Sunday, March 26, 2023

Not the former Postmaster General

The UK has long had its share of entertainers who, for whatever reason, never really became successful on this side of the Atlantic. Among them was a man named Will Hay, who made about 20 movies in the UK in the 30s and the early years of World War II. Some time ago I came across one of his movies on Youtube, and only recently finally got around to watching it: Oh, Mr. Porter!.

Will Hay plays William Porter, who works for one of the railways (this being before World War II, Clement Attlee hadn't come around to nationalize the railways yet), but not as a porter. Instead, he's a wheeltapper, who job it was to make certain the steel wheels and axles hadn't deformed through overheating. But Mr. Porter isn't very good at his job, in fact only having it because his sister is married to one of the railway's executives. He screws up again, however, and the other executives want to fire him. His sister says that means living with her and her husband, something the brother-in-law obviously doesn't want.

With that in mind, the bosses look for some sort of suitable out-of-the-way make-work job for Mr. Porter, finding that most of the jobs with the railway are ones he's tried already and failed spectacularly at. Finally, the railway finds something. There's a station in Buggleskelly, Northern Ireland, that basically gets no passenger trains stopping at it, but still needs a station master to handle the odd whistle-stop passenger as well as the limited goods traffic that stops in Buggleskelly. It'll keep Mr. Porter away from Britain in any case.

So they send Mr. Porter over to Buggleskelly, where he finds a ramshackle station house along with two workers, old Jeremiah (Moore Mariott) and young Albert (Graham Moffatt). Still, Mr. Porter wants to do the best job he can, even though in his case he's not competent enough to do anything. In this case, that means trying to get the station in good working condition and getting it to be a place people will want to stop. But of course, everything he tries goes badly wrong. The threat of his being fired and having to go live with his sister still hangs over his head.

At the same time, there's a legend that a ghost haunts the track in the Buggleskelly area, which might go some way to explaining why the station keeps needing a new station manager. Porter investigates, and his nosing into things he probably shouldn't winds up with his coming across a group of gun-runners. They take Porter and the other two employees hostage, forcing them to run the train to get away from the approaching authorities.

This is the first Will Hay movie I've seen, and I don't know how many more of them are available for viewing. I do have to say that Hay is a bit of an acquired taste. The humor is also very much of the pre-war era. If I had to compare Hay to anybody, I think I'd come up with a bit of Joe E. Brown's character from Earthworm Tractors, although that's more because of the heavy equipment being a big part of the plot. There's also a bit of Norman Wisdom, and maybe a bit of Jerry Lewis. But if you like 1930s movies and working-class humor of a bygone era, you'll probably like Oh, Mr. Porter!. The other group it will appeal to are railway buffs, as it shows railroading in a way that no longer exists.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Stanley Kramer makes a medical drama

Whether producing or directing, Stanley Kramer was known for making "message pictures" dealing with important social issues. Sometimes, his style was blunt enough that the message came across as more important than the picture. One good example of this is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. This was something I kept thinking about as I was watching his debut directorial effort (although he had already produced several movies), Not As a Stranger.

Lucas Marsh (Robert Mitchum) is a medical student at Big City Medical School, studing under Dr. Aarons (Broderick Crawford) and lightening the mood with his best friend, Alfred Boone (Frank Sinatra, and yes, everybody is pushing 40 and much too old for the parts they're playing). Watch also for a young Lee Marvin as another medical student, although he's not part of the second half of the movie. Marsh is highly driven and pretty darn intelligent, but this causes him to clash with the established doctors. To be fair, part of this is that they may not be up to date on the latest medical techniques.

Also causing problems for Marsh is his father (Lon Chaney in a small role). Marsh's mom died some time back and left him a fair amount of money which should help pay for medical school. But Dad is an alcoholic, and drank away the money, leaving Lucas with no money to pay his upcoming tuition. Thankfully for him, however, he does meet somebody who has a little bit of money saved up. That's nurse Kirstina (Olivia de Havilland), who has been saving up money, and who for some reason is part of the Swedish immigrant community along with Oley (Harry Morgan), forcing her to essay a ridiculous Swedish accent for no discernible plot reason. Lucas marries Kristina for her money.

