Sunday, June 16, 2019

Darkest Hour

The last time DirecTV ran a free preview weekend, various channels in the Cinemax package were running Darkest Hour quite often, so I DVRed it. It looks like it's still in the Cinemax rotation, as well as being available on DVD, so I decided to watch it and do a post on it here.

It's May, 1940, at a period in World War II when the Sitzkrieg was just being ended by the Germans and their invasion of the Benelux countries. The British plans to defend against the Nazi invasion of Norway had failed, leaving Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) with an untenable situation in Parliament. Ultimately, he decides to resign as PM but stay on as head of the Conservative Party while a coalition government is formed.

There was some discussion as to who should lead the new coalition. Chamberlain originally wanted Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but in real life Halifax felt he was unsuitable as a member of the House of Lords and not the Commons. It was eventually suggested to have Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), civilian head of the Navy, take on the role. This despite the fact that there were serious questions from Chamberlain and others in the Commons for Churchill's past failures; also King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) was less than thrilled with the prospect.

But, there was nobody else who could be agreed on, so Churchill became head of a five-member War Cabinet. Chamberlain and especially Halifax were still opposed to him and working behind the scenes to bring down the coalition government. They felt that suing Hitler for peace was the right course of action, while Churchill, who had spent much of the 1930s railing against Hitler, believed that if they sued for peace, Hitler would eventually come after Britain eventually.

Churchill, meanwhile, is facing problems from without as well as within. Germany has by this time invaded France, and the UK has a large number of soldiers stationed in France who are being forced into retreat, eventually to be surrounded at Calais and Dunkirk, from which there is no further retreat thanks to the fact that they've got the sea at their backs. This explains in part why Chamberlain and Halifax want a truce: they're worried about losing an entire generation of soldiers, which would make defense of Britain even more untenable.

Churchill, of course, eventually comes up with the idea of requisitioning as many civilian boats as possible and having them assist the Royal Navy in evacuating soldiers from Dunkirk, an operation portrayed in the movie Dunkirk which came out the same year as Darkest Hour. All of this is history, and so I don't think I'm giving very much away by detailing Churchill's success and the political defeat of Chamberlain. (The movie does reference the fact that Chamberlain also had terminal cancer, although apparently he didn't realize this in May 1940.)

Darkest Hour is an interesting movie going into more detail about a period of history that I think people in America know vaguely about but not to this level. Thanks to Churchill's ultimate success in leading Britain through the war, it overshadows the fact that there was some serious political pressure on him in the early days of his term as Prime Minister. That makes the movie well worth watching.

It's also worth a watch for Oldman's bravura performance as Churchill, which won him an Academy Award. He understandably dominates the movie, although Mendelsohn does well in his scenes as George VI. He and pretty much everybody else in the movie, however, are in support of Oldman.

I did, however, have some big problems with the movie, mostly on the technical side. The direction was extremely intrusive, right from the opening scene which I felt misused overhead shots, something which continued throughout the film. Director Joe Wright has a tendency to move the camera in ways which very much distract from the action. The lighting seemed wrong, too, which Churchill and other characters often in shadows when they shouldn't be, and other scenes (particularly in Parliament) too washed out. There's also a score which wells up inappropriately on many occasions.

That's a big shame, since I think it's hugely interefers with the excellent story and acting, but it doesn't make me not recommend Darkest Hour.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Franco Zeffirelli, 1923-2019

Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli, who came to prominence by directing Elizabeth Teylor and Richard Burton in the 1967 adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, has died at the age of 96.

Most people of a certain age (myself included) will probably remember Zeffirelli better for introducing Olivia Hussey to a generation of horny pubescent boys when he cast her in another Shakespearean adaptation, Romeo and Juliet:

I know that when we did Romeo and Juliet in whichever English class it was (10th grade, I think), this is the movie version we watched to accompany the reading, and I know my school wasn't the only one.

I remember watching Endless Love a few years back not having realized at the time that it was another Zeffirelli film:

The movie even got an Oscar nomination, although that was for the song (Lionel Richie lost, but would later get one for "Say You, Say Me" from White Nights).

TCM programming heads-up for June 15-16, 2019

It's been a good two years since I blogged about La pointe courte. It's on again tonight at 8:00 PM as this week's Essential. That will be followed at 9:45 PM by Cleo from 5 to 7. They're both on the same pricey Criterion box set, so I'm going to have to record the latter to do a review on it.

Tomorrow is Father's Day, and it should be no surprise that TCM is running a bunch of movies suitable for the day. I was kind of surprised to see the number of movies where the sons have either difficult or less than the stereotypically happy stuff you see in Father's Day cards. Oh, some of the usual suspects show up in the lineup, such as Life With Father at 8:00 PM Sunday, or the first Andy Hardy movie at 11:45 AM. There's even The Courtship of Eddie's Father, which also seems to get shown every Father's Day, at 3:45 PM. But there are the others, like Edward, My Son at 8:00 AM, as well as East of Eden at 1:15 PM.

Friday, June 14, 2019

That Uncertain Feeling

In trying to get through the backlog of movies on my DVR, I watched That Uncertain Feeling.

Merle Oberon plays Jill Baker, a woman who has been happily married to her husband Larry (Melvyn Douglas) for six years, but has one problem: she has an intractable case of the hiccups that appear every time she gets nervous. So one of her friends suggests that she see the eminent psychoanalyst Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray). One wonders how much the doctor can do for her, but in the waiting room one day she meets a concert pianist, Alex Sebastian (played not by Claude Rains but by Burgess Meredith).

Alexander is a strange guy, as he seems to have backwards opinions about everything just for the sake of being contrarian. But Jill finds him interesting, so the meet each other from time to time at places such as art galleries. (This is actually a chance to show Alexander's character, as there's a Daliesque painting of a clock that's supposedly a portrait of Alexander.) Jill invites Alexander over for a dinner party her husband is holding for some Hungarian-American businessmen who might be buying his insurance.

It's there that Larry realizes he's got a problem on his hands. Jill seems to have an infatuation with Alexander, while she also realizes that Larry is as much married to his business as he is with her. So Larry sets about casually suggesting that perhaps he should grant Jill a divorce, as that will get her to focus her opinion and realize she really wants to stay with Larry.

It eventually does happen, as you can guess from this sort of light comedy, but not without some complications along the way, involving Larry's lawyer Mr. Jones (Harry Davenport) and Jones' secretary Sally (Eve Arden).

That Uncertain Feeling was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, but somehow the famed "Lubitsch touch" that shows up in many of his other movies isn't quite here. I think it's mostly down to the script. The movie is based on a French play from the late 1800s, when this sort of material was probably more daring. The movie was made four years after The Awful Truth, and after any number of glittering Lubitsch movies, so it feels old hat. It also doesn't help that I didn't have much sympathy for the Alexander character. He's not really a bad guy, but he's not somebody you'd want to get close to, either. I also really didn't care for the dinner party scene, which just seemed tedious.

Still, all the actors try their best, and the movie's problems are not any of there faults. This is particularly true for Meredith, with his difficult character. It's not a terrible movie by any means; it's just rather blah. It's also available on DVD, so you're always welcome to judge for yourself.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #257: Undercover

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 "undercover", so immediately the first thing I thought of was this:

Of course, that's not a movie, so I had to come up with some movies instead. After a bit of thinking, I was able to come up with three interesting movies:

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938). Edward G. Robinson plays the title character, a psychologist investigating the causes of crime who comes up with a brilliant idea: he'll pass himself off as a gangster to allow him to get initiated into a gang so that he can do his research from the inside. The gang is headed by Claire Trevor and Humphrey Bogart, and things get complicated with Dr. Clitterhouse tries to get out of the gang.

Smashing the Money Ring (1939). Ronald Reagan returns to play Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft once again in the third of four movies in the series. This time, there's a counterfeiting ring being run in a prison, and Brass' job is to get himself sent to that prison and find out who's doing the counterfeiting. Reagan is by far the best thing about the Brass Bancroft movies, which got weaker as the series went on.

High School Confidential! (1958). Russ Tamblyn plays a narcotics officer sent to infiltrate a high school to find out who's the mastermind behind the heroin distribution going on there. As it turns out, that's Jackie Coogan. Jan Sterling plays one of the teachers, and Mamie Van Doren plays his "aunt" who gets to flaunt her assets in a bullet bra, as do some of the other female characters, as in this fabulous bit of beatnik poetry:

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jane Powell, Part 2

Tonight being the second Wednesday of the month, we get another installment of Star of the month Jane Powell on TCM. This time, we're into the early 1950s, starting off at 8:00 with Royal Wedding, in which she and Fred Astaire travel to London for the wedding of then Princess Elizabeth to Philip. (It's amazing that the two are still married and Elizabeth is still Queen.) This is the one with Astaire's famous dance on the ceiling:

That's followed at 10:00 PM by Two Weeks With Love, a movie that might be more famous for a young Debbie Reynolds singing this terrible song:

The rest of the night's lineup is:

Nancy Goes to Rio at midnight;
Small Town Girl at 2:00 AM; and
Rich, Young, and Pretty at 4:00 AM

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Rack

I mentioned earlier that I recorded quite a few of the movies that aired during TCM's tribute to May 2019 Star of the Month Paul Newman, so I'm getting through them slowly. The most recent watch was The Rack.

