Friday, February 29, 2008

Eve Unveiled

TCM is playing the 1950 Bette Davis classic All About Eve at 5:30 PM ET on March 1. I could certainly post about what is widely considered one of the classics of American cinema, but All About Eve reminded me of another movie, and so I shall go off on a different tack with this post.

Pedro Almodóvar's 1999 movie All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre in Spanish) takes its name from All About Eve: at the beginning of the movie, transplant nurse and single mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her son Esteban (Eloy Azarín) are watching the movie in their Madrid apartment, and Esteban comments that the Spanish translation has erroneously been titled "Eve Unveiled". It's Esteban's birthday, and he'd like to learn about his father, but instead, he and his mother go to the theater to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring his favorite actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Unfortunately, Esteban is run down by a car after the play while trying to get Huma Rojo's autograph, sending his mother back to Barcelona, for a trip into her past and a search for Esteban's father....

In Barcelona, Manuela meets an odd assortment of people: Huma Rojo is there with her production of Streetcar, together with her lesbian lover, and her lover's drug habit. Manuela also meets the young nun Hermana Rosa (Penélope Cruz), who is ministering to Barcelona's seedier side, the prostitutes, transsexuals, and drug addicts. It turns out that Rosa has a seedier side to herself, as she's thoroughly broken the vow of chastity, getting pregnant from one of the people she's supposed to be ministering to -- and getting AIDS from him as well. Rosa can't go home, so she stays with Manuela, who takes care of her during her pregnancy. Eventually, Manuela does find Esteban's father, although it would be giving away too much of the plot to point out how and when this happens.

This movie is clearly not for the young: it deals with almost every adult topic imaginable, from drugs to every form of sexuality imaginable to domestic violence to thoroughly broken families to death and beyond. But Almodóvar handles the material with dignity and a touch of humor, making for one of the outstanding movies of recent years. I strongly recommend All About My Mother, and am happy to say that it is available on DVD.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Die, b*tch, die!

TCM is airing I Want to Live!, February 29 at noon ET. Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Graham, who was convicted and sentenced to the gas chamber for her part in the murder of a wealthy widow.

Unfortunately, however, that's about the best thing I can say about the movie. It's unbelievably propagandistic, with director Robert Wise doing everything in her power to turn viewers against the death penalty. Graham is made to look like a helpless victim of circumstance, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the media are depicted as bloodthirsty harpies out to get somebody so that they can get their story; and the legal system is portrayed as unfeeling. No chance is given for those who believe Graham might actually have been guilty to have their case put fairly.

To complete the farce, Wise spends a substantial amount of time at the end of the movie focusing on Graham's execution. Not the hours leading up to it, the way we see James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces. While that side of the execution is covered, I'm talking about the technical side of execution in the gas chamber -- we see how the executioner check to make certain that the poison gas will dissolve, checks the chamber itself, and so on. It's done in lurid detail, with the only detail missing being that of Graham's face being contorted as she dies in presumed agony: the folks administering the Production Code would never have gone for that.

The funny thing is, before watching I Want to Live!, I was opposed to the death penalty: I don't trust the State with the amount of power necessary to make such life-and-death decisions. (For the record, I still do oppose the death penalty, and for the same reasons. The movie didn't do anything to make me favor capital punishment.) Yet as I was watching the final execution scenes of this movie, I found myself yelling, "Die, b*tch, die!" at the screen. We get the point already.

Since I already opposed capital punishment before seeing this movie, I can't really say whether it works as effective propganda, although I'd say it probably shouldn't because it's so blatant and ham-fisted in the message it's trying to put out. Hayward does a capable job of portraying Graham the way Wise wanted her shown, but I don't know if this was really the best acting performance of the year. But watch and judge for yourself. I Want to Live! is available on DVD, in case you miss TCM's showing.

Getting pedantic with Robert Osborne

Grace Kelly in High Noon,
Grace Kelly in High Noon

In his comments after the end of On the Beach last night, TCM's Robert Osborne made a comment about the next film up, High Noon, being the movie that introduced America to Grace Kelly. True enough, High Noon made Kelly a star, but it wasn't her first movie. That would be Fourteen Hours.

