Sunday, July 31, 2011

Damnation Alley

Back in May, 2008, I very briefly mentoined the movia Damnation Alley. It's finally back on the Fox Movie Channel schedule, at 10:30 PM tonight

George Peppard plays Major Denton, who's in charge of one of the nuclear silos that were part of the USA's "mutually assured destruction" nuclear defense back in the Cold War days. The only thing is, the Cold War really turns hot, leaving only the people in the silo alive. They have canned food for a time, but an accident happens that forces the folks in the silo to leave. What to do? Fortunately, our heroes, Maj. Denton and fellow solder Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) have access to a cross between an SUV and a tank known as the "Landmaster", and have picked pu some sort of radio signal which they've determined is coming from Albany, NY. So they set out on a cross-country trip to get to Albany.

This beginning is a bit pedestrian, but once they get out of the silo, things really turn sour, making Damnation Alley into one of those movies that's so bad you'll be laughing, even though that wasn't the intention of the filmmakers. I mean, how many clichés can a movie have? First, they pick up the token woman for eye candy (Dominique Sanda), and the token bratty kid (Jackie Earle Haley, back in his first acting career). The post-apocalyptic sets look as though they could have been rejects from Planet of the Apes. There's Las Vegas, a desert gas station that has some creepy inhabitants, and a town full of giant cockroaches. If you weren't laughing in Vegas, you will be by the time you see those roaches. Oh, and have I mentioned the lousy special effects? And the terrible acting?

Damnation Alley probably deserves to be panned mercilessly. But like Skidoo or the ending of Imitation of Life, there's just so much wrong here that it's a laugh riot.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

William Powell, Detective

I hadn't heard of the movie Star of Midnight until I saw it on tomorrow morning's TCM schedule: 6:30 AM, to be precise. Powell plays -- surprise surprise -- a detective, and one who drinks and trades quips with a woman (Ginger Rogers). Sounds a lot like The Thin Man, which was released a year earlier and at another studio. But then, studios have never been original.

Not that The Thin Man marked Powell's debut as a screen detective. He had played Philo Vance in films like The Kennel Murder Case in the early 1930s. There are also other detective roles for Powell, such as The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, where his ex-wife (a mystery writer played by Jean Arthur) ropes him into playing detective with her.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Von Ryan's Express

The Fox Movie Channel has been showing Von Ryan's Express several times over the past few months, and I've been meaning to blog about it for some time. It's coming up again tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM, so now might be a good time to blog about it.

Frank Sinatra stars as Col. Joseph Ryan, an American pilot who gets shot down over Italy during World War II. He's taken to a POW camp run by a particularly brutal prison commander, who's keeping the Red Cross packages from the POWs, and other such fun stuff. The commanding officer of the POWs is Maj. Fincham, played by Trevor Howard. He's British, as are most of the prisoners in the camp. However, he's also outranked by the colonel, which means that Ryan is made the new CO of the POWs, something which ticks off a lot of the people in the camp, who take to calling him "von Ryan". This is especially true when Ryan starts using his power in ways the soldiers who have been POWs much longer don't like.

Eventually, though, Ryan comes up with a plan for all of them to escape. Sadly, the plan backfires, and the POWs are put on prison trains bound for a camp presumably in Germany. What is a bunch of POWs to do? Well, the answer should be obvious: resist by taking over the train, and trying to direct the train to neutral Switzerland! Sure, this is a daft idea that has no real shot of working, but this is also a movie! Try suspending reality for a bit!

At this point, Von Ryan's Express becomes a relatively standard by-the-numbers World War II adventure movie of the sort that was being made throughout the 1960s. The movies are entertaining; nice to look at because of the color, the wide screen photography, and European shooting; and full of explosions for people who like that sort of thing in their movies. A lot of such movies are not particularly great, but more than passable, and Von Ryan's Express fits right in with the rest of them.

I'm just a pasty white guy

I've read that black audiences in the bad old days of segregation liked all the same genres of movies as their white counterparts did. Sometimes, I find that hard to believe. But then, look what we have tonight. As part of TCM's look at singing cowboys, they're showing two race films starring black singing cowboy Herbert Jeffrey. First up at 10:30 PM is Two-Gun Man From Harlem, followed at 11:45 PM by Harlem Rides the Range.

To be honest, I would have wondered how popular westerns would be amongst the black audiences of the day. At least with other genres, they could be easily set in locales where there were a lot of blacks in real life. There were the "buffalo soldiers", but how many other blacks were there out west? Texas had slaves before the Civil War, while the rest of the west was either government territory not yet a state, or on the front lines of the anti-slavery movement. On the other hand, most of white America had no real connection to the Old West either, and the genre was popular among whites too. And doesn't everybody enjoy good escapism?

For what it's worth, I think I've seen Two-Gun Man From Harlem before, but not the second. Race films, though, are an interesting historical document, and even if these particular films turn out to be lousy films from a non-technical standpoint (as opposed to just having bad production values caused by the fact the moviemakers didn't have the budgets that the Hollywood studios did), they'll still be worth a look.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More names and faces

Sometimes, I turn a film on a bit late and miss the opening credits. Part of the fun then becomes trying to recognize all the characters actors. And so it was when I flipped on Top Speed on TCM near the end this morning. I knew it was part of a birthday salute to Joe E. Brown, and he's extremely easy to recognize, thanks to his mouth. Frank McHugh was just as obvious, much as he was in Heat Lightning earlier this month. Most of the others, not so much; I think it's largely because the movie was made in 1930 and a lot of the people in the movie didn't have particularly memorable careers.

