Monday, December 10, 2018

TCM Guest Programmer December 2018: John Landis

The Monster and the Girl at 8:00 PM, a 1941 Paramount B that I have to admit is new to me, so I can't say much about it;
The Laurel and Hardy shorts Helpmates and Towed in a Hole at 9:15 PM; the TCM page lists both of them as starting at 9:15 PM so I'm not certain which one is first;
Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's anti-war movie starring Kirk Douglas, at 10:15 PM; and
W.C. Fields' It's a Gift at midnight.

I had been planning on watching and doing a post on It's a Gift since I knew it was on this week, but I didn't know it was this early in the week so I haven't re-watched it yet. TCM, oddly enough, claims the movie isn't on DVD, even though I have it on a Fields box set. The problem, I think, is that it is on a box set. When I looked up that box set, it showed right up at the TCM Shop.

The movie that follows It's a Gift, apparently not selected by Landis, is an interesting-sounding British comedy I haven't seen before, Mr. Love at 1:30 AM.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A not-so-cold December

Working my way through the backlog of movies that I recorded during TCM's Black Experience on Film spotlight back in October, I'm up to A Warm December.

Sidney Poitier plays Dr. Matt Younger, who at the beginning of the movie is commandeering an ambulence to get to Dulles Airport in Washington DC so he can catch a plane to London on vacation with his daughter Stefanie (Yvette Curtis); he's a widower so Mom is out of the picture. That, and bring his motorbike. When he lands in London, he's met by Dr. Barlow (George Baker). Apparently, Younger started a charity that does medical work in underprivileged areas all around the world, and Barlow works for that charity too. But Matt insists this is a vacation, not a working trip.

On the way to the hotel, we see a black woman being pursued by somebody who is of one of the East Asian nationalities, a pursuit shown in a way that makes it look as if this is going to be some sort of spy movie. The fact that the woman wants Matt to stand between her and the Asian man reinforces this. Matt is intrigued by the beautiful woman, and when he sees her again, this time being watched by an older white guy in a museum, he wants to get to know her. But she's decidedly coy about meeting Matt.

That is, until Matt and Stefanie go to a show of African dance. Among the dignitaries showing up is the Ambassador of Torunda (Earl Cameron) and his niece Catherine (Esther Anderson). Matt realizes that Catherine is the mysterious woman he's kept running into. No wonder she didn't want to see him: she's got official duties.

Eventually, however, she does relent and sees Matt privately, and we can see why she's been of two minds about everything. Not only is she the ambassador's niece, she's on Torunda's economic development council, and has to use her beauty and knowledge of foreign languages to woo various first- and second-world countries for financial aid, and those official duties keep her from seeing people. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, however, she wants to get out, which is why she starts seeing Matt.

Things take a turn for the worse on one of those trysts, however. Catherine starts wincing in pain, claiming nausea, although thanks to the music cues we can tell something more serious is going on. It happens again, and Matt, being a doctor, decides to do an impromptu examination, and confirms his suspicions that Catherine has sickle-cell anemia. It would also explain a lot of the other characters' motivations.

Sickle-cell anemia is treated here as an even more life-shortening disease than it is in real life, although since the movie came out in 1973 things may have changed in the intervening decades. Catherine is only 27, but it's felt that it would be a miracle if she makes it to 35. Matt doesn't seem to care, as he loves Catherine and wants to see her whenever he can. Not only that, but he'd like to take her back to America with him. Catherine begins to fall in love with Matt, and loves Stefanie even more. But she has her official duties, and isn't certain if she's want to die early on the people she loves. Better to leave them now with the good memories and go back to Torunda. Which will she choose?

I found A Warm December to be a nice, unassuming movie that handles its grown-up issues with sensitivity for the most part. I don't know what a sickle-cell attack would look like in real life, but what's shown here in Catherine's climactic attack out in the country left me laughing at a scene that came across melodramatic and overdone. The movie has some other minor flaws, such as the music cues that I already mentioned. Sidney Poitier's direction is also a problem at times, as he's putting more attention on himself than on the story.

Still, I'd recommend A Warm December to anybody who wants an intelligent movie. You can get it on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Without Reservations

Another movie that I watched recently so I could get it off my DVR is light comedy Without Reservations.