A bunch of people are waiting at an airport for a military plane bringing a group of POWs from the Korean War home. Among them is Capt. Edward Hall, Jr. (Paul Newman). He's the son of army colonel Edward Hall Sr. (Walter Pidgeon), and also had a brother who died in the war, leaving behind a widow in Aggie Hall (Anne Francis).

Before the POWs can go home, they have to spend some time at the military hospital to be debriefed by army psychologists and the like. While Ed Jr. is watching a movie, another soldier comes up to him, and puts a noose around his neck with a placard reading "TRAITOR". Oh dear, somebody has something against poor Ed. It's not just this one man, either. Ed is uncomfortable being back home, and feels like his father isn't making things any easier for him. Just wait until Dad finds out about what happened over in Korea.

Apparently during the debriefings, enough evidence was obtained to lead military authorities to believe that Ed Jr. collaborated with the Chinese who were holding them prisoner, and this is a really serious offense. Dad can't believe this, as he raised his two sons to be perfect little soldiers. Surely when they hold the trial, the truth is going to come out and Ed Jr. is going to be exonerated.

The trial begins, with Lt. Col. Wasnick (Edmnod O'Brien) defending Capt. Hall, and Maj. Moulton (Wendell Corey) prosecuting the case. It's a difficult defense, as Capt. Hall has admitted that he did the things he's accused of, although he says that he felt it was the only thing he could do to help the men in his command. Wasnick obviously doesn't believe any of this, and he's going to do everything he can to debunk Hall's defense when he takes the stand.

The Rack is another of those movies that's well-made, but which kept striking me as having something not quite right about them. One of the big things for me was the scene resolving the relationship between father and son, which came across as really artificial.. Something also felt off about the trial, although that's probably because it was a military trial, which does have different rules from civilian justice. But where did they get all the evidence that the Chinese would certainly have kept?

However, Newman gives a very good performance and his clearly on his way to becoming a star in the early picture. The supporting cast is also pretty good, even Pidgeon who is normally a bit too stolid for my tastes. There's a nice early supporting role from Lee Marvin, and James Best (Roscoe P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazard) and Cloris Leachman have bit parts.

The Rack is available on DVD from the Warner Archive, and isn't a bad little movie.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pale Flower

I've got a fair number of foreign films that I haven't reviewed either on DVD or on my DVR. It's been over a year since I reviewed a Japanese-language film (or, if it was more recent, I forgot to include the "Foreign" tag). So I decided that since I recorded Pale Flower when it showed up recently and would like to free up some space on my DVR, I'd watch that one first.

Ryō Ikebe plays Mutaki, a member of the yakuza (the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia) who has just gotten out of jail for the murder of a member of a rival gang in Tokyo. He goes to a gambling hall, which is where he meets mysterious Saeko (Mariko Kaga). She's the only woman in the entire room, playing some sort of game with traditional Japanese playing cards that would probably be known to Japanese and as such is never explained to the viewer. Mutaki is immediately smitten with Saeko.

Mutaki has other women in his life, however, as well as other problems. While Mutaki was away in prison, the two main gangs in Tokyo found that their territory was getting muscled in on by a gang from Osaka, to the point that the two gang leaders called a truce. Mutaki doesn't know that at first, and there are people who want to settle scores with Mutaki, including a young man who attacks Mutaki in a bowling alley and, failing, cuts off one of his fingers in the yakuza tradition.

Saeko, for her part, likes the gambling, as well as other thrills. But the current gambling isn't enough for her, so she wants Mutaki to find her a gambling place that has higher stakes. He does, but this place will pose a problem for Mutaki and Saeko. That's Yoh, a man who sits by the far wall and watches, never saying anything. Nobody quite knows Yoh's full background, except that he's half-Chinese, from Hong Kong, and spends time doing dope, which is an even more serious cultural issue in Japan than in the US.

There's also the day-to-day business of being a gangster, as Mutaki is given the task of getting a nightclub owner providing entertainment to use the Tokyo gang for protection instead of the Osaka gang. And, with the Osaka gang continue to tread on the turf of the Tokyo gangs, Mutaki is going to be asked to go back to his old hitman ways and bump off a member of the Osaka gang.

There's a lot to like in Pale Flower, most notable the cinematography and composition, as well as the depiction of Tokyo as it was in the early 1960s, just before the Olympics came and really started to change the place. It fell down for me slightly in terms of the plot which seemed to me to be missing something that I can't quite put my finger on. It doesn't help that not being Japanese, I didn't get exactly what it was they were gambling on and how the game worked. I don't gamble, but if I were going to do so, I'd want to do something like poker or backgammon where I could feel like there's at least some element of skill. These games looked like pure luck. But those are minor flaws.

Pale Flower is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and is one I'd quite recommend.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Red Hot Tires

I've mentioned on a number of occasions how much I enjoy the Warner Bros. B movies and programmers, which always have something really zippy about them. A good example of a movie that's more fun than it has any right being is Red Hot Tires.

Lyle Talbot plays Wallace "Wally" Storm, chief mechanic for Sanford Motors, a company that makes race cars led by dad Martin (Henry Kolker) and his daughter Patricia (Mary Astor), who has a surpisingly big part in the racing business for a woman of those days. Wally carries on a platonic relationship with Patricia, and also dreams of becoming a driver in the big league himself. But the Sanfords' current driver Bob (Gavin Gordon) also has the hots for Patricia and is none too pleased that Wally is getting ideas above his station. Eventually, Bob gets Wally fired, much to the consternation of Wally's mechanic Bud (Roscoe Karns) and protege Johnny (Frankie Darro).

Wally gets to ride in a big race against Bob, but Bob has a trick up his sleeve involving something in the tires that is supposed to doom anybody who gets too close to his tires, apparently a common tactic in racing in those days. Sure enough, Wally gets too close to Bob's tires, but it backfires, as Bob is the one who goes off the track and down a ravine, killing him. Based on vague threats Wally had spoken about, he's put on trial for the murder of Bob, and convicted!

Johnny saw but couldn't hear Bob's plan to get Wally, and when he and Patricia investigate they're able to get a pardon for Wally. (Really, at most a new trial would be in order.) But on the evening that the pardon is to be delivered, Bud springs Wally from prison! The two friends go down to South America to escape extradition, and Wally becomes the famous American race car driver Bulldog. Patricia puts two and two togehter....

Red Hot Tires has all sorts of continuity problems and veers from one part of the plot to another overly quickly, getting everything done in a little over an hour. And yet, all along the way it's a lot of fun, thanks to professional performances from all the main stars. There's nothing great here, but you'll be entertained for an hour.

Red Hot Tires has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

TCM's Doris Day Tribute

Doris Day and James Garner; Move Over, Darling will be on at midnight between Sunday and Monday

Doris Day died back in May, and TCM is finally getting around to its programming tribute to Day. As befits a star of her stature, TCM is airing an entire 24 hours of Day's movies, starting at 6:00 AM Sunday, along with her appearance on The Tonight Show:

6:00 AM Romance on the High Seas
8:00 AM My Dream Is Yours
10:00 AM Tea For Two
11:45 AM On Moonlight Bay
1:30 PM Carson on TCM: Doris Day
1:45 PM Love Me or Leave Me
6:00 PM Please Don't Eat the Daisies
8:00 PM Pillow Talk
10:00 PM Lover Come Back
Midnight Move Over, Darling
2:00 AM The Glass Bottom Boat
4:00 AM Julie

They Met in Bombay

One of the movies TCM ran in the "meet cutes" romantic comedy spotlight last month was They Met in Bombay. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so I decided to DVR it and watch later to do a post on it.

Clark Gable plays Gerald Meldrick, whom we see right off the bat is a less-than-honest man. He's having a replica of a famous jewel, the Star of India, made for him. That jewel is owned by the Duchess of Beltravers (Jessie Ralph) who is going to be in Bombay for Empire Day and wearing that jewel. Meldrick passes himself off as an agent of Lloyd's of London who have insured the Star of India, and presents himself at the Duchess' hotel, which is obviously all part of a plot to replace the original jewel with the fake.

Also showing up at the hotel is Anya Von Duren (Rosalind Russell), whom we see reading a book about the Beltravers nobility and trying to memorize it. This is a sign that she's a con artist who is going to use that knowledge to get into the Duchess' confidence and then steal the Star of India. You can probably guess that Anya and Meldrick wind up meeting and have a friendly rivalry over the jewel that lasts for the rest of the movie.

