Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Narcissus of Color

I had Black Narcissus on my DVR for a while, it being one of those movies that the critics all think everybody should watch. So finally I watched it to do a review here.

The movie is set in India, presumably in the late 1930s since that's when the book on which it's based was published. In Calcutta, there's an order of Anglican nuns known as the Order of the Servants of Mary. They run a school as their missionary work, and the Reverend Mother has a mission for Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). Apparently there's an old palace up in the Himalayas that the order thinks would be perfect for starting a remote mission, and Clodagh is the perfect one to run it as the Sister Superior.

Sister Clodagh takes four nuns with her, and they go to meet Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the agent for the palace's owner, an old general (Esmond Knight). It's difficult to get to the palace, it being high on a cliff above the village in the valley below, and it's going to be a hard life for the nuns. A group of monks tried to make a go of the place some time back, and they left after a whopping five months. As in the old Lillian Gish movie, the wind is supposedly going to drive everyone crazy.

Still, Clodagh goes up to the palace with confidence, leading the other four nuns: Sister Briony (Judith Furst) is going to run the infirmary; Sister Honey (Judith Furse) for morale and teaching the making of lace to the local girls); Sister Philippa for gardening; and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), partly as a teacher and partly because the Reverend Mother thinks getting the already unstable Ruth away from Calcutta will be a good thing for Ruth.

Along the way, the nuns deal with the old caretaker Angu Ayah, and take custody of a young woman Kanchi (Jean Simmons). As Mr. Dean predicted, the location has a somewhat adverse effect on all of the nuns. Clodagh seems the most stable, but she starts remembering an old relationship back in her native Ireland that led her to join the order, one she hadn't thought about in ages. Ruth goes further nuts. Briony tries to help a sick baby, but the baby is beyond saving. So when she gives the baby medicine that's really harmless castor oil, the baby still dies and the locals in the valley below think the nuns caused the death.

Ruth decides she's going to leave the order and marry Mr. Dean, although he has no desire to marry her, and this finally pushes Ruth over the edge, literally and figuratively.

Black Narcissus is a beautiful movie to look at, which is a good thing because it's not exactly beautiful to think about. This is partly because of the dark story line, and partly because as with Camille, it feels as though there's a whole lot of nothing going on. The stunning visuals, however, make up for this to an extent, helped by the cinematography of Jack Cardiff and some extremely impressive matte paintings.

So, I can recommend Black Narcissus if you know going in that it's psychological and less on plot. It's available on a pricey Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Honor Blackman, 1925-2020

Honor Blackman (r.) and Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964)

Honor Blackman, who had a long career in film and TV but will probably be best remembered for playing Pussy Galore in the James Bond movie Goldfinger, has died at the age of 94.

In looking through her filmography, I see that she was in Conspirator, Elizabeth Taylor's first real adult role, which I had forgotten about. There's also Quartet, the first of the anthology movies based on the work of Somerset Maugham; A Night to Remember, about the night the Titanic hit the iceberg; and Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion masterpiece Jason and the Argonauts, among others.

Blackman also did a lot of TV work, most notably in the early seasons of The Avengers, although a lot of that work was in British TV and I don't know how much of that made it to this side of the Atlantic since I don't recognize it.

TCM Star of the Month April 2020: Jane Russell

Jane Russell in The Outlaw, tonight at 8:00 PM

Now that we're in the first full week of a new month, it's time for a new Star of the Month. This time out it's Jane Russell, and her movies are going to be airing every Monday in prime time. The salute starts off with her debut in The Outlaw, racily bringing Russell and her ample assets to the screen. Russell plays the girlfriend of Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) becoming the girlfriend of Billy the Kid (Jack Beutel), and it's a bit of a mess, since Howard Hughes was using the movie to promote his new discoveries.

I was mildly surprised to see that I didn't have much in the way of Russell pictures to illustrate this post with. One was a lobby card for The French Line (midnight April 21, or late evening April 20 in more westerly time zones), which is undemanding fun but nothing special. That's followed by what I think may be the TCM premiere of The Revolt of Mamie Stover, which I blogged about years ago back when it aired on FXM.

Of course, considering when I was born, the first I learned of Russell and her bustline was when she was hawking the Playtex Cross-Your-Heart Bra:

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Earth Girls Are Easy

Some months back, I mentioned picking up a DVD box set of cheap horror movies, having watched Blood Diner off of it. I had really picked up the set for what's almost certainly the best-known movie in the set, Earth Girls Are Easy, and recently watched that one.

A prologue has three aliens with colorful hair -- one blue, one yellow, and one red -- in a spaceship somewhere in outer space. They complain about not having had love, what with being out in space and all that. But they pick up some TV broadcasts from Earth that have women doing aerobics and other stuff. These women are shapely, and just as interesting to the aliens, relatively hairless. They locate the source of the broadcasts, and set out.

On Earth, Valerie (Geena Davis) is a manicurist at a salon in the Los Angeles suburbs where she works with Candy Pink (Julie Brown). She's engaged to Dr. Ted (Charles Rocket), but their sex life needs some spicing up, she thinks. So she decides she's going to do that spicing by not going to the convention she said she'd be attending, but instead surprising Ted when he gets home from work. What she doesn't realize is that he's been doing some spicing up of his own by seeing another woman. When she does find out, she kicks Ted out.

Thankfully, she's about to get some more spice in her life. Those aliens crash-land in her swimming pool (apparently the aliens have technology that makes the spaceship much bigger on the inside than the outside). The three aliens are blue Mac (Jeff Goldblum), yellow Zeebo (Jim Carrey) and red Wiploc (Damon Wayans). Both sides have the understandable apprehension about meeting their first live humanoid of another species. But the aliens, being intelligent enough to get to Earth, are also smart enough that they pick up the langauge relatively quickly through television. (Of course, they can't pick up everything that quickly, which will lead to the film's many humorous situations.)

Valerie realizes that Ted will probably sic the authorities on the three aliens if he meets them, so she takes them to the salon, where she has Candy do a makeover on them, revealing their very human-looking forms, and humorously turning Zeebo into a surfer dude. She then takes them out for a night on the town, where all the women love them even if they do cause a bit of havoc. Along the way, Valerie and Mac find themselves falling in love with each other, which is a problem in that Valerie is still engaged while Mac is going to have to go back to his home world.

Earth Girls is a really fun movie, largely because it knows that it's just silly little entertainment and doesn't take itself seriously, mostly being in on the joke. It's also a great time capsule of the late 1980s, at least as southern California likely saw itself. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about the performances other than to see a very young Jim Carrey; it's the comic material that raises everything. The movie effortlessly bounces from one comic scene to the next, with a couple of musical numbers thrown in that don't even really take away from the proceedings the way they do in a lot of musical movies.

If you want a fun, quirky little comedy that won't tax your brain but leave you smiling, I can absolutely recommend Earth Girls Are Easy.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Lady of the Camellias

Where yesterday's selection Our Time showed a young, naïve love, today's selection shows a rather more craven kind of love: the 1936 version of Camille.

Greta Garbo plays the lady of the camellias, named not Camille but Marguerite. She lives in the Paris of 1847 (just before the revolution of 1848 that brought Napoleon III to power but which isn't mentioned here; I couldn't do a good enough calculation of how long the events in the movie are spaced out to determine when it ended), where women of her sort woo wealthy men. Her matchmaker -- to use a polite term -- Prudence (Laura Hope Crews) is taking her to a theater where it's hoped she'll meet the wealthy Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell).

Unfortunately, she mistakes another man, Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), for de Varville. The two like each other, but he's only a diplomat's son and so of just moderate wealth. Armand falls in love with Marguerite, but he's not going to be able to support her in the manner to which she is accustomed.

The Baron, of course, could, but he's not going to marry her, especially when he knows what kind of woman she really is. In addition to being in love with another man, she's also a spendthrift, constantly owing money because she wants to spend on herself and even more so help others when possible. Armand's father (Lionel Barrymore) knows that Marguerite is financial bad news for Armand, but when he meets Marguerite he realizes that the two are in real, if doomed, love.

That doom isn't just because of Marguerite's profligate ways, but also because she has consumption, which in those days mean an early death, especially if Marguerite is living it up as she is. Armand and the Baron come in and out of Marguerite's life, until the three legs of the love triangle all meet at the opening of a new gambling club in Paris. Armand wins the money to pay Marguerite's debts off of the Baron in a game of baccarat, but it leads to a duel between Armand and the Baron which ultimately forces Armand to leave France. Will he be able to return before the consumption takes Marguerite?

Well, you can probably guess that the answer to that last question is yes, but that Armand sure won't be able to save Marguerite. Camille is the sort of movie that MGM was really good at making during Irving Thalberg's lifetime. It's got excellent production values, and a story and performances that I'm sure audiences of the 1930s loved.

