Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New month, old movies back on FXM, and some stuff coming up on TCM

Tomorrow is February 1 already, which means the start of the annual 31 Days of Oscar on TCM. But before that, we have to get through one final night of the prison movies spotlight on TCM. There are two movies that I've blogged about before, one of which I thought I hadn't and which was going to be the subject of a post today.

At 10:45 PM, there is The Prisoner of Shark Island. This is about Dr. Samuel Mudd (played by Warner Baxter; don't call him Harcourt), a confederate sympathizer in Maryland who treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after the assassination of Lincoln. For that, Mudd was sent to prison in the Dry Tortugas, west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico and a pretty forbidding place.

That will be followed at 12:30 AM by 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which pairs Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis for the only time. Tracy plays a prisoner at Sing Sing; Davis his girlfriend. This is based on the memoir of a warden at the prison who had come to believe that current prison practices were too dehumanizing, and is the sort of social commentary movie that Warner Bros. was so good at making in the 1930s.

As for the "back on FXM" movies, there's We're Not Married!, which will be coming up tomorrow at 10:25 AM (and again Thursday at 9:00 AM). This one is one of Fox's anthology movies from the era, telling the stories of five couples who were married by a justice of the peace who, it turns out, was jumping the gun in marrying couples as his license wasn't going into effect for another week. The five have varying reactions, although there is the plot problem that all these couples would probably be considered common-law marriages considering how long they'd been together. The stories obviously aren't as well developed as in, say, Alfred Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but you can't expect that from two-reel length anthology stories.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Blogroll update

I've added one blog to the blogroll, Big Screen, Small Words. I've also removed two that haven't been updated in over a year.

As always, I've got just three basic rules for adding a blog to the blogroll. First of course is that it be more or less about the movies. If I had a non-movie blog, I'd have a different blogroll, I suppose. Second is that I find the blog interesting. And finally, the blog should still be updated on a regular (or at least often enough, not regular in the sense of like clockwork) basis. Big Screen, Small Words fits that; the two blogs I took off don't.

Omnibus obituary thread, January 30, 2017

In addition to Sir John Hurt, several other people worth mentioning died in the past several days.

First off are a couple of people better known for TV, but who did movies before their iconic TV roles. Mike Connors, who played Mannix on TV but had small roles in John Wayne's Island in the Sky and Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments, as well as a bigger role as the father of the Joey Heatherton character in the potboiler Where Love Has Gone, died at the age of 91 last Thursday. On the same day, Barbara Hale, best known for playing Perry Mason's secretary Della Street, died aged 94. As for her movies, I'd mention The Window.

More movie related, there was 89-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, whose career in French cinema spanned over 50 years, from Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour to an Oscar-nominated performance in Amour at the age of 85.

Finally, one should mention Richard Portman, who died at the age of 82. He was a sound mixer, who won an oscar for The Deer Hunter and was nominated several other times. Sound mixers are one of those roles that never get the credit they deserve, since everybody recalls the actors and to an only slightly lesser extent the directors.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Baby

So I got around to watching The Baby off my DVR, having recorded it back in October. It's available from the TCM Shop, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length review on it. Unfortunately, the review is probably not going to one of my best, simply because the movie is so bizarre that it's tough to go into detail on. This especially if you don't want to give away any of the plot twists in the final third of the movie.

Anjanette Comer plays Ann Gentry, a social worker in what looks like the suburbs of Los Angeles. As the film opens, she comes up to a house asking if it's the Wadsworth residence. Young Alba Wadsworth (Suzanne Zenor) informs her that yes, it is, so Ann and us get to meet the rest of the Wadsworths. Alba has an older sister Germaine (Marianna Hill) and mother (Ruth Roman). But they're not so much why Ann is her. She wants to meet the youngest child, a son who only has the name Baby. Apparently Baby (David Manzy) suffers from some form of retardation that has left him unable to walk or talk, and leaves him in diapers and short pants for most of the movie. Now, in the real world you'd think that the authorities would have found some sort of facility to put Baby in, but then we wouldn't have a movie, so the Wadsworths have only been getting visits from social workers twice a year.

Ann intends to change that. She takes an interest in Baby's case. In fact, her interest seems more than appropriate, as if she feels some sort of affection for Baby. She approaches the head of a school for children with developmental problems, which makes sense, but her involvement is much more personal. That having been said, she does seem to be the one person who realizes that perhaps Baby isn't so much retarded as he was made that way. Indeed, we get some rather violent scenes of the Wadsworths disciplining Baby for getting too uppity, and each other for their handling of Baby.

Eventually, Mrs. Wadsworth does come to the conclusion that Ann poses a danger to her, and at first cuts off contact with her, but then plans to do something rather more sinister. But Ann has other plans, and she's pretty resourceful....

The Baby is a bizarre movie. After all, just the basic idea of a grown man who not only has the developmental capacity of an infant, but was in fact created that way, is bizarre. And then the movie has all those twists and turns. I was getting ready to pan the movie for some of the characters' motivations, but after it was all over, everything fit -- unfortunately, I can't really say more without giving away key plot points.

The movie is not without flaws. I mentioned the fact that the social workers would never have let the Wadsworths take care of Baby in this way and that he would have been in some sort of facility long ago. And of course there are times when the twists and turns seem too twisty and turny. But ultimealy, the film works precisely because it is so bizarre.

It's also very much a product of the 1970s (the movie was released in early 1973). There is some interesting design (I immediately noticed that eye-shaped alarm clock) and fashion. Oh, and the ghastly 1970s hairstyles. But that all adds to the fun of this bizarre film.

The Baby is one that would be nice to see in a box set with some other 1970s horror movie, although various movies having differing rights holders probably would prevent that. It's well worth a watch, though. Just prepared to be affected by the bizarreness.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

John Hurt, 1940-2017

John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980)

The death has been announced of British actor John Hurt, after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.

Hurt's career spanned well over 50 years, starting on stage and with small roles on British TV. I'd like to think his breakout performance on film was as Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons; you can see him with his back to the camera as this was a scene for lead actor Paul Scofield. But, in reality, Hurt had to work hard for another decade until he really became a star, which led to big Hollywood movies like Midnight Express and Alien, and then the Oscar-nominated role in The Elephant Man.

Hurt continued to work, both in regular acting as well as providing a range of voices in a variety of films, animated and narrating live action. IMDb lists him as participating in several movies still in production, although I'd have no idea if he finished all his work. He did also appear in a small part in last autumns Jackie.

Friday, January 27, 2017

About those Bowery Boys movies

At the beginning of the month, I mentioned that TCM was getting close to the end of the Bowery Boys movies, but that I wasn't certain what TCM was going to be doing following 31 Days of Oscar since it looked like there was one Bowery Boys movie remaining after January.

I didn't look at the schedule closely enough. Tomorrow morning, TCM is running the final two Bowery Boys movies (Up in Smoke at 9:30 AM and In the Money at 10:45 AM, which means that the series is going to end just in time for 31 Days of Oscar. I think Leo Gorcey is missing from both, to be reunited with Huntz Hall only for The Phynx a dozen years later. By that time, Gorcey was on his deathbed and looks it, dying in between filming and the release of the movie.