Claudette Colbert plays Christopher "Kit" Madden, a woman who has recently written a big important novel that also philosophizes about the new world we should create in the aftermath of World War II, called Here Is Tomorrow. (Without Reservations was released in 1946, when that topic was highly relevant.) The novel has been so successful that Hollywood producer Baldwin (Thurston Hall) has bought the rights to the book in order to turn it into a movie starring Cary Grant and Lana Turner: the non-philosophical part of the book is, at its heart, a romance between a Marine pilot and a woman.

So Kit has to go out to Hollywood to do the screenplay, a la Dick Powell's character in The Bad and the Beautiful. Now, as successful as her book was and as urgently as Baldwin wants her out in California, you'd think she could have taken the plane. But no, the studio got her train tickets, and couldn't get her a compartment because they were all booked. So she gets on a regular Pullman car, which turns out to be fortuitous. Kit hasn't liked the idea of casting Cary Grant in the male lead since she, having written the book, thinks the character should be played by a new face. And wouldn't you know it, she's going to find that new face on board the train.

Her seat on the train is next to two Marines who have to go to San Diego, Dink (Don DeFore) and Rusty (John Wayne). They both find Kit charming, even if they don't know she's written the wildly successful book everybody's talking about. And Kit thinks Rusty would be perfect for the part of the male lead. Kit telegraphs Baldwin about Rusty, and he responds that she shouldn't lost Rusty at all costs.

Anyhow, as I said, Rusty and Dink don't know Kit is the author of the book, which turns out to matter because when they start discussing the book, Rusty takes a decidedly different point of view from Kit. Kit is decidedly on the left and has written her characters that way, while Rusty takes his views from John Wayne's "national greatness" brand of conservatism. So when the time finally comes to ask Kit her last name, she makes something up, ot letting them know she's the author of the book Rusty hates. You just know they're going to find out later.

They have to change trains in Chicago, and it turns out that they've got different trains out to the west coast, so Kit comes up with an idiotic idea, which is to miss her train despite having had her baggage forward on the train she's missing. That, and she gets on the one Rusty and Dink are taking, without having purchased a ticket! The ultimate result of it is that the three of them get thrown off the train and have to make it out to the west coast in other ways, a la It Happened One Night, a movie with which Without Reservations bears no small resemblance. And sure enough, along the way, Rusty and Dink discover Kit's true identity.

Without Reservations is a fairly undemanding movie. I briefly mentioned the resemblance to It Happened One Night, but I also found myself thinking about The Palm Beach Story, and any number of other cross-country movies. Even though the subject material has been done to death, Without Reservations still works largely thanks to the strength of the cast. Granted, it loses some of its steam in the last half hour after the Marines find out Kit's real identity, and you know how it's going to end up. But Colbert and Wayne make a surprisingly appealing couple, and the supporting cast does even better. Notable is Anne Triola as a "beetle", an obnoxious other woman whose job it is to drive the action along. There are also cameos from Jack Benny and Cary Grant, but not Lana Turner; the movie was done at RKO and Turner was under contract at MGM.

Without Reservations is available on DVD, and if you want a movie you can just sit back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy, you could do worse than this one.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

If I hadn't done a post on The Ghost Goes West for Halloween, I probably would have done one on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken instead.

Don Knotts plays the man who's chicken, a man named Luther Heggs. Luther is a typesetter at the newspaper in the small town of Rachel, KS. He'd like to be a reporter instead of just a type-setter, which would also help him in winning the heart of his girlfriend Alma (Joan Staley). The problem is that Luther is known for telling tall tales, which is something you don't really want in a reporter who should probably be giving readers the facts.

But Luther might just get the chance to write that story. The town has a famous murder case in the past, at the old Simmons place 20 years ago. Legend has it that as a result of that murder, the house is haunted, and you can even hear the organ play all by itself at midnight. With the anniversary coming up, it would be a good time to send somebody to the haunted house to see if it really is haunted. (You'd think they'd send multiple people to have witnesses, but that's another story.)