However, watching it 80-plus years later, I realize that it's not exactly my cup of tea, as I felt like a whole lot of nothing was happening. Still, it's easy to see the quality of the movie, so I have no qualms about recommending it for people who know what they're getting into. The movie is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, should you wish to watch for yourself.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Not in the middle of our street

Another of the movies that I recently watched which is available on DVR is Our Time, one that was new to me when I saw it on the schedule.

The movie was made in the 1970s but set in 1955. Penfield is a private girls' school in Springfield MA. Abby (Pamela Sue Martin) and Muffy (Betsy Slade) are among the girls in the senior class, and like a lot of teenagers, among the things they talk about is sex, not that they're necessarily particularly knowledgeable on the subject. St. Anthony's is a nearby boys' school, where some of the girls' would-be boyfriends attend.

Early in the term, Penfield has a mixer with St. Anthony's where the students are supposed to be randomly paired, but of course everybody wants to be with one particular person. Abby wants to be with her boyfriend Michael (Parker Stevenson), who claims to have had sex already; Muffy wants to be with Buzzy (Michael Gray). But Buzzy wants to be with Ann, while it's Malcolm (Elroy Jetson; er, George O'Hanlon Jr.) who is really in love with the plain-looking Muffy and is right for her.

Abby and Michael decide they're going to violate rules and lie about where they're going for a weekend to go to Boston and finally have that sweet sweet sex they've been talking about, although it turns out to be awkward both for them and the viewer. Muffy, on the other hand, has to wait until Christmas. Buzzy shows up for a Christmas party where Muffy is in attendance and immediately makes a beeline for Ann. So Muffy goes outside with Malcolm and manipulates him into having sex with her in the back seat of a car.

This being a movie with a message, you can guess what happens next. Muffy only had sex that one time, but sure enough it's enough to get her pregnant. And this is the 1950s (not spoken in the tone of voice Bette Davis uses in Jezebel about getting with the times because it's the 1850s). So Muffy, Abby, and their boyfriends all go to Boston to get Muffy an abortion, which not only violates school rules but is still highly illegal, the movie being set 17 years before Roe v. Wade. Needless to say the abortion doesn't exactly go well for Muffy.

If you've been reading me putting snarky humor into this post, I think it's because that's a lot the way I was feeling as I watched the movie. It's not so much that the movie is bad (although it's not exactly good, either), although to be honest it does feel a bit off, which I think is because something gave me the vibe of 1970s production values for a movie set in the 1950s. Not only that, but 1970s teen movie. Instead, a lot of the snark is because I found myself laughing at thoroughly inappropriate times throughout the movie, which is not a comedy in any sense of the word. The ending is also emotionally flat, which is extrememly inappropriate for what's come before, as though there was a fair amount edited out.

So if you want to have some fun watching an interesting mess, you could do worse than to watch Our Time.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #299: Greed (The Seven Deadly Sins)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. The first Thursday of the month brings another entry in the "Seven Deadly Sins" theme. Having done Lust and Gluttony, now we get to Greed. I had two movies in mind right away, and it took me a little bit of time to come up with a good third movie without using Michael Douglas in Wall Street. But I was able to:

Greed (1924). ZaSu Pitts wins $5,000 (in early 1920s dollars) in the lottery and converts it to gold, becoming obsessive about getting more gold. This ultimately leads to the destruction of her, her husband (Gibson Gowland), and her former lover (Jean Hersholt), both of whom also want the gold. Director Erich von Stroheim famously presented the bosses with a cut of the movie that ran about nine hours, which the producers eventually cut down to about 140 minutes because who was going to sit down to watch a nine-hour movie?

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). New Hampshire farmer James Craig wants more prosperity, so the devil, as Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), preys upon Craig's greed by offering him wealth in exchange for his soul. The newfound wealth brings all sorts of problems to Craig and his family, and when the time comes for Mr. Scratch to redeem the soul, our farmer turns to the greatest lawyer of the day, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). The movie was also known as All That Money Can Buy because, despite being based on a famous short story, it was released shortly after The Devil and Miss Jones, and the producers didn't want the confusion.

Raton Pass (1951). Greedy Patricia Neal marries wealthy rancher Dennis Morgan. But it's really just a ruse to gain control of Morgan's ranch, first with railroad man Scott Forbes and then, when Forbes is horrified by Neal's actions, hired gun Steve Cochran. Morgan fights back with the settlers who have always hated him because rancher/settler conflicts were often a thing in these old westerns.

New York in the 70s

Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Klute (1971), airing tonight at midnight

Now that we're into a new month, it's time for new programming features on TCM. The first one up is going to be a look at New York City in the 1970s, which was originally scheduled to air every Thursay night in prime time, although because of the cancellation of the live TCM Film Festival the original schedule for the 16th has been moved to Tuesday, April 28. It doesn't say on TCM's webpage for the spotlight whether anybody is going to be co-hosting, but then now that the channel doesn't have an elderly and ailing Robert Osborne and more regular hosts than they used to they probably don't need to find new hosts for the spotlights.

This first Thursday sees a couple of really good movies, starting at 8:00 PM with The Panic in Needle Park, with Al Pacino playing a small-time heroin dealer and big-time user who, like all the other users, has to deal with the cops' attempt to shut down distribution, making the drug less available.

Then, at 10:00 PM is The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, starring Walter Matthau as a transit cop who has to deal with one of the subway trains being hijacked by Robert Shaw.

I especially want to mention Klute (midnight) again, since this one has received a DVD release from the Criterion Collection since the last time I mentioned it the movie was still not in print on DVD; Criterion release only came out last summer.

The night concludes with a pair of new-to-me movies, Fingers at 2:15 AM and Report to the Commissioner at 4:00 AM.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020


During one of the free preview weekends, I recorded Chocolat onto the DVR. It's going to be on tomorrow at 2:45 AM on HBO Family (three hours later if you only have the west coast feed), and again on Friday on HBO 2.

Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, a woman with a young daughter Anouk. The two come to a small town in late-1950s France, and Vianne decides that she's going to settle down for a while. There's an empty storefront across from the church, so Vianne finds the owner Amande (Judi Dench) and asks to rent the store and the apartment above. Amande's plan is to open up a chocolaterie, with homemade fine chocolates. Now, frankly, I found myself wondering how such a business could survive in such a small village considering the prices and that it's not much of a market.

But economics aren't Vianne's problem; instead, she faces cultural difficulties. She had the great bad sense to decide to open the place right at the start of Lent, and as the movie is set before Vatican II, there's still a fair amount of religiosity in parts of France. This particular village is also one of the more conservative villages out there, having been led by the Comte (Alfred Molina), who is the mayor and bosses everybody around, especially the local priest, as well as dullard Serge (Peter Stormare). Serge is a brute too, in that he bets his wife Josephine (Lena Olin).

The sudden presence of a bohemian naturally brings a change to the village; otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie, would we. Amande is the first to warm to Vianne. She turns out to be diabetic and probably dying. She's always been a bit more of a free spirit, enough to attract her grandson to her and the shop too despite the wishes of the boy's mother. There's also Josephine, who decides to run away from Serge and go to Vianne to become Vianne's apprentice.

Still, the Comte doesn't like Vianne's store, and it's about to get worse for Vianne. Into town comes a group of itinerants who travel by boat, doing some sort of labor that apparently pays for their lifestyle. One of them is Roux (Johnny Depp), who offers to fix Vianne's doors. They fall in love pretty quickly, and that really pisses off the Comte for some reason. Disaster happens, and it's nearly enough to make Vianne leave town....

Chocolat is a movie that got a lot of praise when it was released, and it's one that made me think of a couple of other movies. Unfortunately, they were unfavorable comparisons. The first was Antonia's Line, another movie about a quirky postwar village. But where that one was mostly fun, Chocolat felt like it was trying to hit me over the head even more with Vianne's quirkiness and how it makes everybody change. The movie probably should have been more of a light comedy than a drama with some comedy.

The other movie was Darkest Hour, a movie where I had serious problems with the intrusive camera movement. I noticed a fair amount of similar camerawork here, especially when there were establishing shots. One other problem I felt was in continuity, although that's probably going to be less of a problem for other people. The movie is supposed to be set between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but a fair amount of the movie happens in an outdoors that seems much too warm for the season, even if this is southwest France.

Still, the performances are fairly good, and the movie did get a lot of praise from everybody else, so most of you will probably like it more than I did. It seems to be out of print on DVD, but if you don't have the premium channels, you can also watch it on Amazon streaming.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Lost Squadron

Some time back I DVRed The Lost Squadron on TCM, and only now got around to watching it. It's another of the movies available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so now's the time to do the blog post on the movie.

The movie starts on the morning of November 11, 1918, a few hours before the end of World War I. Four men: Gibby (Richard Dix), Woody (Robert Armstrong), Red (Joel McCrea) and Fritz (Hugh Herbert) are American flyers who went off to France to fight in the war and became friends as a result. The war ends, and the four vow to remain friends forever, going home to pick up the lives they left behind when they joined up for the war effort.

