Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #141: Underdogs

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is underdogs. I being a fan of old movies have once again picked three older movies:

National Velvet (1944). Elizabeth Taylor plays Velvet Brown (Velvet is a girl, not a horse), an English girl with a beautiful horse that she thinks is fast, and can jump. So she gets the idea of entering it into the Grand National, the big British steeplechase. Mickey Rooney plays Mi Taylor, a former jockey who helps train the horse as well as getting the horse into the race. It's an absurd dream, but this is a Hollywood movie, so of course little Velvet is able to ride the horse in the race. Actually, this is a pretty good family movie, and the Technicolor cinematography is gorgeous.

The 300 Spartans (1962). The legend of the 300 Spartans who held the pass at Thermopylae long enough to allow the Greeks behind it to build up adequate defenses against the Persians is one of the underdog stories of all time. In this "sword and sandal" version of the story, before special effects and impossibly buff men, Richard Egan plays King Leonidas, who leads the 300. There's some location shooting, which is a plus.

Marie: a True Story (1985). I thought I had done a full-length post on this one, but apparently not. Sissy Spacek stars as Marie Ragghinatti, a single mother who got a job in Tennessee's Parole Bureau, only to find that there was corruption going on as the governor was selling pardons to politically favored people. Marie tried to expose this, and of course the government (including her boss, played by Jeff Daniels who is pretty good here) goes after her. Fred Thompson plays Fred Thompson, the lawyer who took Marie's case in the wrongful-termination suit. (Yes, Thompson plays himself.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Week End in Hollywood

It's only Wednesday, but I see TCM is running a new-to-me short, Week End in Hollywood, today a little following 1:30 PM, or just after Gaslight. This one was apparently originally produced back in the late 1940s as a tourist promotion to get people to visit the place, what with tourism becoming rather more common as the economy improved after World War II.

I don't think I've seen this one before. I've seen a whole bunch of shorts, and I know in some movies such as Bette Davis' The Star, there are scenes doing the the tour of actors' homes. But this title sounds unfamiliar to me, but the actual name and the brief IMDb synopsis.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Every Day's a Holiday

If the introduction of the Production Code in 1934 affected anybody, Mae West would probably be near the top. A good example of this can be seen in Every Day's a Holiday. It's part of that nine-film box set I've mentioned a couple of times, so you should be able to pick up a copy fairly cheaply.

West plays Peaches O'Day, who is expected to show up in New York City on December 31, 1899 as the movie opens because she's got a repuation. Not that the police want her there, since she's somewhat of a con artist. Indeed, she sells the Brooklyn Bridge to Fritz (Herman Bing). Police Chief Quade (Lloyd Nolan) tells Capt. McCarey (Edmund Lowe) to arrest Peaches and makes certain McCarey has a warrant to do so.

Meanwhile, Peaches passes by Lamadou Graves (Charles Butterworth), who happens to be a butler but isn't letting that on. Graves invites Peaches to "his" house (really his boss' house of course), where a committe for clean government just happens to be meeting, led by Graves' boss Van Reighle Van Pelter Van Doon (Charles Winninger). Graves and Van Doon, like every other man in New York, is taken with Peaches' charm. Even McCarey is, as though even though he's supposedly an honest cop, he pays Fritz out of his own pocket so that there's no longer a charge against Peaches.

The political machine intends to run Quade for mayor, and the reform committee eventually gets the idea of running McCarey, but that comes later. McCarey finds Peaches and politely suggests she get out of town, which gives her, Graves, and her partner in crime Nifty an idea: pass her off as Mademoiselle Fifi, the great French actress and put her in a show. The show is a success, but of course McCarey recognizes Fifi (in a dark wig) as Peaches. Quade doesn't and starts a vendetta against Fifi when she doesn't want to meet him, which ultimately leads to McCarey's running for mayor.

I think the problem with Every Day's a Holiday is that it's all over the place. The plot swings wildly from the Peaches as con artist part to Fifi to the mayoral election, and I can't help but think a lot of that is due to having to obey the strictures of the Production Code. Crime isn't supposed to pay, and yet it does seem to pay for Peaches. I also found some of the humor a bit too over the top. But everybody gives it a good shot, which ultimately does make up for the movie's flaws. It's also very interesting to see a young Lloyd Nolan with hair. I saw his name in the opening credits, and didn't recognize him at first.

As I said in the opening, the Mae West box set I have this one on is cheap and has nine movies, some of which are better and are alone worth the price of admission. Every Day's a Holiday isn't bad, but it's not nearly as good as some of West's earlier stuff.

Monday, March 20, 2017

March Malice

I think I posted some years back that there aren't that many classic movies with basketball scenes, mostly because basketball was invented later than football and baseball so it would have taken time for the sport to be enough a part of the culture to show up in movies. But with the big basketball tournament, known as "March Madness" being on now, some programmer at TCM decided to riff off of that with "March Malice".

Starting tonight in prime time and going straight through for five and a half days until the end of TCM Underground, TCM is running 64 movies, grouped into 32 double bills, each given a different theme, and all more or less in the area of villains. There's nothing mentioned about a guest host, so I'd assume it's Ben Mankiewicz, or possibly whoever this month's regular guest host is.

Tonight, for example, starts off with "Psycho Killers", which come at us in the form of Psycho (8:00 PM) followed by Peeping Tom (10:00 PM). Of course, some of the pairings seem a bit similar, such as "Aliens Among Us" and "Space Monsters". But that's a quibble. I've always kind of liked the idea of double-bills in terms of TCM programming, since it's a lot easier to come up with just two films that fit a creative theme, and because there's a natural time slot for them on Sunday evenings just before Silent Sunday Nights.