Following 31 Days of Oscar, TCM will be running the Maisie movies, which I think should take up March and April; I'd have to look up how many Maisie movies were made.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

TCM's Debbie Reynolds tribute

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) kicks off prime time at 8:00 PM

Debbie Reynolds died at the end of December aged 84. TCM's programming salute runs on Friday, January 27, taking a full 24-hour programming day starting at 6:00 AM to show 12 of Reynolds' movies, as well as two shorts:

Reynolds tries to make marriage to Navy officer Glenn Ford work in It Started With a Kiss at 6:00 AM;
Reynolds takes in a foundling in Bundle of Joy at 7:45 AM;
Reynolds is one of many stars in How the West Was Won at 9:30 AM;
Reynolds falls in love with confirmed bachelor Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap at 12:30 PM;
Reynolds appears in the lower-tier MGM musical Hit the Deck at 2:30 PM,
followed by another lower-tier musical I Love Melvin at 4:30 PM;
Reynolds sings for Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain at 6:00 PM;
Reynolds escapes the Titanic in The Unsinkable Molly Brown at 8:00 PM;

Reynolds and taxman Tony Randall fall in love in The Mating Game at 10:30 PM;
Reynolds would, unlike mother Bette Davis, prefer a simple wedding in The Catered Affair at 12:30 AM;
Reynolds has an unlikely #1 hit as The Singing Nun at 2:15 AM; and
Reynolds and James Garner visit Paris in How Sweet It Is at 4:00 AM.

As for the two shorts, there's one about a dress she wore in The Unsinkable Molly Brown following Singin' in the Rain, and one in which she makes an appeal for the Jimmy Fund at the end of the night.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore, 1936-2017

Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, and Donald Sutherland (from left to right) in Ordinary People (1980)

Oh my goodness I just read about the death of Mary Tyler Moore at the age of 80. Of course, Moore is going to be best remembered for her TV sitcoms, especially the eponymous one from the 1970s. That earned her a bunch of awards and even a statue in Minneapolis recreating the iconic moment from the end of the opening theme in which she throws her hat up into the air.

But Moore was also nominated for an Oscar, for playing the ice-cold mother in 1980's Ordinary People. She of course lost to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter, and as I think I mentioned earlier it's esy to understand why. Spacek does a great job and has an obviously flashy role. Moore has the much more difficult role. (Actually, all three leads in Ordinary People have difficult roles to play, and all three pull their roles off spectacularly.)

I should have joined the Blind Spot series

A few years back, Canadian blogger Ryan McNeil at The Matinee started a series he calles the Blind Spot series. The point is to pick a smallish number of movies -- 12 isn't bad, because that's one movie a month -- that you haven't seen before, and which are supposed to be Important Movies. Then, after watching the movie, you do a blog post about it.

I was thinking about the series because as part of "Bob's Picks" on TCM, the channel is running Mrs. Miniver overnight at 2:30 AM. It won the Best Picture and other Oscars, and yet, it's one that I've never seen in its entirety.

Oh, I've seen parts of it, and I think that's the problem. I've come to the movie toward the end, around the time one of the characters -- I think it's the Teresa Wright character -- dies in one of the Nazi blitzes. And I'm pretty certain I've seen the following speech given by the Henry Wilcoxon character.

And I even sat down one night when TCM ran it at the start of prime time to watch it. But there was only so much I could get through. I found Greer Garson's title character coming across as so self-centered, and I didn't give a damn about the rose-breeding competition, that I found myself bored with the whole thing and didn't want to sit through another two hours of this stuff.

That having been said, I've got about 40 movies on my DVR that I haven't watched, and don't know what I'd delete to make room for Mrs. Miniver. Especially since I intend to DVR The Getaway as well, which comes on immediately before Mrs. Miniver at 12:15 AM.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

MGM's 40th anniversary

I've mentioned the short Some of the Best on several occasions in the past. It's MGM's 25th anniversary presentation, looking at one movie from each of the first 25 years of the studio's history, followed by a look at upcoming movies and (the best part) a luncheon showing more stars than there are in the firmament.

MGM made quite a few shorts showing their plans for the coming year; I've mentioned the late-60s short Lionpower a few times as well. And today at 7:15 PM, TCM is running MGM 40th Anniversary. This one, which I'll admit I haven't seen, is from 1964 and according to the reviews, nowhere near as good as some of the earlier shorts. (Lionpower, at least, is humorous in its breathless pumping up of the movies.

The one reviewer at IMDb points out that MGM wouldn't make another decadal featurette like this one. Of course, ten years later, they made the first of the That's Entertainment! pictures, and in the promotional trailer pointed out that there would never be another picture like it. Until the sequel a few years later.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Communist screenplays

I see that TCM is spending the afternoon with a couple of movies that screenplays by notorious totalitarian supporter Dalton Trumbo.

I think I've argued here in the past that actors certainly shouldn't have been blacklisted by Hollywood for their political beliefs. One can make a case that people who were bad for box office would have lost jobs, and that's certainly a stickier issue, since the studios can play fast and loose with the accounting numbers. But it's not as if their political beliefs were influencing the movies that much. Directors and most behind the camera people should never have been subject to a blacklist either. If anybody deserved to be smacked by studio heads, though, it was screenwriters, who more easily could use their platform to influence what wound up in the movies.

I think the best example of that airing today is A Man to Remember, airing at 1:00 PM. This is a remake of an earlier film, One Man's Journey, about a doctor who winds up spending his whole career in a small town, while his son grows up to have the opportunity to do prestigious research in the big city. Lionel Barrymore plays the doctor in the original; Edward Ellis does a fine job in the sequel. The problem is that Trumbo wrote a didactic screenplay, starting off with the doctor's funeral and telling the story in flashback, with some evil bankers going through the doctor's strongbox. Throughout the movie we get leaden plot lines about the heroic small-town doctor going up against sinister monied interests.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (2:30 PM) isn't so bad, mostly because it's wartime propaganda. Hollywood's communists were internationalists up until the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact in August 1939, at which point they did a volte face and became isolationists. Until June 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR, that is, at which point they switched to a pro-war stance, and it's that latter pro-war stance that seems to be remembered.

We Who Are Young (4:30 PM) is, in tone, more in line with A Man to Remember. Lana Turner and John Shelton play a couple who both work for a bookkeeping firm and violate the firm's rules of probity; Trumbo's screenplay makes no bones that it's the bosses who are ridiculously evil as the capitalist system visits horror after horror upon the couple.

