Frank Latimore) to be dead: her husband is an Army Lieutenant who had been declared missing in action and presumed dead. The government was wrong, and having been shocked by the discovery that her husband is in fact alive, she's coming to meet him. Before she can see him, however, she sees something much more shocking. Looking across the hotel courtyard, she sees Vincent Price strangling his wife to death on the balcony of another hotel apartment! This won't do, and her husband finds her the next morning in a catatonic state. The hotel doctor, however, has some good news for the husband: there's a prominent psychiatrist who has an apartment in the hotel, and that psychiatrist would be the perfect person to bring the wife back to health. Unfortunately, what the doctor and lieutenant don't realize is that the psychiatrist, Dr. Cross, is none other than murderous Vincent Price!

The bad doctor fairly quickly realizes what's happened, and comes up with a diabolical plot. He runs a sanitarium, and since this woman is in shock, the sanitarium would be a perfect place for her to spend a few weeks, during which time he can make her realize that seeing the murder was just a sign of insanity. And if that doesn't work, well, he can always come up with some way for the mentally sick woman to die a plausible death. Will the good guys figure out what's going on and stop it in time?

Sadly, since the film was made during the Production Code era, you can guess what the answer is to that last question. It's a pretty good bet that the doctor isn't going to get away with it, and he isn't going to live happily ever after with his new love, the nurse who helps him run the sanitarium (Lynn Bari). That's one of the film's two big drawbacks; the other is that it's about 15 or 20 minutes too short. Shock only runs about 70 minutes, and should really be closer to 90 to allow for better fleshing out the characters and not making the ending so rushed. The actors, however, are capable; watch also for Reed Hadley, who provided the voiceovers for many of Fox's docudramas of the late 1940s, playing a district attorney. Shock, despite its flaws, is entertaining enough, like a good Columbo or Matlock episode.

Shock as with many of Fox's noirs (even if Shock isn't really a noir), has been released to DVD.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oh god, not the auteur theory again

Hollywood history is replete with moviemakers fighting against the studio executives in order to maintain their artistic vision. Sometimes, studios have misedited movies, and that, along with an innate distrust of Big Business (which the studios certainly were, at least compared to directors) has led to an unfortunate exaltation of the auteur. Namely, there seems to be a lot of faith that just because a movie was made by an auteur who goes against what studio bosses would want, that automatically makes the movie better. (I think you see some of the same reasoning with foreign films: they're "not Hollywood" and so seen as unconventional and superior, even though foreign films can be just as bad as any B-movie Hollywood ever churned out.) Just because somebody is an auteur doesn't mean that his work is magically imbued with superiority; sometimes if not often, a much better movie could have been made if the director and the suits had worked together. A good example of this is Erich von Stroheim's Greed, which is airing tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM ET on TCM.

Zasu Pitts plays Trina, a woman who marries McTeague (Gibson Gowland). She buys a lottery ticket, which turns out to be a winner, bringing her $5,000 -- quite a substantial sum back in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the money brings them no good. Trina is afraid of losing the money and so refuses to spend any of it; her husband wants the money for himself, as does their mutual friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Their mutual greed binds them and eventually leads to their mutual destruction. It's an idea that has great potential.

But director Erich von Stroheim squandered that potential. He based the movie on a ponderous novel which was popular in the day, and decided to make his movie if not as ponderous as the book, then at least as long. When he and the producers sat down to watch the final cut, it ran to something like nine hours. Any reasonable person will tell you that this is much too long, but never let it be said that there's any reason in Hollywood. The suits were horrified, and insisted that the movie be cut down. Von Stroheim responded by cutting out about half of the movie, although by all reports this still left it longer than Gone With the Wind would be 15 years later. So, the producers, fearful they would lose their investment, took control of the movie away from von Stroheim and gave it to an editor who cut it down to about 140 minutes. The problem is that the editor is generally considered to have cut out a good portion of the essence of the movie, excising character and plot development.

In some ways it's a shame, as there's no reason the story couldn't be told in two hours. And to be fair to von Stroheim, he did come up with some striking images. One sequence has Zasu Pitts rolling around on a bed of gold coins, showing just how she loves her money. As for the gold coins, there are a lot of sequences in which they've been tinted gold. Finally, there's the movie's climax, which was set in Death Valley (and filmed there for authenticity). These scenes are excellently made, with Gowland and Hersholt having turned on each other. It's just too bad that we have to wait so long to get to those scenes.