Besides, they may not get another chance to send somebody into the house, as the dead owners' nephew Nicholas Simmons (Philip Ober) is looking to tear the house down and rebuild. (Here again, if he really didn't want the story out there, couldn't he get an injunction?) But Luther goes into the house, and sure enough, he sees a lot of things that would lead anybody who saw them to think that the place might indeed be haunted. So he writes a story about what he saw.

This is why he should have had witnesses, so that somebody would believe him. Nicholas is none too happy about the story, and sues Luther and the newspaper for libel. The courtroom scenes are idiotic, but the judge comes up with a reasonable suggestion that perhaps the interested parties could go back to the house one night to see what really happens inside the house. Naturally, this time nothing happens, dashing Luther's hopes. Perhaps nothing will happen until there's only one person alone in the house....

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a natural vehicle for the comedic talents of Don Knotts. So, if you don't like Don Knotts, you're probably going to have some problems with this movie. I tend to prefer Knotts in a supporting role, so I'm one of the people who had some problems with the movie, which is why I was picking it apart for plot holes. Having said that, however, Knotts' brand of physical comedy is the sort of thing that a lot of parents say appeals to their children. (I bought one of my nieces a DVD of The Incredible Mr. Limpet for Christmas several years back, and my sister said the nieces really enjoyed it.) The frights are quite mild, and it's easy to see Knotts' physical comedy appealing to kids.

I can definitely recommend The Ghost and Mr. Chicken to families. People looking for a serious prestige picture? Well, you probably knew you wouldn't be getting that with this one.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #230: Meet the Parents



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 "Meet the Parents". If you've watched François Truffaut's Day For Night, you may recall that the movie-within-a-movie that Truffaut's director character was filming was "Je vous présent Pamela", a movie in which a young man brings his girlfriend home to meet the parents. Well, I used Day For Night earlier this year, and I wanted to do something different. But then life intruded and I got too busy to worry about whether or not I've repeated titles here. So instead I decided to go for a theme within a theme and if I've repeated anything, I apologize:

Family Plot (1976). Alfred Hitchcock's final film stars Barbara Harris as a phony psychic who learns about a wealthy woman looking for her long-lost son (which is how this one barely fits the theme), and she decides to get in on the action with the help of her taxi driver boyfriend Bruce Dern. However, the search gets dangerous as it brings them into contact with high-class kidnappers (William Devane and Karen Black) who have a taste for diamonds.

Marnie (1964). Sean Connery meets frigid kleptomaniac Tippi Hedren who also has a fear of the color red. The two marry, and Connery sets out to find just why his new wife has all the fears she does. The answer will be learned with he meets her mother (Louise Latham). Bruce Dern has a pivotal if brief part in the climax, although that's not part of the theme within a theme.

Psycho (1960). Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) talks about his mother to anybody who will visit his out-of-the-way motel. Various visitors (Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, and John Gavin) meet Norman's mother, although it's not quite the meeting they hoped for.

TCM Star of the Month December 2018: Dick Powell


Dick Powell (r.) with Barry Sullivan and Lana Turner at the end of The Bad and the Beautiful

We're in the first full week of a new month, so it's time for a new Star of the Month on TCM, and this time it's Dick Powell, a choice given over to Backlot members (I think the choice was between him and Warren William). Powell's movies are going to be on TCM every Thursday in and around prime time. Powell started off in the 1930s doing light musicals, before abruptly switching in the 1940s to hardboiled detective movies, showing his range and proving he really could act for anybody who think those light musicals aren't much The picture above is from one of my favorites, The Bad and the Beautiful, which will be on at 1:00 PM on December 27.

Of course, this being the first Thursday in the month, we don't get the "serious" dramatic movies just yet; no, we get the 1930s fun. Powell I think really became a star with 42nd Street, another movie I really like, and that comes on at 9:30 tonight. It's preceded at 8:00 PM by what I think is his movie debut, in Blessed Event, where the star is Lee Tracy, playing a gossip columnist who isn't quite orthodox in his methods. Powell is a crooner (surprise, surprise) in that one who is the object of Tracy's poison pen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

One of Charlie's Angels meets Austin Powers and Star Trek

Over the Thanksgiving free view weekend of the premium movie channels, I had the opportunity to DVR Barbarella and watch it.