Yeah, right. Each of them gets home and finds that life is going to be vastly different for them. Gibby had a girlfriend in Follette (Mary Astor) who is an aspiring actress; she took a different boyfriend while Gibby was away. Woody had a business he left behind, and the partner embezzled all the money, leaving Woody flat broke. Red could have his old job back, but with the economic downturn, the boss has to fire somebody else to bring back Red, in this case a man whose wife gave birth not too long ago. Red isn't about to let that happen.

Not having any economic prospects, Red, Gibby, and Fritz decide to become hobos, hopping a freight train that will eventually take them to Los Angeles. Silent films are the big thing, the movie being set in the early 1920s, and our three friends stop by the premiere of director Arthur von Furst's (Erich von Stroheim) latest aviation picture. Whom should they meet but Woody, who has made it in Hollywood as a stunt pilot!

Woody vows to do what he can to get the other three guys jobs in the movie industry, as there's always a place for a good stunt pilot. Woody also introduces them to his sister, nicknamed "The Pest" (Dorothy Jordan). Gibby and Red both eventually fall in love with The Pest.

Woody is able to get the others jobs on the crew of von Furst's new movie, and who should be playing the female lead in the new picture but Follette! Not only that, but she's now Mrs. von Furst. Unfortunately, the director is a hard taskmaster, and uses planes that aren't in the best of condition. Making things more worrying for everybody is that Woody drinks, so they all wonder whether he can do his stunts.

Gibby, on meeting Follette, finds that she still holds a flame for him, something which is bound to enrage von Furst when he finds out. And when he does, he decides he's going to sabotage Gibby's plane. Only, Woody gets in that plane to do the stunt....

The Lost Squadron is a well-made movie, but I can't help but think at the same time that it's not necessarily going to be for everybody. That's partly because it's an early talkie, and not nearly as polished as later movies, which I think is a bit of a problem in the stunts. Something felt off that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I also feel like this particular love triangle (or the multiple triangles) came across a bit old-fashioned by modern sensibilities, more so than in other 1930s movies.

That's not to say that The Lost Squadron is a bad movie. It's just that there's other stuff from that era that I'd recommend first.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Remind me why I'm not an Ernest Hemingway fan again

Another recent movie watch was the Spencer Tracy version of The Old Man and the Sea.

I read the novella in either eighth- or ninth-grade English class (I don't remember which), so the story was already well known to me, as it probably is for a lot of you. Spencer Tracy plays the old man, since there isn't any way he's playing the sea. Tracy also serves as the narrator, reading what I presume is text straight from Hemingway's story. The old man is a Cuban fisherman who probably ought to retire if he had a family to support him in his dotage, but one assumes he doesn't. He's been going out every day, but for the last 84 days has failed to catch a fish.

He's got a friend in The Boy (Felipe Pazos Jr.) who used to go out on the boat with him, but hasn't in some while. The Boy helps with errands, but most of the story involves the old man out at sea alone. He sets up lines of varying length, the point I guess being that different types of fish are normally found at different depths. And then he waits, and waits...

Eventually he gets a bite on the deepest line, a fish that must be pretty strong because it's able to drag his boat farther out to sea. Eventually the old man sees the fish surface, and it's a huge marlin, bigger than his boat. No wonder he's had so much trouble hauling it in. In fact, the old man winds up fighting the fish for something like three days.

The old man does catch the fish, but it's too big to put on his boat, so he has to lash it to the side of his boat. However, he also had to harpoon it to kill it, and that means blood poured out into the ocean. You can probably guess what blood in the water means....

The Old Man and the Sea is a well-enough made movie, and Tracy gives a pretty good performance. But the movie has a pretty big problem with the source material, which is pretty sparse. The movie runs 86 minutes, but even at that it's slooooooow for substantial stretches as there's not much to do but wait for the old man to try to catch the fish. However, I'm glad I did finally get around to watching it.

Having been produced at Warner Bros., The Old Man and the Sea is unsurprisingly available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Another French Connection

A movie that's been in the FXM Retro lately has been French Connection II. It's going to be on FXM again tomorrow at 9:45 AM, and again twice a week and change from now.

As you can guess from the title, this is a sequel to the Oscar-winning movie The French Connection. If you remember that movie, about New York cops trying to break a heroin smuggling ring originating in Marseilles, France, you'll recall that Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the French leader of that smuggling operation, got away at the end. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is the only person who can recognize Charnier, his partner Buddy apparently having left the force or something since Roy Schedier does not reprise his role. So the NYPD send Popeye over to France to help the French police on their end of the investigation.

All of this even though Popeye doesn't speak a word of French; as I stated the justification given is that he knows Charnier on sight and the people who speak French presumably don't. So Popeye is going to be a fish out of water, which is one of the themes here. Indeed, he shows up at a fish market, which is where he's supposed to meet his contact, Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), because the French police claim there might be stuff smuggled in through the fish. Or maybe they're just playing an April Fools' joke on Popeye, since they're not happy having him here.

It's not just that Popeye doesn't speak French and is going to be dependent on them; it's that they've read his police files and he is, well, an American policeman, quick to use his gun. That, of course, is strictly forbidden in France, never mind that Popeye is a policeman. He's not French, so no gun. (Except, of course, that he's smuggled one in.) And, indeed, Popeye botches the very first part of the investigation he's allowed to shadow the French cops on.

Anyhow, after this, they do let Popeye do some legwork, at least using his eyes to look out for things. It seems that an obvious place to look is at the port in Marseilles, since that's one of the big functions of the city, and it's an obvious place for drugs to get in and out of the country if it's not going elsewhere on the continent.

Popeye is apparently getting too close to Charnier, as a couple of his goons kidnap him and hold him prisoner for several days, during which time they inject him with enough heroin to make him have serious withdrawal symptoms. Charnier helps him recover in secrecy since having it become public knowledge that a cop went through heroin withdrawal would be very bad PR. After that, Popeye remembers where he was held captive, and that sets in motion the action-packed finale.

French Connection II isn't a bad movie, but it isn't nearly as good as the original. I think for me one of the big reasons was the kidnapping of Doyle and making him a heroin addict. That second act of the movie goes on way too long, and really drags down the pacing of the movie. Popeye's lack of French also makes for a lot of difficult dialogue, and I felt made it harder to keep track of what was going on in the movie.

On the plus side, the location shooting was great, and the seamy underside of Marseilles is just as well depicted as the original depicts the same underside in New York. Veteran actress Cathleen Nesbitt, probably best remembered in to American movie buffs for being the grandmother in An Affair to Remember or her role in Separate Tables, steals her one scene as a heroin addict who visits Popeye during his captivity. Overall, French Connection II is a nice entry in the cycle of 1970s crime/police procedural movies, even if there are better examples.

As far as I can tell, the movie is not in print on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the FXM showings.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Biogaphry of a Bachelor Girl

TCM ran the movie Biography of a Bachleor Girl not too long ago. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM if you want to watch it for yourself.

Ann Harding plays the titular unmarried woman, an artist named Marion Forsythe. She apparently gained some fame while she was over in Europe, and is now returning to her native America. Richard "Dickie" Kurt (Robert Montgomery in an odd pair of spectacles for him) is a magazine editor who has come up with a great idea to pitch to his publisher to help shore up the magazine's flagging fortunes. He'll get Marion to write her autobiography, which will be serialized in their magazine, and that will boost circulation.

Kurt goes to the boat Marion is sailing in on and finds that he's not the only one who wants her attention. There's also Feydak (Edward Arnold), brother of an artist Marion knew, but for whatever reason Feydak seems to drop out of the movie fairly early on. Eventually Kurt is able to talk to Marion about the biography, and since she's in need of money, she reluctantly accepts.

But this is going to cause other problems. Earlier in life, she met lawyer Leander "Bunny" Nelson (Edward Everett Horton) and apparently had a torrid affair with him. This shouldn't be a big deal nowadays, but for the mid-1930s such affairs probably were more scandalous. Bunny wasn't married at the time, but now he's engaged to Slade Kinnicott (Una Merkel), daughter of a newspaper publisher back in her and Bunny's home state. And Bunny is now running for the US Senate, so if news of that affair were to come out, he fears it would sink his candidacy.

So Bunny has what he feels is a perfectly good reason for trying to convince Marion not to write that memoir, while Kurt has own job to think of in trying to get Marion to fulfill their agreement. Eventually Marion goes back to a small town to consider her prospects, with everybody following her.

Biography of a Bachelor Girl came out in the beginning of 1935, and it really feels like the sort of movie that was badly neutered by the enforcement of the Production Code, which began in July 1934. There's a fair amount of potential in the material, but none of it was realized as the movie can't seem decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. There's also the disappearance of Feydak, and the whole small-town thing not working here the way it did in many other movies.

Biography of a Bachelor Girl does not seem to be on DVD as far as I can tell, so you're going to have to watch the TCM showing.

Friday, March 27, 2020

B.F.'s Daughter

Another of the movies from 31 Days of Oscar that I recently watched was B.F.'s Daughter.