The opposite is seeing the names of old actors show up in the opening credits of something much later. I don't talk much about TV, but last night I just happened to turn on the local channel that shows "Retro TV" at the beginning of an episode of Starsky and Hutch. The credits were interesting for who the guest stars were. First wsa a special appearance from Joan Blondell, who was still as recognizable as she was in the 1930s, and not looking too much different from the way she does in The Cincinnati Kid or the promo for that film on trick card dealing which gets shown on TCM from time to time. Foster Brooks wasn't much of a movie actor, but his drunk shtick was just as easy to spot. On the other hand, there was George Tobias, a name that I recognized but whose face I couldn't spot. Looking him up on IMDb, it seems he was one of the smaller players on the TV sitcom Bewitched, which is where a lot of the photos of him lead. Since I don't watch too much in the way of TV series, I knew that wasn't where I'd seen him. And yet, he wasn't in that many bigger-name movies. Perhaps I was remembering the name from being the landlord in My Sister Eileen. Or maybe Yankee Doodle Dandy, except that I haven't seen either of those movies in some time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What ever happened to Baby Susy?

Bette Davis got some interesting roles as she aged in the 1960s; the sort of thing she probably wouldn't have done earlier in her career. But the popularity of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane put her back in demand, getting her parts in a lot of stuff that seems a bit schlocky nowadays. Such is the case with The Nanny, which is airing tonight at 11:15 PM on TCM.

Davis plays that nanny, a woman in London who used to have charge of Joey and Susy. However, Susy drowned to death in the bathtub, and Joey was sent away to an institution for a good year for having done it. He's about to get out now, and the boy's parents (Wendy Craig and James Villiers) are brining him home to the nanny who loves him just as much as they do. Except that little Joey doesn't like the Nanny, much to his parents' consternation. Even though he's been in a place for a year to reflect on his responsibility, the result is that he still protests his innocence. Not only that, but he's still claiming that it's the Nanny who is responsible. Worst of all is that he's claiming that she's out to get him!

Nobody believes him, of course. The parents aren't about to put up with this, and if the Nanny were out to get him, she sure wouldn't say anything. So Joey runs off in a sense, spending lots of time with the upstairs neighbor, teenage Bobbie (Pamela Franklin) who has just as absent a parent as Joey does. She doesn't quite believe him, but she's more sympathetic to his complaints than all of the adults. And as things progress, she (and we viewers) get more of a chance to come to the conclusion that perhaps he's not exaggerating....

I don't think that The Nanny is a great movie, although it certainly serves its function as entertainment. Bette Davis was a consummate professional, and even though she's playing roles that probably would have horrified her a generation earlier, she still handles the part with aplomb. She and the boy are both suitably ambiguous as to who the actual baddie is (and needless to say, I'm not about to give it away). Thankfully, it's on DVD, so those of you on the east coast don't have to worry about the late start time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stop calling me Hulot!

If you ever wondered whether James Stewart could do family comedy, you can have your question answered tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel, when they're showing Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. The answer? He's not that bad.

Stewart stars as Mr. Hobbs, a businessman with two younger children and two married daughters who would like to get away for a quiet vacation with Mrs. Hobbs (Maureen O'Hara). She, however, has other ideas: with all of the children getting older and two already out of the house, she'd like the opportunity for one more family vacation. So, she's rented a nice house out on the beach that's big enough to hold the whole family. Only, the house turns out not to be so nice, like the original house Mr. Blandings bought and had to tear down so that he could build his dream house. Further, the kids aren't so sure they want to be there. The young boy would rather be watching TV; the young daughter is a teenager and has teen things to think about; and the two daughters have different problems in their marriages. So it's clear that this isn't going to be the vacation any of them had expected.

Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation is a moderately good movie whose biggest problems, I think, are with the script. The thing is that the material in the movie is the sort of stuff we've seen in any of a dozen other movies. Parts of the family relationship seem straight out of the Andy Hardy movies, while other parts of the movie have their feet in the "generation gap" movies of the 1960s. As an example, singer Fabian is brought in to play boyfriend to the youngest of the three daughters, and by the time this movie was made in 1962 Fabian was way past his peak as a singer -- and not much of an actor. Still, Stewart is good enough with comedy like this, while O'Hara does well playing the center of the family's emotional stability.

One more interesting selection for Prof. Shaheen

TCM is showing the movie Five Graves to Cairo tonight at 8:00 PM. I blogged about it back in April 2010, and tonight's showing is part of the "Arab Images on Film" series that's been running all month long. The interesting thing about Five Graves to Cairo is that there are relatively few Arab characters. You've got a British Army officer (Franchot Tone), a whole bunch of Nazis, some Italian officers, a French love interest (Anne Baxter), and the one Arab who owns the run-down hotel where everybody ends up (played by Akim Tamiroff). I think there's rather less to stereotype here, and because of that, it will be interesting to see what the good professor has to say about the movie.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Carey Treatment

As part of a birthday salute to director Blake Edwards, TCM is showing the movie The Carey Treatment tomorrow morning at 11:15 AM. It's an interesting product of its time, and one that's worth a viewing.

James Coburn stars as Peter Carey, a man who's just accepted a job at a prominent Boston hospital. Almost as soon as he gets there, the 15-year-old daughter of the chief of staff bleeds to death after a botched abortion; the movie having been released in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country. Dr. Tao (James Hong) one of the doctors on staff believes that the anti-abortion laws are morally wrong, so he uses his services to perform abortions, even though they're illegal. As such, suspicion naturally falls on Dr. Tao, but Dr. Carey begins to investigate and has reason to believe Dr. Tao might not actually be guilty, and the cause of death is something that happened later.

This is a position that causes a lot of problems for Dr. Carey for several reasons. It's not such a good idea to butt heads with the chief of staff when you've been on staff for such a short period of time. But worse is that any of the other people who might have been involved in the death of this girl have obvious reasons to want Carey not to get involved. And they'll go to great lengths to keep Dr. Carey from discovering the truth.