There's nothing really new in terms of the movies running, but a lot that's worth watching especially if you haven't seen it before.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Both on, not together

Back in 2008, I made mention of ho Alfred Hitchcock made two short films with exiled French actors in London during World War II. Aventure Malgache was on at that time; the other one, Bon Voyage, wasn't, and I wouldn't get to mention it again until last October.

Now, they're both on the TCM schedule. Aventure Malgache is showing up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, while Bon Voyage will be on tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 PM. They did get released to DVD at one point, but that DVD is out of print. They deserve another release, either together on one standalone DVD or as an extra somewhere else. But I have no idea what the rights situation is with these.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Taiga Road Truckers

The low-budget B movie Alaska Passage is coming up on FXM Retro again tomorrow at 4:45 AM and again on Monday at 7:25 AM, so I made it a point to watch the copy on my DVR to be able to do a full-length post on it.

The movie starts off with an opening title card that mentions it's in "Regalscope", although of course FXM are running this one panned and scanned down to 4:3. After the credits, full of a bunch of names you've probably never heard of, we get a brief scene that would have fit in a Traveltalks short if it were in color and made over at MGM. US Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and, as the movie opens, it's recently become the 49th state. Alaska isn't contiguous with the rest of the US, which wasn't that big a deal until World War II, when the US was worried about the sealanes getting cut off, at which point a road connection was deemed vital. So the US and Canada got together and made what would become the Alaska Highway, stretching well over 1,000 miles from eastern British Columbia through Yukon and eventually to just southeast of Fairbanks Alaska. (I'm not giving the exact length because many curvy sections have been straightened out over the years, reducing the length of the highway.)

A documentary about the building of the highway would be interesting, but of course that's not what we get. Al (Bill Williams) runs the local business side of Northern Transport in Alaska, often driving the trucks as well. He's currently on a run with Pete (Nick Dennis), who for whatever reason has a Greek accent. On this trip, an airplane pilot helpfully informs them that the road ahead has been washed out by the spring thaws and snowmelt runoff. So, on the way back to their base in Tanana, they run across... a hitchhiker! Really. Her name is Tina (Nora Hayden), and somebody down in Washington state had offered her a job in Fairbanks, but he was enough of a jerk that she ran off. Tanana is short of women, especially ones as good-looking as Tina, so she'll have no problem getting a job.

Also back in Tanana, Mason (Leslie Bradley) is waiting for Al. He's the lower-48 half of Northern Transport, the one with the capital but not the know-how. He claims to be fair, although he seems way, way, too obsesed with the bottom line, not realizing that often local goodwill trumps what would be "good" business practices down in the 48. Part of the conflict involves Mason's disputes with Al (who has the know-how but not the capital) over how to run the business.

And then Mrs. Mason shows up. It turns out that she used to be Al's girlfriend, and she still has the hots for him, although the feeling may not be mutual. She's also trying to use her position to get a better financial state for the business, but for which partner? Tina, meanwhile, had been falling for Al, and she's not happy about anything that's going on with Mrs. Mason.

Alaska Passage is an ultra-low budget movie, but as far as such movies go, it's not that bad. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's nowhere near as good as the traditional studios' prestige movies, or even many of their programmers. But when you think extremely low budget and a cast of nobody's, you expect the worst. You don't get that. There's a fair deal of wooden acting, and a plot that meanders for 50 minutes before rushing to a climax in the last 20. But overall it does just about work. Just don't set your expectations very high.

Alaska Passage is, as far as I know, not avaiable on DVD, and wouldn't be worth it if Fox only releases the pan-and-scan version. So you'll have to catch the FXM showing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

TCM's Robert Osborne tribute

As you probably know, long-time TCM host Robert Osborne died last week aged 84. TCM is going to be doing its programming tribute to him this weekend, with a full 48 hours of Osborne related stuff, from 6:00 AM tomorrow to 6:00 AM Monday. For better or worse, there's a lot of stuff that's getting repeated.

If you want to see the Private Screenings interview where Osborne was the interviewee, and Alec Baldwin was asking the questions, you're in luck. It's kicking off the tribute tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, and will be on again at 8:00 PM Saturday, among other times. There's also the 20th anniversary salute to him, done I think at the TCM Film Festival in 2014 and hosted by Alex Trebek; that one will be on at 9:00 AM tomorrow and again at 4:15 PM.

Having said that, IMDb claims that there were 28 Private Screenings done, although they don't give an episode guide. Wikipedia claims 27, although they don't mention the one in which Osborne was the interviewee. Looking through the weekend schedule, however, there are only six (including the one with Osborne as the subject) getting shown:

Norman Jewison
Liza Minnelli
Debbie Reynolds
Betty Hutton
Ernest Borgnine

There are so many more TCM could have dug out, assuming movie rights aren't an issue (and I don't see why they should be when it comes to re-running these). I wouldn't mind seeing the one with Mickey Rooney, or the one with Charlton Heston, again. But nope, just the five stars and Osborne.

TCM is showing most if not all of the program-length interviews Osborne did at the TCM Film Festival throughout the weekend, however, which at least is a bit of solace.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #140: The Ancient World (3600 BC-500 AD)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of the Thursday Movie Picks Blogathon, run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is the ancient world. I being a fan of older movies have selected three older movies:

The Sign of the Cross (1932). Cecil B. DeMille's spectacle showing Christian virtue (in the form of Elissa Landi) triumphing over Roman vice (in the form of legionnaire Fredric March). When Richard Barrios appeared on TCM to discuss gay images in cinema a decade or so ago, he mentioned this movie and how DeMille thought the best way to show Christian virtue triumphing over Roman vice was to show lots and lots of Roman vice. (DeMille was not stupid; he knew the audiences would eat it up.) Nero (Charles Laughton) fiddling while Rome burns is mild; we also get Nero's wife (Claudette Colbert) bathing naked in a bath of goats' milk; a torture scene; and a lesbian dance as Joyzelle tries to woo Landi over to the Roman side. And that's all before the gladiatorial combat at the end.