Eventually everybody graduates from medical school and does their internship before going into practice. Alfred decided to go the route that Robert Donat did for a while in The Citadel, of becoming a wealthy doctor in private practice, although he's going to remain Lucas and Kristina's friend and show up when necessary to advance the plot. Lucas, on the other hand, decides to go to a small town that looks partly like a studio backlot and partly like a smaller city than a small town. There are some farmers around, and Lucas will certainly be serving them, but there's also a surprisingly well-equipped hospital and some ritzy areas.

The ritzy areas and farm life come together one evening when Marsh goes out to attend to a farmer who got kicked by his horse. The farmer's wife says that Miss Lang (Gloria Grahame) wants to see him, even though it's 1:00 AM. Now when you see the name Gloria Grahame in the credits, you can guess that the character is a bit of a vamp, or a femme fatale. Well, more than a little bit. Lang lives in a big house with a sort of hobby horse-raising concern attached to it, and she leads a lonely life drinking more than she should. You can guess that Lucas is going to find himself falling in love with her, and that this is going to cause a problem with his marriage to Kristina.

I mentioned at the beginning that Stanley Kramer made a bunch of message pictures, and boy does he try to insert as many of the medical drama tropes as he can to get The Message across. At times this makes the movie become unintentionally funny. There are montages of the doctors treating patients which look like they could have come from a medical issue of the week TV drama. Worse, or more hilarious depending on your point of view, is Kramer's use of horses when Marsh finally falls and becomes unfaithful with Lang. There's also the blatant foreshadowing. Kristina talks so much about having a family that you know that she's going to get pregnant, and it's obvious way before we see the scene of Dr. Boone telling her that it's already happened.

The casting is also interesting. Robert Mitchum is clearly miscast, much like epileptic research scientist Ronald Reagan in Night Unto Night. And as I mentioned, why Kramer made de Havilland and Harry Morgan take on Swedish accents was beyond me. On the other hand, Broderick Crawford shows he could play more than tough guys. Charles Bickford plays the elderly small-town doctor who takes Marsh into his practice, and he does well too.

Overall, Not As a Stranger is a movie that's more interesting for how it lets The Message dominate the movie than it is for being any sort of truly great movie. But it's still worth a watch.

Friday, March 24, 2023

To the Last Man

Another recent watch off the Watch TCM app was To the Last Man. The print TCM ran said that it had been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art; supposedly there's a public domain print out there under the title Law of Vengeance.

The first thing about the movie that's interesting is how it introduces each of the main cast members, putting up the actor's name and character at the bottom of the screen the first time they appear. Now, some early talkies used a convention of showing the main characters with a shot from the movie right at the beginning. And there are also some silent films that would put the name of the actor in an intertitle when introducing a new character. But I hadn't seen it done quite like this before. Randolph Scott is the star here, and it's a bit odd to see his name show up on screen only when he first appears 20 minutes or more into the proceedings.

Anyhow, the plot itself starts off just after the end of the Civil War, with a newspaper etching informing us of Lee's surrender -- I don't think the technology to print photographs in newspapers was around in the 1860s. We then move to Kentucky, where Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher) is returning from the war. Mark's son Lynn (Jay Ward, but not the one who would go on to create Bullwinkle) witnesses Grandpa getting murdered, by one of the Colby gang, patriarch Jed (Noah Beery Sr.). The Colbys and Haydens have been feuding, but Mark doesn't want the violence to go on, having seen too much in the war. So instead of taking blood revenge, Mark gets Jed sent to prison for 15 years. The Haydens go west to Nevada to escape the feud, with Grandma taking care of young Lynn, she refusing to go west.