As such, The Carey Treatment is a movie that fits into a well-trodden path of movies where the investigator has to watch his step very carefully: it could be Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, or Dick Powell's The Tall Target, which I recommended a few days back. But The Carey Treatment is interesting in that the main character isn't an investigator by trade, and also in that he can be rather more violent then characters 20 years earlier and get away with it. If Glenn Ford or Dick Powell had tried what Coburn does, they'd have wound up like Kirk Douglas in Detective Story. On the other hand, it means that the climax is rather more grim than even The Big Heat, which has some shocking moments.

TCM's new schedule

I mentioned back in June that the latest round of TCM's web-site "upgrades" had screwed up the printable monthly schedule. It seems as though they've finally gotten things working to an extent, as the URLs for the monthly schedules have been given a new naming scheme. The August schedule is up here, although the page is not without its problems. Last night, when I first got the link, I clicked on it and the schedule opened up right away. This morning, when I tried it again to double-check that I had the correct link, I had problems the first two times telling me that zombies had eaten the page; only the third time did the monthly schedule come up.

At least they seem to be working on the problem.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Go ahead, tell me I'm evil

I'd heard the name Amy Winehouse before; even if you don't watch the gossip shows it can be difficult to avoid some of the celebrity gossip because it gets mentioned on the more mainstream news shows, and because people on other blogs bring up such things from time to time. When I heard yesterday that she had died of an apparent drug overdose, I couldn't help but think of the movie Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman. It's a horrible thing to do, but at least I'm admitting to my horribleness.

That having been said, Smash-Up isn't really the right movie to point out, largely because Susan Hayward's character has that epiphany at the end that makes her come across as a woman who will overcome her problems. Perhaps a more accurate movie might be Jeanne Eagles, a biopic about the temperamental Broadway actress who made a few movies such as the 1929 version of The Letter, before dying of an overdose of something (three autopsies were performed on Eagels; each returned a different result as to what she had overdosed on).

But Winehouse wasn't an actress, so perhaps we need a movie about a singer who died from drugs. As if there aren't enough of those. For the ladies, I'd pick The Rose, in which Bette Midler plays the strung out singer.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Prison movie night

I should have blogged in the morning instead of the afternoon about tonight's upcoming night of prison-themed movies, although I note that I've already blogged about Caged (airing at 10:30 PM), followed by Brute Force at 12:15 AM.

As I think about it, I'm a bit surprised at just how many prison movies I can think of off the top of my head -- and how many pretty good ones at that. I've recommended The Big House before, as well as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, although neither of them are on tonight's schedule. Later in the 1930s we got James Cagney in prison in Each Dawn I Die, followed ten years later by White Heat, although that's less a prison movie than one that has some scenes set in prison.

As for the women in prison, a la Caged, there was Ladies They Talk About back in the early 1930s, which is fun in its own way, being a pre-Code.

And then there's prison and comedy. Most of the prison comedy is smaller scenes within a comedy, such as the scene where everybody gets sent to jail for disorderly conduct in You Can't Take it With You. Alternatively, there's the townsfolk getting cornered in the local jail by a big cat in Bringing Up Baby. One of the few movies I can think of which pretty much tries to be a comedy, and is mostly set in prison, is an RKO B picture called Millionaires in Prison, starring Lee Tracy. To be honest, it's not a particularly good movie.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Tall Target

A month or so ago, TCM showed The Tall Target, which I hadn't seen before, although it happens to have been released to the Warner Archive collection. It's showing up again tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM, and is worth a viewing

Dick Powell, long since past his days as a star of light musicals, plays John Kennedy, a detective with the New York police in early 1861. This is the time just before Abraham Lincoln was to be inaugurated President (remember, back then, inauguration day wasn't until March), and for obvious reasons, there were a lot of Southerners who would have been more than happy to see Lincoln never become President. Kennedy believes he has good intelligence that there's a specific plot afoot to assassinate the President-elect when he changes trains in Baltimore, but unfortunately, he can't get the right people to believe him. The wrong people, on the other hand, certaingly believe it, because they're part of the apparent plot: Kennedy is supposed to have a ticket for the train from New York to Washington, but when he gets to the station, he finds there are people who don't want him on the train. Eventually, he's taken in by his old friend Col. Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou), who has an extra berth in his compartment. The only problem is, Jeffers turns out not to be much of a friend, as he's in on the plot, and even tries to shoot Kennedy. Jeffersthen uses his power to get Kennedy turned over to the police, and from there The Tall Target becomes a movie along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, where the hero has not only to foil the bad guys, but stay one step ahead of the police in doing so.

Fortunately, he's able to pick up an ally in the form of Rachel, a slave played by a young Ruby Dee. Her owner's brother (Marshall Thompson) is a southerner claiming he's going to South Carolina, but Rachel knows he's actually planning to get off in Baltimore. There are other people, too, how may or may not have something to do with the assassination plot, which suddenly has to be called off when it's revealed that Lincoln has cancelled his previously scheduled stop in Baltimore. Or is the plot over? There wouldn't be much of a movie if that's how the conflict was resolved, so we know that there is still one more trick up the sleeve of the scriptwriters.

I don't think that The Tall Target is near the level of Saboteur; nor is it as good as the train-based thriller The Narrow Margin But it's entertaining and well-made in its own right. Adolphe Menjou is always worth watching, and Dick Powell is rather an underrated actor. Also, the movie does a fairly good job of maintaining the suspense up until the final denouement.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jane Powell vs. Elvis Presley

Well, they're not really going up against each other; they're just close to each other on the TCM schedule. When I was watching Jane Powell's introductions to Pride and Prejudice and Madame Bovary last night, I was struck by the thought that they came across as a bit superficial. Now, I don't expect Powell to know as much about the movies as Robert Osborne, or to be as polished at reading the teleprompter as somebody who's been doing it for the past 17 years. Also, I thought the brief synopsis of Madame Bovary was on the mark, and one doesn't need to go into too much more detail to explain the movie. And, it's nice to have somebody give her reminiscences of the people with whom she was acquainted and with whom she worked. The only problem is that even those reminiscences came across as a bit cursory.