The Egyptian (1954). Based on a popular novel by Finnish author Mika Waltari, this one stars Edmund Pudrom as Sinuhe, a doctor who rises to power in ancient Egypt when he unwittingly saves the life of Pharaoh Akhenaton (Michael Wilding). But what it really does is get him trapped in all the palace intrigue, as there are forces who want to assassinate Akhenaton because he's a monotheist, and having Sinuhe poison him would be just the thing. Sinuhe also gets in a love triangle with a tavern owner (Jean Simmons in a decidedly unglamorous role) and wealthy Bella Darvi. Gene Tierney shows up as Akhenaton's sister. It's in nice Fox Cinemascope and Technicolor, too.

Esther and the King (1960). In this loose telling of the Old Testament book of Esther, and the Jewish Purim story, Joan Collins(!) stars as Esther, the Jewish girl who attracts the attention of Persian King Ahaseurus (Richard Egan), who is looking for a new wife. Esther's Uncle Mordechai (Dennis O'Dea) is one of the King's councillors, but has enemies in the palace. And of course the Jews in general have lots of enemies, and seem to have had them for close to six thousand years now. When it comes to light that there may be a slaughter of Jews afoot, Mordechai wants Esther to user her influence to get the king to stop it. It's not as big as the other biblical epics of the era, but it's entertaining enough, and always fun to see a young Joan Collins for those of us who remember her from her days on Dynasty.

Treasures from the Disney Vault, March 2017

Tonight sees another night of the infrequent (well, it seems to be once every three months) series Treasures from the Disney Vault on TCM. This month, most of the movies seem to be about animals, with the exception of Follow Me, Boys! at 8:15 PM. That's one of those movies Fred MacMurray did for Disney after he decided from doing the TV series My Three Sons that he wanted easy, family-friendly stuff to do when the TV show was on hiatus.

Elsewhere in the evening, we get a block of Chip and Dale shorts at 11:30 PM, followed at midnight by The Incredible Journey, in which three pets accidentally get abandoned on vacation in the wilder parts of Canada and have to make their way home. I recall reading the book when I was in elementary school, but can't recall if I saw the movie. The movie probably made it to Disney's TV show at some point, but that's already decades ago too.

For the traditional Disney characters, you've got Donald Duck in Good Scouts at 8:00 PM.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Plane Crazy (1933)

Dorothy Lee in Plane Crazy (1933)

Since I had the Picture Snatcher DVD at hand from last week, I noticed that it had not just a cartoon short, but a Vitaphone Variety two-reeler: Plane Crazy.

Brothers Arthur and Morton Havel, coming over from vaudeville, play pilot brothers Jack and Bill, who aren't as successful as the other pilots. Pert little Dottie (Dorothy Lee from the Wheeler and Woolsey movies), however, likes the danger they present. Anyhow, Jack and Bill are looking for a way to become more famous, so they decide to do a round-the-world flight. Except there's a catch, which is that they're not really going to do it; they're just going to hide out for a few days and then come back, claiming to have done the flight.

Now, even in 1933 there were telegraphy and other technologies that would have made it easy for correspondents halfway around the world to report on the progress of such a flight, and it would have been ridiculously obvious that Jack and Bill were, in fact, not on their flight. But their plot gets foiled in a different way: Dottie claims she's stowing away on the flight, so she obviously has some sort of plan to spill the beans. It doesn't quite work out that way, but that's part of the meager story.

Plane Crazy was one of those shorts where the point wasn't about the story, but about having musical numbers, with a thin-as-gruel story framing the numbers. I didn't really care for the music here, although it was interesting to see that Warner Bros. cribbed the Busby Berkeley style for one of their two reelers. I'm guessing they had the sets from another of Berkeley's movies at Warner Bros. that year, and decided to put their short subject actors on the set to do a number and help amortize the costs.

Plane Crazy isn't particularly good, although it is a good exemplar of the two-reeler musical short from those days. Catch it if it ever shows up on TCM.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

TCM Guest Programmer March 2017: Michael Connelly

I have to admit to not being much of a reader of crime fiction -- well, actually, I don't read too much fiction of any kind these days. So I don't know anything about the works of crime writer Michael Connelly, who is to be the Guest Programmer on TCM tonight. Connelly writes about fictional LAPD detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, and has picked four movies from the 1970s that influenced him as a young man seeing those pictures back in the day:

Klute at 8:00 PM, in which call-girl Jane Fonda finds herself in danger as part of a high-profile murder;
The French Connection at 10:00 PM, with NYPD detectives Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider trying to break up a narcotics deal;
Night Moves at midnight, with Gene Hackman showing up again, this time following a young nymphet from Los Angeles to the Florida Keys as part of a case; and
Shaft at 2:15 AM, in which Richard Roundtree plays the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Paul Fix, 1901-1983

Paul Fix as Marshal Micah Torrance from TV's "The Rifleman

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Paul Fix. Fix might be best known for playing Micah Torrance, the marshal in North Fork, on the Chuck Connors TV show The Rifleman. It's on AMC and MeTV, on of the nostalgia digital sub-channels, so there are a lot of chances to catch the show.

But Fix had a proflific film career throughout the 1930s and 1940s, mostly if not entirely as a supporting character. A few months back when TCM had the spotlight on prison movies, I mentioned Fix in The Last Mile, an early talkie about death row. He's also apparently one of the expectant fathers in Life Begins, a Loretta Young drama about the patients in a maternity hospital.