Fourteen Hours is a gripping little drama about a man (Richard Baseheart) who walks into a hotel one St. Patrick's Day, rents a room, and then walks out of the room onto the window ledge, with the intention of jumping. Of course, somebody notices him on the ledge before he gets the chance to jump, and this is where the drama begins. Who is this man? Why does he want to jump? And can anybody convince him not to jump? Meanwhile, the prospect that a man might jump off a building brings the usual crowd of gawkers to the street below, with the expected crowd dynamics. Also, however, the scene affects people on the ground in what we, or they, might not have imagined. The material isn't anything groundbreaking, and in many ways what we would reasonably expect to happen is what does happen: the film is relatively realistic by the standards of what Hollywood could do in the early 1950s. And director Henry Hathaway handles it all with a deft touch that will leave the viewer guessing whether or not Baseheart will jump.

In the cast besides Baseheart is Paul Douglas as an Irish cop who sees Baseheart, and it the first one charged with getting him off the ledge. In many ways, Douglas is the only person Baseheart can trust. Also appearing are Howard Da Silva as the deputy police chief who's heading the operation to get Basehart back in the building; Agnes Moorhead as Basehart's overbearing mother, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Baseheart's finacée. People with bit parts on the street who aren't listed in the credits are John Cassavetes; Brian Keith; and Ossie Davis playing a cab driver.

What about Grace Kelly, you ask? She's not in the crowd below, but in a neighboring building. Her story line is that of a woman about to get a divorce, and going through all the legal formalities with her lawyers. But when she sees what happens to poor Basehart out on the ledge, she starts to have a change of heart....

It was a pleasant surprise to find out that Fourteen Hours is indeed available on DVD. It was released by 20th Century-Fox, and we know how they can be negligent in showing their classic movies on the Fox Movie Channel.

Edit: Updated to add photo of Grace Kelly

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Unsympathetic Kate

TCM is airing The Philadelphia Story on February 28 at 11:00 AM ET. Katherine Hepburn plays socialite Tracy Lord who's two years divorced from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), and is just about to get remarried. Until, that is, Dex returns the day before their marriage with a tabloid reporter (James Stewart, in the role that won him the Best Actor Oscar) in two, determined to break up the impending marriage. (But not with an ax, a la The Best Years of Our Lives.)

Hepburn is less than sympathetic in The Philadelphia Story, but I think a lot of that is due to the story. Lots of good movies need to have one or another of the characters be less than likeable; Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday springs to mind. However, Hepburn comes across to me as unympathetic even in some of the movies where the writers tried to portray her as more likeable -- and even in some of those movies where there was no reason for her to be unsympathetic.

In a movie like Bringing Up Baby, you can argue that Hepburn shouldn't be sympathetic: after all, she's trying to break up Cary Gran't marriage again!

Then, there's The African Queen. Here, she really should be more likeable: her brother is killed at the beginning of the movie, and she's got to deal with an alcoholic Humphrey Bogart as the only person left to help her. She rightly tries to get him to help himself -- and yet, she's such a jerk about it. Perhaps it's because her character is, as a Christian missionary, supposed to be unbelievably ignorant -- but instead, Hepburn comes across as not the nicest person in the world.

Finally, there's Pat and Mike, which I mentioned recently. This one has absolutely no reason for the viewer to dislike her. In fact, in Pat and Mike, Hepburn's character is the one (well, except for Aldo Ray's) that we should like more than the rest: her fiancé is making her a nervous wreck, and Spencer Tracy is obviously exploiting her. Yet still, I just couldn't warm to her.

What is it about Katharine Hepburn that made her so tough to like?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethnic G. Robinson

This morning over breakfast I watched Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931) on TCM. Robinson plays the Greek-American barber Nick Venizelos, who's also a top-notch gambler. He goes to the big city and is swindled out of his money, but later gets another chance to get back at the people who swindled him, and becomes the biggest gambler of them all, evetually owning an illegal casino that leads to his downfall. James Cagney gets second billing as Robinson's sidekick, and the cast also includes a brief appearance by Boris Karloff, playing a man with a British accent.

What I found most interesting is that Smart Money casts Robinson as being of Greek descent. Robinson was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1893, and Smart Money would be one of many times Robinson would be cast in ethnic roles that are, to say the least interesting:

  • Probably the best known is Robinson's portrayal of the Italian-American Rico in Little Caesar, the film which practically type-cast Robinson as a gangster;

  • Tiger Shark has Robinson incongruously playing a Portuguese-American fisherman. Yikes on both the Portuguese part and the fisherman part. Although playing such a role would later win Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Oscar, you have to wonder what the studios were thinking.