As for Elvis, he's showing up tonight at 10:00 PM in Harum Scarum, another of the movies in the Arab Images on Film series. It's another movie where I'm interested in seeing Prof. Shaheen's comments. I think Shaheen was quite accurate about Dream Wife, which I mentioned on Tuesday, when he commented on just how pervasive and over the top the stereotyping was.

Finally, I kind of wish Our Very Own were available on DVD. I hadn't seen it before it showed up on TCM yesterday, and it's the sort of movie that deserves one viewing, at least, with the attendant blog post.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

TCM Guest Host Jane Powell

Jane Powell started her stint as Robert Osborne's fill-in host on Monday night with some fun observations that were less about the first movie she was presenting than they were about the movies in general. I was still in college back in 1994, so I didn't have cable and didn't know that Jane Powell was there at the start of TCM. She also said something that makes sense when you think about it, but is the sort of thing about which we don't normally think, namely that she never really had the time to get to know Doris Day (one of the stars of Romance on the High Seas, the first movie she presented) very well, because they worked at different studios; in those days, you were working so hard that you didn't have much time to socialize, and so when you did have time off, you spent it with your friends, who would be from the studio where you were working. I wonder, though, who the people who worked at multiple studios had as friends. To be honest, too, I don't think her comments are 100% true; after all, the British expatriates in Hollywood were known to have a relatively close-knit community, and they didn't all work at the same studio.

Anyhow, tonight's Jane Powell lineup is a bunch of literary adaptations, and I'm curious to see what she's going to have to day about them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An affair to forget

If I said that I would be blogging about a movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, you'd probably think, "Oh, good! An Affair to Remember is coming up!" (That assumes you like the romance. If you think it's a sappy chick flick, you probably wouldn't be excited.) But no, that's not tonight's movie. Instead, I'm blogging about a movie the two made several years earlier: Dream Wife.

Grant stars as Clemson Reade, an oil company executive who is in some Arabian sheikdom trying to conclude an oil deal, and also trying to keep the US State Department happy. Well, he's really trying to keep one State Department worker happy, that being his fiancée Effie (Deborah Kerr). Things don't go quite right, however, when Clemson sees Tarji (Betta St. John), who is one of the young princesses, do a local dance. Clemson is immediately smitten with her, even though he should know she's unavailable. And when he gets back to the US from his trip, there's going to be hell to pay with the fiancée. And that's less for the flirting than it is for the diplomatic row this is going to cause.

So, Effie gets a brilliant idea. Bring Tarji over to the US, and have Clemson marry her. It will make everybody happy. The Arabs will be able to save face, Clemson will get the girl he presumably wants, and the oil deal will go through. Effie has more plans, though. She intends to teach tarji about America (kind of like Bill Holden teaching Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, I suppose), and in the process make Clemson realize that perhaps Terji isn't right for him after all.

And that's where the movie really begins to fall apart. I can't quite place my finger on why, but the whole movie reeks of tiredness. Perhaps it's the stereotyping, or perhaps it's that Betta St. John couldn't do the sort of culture clash thing that Desi Arnaz was doing in I Love Lucy so well precisely because he was living it in real life. But for whatever reason, Dream Wife really comes across as a pale imitation of a pastiche of a bunch of other movies.

It's worth one viewing, and probably this viewing in particular since it's part of TCM's "Arab Images on Film" series, and it will be interesting to see what Professor Shaheen has to say about the movie.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More fan sites

In looking for a photo of today's birthday boy Richard Dix, I tried searching on Dix in Cimarron, since it's the one that got him his Oscar nomination. This obviously turned up a lot of photos of Dix, but some of them naturally also had his co-star, Irene Dunne. One of those photos comes from the interesting fan site The Irene Dunne Site, which seems to have more information about Dunne than you can shake a stick at.

I probably ought to start a blog roll one of these days.

Richard Dix, 1893-1949

TCM is marking what would be the 98th birthday of actor Red Skelton, but there are actually quite a few famous people who share a July 18th birthday. Among them is Richard Dix. I'm rather surprised at how many of Dix's movies I've blogged about, in part because he's one of the less-remembered actors from the 1930s. Dix got an Oscar nomination for Cimarron, but by the 1940s he was reduced to working in low-budget stuff like Ghost Ship and The Whistler. In fact, Dix's career actually started in the 1920s at Paramount, where he made several dozen silents, too many of which no longer exist.

In looking for a suitable picture of Dix to use for this post, I see that somebody started a fan site in his honor, although I should warn you that the site sadly looks as though it was created in the late 1990s, as everything is formatted in a way that gives the site a terribly unflattering appearance.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Googie Withers, 1917-2011

British actress Googie Withers has died at the age of 94. Her long career started off in the 1930s making small pictures. You might have seen Crown vs. Stevens a few years back, as it was one of the "quota quickies" rescued by TCM made by Warner Bros.' British production arm. The "quota quickies" were movies designed to meet as cheaply as possible a quota on the percentage of British movies a studio showed, so that the Hollywood studios could show their big prestige movies in the UK. The "quota quickies" are about as good as the Hollywood studios' B movies, which means that they range from lousy to surprisingly good; TCM was able to get the broadcast rights to six of them and aired them back in 2008 (I think). Anyhow, Withers' career continued with movies like a small part in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes.

The career really picked up in the 1940s, including roles in such classics as the British horror film Dead of Night. I've recommended Miranda, in which Withers plays the "other woman", and Night and the City, in which Withers has a more substantial role.