I don't think the Communists should have been blacklisted any more than, say, Leni Riefenstahl. (And Riefenstahl was a glaring omission from TCM's Trailblazing Women series.) And even more certainly the blankety-blanks in Congress shouldn't have dragooned anybody from Hollywood into appearing before them, on any issue. But it shouldn't be forgotten that Communists were, at best, useful idiots supporting a hideous totalitarian ideology who are just as bad as Holocaust deniers. It's just that they're supporting a different flavor of totalitarianism.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Piper Laurie turns 85

I just happened to be looking up actress Piper Laurie the other day because I saw that one of her lesser-known movies, the western Smoke Signal with Dana Andrews, is going to be on StarzEncore Westerns later this week (5:48 AM Thursday, to be exact). It's one that I can't remember the last time I saw; those old Universal(-International) westerns don't show up on TCM very often. And I don't currently have any of the premium cable channel packages or the bandwidth to do streaming video.

But today happens to be Laurie's 85th birthday. Laurie started her career at Universal as an 18-year-old, playing small parts for several years before decampign to television. She eventually wound up getting one big role, as Paul Newman's girlfriend in The Hustler, which earned Laurie the first of three Oscar nominations, this one for Best Actress. Marriage slowed Laurie's career, but she eventually returned in the late 1970s, earning a second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress in Carrie. Laurie's third nomination would be for Children of a Lesser God 10 years later.

Despite that long layoff that produced little screen work, Laurie has a substantial body of both movie and TV work.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I have mentioned all of these before, haven't I?

I was looking at the TCM schedule, and I saw that the afternoon lineup concludes with a short, Souvenirs of Death, at about 7:49 PM after Bend of the River. It's an interesting idea, and I wasn't certain if I had mentioned it before, but as you can see from the link, I have. Basically, somebody captures a gun off a Nazi in World War II and brings it home, but the bad guys wind up getting it.

Tonight's prime time lineup is dedicated to actor Dana Andrews. Interestingly, TCM is able to get in four movies before going to TCM Underground. First up, at 8:00 PM, is Boomerang!, in which Andrews plays a prosecutor who comes to believe the guy he's supposed to be prosecuting is in fact innocent. It's based on a real-life story in which the prosecutor in question wound up becoming Attorney General in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, although the movie is set in the "modern" day, that of the late 1940s instead of the late 1920s.

Next up, at 9:45 PM, is Fallen Angel at 9:45 PM. I don't think I watched the 2011 TCM airing, and I'm pretty certain I haven't seen it since, so this is one that it's definitely been ages since I've seen.

Then come a pair of movies from a bit later in Andrews' career. At 11:30 PM is While the City Sleeps , a mystery set against the backdrop of a power struggle at a news empire and the various fiefdoms there trying to solve the mystery. It's a lot of fun, and incredibly cynical.

Finally, at 1:15 AM, there's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which has Andrews as a journalist who gets into an audacious story with his boss (Sidney Blackmer): frame himself as a murderer, and reveal the evidence only after he's been sentenced to the death penalty! Of course, there are complications, such as the boss dying in a car crash and the evidence going missing with his death.

All four of the Andrews movies are well worth watching.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Briefs for January 20-21, 2016

I probably should have mentioned the marathon of Saint movies airing in prime time tonight on TCM. Simon Templar was played by several actors over the course of the series, and we get entries from Louis Hawyard, George Sanders, and Hugh Sinclair during the evening and overnight. I'm not certain which of them I've seen; I'm probably getting the Saint movies mixed up with the Lone Wolf movies. Ah yes, Melvyn Douglas played the Lone Wolf in a movie. And Louis Hayward would play him on TV. No wonder it's so darn easy to get the series mixed up.

Much has been made of the fact that TCM just happened to have A Face in the Crowd on today's schedule, what with the presidential inauguration. People of a certain political stripe want to compare Donald Trump with Lonesome Rhodes, something I thought I mentioned here once before during the campaign. I would have compared Trump with a character in a different movie on today's schedule: Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead. I've long believed that Ayn Rand's characters work better when considered as archetypes. Wynand and Trump both come across as people who say what they think the people want to hear, but when it comes to having something for themselves, what do they really want?

I should probably also mention the death of actor Miguel Ferrer, at the young age of 61. Ferrer, son of José Ferrer, was in Robocop, a bunch of TV shows, anddid a fair amount of voice work.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #132: Featuring Actors/Actresses Who Passed Away in 2016

This being Thursday, it's time for another Thursday Movie Picks, run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week's theme is actors and actresses who died in 2016, and of course as a lover of old movies, I'm picking some slightly older movies.

First up is Strait-Jacket, from 1964. This one is in honor of George Kennedy, although he only has a small role. The star here is Joan Crawford, playing a woman who axe-murdered her husband decades ago and spent a long time in a mental institution as a result. She's out now and living with her adult daughter (Diane Baker), but odd things start happening that bring Crawford's sanity back into question, especially when somebody gets axed to death. Kennedy's small part includes a memorable scene of him having to axe a chicken to death:

This was made by William Castle, known for his gimmicks; I guess the gimmick here is starring Joan Crawford.

Next we get the 1962 two-reeler Happy Anniversary. This was made by and stars Pierre Étaix, a French clown who made several movies in the 1960s, all known for their inventive visual humor. This short has Étaix playing a husband who is trying to buy a gift for his wife on her anniversary, only to have anything that can go wrong actually go wrong: there's traffic, he has trouble fitting a gift in his tiny car, and so on. Meanwhile, the wife is back at their apartment having made a nice dinner for her husband; they being French, she's also opened a nice bottle of wine. And she waits... and waits... and waits....

Finally, I'll mention another movie where the actor had a small role: Running on Empty. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play a couple of 60s radicals who accidentally killed an innocent janitor when they bombed a napalm factory; they've been on the run ever since with their two children. The elder of the two children, played by River Phoenix, is a piano prodigy, and good enough to go to Juilliard. Except of course that there's a problem, which is that if he were to go off it might reveal his parents' identities, and will also probably mean he's never see his parents again. I'm mentioning this film in honor of actor Steven Hill, perhaps best known from the TV series Law and Order. He plays Christine Lahti's father, and has one memorable scene when he meets his daughter at a restaurant for the first time in ages as she asks him to consider taking custody of her son so he can go to Juilliard.

I thought about using Debbie Reynolds so that I could mention What's the Matter With Helen, which has her and Shelley Winters playing two mothers who have to leave Iowa after their sons commit a notorious Leopold and Loeb-style murder. The mothers' friendship eventually goes downhill....

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

TCM Guest Programmer January 2017: Damien Chazelle

So we're at that time of the month when another famous figure comes on to present four movies. This time, it's Damien Chazelle, the writer/director behind things like La La Land. (I saw the trailer in theater over the summer when I watched Florence Foster Jenkins, and I'm probably the one person who didn't find the movie particularly interesting from the trailer. Although at least not as bad as the second of the Tom Hanks movies trailered that day, which had Capt. Sully cracking the Dante code. People still like the Dan Brown conspiracy stuff?) Anyhow, Chazelle will be on tonight with Ben Mankiewicz to present four of his favorite films. Knowing who Chazelle is, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that three of the movies are musicals:

It's Always Fair Weather at 8:00 PM, a Gene Kelly musical about World War II vets meeting 10 years on;
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at 10:00 PM, a good story slightly marred by the fact that all of the dialog is sung;
Meet Me in St. Louis at midnight, in which we have to put up with the singing of Judy Garland, especially about that expletive-deleted trolley.
And the one non-musical is a movie I personally find overrated, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights at 2:00 AM.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

One-hit wonders

TCM's Spotlight on prison movies continues to night with an early talkie: Weary River, at 9:45 PM.