B.F. is played by Charles Coburn. This is B.F. Fulton, an industrialist living in a posh New York mansion during the height of the Depression. His daughter, Polly, is played by Barbara Stanwyck. She's got a boyfriend who's not quite a fiancé in Robert Tasmin (Richard Hart), who works as a stockbroker. He wants to be successful on his own before marrying Polly, instead of relying on her father's wealth.

One day, Polly and her friend Apples (Margaret Lindsay) go to a speakeasy, where they meet Thomas Brett (Van Heflin, being cast with Stanwyck again after The Strange Love of Martha Ivers). He's an assistant professor of economics who also writes essays and gives public lectures. He's to the left of Franklin Roosevelt (the movie starts about a month before Roosevelt's first election), so he certainly wouldn't like B.F. But Tom and Polly hit it off, and Polly devises a scheme to meet Tom as a theater showing of Hamlet.

The relationship continues to the point that they're going to get married, a sort of elopement so that Tom can go off to a little cabin to write his next book. He also wants to go on a lecture tour, but the bookers aren't about to give prominence to an unknown like him. What he doesn't consider is that Polly has money, and to make her husband happy by helping him to succeed, she convinces the agent to let her back the lecture tour's profitability (without telling Tom, of course).

The lecture tour winds up being a success, Tom becomes famous, and by the time World War II is about to roll around, Tom gets an important position in the Roosevelt administration, something he relishes because it gives him the opportunity to fuck over the sort of person he doesn't like, much like politicians have always done and do even today. The job also comes with a lot of duties that keep him away from Polly.

So she tries to make him happy again by getting him a nice place in Connecticut, but it's here that Tom learns about Polly's having backed the original lecture tour, which pisses him off because he, like Tasmin (who married Apples), wanted to succeed on his own. It threatens to destroy their marriage.

However, this being an MGM movie, you know it's likely to have a happy ending. If there's one thing wrong with the movie, it's that MGM shine, as I mentioned regarding another Stanwyck/Heflin pairing, East Side, West Side. Both leads are good with the material they're given, but the material is infuriating at times. (It doesn't involve either Stanwyck or Heflin, but there was a scene regarding a World War II mission where I found myself saying out loud to the TV that military secrecy is being horrendously violated.) I also found the love at first sight between these two a little hard to believe here.

Still, I think there are a lot of good performances, not just from the two leads, but from Coburn, and Keenan Wynn as a lefty radio commentator friend of Tom's. (It's his radio commentary that violates military secrecy.) That all makes the movie worth a watch, even if it probably could have been better. The movie is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, so you can watch at your leisure.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #298: Documentary series (TV edition)

This being Thursday, it's normally 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. This month, the theme is documentary series. I've said a lot that I don't watch a lot of episodic television these days, so I don't know much about the current documentary series. This means I took the easy way out:

Nova (1974-present). PBS series of science documentaries, although I think in recent years they may have gotten away from hour-long documentaries to episodes with multiple pieces. I may be confusing that with Scientific American Frontiers, however, a different science series that ran on PBS from 1990 to 2005 and was hosted by Alan Alda.

Frontline (1983-present). PBS series with current events documentaries, taking a deeper look at one issue in the news over an hour. One of the episodes I remember is "Innocence Lost", which examined one of the daycare sex abuse hoax cases which were a thing in 1980s America, this one in Edenton, NC. (Showtime, I think, did a TV movie about the much more infamous McMartin case out in Los Angeles.)

P.O.V (1988-present). Series running independent documentaries of varying themes. One particularly interesting feature I remember is one from the mid-1990s called "Taking on the Kennedys", about a man who ran for Congress in Rhode Island in 1994 against Patrick Kennedy (Ted's son, if memory serves), and the uphill climb he faced both as a Republican in a blue state (not that red/blue had taken hold then), and as an underfunded candidate against someone with a famous name and star power on call.

Nothing But a Man

TCM is running another night of "The Black experience on film" nights tonight, although there's nothing on TCM's main page about whether anybody is sitting down with Ben Mankiewicz to discuss the movies. One of tonight's movies, Nothing But a Man at 11:30 PM, showed up on Martin Luther King Day so I had recorded it than and watched it now to do a post on.

Ivan Dixon plays Duff Anderson. He's working on the railroad in Alabama, work that pays fairly well but is also itinerant labor, having him move around the southern US. In the town where he's currently working, he goes into town one day and meets Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), daughter of the local preacher. The two begin to fall in love, but you know that their relationship isn't going to be an easy one.

Part of this is because Duff is a railroad worker, meaning that he wouldn't be seeing Josie much if he kept working on the railroad. Josie's dad knows all this, and has seen Duff's type before, so he warns Josie that he's not right for her. But she won't listen, and Dad might be wrong anyhow.

Duff decides he'll quit the railroad and try to settle down, but finding a job isn't going to be easy for a black man in the early 1960s South. He gets one at a cotton mill, but the boss thinks he's trying to organize a union, so out the door he goes. Other places either aren't hiring or are too humiliating for Duff.

Josie should at least be able to bring in some income as the teacher at the local segregated school, but after she and Duff get married she gets pregnant, and you wonder whether she'll be able to keep working. Duff also has complicated personal problems of his own, having fathered a child out of wedlock in another relationship, with the baby mama deciding to marry another man and migrate north, leaving somebody else to raise the child. And Duff's dad is an alcoholic who's not long for this world. Meanwhile, Duff keeps encountering racism everywhere he goes.

I liked Nothing But a Man mostly because of its portrayal of Duff as a complex, fully fleshed-out human being who has real and serious flaws. It's a stark contrast with Hollywood's consistent use of Sidney Poitier at the time as the virtuous black man who was breaking down racism by being oh-so-perfect. The low budget also results in the film bein made in a much more cinema verite style, which again works and contrasts with most Hollywood portrayals of the South, even when they went on location. The low budget also meant that the acting is a bit uneven, but that doesn't really take away from the movie.

I'm glad I saw Nothing But a Man, and I hope you get the chance to watch it, too. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Yakuza

My latest movie viewing off the DVR was the intriguing The Yakuza. It's another of the movies that's available on DVD from the Warner Archive, so I feel comfortable doing a full-length post on it without it airing soon.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, who had served in the US Army during the post-war occupation of Japan, before returning to the US to a modest life as a private detective. One day, he hears from an old army buddy of his, George Tanner (Brian Keith), who had stayed behind in Japan after his stint in the military. Tanner has a daughter who has been kidnapped, and Tanner needs Kilmer's help in finding the girl.

So Harry flies off to Japan, and when he gets to Tokyo, one of the first things he does is to look for Eiko (Keiko Kishi). Harry had fallen in love with Eiko, a widow with a daughter, during the occupation, and even offered to marry her, but she turned him down. Harry helped get her on her feet by getting her a teahouse, and the daughter is now an adult. But there's also a business reason for meeting Eiko. Her brother Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura; most western sources put Japanese given names first although this movie follows the Japanese tradition of using the family name first, both in dialogue and the credits) is in the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and he might be able to help find Tanner's girl.

The reason for this is something known in Japanese culture as "giri", a sort of duty that people feel they need to perform to somebody who has helped them, and in Ken's case that's the support Kilmer gave to Eiko. Ken, it turns out, has retired from the Yakuza, and started a martial arts kendo in Kyoto. But beacuse of that giri, Ken is going to set aside the kendo and help Kilmer in finding Tanner's daughter.

The thing is, Tanner isn't exactly an innocent. He stayed behind in Japan in order to run guns to the Yakuza, guns being highly illegal in Japan. And apparently he reneged on one of the deals, which is a big no-no, so the Yakuza took Tanner's daughter as revenge.

The Yakuza is a thoroughly American movie, which is one of the things I think makes it so intriguing. Directed by Sydney Pollack, you definitely get an outsider's view of Japan, albeit one that really feels like Pollack and everybody (well, all the Americans) in the cast were going out of their way to appreciate Japanese culture (unlike, say Walk Don't Run, which just happens to be set in Japan). And yet, there's a lot in the movie that feels thoroughly like one is just a fly on the wall and a movie written and directed by Japanese would be much deeper.

That's not to say The Yakuza is a bad movie. Mitchum is professional if getting on a bit in years, while Takakura is pretty good too. I did have a big problem with the climactic fight scene, which seemed terribly implausible considering it was two against I don't know how many. All in all, though, I found The Yakuza to be a nice look at something different, even if an Akira Kurosawa could have made something much better.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Hedy Lamarr stars in Gaslight

TCM ran the movie Experiment Perilous during 31 Days of Oscar because it earned a nomination for its art direction. So I DVRed it and sat down to watch it recently.

George Brent plays Dr. Huntington Bailey, who gives a voiceover at the beginning about some days back in 1903 being the strangest days of his life. we then see Bailey on a train during a terrible rain storm, which is where he meets Cissie Bederaux (Olive Blakeney). They're both going back to New York where they live, although Cissie hasn't been there for five years which she spent at a sanitarium where she may or may not have had a heart problem. She vows to move out of her brother Nick's (Paul Lukas) house and asks Bailey to find a good apartment hotel for her. She then asks him to visit the Bederaux place where they'll be having high tea for her birthday.