Jane Fonda plays Barbarella who, after some groovy 1960s MOR music is seen in a spaceship that looks like it's full of shag carpeting. She gets a call from Earth's president, who tells her that she's going to have to go to the planet Lythion because that's the last known location of the notorious scientist Durand-Durand (Milo O'Shea). It seems that most of the galaxy has done away with violence and lives in love, but Durand-Durand has possibly come up with some sort of device called a "positronic ray" that could be used as a superweapon to who knows what end. Barbarella has to find him and stop him.

Barbarella crash-lands on the planet and as soon as she gets out of her spaceship she's attacked by dolls. The man who saves her tells her that if Durand-Durand is on the planet, she's going to have to go to the capital city of Sogo to find him, although that's a dangerous proposition. To get there, she's going to have to go through a Labyrinth with a bunch of slaves, including a Professor (Marcel Marceau) and the blind angel Pygar (John Philip Law).

Eventually, Barbarella does get to Sogo, and finds that it's a city built on a lake of neural energy or somesuch, except that the neural energy is all evil. The city is ruled by the Evil Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg), and danger lurks at every turn. However, there are also some rebels hiding in the city, led by Dildano (David Hemings). Eventually, Barbarella does find Durand-Durand, and....

If my summation of the plot sounds like a mess, it's not just because I'm not the best of writers, but also because the plot really is a mess. It sounds more like something director Roger Vadim came up with as an excuse to put Fonda in those skimpy, skin-tight outfits. The men all want "old-fashioned" (ie. lustful instead of scientifically planned) sex with her, although not rape so much as actually wanting to know what real sex is like.

The sets are bizarre, and the ending is even more bizarre. It all adds up to something that's most definitely different. I don't think I can say that I either loved it or hated it; instead it's one of those movies that I find hard to judge simply because it's so off-the-wall bizarre. Parts of the movie were laugh out loud hilarious, and parts of it were actually tedious.

With all that in mind, I'd still say that Barbarella is a movie everybody should see once, just because it is so bizarre.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Free association with obituaries

Bernardo Bertolucci died a week ago at the age of 77, and I've been to busy to get around to mentioning it. Bertolucci won an Oscar for directing The Last Emperor, which I have to admit is a movie I've never seen. If I were going to do the Blind Spot series that a bunch of other bloggers do, I'd have to pick this one, although I'd have to come up with a bunch of other movies.

TV actor Ken Berry died over the weekend at the age of 85. He did do a couple of movies, including the Disney titles Herbie Rides Again and The Cat from Outer Space. One wonders what the suits at Disney were thinking with the latter one; I assume that with the success of the original Love Bug they wanted to milk the funny car for all it was worth. I think I saw Herbie Goes Bananas once. Or was it Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo?

New Zealand director Geoff Murphy died yesterday aged 80. The title that jumped out at me was Young Guns II, a movie that I think I saw back when I was in college and somebody rented it from the video store. For some reason I found myself looking it up a month or so ago, and saw that according to the TCM Shop it was scheduled for a MOD release two weeks ago. But the TCM page says it's on backorder. It also made me wonder what ever happened to Casey Siemaszko from the original Young Guns, who wasn't in the sequel. Wikipedia implies he's still acting, although it's been mostly guest appearances on TV for the past several years. Oh, and Murphy also directed Freejack, oh my. That one also got a Blu-ray release last month.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Sweet Bird of Youth

I'm not the biggest fan of Tennessee Williams, to put it mildly, but I had never seen Sweet Bird of Youth before, and since it won Ed Begly an Oscar, it's one of those movies that's been on my list to see for some time.

Paul Newman plays Chance Wayne, who at the beginning of the movie is driving to somewhere on the Gulf coast of Florida with a drunk woman in the back of the car. It turns out he's going back to his old home town, and when he gets there, he takes a suite at the big hotel. The woman is Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), who was apparently a big actress back in the day but turned to booze and hasn't been big for 15 years.

The local Dr. Scudder (Philip Abbott) goes up to see Alexandra, and recognizes Chance, because pretty much everybody in town would recognize him. Scudder has a lot of bad news for Chance. First is that Chance's mother died a few weeks previously. Scudder had sent both a telegram and a letter, but Chance got neither. In the letter, Scudder also warned that the local political boss, Boss Finley (Ed Begley) didn't want to see Chance back in town again, and certainly didn't want Chance to talk to his daughter Heavenly (Shirley Knight).