Richard Barthlemess plays Jerry, a gangster with a heart of gold, at least to his girlfriend Alice (Betty Compson). He likes to play piano sing to her. But of course being a gangster he's got enemies, and some of them have Jerry framed and sent to prison. The warden, however, has a heart of gold too, and he tries to imrpove the lives of his prisoners by letting them perform in the prison band, and even inviting a radio network to do live broadcasts of the prison's concerts. Since it's already been foreshadowed that Jerry can sing, we know he's going to sing backed up by his fellow prisoners; he even writes his own song to sing, one called "Weary River", hence the title of the movie.

The song, of course, becomes a hit on the outside. That, combined with the likelihood that Jerry was framed, causes the warden (played by a silent-era actor named William Holden who is, as far as I can ascertain, no relation of the Holden of Sunset Blvd. fame) to give Jerry another chance on the outside. Jerry even has an obvious life outside of crime to pursue, that of a singer.

Now, you'd think this hook, of the guy who gained his stardom in prison, would be just the thing to jump-start a career. But we wouldn't have much of a plot that way. So instead, Jerry is hounded by his criminal past everywhere he goes. He's also enough of a dipshit that he can't write another song, simply singing "Weary River" again and again wherever he goes. Of course the public wants something new! But Jerry's professional failure is almost enough to send him back to a life of crime. Perhaps Alice -- helped by the warden -- can save him.

Weary River is interesting as an early talkie, but for more modern audiences, a lot of the plot is going to seem not only old-fashioned, but maddening. Some of the reasons for that, I've already alluded to. The two stars, however, carry themselves off well in spite of the material. They were both making the transition from the silents, not particularly successfully as it turned out. Weary River is worth one watch, but there were better movies even in 1929.

Weary River having been released by Warner Bros./First National, has been accorded a DVD release thanks to the Warner Archive, but as far as I can tell it's not part of any of the cheaper box sets Warner Home Video has been putting out.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Shorts I probably should have mentioned this morning

I see that following this afternoon's airing of Cabin in the Sky (or around 6:10 PM), TCM is running the Pete Smith short Studio Visit. Now, I've stated quite a few times that I'm not the biggest fan of the Pete Smith style. This short, however, has some things worth recommending it. The biggest, and the reason it's airing today, is that it contains footage of Lena Horne that was deleted from Cabin in the Sky. The footage has her in a bubble bath singing a musical number, which I suppose is a bit racy for the time. I wonder if somebody either at MGM or in Joe Breen's office found it inappropriate for a feature, but OK for a short. Studio Visit was included as an extra on this pre-Warner Archive DVD of Cabin in the Sky. I'm not certain if it's on the more recent Warner Archive release.

TCM isn't running Redd Foxx's Norman, Is That You? for Martin Luther King Day. I wonder why. However, they are re-running the promotional featurette Redd Foxx Becomes a Star at around 9:35 PM, following the first of the night's three documentaries. The featurette does a reasonably good job of illustrating why Foxx had a good deal of popularity, although as I understand it his nightclub act was much more adult in nature, something they couldn't really put on the screen, especially not in a featurette.

TCM already ran A Patch of Blue today. Overnight, around 1:05 AM, they're showing the featurette A Cinderella Named Elizabeth, about the film's star, Elizabeth Hartmann. As with something like All Eyes on Sharon Tate, it's kind of tragic watching this short knowing what would happen to Hartmann.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Princess Tam Tam

I made it a point to watch Princess Tam Tam off my DVR since it's coming up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on TCM as part of the annual Martin Luther King Day salute to black filmmakers. In this case, the person honored is singer/actress/entertainer Josephine Baker.

Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) is a celebrated French writer living not quite happily with his wife Lucie (Germaine Aussey). What makes him unhappy is that she spends so much time with high society types, whom he finds boring, and that makes him unable to write, which in turn ticks off his publisher. Matters come to a head, and he and his assistant Coton (Robert Amoux) go to Tunisia (then a French protectorate) to get away from it all.

It's in Tunisia that Max meets Alwina (Josephine Baker). She's first seen with a flock of sheep, but she doesn't quite seem to be a shepherdess, since she winds up in town stealing oranges and begging for alms. Max first sees her when she's stealing those oranges, and again after she hops on the back of his car to escape the police when she was begging illegally. Max and Coton get the idea of writing a Pygmalion-like story about trying to refine Alwina, whom Max is clearly taken with. Alwina isn't quite certain she likes western culture, but she does like Max.

Matters hit a head when news reaches Max from France that Lucie has been seeing the Maharajah of Datane (Jean Gallard) and is in all likelihood carrying on an affair with him. Max gets the idea of taking Alwina back to France, passing her off as a princess, and making that the subject of his novel. Along the way, he hopes to make Lucie jealous enough to teach her a lesson. Alwina clearly prefers Tunisia, but she loves Max enough to go to France with him.

Alwina is a success as a princess to the point that she's making all the other women jealous. But one night she doesn't want to be in high society, so she goes slumming, which is where she's seen by one of Lucie's friends, who is also slumming. Lucie and the Maharajah devise a plan to show Tam Tam for what she really is. But will the plan succeed?

Princess Tam Tam is clearly a vehicle for Josephine Baker, who milks it for all it's worth. The story is, to be honest, nothing original, what with all those Pygmalion overtones as well as a similarity to a lot of Hollywood comedies about one spouse trying to make the other jealous. But it's still well worth a watch. Baker is quite good, although she only gets two songs and two dances; from what I understand she would have been better served with material that highlighted these talents rather than straight acting. (Not that she's a bad actress.) The second dance, the musical finale, is clearly heavily influenced by Busby Berkeley and is on a par with almost anything Berkeley did from 42nd Street on.

As for the rest of the cast, the ones playing French characters all do well enough; the Maharajah seems miscast but that's probably down to the way the character is written. A good portion of the movie -- the interracial romance aspect as well as the cinematography -- come across as very different from what Hollywood was doing; maybe some of Josef von Sternberg's stuff like The Scarlett Empress could compare. The music, on the other hand, struck me as sounding very conventionally Hollywood. It's 30s style popular band music that fits in perfectly even if it's not particularly memorable. Then again, much of the instrumental popular band music in Hollywood movies from before swing took off is similarly unmemorable. This isn't a criticism of the movie, but a compliment to how well the music fits the movie.

The ending is foreshadowed if you pay close enough attention and is probably appropriate even if it seems like a bit of a cop-out. (I'm trying to avoid revealing exactly what the ending is as I don't want to spoil it.) It doesn't really detract from the rest of the movie, though.