And thanks to restorationists, the wait is even longer than you'd think. After Greed was edited down to the 140-minute theatrical version, the remaining elements were presumably destroyed (although urband legends have them surviving). In the 1990s, production stills were found and, using von Stroheim's director's notes, these stills were inserted back into the movie, turning a story that's too long at 140 minutes into something that runs just about four hours. It shouldn't be necessary, and frankly, I think it makes the movie too tedious. It's just too bad that von Stroheim and the producers couldn't have come to an agreement back in 1924 to come up with a 140-minute version that would preserve most of the director's vision. They were right to cut it down; they just didn't cut it down in the right way.

Greed doesn't seem to be on DVD, which is a shame, since this doesn't give us an opportunity to compare the 140-minute version with the four-hour restoration.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Frank De Vol, 1911-1999

I was born in the 1970s, and grew up watching reruns of The Brady Bunch in syndication. I remember seeing in the credits, the line, "Music by De Vol", and thinking to myself that this was a bit odd, and wondering who or what this "De Vol" was. The answer, of course, is composer Frank De Vol.

What I didn't know at the time is that he was actually a serious composer, and not just responsible for frivolous TV stuff like the Brady Bunch or My Three Sons. Indeed, he wrote scores to something like 40 movies, and earned four Oscar nominations along the way, including Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. He also became one of the very few composers to share writing credits on a hit with Motown's famous Holland/Dozier/Holland writing team when his music for The Happening became a #1 hit for Diana Ross and the Supremes.

De Vol also did acting, showing up as guest stars on TV shows, and small bits in movies, perhaps best recognizable in The Parent Trap.

So the next time you see the credit "Music by De Vol", there's more to the man than you might have thought.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Well, it is getting dark earlier

It hasn't been on TCM for a long time, but TCM has finally regained the broadcast rights to Wait Until Dark, which is airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight.

Audrey Hepburn plays a woman living in a basement New York apartment who has recently lost her eyesight. She's trying to adjust and live independently, although she also has a husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) who loves her and wants her to be independent, too. To that end he leaves her alone while he takes a fateful business trip to Montréal. It's fateful because, at the airport on the way back, he's given a doll and asked to bring it to a young kid in hospital in New York. What he doesn't know is that the doll is actually filled with heroin, and that he's playing an unsuspecting drug mule.

Still, he takes the doll, and brings it back to the apartment. Completely unaware of its real contents, he leaves it there, intending to take it to the hospital later. The bad guys in the various drug gangs, of course, know all about this doll and its contents, and dammit, they want it! How to get it? Well, the lead bad guy, Alan Arkin, realizes that the woman of the house is blind, and perhaps he can use that to his advantage to trick her and get into the apartment where he can search for the doll without her seeing this.

The Hollywood trope about blind people is that their other senses are super-keen, and such is the case with Hepburn. She realizes something isn't quite right, but she doesn't know what. Still, her husband isn't there to help her, so she has to rely on that other Hollywood trope, the bratty kid upstairs. She winds up with the doll for a while, similarly blissfully unaware of the danger lurking within it. Arkin, meanwhile, has no compunction about using several different voices to try to get that doll -- and if that doesn't work, he'll use violence.

And that sets us up for a thrilling finale. Arkin's OK with killing Hepburn. But Hepburn understands that he has to find her first, so she figures a way to take her blind person's cane to break all the lightbulbs in the apartment and reduce him to being just as blind as she is. (When the movie played in theaters, the studio asked managers to turn off the house lights just before this scene started.) It's frightening, but well-executed.

Audrey Hepburn got an Oscar nomination for this role, and frankly deserved it. In fact, I think she was robbed of the Oscar, which went to Katharine Hepburn for the dreadful Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Thanks to the magic of cable movie channels and DVD, however, it's easy to compare both performances and see that Audrey is the far superior Hepburn.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I've commented a few times before about the Fox Movie Channel's philosophy of taking a limited number of the studio's movies out of the vault, showing them over and over for a brief period, and then putting them back in the vault for years. The noir classic Laura was pulled out of the vaults at the beginning of August, and has had quite a few showings in August and September. One of those showings is tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Falling in love with an image is worrisome, even if it is as gorgeous as LauraDana Andrews plays police detective Mark McPherson, who is investigating the murder of lovely advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney, whom we see as Laura in flashbacks). The first witness Mark interviews is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb in the debut of his real movie career), a newspaper columnist whom we could call arrogant, except that that would be a huge understatement. If you thought George Sanders' Addison de Witt in All About Eve was a manipulative, hubristic bastard, Waldo Lydecker might be even worse. You see, he plucked Laura from obscurity as an advertising illustrator and made her the glamorous lady she would become -- and he thinks he should have first dibs on marrying her, to the point that he's willing to use his poison pen to destroy the career of anybody who gets in his way.