You'd be half right. They steal the Star of India about a third of the way into the movie and are about to get on a boat out of India when the authorities discover what has happened and start going after Meldrick and Anya, who have to team up out of necessity only since they're both implicated in the heist. But they can't get on a regular ocean liner because they'll be caught, so they have to beg passage with cargo ship captain Chang (Peter Lorre). He's going to Hong Kong.

Of course, Chang cares more about money than anything else. He wouldn't care whether he's got two jewel thieves on board if they pay him enough for the passage. But the authorities are offering a much bigger reward, and the venal Chang is more than willing to turn them over for that reward. Meldrick and Anya, under fake names, have to beat a hasty escape into a dinghy and hope they won't get noticed in Hong Kong.

Meldrick has a good plan to get the two of them out of Hong Kong, too. Posing as a Captain Houston, a Canadian soldier in the British Army, he plans to commandeer some men on leave to steal the contents of a safe at a company under criminal investigation by the authorities: evidence, don't you know. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it were for those meddling... Japanese? Well, this is a 1941 movie, and the Japanese had already invaded China proper and were ready to take Hong Kong. All military officers are pressed into emergency duty, including "Captain Houston".

They Met in Bombay is three movies in one, and an odd little mix at that. The jewel heist plot does get resolved, but other than that, the parts of the movie don't quite mesh. Still, the movie was professionally made, another example of the way studios churned out movies at the time. Gable and Russell are appealing individually and as a pair. The supporting cast is generally good too, and the production values are quite good as befits an MGM movie. There's nothing spectacularly memorable here, however, unless you count the odd mixture of story lines.

If you just want to sit back and be entertained, you could do worse than to watch They Met in Bombay.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Blood and Steel

A movie that showed up in the FXM rotation in May is Blood and Steel. I don't know how long it's going to stay in the FXM rotation, but it seems to be available on DVD courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme. Since I hadn't heard of the movie before, I decided to DVR it and watch to do a review here.

The setting is Gizo Island, somewhere in the South Pacific. A small rubber boat pulls up to the island, and four men get out. This is the 1940s, so it's obviously World War II, and the men are obviously Americans surreptitously landing on a Japanese-held island. Lt. Jenson (John Lupton) is the leader of the four, a group of Seabees on a mission to determine whether the island will make a useful air base once the Americans capture it. Along with Jenson are Jim (Brett Halsey), Cip (John Brinkley), and George (James Edwards).

Of course, the island is still Japanese held, so the men have to stay in hiding to try to avoid the Japanese. Soon enough, the Japanese find them and a fire fight ensues, with George getting shot and having to be left behind because doing anything else will jeopardize the mission.

So the three remaining men soldier on, and George is eventually approached by a native (non-Japanese) of the island (Ziva Rodann, who was born in British Palestine and nowhere near Polynesia). She's frightened, but doesn't reveal the secret to the Japanese, who have set up a headquarters nearby.

The other men wind up engaging in more firefights with the Japanese, who are presented more as bored than inept, which is why they don't seem to be as diligent as they could in killing these four Americans, what with their massive numeric superiority. Amazingly enough, the Americans complete their mission in time. And nothing else happens.

Blood and Steel was (or at least looks like it was) and ultra-low budget B movie. It only runs a little over an hour, and as I was watching I kept thinking that it was playing out more like a TV episode of some World War II-themed TV show. Sure enough, one of the commenters on IMDb had the same thought, and the director, Bernard L. Kowalski, did most of his work in TV.

There's very little going on in Blood and Steel, and its biggets sin is that it's just boring. It's not horrendously bad, but it's the epitome of a movie that's not very good, either. I noticed it was available from Fox's MOD scheme, but at those prices, I'd wait for the next FXM showing.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #256: Nannies or Baby-Sitters

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This time, the theme is nannies and/or baby-sitters. I was able to come up with any number of movies relatively quickly; I just had to figure out whether I'd used them before. In the end, here are three that a search of the blog claims I haven't used:

Sitting Pretty (1948). Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara play a married couple with three sons, and a desperate need of somebody to keep them in line. Answering the ad for a live-in baby-sitter is Clifton Webb, playing Lynn Belvedere. His unorthodox methods produce a remarkable change in the kids, but gossip threatens to break up that relationship. The movie, based on a book, was popular enough that two sequels were made, and the book was later adapted into the 1980s sitcom Mr. Belvedere with Christopher Hewitt in the lead role.

The Innocents (1961). Deborah Kerr gets the job of being nanny/governess to a pair of orphaned children living in one of those English manor houses in the late 19th century. Strange things start happening, and Kerr begins to believe that perhaps the kids are possessed by the ghosts of a pair of lovers who died tragically on the grounds. This one is based on Henry James' story "The Turn of the Screw".

The Nanny (1965). Bette Davis is the nanny of an emotionally disturbed English boy who just got out of an institution for behavior including causing the drowning of his younger sister. Things start happening, and when Mom gets poisoned, the boy starts accusing the nanny of being the one who did it! You have to love later-era Bette Davis.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

TCM Star of the Month June 2019: Jane Powell

Now that we're in the first full week of a new month, it's time for a new Star of the Month on TCM. This time out, it's Jane Powell, who made a bunch of light musical comedies at MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. Powell turned 90 this year, but because her birthday was in April, and TCM celebrated its 25th anniversary that month, they have her tribute now. Powell's movies will be airing every Wednesday in prime time in June.

This first night sees some of her early movies starting with Holiday in Mexico at 8:00 PM, seeing Powell play the daughter of the US Ambassador to Mexico (Walter Pidgeon) who falls in love with a Mexican pianist (Jose Iturbi, who for some reason I thought was Brazilian but was in fact Spanish).

Having run one movie with Powell and Iturbi, it shouldn't be surprising that there's another one. That one, Three Daring Daughters, follows at 10:15 PM.

I have to admit that Jane Powell isn't my favorite, but that's more because the type of movie she was cast in.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Untamed Frontier

For those of you who have the StarzEncore pagkage of movies, you have a chance to catch Untamed Frontier tomorrow morning at 6:19 AM.

Joseph Cotten plays Kirk Denbow, one member of a family who owns a whole bunch of land in the Arizona territory. However, there's also a bunch of land owned by the federal government, and under the Homestead Act they intend to parcel that land out to settlers. The problem is, the land is surrounded on all American sides by the Denbows' land. They use their own land and the Federal land to graze their cattle, and they're not about to give any settlers right-of-way across the Denbow land to settle since it would ultimately mean the loss of free grazing land that the Denbows are using.

Kirk is the most pragmatic member of the family. He's got a cousin in Glenn (Scott Brady) who is much more of a hothead. Indeed, he's currently in town raising a ruckus as well as seeing his girlfriend Jane (Shelley Winters), who, while she loves him, also has sympathy for the settlers. Eventually, Glenn gets in a gunfight with somebody who, it turns out, is not armed, so the legal system is going to come after him, and by association the Denbows.

Matt Denbow (Minor Watson), patriarch of the family, comes up with the idea to spirit Jane away to Texas since she's the one witness who could convict Glenn. She's too honest to do that. So Matt and Glenn come up with another idea, which is to have Glenn marry Jane! That way she'll be his wife and can't be forced to testify against Glenn. (Couldn't she choose to testify?) Since she does like Glenn, she marries him and starts living at the ranch.

She soon realizes the mistake she made. Glenn has another girlfriend in Lottie (Suzan Ball), and Jane starts becoming friends with Kirk. Meanwhile, the settlers are massing for an invasion of the strip of land they'd have to cross to get to the federal land....

Universal made a whole bunch of programmer westerns in the 1950s, of which this is one. They're short (Untamed Frontier clocks in at 78 minutes) and capably produced if nothing spectacular. Untamed Frontier fits in perfectly in that mold. Everybody does an adequate job, but the story feels as though it could be interchangeable with the cast of whatever other western was being produced at the time. You'll likely be entertained, but it won't linger in your memory like the great westerns.

Untamed Frontier does not seem ever to have gotten a DVD release in the US, so you're going to have to catch the rare cable showing.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Die Büchse der Pandora

One of TCM's spotlights this month is on interesting hair in the movies, or as they call it, the Hollywood Hair Hall of Fame. It'll be on every Monday night in June, starting tonight at 8:00 with Pandora's Box.

Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a former dancer who at the start of the movie is now the kept lover of newspaper publisher Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner) in a fashionable apartment in Berlin. One day after Schön heads off to work, another man shows up, Schigolch (Carl Goetz), who is presumably a former lover, but one who could never give her the comforts that Schön can. When Schön finds Schigolch in the apartment, she points out that he used to be her "patron".

Meanwhile, it seems almost every man wants Lulu romantically, with the exception of Schön's adult son Alwa (Franz Lederer, who was born in Bohemia with the name František and would later flee Germany for Hollywood, taking the name Francis and appearing in a bunch of films, most notably Confessions of a Nazi Spy), a composer. Although he doesn't seem to want love from her, he's writing material that would be perfect for her to go back to the stage.

