Saturday, September 25, 2021

Murder at the Gallop

MGM's British unit produced four films in the early 1960s starring Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie's detective Jane Marple. TCM ran all four of them back in August during Rutherford's day in Summer Under the Stars, although I only had enough space on my DVR to record one of them, Murder at the Gallop. I recently got around to watching it and doing a review on it here.

At the start of movie, Marple is going around town with her companion and custodian of the local library, Mr. Stringer (Rutherford's real-life husband Stringer Davis, reprising his role from the first of the movies, Murder She Said), to raise money for a local charity. One of the stops is at the big manor-type house of a rich old man, Mr. Enderby (Finlay Currie), notorious for not donating to charity. He lets them in, however, where they find him getting scared by a cat and suffering fatal heart attack in the process!

Miss Marple just knows that it's murder, and figures that the last person before them to show up at the house deliberately brought a cat in order to induce that heart attack. So even before local police inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell, also reprising his role in Murder She Said shows up, she's trying to get evidence, which you'd think would be a crime since she's technically impeding a legitimate police investigation.

Except that the police don't believe it was murder, just a run of the mill heart attack, leaving Marple free to come up with her batty conspiracy theories. Well, of course, this being Miss Marple maybe they're not so batty. First she concludes that the murderer, whoever it was, must have come over on horseback as she's able to get an impression of a riding boot. Find out whose boot it matches, and you've got the murderer. She also eavesdrops on the reading of the will.

Among the heirs is Enderby's sister Cora, so Marple goes to visit Cora, finding her dead, and a housekeeper Miss Milchrest (Flora Robson) who wonders whether Marple is in fact the killer. As for the other heirs, there's Enderby's nephew Hector (Robert Morley) who runs a local inn that also provides horse riding as part of the recreation; art dealer Crossfield (Robert Urquhart); and Mr. and Mrs. Shane. All of the heirs are staying at Hector's in the Gallop, so Marple decides she's going to take a "vacation"... at the Gallop.

Some vacation, since it's patently obvious that she's going to investigate the murder. Along the way, she's going to be put in a bit of danger as she finds everybody is a suspect. But you know that she's ultimately going to figure out who the killer is.

Eddie Muller, in the wraparounds, stated that this particular movie is based on one of Christie's books that did not in fact have Miss Marple among the characters. So for Agatha Christie purists, they may not like the movie as a result. I more or less liked it, as the mystery is good enough and Margaret Rutherford brings the same humor to the Marple role that she did in Murder She Said. I have to admit, however, that I preferred Murder She Said.

Still, anybody looking for a relatively undemanding mystery can enjoy Murder at the Gallop.

Friday, September 24, 2021

A circus with no nouns or adjectives preceding it

There's a small sub-genre of circus-themed movies that has been a recurring theme in Hollywood history. If I had to give a reason why, I'd guess that part of it has to do with being able to show people circus acts that they might only have the chance to see once a year when the circus went through town. That, and the circus performers probably not needing to be paid as much as stars, since nobody knows who these trapeze artists or tightrope walkers are. Anyhow, some months back I recorded another movie in the genre, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus.

This is clearly a re-release print, since the opening credits are a different typeface with Chaplin singing over them. But soon enough we get into the action. The circus has come to town, and it's typically one that's struggling financially, with the owner/ringmaster (Al Garcia) treating his stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy) like dirt and not giving her dinner after the show for screwing up. He even won't let the other performers give her some of their meals.

Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin's Tramp is watching one of the related attractions when a pickpocket comes along. The pickpocket is spotted by the police, and having a very light hand, is able to put the stolen wallet and fob watch into the Tramp's pockets without the Tramp noticing. Eventually, however, he finds that he has money, and a watch, and this leads to the victim spotting the Tramp and sending to police to capture him. The Tramp goes on a chase through a funhouse mirror maze before running into the circus and screwing up the show.

Or, you'd think that a stranger running through the circus would be a problem. In fact, he shows up during one of the clown acts, and everybody in the audience thinks that he and the policeman chasing him are part of the act. Not only that, but he's the funniest thing in the circus, which presents problems for the ringmaster since he doesn't have anything else that the audience will like.