Those 15 years pass, and Jed is just about to get out of prison. During his time there, he made friends with fellow prisoner Jim Daggs (Jack La Rue), who got out a few months before Jed. Jim has raised a stake for him and the Colbys to go to Nevada to follow the Haydens, as Jed wants revenge for having lost 15 years of his life, not realizing it was his own damn fault. Jed also has an adult daughter, Ellen (Esther Ralston), who follows Dad and Jim out to Nevada.

Jed certainly attempts revenge, but things get complicated thanks to the presence of Ellen. Jim expects that Ellen is going to marry him, but who should show up from back east but a now grown up Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott, but of course you'll figure that out from the credits). He first runs into Ellen as she's swimming and being menaced by Jim, and he saves Ellen, the two not realizing who each other are. When Ellen finds out this is another Hayden, she's pissed and wants nothing to do with Lynn. But Lynn doesn't want the feuding either even though it's unavoidable, and you can probably guess that Ellen is ging to fall in love with Lynn by the last reel.

What surprised me about To the Last Man was the sort of violence. The climax took an unexpectedly dark turn, and I found that this raised the level of an otherwise standard-issue 1930s western quite a bit. To the Last Man is interesting for a whole bunch of reasons, and definitely worth a watch if you can find it.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Warriors

Now that I'm getting settled into the new digs, I'm finding that I have a bit more time to watch stuff, as well as see what all is available on the various streaming services. I noticed that one of the channels was running The Warriors, one of those movies that I know has a bit of a cult following but that I had never seen before. It's nice that streaming lets you start from the beginning without having had to record it first, so even though it was in the middle of a showing, I was able to sit down and watch from start to finish, along with the same three or four ads over and over.

In New York City, there are a lot of small competing gangs, of the sort that are about as tough as the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. One of those gangs is the Warriors, who are based in Coney Island. A small group of Warriors are on their way to Manhattan, where a bigger gang leader, Cyrus, has assembled all the gangs. Cyrus wants them to band together, since together there's a lot more of them than there are police. However, somebody, not one of the Warriors, has smuggled a gun into this meeting that's so secret it's being held right out in the middle of a public park and nobody notices but the assembled gang members. That guy shoots poor Cyrus dead.

Worse, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), the leader of the Warriors, got a good look at the guy who shot Cyrus. And, the killer Luther knows that Cleon saw it. So the killer takes the initiative and claims -- totally wrongly, of course -- that it was Cleon who killed Cyrus. Luther would have shot Cleon too, but the police show up just in time for everybody to skedaddle.

It's bad news for the Warriors. Since they're a gang, and wearing their "uniform" of an unbuttoned vest with nothing underneath, because of course everybody goes out in public undressed like this, all the other gang members are going to be able to spot the Warriors. And the gangs believe in collective punishment, because what would be the point of the gang otherwise. The Warriors are unarmed, like everybody else but Luther, and since they're not back on their home turf, they're in serious trouble. And with Cleon presumed dead, there's a power vacuum between second-in-command Swan (Michael Beck) and number three Ajax (James Remar).

Masai (Dennis Gregory), Cyrus' second-in-command, wants revenge, and tries to get out word to all the other gangs to stop the Warriors if at all possible. Now, this is in the days before cell phones and social media, so Masai has to use a friend in radio, the DJ (Lynne Thigpen), to get the word out. So the other gangs are aware that the Warriors are trying to get back to Coney Island, and are in pursuit. The Warriors have to take on a serious of increasingly absurdist gangs to get home. (Seriously, it got to the point that I was hoping the tennis mimes from the end of Blow-Up would be one of the gangs.)

It's easy to see why The Warriors has become a cult classic. That having been said, it's really not that good of a movie if you decide to stop and think about what you're watching. There are a lot of plot holes and other stuff that just doesn't make much sense or strains credulity. One of the gangs was on roller skates, for example, and this made me wonder whether this was how Michael Beck got the idea to open a roller disco in Xanadu. If you want another movie reference, Lynne Thigpen's DJ character made me think of Vanishing Point. And for New York supposedly being the City that Never Sleeps, the New York depicted here was surprisingly empty. But if you turn your brain off, it's a lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Bad Boy (1925)

I'm sorry to say that I don't have much time to write a real post today, so I decided to go looking for a Youtube video of a Charley Chase silent. I figured they'd all be in the public domain by now, although there's always the question of the a new music score, which wouldn't be in the public domain.