Eventually, she takes him and a promoter Schigolch introduces her to up on that offer. But she's also driven to it by the fact that Dr. Schön has decided to turn her out and marry a respectable woman of his class -- he could never marry her because everybody's been talking about their relationship.

Lulu gets pissed off when she meets Schön's fiancée at the theater where she's performing, and refuses to go on, eventually using her feminine ways to get Dr. Schön to agree to marry her! But on their wedding night he realizes (or thinks he does) what sort of woman he's married, and tries to force Lulu to commit suicide. In the struggle, Lulu winds up shooting Schön to death. If only there were witnesses she could get off on a self-defense argument, but there aren't, so the court sentences her to five years in prison.

She still has a bunch of people lusting after her, and when the verdict is handed down, they decide to set off the fire alarm, giving her a chance to escape! Unfortunately, she's going to be found out in Germany, so she, Alwa, and Schigolch have to flee the country, eventually winding up in London and a much crappier existence than Lulu ever had as a kept woman.

Pandora's Box is an interesting movie, with a lot of wonderful cinematography courtesy of director G. W. Pabst. It's a silent, coming at the very end of the silent era after Hollywood had nearly completed its conversion to sound film, so that meant the audiences weren't as big as the German filmmakers had hoped. This also led to Brooks eventually growing tired of the movie business and retiring fairly young. It's a bit of a shame, since she gives quite a good performance.

The one problem I had with the movie, however, is that I felt it slowed down quite a bit in the second half. I also had a problem with the idea that they were going to be completely unable to find work in London. Surely a performer like Lulu at least could have gotten work as a chorus girl. But then that wouldn't fit in with the story, I suppose. Even with the movie having problems, it's still well worth watching for the visuals.

Pandora's Box got a DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection many years ago, but that release seems to be out of print, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Prince and the Showgirl

I haven't done a post on The Prince and the Showgirl before, so when it showed up on the TCM schedule recently I made a point of DVRing it to watch and do a post here.

The scene is London, 1911. Edward VII had died the previous year, leaving George V to become the new monarch. But the official coronation with all the pageantry isn't held right when the old monarch dies, as it takes time to bring in all the other crowned heads of state to attend the coronation. Among them is the royal family of Carpathia (not of course a real state, but part of modern-day Romania and Hungary in the northern part of the Balkans). They have a king in Nicholas VIII (Jeremy Spenser), but he's still only 16 so he won't ascend to the throne until he's 18, with his father the Grand Duke (Laurence Olivier) being regent, not being king himself because he only married into the family. The British Foreign Office sends envoy Northbrook (Richard Wattis) to make certain the Regent's stay in London is pleasant, because there's a dicey political situation in Carpathia.

The Regent having been in a marriage of convenience and now being a widower is perfectly comfortable seeing women, at least insofar as royal protocal will let him. In London, he plans to meet the star of an American revue, The Coconut Girl. But when he meets the cast, it's actually one of the chorus girls he winds up desiring, young Elsie from Milwaukee (Marilyn Monroe). He invites her back to the embassy for dinner, and Northbrook reluctantly goes along despite Elsie being American (the European disdain for American bluntness being on display here) and her not knowing anything about royal protocol.

The Regent plans to have dinner alone with Elsie, which is not what she expected at all. While the two are alone, the Regent starts discussing the Carpathian political situation on the phone, not realizing Elsie is really smarter than you'd think at first site. The Regent is of Hungarian descent, so not much of a fan of the Kaiser. Nicholas, however, is of German descent, and is thinking seriously of moving Carpathia closer to Germany politically when he takes the throne. He also cavorts with reformers whom his father doesn't like and even imprisons. To secure his hold, Dad has told the switchboard operator at the embassy not to let Nicholas receive or make any phone calls.

None of this should really matter to Elsie, but she winds up getting more involved in the Carpathian situation mainly because everybody in the royal family seems to like her. The Queen Dowager (Sybil Thorndike) lets her stay as a temporary lady-in-waiting, allowing her to attend the coronation and events surrounding it. It also lets her get involved in the spat between father and son, and she decides to try to patch things up as a family affair as much as a political matter.

The Prince and the Showgirl wasn't an easy production, as documented in the film My Week With Marilyn from the beginning of this decade. Olivier directed as well as starred, and he was none too happy with Monroe. To be fair, she did have a reputation for being difficult. But to be fair, a bigger problem is with Olivier's performance, making the Regent look like a man you'd wonder what anybody would see in him. Instead of trying to rein in Marilyn, he should have been rening himself in.

The movie certainly looks nice in terms of sets and costumes, with the mockup of Westminster Abbey looking particularly good. However, that scene looks out of place with the action of the rest of the movie.

All in all, The Prince and the Showgirl isn't a bad movie, but it's also not the first thing I'd suggest to introduce people to either Olivier or Monroe. It's available on DVD too.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Blondie Johnson

My latest movie viewing was the pre-code Blondie Johnson.

Joan Blondell plays the title role, a woman who at the beginning of the movie is suffering from the effects of the Depression having hit her in just about every way possible. She's at a relief agency looking for help because she hasn't worked in four months; her sister died tragically; and her mom is deathly ill with the owner of the building possibly about to evict them because Mom might be contagious. But because she wasn't fired, instead having quit her job because her boss was trying to use her for sexual favors, the guy at the relief agency says no help for you.

When Mom dies, Blondie realizes she has to make money in a different way. With the help of very small-time grifter Red (Sterling Holloway), a cabbie when he's making money honestly. The two combine in a scam that has richer guys paying for an emergency taxi ride across town; he only takes her around the block and pocket the difference. They shouldn't keep trying it in the same area, because when she's in a diner at the end of the meeting, one of the guys she scammed runs into her.

That man is Danny (Chester Morris), a middle-level gangster, and he tries to convince her to go in with him. She wants to take down the bigger bosses, and do it on her own terms, so although she likes Danny, she has no intentions of being subordinate to him. Eventually she does make it to something resembling the top, but her group has some indiscretions in the past that threaten to bring her down.

Blondie Johnson feels likes a slew of the other pre-Code Joan Blondell and gangster movies that Warner Bros. was churning out like an assembly line in the early 1930s. In many regards, it's not bad at all. But it also feels as though something is missing, as you might have inferred from my perfunctory synopsis.

It didn't take me too long to realize that the something that was missing is James Cagney. Morris is adequate as a guy who is really a second banana, but in all those Cagney/Blondell movies, the two had a zest that just jumped off the screen. There's very little of that in Blondie Johnson, which is why the whole thing feels routine and just not quite right.

Blondie Johnson is available on DVD from the Warner Archive, but it's really one of those movies that should have been put on those old four-film TCM-branded box sets that Warner Home Video was putting out. As a standalone, I'd look for a lot of other things first.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Until They Sail

I recorded quite a few of the movies TCM ran during the salute to Star of the Month Paul Newman, so it's time to start getting through them. First up is Until They Sail.

Newman plays Capt. Jack Harding, a US Marine who at the start of the movie is testifying in a criminal trial in Christchurch, New Zealand, in November 1945. If you guessed that he was involved in World War II, you'd be right. The US stationed a lot of men in New Zealand as part of the staging to send them north to fight the Japanese, and many of them wanted to take on local women as wives, what with all the Kiwi men being away fighting the war. Harding's job was to investigate to make certain the women wouldn't be "undesirables" in America.

Flash back to the events that necessitated Harding's testimony. Well, actually, let's go back further than that. The Leslies are a family of four sisters -- both parents are deceased -- in Christchurch, with second-oldest sister Barbara (Jean Simmons) having a husband off fighting in North Africa. Eldest sister Anne (Joan Fontaine) seems to have something against men, while youngest sister Evelyn (Sandra Dee in her movie debut) is too young for that stuff yet.

Then there's third sister Delia (Piper Laurie). She seems desperate for any man. The only adult male of marriageable age is Phil, nicknamed Shiner (Wally Cassell). Anne and Barbara think he's terrible for Delia, but she doesn't care; she wants a man. So she marries him, and when he gets called to fight, she decamps to Wellington. Ostensibly, it's to do her part for the war effort; really, though, it's because there's a greater number of US soldiers stationed there.

Barbara goes up to Wellington to see Delia and learns the truth of what Delia is doing. But also there, she meets Harding. They strike up a bit of a friendship, but it's clearly nothing more than that because she's married and he's been through an emotionally difficult divorce that led to him taking up heavy drinking. But all sorts of events are going to turn Barbara against the Americans the way Anne seems to be.

I say seems, because eventually Anne meets a soldier of her own, Capt. Bates (Charles Drake), with whom she eventually falls in love and could get married if the authorities (with Harding investigating) approve. As you can see, in life things have a way of turning out differently than one might expect.

But back to the beginning of the movie, and Harding's appearance in court. Why is he testifying? Well, all that cavorting with American servicemen Delia did causes her to realize she made a dumb move in marrying Shiner. When he finally gets released from a POW camp after the war, she plans to tell him that she's going to get a divorce from him. He's going to contest it and never let her get it, which leads to... well, that's why Harding is testifying.