There are more well-known pictures, too; Fix has small roles in Red River, Tycoon, Island in the Sky, Hondo and The High and the Mighty, all with John Wayne. And he was also the judge in To Kill a Mockingbird, yet another fact I didn't remember.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The War Wagon

A couple of months back I DVRed The War Wagon. Noticing that it's available on DVD at both Amazon and the TCM Shop, I decided to sit down and watch it so I could do a full-length post on it.

After a pretty dire opening theme song with credits superimposed over footage of what looks like an armor-plated covered wagon, we get to the movie itself. Taw Jackson (John Wayne) comes riding into the town of Emmett, NM, something which doesn't seem to make anybody happy. Taw reports to Deputy Hoag and his boss, Sheriff Strike: it turns out that Taw was in prison for three years and as part of his parole he has to meet with the police on riding into a town he intends to stay in, and then meeting them once a week. We learn that it's not just the authorities that don't like him; Pierce (Bruce Cabot), who seems to own the town, doesn't like him either.

Then we learn why Pierce wouldn't like him. Taw goes to meet Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn), who seems to be in Pierce's employ transporting goods by cart. Fletcher is also an old friend of Taw's, and Taw has a plan for him. Apparently, Pierce had Taw framed and stole Taw's ranch from him while Taw was in prison. Worse, while Taw was in prison Pierce discovered gold on the land, something which has made Pierce a wealthy man and has only stoked Taw's resentment. So Taw is going to rob a shipment of gold. And that armored covered wagon we saw during the opening credits? That's known as the "war wagon", used to ship the gold and protected by outriders with guns, a couple of gunmen inside, and a machine gun on top!

Taw, in addition to recruiting Fletcher, has three other people in mind for the job. First is Lomax (Kirk Douglas). Lomax shot Taw three years back before Taw went to prison, so there's not necessarily any friendship there, but certainly a lot of respect. Lomax, though, is still being recruited by Pierce to kill Taw, and for a substantial sum. Taw intends to use Lomax both as a hired gun and a logistics man.

Also in on the plot will be Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr., credited without the "Jr."), who is the explosives man. The only problem is, he's also a problem drinker, and Lomax has the very sensible idea that explosives and drunks don't mix. Billy is also looking for love, and immediately cottons to Fletcher's young wife (Valora Noland), thinking it's actually Fletcher's daughter. So more problems for the whole motley crew. Rounding out the crew is Levi Walking Bear, played by a hilariously miscast Howard Keel. His part in the plot is to be a liaison with the Kiowa tribe, who are being driven off their land by Pierce.

Close to the first two-thirds of the movie involves learning about the plot and assembling the various members of the gang who are going to pull it off, until we get to the typically more exciting action of the actual heist. This isn't to say that Taw's getting all of the gang together is bad. It's handled with low-key humor as well as a reasonable amount of action -- there are at least two gunfights, a saloon fight, and something vaguely resembling a hostage-taking situation. It's more that I think it's a general rule for movies like this that you have to have a slower buildup of getting all the people involved in the heist together. It's just not a naturally action-packed thing. Douglas and Wayne both do well with the humor, while Bruce Cabot makes a suitable villain. The rest of the gang don't intrude too badly. The actual heist comes off well, and makes the final third of the movie reasonably exciting.

The War Wagon is a reasonably good entry in both the western genre and the heist genre. There's nothing outstanding about it, but it more than succeeds in entertaining, and is more than worth a watch.

Back on FXM movies: March 12-13, 2017

Perhaps I should have blogged about this yesterday, along with the time change, but I notice a couple of movies that are returning to FXM after a long layoff.

First, this morning at 10:20 AM, there's an airing of We're Not Married!. This fun Fox anthology film tells of a justice of the peace whose license doesn't go into force until the new year, and who mistakenly married five couples between Christmas and New Year's, so they find out some time later they're technically not married. (Well, they'd be in common-law marriages, but ignore that for the purposes of the movie.)

Tomorrow at 1:25 PM is an airing of The Street With No Name, which is part of another cycle of movies Fox put out in the late 1940s and early 1950s: the docudrama. It thought I had done a full-length post on this one, but apparently not, only mentioning it in a Lloyd Nolan birthday salute. Here he plays more or less the same FBI character he did in The House on 92nd Street, training Mark Stevens to become an undercover agent. Stevens' job is to infiltrate a gang led by Richard Widmark; that gang is gettin inside information from the police and it's Stevens' job to figure out how before he's figured out himself. Another good Fox docudrama.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Smallest Show on Earth

I bought another batch of DVDs recently, among which was a five-DVD box set of early Peter Sellers comedies. Among the movies is The Smallest Show on Earth.

Sellers wasn't the star yet; that honor goes to Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. They play Matt and Jean Spenser, a young married couple trying to climb the ladder to get to the good life. One day, they get a letter from a solicitor informing them that Matt's greatuncle Simon died and left them his entire estate. Matt insists that he never even had a greatuncle Matt. A call to the solicitor in the industrial city of Sloughborough suggests that they ought to go there and deal with the matter in person.

On the phone they were informed that Simon owned a cinema, and when they get to Sloughborough they find that there's only one cinema in town, the Grand, one of those grand old picture palaces. Obviously, they're worth something now. And then they get to the solicitor's office, and find that greatuncle Simon owned a much smaller cinema that closed down when he died. The solicitor (Leslie Phillips) takes them to the cinema, at which point they begin to wish they hadn't had a greatuncle Simon. The cinema, the Bijou, is in a parlous state, next to an elevated rail line, and you wonder how it was ever able to turn a profit.

And then there are the cinema's three workers: box-office cashier Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford); dipsomanic projectionist Quill (Peter Sellers); and probably suffering from the early stages of dementia, janitor Old Tom (Bernard Miles). None of them would be fun to work with, but they were the only ones who could keep the place running. So the obvious solution is to sell the theater, since it's got to be on a valuable piece of central city land. And indeed the owner of the other theater, Mr. Hardcastle (Francis De Wolff), needing the land for a car-park, had offered the elder Spenser £5,000 for the theater, which was a pretty nice sum back in the late fifties. But with Simon dead, Hardcastle is only offering a tenth that.