  • Robinson continued the Latin thing by being a Mexican-American in gold-rush San Francisco in Barbary Coast.

  • Perhaps most interesting, however, is Robinson's role in the delightful family movie Our Vines Have Tender Grapes: Robinson plays a Norwegian immigrant farmer in 1940s Wisconsin, brining up Margaret O'Brien. That's quite a change from those gangsters and southern Europeans! (It should probably be pointed out, however, that Robinson had already played a German historical figure in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and A Dispatch from Reuter's.)

I'm not certain what all these casting decisions say. Is it that the studios were dictatorial in controlling how their stars were used, either typecasting them or giving them strangely-cast roles? Certainly, the studios had a tendency to do such things. But perhaps it also says something about the acting ability of Robinson: he puts in capable performances in all of these movies, even when the script doesn't all the movie to be anything great.

Of the movies mentioned. Little Casear, Barbary Coast and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes are available on DVD. Smart Money is listed by Amazon as being part of Volume 3 of Warner's Gangster Collection, which is scheduled for release at the end of March.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A salute to the staggeringly incompetent

I am pleased to see that the 1960 British comedy Make Mine Mink is available on DVD. Terry-Thomas stars as a retired British World War II officer now loving out a dull existence in a rooming house with several similarly aged ladies. Everything changes when one day, a couple living in an apartment in the same building get into an argument, and the husband throws the wife's fur onto their balcony. The retirees' young maid, who had a past as a petty criminal, fishes for the "unwanted" fur, and this gives the retirees an idea: one of them works for a charity, so the group of them will work together to raise money for the charity by stealing furs and fencing them.

Terry-Thomas, having been in in the military, decides to plan each of the heists with the utmost precision. Unfortunately for him, however, his accomplices display Murphy's Law in spades. Either that, or they're the "gang that couldn't shoot straight" -- on steroids. Not only does everything that can go awry actually go awry, it goes unimaginably and hilariously far off the mark, except for one thing: the fur heists are actually successful, in that they end up netting out retirees furs to fence, and money for the charity.

Of course, this is not without problems. The police are on to the fact that there's a gang stealing furs, but they're incompetent themselves, despite the fact that one of their number is in love with the retirees' maid. Also, the charity is seeing the donations, and wants more such donations, leading to a dilemma for our "heroes": how are they going to stop?

This movie is one non-stop riot from beginning to end, with unexpected twists and turns, with some background sight and sound gags that you have to watch carefully for. For example, there's a newspaper article that refers to the gang as superannuated beatniks. There's also a scene where Terry-Thomas first tries to fence something (unsuccessfully, but humorously so, of course). Listen for the background music: that's the Anton Karas zither music from The Third Man, both incongruous and fitting at the same time, and of course eliciting a laugh as it plays.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mickey Rooney had a farm

No "EIEIO", however: TCM is airing the 1934 movie Hide-Out at 7:00 AM ET on Monday, February 25. Robet Montgomery stars as Lucky Watson the head of a criminal ring who has to flee New York when the police start closing in on him. (No, this is nothing like Shadow of a Doubt.) While escaping, Lucky gets shot and wounded by the police, so his partners in crime take him to the country and drop him off at the nearest farm they can find so that he can recuperate. This family, the Millers in some ways a typical American family, with married parents and two kids -- a daughter and a son. The daughter, Pauline Miller, played by Maureen O'Sullivan (seen here with Robert Montgomery) is all grown up but not married, and is working as a teacher. You can guess what happens: she and Lucky fall in love as she nurses him back to health, and Lucky finds he's beginning to like the farm life. Unfortunately, however, the law eventually catches up to him, and Lucky has to figure out some way to go off with them and face his jail sentence, without letting on to Pauline what's really happening.

Where does Mickey Rooney fit into this? Well, he plays the other child, Willie Miller. He's mildly obnoxious here, but then, he was only 13 when the movie was made, and in many ways, his portrayal is not that far off from what a boy of his age would have been. The one scene where Rooney really gets to shine is one in which his prize rabbit is the family's dinner. Poor Mickey. But at least he's still working actively today, at the tender age of 87. Also to watch out for in the cast are Edward Arnold as the head detective chasing Montgomery, and veteran character actor Edward Brophy as Arnold's assistant.