Withers could have had a more extensive movie career, but she married an Australian in the late 1940s -- their marriage lasted 62 years until his death a year and a half ago -- and in the 1950s moved down under, concentrating on stage acting instead of the movies.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Please stand by

It was bound to happen, I suppose. Yesterday evening, I was flipping through the channels about ten minutes into Three Sons O' Guns. It's not a movie I was particularly intending to watch. It's a good thing I hadn't planned to watch it, as TCM was showing a "Technical difficulties, Please stand by" card. The more interesting thing is that it seemed to date from a previous visual branding of the channel. Currently, the bit just before each movie showing the movie's content rating has a bright greenish-white glow. However, the "technical difficulties" card was in the same style as the previous content ratings screens, that being vintage skyscrapers set at various angles, with a dark blue color scheme.

It seems to me as though technical difficulties are becoming less and less common on television in general, with the one obvious exception being live programming, what with all the remote location shooting beamed live via satellite. Channels have all sorts of glitches in showing the wrong clip, but that's more a case of human error than technical problems. It's also a problem that has been hitting TCM. During the "Arab Images on Film" series, the press release announced that some cartoons that fit the theme were going to air, and Robert Osborne apparently made mention of them in his talks with Professor Shaheen. But the advertised shorts never showed.

In fact, TCM hasn't had cartoons on in years, with a few exceptions. It's a shame, because while Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry are still going to show up on other channels, there are more obscure cartoons such as the Happy Harmonies series, and the stuff produced at Warners before the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series came along.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Not much new right now

The dog days on the calendar come in August, but I feel in the dog days right about now, with not much to post about, and not much exciting coming up on the schedule. The singing cowboys aren't my cup of tea, and I haven't seen enough of the movies about Arabs to recommend any of them. (And I don't care for Lawrence of Arabia anyway.)

So it's back to mentioning repeats. When I first recommended The Bad Seed back in December 2008, it was as a birthday tribute. It wasn't actually airing that day, and the two times I've mentioned it since then, it wasn't airing either. (Of course, it got a DVD release at some point, so you should be able to get it.) It's back on the TCM schedule, as part of the TCM Underground series, coming up overnight at 3:30 AM.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Terry-Thomas centenary

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of British comic actor Terry-Thomas, whose movie career started in the 1930s when he played a bunch of extras. Terry-Thomas' career really took off in the 1950s, when he was cast in some sparkling comedies on both sides of the Atlantic, from British movies such as Too Many Crooks. Here in the US, Terry-Thomas was one of the many, many, many comedians cast in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, playing a British man who winds up heading for the buried $350,000 in a car with Milton Berle, leaving Berle's wife and mother-in-law behind. Unlike the more off-balance characters in his British movies, Terry-Thomas' "J. Algernon Hawthorne" in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is the stereotype of an impeccably well-mannered Brit.

Terry-Thomas died in 1990 after being ill for years with Parkinson's disease, which also ultimately ended his career in the late 1970s.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Movies I can blog about thanks to the Warner Archive

Normally, I prefer to blog about upcoming movies. Sometimes, I see obscure old movies on the schedule that look interesting, but I can't really blog about them if I haven't seen them. Fortunately, some of these old movies have been released to the Warner Archive so that I can recommend them after one of their too-infrequent airings. Such a movie is Heat Lightning, which showed up last Monday on TCM but is available from TCM's shop.

Aline MacMahon stars as a woman who's taken her sister out to the California desert in order to run a "last chance" service station/auto-camp (the forerunner of the modern motel; you can see another auto-camp in It Happened One Night). The kid sister (played by Ann Dvorak) hates the place, wanting to live life and have love. MacMahon, of course, had that life before, and she found out that it's not all it's cracked up to be, which is why she's now out in the middle of nowhere in California. The rest area is visited by a number of guests who would make a great ensemble cast in one of those "slice of life" movies. In the first scene we have Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell trading barbs as a bickering husband and wife whose car has overheated (unfortunately, they leave after the first scene and we don't get to see any more of that bickering), while Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly play a pair of wealthy but catty divorcées who are on their way back from Reno, driven by their harried chauffeur Frank McHugh.

But Heat Lightning isn't a slice of life movie. Two men show up: Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot. It's only hinted at at first, but eventually it becomes clear that these are two men on the run from a bank robbery in Salt Lake City, and are trying to make their way to Mexico. It's clear that Foster is the dominant one, as he decides for both of them that they'll stay at the station for long enough to get the divorcées' jewels, a decision which frightens Talbot, who just wants to get away. However, they're not just robbers. It turns out that Foster was MacMahon's boyfriend back in her days as a showgirl in Oklahoma. This is the man from whom she's been trying to protect her sister....

Heat Lightning is interesting, if a bit slow. Several of the reviewers on IMDb have made the obvious comparison to The Petrified Forest, although there are big differences, notably that the other guests learn next to nothing about the bad intentions of our two gangsters. The conflict builds up slowly and has a very short climax which, to be honest, isn't all that climactic. Thankfully, the supporting characters and subplots are enough to keep this movie going. Heat Lightning isn't perfect by any means, but at only about 70 minutes, it's an entertaining enough diversion.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Robert Wagner on TCM

If you watched the Tab Hunter movies on TCM last night, you will have seen that they were being introduced by Robert Wagner, and not Robert Osborne. It's been reported that Robert Osborne had "minor" surgery and afterwards decided to take a vacation. As such, for the next several weeks we're going to be seeing "friends of TCM" presenting the movies.

I always wonder when I see something like "minor surgery", especially when it was kept confidential for so long. TCM records its pieces some time in advance, although I'll admit I don't know quite how far in advance since I'm not certain how far in advance they're able to firm up the prime time schedule. In the case of The Essentials, that's quite a long time, as with the Guest Programmers and, presumably, the Stars of the Month, but for other nights, I suppose it might not be until the whole monthly schedule is finished ten weeks ahead of time or so. Obviously, everybody had to know for some time that Osborne was going to be absent. On the other hand, it could mean that they know know when he's going to be back, as they've implied just when Osborne will be making his return.