Princess Tam Tam is available on DVD, but as with a lot of foreign films, it's a bit pricier than typical Hollywood movies.

Silent Sunday Nights has another block of shorts

I'm either happy or sorry, as the case may be, to point out that this week's Silent Sunday Nights lineup on TCM consists of seven shorts. The problem is that every time TCM programs a bunch of shorts together like this, we get a different running order between the monthly schedule, the daily/weekly schedule, and the box guide schedule, something which makes it hard to get one particular short if that's what you're interested in and isolating it from the others.

That having been said, the shorts are all early one- and two-reelers, which means they should all be in the public domain and freely available on Youtube. An example is Bangville Police, which is apparently the first Keystone Kops short:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Nickel Ride

A movie that's showing up again on FXM Retro that I haven't blogged about before is The Nickel Ride. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 3:00 AM, and seems to be available on DVD.

Jason Miller plays Cooper, who gets woken up early one morning. He's taken control of a bunch of unused warehouses in one of Los Angeles' more undesirable areas, and is using them to house a bunch of fenced goods. However, there's a problem, which is that the mob bosses who actually run the whole "block" feel they need more space, and want a better financial deal from Cooper. Not just from Cooper, but from his intermediate Carl (John Hillerman, later of Magnum, P.I.). Cooper, in effect, is what as known as a "key man", for having all the keys to the warehouses, but he's just as much a sort of fixer. Another of his problems is when he's approached by his friend Paulie, who is being leaned upon to fix a boxing match. Paulie doesn't want to do it, so perhaps Cooper can convince the boxer to take a dive?

Cooper also has a girlfriend Sarah (Linda Haynes), whom he calls "Georgia" because that's where she's originally from, so his assumption is that she's a bit of a hayseed even though she really knows more than she lets on. His other friend, Paddie (Victor French later of Little House on the Prairie, here without the beard), runs a bar near Cooper's rundown office. Rounding out the main cast is Turner (Bo Hopkins), whom Carl presents to Cooper as a would-be keyman from Oklahoma; Carl wants Cooper to show Turner the ropes. It's enough to get Cooper to think that perhaps the big organization is trying to push him out of business.

Along the way, Cooper has to go up north to the mountains of Squaw Valley to negotiate an agreement with the big organization, since their representative is going to be going on vacation for the weekend up there. However, Cooper gets up there, and finds out the man he's supposed to meet hasn't checked in, which really gets Cooper suspicious. That, and the presence of shoe tracks in Cooper's cabin, marks which clearly aren't from him or Sarah....

The Nickel Ride is one of those mid-1970s movies which, as a genre, did a really good job of showing the seamy side of life in that era. I've mentioned New York-set movies like Panic in Needle Park before; this one and something like Trouble Man are good examples set out in Los Angeles. The Nickel Ride also gets to benefit from having really nice cinematography once the action shifts to Squaw Valley. Who wouldn't like to spend the weekend in a cabin like that? The problem, however, is that The Nickel Ride is a rather slow and meandering movie; it's hard to figure out half the time precisely what's going on.

Those who like 1970s movies will probably enjoy The Nickel Ride; if I were looking to introduce people who don't know so much about 70s realism I'd probably start with some other movies instead.

A couple more obituaries

I'll admit I'd never heard of Manlio Rocchetti, who died at the beginning of the week aged 73. That's because he was a makeup artist, the sort of behind-the-scenes person who doesn't get any recognition in a broader sense. Well, there are the Oscars, of course, and Rocchetti won one of those for his work on Driving Miss Daisy. (Are the make-up Oscars still presented in the main ceremony, or in the technical awards ceremony? I don't watch the Oscars.) The lack of recognition is, I think, highlighted by the fact that I couldn't find any good English-language obituaries. That having been said, the Italian obituary I linked to shows Rocchetti working with Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of Gangs of New York.

William Peter Blatty died on Thursday at the age of 89. He'll probably be best remembered for writing The Exorcist, but he also did several screenplays. Not only for the movie version of The Exorcist, but also for A Shot in the Dark and the execrable John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. I'd guess it was Blatty's time working for the US Information Agency in Beirut that gave him the idea for the last of those movies. That time also gave him an in to appear on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Another set of briefs, for January 13-14, 2017

A few months back, I mentioned the 1912 version of Cleopatra. I didn't realize it when I posted back in September, although to be fair, this month's TCM schedule probably wasn't available at the time. TCM's prime time lineup is several versions of the Cleopatra story, with the 1912 silent rounding them off at 6:30 AM tomorrow. (It's also on Youtube, of course.)

Shock will be back on the FXM Retro schedule, airing twice tomorrow morning at 4:45 AM and 8:55 AM. Like the last set of "Back on FXM" movies I mentioned, this one was running in 2013 as well, although I think it's been back on FXM this time around for a little while now.

Somebody over at the TCM boards mentioned a BBC Radio documentary entitled Thelma and Michael: Love in the Cutting Room. This is the story of acclaimed editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who married director Michael Powell, 35 years her senior, in 1980, and remained married to him until his death 14 years later. Unfortunately, the documentary is only available via streaming audio. It was probably available for download at some point in the past, but the BBC only keeps their downloadable audio up for a month or so. I wish I had known about the documentary when it aired back in October.

Courtesy of ephemera blogger David Thompson is a link he titled Film effects of yesteryear. It's a link to the explanation for the effects in several silent movies, with the most famous being the forced perspective shots of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!. Unfortunately, the site David linked to is heavy on GIFs substituting for video.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #131: Fashion World

This being Thursday, it's time for another Thursday Movie Picks, run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week's theme is the fashion world, and of course as a lover of old movies, I'm picking some slightly older movies. (However, they're not as old as last week's selections.)

First up is Mahogany (1975). How could you not pick this over-the-top wonder? Diana Ross plays the title character, a worker in a Chicago department store who's studying fashion design at night, and who just knows she can make it in the fashion world. She's discovered by a fashion photographer (Anthony Perkins), who decides to take her to Rome and make her a star. Her boyfriend (Billy Dee Williams), who is trying to improve life for people in the ghetto, is none too pleasd with any of this.

What a Way to Go! (1964). OK, this one isn't so much about the fashion world per se. Shirley MacLaine plays a woman who, at the start of the movie, is donating all her wealth to the US Treasury, which gets her sent to a head shrinker since you'd have to be crazy to do that. It turns out that all her husbands made her rich when all she wanted was love, and then once the husbands got rich, they died spectacularly. For classic movie buffs, part of the fun is that MacLaine describes each of the marriages as being in a particular genre of movie. For Husband #3 (Robert Mitchum), she says life was like a "Lush Budgett Production", at which point we cut to a movie spoof of Shirley MacLaine going through life with a wardrobe that would make even Audrey Hepburn or Kay Francis jealous. dozens of increasingly fancy gowns, one after another after another.