In the end, I found the 1925 two-reeler Bad Boy, a new-to-me movie uploaded by the musician who wrote the score that accompanies the movie. It's a fresh way to put out a portfolio of one's work, I suppose. And the movie is directed by Leo McCarey, who would go on to have considerable success in the sound era.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Martha's affairs

I've argued before that MGM had a lot of polish in its pictures, and sometimes that was too much polish for its own good. I think that's the case with a B movie I watched recently, The Affairs of Martha.

The movie stars off by telling us it's set in the town of Rock Bay on Long Island, one of those ritzy rich towns with all the proper decorum. So proper, in fact, that the town tut-tuts if anybody's too loud. But the town is about to get in a tizzy, because somebody is going to violate that decorum. New York gossip columnist Joel Archer (Allyn Joslyn) informs the fine people of Rock Bay, and the rest of the region, in one of his columns that a new book is about to be published. That book has been written by one of the maids in Rock Bay who, like Grace Metalious a dozen years later in Peyton Place, used the people in town as a model for her book. No wonder the upper-class populace of Rock Bay is in that tizzy.

The likeliest family to have a maid that would write such a book are the Sommerfields, with parents Melville Cooper and Spring Byington, and daughter Virginia Weidler. They're one of those less-than-normal families that you'd find in screwball comedies like the recently-mentioned Joy of Living, although this isn't really a screwball comedy. The family also has two maids, McKissick (Marjorie Main) and Martha (Marsha Hunt). As you might be able to guess by the title, Martha will turn out to be the one who wrote the book, and the rest of the town is going to learn this in the final reel.

Of course, Martha has much more going on in her life. The Sommerfields do, too. They've also got a son, Jeff (Richard Carlson), whom I haven't mentioned before simply because he hasn't shown up yet. He's studied anthropology, and is currently on an expedition to the Arctic to study dementia in the eskimos, who were not yet called the Inuit by polite society. He hasn't even come back for the start of the war; although the film was released in June of 1942 it feels like it was set some time before the war because there's no mention of any sort of outside affairs other than Jeff's being in the Arctic.

Jeff is about to return from the Arctic though, and this makes Martha very happy. You see, before Jeff left for the Arctic, the two of them got drunk at some sort of a party that resulted in the two of them getting married with almost nobody -- other than Archer -- knowing about the marriage. Jeff and Martha agreed that she was going to get an annulment while he was in the Arctic, but she couldn't get the time off work to go to Reno to get that divorce. And she decided she was going to write a book to show Jeff that she was as much a part of the intelligent people as all those upper-class people she and her class have been working for.

Unfortunately, Jeff wasn't counting on any of this. On his way back from the Arctic, he met Sylvia (Frances Drake) and immediately fell for her, to the point that he returned home engaged to her, and with her in tow. But because Martha hasn't annulled the first marriage....

The big problem with The Affairs of Martha is that it feels like the screenplay goes all over the place. The opening, and the synopses, all deal with the fact that a maid has written that book. If the movie stayed there, it could have mined the vein of comedy in movies like Theodora Goes Wild, and yes, I know Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas have a romance in that one. Here, however, the romantic conflict comes in out of nowhere, making the movie feel like it's doing too much for a 66-minute B film. On top of that, there's all the antics of the family in the third act. Somebody could have written a tighter script for The Affairs of Martha, and we would have gotten a pretty good B movie. Instead, we get a bit of a muddle, with MGM trying to cover it up with its production values.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Life joy

Another movie that I watched off of the Watch TCM app was the 1938 romantic comedy Joy of Living.