Hide-Out is a really nice little movie, both as a romance, some as a comedy, and also with the drama that it has. And interestingly, unlike many Hollywood movies of the mid-1930s, Hide-Out seems quite kind in the way it treats rural America. In many movies of the day, farmers and small town America were either overly iconized, or else treated as stupid buffoons. In Hide-Out, however, the Millers are treated more as normal people, who just happen to be a farm family. And the movie is all the better for this.

Hide-Out runs a swift 81 minutes, and is a wonderful little movie. Unfortunately, it has not yet been released on DVD, so TCM's showings are the only chance you'll have to see the movie.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stingy Universal?

One thing I didn't mention about Shadow of a Doubt is the production company: It was produced by Skirball Productions, and distributed by Universal Pictures. Having been released in 1943, it means that the opening shot is of Universal's "mirrored ball" logo with an art deco font, as can be seen in the photo on the left. It's also the first time in a long time that I can remember that this logo has shown up on TCM. Later logos, such as the "Universal International" logo with its ridiculous serifs, or the "Universal, an MCM Company" logo have shown up a bit more often, but still fairly rarely.

Why is it that the older Universal movies have shown up so rarely on TCM? Part of the reason is of course monetary; the various channels have to pay for the brodacst rights to the movies they wish to show, and it's to be expected that with some movies, other channels will outbid TCM. However, I can't help but wonder if there are other factors at work:

The later Universals show up slightly more often. In 1946, Universal merged with International in a complex deal (hence the "Universal International" logo I mentioned above), and these later movies show up slightly more regularly than the older Universals.

Also, there are the Paramount pictures owned by Universal. In the mid 1950s, the Music Corporation of America (MCA) bought the TV broadcast rights to most of Paramount's talkies released before 1950. (At the time, nobody thought people would want to watch silent movies on TV.) These show up once in a while, too (eg. A Farewell to Arms earlier this month), again seemingly a bit more frequently than the pre-War Universal movies.

A few other movies Universal has more recently obtained the rights to (eg. 1960's Psycho) have also appeared more regularly than the early Universals; these have an updated Universal logo including the company's web address. (Compare this to the Columbia library, most of which pictures have an updated "Sony Pictures Television" logo tacked on at the end.)

In addition to Shadow of a Doubt, TCM has scheduled Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur for March. Like Shadow of a Doubt, this was distributed by Universal, and so has the mirrored globe logo; however, also like Shadow of a Doubt, it has another production company on the credits along with Universal. At the time, Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick (as can be seen in the small print in the opening to Shadow of a Doubt); perhaps there is something different about the Hitchcock movies that causes them to have a different set of broadcast rights and entities that need to be paid royalties, and that's why they can be shown, but not most of the other Universals.

Or are the folks at NBC Universal simply that stingy or ignorant? Considering the booming business they seem to be doing releasing various TV shows on DVD, and the amount of product they have, it is possible that they don't realize what they're sitting on. And finally, it would also be possible that, having so much product, they'd have to convert it into a medium that can be broadcast on TV. (Many old TV shows that still exist are on kinescopes, and no modern TV outlet that I know of has the capability to play these directly.)

But still, something is up with TCM's relationship with Universal that doesn't seem to be up with the other studios. What is it?

The joy of dark humor

TCM played six of Alfred Hitchcock's movies back-to-back in a mini-marathon today. Hitchcock was known not only as the master of suspense, but also of black humor. And of the six Hitchcock movies aired today, I'd like to highlight the one that's probably least well-known to the average viewer, which also just happens to have the most black humor: Shadow of a Doubt.

Joseph Cotten stars as Charlie Oakley, the "Merry Widow" murderer who is being chased on the east coast by police for allegedly killing several old widows. He decides that the best way to escape is to go visit the only family he has, out in Santa Rosa, California. (Many of the establishing shots were actually done on location.) Here, he precedes to charm every member of his family -- and much of the townsfolk, too. The one exception to this is his niece, also named Charlie (last name Newton), played by Teresa Wright. She gets the impression that there's something wrong, and gets even stronger suspicions when the two detectives from the east show up in Santa Rosa hot on Uncle Charlie's trail. Meanwhile, one of the detectives (Macdonald Carey) falls in love with niece Charlie....