Bailey shows up, but too late, as it turns out that Cissie has died of some heart condition. But Bailey meets Nick and his lovely wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). Nick, on finding out that Bailey is a doctor with apparently some research in the then-new field of psychology, asks Bailey to examine Allida surreptitiously to find out what's wrong with her. Since Allida is so beautiful, Bailey naturally accepts.

But there's more going on. Bailey suggested Cissie stay at his apartment hotel, so she had her baggage delivered there. But thanks to a mix-up, she received one of Bailey's bags while he got one of hers. Bailey finds hers, which contains some diaries and research material for a biography she's writing on Nick's life. Apparently they had a tough childhood in Europe, with Mom dying giving birth to Nick and Dad committing suicide. As Bailey reads on, he gets the sinking suspicion that Nick is trying to do something to Allida and their kid, who's constantly kept away from everybody else in the top floor of the house. Allida has been complaining of being followed and Bailey realized he's being followed, too.

Bailey also realizes that he's probably in some trouble, since he knows that Nick will have received his bag. Then he'll put two and two together to determine that Bailey has Cissie's bag and has read the diaries. This probably has something to do with why Nick wanted Bailey to examine Allida too. The fact that Bailey is falling in love with Allida isn't helping, either.

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, I couldn't help but think of Gaslight as I was watching Experiment Perilous. I also couldn't help but think that Gaslight was rather the better movie. I think that a lot of it comes down to the casting of George Brent as the male lead. Brent was at his best at Warner Bros. playing the nominal male lead who was clearly second fiddle to the female lead, often someone like Bette Davis. Here, despite Lamarr's top billing, Brent is just as much a lead as Lamarr. It doesn't work to the movie's benefit. I also didn't find Lukas and Lamarr as good as Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman from Gaslight

Still, the movie is lovely to look at, and the story is interesting enough to make it worth at least one watch. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

Alice Guy-Blaché night

Tonight, TCM is shining a spotlight on pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché, who deserves the "pioneer" label not just for being one of the first female directors, but because she was working at the dawn of film when, well, everybody was a pioneer of sorts. There's apparently a documentary on her that came out last year called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, and that's airing tonight at 8:00 PM, with a repeat at midnight for those of you on the west coast.

In between there are several of her shorts, most of them two-reelers, although I don't necessarily know if you should call them shorts since it's not as if feature-length movies as we know them today were being produced. I've mentioned Algie the Miner before, and that one is airing, according to the TCM schedule page, at 2:35 AM. As always, however, when TCM programs a block of shorts like this, I'm never quite certain of the exact start times. I've also mentioned Falling Leaves (10:00 PM) before, which is worth mentioning in these times because of the theme of a patient with tuberculosis and other characters not quite following medical protocol.

But the one I'm going to embed a video of is the "epic" Birth, Life and Death of Christ, which purports to tell the story of Jesus in a series of vignettes, the epic lasting about 34 minutes, which was pretty darn long for 1906. It's in the public domain, of course, and there are several prints available on Youtube:

Monday, March 23, 2020


A movie that recently showed up in the FXM rotation is one I hadn't heard of before, Peeper. It's going to be on again tomorrow, twice, at 3:00 AM and at 1:30 PM.

Michael Caine plays the titular "peeper", which is just 40s slang for a private detective, named Leslie Tucker. He's working in Los Angeles circa 1947, when in walks a man named Anglich (Michael Constantine). Anglich says that he fathered a daughter 30 years ago, but that the mother gave the daughter up for adoption, while he moved off to Florida to try to make a living. It turns out that Anglich was quite successful, which is why he's come back to Los Angeles. He wants to find that daughter he gave up, so that he can write her into his will or give her some of the fortune outright. All Anglich has to go on is a picture outside a house.

It looks like a pretty big house, and Tucker quickly figures out that the house is in Beverly Hills, owned by the Prendergast family. The family has two daughters who seem to be about the right age, Ellen (Natalie Wood) and Mianne (Kitty Winn), along with their uncle Frank (Thayer David). Tucker visits to figure out whether either daughter actually is the one in question, and along the way he falls in love with Ellen.

But not so fast. Tucker returns to his office one evening, and finds that Anglich has been killed. And then he gets a package as well as a visit from Ellen. They are then visited by a pair of thugs, Sid (Timothy Carey) and Rosie (Don Calfa), who are obviously trying to kill Tucker for whatever is in that package. Tucker and Ellen escape, and then some time later they both make their separate ways to an ocean liner for the movie's ultimate climax.

Peeper was designed as a comic homage to the noirs of the 1940s, and in some ways it doesn't do too badly. Caine and Wood are both unsurprisingly good at this sort of comedy, and the movie is visually quite stylish. There's also on odd openin credits, which are spoken by a Humphrey Bogart impersonator rather than the more traditional opening credits. However, I found the plot to be incredibly convoluted to the point that it was tough to figure out exactly what was going on. Perhaps I needed to be paying better attention instead of watching it at night.

I would, however, give Peeper a recommendation in spite of its flaws. The movie doesn't seem to be on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the FXM showings, which also include a couple showings next Monday.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Pygmalion (1938)

Somehow I've wound up with a bit of a backlog of watched movies to blog about, which I suppose isn't a bad thing. Among them is the 1938 version of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.

This is one of those movies where a lot of people probably already know the basic plot, since it's based on a well-known play and there's the famous musical remake My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) sells flowers outside Covent Garden, London, a decidedly working-class job at best. One night as she's selling those flowers there's a strange guy writing down everything she's saying, a fact which unnerves her since she thinks this is the police about to nick her for a crime that she hasn't committed.

That man is, in fact, Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), a linguist who has spent his career studying regional accents, which in the UK aren't just regional but class-based. Higgins is clearly of a higher social class than Doolittle, and knows it.

After Higgins reveals his identity and another patron, Freddy Hill (David Tree) gives Doolittle a relatively substantial sum for the whole basket of flowers, Eliza decides she wants to dake diction lessons so that she can get a higher-class job, showing up unexpectedly at Higgins' house. This is actually fortuitous for Henry. He's got a guest in Col. Pickering (Scott Sunderland), a fellow linguist but not as good as Henry. The two men make a bet that Henry can change Eliza not just in accent, but in manners, to the point that she can fool the upper crust into thinking she's of noble birth.

Eliza isn't necessarily thrilled with it at first, but Henry's offering her better job prospects regardless of the outcome, and she'll have a nice place to stay for a few months, so she eventually takes them up to be the subject. You can guess what happens next, which is that Eliza becomes an apt pupil and starts thinking for herself. She and Henry are also falling in love with each other although neither is prepared to admit that.

Pygmalion is a very well-made movie, albeit one that I did have some problems with, which are mostly down to the story. Henry Higgins is written as a really selfish character who winds up being rather an unlikeable jerk. That might have something to do with Shaw not wanting the play to have the typically happy ending of boy and girl winding up together at the end. Hiller also has some cringe-inducing scenes courtesy of the script, such as when she goes to visit Henry's mother. But Hiller is quite good in her role, as is Howard. Wilfrid Lawson also does well as Eliza's father.

The one good thing about Pygmalion is that it doesn't have the songs that My Fair Lady does. This isn't the sort of material that lends itself to being a musical if you're not a big fan of musicals (which I'm not). Pygmalion is a pretty darn good movie that's definitely worth a watch. The TCM Shop lists a DVD that looks like a sketchy gray-market MOD disk, while Amazon has it on Prime Video.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Last Seduction

A more recent movie that I recorded during one of the free preview weekends was The Last Seduction. (Hey, 25 years old is pretty recent for this blog!)

Bill Pullman plays Clay Gregory, a doctor in New York city who runs what authorities would nowadays derisively call a "pill mill", prescribing addictive medicines at the drop of a hat. As such, he's got access to large quantities of those medicines, quantities which would be worth a hell of a lot on the black market. So his wife Bridget (Linda Fiorentino), a manager in a telemarketing boiler room, has convinced him to do one sale on the black market to make the two of them a large sum of money.

Well, only one of the two of them. While Clay is taking a shower afterwards, Bridget decides she's going to take the money and run, which unsurprisingly pisses off Clay. Bridget gets in her car and drives west toward Chicago, but stops to spend the night in the "cow town" of Beston, somewhere in western New York, where the siren song is actually the call of Buffalo, already a declining Rust Belt city at the time.

In a bar in Beston, Bridget meets Mike Swale (Peter Berg). He works at the local insurance company branch, which seems surprisingly large for a town like Beston, but ignore that plot hole. Bridget has a one-night stand with Mike, but upon learning of the existence of the insurance company, decides she can get a job there as her management skills will be needed. Using the phony name of Wendy Kroy, claiming her husband abused her, she gets a job where she's the boss of Mike -- who for his part has returned to Beston from Buffalo after a disastrously brief marriage.