Still, the property master and others in the circus suggest to the ringmaster that he give this stranger a tryout. Unfortunately for the Tramp, he doesn't have any idea what made him so funny to the audiences in the first place, since he wasn't doing anything scripted. And if he's not able to be funny on command, he's not going to be able to get a job. But when he's not trying to be funny, he is, which gives the property master the idea to hire the Tramp on as an assistant, doing the things that will get audiences to laugh while the Tramp thinks he's just doing a different job.

Along the way, the Tramp falls in love with Merna, and she's friends with him. But the circus adds a new tightrope act, and Merna falls in love with that man, not realizing that the Tramp has an unrequited love for her.

To me, much of The Circus felt like a series of sketches hanging on a very threadbare plot. (Never mind that the whole pickpocket and Tramp-as-fugitive storyline is discarded.) However, in this case the various individual scenes mostly work, starting with the well-photographed mirror maze scene, something that seems like it would have been really difficult to pull off since you can't have the camera show up in any of the shots.

The Circus may not be as well-remembered as some of Chaplin's other movies, but it deserves to be.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Nice Little Bank that Should Be Robbed

The latest new-to-me movie that started showing up in the FXM rotation recently is A Nice Little Bank that Should Be Robbed. It's going to be on FXM again tomorrow, Sept. 24, at 9:45 AM; as always, with that in mind I made it a point to watch the movie and blog about it now.

Tom Ewell plays Max Rutgers, who runs an auto body shop that doesn't seem to get much business, as he seems to spend more time with his best friend Gus (Mickey Rooney), who is studying for his license to become a race-horse trainer. Unfortunately, Gus always seems to get incredibly nervous when he has to face the actual examiners, he consistently fails the examination. Meanwhile, Max has a long-suffering girlfriend in Margie (Dina Merrill) who would marry Max if only he had the money.

One day, Gus hears a story on the radio about a bank robbery, and comes up with the idiotic idea that he and Max can solve their financial problems if only the two of them rob a bank together! And he's even come up with a plan on how to do it! For whatever bizarre reason, Max decides to go along with this, even though in his mind he's planning to return the money after he can get enough back to repay what he's taken.

Amazingly, the robbery goes off without a hitch, which is something unusual in a heist movie. Of course, there's going to be problems later, thank you Production Code. Gus' plans for the money involve buying a race-horse and running it to win a bunch of prize money; with Max's share of the prize money, he can pay back the bank and have enough left over to get married to Margie. Or at least, that's the plan.

Gus and Max have to go to another state where Gus doesn't need a trainer's license, and there they run the horse. But in the meantime, their mutual friend, taxi driver Rocky (Mickey Shaughnessy) found the money bag that Gus and Max got the bank robbery money in and were too damn stupid to destroy. Rocky is unsurprisingly able to put two and two together, and wants in on his friends' money making scheme.

They'd all live happily ever after if only the scheme works. And it might at that, with their horse winning the first race it's entered in. That is, until the stewards have an inquiry and determine that the horse crowded others out in a way that contravenes the rules, thereby disqualifying the horse. Now Gus and Max are out a bunch more money.

As you might be able to guess, Gus comes up with a daft plan to rob another bank, this time in a different way from the first one, since if they robbed the second bank in the same manner, the police would be able to find them much more easily. Unfortunately, Gus isn't smart enough to realize that the bank vault is on a timer and that the bank manager can't just open it up before hours.

I mentioned that A Nice Little Bank that Should Be Robbed was a new-to-me movie. There's a reason I'd never heard about it before, which is that it's not very good. It looks as though it was done on the cheap, and the attempts at humor fall relatively flat. There's also the predictable plot holes involving incompetent crooks and what they expect reality to be.

Still, watch for yourself, as some people might enjoy this one more than I did.