So the solicitor comes up with a wacky idea: make Hardcastle think that the Spensers want to reopen the cinema, and he'll have to relent and sell for the original price. Note that they don't actually have to open the cinema, just make Hardcastle believe that's what their doing. Apparently the Spensers must not have had a job back where they had originally lived, since they're able to start putting in the elbow grease necessary to put on the illusion of reopening the Bijou. But things go wrong when Hardcastle learns of the dupe, which forces the Spensers actually to open the Bijou and make it a going concern.

The Smallest Show on Earth turns out to be a pretty good movie, but I have to admit I found it took a long time (and it's only an 80-minute movie) to get there. Other than the Spensers, the characters tend to have irritating personality traits that make you want to smack them rather than be sympathetic to them. But once the Bijou opens things pick up. There's a lot of opportunity for humor, and if you've sen Singin' in the Rain, specifically the premiere of the new talkie, you'll recognize a lot of the sight gags here. This was before Peter Sellers became famous enough to be the star of the movies he was in, so his personality doesn't overpower the movie. He's quite understated here and it works well. The three "old" Bijou employees also get one scene where, after the cinema is closed for the evening, they run it the way it was run back in the old days, showing a silent movie with Fazackalee playing the piano. It's actually a bit touching.

The TCM Shop is selling the Peter Sellers box set on sale from an original list price of $40; I got it off Amazon for an even lower price than the TCM sale price. The sale price isn't bad for a five-disc set, and The Smallest Show on Earth is certainly well worth the watch.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Wake Up the Gypsy in Me

A bomber makes his way past a security guard in Wake Up the Gypsy in Me (1933)

I couldn't think of anything to blog about today, so I pulled out my box set of the Warner Bros. Gangster Collection, Vol. 3 (the set with Picture Snatcher). I wasn't certain if the DVDs had any extras on them, but it turns out that the DVD of Picture Snatcher has a bunch of extras: trailers, a musical short, and the animated short Wake Up the Gypsy in Me.

The first thing I noticed is that it's a Merrie Melodies cartoon, which means Warner Bros., and that it was directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, and animated by Isidore "Friz" Freleng. I thought Harman and Ising were associated with MGM, but it turns out this cartoon is from 1933, at a time just before Harman and Ising left Warner Bros. for MGM.

There's not all that much in the cartoon in terms of plot. The first half is Cossacks in a village, after which we're introduced to Rice-Puddin', the Mad Monk. The monk tries to molest a little Gypsy girl. Meanwhile, outside, there's a revolution a-brewin'. Rice-Puddin' tries to get away, but as with his real-life namesake, he fails.

This short visually looks a lot like those early 1930s cartoons, from before Looney Tunes and others came along to make things more manic, something I mentioned a few weeks back with the late 1930s cartoon Dangerous Dan McFoo. And with Freleng doing the drawing, there's some very nice visual humor. The Cossacks' fur hats reminded me of a sight gag that was used 70 years later in a beer commercial with a black man's afro. And then there's the one pictured above, in which a (male) bomber is trying to get in Rasputin's palace, and has to get past the guards.

If you're interested in learning more about 1930s animation, Wake Up the Gypsy in Me isn't a bad place to start. The only bad news is that it looks as though Picture Snatcher and the whole Warner Bros. Gangster Collection may have fallen out of print on DVD. I couldn't find it at the TCM Shop, although it is available at Amazon. It really deserves a reissue.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #139: Remakes and Sequels

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of the Thursday Movie Picks Blogathon, run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's edition is Remakes and Sequels. I'm going to post about some movies with interesting characters and endings, where I've wondered what happened to the characters after the ending.

Night Nurse (1931). Barbara Stanwyck plays a nurse who treats a gangster (Ben Lyon) and then gets a private nursing job taking care of two kids in a rich lady's house. She discovers that the chauffeur (Clark Gable) is having the kids slowly starved to death so that he and his pals can inherit the trust fund; the mother is kept downstars drunk so she doesn't see what's going on. The movie winds up with Stanwyck and her boyfriend having saved the day in a rather shocking way. Also shocking is the Stanwyck mentions to Lyon that the maid is going on about giving the kids a milk bath, and in the next scene you see Lyon doing a smash-and-grab at a dairy!

Red-Headed Woman (1932). Jean Harlow plays a brazen hussy who decides she's going to marry her way into polite society. She marries Chester Morris, but the marriage doesn't go so well; all the time she's carrying on with the chauffeur (a very young Charles Boyer). The movie ends with her having divorced Morris, moving to France, and having a relationship with a rich Frenchman -- and Boyer still as her chauffeur. There's also a shocking scene when Morris slaps Harlow:

Casablanca (1943). Every time I think about Casablanca, I think about the Simpsons parody of the ending. Bart and Lisa are using a metal detector, and find an old movie reel labelled "Casablanca alternative ending, which they take to Grampa and his elderly friends:

As Bart points out, the ending leaves things open for a sequel.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Judith of Bethulia

I coldn't think of anything to blog about today since a couple of the movies I've watched recently aren't available on DVD and I haven't gotten through my stack of DVDs which would be the movies that pretty obviously are available on DVD. So I decided to see what of Lillian Gish's work was available on Youtube.

I picked her largely because I don't think I've picked her before, but also because I was under the impression that more of her stuff that's in the public domain (pre-1923) would be available because D.W. Griffith had donated copies of a lot of his work to MoMA for preservation. (I think it was the Fragments special that TCM ran that mentioned this.) Surprisingly, a couple of the titles I selected didn't yield any hits on Youtube.