Until They Sail is a well-made drama, although if there's one flaw, it's that most of the characters' story lines are wrapped up a bit too neatly. Life isn't always so straightforward. But the road there is a bit twistier, like real life. And the performances are mostly quite good. It's an interesting look at a part of World War II that's probably not quite so well known to Americans.

Until They Sail is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #255: Spies (TV edition)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This being the last Thursday of the month, it's time for another TV edition, with the theme this time around being spies. I have to admit this one was a bit difficult for me, so I went with a couple of vintage classics:

The Prisoner (1967). Patrick McGoohan plays Number 6, a man who gets gassed and wakes up in a mysterious village where everybody refers to him as #6. Nobody will tell him who #1 is.

I Spy (1965-1968). Robert Culp and Bill Cosby play a pair of tennis pros who are actually spies. This would never work in real life, since the tennis tour didn't go where spies would have needed to go, but suspend your disbelief for a bit.

Get Smart (1965-1970). Don Adams stars as Maxwell Smart, also known as Agent 86, working for CONTROL against the opposing spy agence KAOS. Smart is assisted by the lovely Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) in this spoof of the spy genre.

Shorts report for May 30-31, 2019

I don't think I've mentioned shorts in some time, so I decided to do a write-up this morning. I see that TCM is running one of the Sidney Blackmer Teddy Roosevelt shorts, Teddy the Rough Rider, this afternoon at about 1:10 PM, in the slot with the Cary Grant Monkey Business (starts at 11:30 AM).

One of the monthly spotlights is on the homefront during World War II, and interestingly, TCM picked a couple of shorts to go with it. First up around 7:45 PM, just before the spotlight, is Seeing Hands, a Pete Smith short I've mentioned on a couple of previous occasions, about a blind man's contribution to the war effort.

In the slot following The Best Years of Our Lives, or just after 11:00 PM tonight, there's Of Pups and Puzzles, a John Nesbitt Passing Parade short about using animals in doing aptitude tests for providing labor in gearing up for the coming war.

And finally, a little after 5:15 AM, there's Marines in the Making, one that I haven't seen before, an MGM short on the physical training of Marines.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Juno and the Paycock

Over the weekend, I watched one of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser-known films, Juno and the Paycock.

This isn't a traditional Hitchcock movie, although to be fair, the Hitchcock "master of suspense" style that we usually think of didn't really kick off until the first The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps in the mid-1930s. Sure, there were some obvious thrillers earlier, but also things like Rich and Strange.

Juno and the Paycock is based on a stage play by Irish playwright Sean O'Casey. After a brief introduction from an "Orator" (Barry Fitzgerald) who isn't seen again, we get the main action, dealing with the Boyle family, scratching out a meager existence in Dublin, 1921, which is during the struggle against Britain if you remember Shake Hands With the Devil from a few weeks earlier.

Juno (Sara Allgood) is the mother, married to Capt. Boyle (Edward Chapman), whom she calls the "Paycock" (a mispronuciation of "peacock") because he struts his stuff but is othewrise useless. Even more useless os Capt. Boyle's friend Joxer (Sidney Morgan), who doesn't seem to have worked a day in his life. They have two adult children: Mary is involved in industrial action, while Johnny lost an arm by being in the wrong place at the wrong time during an IRA bombing. He's also named names, which could get him in serious trouble.

Into all of this comes the lawyer Charles Bentham. He wrote the will for a cousin of the Boyles, and the will leaves a substantial sum to the Boyles. It's enough for them to redecorate the apartment, as well as get a few luxuries. But there are problems with coming into such money all of a sudden. First, don't count your chickens before they hatch. Another problem is that Mary starts an involvement with Bentham which is going to end badly.

Whether you like the movie likely depends on whether you like the source material. It wasn't quite my thing, especially since I don't care for characters like Capt. Boyle and Joxer. Still, Sara Allgood does quite a good job playing Juno. The print that I watched, on the Mill Creek box set, was quite lousy, which I suppose didn't help; heads were chopped off in several scenes.

The movie is also available on a standalone DVD courtesy of Reel Vault. I have no idea if their print is any better.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Owl and the Pussycat

TCM has been running a spotlight on romantic comedies this month that they've been calling "meet cutes". Tonight is the last night of the series, including the movie The Owl and the Pussycat at 8:00 PM.

Barbra Streisand plays Doris, who we see at the beginning of the movie is having difficulty dealing with life in the New York City of 1970: stuck in the rain, missing her bus, and all that stuff. Having problems of his own, but in a different way, is Felix (George Segal). He's a struggling writer who gets one rejection notice after another, and works in a bookstore to make ends meet. He gets back to his apartment with multiple locks on it, because this was the crime-infested era of New York.

Their lives are soon to meet when Doris comes knocking on Felix's door begging to be let in. He shouldn't let her in, but he does. It turns out that she's been evicted right then, and she needs a place to spend the night, so she imposes on him thinking he's the one who got her evicted. And boy is she a bitch about it. She basically tries to take the place over, keeping Felix up half the night. Actually, it keeps everybody in the building up and gets Felix evicted in the middle of the night.

They go to one of Felix's friends' places, and Doris continues to be such an anoying bitch that the friend, who was sleeping with his girlfriend, gets up to get a hotel room or something. It goes on like this for 90 minutes and at least one more change of temporary residence. But amazingly, along the way, Felix finds himself falling in love with Doris.

Frankly, I hated The Owl and the Pussycat, down entirely to the shrillness of Streisand's character. Personally, I think the movie would have been more interesting if it went in an entirely different direction. Have Streisand's character be that shrill and more, only to have her dead body dumped in Central Park, making it a murder mystery with a whole bunch of suspects because nobody could put up with her.

Still, you should probably judge for yourself. Just don't complain if you want those 90 minutes back.

Monday, May 27, 2019

A day of anthology movies

I've always found anthology movies interesting, in part because there's a natural tendency to be uneven because of the nature of having several discrete stories. At any rate, TCM is running a morning and afternoon of them tomorrow.

The day kicks off at 6:00 AM with Invitation to the Dance, which deserves mention for being Gene Kelly's vanity project that wound up being a misfire. It tells three stories, but tells them in dance and pantomime, with no dialog. Kelly is the one name actor, with a bunch of dancers, and because of all that it's easy to see why this one was a commercial failure.

The afternoon is taken up with all (I think) three of the Somerset Maugham anthology movies. It kicks off at noon with Quartet, which features Maugham himself introducing the four (you could probably guess that from the title) stories that he wrote. The movie was enough of a critical and commercial success that a second one, Trio (2:15 PM) was produced, followed by a third, Encore (4:00 PM).

Elsewhere during the day is It's a Big Country at 7:45 AM; and O. Henry's Full House with John Steinbeck introducing the stories, at 5:45 PM.

One anthology that I'd like to see again that hasn't been on the TCM schedule for ages -- I think a dozen years or more -- is the British Easy Money. Unfortunately, the last time it showed up I left after the first story, and it hasn't shown up since.

The Far Country

Not having done a post on a western for a couple of weeks, I decided to sit down with my box set of James Stewart westerns and watch The Far Country.

Stewart plays Jeff Webster, a man who in 1896 is leading a cattle drive to Seattle. It's the start of the Yukon gold rush, so his idea is to take the cattle from Seattle to Skagway, the disembarcation point for anybody going to Dawson in the Yukon, and then from there to Yukon to sell them and make a big profit with his partners Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) and Rube (Jay C. Flippen). Of course, it's not going to be so simple.

Just as the boat to Skagway is taking off, Jeff's two trail hands try to get the captain to stop it, claiming that Jeff is a murderer. The boat can't well turn around in harbor, so Jeff is able to hide in the cabin of lovely Ronda (Ruth Roman), who is going up to Dawson to start a saloon to serve the miners. So Jeff is safe for a while, at least.

In Skagway, the law catches up with him, mostly because his cattle accidentally disrupt a public hanging. When the law in town, "Judge" Gannon (John McIntire) arrests Jeff, he finds out about the murder accusation, which Jeff is able to get off of because he points out he killed to trail hands who were trying to rustle his cattle. But, there's still the disturbing the peace thing in Skagway, and the corrupt judge fines Jeff and his partners one herd of cattle.

With no money and no cattle, Jeff has to take on as a trail hand with Ronda and her crew, with one other member being young Renee (Corinne Calvet), a Quebecker making her way to Dawson, which after all is in Canada. But first Jeff has to liberate his cattle and get them to Canada before Gannon can stop him. After some difficulty, everybody makes it to Dawson.

Jeff sells his cattle, and with the money decides he's going to try panning for gold himself and getting a claim. That's all well and good, but who should show up but Gannon and his henchmen. They start jumping other people's claims and even shooting those who resist! It's up to Jeff to make things right....