Anyhow, I think we all wish Osborne a speedy recovery and look forward to seeing him back on TCM full-time real soon. For the record, the next two "Friends of TCM" have been announced as Jane Powell for the week of July 18, and Tippi Hedren for the week of July 25.

Monday, July 11, 2011

It's Trad, Dad!

TCM is showing a bunch of those silly movies from the beginning of the rock-and-roll era when Hollywood fuddy-duddies tried to bring in musical acts that they thought were all the rage among the young, in an attempt to get teens to come to the movie theater. (I can only imagine what Justin Bieber would be like as an actor. Truly frightening.) Some of the musical numbers that appear in such movies were actually relatively famous, and have stood the test of time: the Platters, for example, performed in Rock Around the Clock, while Chubby Checker showed up in the remake, Twist Around the Clock. The British made a similar movie in the early 1960s, called It's Trad, Dad!, and that movie is airing tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on TCM.

The "Trad" of the title is short for "traditional jazz", although the musical style really combines elements of Dixieland with some more rock-like stuff, and the British genre of skiffle music. This is the sort of music that was apparently popular in the UK in the era just before the Beatles and the rest of the "British Invasion" bands would become popular, the movie having been released in 1962. As for the plot, it involves two friends (Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas) from a British hinterlands town who are horrified by the fact that their town fathers want to ban the trad music the kids so love on the grounds that it's noise pollution and a horrible influence. So they go to London and try to convince a bunch of bands and music-show presenters to come to their town and put on a concert, in part to show that trad doesn't deserve its bad reputation, and in part to tick off the town fathers.

It's Trad, Dad! is worth watching for two reasons. One is the performances. Some Americans had made their way to the UK for whatever reason, and American viewers will recognize those names: Gene Vincent, and the aforementioned Chubby Checker show up. (This even though Checker's music has nothing to do with trad.) Seeing those British acts who were apparently relatively prominent in the UK but never made it in the US (ever heard of "The Temperance Seven"?); their presence alone makes this quite the curiosity at least on the American side of the Atlantic. The other reason, though, is that the movie is quite different from the American teen rock movies in that it doesn't take itself seriously at all. The director, Richard Lester (who would later go on to make A Hard Day's Night with the Beatles) seems to realize that the teens of the day probably didn't care all that much for movies like this, so he injected a lot of self-referential humor. There's one scene where the two leads need a change of wardrobe, so they cut from a shot of the teens in their old clothes to one of them in the better duds, at which point the two go on their way. The off-screen narrator responds, "The least they could have done is thank us". Or, a scene when the town fathers are destroying the evil trad records, and find a non-trad record has slipped in. And the finale, when the town officials try to block the music acts from getting to town, is quite a treat.

It's Trad, Dad! isn't great by any means, but is a blast from the past that deserves one viewing at least. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD, at least not in the States, so you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing. Note that when the movie was released in the US, it was given the title "Ring-a-Ding Rhythm", so when you see the odd title card, don't think TCM has made a mistake.


Today is the 80th birthday of actor Arthur Kelm. You've probably never heard of him, probably because he took his mother's name (Gelien) after his parents divorced, and then got a stage name when he became an actor: Tab Hunter. That's a name you've probably heard of. I don't think it's that surprising that Hunter got a name change when he started acting; there's just something about "Kelm" and "Gelien" that both don't sound right. After all a lot of people with ethnic-sounding names got name changes as professionals. Mladen Sekulovic and Bernie Schwartz both sound far too ethnic, so we get names like Karl Malden and Tony Curtis instead.

It certainly couldn't have been the Arthur part of the name. A number of people with the name Arthur made quite nice careers for themselves in Hollywood, such as Arthur Kennedy (five Oscar nominations) and perennial British butler Arthur Treacher.

At any rate, TCM is marking Tab Hunter's 80th birthday with a night of his films. Happy birthday to Tab, and may he have many more.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Classical music scores

Tonight's TCM Silent Sunday Nights selection is Don Juan, airing at 12:15 AM. Whenever I think of the movie, I can't help but think the tone poem by Richard Strauss would have made a good starting point for scoring the film. However, the movie was one of the first made with Warner Bros.' then-new Vitaphone process, which had synchronized sound, and would of course later have synchronized talking and singing. As such, they had a score of their own, by William Axt.

I also can't help but think that stealing classical music would have made for a cheap score for silent pictures back in the day. As I understand it, Alfred Hitchcock's original plans for The Lodger included using various famous pieces of classic music in the score.

Classical music has gone on to show up quite a bit in the movies, though. In many cases, it's because the subject of the movie is music in general, or classical musician biopics in particular. Think Johann Strauss and The Great Waltz, Mozart and Amadeus, George Gershwin and Rhapsody in Blue, or Beethoven and Immortal Beloved for the composer biopics; The Great Caruso or Interrupted Melody for musician biopics; and One Hundred Men and a Girl for fictional stories about classical musicians.

There are also movies which have ready-made scores for them. Mendelssohn wrote music inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the early 19th century, and when Warner Bros. made a movie version of the Shakespeare play in 1935, it made sense for them to use this wonderful music.

And then there are the movies where classic music was selected for reasons that are a bit of a mystery, even when the music works. I've mentioned the wonderful Debussy arabesque the opens the movie Portrait of Jennie; another example would by the Chopin polonaise that can be heard over the opening credits of the Carole Lombard version of To Be or Not To Be. At least there, it makes perfect sense to have something by a Polish composer.