Clay is looking for Bridget, and has hired private detective Harlan (Bill Nunn) to find Bridget and the money, not being able to go through normal channels since the money was obtained rather illegally. Harlan at first tracks her to the area code (something you wouldn't be able to do today of course thanks to the portability of phone numbers) and then does find her. But Bridget is one step ahead of everybody else, it seems, and is able to thwart Harlan, and a more local investigator that Clay hires.

Bridget is also hard at work on manipulating Mike. When she's decided that Clay has gotten too close to her, she comes up with an audacious plan to have Mike go down to New York City and kill Clay, although Mike doesn't realize that the man he's supposed to kill is in fact Bridget's husband.

The Last Seduction is a thoroughly enjoyable, if disturbing at times movie, with a look at a femme fatale who is one really nasty woman. Fiorentina is excellent, and the story is mostly good although I did feel there were a few plot holes. I was amused in looking it up on IMDb that the "cow town" of Beston was actually played by Irvington, which is a very affluent suburb of New York City in Westchester County. Perhaps the establishing shot for the bar entrance was done somewhere else, or it was still around back in 1994. If I had one problem with the movie, it was with the score, which I found extremely intrusive.

That score, however, in no way takes away from my very high recommendation for The Last Seduction.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Time of Your Life

Another of the movies that I recently watched was The Time of Your Life.

Based on a play by William Saroyan, the movie tells the story of Nick's, a dive bar on the San Francisco waterfront run by bartender Nick (William Bendix). More than that, it looks at the stories of several habitues of the bar, as observed by Joe (James Cagney). Joe spends all day at the bar, and there's no indication of how Joe earns a living to be able to do this. Nick, for his part, wants to play the ponies, and considering how little people buy, it's a good question how he makes his money, too.

Tom (Wayne Morris) is Joe's "stooge", looking up to Joe for reasons I don't get and running all sorts of bizarre errands for Joe. Then Kitty (Jeanne Cagney) walks into the bar. She claims to be an actress, although she has a past, as will be revealed at the end. Tom falls in love with Kitty, and he's eventually going to get a real job to be able to support himself and Kitty.

There's also Harry (Paul Draper), a man who can dance and offers to be entertainment if Nick were ever to have a floor show, although again there are the questions of how Nick could pay for any of this. He's joined by Wesley (Reginald Beane) the pianist. Other denizens of the bar are the pinball player Willie (Richard Erdman) and Dudley (Jimmy Lydon), who is in love with Elsie (Nanette Parks), who is not a denizen of the bar.

There are a few more patrons, including a slumming couple (Natalie Schaefer, best known as Lovey Howell on Gilligan's Island, is the wife), an obnoxious cowboy, and a couple of cops who pass through.

There's not much of a plot here, although most of the characters other than Joe and Nick have their own subplots. And to be honest, that's one of the big problems with the movie. A second problem is that it felt very stagey to me, since it's based on a stage play by William Saroyan and is mostly set in the bar. Then there's the fact that there are a couple of overlong dance sequences and other musical numbers. But most of all is that I found all the characters irritating.

Perhaps this is material that would work better on the stage, and perhaps other people are going to like it more than I did. But I have to admit I didn't care for it at all. Still, it's available on DVD so you can watch and judge for yourself.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #297: Bad Boys

This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "Bad Boys"; by an odd coincendence, it looks as though tomorrow's (March 20) TCM daytime schedule is chock full of movies that fit the theme. And I happened to pick one of those before looking at the upcoming TCM schedule. I'm also admitting to using a movie that I used three years ago, because I thought of using it here and then decided to look up whether I'd used it before.

Bad Boy (1949). Audie Murphy has his first starring role as a delinquent who winds up at a Texas ranch for troubled boys. Lloyd Nolan has another of his solid moral center roles as the head of the ranch who tries to reach Audie and figure out why he went wrong to end up at the ranch. Not that Murphy is going to make it easy for Nolan, continuing to cause trouble. (Spoiler: Nolan does figure it out, and Murphy becomes a good young man. But you probably could have guessed that.)

Breathless (1960). Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the bad boy here, falling in love with American journalism student in Paris Jean Seberg and then inviting her to accompany him on what becomes a crime spree. This is the sort of movie that epitomizes why I'm not a big fan of the French New Wave, as it's talky (especially toward the end) and felt to me like a lot of nothing going on. But lots of other people love this stuff.

Night Nurse (1931). Barbara Stanwyck plays a nurse who tends to a gunshot wound for bad boy Ben Lyon, before getting a job in a private home caring for two young girls. There, she learns that another bad boy, chauffeur Clark Gable, is having the girls starved so they'll die and he can get at the trust fund, meanwhile keeping the girls' mother drunk so she doesn't know what's going on. A bad-boy highlight is when a maid suggests an old wives' tale of giving the surviving girl a milk bath as her pores will soak up the nutrients in the milk or some such nonsense. Stanwyck of course doesn't have the money to buy the milk, and when she tells Lyon, the movie cuts to a scene of him doing a smash-and-grab at a delicatessen and getting the milk his girlfriend needs! The whole movie is chock full of such pre-Code goodness.

Louis Hayward, 1909-1985

Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Louis Hayward, who was born on this day in 1909. His career never really hit the heights it could have for any number of reasons, a lot I think having to do with World War II. Hayward was born in South Africa and made his way first to Britain, and then the US and MGM. A part in Anthony Adverse helped his career, but it was working for independent producer Edward Small and the double lead role in The Man in the Iron Mask that is probably the best in his career.

And then World War II came, and Hayward served in the US Marines; according to IMDb he had become a US citizen on Saturday, December 6 1941. Talk about timing. There was the delay in his career and apparently the war changed Hayward enough to destroy his marriage to Ida Lupino. But he still got a good role after the war in And Then There Were None, based on the Agatha Christie story:

Hayward's career continued in movies and TV through the early 1970s.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Out west with Patricia Neal

One of the movies I DVRed during Patricia Neal's turn as Star of the Month on TCM was the western Raton Pass, being interested in the idea of Neal having done a western. Recently I sat down to watch it.

The first theme is one which shows up in a whole lot of westerns: the cattle baron who owns a lot of land versus the homesteaders who are closing in on that land. In Raton Pass, the ranchers are portrayed by Basil Ruysdael as dad Pierre Challon and Dennis Morgan as his son Marc. They own land on both sides of Raton Pass, and on some of the less productive land in the middle, there's the homesteaders, led by Pozner (Louis Jean Heydt). Pozner and his friends don't like the Challons, and for good reason since they think the Challons are taking all the grazing land and the water.

Into all of this walks lovely Ann (Patricia Neal). Ann falls in love with Marc, and the two have a whirlwind romance that leads to marriage. Marc's late beloved mother, God rest her soul, apparently had an agreement with Dad that when Marc got married, the whole ranch would legally be deeded over to Marc and his wife. But the love isn't to last.

The ranch is in some need of money, and when railroad man Prentice (Scott Forbes) comes into the picture needing a right of way for the new rail line, Marc sees the chance at money. But Ann is even smarter and more ambitious than Marc, and decides she'll make the bargain with Prentice. Of course, her bargain involves co-owning the ranch with Prentice, not with Marc.

Marc gets the brilliant idea that he can sell, and then go in with the homesteaders to block off Raton Pass, meaning that all the cattle on what's now Ann and Prentice's ranch can't get back to the other side, forcing them to sell cheaply and reducing the value of the ranch which Marc can then get back. Of course, the homesteaders aren't necessarily going to be interested in this, considering they don't care for the Challons.

Ann, for her part, has a trick up her sleeve too. She hires gunman Cy Van Cleave (Steve Cochran) as her new ranch foreman. He has no qualms about resorting to violence to get what's best for, well, seemingly the ranch, but more importantly him. He convinces the sheriff that Marc is rustling cattle by blocking off Raton pass, and kidnaps Pozner into testifying to this. It all leads to the climactic shootout.

Raton Pass is another of those movies that's not really doing anything particularly new, but is entertaining enough. It's mildly odd seeing Patricia Neal in a western, but even more jarring for me was the presence of Dennis Morgan, who I thought was not particularly well cast. He does his best here, and even though he's not great, he certainly doesn't sink the movie.

If you want to see a good example of a studio system western, you could do a lot worse than to watch Raton Pass. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Stuart Whitman, 1928-2020

Stuart Whitman (l.) in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Mark (1961)

Although everybody seems to be freaking out over coronavirus, remember that there are still other things out there that can kill you. Such is the case of Oscar-nominated actor Stuart Whitman, who died yesterday at the age of 92. Whitman started his career in the early 1950s with a bunch of uncredited roles, but came to more prominence in the second half of the decade in movies like Seven Men From Now before getting his best roles in the early 1960s. In addition to the Oscar-nominated role in The Mark, there's also Murder, Inc. and The Comancheros in that era.