Thursday Movie Picks #376: Femmes Fatales

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. Once again, we have a fairly broad theme, "Femmes Fatales". These were a staple of noir back in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the neo-noir movies of later, and there are some pretty good dames you don't want to get mixed up with. With that in mind, I went for a theme within a theme:

Dead Reckoning (1947). Humphrey Bogart plays a soldier returning from World War II whose buddy was up for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but went AWOL. Bogie goes to his friend's home town and finds an old girlfriend (Lizabth Scott) who is now involved with a local gangster but is trying to get Bogart to pursue her. It gets complicated after this, but not as much of a mess as The Big Sleep.

Pitfall (1948). Dick Powell plays an insurance investigator who gets an assignment to repossess some items from a woman (Lizabeth Scott) who had received them as gifts from an embezzling boyfriend. Despite her obviously being high-maintenance and Powell being married to Jane Wyatt, he starts having illicit trysts with her. Private investigator Raymond Burr, who has worked for Powell's insurance company, figures out what's going on and thinks blackmail would be just fine.

Too Late for Tears (1949). In one of the rarer cases where the femme fatale is the victim's wife, this movie stars Arthur Kennedy and Lizabeth Scott as a married couple on their way to a party in the Hollywood Hills when somebody throws a bag into the back seat of a convertible. Apparently this was supposed to be the transfer of some money from a criminal activity and our married couple just happened to have the same type of car as the gangsters. Kennedy wants to return the money but Scott wants to spend it. Dan Duryea would like the money back.

And for honorable mention, I could mention Scott as the villain in Easy Living, playing the grasping wife of football player Victor Mature, whose career is about to end due to illness. That one is going to be on TCM this Sunday at 11:30 AM.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon

TCM had a spotlight on "Body Images in Film" a couple of months ago, which gave me the chance to watch another new-to-me movie, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. I recently got around to watching it.

Liza Minnelli plays Junie Moon, who at the start of the movie is in the hospital, having suffered burns on an arm and one side of her face, which have required quite a few skin grafts. Eventually we learn, in flashback, that Junie liked to go out with a bunch of different men, and one of them raped her in a graveyard and deliberately poured battery acid all over her face and arm. But right now, she's getting to the point that there's not much more the doctors can do for her, so she's about to be discharged from the hospital.

During her time in the hospital, she's made a couple of friends. Warren (Robert Moore) is a gay man in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the waist down in an accident. Arthur (Ken Howard) has some sort of epilepsy-like disease that results in seizures and a lot of people thinking he's intellectually challenged. Indeed, his parents put him in a state-run institution that was torture for him, and to an extent he was never really able to grow up mentally.

Warren is in some ways a very forward man, in contrast to the introversion of Junie post-rape and especially Arthur. Warren has a plan that he's going to get the three of them on welfare and find them a place to live where the misfits can live together. Junie is the first of the three to get out, and she finds a cottage in nearby Manchester, MA. She's even able to convince the house's owner, Miss Gregory (Kay Thompson) to let the three of them rent it.

Unfortunately, the three of them aren't going to get the chance to live happily ever after. They've got a really nosy neighbor in Mr. Wyner, as well as still having health issues and the need to get a job. You'd think Junie might be able to get something not customer-facing; likewise Warren could do desk work. But it's Arthur who goes looking for work, eventually finding it with bachelor Mario (James Coco), who runs the local fish market. But Wyner tries to sabotage that.

Mario begins to have sympathy for the oddball household, even offering to help them take a vacation, although it's Warren who scams the hoity-toity beach resort out of a free weekend stay. While there, Arthur begins to realize he's falling in love with Junie although she's not so ready; Warren falls in love with one of the bellboy-types (Fred Williamson) whose job it is to make the guests happy.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is an odd little movie, and it's easy to see why it wasn't commercially successful. And indeed, sometimes the movie is too quirky for its own good. It's the sort of movie that you have to be willing to stick with, and by the end you might find out that it's better than the criticism would have led you to believe.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Cahill US Marshal

Some time back a late-career John Wayne movie I hadn't blogged about before showed up on TCM: Cahill, US Marshal. So I recorded it, and recently watched it to do a blog post on here.