Nowadays, it's sometimes said that film scores are the latter-day classical music, and to be honest, I've heard my local classical music radio station play stuff by Nino Rota (who did a lot of Fellini's movies) as well as Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Action in Arabia vs. Notorious

The staircase in the Sebastian house in Notorious (1946)

Action in Arabia was a mildly interesting but not particularly great movie in which George Sanders plays an American journalist who discovers a nefarious Nazi plot in Syria to get the local desert tribes to support the Nazis. What I found more interesting took place about 15 minutes into the movie. Sanders is staying at one of the finest hotels in Damascus, and he steps out of his room and sees his boss talking to somebody in the lobby. The thing is, he's looking down from what is a sort of balcony, with a railing reminiscent of old carved columns; the staircase down to the lobby is a curved staircase, but not a complete spiral. My first thought was that this looked a lot like the staircase that Alfred Hitchcock used in the movie Notorious. Having blogged about Notorious, I knew I had a picture of that wonderful staircase, which you can see above. (Both movies were made at RKO.) The railing columns in the top left look very similar to the ones in Action in Arabia, while the wall on the right and the curvature of the staircase look the same. The one thing I noticed was different was that the hotel lobby didn't have that lovely checkerboard floor that the Sebastian house did.

Now, it shouldn't be surprising that set pieces get recycled. Making movies isn't cheap, and the studios were churning out dozens. It makes perfect sense that certain set pieces will get used over and over again. In the Tyrone Power version of The Black Swan, the Government House in Jamaica has a lovely round window that looks suspicously similar to the window of the courthouse during the trial in Leave Her to Heaven; both movies having been made at Fox, one can presume they are in fact the exact same window. There are also a lot of slanty wall-length windows in garret apartments that always make me wonder whether they're the same one I've seen in another movie, but those seem to show up in movies made at a bunch of different studios.

The thing that I found even more interesting, though, was the soft piece of music playing in the background when we first see George Sanders and that staircase. It was a waltz of some sort, and it sounded a lot like one of the waltzes that gets played at the party in the Sebastian house in Notorious, the party where Ingrid Bergman takes Cary Grant down to the wine cellar. Roy Webb wrote the score for both movies, so I wouldn't be surprised if the same piece of music got used.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The end of Fox Legacy?

I've noticed that, for the past two Fridays, the Fox Movie Channel hasn't been showing its Friday night Fox Legacy series. I think it's a bit of a shame if it's gone for good. As I've said a bunch of times before, Fox doesn't have access to anywhere near as many movies as TCM does, and so they can't put on the kind of programming that TCM can do. Still, it seems as if their thinking has long been to select movies haphazardly, show them a whole bunch of times, and then stick them back in the vault, not to be seen for years. At least with Fox Legacy, there was what appeared to be a more coherent effort to use the Fox library. It also led to some of the few showings of old black-and-white movies in prime time on FMC.

At least there's still Unvaulted, the Monday night series that takes one old -- or in some cases not so old -- movie out of the vault and shows it back-to-back. Still, some of the movies here aren't so old, at least by "classic" standards.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Leslie Howard Day

TCM is honoring Leslie Howard tomorrow, although it's not on his birthday; Howard was born on April 3, 1893. They're showing a couple of his better-known movies, including The Petrified Forest at 10:15 AM, and 49th Parallel at 3:15 PM. But the day also includes several lesser-known movies. To be honest, it's the ones I haven't seen before that I'm more looking forward to, such as British Agent at 8:45 AM, set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. IMDb lists J. Carroll Naish as Leon Trotsky!

Everything you always wanted to know about trailers but were afraid to ask

Er, not that kind of trailerYesterday morning somebody over on the TCM message board asked the question of why movie trailers are called trailers if they're shown before the movie we've paid to watch. I didn't know, but it was easy enough to do a bit of searching and find out the answer. The simple answer is that when coming attractions previews were first shown to moviegoers back in the 1910s, they were shown after the movies, in effect trailing the movies, hence the name.

The search led fairly quickly to this article at Straight Dope, which is interesting in its entirety.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Call Northside 777

I've commented quite a few times in the past about 20th Century Fox's docudramas. Another one that I haven't recommended before is coming up twice in the near future: Call Northside 777, today at 2:00 PM and tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM.

James Stewart stars as Jim McNeal, a reporter for one of the Chicago newspapers back in the days when all major cities in the US had multiple dailies competing against each other. He and his editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb actually playing a good guy for once), come across a personal ad from a woman offering a $5,000 reward for information that will get her son out of prison. They figure it will make a good human interest story, and Jim is given the task of covering it.

Now, everybody in prison thinks they're innocent, and we wouldn't have a movie if there weren't any possibility that the man in prison might have been wrongly convicted. And besides, the old lady is the perfect story, almost impossibly sweet and devoted to her children, having worked for 20 years as a cleaning woman to scrape up that $5,000. And when McNeal does some cursory investigation, he discovers that there are some small discrepancies. But is the prisoner actually inncoent?

Well, that requires meeting the prisoner himself, one Frank Wieczek (Richard Conte). He too naturally protests his innocence, even though there are some things that look terrible, like his having told his wife to divorce him. But there are those discrepancies, and unsurprisingly, the police are blocking Jim simply because they're the police and never ever want to admit that they could possibly have made a mistake.

In seom ways Call Northside 777 looks like a tried and true formula: dogged reporter uncovers corruption and saves the day at the end against all odds. But Call Northside 777 rises above this for a number of reasons. First is the fact that it's told in a docudrama format. Fox when it made its docudramas tried to use authentic locations as much as possible, and the movie has a much better look as a result, more real and raw than even anything one might have seen in Warner Bros.' social dramas. Having Jimmy Stewart play the reporter is also a big help. He was always good at playing this sort of upright character fighting injustice. But Call Northside 777 was made not long after Stewart returned from World War II, and the experience gave his acting a much fuller dimension. His Jim McNeal is a man who has no illusions about the possibility that he's being led on a wild goose chase, and fits in well with the lower-class Chicago on which he's reporting.

I'm not certain if I'd call Call Norhtside 777 the best of Fox's docudramas, but it's right up there, nd well worth watching.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Arab Images in Film

TCM's annual look at Hollywood's portrayal of minorities returns for a sixth season, looking this year at the way Arabs have been depicted. Every Tuesday and Thursday in prime time in July TCM will be showing various movies on Arabs. This being the first of the eight nights, it's no surprise that silents, the earliest of the movies, will be the focus. I haven't actually seen the silent version of The Sea Hawk before, so I'm looking forward to that kicking off the proceedings at 8:00 PM.