Unfortunately, his roles in the second half of the 60s and beyond aren't as good, although Whitman worked steadily in movies and TV up until the end of the 90s. I think the most recent post in which I mentioned Whitman was the lousy An American Dream, which has him opposite Janet Leigh:

And if that's not bad enough, Whitman and Leigh would go on to make another hilariously bad film, Night of the Lepus:

I don't know if TCM has a TCM Remembers piece up yet, or if they're going to be doing any programming in his honor.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Cain and Mabel

Another of the movies that I recently watched was Cain and Mabel, which is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The first thing I noticed was that the opening credits only mentioned the two lead actors, Marion Davies and Clark Gable, and not any of the other actors, which made for a fun game trying to recognize the various cast members until their names are listed in the closing credits for anybody who didn't bother to look them up. Davies plays Mabel and shows up first.

Mabel O'Dare is a waitress at a busy breakfast café in New York, where she meets Reilly (an unmistakeable Roscoe Karns). Reilly is a newspaperman, except that he's gotten fired from pretty much every paper in the city, and with a depression still on, he's out of a job and doesn't really have the money to be in a café like this. When Mabel is asked to return an order of eggs from a different customer, she gives them to Reilly, something which ultimately gets her fired. Reilly decides he's going to become a PR man and get Mabel a job on Broadway.

Jake Sherman (Walter Catlett) is producing a new play on Broadway, and when the lead actress quits, Reilly badgers Sherman into letting Mabel have an audition, even though she really can't sing or dance particularly well. Somehow, it works, and she gets the lead, although she's going to have to practice a lot with the male lead Ronny (David Carlyle). They get a hotel suite for this, which is where Clark Gable comes in.

He plays Larry Cain, a heavyweight boxer who is in New York to prepare for his world championship fight. He's got a cushy hotel suite, except that it happens to be exactly one floor under Mabel's, and her constant dancing is keeping him up until all hours of the night. So he confronts Mabel, and the two immediately hate each other.

But you know it's not going to end there. Mabel's show goes on, but it's not particularly successful thanks to her not having any star power. Cain eventually becomes champion, but he has no charisma such that his fights are sparsely attended and he doesn't make much money. Reilly, being a PR man, has the brilliant idea of putting these two together in a romantic relationship (or at least the semblance of one) for the papers, as this will give both of them a positive boost in popularity. Of course, he doesn't realize that the two have already met (although they know each other only on sight) and hate each other. So when they finally realize who they're being set up with, they're not happy.

Once again, however, you know it's not going to end there. The two are going to find out that the other isn't really what they seem -- it wasn't Mabel's idea to become a Broadway actress and Cain would really rather open up a service station. And when they find that out, they're going to fall in love with each other. But that threatens to end their public careers, which everybody in their entourages can't have, so they try to put a spanner into the works.

Cain and Mabel is a pleasant enough romantic comedy, but for the most part one where you know exactly where it's going. Everybody does a good enough job with their roles; among the recognizable faces I haven't mentioned before are Allen Jenkins as one of Cain's trainers, and Ruth Donnelly as Mabel's aunt. The one big problem was the presence of a couple of musical numbers that really brought the movie to a screeching halt.

Still, Marion Davies always deserves more positive attention, and apart from the musical numbers Cain and Mabel is a definitely worthwhile watch.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Model and the Marriage Broker

A movie that's been back in the FXM rotation for a little while now is The Model and the Marriage Broker. It's going to be on again Monday at 6:00 AM.

Thelma Ritter gets third billing, but she's really the star here. She plays the "marriage broker", since you didn't expect her to play the model, did you? She's Mae Swasey, who's running a sort of dating service plus for shy, homely, and otherwise not particularly marriageable people. An example of this is Hazel Gingras (Nancy Kulp), brought in by her sister, who wants to marry her off. After some thought, Mae gets the idea that perhaps the optometrist George Wixted (Zero Mostel) would be right for her. Another client is the Kuschner family, who are about to marry their daughter off to X-ray technician Matt Hornbeck (Scott Brady), but are trying to stiff Mae on the marriage fee part of the contract.

Anyhow, Mae goes to see Mr. Wixted, which is how she comes into contact with the model. Mae winds up with the wrong purse from her visit to Wixted's office, and in trying to figure out whom it belongs to, she reads a letter from the model's boyfriend, a married man having an affair who is clearly wrong for the model. The model, Kitty Bennett (Jeanne Crain), finds Mae's contact information in her purse and shows up at the office to return it, not knowing quite what Mae does since the door to her office only reads contacts and contracts.

Kitty doesn't like that Mae read the letter, but Kitty also doesn't have the courage to break off the affair on her own, so she shows up to Mae's house at a mixer for Wixted, Hazel, and some others, having asked the married boyfriend to show up so she can break off the relationship with moral support from Mae. Mae realizes Kitty doesn't have the courage to break off the relationship on her own, so she sends the man away, and lets Kitty spend the night. It also gives Mae an inspiration. Matt the X-ray operator stiffed the Kuschner girl at the altar, but he'd be right for Kitty. So she decides to set those two up, free of charge, without Kitty knowing what Mae is doing.

Matt is smarter than that, but despite thinking he's a confirmed bachelor, falls in love with Kitty anyway. But it's not going to be a smooth path to love, because Kitty is bound to find out exactly what it is that Mae does. Mae, meanwhile, has personal problems of her own, as her first husband ran off with another woman and that other woman shows up now that the husband has died.

The Model and the Marriage Broker is a movie that I didn't find particularly great, although Thelma Ritter delivers another nice performance and other people like this a lot more than I did. I think the big problem I had is that I found it difficult to imagine anybody in New York City circa 1950 using Mae's services; maybe in a smaller town or an earlier time it might have worked better. I also didn't care for some of the supporting performances from Mae's clients who came across as terrible stereotypes, particularly a Swedish immigrant. And the second Mrs. Swasey (Helen Ford) way overacted in her role.

Still, this is probably one that you should watch and judge for yourself. Amazon lists it as available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme, as well as digital through Prime Video.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Cincinnati Kid

Last weekend I mentioned having watched The Cincinnati Kid off a TCM airing and that there was a Joe McDoakes short afterwards that I blogged about. Well now it's time for the feature.

Steve McQueen is the titular Kid, a professional gambler named Stoner originally from Cincinnati but now in 1930s New Orleans. He's one of the best poker players out there, to the point that lesser players think he's cheating. He's got a girlfriend in the form of Christian (Tuesday Weld) who came from a farm a few hours away and wants the Kid to settle down. He's also got a good friend in Shooter (Karl Malden) who is known as a fair dealer. Shooter has a wife in Melba (Ann-Margret) who wants him to settle down, and is also friendly with Christian.

The Cincinnati Kid is one of the best poker players out there, but not yet the best. That honor has gone to Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), who travels the country fleecing rich people out of their money, and every now and then getting into epic poker matches. Here in New Orleans he's fleecing Slade (Rip Torn). Unsurprisingly, word gets out that both Lancey and the Kid are in town, so the obvious thing to do is to set up a game between the two of them.

It eventually happens, but there are some complications first. One is that Christian has finally reached the breaking point, and decided to go back to her family, forcing the Kid to go looking for her. More worrying, though, is the betting that's going on around the match. Slade has decided to put a bunch of money down on the Kid, and wants to make certain he can collect on that wager. Both the Kid and Lancey agree that Shooter is a fair dealer, with Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell) to come in as a relief dealer. Slade, having that bet on the Kid, and more importantly a marker on Shooter, decides to tell shooter that he's going to help the Kid to win. And to sweeten the pot, Shooter's going to have more money on the Kid. And if that's not enough of a problem for Shooter, he's going to find out that Melba has taken a bit of a liking to the Kid when they spend some time together.

Eventually we get to the game, which doesn't start off as being just between the Kid and Lancey, but has other players. Of course, those players drop out one by one, leaving only the Kid and Lancey at the climax. As you can probably guess, the Kid finds out that Shooter has been asked to cheat, something the Kid does not want at all, while Christian returns just in time to discover that Melba had been seeing the Kid.

The Cincinnati Kid is another of those movies that's very well made, although it didn't really feel to me as though it was breaking any new ground. Everybody gives a solid, professional performance, and the story is more than adequate. In short, it's a nice little bit of entertainment, and another movie that I can definitely recommend if you want something undemanding.

Friday, March 13, 2020

American Gigolo

During one of the recent freeview weekends, I was able to DVR American Gigolo. Recently, I finally got the chance to watch it.

The movie starts off with my be the most remembered thing about it, the song "Call Me" by Blondie. This is over scenes of Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) driving his Mercedes convertible up the California coast to Malibu. There he's going to meet his boss Anne (Nina van Pallandt). Officially Julian is a chauffeur, but he's really a high-class escort for lonely wealthy women. This enables him to live in a really nice apartment in a tony part of Los Angeles.

However, Anna isn't the only procurer he works for. He can also get good money from Leon (Bill Duke), who sends Julian out to do rather kinkier things, in this case a bondage session with a married couple, the Rheimans, out in Palm Springs with the husband watching Julian engage with the wife.