Irene Dunne stars as Maggie Garret, the elder daughter in a family of actors. Mom and Dad (Alice Brady and Guy Kibbee respectively) spent years toiling in vaudeville, while Maggie's kid sister Selina (Lucille Ball) unfortunately doesn't have quite as much talent as Maggie, although the parents would like her to go into showbiz too. Maggie's the one who's successful, having made it into the starring role of a musical. (Irene Dunne being a singer, it's unsurprising the script would give her a bunch of opportunities to sing.)

Maggie is so successful, in fact, that she routinely has throngs of adoring fans waiting for her outside the theater every night. In that crowd is Dan Webster (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. doing is best Melvyn Douglas impersonation), who is frankly forward enough that it frightens Maggie into thinking he might be a stalker, although apparently in the late 1930s they used the word "masher" instead. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here, as there's one other issue. Despite the fact that Maggie is successful, everybody else in the family has been preying upon her success, to the point that her large even for 2023 salary is about to get attached to pay off all the debts that the family has accrued.

And boy are they an annoying family, in the mold of any number of screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey. That obnoxiousness makes Maggie's next actions nearly plausible. Dan keeps showing up and making life a bit of a pain for Maggie, to the point that she finally decides to press charges. She figures that he's going to get a nominal fine and maybe a restraining order. But the judge shows no mercy and gives Dan a six-month sentence, horrifying poor Maggie. She pleads with the judge, who comes up with the only-in-the-movies scheme to have Maggie serve as a sort of probation officer, keeping Dan responsible in exchange for Dan getting a suspended sentence.

It's fairly obvious where the movie is going to go from here, as Dan and Maggie fall in love, and the movie reaches the climax in which Maggie's relationship with Dan is going to come in conflict with the relationship she has with the rest of her family. It's also fairly obvious which relationship she's going to put first in the finale.

And that's the big problem I had with Joy of Living. The cast is all appealing enough and certainly talented, but they're let down by material that's been done too many times. That, and the script felt like it had scenes that went on much too long so there was even less there than the programmer-length running time would have you believe.

Ultimately, Joy of Living isn't a bad movie; it's just that it's well down the list for all the main players as well as being down the list of screwball comedies. There's just so much better out that that you could show to introduce people to any of the stars or genre.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Another set of briefs for March 19-21, 2023

31 Days of Oscar continues on TCM through the end of the month. As I've mentioned before, the movies this time around are being grouped by genree. There was only one year of silent films at the Oscars, so when TCM lumps the silent films together, which is happening Monday in prime time. One of the movies is The Last Command at 9:45 PM; for some reason I thought I'd blogged about this one before. But a search of the blog claims that I haven't done so.

Another movie a blog search says that I haven't mentioned in some time, although I have blogged about it, is No Highway in the Sky. This one stars James Stewart as an aircraft engineer who gets the distinct suspicion that the airplane he's flying on is going to suffer a catastrophic failure through metal fatigue. But can he convince anybody of this. I blogged about it in the early days of the blog, when it got one of its airings on the old Fox Movie Channel. It's been back in the FXM rotation for the last little while, and has an airing tomorrow (March 20) at 7:40 AM.

Looking through some of the premium movie channels, it seems that there was a remake of Papillon back in 2018 that I never noticed. If you've got StarzEncore Classics, you can find it there, as if 2018 is a classic. Looking through the schedule, it looks like the oldest movie they've got running is from the early 1980s, although as of now that's already 40 years old. Back when TCM started, 40 yeas earlier would have been 1954, and I don't think anybody would have said at the time that there were no classic movies from the 1960s.