One that did is 1914's Judith of Bethulia, which I haven't seen before. IMDb lists a running time of 61 minutes; there are versions of various length on Youtube. I'm not certain how much of that is down to different frame rates. Gish doesn't play the title role; that's Blanche Sweet.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

TCM Remembers Robert Osborne

I made a point of watching the intro to A Man Called Peter yesterday evening since I was interested to see if the print would be widescreen. (After the credits and opening titles that were designed for widescren, the first real scene did in fact remain widescreen. But I didn't watch the whole movie.) I found the use of the traditional prime time feature opening a bit jarring, since the title at the end announces a Feature Presentation with Robert Osborne. Frankly, I can't recall reading whether there was supposed to be a guest host this month. But Ben Mankiewicz came on against an all-black background, and it was clear that TCM had already done something to honor the late Osborne.

The short piece above is what followed Ben's generic comments, which didn't name any movie so that they could be used before every movie last night -- there was also no outro after My Cousin Rachel. Ben also said something about TCM honoring Robert more fully in the coming days, although there doesn't seem to be anything on the TCM site about it yet.

And no, I don't recognize the voices from the piece, although I can guess a lot of them are from people who honored Robert at the TCM Film Festival thing Alex Trebek hosted that was almost a This Is Your Life episode.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Robert Osborne, 1932-2017

Robert Osborne (l.) and Alec Baldwin, probably arguing about the Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty or something

The death has been announced of longtime TCM host Robert Osborne. He was 84. Osborne came on TCM from the channel's first day, bein an almost uninterrupted weeknight host until his first break in 2011, and then more frequent breaks thereafter. He was last seen on TCM in February 2016, I believe.

Of course, Robert Osborne was a lot more than just the TCM host. He actually started work as an actor, appearing in commercials, and, among other things, the pilot episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. He was also a long-time columnist for The Hollywood Reporter and a film historian, writing books about the Oscars.

Obviously, this means that Ben Mankiewicz is going to be named the official host of TCM at some point assuming TCM weren't planning on getting rid of him. He's only about 50, so he would have the energy to do intros for seven nights of movies a week. When Osborne was doing it, he was going from New York to Atlanta for about one week a month to tape all the intros and outros. And I'll assume that TCM's Spotlights will mean that Ben won't be the host seven nights a week most months. I don't know if Tiffany Vazquez' profile on air will increase, although if they're satisfied with what she's doing on Saturday afternoons, having her host Sunday afternoons and leaving Ben free for just prime time would be a reasonable first expansion.

TCM already has a subdomain at the TCM site to remember Osborne; I don't know if there's been anything on the channel yet.

TCM Star of the Month March 2017: Richard Burton

Now that we're back into the first full week of a new month, it's time for another Star of the Month on TCM. This month it's Welsh-born actor and two-time husband of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton. Normally, TCM has its Star of the Month on one night a week every week for a month. This time around, however, they're doing something different in that Richard Burton's movies will be on every night in prime time this week. If you've seen any TCM in the past few weeks, you'll have seen the promos for March Malice, this month's TCM Spotlight which will be on every night from March 20-25.

I think the only picture of Burton I've posted here on the blog is one with Jean Simmons that's a publicity still from The Robe, which will be on at 3:15 AM overnight tonight or early tomorrow morning depending on your point of view. Burton's Hollywood career started off at Fox, so we get what I think are a couple of TCM premieres this evening. Those would be Prince of Players at 9:45 PM, and Sea Wife at 1:30 AM. I know Sea Wife has aired on FXM Retro in a widescreen print, but I don't think Prince of Players did. So I'm not certain what print will be getting for Prince of Players.

My Cousin Rachel, kicking things off at 8:00 PM, definitely isn't a TCM premiere, since it showed up on TCM last July, I think, when Olivia de Havilland was Star of the Month on her centenary. I wasn't a particular fan of the movie on having watched it; I found it a tedious period melodrama with all of the characters having questionable motivations. But watch and judge for yourself.

As for Elizabeth Taylor, it looks as though the movies she and Richard Burton made together will be coming up on Wednesday and Thursday night.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Babettes gæstebud

Now that 31 Days of Oscar is over, we go back to regular features like Silent Sunday Nights and TCM Imports. This week's import comes to us from Denmark: Babette's Feast.

Babette (Stéphane Audran) doesn't show up for a while. Instead, the first part of the movie deals with where she'll be showing up, and the people she'll be meeting. In Demark in the mid-19th century, a very austere Danish pastor in a village somewhere on the northern Jutland peninsula founded what was basically a sect. He ran it with he two daughters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer). Their father has died, but they have carried on his charitable works in the village, leading a small group of believers scratching out an existence.

Martine and Filippa, for their part, never married. Filippa, when she was young, was pursued by Swedish military officer Löwenhielm who eventually broke off the relationship because he knew that his high-living ways would never make her happy. Martine had a beautiful singing voice, and even met a French opera singer Papin who trained her and groomed her for a professional career. But she felt this wasn't right for her and would violate her father's teachings, so she turned down his offer of marriage and broke off the relationship. They're spinsters now, but still doing Christ's work in their tiny corner of the world.

Several years pass, and it's now 1870. For Americans who don't know their European history, that was the year of the Franco-Prussian War, which deposed Napoleon III and instituted the French Third Republic. There were also losers of the war within French society, which is where Babette comes in. She was a cook at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, and apparently it was one on the wrong side of the political divide, because after the war, she's forced to flee France. She knew Papin in France because life-loving opera singers would go to a restaurant like this, and it is he who suggests that she flee to Filippa and Martine and seek refuge there.