Wayne, as you can probably guess, plays J.D. Cahill, the titular United States Marshal chasing after criminals somewhere out west. He's a widower with two children, and because of his time chasing all those bad guys, he hasn't been a very good father to his sons, being absent all the time. So when he comes home from his latest long jaunt away from the kids, he finds that elder son Danny (Gary Grimes), almost a legal adult, is in the town jail on a drunk and disorderly. Also in the jail are Fraser (George Kennedy), and his two henchmen Stuther (Morgan Paull) and Brownie (Dan Vadis).

It turns out, however, that this is a ruse. Fraser and his men robbed the local bank, with some help from Danny and JD's other son Billy Joe (Clay O'Brien), killing the local sheriff in the process; since they can claim they were in jail at the time, the might be able to convince people that they didn't commit the bank robbery. Of course, the fact that the sheriff died might be an issue.

In any case, JD sets off to find the bank robbers in order to bring them to justice, taking Danny along with him as a sort of impromptu deputy. What they find is MacDonald (Royal Dano) and his men, who had robbed somebody passing through. They're not the bank robbers, but since they've got money on them it's enough to get a jury to convict them and sentence them to hang.

I mentioned that kid brother Billy Joe, all of about 12, was in on the robbery in an attempt to get attention from his father, and that's where the problems start to mount. His job was to hide the money until things blew over and Fraser could divide the money. Well, things have moved quickly, and Fraser and his men would like their share, the sooner the better. They'd be willing to kill him, except that he's the only one who knows. However, Billy Joe secretly takes Danny to get the money, found out by Cahill and mixed-race tracker Lightfoot (Neville Brand). So Dad knows who committed the robbery, even if he isn't letting on.

Cahill, US Marshal isn't Wayne's best western by a long shot, but fans of the Duke will get what they're looking for. It's amiable enough and feels like it's treading ground that Wayne had been doing for years. So if you want something comfortable and not too demanding, Cahill, US Marshal will fit that hole fairly well. For people new to any of the stars, however, there are other things I'd pick first to recommend.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Kiss Me Kate

Tomorrow morning and afternoon, TCM is running a bunch of Shakespeare-themed movies. I'd never done a review of Kiss Me Kate before, so the last time it showed up on TCM, I recorded it with a view to getting around to watching it sometime. Seeing it on the schedule speeded up that process, so now you're getting the review.

Howard Keel plays Fred Graham, a Broadway star who is talking with his good friend Cole Porter (Ron Randell) about his latest project. Cole has written a musical treatment of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and Fred would be perfect for the male lead Petruchio. They know who would be perfect for the role of Kate, actress Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson). There's just one catch: Lilli is Fred's ex-wife. And Fred is pursuing another woman now, dancer Lois Lane (Ann Miller), although she's got a boyfriend in Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall).

After some persuading (and a spectacular if meaningless to the plot dance number by Miller), Lilli agrees to take on the role, and the play is a go. At this point, a substantial portion of the movie becomes the performance of the musical version of the play, although some of the backstage stuff is going to come into play.

Lois and Bill ahve both been cast in the play too, as Bianca and Lucentio respectively, if you know the original Shakespeare play, which I have to admit I don't know that much about. That's no big deal, except that Bill likes to gamble and has racked up a substantial amount of gambling debt. Worse, he forged Fred's name on an IOU to the gangsters.

The gangster, however, sends some henchmen who don't know what the guy who signed the IOU looked like, or else they'd find Fred and realize that Fred isn't the one who racked up those debts. Instead, the henchmen, Lippy and Slug (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore respectively), simply expect Fred to pay up. At least Fred has the good sense to realize that he has a hit on his hands and try to wait for the box office to come in long enough to pay off the IOU.

But here there's a big catch: Lilli got a bouquet of flowers from Fred, whch she thought was part of an attempt to make up. But it was a mistake: the flowers were meant for Lois. When Lilli sees the card addressed to Lois, she threatens to quit the show then and there, like literally between acts of the performance. This would obviously be a disaster for Fred, and leads to the film's funnier moments of Lippy and Slug being dressed up in Shakespearean garb and going on stage to watch Lilli and make certain she doesn't bolt.