The Far Country is another collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann, who made a series of pretty darn good westerns in the early to mid 1950s. This one is more than entertaining enough, although some would probably say it bears no resemblance to the real gold rush. It has everything you could ask for in an action western, including the action, a bit of romance, redemption and some lovely vistas courtesy of Canada's Jasper National Park. Unfortunately, the print on the DVD looked a bit grainy at times. (For the price, that was probably to be expected.)

Still, if you want to sit back with a western that's going to entertain you, The Far Country will be a definite hit in that regard.

Sunday, May 26, 2019


TCM ran a bunch of religious-themed movies on Easter, and I recorded a couple that I hadn't done posts on yet. One of those was Barabbas.

Anthony Quinn stars as Barabbas, a name Christians will recognize from one key scene in the Gospels. Jesus is set to be crucified during Passover, and Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Arthur Kennedy) knows of the old Jewish tradition that during the Passover season, one of the condemned is to be set free. So he offers the Jews a choice: Jesus, or the thief and murderer Barabbas. The crowd chooses to pardon Barabbas, leaving Jesus to be crucified.

Barabbas goes home to his girlfriend Rachel (Silvana Mangano), and her mother Sara (Katy Jurado). They actually believe in Jesus and that he's going to rise again on the third day, something Barabbas thinks is nonsense. And yet, come the third day, Jesus has disappeared from his tomb! Barabbas doesn't know what to think or do.

Unfortunately for him, opinion among the early Christians is sharply divided on how to treat him. There's a lot of ostracism of both him and Rachel, and Rachel eventually gets stoned to death, while Barabbas gets arrested by the Romans. They can't execute him because of the prior pardon, so instead they send him to the sulfur mines in Sicily.

The sulfur mines are a brutal life, as the chemicals are blinding, and the lack of light in the mines will blind them anyway if they come back out to the light. Never mind the back-breaking labor. Somehow, Barabbas is able to survive for ages, much longer than any of the other slaves, and is eventually chained to Sahak (Vittorio Gassman). When he saves Sahak during a mine explosion, he gets his sentence commuted to less back-breaking work farming.

It's there that he meets Julia (Valentina Cortese) and her husband Rufio, the two procuring Barabbas and Sahak and making them gladiators in Rome. There, Barabbas meets many more Christians, who by now seem amazed to meet somebody who was actually in the presence of Jesus. But being a gladiator is tough, and dealing with Torvald (Jack Palance), the best gladiator of them all, isn't going to be easy.

Barabbas is an interesting movie that's not without its flaws. Quinn is quite good as the man who has a pretty severe crisis of faith, which frankly would be understandable if your life was spared so somebody else could be executed. He also has difficulty comprehending how the Christians can still have their faith especially in light of the way the Romans treat them. Palance is good as the villain, looking like he's having loads of fun. Everybody else is adequate, getting their scenes and then departing from the movie since this is all about Barabbas.

The big problem I had with the movie is in part due to its production. Dino de Laurentiis produced, with a multinational cast and filming locations around Italy. Valentina Cortese, when she was in Day for Night a dozen years later, had a line about how Fellini (not the director here, but this is I think indicative of Italian movies) let the actors speak numbers and then do their dialogue in post-production. All of the dialogue here had the distinct feeling of having been done in post, and as such feels really detached from the rest of the movie. For some reason more than a lot of other movies, I found it really jarring here.

Overall, though, Barabbas is certainly worth a watch. It's available on DVD too.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Chase a Crooked Shadow

My latest movie viewing was the 1958 thriller Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Produced by an international company headed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and distributed by Warner Bros., the movie starts off with a couple of people watching film of a villa on the Spanish Mediterranean coast somewhere south of Barcelona. The villa is owned by Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter), who's returning there after a difficult period in her life, but more on that in a bit, especially because her life is about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Kimberley was at a party of some sort and returns home late one night. Following close behind is some strange man who worms his way into her house! She doesn't recognize the guy at all, so after having enough of it, she calls the local police chief, Vargas (Herbert Lom), who comes out to the house. After a shrill back-and-forth between Kimberley and the unknown man, he hands his documents to Vargas, which show that the man is... Ward Prescott (Richard Todd), Kimberley's brother! How can that possibly be, Kimberley asks. Quite rightly, too, since Ward died in a car crash back in their native South Africa and Kimberley had to identify the body. This, combined with the fact that the guy didn't just come out and say he was Ward leads any reasonable viewer to conclude he's an impostor.

Kimberley of course continues to insist that Ward is an impostor, even if Vargas doesn't believe her because all the evidence including a tattoo in the right location checks out. She gets the idea that Ward is trying to drive her crazy, Kind Lady style, and that would seem to be another obvious implication when you consider that Ward tries to do things like take away Kimberley's access to car keys and install new staff as well as his friend Whitman (Faith Brook).

As this Ward who probably isn't Ward continues putting the screws on Kimberley, we learn that the family had a rather complicated dynamic. Dad was the head of a business in South Africa but was old and frail. Fearing losing control of the business, combined with his son's death, caused him to commit suicide. Ward, meanwhile, had stolen a bunch of diamonds from the company safe and was absconding with them at the time of his death, so when Kimberley got Ward's effects she got the hidden diamonds -- and couldn't bring herself to put them back in the safe or otherwise inform the authorities! So now whe know why a fake Ward would show up, to get those diamonds.

Or is there more? Kimberley discovers that Ward is trying to force her to sign an amended will to get those diamonds, and has the brilliant insight that if she can get this guy's fingerprints, they won't match Ward's and she'll be safe. By the same token, Vargas has surely been doing some investigating and learned that this can't really be Ward. After all, a few short calls to the national authorities and getting in touch with the South African embassy would have to yield news stories about Ward's death, wouldn't it?

How it all winds up, I can't tell you, as you'll understand why once you get to the end credits. I have to admit that as I was watching it I found myself thinking of a louder, less appealing version of Kind Lady (hence my mentioning it above). Baxter is shrill and too many of Ward's actions should be something that could be seen through. However, the ending does wrap things up and answer questions in an interesting way. just about redeeming the movie and making it passable if not great.

Chase a Crooked Shadow is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Christmas in May

Tonight's TCM Underground lineup is two Christmas movies with a reputation for being a bit odd. First up is an import from Mexico by way of an American producer, Santa Claus at 2:00 AM. That will be followed at 4:00 AM by Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I had recorded the former the last time it ran in TCM Underground, and as far as I could tell at the time it was out of print on DVD, so I decided to watch it now since it's on the schedule.

The first thing you have to understand is that the movie was originally made in Mexico for domestic audiences, and as such it takes a Mexican look at jolly old St. Nick (who was, after all, a Catholic saint), one which is rather different at times from the American image of Santa. The American rights to the movie were bought by American producer K. Gordon Murray, who had previously brought an edited version of The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy to America.

This version of Santa lives not at the north pole, but above it in a castle on a cloud, and has child "helpers" instead of elves, although I wondered where he got the helpers from. Santa being a Catholic saint is opposed by Satan, who sends one of his minions Pitch to try to turn all the good little boys and girls naughty. And if that doesn't work, he'll try to prevent Santa from delivering all those gifts. Now, Santa has a lot of tools at his disposal courtesy of the wizard Merlin (seriously), such as a magic key that opens all locks, and a flower that makes him disappear so people don't see him.

The main story revolves around a couple of children, a poor girl who wants only a doll for Christmas, but her parents can't afford even that. There's also a middle-class boy who only wants his parents to be there to spend more time with him. They even dress up to go out on Christmas Eve, and I figured they were going to a midnight Mass, but actually they were going to a restaurant! Late on Christmas Eve, no less. Wouldn't everything be closed down?

The climax of the movie comes when Pitch cuts the pouch containing Santa's flower of invisibility and his sleeping dust, rendering him helpless from being spotted. Pitch sends a mad dog after Santa, treeing him, and then whispers in people's ears to get them to call the cops on an intruder who is of course Santa.

I had heard of the movie and its reputation for being spectacularly strange and bad. In fact, the movie's main sin is being incredibly bland. The idea of Santa vs. Satan, which apparently does have a tradition in Mexico, is actually not a bad one. But the color is washed out, the acting is bad and not helped by the dubbing, and the plot is threadbare and glacial. It's a shame the movie isn't more interesting, either in a good or a bad way.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #254: Movies adapted from movies in a different language

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 movies adapted from movies in a different language, which I'm going to assume means English-language movies that are remakes of a foreign film. Otherwise, I could mention how in the early days of sound, Hollywood would often make multiple versions of a film in different languages for various markets. Greta Garbo, for example, appeared in both an English and German-language version of Anna Christie. Garbo spricht! Anyway, I still picked three relatively old movies, with all three foreign films having been made in the 1930s:

The Long Night (1947). A remake of one of the seminal French noirs, 1939's Daybreak (or Le jour se lève), this movie stars Henry Fonda as a man who, at the start of the movie, is holed up in an apartment surrounded by the police. It turns out he's wanted for murder, and he spends the long night thinking back on how he wound up here, a story that involves his girlfriend Barbara Bel Geddes; the woman who leads him astray (Ann Dvorak); and the man controlling her (Vincent Price).