The move is continuing and we're in the new house, although there's a fair amount of the old house that needs to be cleaned out, along with a ton of unpacking here. However, as I think I've mentioned I've already set up the high-speed internet, and have been able to watch more movies on the Watch TCM app. The other nice thing about the streaming TV is how many of the channels allow you to go back to the beginning of a program that's currently airing. Just to see if that feature was working, I decided to sit through the first five minutes of Three Days of the Condor, although that's a movie I've already blogged about. I have no idea how many commercial breaks the movie had.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Dillinger (1945)

Many years back, TCM ran a night of Lawrence Tierney films, including the 1945 version of Dillinger. I sat down to watch it, but unfortunately a thunderstorm screwed up satellite reception and I never got to see the end. I noticed that it's on Watch TCM through the end of the month, and even got an Oscar nomination so TCM could run it in 31 Days of Oscar, so I finally sat down to watch the movie.

The movie opens up with an establishing sequence of what looks like an audience at a picture show, watching a newsreel about John Dillinger and his gang. But it's really more of a public lecture, as John Dillinger's father strolls out onto the stage after the movie and tells the assembled audience that little John started out like any normal boy in Indiana farming country, but didn't want to be tied down to the farm, so he went off to Indianapolis to try to make it big.

Dillinger (that's Lawrence Tierney if you couldn't figure it out) claims to be a stockbroker, but he sounds like he's more talk than action, considering the speakeasy where he's chatting up a girl and the class of waiter serving them. When the waiter wants cash up front for drinks, Dillinger walks out and goes into the nearby grocery store, where he holds up the cashier for a whopping $7.20, which wasn't all that much even in the mid 1920s.

Unsurprisingly, Dillinger gets caught and sent to prison, where he's put in the same cell as Specs Green (Edmund Lowe), a much older man but one who commands the respect of the other prisoners as he's a more intelligent criminal mastermind and not a hothead like Dillinger. But this Dillinger is no dummy, and decides to learn from Specs. The rest of Specs' gang is also in prison with them: Kirk Otto (Elisha Cook Jr.), Marco (Eduardo Cianelli), and "Doc" Madison (Marc Lawrence). Dillinger has a shorter sentence than the other guys, having committed a lesser crime, and gets out before Specs' gang. By this time, he's gotten into Specs' good graces, and promises to spring the rest of the gang.

Once out of prison, Dillinger returns to a life of crime, starting by holding up a movie theater box office. However, he flirted with the cashier, Helen Rogers (Anne Jeffreys) before holding her up. This little bit of flirting is enough to make her fall in love with him, so she doesn't identify him in a police lineup, enabling him to go free and break Specs and the gang out of jail.

The rest of the movie is in some ways the standard crime movie arc of a younger guy getting into a gang and then deciding to take it over, all while going on a crime spree, before the man's hubris gets the better of him. Of course, in the case of John Dillinger, we know the real ending, as he was exiting the Biograph Theater in Chicago after a showing of Manhattan Melodrama. (Surprisingly, Monogram was able to get the rights to show a Disney short from 1933 as part of the scene showing Dillinger's night at the Biograph, but MGM had no desire to let a movie like this use Manhattan Melodrama. Instead, we get made-up audio clips.)

The ending may be the only part of this version of Dillinger that's accurate. Having looked up biographical information on John Dillinger, it seems that most of the screenplay bears little resemblance to reality. However, the screenplay is more than entertaining enough for a B gangster picture, and Tierney was born to play a gangster like Dillinger. This one is definitely worth watching.

Friday, March 17, 2023

The possible hiatus is here

I've been dropping hints for a while that I'm moving out of my current residence to a place that's smaller and more centrally located, largely for the benefit of my father's health, as he really shouldn't be trying to take care of such a big place any more. Well, that move is finally here.

I've already got the internet set up, and it's nice to finally be a part of the 21st century with legitimate high-speed internet. Nothing from TCM on my DVR (well, Youtube TV library) yet, but I should still be able to stream the Watch TCM app.

I've written this post up a day or two early, and tried to get more posts written up early, but with all the packing I didn't get as far ahead as I would have liked. So although I mentioned Tucker: The Man and His Dream a few days back as a post I'd be doing, I still haven't actually gotten around to writing that yet. So there might still be a day or two without any posting while computers and TV sets get set up in the new digs.