And there are a lot of such people, such as the artist who first painted Laura's portrait, which Laura had on the wall of her apartment, and which Det. McPherson is so attracted to. Then, there's Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). He's a southern trust fund baby who has unfortunately lost his inheritance in a swindle, but can't bring himself to do any real work. So, he mooches off of socialite Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and although Ann would probably be better for him, he too falls in love with Laura. The investigation proceeds like this until there's a sudden twist about 50 minutes into the movie. This being the Hollywood of the Production Code, however, you know that regardless of any twists the writers were allowed to throw at us, the police are still going to solve the case.

The acting here is quite good, especially in service of the story which is the bigger thing in a murder mystery. Laura isn't expected to be much more than glamorous, but Gene Tierney pulls off glamour well. Dana Andrews excelled at playing characters who had something troubling brewing underneath. He did it as Fred Derry in The Best Years of Our Lives, and would later go on to do it again in Where the Sidewalk Ends (which, like Laura was directed by Otto Preminger). Vincent Price never gets the credit he deserves as an actor, probably because he's better remembered for all those silly horror movies he made starting with the remake House of Wax and beyond for the rest of his career. Here, he's more than passable as a ne'er-do-well who might be a murderer, and certainly has things to hide. (Well, his accent isn't so good, but that's easy enough to ignore.) The real star, however, is Clifton Webb. He had appeared in a few silent movies, but this was his first role in decades, and he's quite frankly brilliant. You can almost see Sanders watching this movie to prepare for All About Eve. Clifton Webb was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but suffered one of the bigger injustices of Oscar history as he lost to the irritating Barry Fitzgerald in the horrid Going My Way. Still, Webb's work in Laura was more than enough to get him noticed, as he was almost constantly active for another 18 years when he finally retired from moviemaking.

Laura has, like many of Fox's noirs, been released to DVD, so you really don't have to worry about when the FMC is going to put the movie back in its vault.

Repeat Essentials

TCM doesn't have a different Essential for every Saturday of the year. This week, they're repeating Gigi, which aired as an Essential back at the end of March. I didn't like it then, and I still don't like it now.

Back in March, TCM used the airing of Gigi in order to show a night of Louis Jourdan movies; this time around, it's the jumping-off point for a night of Maurice Chevalier movies, whom I quite frankly find irritating as an actor. But, some of you might actually like Gigi.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Technical question

Does anybody know the original aspect ratio of Underworld USA? It aired last night on TCM in a full-screen (ie 4:3) print. There was no indication in the opening credits that it was made in any of the ultra-widescreen processes; besides, being a decidedly "B" picture, it probably wouldn't have had the budget ot be in that much wide screen. Still, while processes such as Cinemascope were around 7:3 (2.35:1) in aspect, at some point, regular movies switched from the old Academy aspect, which was 11:8, or just slightly more rectangular (about 3%) than the original standard 4:3 TV screen. (If you watch carefully, you'll see that it's not uncommon for a very little bit of the letters to be cut off in the credits of Academy ratio films when they get shown on TV.)

With the introduction of Cinemascope in 1953, film and TV really started to diverge. Studios tried all sorts of ultra-widescreen formats, and you've probably seen the credits for Cinemascope, Vistavision, Super Panavision and the like. However, a lot of movies in more recent times seem to have made it to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. (I wonder how much Imax and the other ridiculously-large screen formats are going to change this.) Meanwhile, HDTV settled on a 16:9 aspect ratio, which at roughly 1.78:1 is about 4% more square than the 1.85:1 ratio. In addition to the Wikipedia article on the Academy ratio, you can find more information about wide-screens at the Home Theater Forum.

Underworld USA didn't look as badly blown-up as Cinemascope movies do when they're panned and scanned, but there were a few scenes when it did look blown up. Normally, I'd look to IMDb for information on the aspect ratio, but for Underworld USA, that information is not on IMDb. There's a Sam Fuller box set that includes Underworld USA, but I'm not going to shell out $70 just to satisfy my curiosity about a movie's aspect ratio.

Was Underworld USA indeed filmed in 1.85:1?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Girl in Black Stockings

If you want to see a fun, even if not that good, low-budget mystery, you could do worse than to watch The Girl in Black Stockings, which TCM is showing tomorrow afternoon at 12:15 PM ET.

Lex Barker's outfit in our movie might be even skimpierLex Barker, who is probably best known for having played Tarzan in the early 1950s, plays David, a prosecuting attorney from Los Angeles who is on vacation at a resort in Utah that has a pool, thus allowing him to strip down to his 1950s style swim trunks and show us that yes, he had the body to play Tarzan. He's not there too long when, suddenly, one of the guests gets murdered. Everybody at the resort is a suspect, and because David's a prosecutor from the big city, he's just the right person to help the local Utah police investigate. Complicating matters is the fact that not only could anybody there be a suspect; one of the guests, Beth (played by Anne Bancroft) is a woman with whom David had a past. (Yeah right they just happen to meet in some middle-of-nowhere Utah town. Funny how Hollywood works.)