M (1951). This remake of Fritz Lang's 1951 classic is moved from Berlin to Los Angeles and starts David Wayne as the man with a compulsion for little girls and their shoes, and a compulstion to kidnap and kill them. The resulting police investigation (led by Howard da Silva) puts a crimp on organized crime (led by Martin Gabel), so they try to find the murderer before the police and administer their own justice.

Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939). Ingrid Bergman came to Hollywood to remake her earlier Swedish film Intermezzo. Bergman plays a pianist who is selected by a prominent violinist (Leslie Howard) to be his accompanist on his next tour. The two fall in love, but Howard is already married, so any thought of them winding up together is questionable. Ingrid continues to pine for Leslie, however. I actually have the Swedish version on DVD as part of the Criterion box set of Bergman's early Swedish films, so I'll have to get around to doing a review on it some day.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Brief notes on Lady Street Fighter

Some time back, TCM ran Lady Street Fighter as part of TCM Underground. I wasn't aware of the film's provenance, but recorded it to do a post here.

There's not much of a plot. It starts off with a woman getting tortured to death being asked about the location of a Macguffin. More specifically, it's a stuffed dog that contains a list (I'd guess on microfilm) of hired killers for Assassins, Inc. The dead woman's sister, Linda Allen (Renee Harmon), flies in from Amsterdam to investigate and gain revenge. Any number of baddies are trying to kill her.

Also in on the case is the FBI, who have put their agent Pollitt (Jody Mcrea) on it. What the FBI doesn't know is that he's one of the hired killers, and is out to kill Linda. Meanwhile, they find out that a man who organizes bizarre sex parties might know something about the whereabouts of the dog, so Linda wangles her way into that party.

Or that's roughly the plot, if you can follow it. I found the plot a mess, and reading the IMDb reviews, I'm not alone. But the bad plot isn't the only problem. The dialogue was added in in post, and sounds terrible for it. The lighting is awful. Some of the scenes are obviously supposed to be shot day-for-night, which in and of itself isn't a big deal because lots of movies did that and even François Truffaut knew what he was doing. But these scenes shift between looking dark and looking like daylight!

Lady Street Fighter was apparently made in the late 1970s, but couldn't get a cinematic release, so it went straight to video in 1981, hence IMDb's listing of it that way. (Indeed, the image quality made me think it was done on the sort of videotape that professional TV programs of the time used.) I wouldn't normally think about doing posts on videos, well, not counting movie clips and trailers posted to Youtube. But when I watched it, I didn't know it could be considered straight-to-video.

In any case, Lady Street Fighter is an absolute mess, but one I'm glad I watched once. It has since gotten a DVD release, but it seems rather pricey if you ask me.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tony Rome extras

A few weeks back when I did a post on Tony Rome, I mentioned that the cheap box set DVD I got it on has a bunch of trailers to other movies included. Not having anything else to write about today, I decided to pop in the DVD and take some screeshots to see the quality of the trailers.

I think I've stated before that a lot of the old trailers that TCM runs when they're promoing a movie coming up look relatively poor compared to the original movie. With that in mind, I was refreshingly pleased to see that the trailers I selected didn't look too bad.

Here's one from the beginning of the trailer to Lady in Cement, the sequel to Tony Rome. The trailer also had underwater shots that looked surprisingly good on my computer monitor. This one is also in the box set so someday I'll get around to it.

Next up is One Million Years B.C.. You thought I was going to select a screenshot of a scantily clad Raquel Welch, didn't you? Instead, I decided to go with a wide shot of a giant turtle courtesy of Ray Harryhausen (who else?).

Finally is the grainiest of the shots, from Bandolero!. This trailer had some shots that looked surprisingly good, and some that looked this sort of grainy that I would have expected. In all of the trailers I watched I didn't notice the sort of washed-out color that I see in a lot of other trailers or featurettes, which again I thought was unexpected.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Shake Hands With the Devil

Another recent movie watch for me was the 1959 drama Shake Hands With the Devil.

Don Murray plays Kerry O'Shea, an American medical student in Dublin in 1921. This is the era when the IRA was still fighting for independence from the UK, so even when Kerry is at his parents' grave, he runs into a contretemps between the two sides, as the IRA tries to smuggle weapons through the cemetery. Kerry, for his part, is neutral in the conflict, having served in World War I and gotten his fill of fighting in France. He's in Ireland strictly to repatriate his late mother's body, and stayed to study medicine under professor Sean Lenihan (James Cagney).

Of course, events are going to come for Kerry regardless of what he wants. One night when he and his roommate are walking home from the pub, they encounter another skirmish between the IRA and the British forces, known as the "Black and Tans". Gunshots are fired, and Kerry, being a medical student, tries to help while the shooting is still going on. Admirable, but also kind of stupid. Kerry's roommate gets shot, and in the resulting confusion Kerry drops one of his textbooks that has his name on it. The British are going to be able to find him.

So it's either join with the IRA or try to get himself smuggled out of Ireland, and Kerry opts for the latter. He's taken to a safe house on the coast somewhere south of Dublin, an action organized by Lenihan, who is apparently in cahoots with the IRA. Kerry's about to find out it's only the tip of the iceberg. The safe house is on a farm and populated by a bunch of fugitives, helped out by go-between and provider of other comforts Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns).

One day, the thoroughly neutral and virtuous Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) goes to Dublin for the flower show. Of course, it turns out that she's not nearly so neutral, as she's being given the task of smuggling a prominent IRA leader out of Dublin in the trunk of her Rolls-Royce. However, the Black and Tans stop every car, including hers, and when they search, they find the IRA guy, so of course it's off to prison for Lady Fitzhugh. The local IRA cell retaliates by taking Miss Curtis (Dana Wynter), daughter of a prominent British official, hostage. Kerry starts to fall in love with her while she's in captivity.

Lenihan is having none of it, as he finds everybody around him is getting increasingly disloyal. Or at least, in his eyes, not as if it's actually going on. As for Kerry, he's trapped in the safe house with no real way to get out of Ireland, and finds himself getting drawn further into the conflict....

Shake Hands With the Devil is a well-made drama with mostly good performances. Cagney is quite good as the increasingly nasty IRA man. Murray is a bit bland, although there's enough going on around him that it doesn't matter. Glynis Johns is really good too, in a much less wholesome role than anything else I've ever seen her do. There are a lot of other people I haven't mentioned, such as Michael Redgrave as the head of the IRA, or a young Richard Harris as one of the men at the safe house.

I have to admit that I'm not too terribly interested in that period of Irish history, but even I liked Shake Hands With the Devil. I think you will too.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sweet and Low-Down

A movie that FXM too out of the vault a few months back and still has in its rotation is Sweet and Low-Down, which is going to be on FXM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Benny Goodman plays Benny Goodman, which is a good thing because he couldn't play anybody else. This movie gives him the back story of having grown up around a settlement house and learning there how to play the clarinet. Now that he's a successful bandleader, he wants to give back to the house by giving a free concert there whenever he's in town. One of the kids in attendance has an older brother who he thinks is an excellent trombone player, but who has never gotten a chance to show off his ability since he works at a factory all day. So the kid steals Goodman's clarinet, with the obvious idea of staying just far enough ahead of Goodman so that they'll all wind up meeting the older brother.

That brother, Johnny Birch (James Cardwell), turns out to be an excellent trombonist, and Goodman offers him a place in the band right then and there because of his fondness of people who came through the settlement house. Not only that, but Goodman plans to start building Birch up. (One wonders what the other musicians really think.) Their first gig is at a military school, where Birch meets Trudy (Linda Darnell), who is there passing herself off as a teenager for her nephew who is one of the cadets. Johnny thinks she's too young for him and too forward, but you know they're going to meet again in New York. The other woman is the band's singer Pat (Lynn Bari).

Eventually the band does get to New York, where Trudy is able to patch things up with Johnny. But Pat is jealous. She's got an agent who is constantly trying to wheedle more out of Goodman, so the two of them get the idea to drive a wedge between Johnny and Trudy, as well as between Johnny and Benny. Johnny's going to have to learn some lessons before he can truly become successful....

Sweet and Low-Down is the sort of feel-good movie that studios were churning out during World War II, relatively light and undemanding with a happy ending and a lot of good music. In fact, the music is the best part of the movie. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the two male leads are both incredibly wooden when they're not playing music. Johnny is also too stupid if he thinks he's going to get success right away, but that's what the plot requires. The running sub-plot about Jack Oakie's character wanting to make it into the band is supposed to provide comic relief but really doesn't.

If you want nice music, you'll get that here. If you want a great movie, you won't.

I believe Sweet and Low-Down is available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The cities around Alice

Continuing my futile quest to free up space on my DVR, I decided to watch Alice in the Cities to do a post on it here.