Save the Tiger (1973). Jack Lemmon plays he owner of a clothing company that's failing; at the same time he's going through a mid-life crisis at home. Things get bad enough at the business that he comes up with the idea of hiring an arsonist to burn the whole thing down so he can collect the insurance money. Along the way, Lemmon has some other misadventures. This is another movie that's not quite so much about the fashion world as it is a character study in which the main character just happens to work in the fashion world. He could have owned the company in Executive Suite or Patterns instead. But Jack Lemmon gives an excellent performance making the difficult subject material worth watching.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Air Patrol

Another movie I watched over the weekend was Air Patrol. I mentioned it a month ago, although I don't think I had seen it before, pointing out that it was directed by Maury Dexter. I said then that I thought that would probably make the movie worth one viewing, which turns out to be the case. The movie is available on DVD from Fox's MOD service, which means that it's pricey, and to be honest a bit more than I'd pay for any B movie, and perhaps any A movie, too.

The movie starts off with a man going into an office and cutting a painting out of the frame. Pan to somebody's legs; whoever was supposed to be guarding the painting was waylaid and conked over the head. (Nobody in the movies ever gets a concussion.) The thief goes up to the roof of the building and, in the middle of the night, climbs aboard a helicopter!

The cops are at first baffled, since apparently at the time the movie was made nobody had ever thought to make a getaway in that manner. But somebody comes up with it as an idea, and a member of the Los Angeles helicopter air patrol, Sgt. Castle (Richard Dix's son Robert) is brought in. He investigates all the air fields and finds a possible lead. Meanwhile, the regular cops have a couple of suspects in the form of the head of the syndicate that bought the painting, Arthur Murcott (John Holland), and an art-loving actor who was supposed to buy the painting from the syndicate but is short of money, Millard Nolan (veteran character actor Douglass Dumbrille). Meanwhile, Sgt. Castle strikes up a relationship with Mona (Merry Anders), the secretary who was struck on the head by the thief.

The investigation eventually does find the thief, but not before somebody is pushed off a building, and not before the painting is ransomed off. There's a final chase catching the thief, and cut to credits. To be honest, there's not a whole lot going on here, and the story would have done just fine if it were an episode of one of the detective series that were around in the early 1960s. As a movie the story is nothing special -- not particularly bad, but not memorably good, either. Just a competent ultra-low-budget movie.

Maury Dexter's involvement is one thing making the movie at least worth a watch. The other thing is the location shooting. When Mona goes to pick up the painting and deliver the ransom, it's done at the Hollywood Bowl early in the morning, when the structure is empty other than her and the thief. And then the car chase takes place along one of the empty riverbeds, concreted over, although this time it has a bit of water in it, ultimately ending at the Sepulveda Dam. The period shots of Los Angeles are also worth a watch.

To be honest though, I wouldn't drop the DVD price on this one. Wait for it to show up on FXM Retro instead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Francis X. Bushman, 1883-1966

Today marks the birth anniversary of silent actor Francis X. Bushman, who is probably best known for playing Messala in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, opposite Ramon Novarro. I don't have any good pictures of Bushman available at hand, only having used a picture of Novarro during the chariot race when I wanted to illustrate that movie. To be fair, Novarro is the title character. The movie itself is not in the public domain, having been released in 1925. But there is a trailer on Youtube that does appear to be original:

I would have loved to use Bushman in The Flag, which was produced by the Technicolor company to promote its color films, but that one doesn't seem to be on Youtube either.

Bushman continued acting, making film and eventually TV appearances, but in greately reduced number after the advent of sound.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Oh, God!

Over the weekend, I watched Oh, God! off my DVR, having recorded it several months ago. It's on DVD, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

John Denver plays Jerry, the assistant manager at a grocery store, with a loving wife Bobbie (Teri Garr) and two children, living the suburban life and presumably hoping to make it to full manager one day. One night he and his wife are going through the mail when Jerry finds a note addressed to him saying more or less that God would like to talk with him, and that Jerry should meet God tomorrow in a suite on the 27th story of some office building. Jerry, of course, dismisses it, thinking it's a practical joke being played by one of his friends who is known for playing elaborate practical jokes. But the note winds up coming back from out of the wastebasket, and unripped, too, so Jerry finally finds his curiosity piqued.

Jerry goes to the appointed location and finds... an all-white room with a chair and an intercom, looking a lot like the stereotype of what people think Heaven looks like. And then, a voice comes over the intercom, sounding a lot less stentorian than Bible epic-era Charlton Heston, and more like an old man. God is telling Jerry that He wants people to know He exists, and that Jerry should spread the message. God also wants people to make the world a better place, but the people are the ones with the ability to do it, not God; if people want a better place, they're going to have to put in the work themselves.

Jerry is obviously skeptical, but God has the power to make a lot of things happen to get Jerry to believe, first at the office tower which never had a 27th floor in the first place, to making it rain inside Jerry's car, to finally appearing in person, looking a lot like George Burns. God, however, points out to Jerry that He is appearing in this form because it's one Jerry can comprehend; to other people He would look and sound different. Jerry ultimately does decide to try to spread this God's message, first in the newspaper, and then things snowball from there. Jerry winds up on the Dinah Shore Show, and a group of renowned theologians ultimately summons Jerry to test his claims of having talked to God.

All along the way, this turns Jerry's life upside down. Bobbie doesn't believe Jerry at first, but she does love him, and realizes that he wouldn't lie to her. He could be mistaken, but not a liar. The kids, however, have more of a problem, since young children can taunt each other something fierce and they have to put up with it at school. The grocery store chain isn't so certain they want an employee spreading God's message like this; much better would be the traditional way. And then there are the people who believe Jerry can bless them through God.

Oh, God! is a movie that clearly has its heart in the right place. It's a comedy, but a fairly gentle one, with one exception (they really overdid the stereotype of the televangelist, well-played by Paul Sorvino in spite of the heavy-handed material). John Denver wasn't a professional actor, but gives a good account of himself as the man who understandably doesn't know how to respond to the idea of somebody claiming to be God and wanting him to spread God's message. Teri Garr is quite good as the suffering but loving wife. And of course, George Burns does a fine job with the deadpan humor, playing a sympathetic God who may in theory be omnipotent, but has no desire to intervene in human free will.

Oh, God! is also thought-provoking at times, asking viewers the question of what we would do if something like this were to happen to us. It's a tough question, since I think most of us would naturally be skeptical, and of course if somebody we knew claimed to have talked to God in the way Jerry did, we'd all say, yeah right. You can't blame Bobbie and the children for acting the way they did, or even some of the theologians.

One other thing worth mentioning is the production design. The movie was released in 1977, and so much of this movie screams 1977 in a good way. I tend to like the production design of contemporary movies a lot more than I do movies trying to look back at a period within a lot of people's living memory, and Oh, God! will bring back a lot of memories for anybody who remembers the late 1970s. Denver drives an AMC Pacer, a really trippy little car. And then there's the goldenrod kitchen appliances; when I was growing up we had a refrigerator that color. The supermarket where Jerry works also looks ancient compared to today's standards. And of course the place only had manual cash registers, no bar code scanners.