Going swimming in high heels?This being a Hollywood murder mystery, it comes as no surprise that this is a wacky cast of suspects. Ron Randell plays Edmund, the owner of the resort, a man who is now a quadraplegic and has a hangup about women. (However, with everybody being a suspect, you start to wonder whether being bound in a wheelchair is just a ruse and he's the murderer.) He's being taken care of by his sister (Marie Windsor). But, since Edmund has that problem with women, you know there's a busty one here, and that woman is Mamie Van Doren, who has just as much in the way of assets as Lex Barker and is given ample opportunity to display them. Along the way, there's a character who gets killed by walking backwards into a buzzsaw, although you can see it coming a mile away when the characters visit a sawmill; and our hero actually does solve the mystery.

Not that the mystery or its solution is particuarly satisfying; The Girl in Black Stockings is fairly mindless entertainment that will keep you entertained for the 75 or so minutes that it runs. Instead, watch for a cast of names you'll probably recognize trying to act their way through material that's much too overripe. That, and some nice location shooting. Unfortunately, The Girl in Black Stockings doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you'll have to catch the TCM showings.

On Dangerous Ground

A month ago, TCM aired a day of Robert Ryan movies as part of Summer Under the Stars, and I mentioned that one of the Ryan movies that wasn't showing up was On Dangerous Ground. Perhaps part of the reason TCM skipped it in Summer Under the Stars is that they included it in their look at revenge movies. On Dangerous Ground is coming up overnight tonight, at 2:15 AM ET.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mob biopics I haven't seen

I'm interested in tonight's TCM lineup, which features a series of biopics of various mobsters. I can't give a full recommendation of them, however, as I haven't seen any of them. But I'm looking forward to seeing how much the changing attitudes and film techniques of the late 50s allowed filmmakers to make Mob movies that differ from the gangster movies that were being put out in the 1930s. As for tonight's lineup, the mobsters being profiled are:

Al Capone (played by Rod Steiger) at 8:00 PM ET;
"Legs" Diamond at 10:00 PM;
Arnold Rothstein at midnight; and
Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (starring Tony Curtis!) at 2:00 AM.

One similar movie I have seen, but which isn't airing tonight since it's a Fox film, is Murder, Inc., which fortunately happens to be available on DVD. This is also a story of Buchalter, and his murder-for-hire syndicate of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Today, it's perhaps most significant for being the movie that made the career of Peter Falk, who gets to play a remorseless mob killer. It's not the greatest movie out there, but it's entertaining and interesting, with a lot of names you might recognize.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jackie Cooper birthday salute

Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931)

1930s child star Jackie Cooper will be turning 88 on Wednesday, and TCM will be marking the occasion by showing an entire morning and afternoon of Cooper's movies. The day kicks off at 6:00 AM ET with perhaps his best-known performance, that in The Champ.

Cooper isn't the Champ, Wallace Beery is. Or at least, was the Champ. Beery's Champ is now an out-of-shape alcoholic boxer living a hand-to-mouth existence in Tijuana with his son Dink (Cooper), who idolizes his father despite the father's manifold and manifestly obvious flaws. Father gambles and wins a horse for son, which gives the son a goal: train the horse and race it, which he eventually does, although it causes a fateful meeting. When the two are at the track, Champ meets Linda (Irene Rich), his ex-wife. She's remarried and living a good life in one of thoe ritzy 1920s-style estates in Southern California. She sees the way Dink is living, and is horrified for her son -- and is determined to get custody of her son, which is quite easy considering the econominc differences between the two parents.

Dink, having spent so much time idolizing his father, doesn't like his new-found life of luxury. But, having been turned over to the custody of his mother is a good thing in other ways: it gives the Champ a reason to try to clean up his life, in order to regain custory of Dink. Dink escapes from his new home and runs off to return to Champ, and together, the two train for Champ's bout against the Mexican champion.

The Champ is a story that revolves around the two male leads, and both of them give outstanding performances. Wallace Beery comes across as lovable and well-meaning, despite his flaws, and has a conscience, too. He won an Oscar, although perhaps he didn't deserve to. That's because Jackie Cooper gives an even better performance. He's honest and touching, without being irritating like the younger Mickey Rooney could do, or so cloying you want to beat the crap out of him like Margaret O'Brien. The story, at least up until the fight at the end, also gives plausible motivations for its characters. The viewers can obviously see that Dink would be much better off with his mother, although to be fair she could stand to loosen up a bit. (Her not being perfect is a plus, however.) It's natural, though, for Dink to be as devoted to his father as he is: who among us hasn't looked up to even a lousy parent or older sibling? All this is due to the script by Frances Marion, a severely underrated female screenwriter in male-dominated Hollywood who also gave us such scripts as Min and Bill, The Big House and Dinner at Eight. (Incidentally, Wallace Beery is in all of these movies.)