As part of one of Julian's jobs, he meets Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton). The two fall in love with each other, which is a problem in that, well, Julian has his profession. The bigger problem is that Michelle is Mrs. Stratton, and Mr. Stratton is a California state senator with higher ambitions. Obviously the thought of a politician's wife carrying on an affair with an escort would cause a scandal that Michelle doesn't want to cause at all.

She may not have a choice. One night, Mrs. Rheiman is murdered. The police, in the form of Det. Sunday (Hector Elizondo), investigate, and the fact that Julian had been hired comes up so of course the police have to ask questions. (At this point Julian should have immediately stopped and asked for his lawyer, but way too many people are too stupid to do this.) Julian has a fairly airtight alibi -- except that it's that he was sleeping with Michelle at the time of the murder.

Worse for Julian, he begins to realize that he's being framed, but by whom? Sen. Stratton seems like a reasonably candidate if he's figured out that his wife is cheating on him, and in fact Sen. Stratton sends one of his aides out to tail Julian. But in any case Julian has to figure things out without much help from anybody else since he doesn't want to hurt Michelle by revealing the nature of their relationship.

In some ways the idea of the framed man makes American Gigolo seem like it could fit in well in the noir genre, only updated to 1980. And boy has it been updated, since Hollywood of the studio era could never get away with many of the themes here -- prositution, homosexuality, and even Gere's nudity. But it's also extremely 1980 in its production design, which while stylish is also extrememly trapped in 1980. If you want to know what the time looked like, this is a good place to start.

All of this is to say that the movie is actually pretty good; better, I think, than critical reception might have you think. Gere actually gives a pretty good performance, as does Elizondo. But it's also one that really not breaking any new ground beyond updating old themes and using things that couldn't be used earlier. The resolution of the murder case is really not handled as well as I think it could have been.

Still, I can certainly recommend American Gigolo if you want more adult themes.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #296: Spoofs/Satires/Mockumentaries

This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is one that's fairly broad, but that I also think lends itself to more recent movies: Spoofs, satires, and mockumentaries. But, with the studio system, it wasn't uncommon for studios to take jabs at each other and just poke fun at the stars in general. Sadly, I already used Come to Dinner, the 1934 Warner Bros. short spoofing MGM's Dinner at Eight a few months back, so I had to come up with three other movies:

The Coo Coo Nut Grove (1936) and Hollywood Steps Out (1941). These were two Warner Bros. animated shorts, both poking ample fun at the Hollywood stars of the day in a way that audiences of the day would have recognized but that most people today probably wouldn't get; both use the framing story of a night out on the town. The Coo Coo Nut Grove (I think) has the obligatory George Raft at the boat rental gag, while Hollywood Steps Out has, among other things, Ann Sheridan saying nothing but "Oomph" -- Sheridan was known in the day as "The Oomph Girl".

Alias Jesse James (1959). Bob Hope plays an insurance salesman who has to go out to the old west to try to save his job, selling a life insurance policy to Jesse James (Wendell Corey). Jesse gets the brilliant idea to get Hope identified as Jesse James and killed, so that the real Jesse can claim the insurance and keep clear of the law for a while. Hope has the usual in-jokes, but the real spoof here is that a bunch of TV western stars of the day show up in the final shootout to help meek Bob win the day.

The Phynx (1970). The dictator of Albania is stealing American actors and other celebrities, and a supercomputer gets the brilliant idea that the way to bring them back is to create a fake pop band (the titular Phynx) and have themselves get invited to Albania, where they'll rescue all the Hollywood types. It's a parody of the spy genre and to an extent of the teen music movie, with a whole bunch of old stars in small roles, especially for the climactic rescue. Oh, it's also hilariously awful. It's one of those things that's so shockingly bad that it has to be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

I didn't see any trapeze

Recently, I watched another of the titles on my box set of W.C. Fields movies, Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Fields once again plays a henpecked husband, this time named Ambrose Wolfinger. This is his second marriage, as his first wife died when his daughter Hope (Mary Brian) was young, and Ambrose felt she needed a mother. Unfortunately his wife Leona (Kathleen Howard) is a nag, and his mother-in-law Mrs. Neselrode (Vera Lewis) is far worse. To top it all off, she's got a layabout son (so Ambrose's brother-in-law) Claude (Grady Sutton) who can't be bothered to look for work, so Ambrose is effectively supporting five people.

The movie starts off with two crooks showing up in the basement of the Wolfinger house while Ambrose is in the bathroom "brushing his teeth" -- with some of the apple jack that he's been making in the cellar. Eventually he and a cop confront the two burglars.

Ambrose has tickets to a big wrestling match, and he's planning to go, but it's in the middle of the day and he'd have to get off work for it. Now, he's been working for the same company -- an importer of woollens -- for 25 years and is quite good at his job, which is apparently to keep track of all the potential clients and what their interests are and their lives are like, so that the bosses can schmooze more effectively with the clients. But supposedly in all those 25 years he's never gotten a day off. Really?

So, to be able to get that afternoon off, even though Claude has tried to steal the tickets, Ambrose says that his mother-in-law has died from drinking poisoned liquor. The bosses get Ambrose's coworkers to send flowers, and they take out a story in the paper detailing the mother-in-law's death (which of course never actually happened) to warn people about bad liquor. When they discover the truth, which is that Mrs. Neselrode isn't really dead, it could cost Ambrose his job.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is an odd little movie, because it's not really a full-fledged story, but a series of gag strung together into something that supposedly has a plot. Some of the gags work better than others, and depending on your sense of humor some of them may not work at all. The whole opening sequence with the burglars didn't really work for me, for example. Thankfully, at about 66 minutes it's all over fairly quickly if it turns out not to be your cup of tea.

I think, however, that fans of Fields are still going to like Man on the Flying Trapeze. And the box set wasn't that expensive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Seven against death

A movie that showed up in the FXM rotation recently is The Cavern. It's going to be on again tomorrow (March 11) at 10:45 AM.

The scene is Italy, in September 1944. This puts it toward the end of World War II, late enough for the Allies to have free movement in a good portion of Italy, but with the Nazis still fighting fiercely. Anna (Rosanna Schiaffino) is an Italian woman who's been caught up in the fighting in a rural part of the country. She goes to see her friend of sorts Mario (Nino Castelnuovo), a sentry at an ammunition dump in a cave.

A jeep pulls up; it contains retired British General Braithwaite (Brian Aherne), who is now some sort of media liaison together with his public relations man Capt. Wilson (Larry Hagman). Two further allies show up to this meeting: an American who's been busted down to private, Cramer (John Saxon); and a Canadian flyboy who apparently escaped a POW camp, Lt. Carter (Peter L. Marshall; yes, this is the future master of the Hollywood Squares who for some reason is using a middle initial).

Another car comes in the opposite direction and our Allies think they can get help, but it turns out the car has Germans in it, and a brief firefight ensues. This is interrupted by an aerial attack from what is probably the Americans except that they can't tell who the good guys are down below, so everybody has to beat a hasty retreat. That ammo dump in the cave seems like a good safe place.

Except that the aerial bombardment bombs the entrance to the cave, filling it with cubic yards worth of rubble. In theory they could try to dig out, but who knows how long that would take. Thankfully there's some food left and, amazingly, the electric didn't get cut off. So the seven set about looking for a way to escape, and they're going to have to work together even though they're on opposite sides of the war.

There are any number of probles, with one of the big ones being the presence of Anna among five young soldiers (Gen. Braithwaite presumably being too old to worry about that sort of thing). The food isn't much to write home about, and it's going to run out eventually anyway. The air isn't, which means there must be some other way out, but they're going to have to find it without getting lost. Mishaps are still to come....

The Cavern was an international co-production filmed mostly in Italy where it had the title Sette contra la morte which translates to "Seven Against Death", which is just as good a title as The Cavern. It was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, his final feature film, on a low budget, and it's frankly nowhere near as bad as you might think considering Ulmer, the size of the budget, and the international cast half of which aren't native English speakers.

Still, the movie certainly does have problems, mostly in the form of massive plot holes. One that I mentioned was the fact that the electric in the cave somehow didn't go out during the Allied bombardment. I also don't know how much food was put in there, but it lasts six months, even though after three months Braithwaite makes a comment that there's only a couple weeks' worth left so cut rations. There was also a problem with some of the titles mentioning how much time passed. "152 Days Later" should be taken is the time from the initial bombardment, not the previous title, or else we would have gotten past the end of World War II (the Germans surrenedered in Italy at the end of April 1945 so the action in the movie does end before that).

There's also a relative lack of character development, or at least backstories for them. Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention, but I wasn't certain what Braithwaite was doing there, and how Cramer got separated from the rest of his platoon.

One final problem is that this print is panned and scanned, and not a very good print at that. And as far as I can tell, it's not available on DVD, so you're going to have to watch the FXM showings. Still, it is worth at least one watch.