Kiss Me Kate has a lot of potential. Whether you like it, however, is going to come down to whether you like the singing and the dancing. For me, that was a bit of a problem, as neither Howard Keel nor Kathryn Grayson are my favorite singers. Not that they can't sing; they're more than proficient enough. It's just a style that I don't think holds up so well today. The dancing, unsurprisingly, is quite good, thanks not just to Miller, but Rall and also a young Bob Fosse as two of Miller's suitors in the stage version of the show.

Kiss Me Kate wouldn't be my first choice when thinking about any of the stars, or for Cole Porter musicals, but there are definitely going to be people who like it a lot.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Ganashatru

Earlier this year saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. TCM marked the day with a bunch of his films, which gave me the chance to record a film that was new-to-me, his version of the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People.

Henrik Ibsen wrote his play in the 1880s and set it in his native Norway; Ray moves the action to the present day (well, 1989 when the movie was made) and places it in a small city called Chandipur somewhere in the Indian state of West Bengal (that being the same state in which Calcutta is situated and bordering Bangladesh. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a doctor there who has also written some articles for the progressive newspaper Janavarta; he's planning another one about an outbreak of jaundice in the community.

Dr. Gupta has a feelnig that the outbreak is caused by contaminated water, and to that end he's collected a sample of water in one of the districts and sent if off to Calcutta for testing. His suspicions are confirmed, as the water is indeed contaminated. So, there's a simple solution, which is to fix the water problem with new wells and, if the community could support it, some sort of treatment facility.

The bigger problem, however, is that the district with the contaminated water contains a relatively new Hindu temple, and that temple's holy water is what really seems to be the source of the contamination. The temple has become a site of pilgrimage, bringing a lot of people to Chandipur, and with them a fair amount of financial gain to the city.

The town fathers, then, led by Dr. Gupta's elder brother Nisith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), are understandably worried about what the consequences are going to be if word gets out that the temple water is in fact the source of the problem. There's the old saw about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on, but here, even if the the temple water contamination is cleaned up, the stories about the contamination will always remain more prominent than the fact of any cleanup that might occur in the future.

So Nisith brings quite a lot of pressure to his brother not to publish the story about the contaminated holy water. Indeed, the publisher of Janavarta decides, along with editor Haridas (Dipankar Dey), to spike the story. And it's not as if any other newspaper will publish it. Fortunately, however, Ashok's daughter, a local schoolteacher, is also engaged to a member of a theater company, and they have a printing press as well as a theater to hold meetings. So it's decided to advertise a public meeting where Dr. Gupta will give a speech about the contaminated holy water.

Unfortunately, Nisith gets his allies together and uses parliamentary procedure to sabotage the meeting. He also gets Dr. Gupta relieved of his duties at the local hospital, and even Dr. Gupta's daughter fired from her teaching position. What are Dr. Gupta and his family going to do?

This version of An Enemy of the People is very interesting, and takes the Ibsen play in some interesting directions that Ibsen himself didn't go. The action is in a small city rather than a village, which changes the dynamics somewhat, as it's easier to whip up an anonymous mob than in a village where everybody knows everybody. But the bigger thing is the debate between faith and science which the original play doesn't have. The story is quite good, and it's both universal and timeless, as we can see even today in the kerfuffle over Nicki Minaj's thoughtcrime regarding the coronavirus, and how the establishment is using the guise of "fake news" to suppress opinions the establishment doesn't like.

Unfortunately, this version of An Enemy of the People also suffers from what I thought was surprisingly poor direction. Almost unforgivably for a movie from the late 1980s, six decades into the sound era, it has shockingly stagy camerawork, and acting that seems like people declaiming their lines rather than real acting. (Apparently, Ray was in quite poor health by the time he made this movie, which might help explain that.) There's a very small amount of opening up the action by showing a few shots of people receiving the temple water, but that's about it.

Still, despite the movie's flaws, Satyajit Ray's An Enemy of the People is highly worth seeing for a fresh take on an always relevant story.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Steamboat Round the Bend

Quite some time back, I recorded Steamboat Round the Bend on TCM. I recently noticed that there's a box set of Will Rogers movies that includes Steamboat Round the Bend, so recently I watched it to do a review on here.