The Champ has been released to DVD, and is well worth watching by young and old alike despite being 80 years old. Just watch that you don't get the 1979 remake.

Monday, September 13, 2010

TCM's Patricia Neal tribute

Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal died just over a month ago. Since she died in August, when TCM has its annual Summer Under the Stars programming, TCM couldn't change its lineup to have a night of movies in Neal's honor until September.

That salute is coming up tonight, and has four of Neal's films. However, it starts off at 8:00 PM ET with a Private Screenings interview she did with Robert Osborne several years ago.
That's followed at 9:00 PM by The Fountainhead;
11:00 PM by The Subject Was Roses, the first movie Neal made after her stroke and for which she was Oscar-nominated;
1:00 AM by A Face in the Crowd, in which Neal discovers what a scumbag Matlock (er, Andy Griffith) can be; and
In Harm's Way at 3:15 AM; which was probably only selected because TCM needed a movie to fit in a 165-minute time slot.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kevin McCarthy, 1914-2010

Dana Wynter (l.) and Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

I just spotted the obituary of Kevin McCarthy, who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. He was an extremely active actor, but is probably best known for his work as an actor in the science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (That, and the fact that his sister was the fairly well known writer Mary McCarthy, famous for having said about Lillian Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'.")

I knew some of McCarthy's other work, but I was surprised in reading the obituary just how much he did. I knew little about McCarthy's stage work, which apparently included Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Advise and Consent. Back on film, McCarthy appeared in another political drama, The Best Man. Interestingly, the obituary doesn't mention McCarthy's appearance as the man divorcing Marilyn Monroe at the beginning of The Misfits.

It's a wonderful what?

Tomorrow is the birth anniversary of Claudette Colbert, who is probably best known for her Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night. TCM is marking the day by showing a bunch of Colbert's work, starting with It Happened One Night at 6:15 AM ET. I've recommended it before, and so will mention the movie that follows, at 8:00 AM: It's a Wonderful World.

Colbert gets top billing, but the real lead is James Stewart. He plays Guy Johnson, a detective whose client (Ernest Truex) has been framed. Unfortunately, he's got some difficulty proving this, and for not turning over his client to police custody, he's arrested himself for being an accessory. On the train up to Sing Sing, Guy sees a newspaper article that has a clue which should lead to his client's exoneration, so Guy finagles a way to escape from the train. It's at this point that he runs into Claudette Colbert.

Colbert plays Edwina Corday, a famous poetess who is on the run herself. At first the two have an intense dislike for each other, but this is the sort of movie where you know they'll wind up falling in love. Before that can happen, though, they have to stay one step ahead of the police. Edwina isn't much help in this, but Guy knows he has to keep her around lest she go off to the police herself and reveal his location once she finds out who he really is. Ultimately, the two wind up working at a stock theater company where the presumed actual murderer is, and Edwina shows that she does have some resourcefulness.

It's a Wonderful World isn't the greatest movie made, although it's fun enough and a movie I'd call "comfortable". You'll recognize large portions of the derivative story line. Having to stay ahead of the cops, and the way they do it, is quite reminiscent of It Happened One Night, while the "couple tyring to solve a mystery" plot has shades of The Thin Man. Some of this may not be surprising, in part because It's a Wonderful World was directed by Woody Van Dyke, who also directed The Thin Man. Both movies were also made at MGM, so there is also the opportunity to use the same supporting characters. In this case, that means Nat Pendleton. He played the police detective around whom William Powell runs rings in The Thin Man, here, he plays a bumbling police sergeant who keeps losing custody of the James Stewart character. Much of the rest of the cast includes other familiar names, which is what makes the movie "comfortable": Edgar Kennedy, who had over 200 appearances in talkies (and spent good fifteen years making silent shorts as well) plays Pendelton's bumbling police partner; Guy Kibbee plays James Stewart's detective partner; and Frances Drake (Mad Love), Sidney Blackmer, and Hans Conried all get smaller roles. The execution isn't perfect, but the movie is nonetheless entertaining.