Unsurprisingly, that's part of why Chance came back. He was in love with Heavenly back before leaving, and promised to take her away to fame and fortune, but things quite never worked that way. Instead, Chance became a hanger-on to Alexandra, but he's using her for his own purposes. He's got the goods on her illegal drug habit, and if he can et the evidence on tape, he'll be able to get her to sign a contract getting screen tests for both him and Heavenly.

Meanwhile, Boss Finley is in his most difficult political campaign. He's held a variety of offices, and now seems to be the power behind the curtain. He's about as smooth an operator as you could expect from an overheated Tennessee Williams play, so fairly smooth but not quite as much as the operator in Ada or the civil servants in Yes, Minister. Worse, Boss' son Tom Jr. (Rip Torn) is quite the hothead, and has been using the "Finley Youth Clubs" to commit violence against political opponents.

Boss has a reputation for purity, although it turns out he's got a mistress, and his virginal daughter isn't quite so virginal, what with that relationshp with Chance. And Chance's return to town, might just upset the political apple cart if the truth about the Finleys' private lives should come out.

The material is firmly in the space occupied by a whole bunch of late 50s and early 60s potboilers, including the previously mentioned Ada. In that regard, it's not a bad movie, even coming from somebody who is predisposed to dislike Tennessee Williams. Part of the problem is that I find the characters loud and easily dislikeable, and Alexandra is that in spades, and not in the hissable way. Tom Jr. is closer to the fun hissable dislike, but Williams hits us over the head with his evil naïvete. We get it already. Sweet Bird of Youth also uses flashbacks in a way that I thought didn't quite work with the rest of the movie visually.

As for the good things, Newman does OK with his role, and Begley is even better Mildred Dunnock as Heavenly's aunt who is sympathetic to Chance is probably the best of the lot, however.

Tennessee Williams fans will like Sweet Bird of Youth, I think, although they've probably already seen it. It's available from the Warner Archive for anyone who hasn't.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

River of color

I've been blogging for almost 11 years, and I note that I've never done a post on Red River. Since it was on TCM recently, I DVRed it and re-watched it to do a full-length post.

John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, who at the start of the movie is a scout in a group of pioneers going west sometime in the 1840s. However, he's reached a point where he feels going west isn't a good idea, and he goes south with his friend Groot (Walter Brennan). It's a fortuitous decision, as not long after the leave they see a bunch of smoke coming from the direction of the wagon train, which can only mean they've been attacked by Indians.

Dunson talks of setting up a big ranch even though he doesn't quite have the cattle yet to do it, and because somebody further south claims the land. And a few days later, young Matt Garth (Mickey Kuhn as a boy; he'll grow up to be played by Montgomery Clift) shows up. He passed by the pioneers who were in fact annihilated, and has nobody left in the world, so he becomes a sort of foster son to Dunson.

Quite a few years pass, and now it's 1865, which if you know your American history you'll recall is the end of the Civil War. Texas being part of the Confederacy was destroyed, leaving all of the ranchers in the region destitute. Worse, the southern rail stock was destroyed because it was a strategic objective by the north, so it's not as if there are any stockyards nearby in a place like Dallas to deliver the cattle to. The nearest would be Kansas City, although that has its disadvantages, too.

Still, it's drive the cattle or starve, so the other farmers go along with Dunson and set out toward Missouri. But there are also sorts of problems, with Indians and the threat of dissension within the ranks being the biggest. The second one is a bigger problem because Dunson is obsessive about continuing the drive and everybody else is thinking he's going too far. That, and there are rumors of the railroad having made it to nearer Abilene KS, and Dunson not wanting to go someplace where there's no concrete proof of a railroad. These may sound like clichés, but I'm trying to think of a big cattle drive movie that came before Red River.

Red River is one of those movies that is pretty well done, although to me it falls a bit short of the masterpiece status that some critics want to give it. Part of that is due to Brennan's character, who is just obnoxious. But there's also the ending, which felt rushed to me (and to a fair number of reviewers I've seen). The movie is entertaining, however, and certainly well worth watching if you've never seen it.