If you haven't seen Oh, God! before, I well recommend it, and think it's even suitable for older children.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

I see that this week's Silent Sunday Nights programming has a block of movies, rather than just one silent. There are two two-reelers and the 1920 feature Last of the Mohicans. As always when there's a block of shorts put together, there are problems with the TCM schedule. The weekly schedule has the feature in the middle, while the monthly schedule has it at the end, and the shorts airing in the opposite order. My satellite box guide matches he running order of the monthly schedule, except that the starting times are different. The monthly schedule has all three things running in a two-hour block, while the box guide has The Last of the Mohicans going from 12:45 AM to 2:15 AM.

Thankfully, 1920 means that the film is in the public domain, which means that there are versions of it on Youtube. Note that TCM is listing a running time of 76 minutes, while the Youtube prints are 71 minutes. I'd guess that has something to do with the frame rate. But for those who are interested, here it is:

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Celluloid Club

When I posted to the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon the other day, links eventually led me to a blog called The Celluloid Club. They've got some interesting takes on the movies, and it seems they've got at least two or three posts a week.

As I've mentioned before, I'm willing to add a movie blog to my blog roll under two conditions, which are that it's active, and that it's interesting. Well, there is the third condition that it actually be about the movies. And just don't solicit me, because I don't like being solicited, and am likely not to respond to unrequested solicitations just because.

The upshot is that The Celluloid Club is now on my blogroll. Now that I've got close to 30 blogs on it perhaps I should change the settings for how many of them actually show up in the blogroll by default.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Briefs for January 6-7, 2017

I ought to take part in the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon more often. I think that post got me more comments than anything else I've written! I also didn't realize that The Paradine Case only seems to be available on DVD via an Asian import, which is a bit of a shame.

It's been five years since I mentioned Cover-Up, which will be on TCM again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. A movie with a really interesting premise, although one that might have been better if there were no Production Code.

For those of you who have FXM, Rawhide is going to be back on the channel tomorrow at 8:35 AM. Tyrone Power does OK, and it's nice to see this one on FXM. As I wrote back in 2013 when TCM got the rights to a couple of showings of it, I was surprised that it wasn't on FXM. (And speaking of Tyrone Power movies, FXM needs to resurrect Alexander's Ragtime Band.)

Rawhide will be followed at 10:20 AM by Young Jesse James, although that one has been back on the FXM schedule off and on since last spring. I've said it before, but I'm always interested in the ~75-minute movies Fox distributed in the early 1960s while the rest of the studio was trying to finance the years-long production of the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #130: Legal Thrillers

This is my first time doing the Thursday Movie Pics run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week's theme is legal thrillers, and I've decide to select three old ones:

They Won't Forget (1937). Claude Rains stars as Andy Griffin, an ambitious prosecutor in a southern town. There's a murder of a teenage girl, and eventually suspicion falls on poor innocent northerner, Robert Hale (played by Edward Norris). Much of the case is about the trial and the aftermath. Claude Rains is technically miscast as a southern DA, but it's Claude Rains. He was even more woefully cast in his career (They Made Me a Criminal springs to mind), but you overlook it because of course it's Claude Rains, and he's just so darn good. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it's based on the real-life case of Leo Frank.

Twilight of Honor (1963). Claude Rains shows up again, this time at the end of his career. There's been a high-profile murder in a New Mexico town, and an ambitious prosecutor wants to use the case to advance his career. To do so, the authorities impress young David Mitchell (Richard Chamberlain) into being the defense attorney, something he feels woefully unsuited to do. But with the help of his girlfriend's (Joan Blackman) father, a retired lawyer played by Claude Rains, Mitchell tries a daring defense similar to the one in Anatomy of a Murder. Apparently this one has been released to DVD via the Warner Archive collection; I thought it hadn't which is why I never blogged about it after I finally got around to watching it.

The Paradine Case (1947). This time, it's Gregory Peck playing the defense attorney, a London barrister named Anthony Keane. He gets tasked with the defense of Madame Paradine (Alida Valli, credited only under her surname), accused of murdering her husband with the help of her valet lover (Louis Jourdan). Keane falls for Mme. Paradine, which is a problem, since he's already married (to Ann Todd). Charles Laughton plays the judge, and Charles Coburn plays Paradine's solicitor (remember, in English law, solicitors can't try cases in court, which is why he has to bring in Keane). Everybody is good, even if the Americans are decidedly not British.

TCM Star of the Month January 2017: Jane Wyman

As we're once again in the first full day of a new month, we get a new Star of the Month on TCM: Jane Wyman. She's probably best known for winning the Best Actress Oscar for Johnny Belinda (which I think is on next week), followed by being the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan and then her role on the TV series Falcon Crest in the 1980s. Or maybe that's just me; having been born in 1972 my first real memories of politics would be from around the election of 1980 and of course all my pop culture memories would be late-70s onward.

Of course, Wyman made a ridiculous number of B movies back in the 1930s. IMDb lists about 20 uncredited bit parts before her first credited performance, although to be fair back in those days the bit parts didn't show up in the credits the way they do today -- no "Third Tall Man" or somesuch. Even then, after she started getting credits, she got about 20 of them in the late 1930s, and was making movies almost constantly until she started presenting her own TV anthology show.

It's those late 1930s movies that TCM will be focusing on tonight. It's easy to forget that Wyman played Torchy Blane in one installment of the series, Torchy Played With Dynamite, which will be on at 9:15 PM. Then again, Glenda Farrell was so entertaining in the role and did it so often that it's natural she be remembered for it if anybody is. The interesting thing is that Wyman had one of her earliest credits in a small role as a hat check girl in another Torchy movie, Smart Blonde. That one doesn't seem to be on tonight's lineup.

Apologies for the lack of photos, but I was looking through the blog archive, and apparently I've never used a photo of Wyman to illustrate a post!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Skin Game (1971)

Over the holiday weekend, one of the films I watched was the 1971 comic western Skin Game. (Note: do not confuse this with The Skin Game, an early 1930s movie from Alfred Hitchcock.) The movie is on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive and can be bought at the TCM Shop. It's certainly worth a watch.

The opening states, "Missouri, 1857", which should tell you something, certainly if you're an American. Quincy (James Garner) is riding a horse, with Jason (Louis Gossett, Jr.) tied up and walking behind Quincy. You can guess that Jason is Quincy's slave. Except that, as it turns out, he really isn't. Jason was born a free man in New Jersey, but he and Quincy are both con artists. They've developed an interesting con: Quincy sells his "slave" Jason and pockets the cash, only for Jason to escape soon afterward and go off with Quincy to the next town, where they'll do the same con again.

Of course, they're running out of towns in Missouri, having already worked their way through Tennessee and Kentucky, and Jason, being the one who winds up in bondage, would really rather quite while they're ahead. But Quincy persuades him to go on to Kansas, site of heated debate over whether slavery should be extended to the territory. Along the way they meet Plunkett (Ed Asner), who makes his money capturing runaway slaves and returning them south. He points out to Quincy that he never forgets a face, which means there's some obvious foreshadowing going on and that the two will meet again.