Will Rogers plays "Doctor" John Pearly, one of those medicine-show quacks who plies his trade in a decrepit riverboat up and down the Louisiana/Mississippi section of the Mississippi River in the 1890s, having to deal with all sorts of people along the way, such as rival captains like Eli (Irvin Cobb), and revivalist preachers.

Into Doc Pearly's life comes young Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley). She's the girlfriend of Doc's nephew Duke (John McGuire). Duke, meanwhile, is in legal trouble. One of the rural types from Fleety Belle's community was also in love with her, and confronted Duke over it, resulting in an incident in which Duke killed the other man in apparent self-defense. The authorities didn't see it that way, however, largely because no witnesses could be found to corroborate Duke's story, the only one being one of those preachers calling himself "New Moses". So Duke is convicted and sentenced to be executed down in Baton Rouge.

Doc needs a good way to get the money to get better legal representation for Duke. One of those ways involves a discarded wax museum, which he picks up, and uses to turn his riverboat into an attraction. Not that any of the locals agree with it. Fleety Belle, for her part, is willing to break Duke out of jail, but Duke will have none of that, since he doesn't want Fleety Belle to wind up in legal trouble herself.

Eventually, Doc Pearly comes across a blockage in the river, as traffic is being stopped for the start of a race from that location to Baton Rouge, which coincidentally happens to be where Doc is trying to get to to see the governor about a possible retrial for Duke. What Doc doesn't realize is that the execution is being put off until after the race, or at least after Captain Eli's ship crosses the line first. So if Doc can take his old wreck of a riverboat and finish ahead of Eli, he might still have a chance to save Duke. And he might have a chance to find the New Moses along the way, too.

I have to admit to not having seen too many Will Rogers movies, so I'm not quite certain if Steamboat Round the Bend is typical of his films. His acting style is certainly different, and it's definitely going to be an acquired taste for the audiences of the 2020s. His folksy, gentle humor, however, is something that apparently really appealed to at least a certain segment of the American moviegoing population during the first half of the Depression, which is why Rogers was such a hit until his tragic death in a plane crash in Alaska not long after he completed filming on this movie.

The story in Steamboat Round the Bend is a bit of a mess, as it felt to me as though there were multiple disparate sublpots the writers were trying to mesh together, and it doesn't always work. With that in mind, it definitely helps to be a fan of Will Rogers. The supporting actors, however, are mostly given a scene or two each to shine, much to the movie's benefit.

If you haven't seen a Will Rogers movie before, do yourself a favor and give him a try.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Jane Powell, 1929-2021

Jane Powell and Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951)

Actress Jane Powell, who started as a teenager at MGM in the 1940s before appearing in iconic musicals like Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, has died at the age of 92.

I'm not the biggest fan of musicals, so I don't really have one movie of Powell's that I would recommend first up, although Royal Wedding has the famous scene of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling.

Later in life, Powell became an advertising spokesman for Polident denture adhesive, joining a long line of Golden Age stars doing commercials. Speaking of Golden Age stars, she was approached by Dickie Moore in the mid-1980s when he was doing research for a book he was writing on child stars, he having started at an even earlier age than Powell. The two fell in love and eventually married, remaining married for 27 years until Moore's death in 2015.

Powell was also a substitute host for a week on TCM back in 2011 when Robert Osborne had to take an emergency break, the first of many before his ultimate death in 2017. Powell didn't actually talk much about the movies she was presenting, although I remember her saying something to the effect that she didn't get to know certain other stars (I think she was specifically referring to Doris Day at Warner Bros.) very well because of the way the stars worked back then: since all the MGM stars were on the lot so much, they wound up spending evenings together, while the same was true with the contract players from the other studios and, so she claimed, there wasn't as much mixing as there might otherwise have been. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any of those guest hosting segments on Youtube.

I don't know if there's been a TCM Remembers piece for Powell up yet; if so I'm pretty certain it would be the first one under the new graphics package. I also haven't been able to find anything yet on whether TCM has scheduled a programming tribute to Powell.