Despite its two bigger stars, It's a Wonderful World never got released to a DVD boxset, and has only seen a release as part of the Warner Archive collection. But at least it's gotten a DVD release.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Surprisingly, I didn't really like The Ladykillers

TCM showed The Ladykillers the other day; it's one of those comedies from Britain's Ealing Studios which featured Alec Guinness and a bunch of other recognizable names which, like The Lavender Hill Mob or Kind Hearts and Coronets, is fondly remembered today. To be honest, I much preferred the two earlier movies.

At any rate, I really only mention The Ladykillers because I noticed that today is the 93d birthday of Herbert Lom, one of the stars of the movie. Lom was born in Czechoslovakia (or actually, the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it's long enough ago that the now defunct Czechoslovakia hadn't even been created yet), but emigrated to England with the coming of World War II, which is where his acting career took off. A few years back, TCM showed one of his earliest performances, in the circus movie The Dark Tower, as part of a look at six films made by Warner Bros. British arm Teddington to satisfy British quota rules; the movies had recently been rediscovered. (Unfortunately, the Teddington movies don't seem to be on DVD.) Lom is probably best known, however, for playing Charles Dreyfus, the poor put-upon police commissioner who has to deal with Inspector Clouseau in several of the Pink Panther movies.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sergeant Rutledge

TCM is showing the fine John Ford western Sergeant Rutledge tomorrow at noon ET.

Sergeant Rutledge is a bit of an atypical western, in that it's no so much a traditional western as it is a courtroom procedural that happens to set out in the old West. The movie could easily be Anatomy of a Murder or The Caine Mutiny. The movie starts off with Army Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) coming to the fort town. He's the counsel for the defense, and is expected to defend Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode) against a court-martial on a count of rape and two counts of murder. And, it's during the trial that we begin to learn the details of the case....

A lot of events came together on one fateful night. Lt. Cantrell's girlfriend Mary (Constance Towers) is returning from the east coast on a night train, but is stopped by Brax at the station. He knows that there's been an Indian ambush, and there may still be some Indians at the station -- after all, they've killed the station master. However, he's also been in town, where he is generally believed to be the last person to have seen the two murder victims (the rape victim and her father) alive. Complicating matters is the fact that Brax is one of the "Buffalo Soldiers", those black cavalrymen who went west after the Civil War to serve with distinction in the Army. Back in those days, nobody would take the word of a black defendant accused of raping and murdering a white girl. Still, Cantrell is determined to give the man a proper defense....

Sergeant Rutledge is the sort of movie that's a bit difficult to give a detailed synopsis to without giving away the key plot elements. Instead, it's probably better to look at the performances. Woody Strode is the keystone here, and provides an excellent performance. It says something not too flatering about Hollywood in 1960 when the movie was released that, despite the movie being about this one man, Strode could only get fourth billing. Top billing goes to Hunter, who isn't a particular favorite of mine, mostly because I'm not a huge fan of westerns or the 1950s adventure movies that were a staple of his career. However, his portrayal of the military defense attorney is more than adequate. Towers gets second billing, and has a role that I personally find easier than Linda Darnell's in No Way Out. Towers' part is just too modern; not that it's her fault, of course. Getting the third spot is actually Billie Burke. She plays the wife of the presiding judge at the court-martial, and is also a witness in the case. Most of her role is providing the light relief. She had had long practice playing such roles in Dinner at Eight and Topper, and in this, her final film, she pulls the same stuff off just fine. John Ford's direction is good, but probably at its best when he gets to go outside in Monument Valley. The courtroom scenes seem too stereotyped, especially in the use of lighting particular characters.

Still, Sergeant Rutledge is a satisfying and worthwhile movie. It's also been released to DVD.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Vengeance is mine; I will repay

By now you've probably seen the TCM promos for their September look at movies in which characters try to gain revenge for things that happened to them in the past. TCM is airing the movies every Thursday night in prime time. Even though I didn't have my modem up and running last week, to be honest, the highlighted movies were westerns that I didn't particularly care about. This week, though, sees some more interesting movies, even if they have their flaws. One of them is Act of Violence, airing at 9:30 PM ET.

Van Heflin stars as Frank Enley, whom we don't quite see at the beginning of the movie. The beginning deals with Joe (Robert Ryan), who we quickly find is stalking Frank and would like to kill him! In fact, Joe has come all the way west to California to find Frank. Frank, for his part, realizes that Joe is onto him, and tries to keep one step ahead of Joe, although this involves acting secretively and alarming his wife Edith (a young Janet Leigh), who knows Joe wants something with Frank, but doesn't know what.

Eventually, Frank tells Edith: he and Joe served in the war together, and with their unit wound up in a Nazi POW camp. Most of the soldiers wanted to escape, but Frank figured that if they did, the Nazis would discover the plot and kill all the attempted escapees. That, it turns out, is precisely what happened, although Joe knows it happened with a bit of help from Frank. Frank returned home from the war a "hero", but is nothing of the sort.