They don't have much, but Christian duty requires that they take her in. Babette, for her part, works for next to nothing as a cook and housekeeper, and she's good at it. There's an immediate change in the sisters' financial status, and it seems as if Babette's presence breathes new life into the religious community and even makes the soup they distribute taste better. Babette and the sisters go on like this for years.

And then two things happen. One is that the centenary of the birth of Filippa's and Martine's father is coming up. The other is that one of Babette's ties to France comes up. Babette still had a subscription to a French lottery, and she's been informed that she's won 10,000 francs. Babette announces that she wants to do a special Parisian restaurant-style dinner for the members of the sect to honor the 100th birthday of its founder. The sisters fear this means Babette is planning to leave, while the other members also worry that this dinner is going to be much too decadent.

The final third of the movie deals with the dinner, giving us some sumptuous shots of food, some of which frankly is decadent. (Quails in sarcophagus?) But as Babette has been doing for years by her presence, this dinner has an unexpected effect on the parishioners, who wind up with a renewed zest for life. Even Löwenhielm, now a general, shows up for the dinner.

In many ways, there's not a lot going on with this movie, and yet it does so well. The cinematography is gorgeous, both of the landscape in the first two thirds and then the dinner in the final third. The story is also life-affirming and, I think, one that crosses religious lines. Even though it deals ostensibly with a strict strain of Lutheranism, the attitudes and ideas are universal in nature, about the choices we make early on and how we can be happy in life.

Babette's Feast is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, although it's released by the Criterion Collection, so it's a bit pricey.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Salzburg Connection

A couple of months ago, I DVRed The Salzburg Connection. I made a point of watching it today since I knew it was going to be on TCM tomorrow, at 3:00 AM and 11:45 AM.

The airing I recorded had about a minute chopped off at the beginning as a result of starting before the box guide said it would; there was none of the usual FXM stuff or the Fox fanfare. The movie also ran about 91 minutes instead of the 93 IMDb claims. But I didn't miss much, and the story begins with an establishing bit before the opening credits. Mr. Bryant is doing some scuba diving in a lake someplace in Austria's Salzburg state (Salzburg is both a city, and one of Austria's federal states). He's found something on the bottom of this lake, and it's obviously come to other people's attention, as he's accosted on shore and killed.

Cut to the city of Salzburg. Bill Mathison (Barry Newman) is a lawyer for an American publishing house; he's on vacation in Europe but doing some business that should have been done by one of his colleagues. Apparently another lawyer sent a check to Mr. Bryant as an advance on a book about the lakes of the Salzburg region, and nothing has ever been delivered. Bill shows up at the photography store run by Bryant and his wife Anna (Anna Karina); she knows little about the book but you get the feeling she's not being fully honest. Indeed, her brother Johann (Klaus Maria Brandauer) takes a phone call from somebody talking about the box that Mr. Bryant found in that lake.

It seems, in fact, that a whole bunch of people are interested in that box. As Bill leaves the photography studio, he's followed by two men; a fourth man is watching all that go on. And then as part of his escape from the first two men, Bill runs into an American college student Elissa (Karen Jensen), whom we ultimately learn is involved in all of this as she makes a phone call and asks for Bill's hotel phone to be bugged! Eventually, when Bill talks to his boss back in New York, he's told that a "Chuck" (Joe Maross) is going to see him tomorrow morning. Chuck works for the CIA, and everybody else following him has been from one intelligence service or another.

The box is a bit of a macguffin; we're eventually told that it contains secret files of Nazis who escaped detection from the victorious Allies. (It must have been a very watertight box to survive a quarter century on the bottom of a lake.) In addition to the CIA, you've got Austrian intelligence in the form of Felix Zauner (Wolfgang Preiss); the Nazis; Bryant who was trying to get back in good with British intelligence; the Israelis; and even the Soviets and Chinese are referenced. Bodies, however, keep piling up in various ways.

Large parts of The Salzburg Connection are faintly ridiculous, as the whole story gets extremely muddled and tough to follow. There are some nice set pieces, such as Bill saving Anna from captors by getting the captors' car stuck in a traffic jam until the police show up; at that point Bill opens their car door revealing men with a gun on her. And there ought to be good scenery. A lot of the filming was done in Austria, and a good print would show this very well. But the print FXM Retro ran looks muddy. Either it's strongly in need of restoration, or they panned-and-scanned it down from 1.81:1 to 4:3 and then showed that print in 16:9. (The credits, however, rolled properly, and there didn't seem to be any noticeable break the way there is in most of FXM's panned-and-scanned movies. I don't know where the FXM logo is supposed to be when things are properly run, so I couldn't use that as comparison.)

Overall, The Salzburg Connection is a minor entry into the international intrigue genre of the 60s and 70s. It's worth one watch when FXM runs it, but I don't know that I'd ever pay for it on DVD.

TCM's new programming block, Noir Alley

Well, I suppose it's not really new, as many years ago TCM had a noir film running either Saturday or Sunday mornings, I can't remember which that's how long ago it was. I want to say it was called "Darkness After Dawn". Anyhow, the new series, called Noir Alley, will be hosted by Eddie Mueller, who rather arrogantly calls himself the "King of Noir". Movies will start at 10:00 AM on Sundays. This first Sunday sees the Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon. While it's a great movie, it's one that I don't think of as a noir. Then again, the question of what actually is a noir and what isn't is one that's been going on for a long time.

In the meantime, it also looks as though The Essentials is finally no longer with us. There's nothing on the TCM website about it and the movies on Saturdays don't all seem like they'd be candidates for The Essentials either. I also assume Robert Osborne is retired, but the TCM just isn't making it official for whatever reason. He's going to be 85 this spring and hasn't been on the channel in a year, for heaven's sake.