Rüdifer Vogler plays Philip, a German journalist who is doing a feature story on America and as part of that story driving through the country, seeing the parts that tourists don't see. He seems bored by it all, not doing much writing but taking a whole bunch of Polaroid shots. (Did anybody ever get Polaroids to come out looking this good?) Philip gets to New York with a whole bunch of photos but no story, pissing his boss off to no end. Philip wants to go back to Germany to write the actual story.

Unfortunately, Philip is going to have to take a detour to get back to Germany, since the air traffic controllers are on strike, effectively closing off German airspace. He'll have to fly to someplace like Amsterdam and get to Germany from there. At the airport, he meets Lisa (Elisabeth Kreuzer), a woman who's obviously got a complicated life with a huge back story that's never fully revealed. She's got a daughter Alice (Yella Rotländer) and no husband, instead having lived in various places with various men, and deciding she needs to get out of her current situation in New York.

Philip helps them get their tickets since their English is very limited, and in exchange Lisa eventually lets Philip spend the night in their hotel room since he's quite short on money. Philip takes Alice to the Empire State Building, while Lisa goes presumably to break off the relationship with her current partner. But the result is that Lisa doesn't show up for the flight, saying instead that she'll meet up with Philip and Alice a day later in Amsterdam.

Philip and Alice have a day to spend in Amsterdam, and on the next day, he waits for the incoming passengers... and Lisa is not among them. What to do with Alice? She supposedly remembers having grandparents somewhere in Germany, but she's not quite certain which city, or what her grandparents' surname is, these being Mom's parents. The two set off for Germany to find the grandparents.

Eventually Philip gets the right idea and takes Alice to a police station to let them handle things, but Alice decides to run away and join up with Philip again in her quest for her grandparents. Frankly, at this point I would have taken her right back to the police, but Philip decides he'd rather help Alice and ignore the fact that the police might get the wrong idea and arrest him.

To be honest, Alice in the Cities was not my kind of movie. It's talky, slow, and frankly, I found myself not liking any of the characters, which is a big problem when there are only two main characters. There's some interesting cinematography, such as places in the US that probably aren't there any more, and also the Wuppertal monorail. But that was about it for me. Other people praise the movie, however, for whatever message they perceive it as trying to put across.

Alice in the Cities is available on DVD as part of a Criterion box set of movies from its director, Wim Wenders. That means it's pricey and not something I'd drop money on. But as always, judge for yourself, especially if you can do the streaming thing and it should show up on the Criterion Channel.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Alias French Gertie

Not too long ago, TCM ran a new-to-me early talkie, Alias French Gertie. It's been released to DVD by Grapevine Video, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

Bebe Daniels plays the title role, a woman who at the start of the movie is a maid for a wealthy couple, speaking French and with apparently limited English. This is of course a ruse; this maid is actually "French Gertie" Jones, a known jewel thief. She's planning to take her boss's necklace, but she's stopped when another crook comes into the picture. This is safe-cracker Jimmy Hartigan (Ben Lyon), and he stops her from taking the necklace. However, the cops, led by Detective Kelcey (Robert Emmett O'Connor) show up. Jimmy takes the fall for Gertie.

It's love at first sight, but second sight is going to take a while because Jimmy has to go to prison. He gets out and Gertie decides she's going to try to make Jimmy go straight. And it looks like she may be able to succeed. The young lovers meet an older couple, the Matsons (John Ince and Daisy Belmore). Mr. Matson is a stockbroker, and needs a new partner who has money to invest. Supposedly Jimmy has some money saved up from his past life of crime or something, so he does have the money to invest.

And things actually go well -- at least until it turns out that Mr. Matson is a criminal himself, fleecing Jimmy out of all his life savings. It's almost enough to make Jimmy turn back to crime. But dammit, Gertie doesn't want that at all.

In some ways, Alias French Gertie is a typically creaky early talkie. But it's also reasonably entertaining. Daniels and Lyon work well together, and would wind up getting married and staying together for 40 years until Daniels' death. For people not used to early sound, I'd recommend other stuff first, but for people who already like movies of the period, Alias French Gertie is a worthwhile watch.

Schedule notes for May 18, 2019

A couple of weeks back, I blogged about the 1935 version of Les Misérables and mentioned that it seems to be out of print on DVD. I hadn't noticed at the time I watched that it was going to be on FXM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. If I had, I probably would have held off watching it so that I could do the full-length post on it today for tomorrow's airing.

Last Saturday morning on TCM saw the final chapter of the 1940 Flash Gordon serial, which means there's going to be a new serial starting this Saturday, that being 1946's Lost City of the Jungle. There are 13 chapters which I think means that due to Summer Under the Stars, the last chapter should be airing on September 14. This was also the last film for Lionel Atwill, who died during filming.

Also in the Saturday matinee block, have fun with the Three Stooges in an early one as they appear with Ted Healy, at 11:30 AM. You may recall Healy showing up with "his" stooges in the 1933 movie Dancing Lady starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #253: Letters

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week the theme is letters, which I'm assuming is intended in the sense of mail and not letters of the alphabet. With that in mind, I didn't have too much difficulty coming up with three old movies:

The Letter (1929). Bette Davis made this story famous with her 1940 version, but I'm going to pick the 1929 version, starring Jeanne Eagels as a woman living in Malaya with her husband who takes up a lover (Herbert Marshall), only to shoot him dead in self-defense. Or so she claims; there's a letter from her to him that's fallen into the wrong hands that might throw some shade on her self-defense claim, and she has to get it back. Eagels would die not long after the movie was released due to complications from her heroin addiction, and the "heroin chic" really shows. Eagels, however, is spectacular in this one.

Cause for Alarm! (1951). Barry Sullivan plays a slightly paranoid man with some health issues married to Loretta Young. When he realizes that the doctor treating him is an old boyfriend of hers, he writes a letter to a prosecutor friend saying he's worried that the wife and doctor are trying to kill him. Just as the letter is getting sent, Sullivan actually drops dead, so Loretta realizes that dammit, she absolutely has to get that letter back. Of course, you're not supposed to interfere with the post office....

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Louis Jourdan plays a concert pianist in 1900 Vienna who has been challenged to a duel the next morning, a challenge he has no intention of accepting. But then he gets a letter from someone in his past. That woman (Joan Fontaine) knew him when she was an adolescent and he was a struggling pianist and military cadet, and they met on several occasions, with she having a much greater love for him than the other way around. The relationship led to a tragic life for Fontaine, causing Jourdan to ponder his own situation.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Fate is the Hunter

The second of the two new-to-me movies that showed up on FXM at the beginning of May is Fate Is the Hunter. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 11:20 AM, as well as twice over the Memorial Day weekend.

The movie starts off rather spectacularly. Rod Taylor plays Capt. Jack Savage, who is a pilot for Consolidated Airlines Flight 22, from Los Angeles to Seattle. 49 passengers board, along with a rookie stewardess and more experienced stewardess Martha Webster (a very young Suzanne Pleshette). The plane takes off, and shortly into the flight, one of the two jet engines blows out, forcing the plane to head back to Los Angeles for an emergency landing that should be routine since the planes were designed to land with just one engine. But they'll be delayed a bit by three planes coming in for a landing that are going to have to move out of the flight path. And then the alarm comes on for the other engine being out, and the radio goes dead. They're going to have to do a crash landing. And it would have worked too, if it weren't for that goddamn pier on the beach. Everybody but Martha dies.

Glenn Ford plays Sam McBane, the director of flight operations for Consolidated and up for an executive position. He used to be a pilot, having served during part of World War II alongside Savage, so this crash has hit him personally. It's about to get a lot more personal, though, as the vulturous media are circling. They want answers so that the lawyers can start suing somebody. Sabotage is quickly dismissed, as is mechanical error. More worrying, during the recovery process it's determined that the second engine did not in fact blow out, despite Martha having reported it. The only explanation left is pilot error.

Sam starts doing his own investigation before the Civil Aeronautics Board can crucify Savage, and finds that his old friend's reputation precedes him. Savage was a Jack Carson-like manipulator during the war, taking a cavalier attitude and taking other people's women, as with Sam's date with Jane Russell (playing herself). It's continued, with Savage having broken off an engagement with Lisa (Dorothy Malone in an uncredited role) to take up with ichthyologist Sally (Nancy Kwan). Savage was also seen cruising a series of bars with friend Mickey, whom Sam does not know.

The first day of the hearing into the crash doesn't go well (or realistically) at all, which gives Sam the ridiculous idea of taking another identical plane up into the air to determine what might have happened. (They didn't have nearly the quality of simulators then that they do now.) Will this reveal whether Savage was not in fact at fault?

Fate Is the Hunter isn't a bad movie, but I have to admit that as I was watching it, I found myself thinking that the material might have been better-suited to a TV Movie of the Week. There's a lot of talk going on, and much of the movie seems designed to give each of several names one big cameo scene. Still, it's entertaining enough if nothing spectacularly good.

As far as I'm aware, Fate Is the Hunter is not available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the FXM showings.