Of course, Joe is still on Frank's tail, and nearly catches Frank in the lobby of a hotel, forcing Frank to run for his life, where he quickly winds up with a prostitute with a heart of gold (Mary Astor). Our PHG has some friends with shady mob-like connections who could help Frank by eliminating Joe, but it's for a price....

Act of Violence is an interesting movie, but certainly not a perfect one. The beginning of the movie jumps around too much, but the ending is much too neat and tidy, as if the writers didn't know how to come up with a satisfying ending that the folks administering the Production Code would approve of. The characterizations are quite good. Robert Ryan was excellent at playing the bad guy, as he did in Crossfire a year earlier. Heflin's character is morally ambiguous, of a kind that Heflin would go on to play quite well in Shane or 3:10 to Yuma. Astor is a revelation as the thoroughly unglamorous woman. The atmosphere is surprisingly dark when you consider that the movie was made at MGM, the studio known for its glitz. However, MGM was nearing the end of the Louis B. Mayer era, and the man who would go on to succeed Mayer as head of production, Dore Schary, wanted movies to go in a more socially conscious direction. Indeed, it was also around this time that MGM made Border Incident. Most of these movies weren't MGM's A product, however, which remained the musicals and other prestige movies.

Act of Violence has gotten a DVD release, so you don't have to wait for TCM's showings.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Flying off the handle at IMDb

Back in February, I commented on how the IMDb changed their "born on this day" pages to make them virtually unusable, not having the names in chronological or alphabetical order. About a month later, they changed back, which was a welcome change to policy. Unfortunately, they seemed to have changed again, with the change this time possibly being even worse than the February change.

The main page link to the born on page links to the "Starmeter" ranking, whatever that is. There are links to alphabetical, height (why?), and even date (actually, year) of birth/date of death; each of these can be put in either ascending or descending order. On the face of it, this is an improvement. In reality, however, there's one important change that's made the site much less usable: IMDb have decided to put only 50 names on a page, and there doesn't seem to be a link to get all of the names on one page. So, if you want the people born in, say, the 1920s, you'll have to click through a bunch of pages to get to them. Irritating to no end.

But wait, there's more! If you click on the alphabetical listings, you'll see that the listings are alphabetical... by given name, and not by family name! Producer Adolph Zukor would presumably come long before Ursula Andress (although I don't think both have a common birthday). That having been said, in looking up Zukor's birthday, IMDb haven't closed the back door to the full chronological list. No clue how long that's going to be left up, of course.

As for the people born on September 8, I see Grace Metalious' name on the list.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Since you were up at 3:30 this morning....

TCM aired Dersu Uzala this morning at 3:30. The next movie to recommend is another one coming up overnight at 3:30 AM ET: The Rake's Progress.

To be honest, this is one of those movie that, like Brighton Rock I don't remember quite as well as I should. (Indeed, there are all of five IMDb comments on the movie.) I remember watching it the last time it was on TCM, and being rather impressed with it, though. Rex Harrison is the star as the rake, the son of a wealthy man who would rather lead a wasteful playboy lifestyle than do real work. This causes him first to get thrown out of Oxford, sent to South America to work on a wealthy friend's coffee plantation, and various other adventures that cause him to go through women and money as if there were no tomorrow.

In some ways, it turns out that there is no tomorrow: the movie was released in 1945, but most of the action is set in the 1930s, which of course implies before World War II. Eventually, the Nazis are going to invade Poland and start the Battle of Britain, which means that good British men are going to be needed to fight the evil Nazis. And our former heel sees that he might just have a chance to become a hero. That having been said, we also know that there's no tomorrow since the movie is told as a flashback.

One of the signs if you haven't seen it that this is probably going to be a good movie is that it was directed and written by Sidney Gilliat. Although he directed this and about a dozen other movies, he's probably better known as a writer, having been responsible for screenplays like The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich, and Green For Danger.

Apparently The Rake's Progress has not made its way to DVD which, along with its being British, is one of the reasons why it isn't very well-known. So you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing, which is something you should do.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Finally getting back to recommending real movies

With the Internet absence and this being the Labor Day weekend, I haven't felt like doing full-length blog posts. (Actually, there are several movies I would love to have recommended that aired while I was waiting for the new modem, but that's another story.) A movie that is really worth watching, however, is Dersu Uzala, which is coming up overnight at 3:30 AM ET on TCM.