That's followed at 10:30 PM by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in The Thief of Baghdad, and at 1:00 AM by Rudolph Valentino playing The Sheik.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Anna Massey, 1937-2011

I'm sorry to read of the death of actress Anna Massey, who died yesterday at the age of 73. The daughter of Raymond Massey and god-daughter of John Ford, Massey started her career in the underseed 1958 movie Gideon's Day (also known in the US as Gideon of Scotland Yard), and then her career really took off with the 1960 movie Peeping Tom, pictured above, where she plays the love interest of Karlheinz Böhm.

I mentioned quite a few of her major works when I posted on her birthday last year, although I missed a small role as an English teacher in Dark Blue World.

Conan the Programmer

He couldn't do any worse a job at programming than the suits at NBC

Somehow I missed all the promos for June's TCM Guest Programmer, Chris Isaak. To be honest, I haven't seen one for July's Guest Programmer, either, and that's coming up tonight. Late-night TV talk show host Conan O'Brien will be sitting down with Robert Osborne to show four of his favorite films. Those are:

Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney wins an Oscar for playing George M. Cohan, at 8:00 PM;
The Roaring Twenties, a Cagney and Humphrey Bogart gangster film, at 10:15 PM;
Network, a movie that makes me mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more, at 12:15 AM;
and the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup at 2:15 AM.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Independence Day movies

No, not the dreadful effects movie that starred the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Tomorrow is July 4, the US Indepdendence Day holiday, and TCM is marking the occasion by showing some of the movies that have been made about the Revolutionary War. One that I don't think I've recommended before is The Scarlet Coat, airing tomorrow at 12:15 PM.

Cornel Wilde stars as John Boulton, a Major on the side of the revolutionaries during the American War of Independence. The Americans are disturbed by the fact they seem to have a traitor in their midst: somebody, under the pseudonym of "Gustavus" is getting important information about the Americans' plans to the British side. So he gets a bright idea: pretend to be a British spy himself, so that he can infiltrate the British and figure out who's spying on the Americans!

It turns out that the Americans have a Benedict Arnold in their midst. Literally, as the traitor is one Benedict Arnold. But he's not quite who the movie is about. Arnold had a co-conspirator, the major John Andre (Michael Wilding). Andre has no idea that Boulton is a double agent, and begins to trust him. But that doesn't mean Boulton is home free and sound. One of the civilian leaders of the spy ring is the prominent Dr. Odell (George Sanders), who is much more perceptive than Andre, and has a sneaking suspicion that Boulton isn't all he's cracked up to be. But will he get to the bottom of things before Boulton can?

Well, we know how history turns out, but that's about the only problem with The Scarlet Coat. It's a well made movie, with good acting and lovely color scenery of the lower Hudson Valley of New York state, where much of the action is set. There's a love triangle involving Anne Francis which isn't quite necessary to the plot, but she's just as lovely as the rest of the scenery. It's not as well known as many of the other Revolutionary War movies, probably because it doesn't quite have the star power of the others, but it's still quite entertaining.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Home Before Dark questions

I've had a few things about Home Before Dark that have been bothering me since I saw it on TCM Tuesday night as part of the Star of the Month salute to Jean Simmons. (It's available on DVD, as part of the Warner Archive Collection.) First, the movie was released in 1958, at a time when everything was being made in one widescreen format or another. TCM showed this in full-screen, which naturally leads one to think this was panned and scanned. Interestingly, though, IMDb doesn't list any aspect ratio for the movie. I also looked in the opening credits for anything like the "Cinemascope lenses provided by Bausch & Lomb" that shows up in Cinemascope movies; nothing about any other wide-screen format either.

What on earth was Rhonda Fleming doing in blond hair and that ghastly hairdo? She was a redhead, and a particularly beautiful one at that, as you can see in the movie Inferno which I recommended a few years back but is sadly not on DVD. I'd guess the only good reason she was made a blonde is that in one key sequence, Jean Simmons gets herself made up to look like Fleming, including having her hair dyed platinum blond. This is reminiscent of a scene in Vertigo where James Stewart has Kim Novak's hair dyed blond so that she'll look more like Kim Novak. Vertigo was released about six months before Home Before Dark, but I'd bet the latter movie was already in production at the time of Vertigo's release.

Robert Osborne made a comment after the movie about it being filmed on location during the middle of winter. The winter shooting is obvious, even if it screws up the continuity of the movie. At the beginning of the movie, there's snow on the ground, and all the leaves are off the trees, but it looks like it rains in the rear-projection shots of Dan O'Herlihy taking Simmons home from the hospital. It's not established at the beginning of the movie when this scene is set, but by the end of the movie, there's a New Year's Eve party, and it's mentioned that it's been three months since Simmons got out of hospital. That would put the beginning of the movie around late September. Yes, I'm a nerd about these things.

Friday, July 1, 2011

New month, new Star of the Month

It's already July 1. My, how time flies. Now that there's a new month here, it's time for a new Star of the Month on TCM. You've probably seen the promos on TCM, but this month there isn't one traditional Star of the Month. Instead, TCM is looking at the singing cowboys that graced screens in lots and lots of B-movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Their films will be airing on each of the five Fridays in July. On this first Friday in July, TCM will show five of Roy Rogers' movies. Interesting is to note that Trigger gets billed ahead of Dale Evans.

To be honest, singing cowboys aren't particularly my thing. But they certainly occupy an important niche in Hollywood history, having brought cheap entertainment to millions of people of a certain age. In that regard, they're really no different from the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys, or all the Tarzan movies that were made on the cheap sixty-plus years ago; they're just in a different genre.