Anyhow, in Kansas, Quincy is just about to sell Jason again at an auction, except Jason falls in love with one of the other slaves and wants Quincy to buy her and give her her freedom. Well, Jason will do it out of his cut of the take. The only thing is, there's no take any longer, because in town, Quincy and Jason met the lovely Ginger (Susan Clark), who is a con artist, too. She steals Quincy's watch and then the bankroll! And Quincy isn't able to get a new bankroll because the slave auction is broken up by John Brown.

Of course, the con is bound to go wrong sometime, and that happens when, going through Missouri on their way back to Chicago, Quincy and Jason run into a former mark, who more worryingly happens to be in the same town as Plunkett. Plunkett buys Jason off of the man, and takes him south, leaving Quincy to try to find him.

Lucky for Quincy, he's able to find Ginger again, and with her being a natural con artist, she's sure to come up with a good idea for finding Jason and getting his freedom. But can Quincy and Jason really trust her?

There's a lot to like about Skin Game. It's the sort of easy-going comedy that James Garner was a natural at, and the material gives him a chance to shine once again. Lou Gossett shows that he could be adept at comedy, given the right material. Susan Clark also does just fine, although she had a bigger chance to cut her comic chops 15 years later on the TV series Webster. Gossett gets to deliver some trenchant comments about race; after all although Jason and Quincy are more or less equal as conmen, the whole master/slave dynamic is bound to cause some problems in their relationship. It's not Quincy getting examined like a piece of meat, or getting whipped.

There are quite a few good supporting performances, too. In addition to Asner, there's Royal Dano in his one scene as John Brown, and Juanita Moore as a life-long slave who has to help teach poor Jason how to survive slavery. One thing that I found fell flat for me was the introduction of some fresh-off-the-boat slaves who didn't speak English. They almost seemed to be there for comic relief since the Jason being captured plot line does get rather serious. But they really came across as too zany and almost irritating. But it's a minor flaw in an otherwise well-made light comedy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Last Mile

Now that we're in the first full week of a new month, we get a new Star of the Month (more on that in a few days) and a new Spotlight on TCM. This month's Spotlight is called "Stars Behind Bars", which as you can guess deals with prison movies, a subject which I think has been a reasonably oft-repeated theme on TCM. But the genre is an interesting one. This month's movies will be presented by Frank Darabont, a writer/producer responsible for such movies as The Shawshank Redemption.

The movie I'd like to talk about this week is The Last Mile, which will be on overnight at 3:15 AM. Howard Phillips plays Dick Walters, who is convicted of murder after getting in an argument with the co-manager of the service station he runs is followed by a holdup in which said co-manager is shot in a struggle over a gun. Dick is innocent, of course, because we need this to drive half the drama. But as I said he was convicted, and even sentenced to death, so he winds up on death row, as #5.

The prisoner who more or less lords it over the others is Killer Mears (Preston Foster), the man in #4. At this point, we get a lot of the tropes of prison movies: the sadistic guard, the black prisoner who sings (in this one, he also expects Heaven to be segregated), the warden who actually has a conscience, the frightened prisoner, and so on. Ultimately, Mears decides the situation is dire enough that he tries a jailbreak. It's certain not to work, but there's also the problem of whether it could permanently destroy any chance #5 has to clear his name. Watch for Paul Fix as one of the prisoners, a quarter century before he'd play Micah Torrence on The Rifleman.

I have to admit that even though I only watched this one a few months back, a lot of the details are a bit hazy to me. I think that ultimately speaks to the fact that though there's a lot of potential for interesting material here, I found it got bogged down in the genre. The other thing that really didn't help is the fact that the movie fell into the public domain, which means that there are a lot of crappy prints available, and TCM ran one of those prints. I had never heard of Astor Pictures, and it turns out that they distributed a re-release in the late 1940s, a good 15 years after the original release, from another obscure company called KBS Productions.

The Last Mile seems to be available at Amazon on DVD and streaming video, although I have no idea of the quality of the DVD. It doesn't seem to be available at the TCM Shop.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Anyone up for another producer interview

I didn't notice it in my RSS feeds until this morning, but Radio Poland's English service apparently interviewed producer Aneta Hickenbothom for one of their non-news programs. At least, I didn't hear it in any of the half-hour news programs; it actually showed up in a business program instead. Technically, it is in large part about the business side of being a producer.

Apparently she produced a recent Polish movie that's been a great success, but she's also worked on several high-profile American productions like Munich and Troy; it's the work on that Polish movie that merited the interview.

It's actually a reasonably interesting interview about the basic background of becoming a producer and basically having to oversee the whole circus that goes around making a movie. If you think François Truffaut's character in Day For Night had it tough, imagine what his boss had to go through.

As always, Polish Radio's site only has a brief synopsis of their individual reports as opposed to full transcripts like Radio Prague. The interview is a little over 8MB and a little under 9 minutes; you can download it directly here.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Le grand amour

I mentioned last night that I hadn't realized Pierre Étaix's movies were availableon DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection. That's probably also how one wound up on TCM as part of the salute to slapstick. I had recorded that movie, Le grand amour, and finally got around to watching it this weekend. It's worth a watch.

Étaix plays Pierre a man living in Tours now married to Florence (Étaix's then real-life wife Annie Frattelini). Florence's father owns a tannery and Florence seems to be an only child, so Pierre is groomed to take over the family business. It's there that he meets Agnès (Nicole Calfan). She's the new secretary, and she's a pretty young thing. Pretty enough that Pierre naturally falls in love with her, this being a French movie and the French having that stereotype about ménages a trois and all that. Pierre is worried about his feelings and how to handle them, while at the same time there are some gossipy old women talking about Pierre's actions, blowing them out of all proportion. Can Pierre, Florence, and Agnès all live happily ever after?

The plot of Le grand amour is something that I found to be not much to write home about. It's a fairly pedestrian plot of the sort that we've seen in comedies, dramas, and noirs. What makes Le grand amour stand out above its plot is Étaix's use of visuals to drive the comedy. While I preferred Yoyo, there's still a lot here to enjoy. One scene, for example, has Pierre looking back to the day he first met Florence. He can't recall whether he met her on the terrace of the café, or inside, and every time he changes his memory, the scene switches from being on the terrace to inside. Funny enough, but to top it off after several switches, the waiter turns to Pierre and says, "Will you make up your mind?" I also mentioned those gossipy old women, and the scene of how they blow things out of proportion is a fun one. There are also a lot of point-of-view shots. But the one I think most people will remember is a dream sequence that has Pierre in his bed, as though beds are taking the place of cars in road traffic. It's a pretty original sequence.

Le grand amour isn't a bad movie, and looking at the price of the Criterion box set, it's not as outrageous as you might expect from them, especially when you consider the generally lower interest in the US for foreign films.