The story is a fairly simple one: back in the first decade of the 20th Century, a group of surveyors in tsarist Russia is sent to Siberia to survey some of the land for the Trans-Siberian Railway that's being built. They don't know the land well, and it's fairly forbidding. However, they meet Dersu Uzala, a hunter of Mongolian descent who can speak Russian, and is willing to help the Russians out with their surveying in exchange for some of the not-quite-as-difficult living that the Russians will have, working together as a group. Together, the head of the surveying team and Dersu become friends.

However, problems ensue for Dersu, as he's getting old and his eyesight is beginning to fail him. The captain of the surveying team offers to take Dersu back to Vladivostok to live with him, but city life definitely does not suit Dersu. It's the old tradition versus modernity debate, only this time with a man completely incapable of making the transition to modernity.

Dersu Uzala was directed by Akira Kurosawa at a difficult point of his life. He had attempted suicide not too long prior, and couldn't get the financing to make a movie in Japan. The Soviets wanted to make a prestigious movie, and one that could get attention in the West with a name that people in the non-Communist world would recognize. Kurosawa was just such a name, but it turned out that he didn't like working with the Soviet authorities (who could blame him?). That didn't stop him from making a movie that's visually gorgeous, even if the story is nothing particularly groundbreaking.

Dersu Uzala has been released to DVD, although since it's one of those foreign films with a lesser interest, the DVD is more expensive than normal.

Labor Day and Fox's endless repeats

Today being Labor Day, the Fox Movie Channel is showing a 24-hour marathon of movies that at least shows some imagination, with the movies looking at working women in one form or another. The only problem is that, as with many of their marathons, they only pick a small number of their movies and show them multiple times over the course of the day. All About Eve only gets one airing, at 11:00 AM ET; but it's airing three times on Friday as part of the Fox Legacy series. All About Eve is preceded at 9:00 AM by The Turning Point -- and is also folowed by The Turning Point at 1:30 PM! And if you don't like the two airings of The Turning Point, you can always look for a movie with three airings: 9 to 5 shows up three times later in the evening.

FMC does seem to have changed one thing, though, for the better. In the past, they used to have a Saturday Night "Triple Play" feature in which they showed the same movie three times in a row. Part of the rationale for this, as I think I've mentioned in the past, is to allow people on the West Coast the opportunity to see the movie in what is prime time for them; repeating the prime time programming block is a strategy a lot of the smaller channels do as they don't have the resources to run a separate satellite feed for the west coast. But three airings of a two-hour movie isn't quite right. Now, they've replaced it with double features, aired twice. That is, Movie A follwed by Movie B, followed by Movie A and Movie B again. This looks more sensible to me, with a bit less in the way of repeats and being fairly reasonable for people in any time zone.

Now if only FMC could open up more of their library....

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The September of Time

TCM is showing eight of the old March of Time newsreels tonight as part of a salute to the series' 75th anniversary. It got me to wondering why TCM never seems to show any newsreels as part of its short film offerings between movies. After all, when I was a kid, I remember one of the TV channels showing Movietone News shorts in conjunction with a movie that wouldn't fit the time slot properly.

A bit of research led to the answer, which is that TCM presumably doesn't have any easy access to newsreels. I thought all of the studios had departments making newsreels; since they also owned theaters in many cases they'd need some newsreel programming to bring the patrons into the theaters as part of the night's program. Well, they did and they didn't. They all distributed newsreels, but the newsreels would have been produced independently. RKO owned the rights to Pathé's newsreel output (Pathé News) up until the late 1940s, at which point they sold the rights, including the back library, to Warner Bros. The fine folks at Warner's later sold those rights to an independent company, which as I understand it is part of the reconstituted Pathé. MGM, meanwhile, had an agreement William Randolph Hearst to distribute newsreels originally known as Hearst Metrotone News, but later renamed News of the Day. Those newsreels, however, are owned by the UCLA archive.

So, in short, the Turner Library, which became the backbone of the original library of movies for TCM (that is, the pre-TV WB movies; the RKO library; and the MGM movies Kirk Kerkorian sold off to Ted Turner in the late 1980s), doesn't as far as I can tell have any newsreels in it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Apologies for the absence

I try to put up at least one blog post every day. But, if you've been coming to the blog regularly, you'll notice that this is the first one since August 27. The reason for this is that my modem died not long after posting on the 27th, and since I've got a satellite internet provider, what with my living out in the middle of nowhere, it meant that I had to get a new modem sent by the ISP. They couldn't send it out until Monday, which meant I didn't get it until later in the week. And, of course, connecting new hardware to a computer never goes as planned.

On the bright side, at least my old modem didn't try to cut off my oxygen supply like the HAL-9000, or put on a cowboy hat and come after me like Yul Brynner. But now that I seem to have everything working again, blog posting should return to normal.