Friday, March 3, 2017

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming

Today is the final day of TCM's 31 Days of Oscar, a fact that I know will make some people happy. First off, a quick reminder that the Bowery Boys movies in the Saturday just before noon time slot on TCM have finished, which means that we're getting a new series, the Maisie movies. Before that, however, are a couple of movies that don't show up so often, all of which deserve a mention:

First, at midnight tonight, is The Young Girls of Rochefort. Jacques Demy made this one after making The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, thinking that another movie where all the dialog is sung would be a brilliant idea. At least the movie is gorgeous to look at. And it has sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, the latter of whom was to die tragically a few months later in a car crash.

Then at 2:15 AM, you can catch The Young in Heart. Janet Gaynor stars in her final movie as the adult daughter in a family of con artists who get helped by a kindly old lady who writes them into her will, at which point they realize they'll have to be honest if they want to get that money. Much fun ensues.

Finally, at 4:00 AM, TCM is running Z. Yves Montand plays an opposition leader in an authoritarian country who is run down "accidentally". Prosecutor Jean-Louis Trintignant is given the task of doing the investigation into the incident that's supposed to prove it was an accident, although of course as he investigates he begins to learn that it likely wasn't an accident. Sure, the filmmakers are on one side of the story -- and since it was an allegory to what had gone on leading up to the Greek military coup of 1967 it was taking sides in a real conflict -- but they still make a damn good movie. Propagandists of today should take note.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #138: On the Run

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of the Thursday Movie Picks Blogathon, run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "On the Run", and being a fan of old movies, I'm picking another set of older movies to blog about:

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Based on a true story, Paul Muni stars as a World War I veteran who, in the tough economic days after the war, gets arrested for stealing a small sum of money. Muni gets put on the chain gang which is of course brutal, and then escapes and heads north, where he makes a success of himself. Except that a vengeful wife (Glenda Farrell) turns him back in, and the other (unmentioned) state puts him back on the chain gang. The real criminal who wrote the book on which the movie was based had to sneak into Hollywood to help as a consultant.

It Happened One Night (1934). Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled heiress who wants to marry a man her father (Walter Connolly) doesn't approve of. So she jumps off their yacht off Miami and heads for New York to meet her fiancé. Clark Gable plays a reporter who wants to get this story, because it's the story of the year, and helps Colbert in her escape insofar as it will help the story he's writing. Of course, her naïveté and being spoiled make the who plan very difficult; making matters more complicated is that he falls in love with her along the way. One of the earliest screwball comedies, it's still one of the best.

Detour (1945). Tom Neal plays a nightclub pianist in New York who wants a better life. His girlfriend heads west for Los Angeles, and he'll join her when he gets the money. But he wants to see her, so he stars hitching his way west. He winds up taking a ride with a man who dies of a heart attack, and since nobody will believe the death wasn't a murder, he decides to take the man's identity. Of course, he's stupid enough to pick up a hitchhiker (Ann Savage) himself, and she turns out to be one of the fatalest of femmes fatales you'll ever run across in noir. Edgar Ulmer made this one on a budget of about $3.97, but the story is so entertaining that it overcomes all of the ultralow-budget problems.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dodge City

A couple days ago I mentioned having watched the DVD of Dodge City which I got as part of an Errol Flynn box set. I didn't do a full-length post on it then, instead waiting for a day where less was going on to do the full-length post. Now is as good a time as any to do it.

The movie opens with a prologue set just after the Civil War. Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), an Irish immigrant who fought for the North, is now working for a railroad along with friend Rusty (Alan Hale) keeping the buffalo away while the railroadmen build. The railroad is finished, to Wade and Rusty are going to go back to cattle driving, except that they frist have to stop the evil Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) from poaching buffalo.

Fast forward several years. Wade and Rusty are driving cattle north from Texas, but included in the drive are some pioneers heading to Dodge City, notably Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her obnoxious brother Lee (a very young William Lundigan). He's obnoxious enough that he causes a stampede that kills him, and Abbie hates Wade as a result. Oh, you know that the two are going to meet again, and that Abbie is going to fall in love with Wade, because this is a movie starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. How could things be any different.

Of course, there are going to be issues along the way. First is the growing town of Dodge City. Jeff Surrett has become a cattle broker, buying from the drivers. Or more accurately, he's obtaining the cattle by hook or by crook, even willing to have his henchman Yancey (Victor Jory) shoot people who won't sell to him. A lot of the town' more respectable citizens, including Abbie's uncle (Henry Travers), don't like this, but what are they going to do? Surrett has become the boss of the town by driving out one sheriff after another.

So the town fathers have the brilliant idea of asking Wade to become sheriff. After all, this is Errol Flynn. Surely he can maintain law and order. (Well, when he's not carousing and possibly engaging in statutory rape, but that's another subject.) Of course Wade eventually takes the job, and starts out on making the town peaceful, which is of course going to mean coming into conflict with Surrett for the climax.

There's really nothing groundbreaking in this one, but it still has so much to recommend it. First and foremost is the lead performance by Errol Flynn, who really was a better actor than he's generally given credit for, and was a natural for all these action movies (even if I don't think they used that term back then). Olivia de Havilland actually has less to do here, but any shortcomings in her performance are strictly the result of the script. Warner Bros. used a bunch of character actors to good effect, from the ones already mentioned to Frank McHugh as a newspaper publisher (even if that sounds like ridiculous miscasting), or young Bobs Watson as a kid whose father gets killed by Surrett's men.

The story, as I mentioned, is nothing groundbreaking, but it's still more than entertaining enough, offering enough action for anybody who could want it. Even better is the film's Technicolor photography. A few of the western town shots look like the print could use a bit of a restoration, but a lot of the print is lovely to look at, especially in the climax, which is set on a burning train.

Dodge City is a winner in every way, and well worth a watch.