The movie is filled with black humor and otherwise excellently understated performances. There's a running joke throughout the movie involving father Joseph Newton (played by Henry Travers, on the left), who has an obsession with the "perfect murder", that he shares with his co-worker Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn, holding the crime magazines), at all hours of the day; notably, the concoct murders at the dinner table, much to the dismay of daughter Charlie. Also, the first picture (with Wright and Cotten sitting at a table in a seedy bar), note the waitress (played by Janet Shaw, who didn't make too many movies). In that scene, the two Charlies are discussing niece Charlie's knowledge of what her uncle stands accused of doing, specifically involving a ring she believes is engraved to one of his victims. The waitress spots the ring, and immediately goes into a monologue about being able to spot fine jewelry right away. This monologue is delivered in an amazing deadpan: she sounds like a world-weary woman who has been through this all before, even though she's only the same age as niece Charlie.

Also worth watching is the rest of the family. Patricia Collinge does a very good job of playing mother Emma Newton, who seems just a bit dotty is quite gullible about letting the police detectives in the house to investigate Uncle Charlie. She's reminiscent of, say, Billie Burke from Dinner at Eight A more humorous character, however, is younger daughter Ann Newton, played by child actress Edna May Wonacott as seen in the photo. She channels fellow child star Virginia Weidler (see a movie like The Philadelphia Story) to be a bit too precociously smart for her age, with the result that she's also unbelievably obnoxious and almost a bit bratty. But like Weidler in The Philadelphia Story, it's quite funny. Unfortunately, Wonacott made only a handful of movies, and most of them are bit parts. Perhaps other producers found her too bratty.

Fortunately, Shadow of a Doubt is available on DVD if you missed the showing on TCM.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A brief history lesson

The Fox Movie Channel is airing its 1952 spy thriller Diplomatic Courier on February 23 at 11:30 AM ET. It's not the greatest spy movie ever made, but it is eminently enjoyable, and has one of the more unique historical perspectives.

Tyrone Power plays the title role, that of American diplomatic courier Mike Kells. His job is to go to Salzburg, Austria, and retrieve some documents from a colleague who is smuggling them out of Romania. Unfortunately, they can't make the exchange at the specified location, and Kells' colleague is later killed and his body is unceremoniously dumped out of the train. One clue, however, is a note for Kells to meet his colleague's last contact, a mysterious East European named "Janine" (played by Hildegard Knef, spelled as "Neff" in the opening credits). Along the way, Kells is followed by the widow of another US diplomat, Joan Ross (played by Patricia Neal), who seems to have a thing for Kells.

The story itself is nothing earth-shattering, but what is interesting is the setting to which Kells travels in his search for Janine: Trieste. Trieste, and the surrounding region of Istria, had been part of several countries over its history; Austria-Hungary up until World War I, and Fascist Italy through World War II. After the Second World War, however, the city was given the status of a free state, and divided up into two zones and, much like Germany (and Berlin within) and Austria (and Vienna within) was occupied by multiple foreign forces: one zone by the US and Britain, and another by the Yugoslav Army. This, the multi-ethnic demographics of the region, and Yugoslav dictator Tito's relatively maverick diplomatic policy compared to the rest of the Communist bloc, combined to make nominally independent Trieste a perfect site for spies of all sides to engage in their espionage. The story uses this history to good effect, as you can never quite tell until it's necessary for the story just who is a good guy, and who is a bad guy. Sure, the story isn't the best ever; at times it delves into incredulity, and From Russia With Love makes much better use of the former Yugoslavia and the east Adriatic as a backdrop for espionage. But, Diplomatic Courier is still quite fun, and fine for watching on a rainy day with the proverbial bowl of popcorn. Sadly, Diplomatic Courier has not yet been released on DVD, so infrequent showings on FMC are your only way to catch it.

Watch out for a scene about an hour in, where Tyrone Power is approached in a jeep by his American contact and an MP. The MP, who has a brief speaking line, is a very young Lee Marvin in a brief role.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Out west with Procter and Gamble

Duel in the Sun aired this past Tuesday on TCM, so I finally took the opportunity to watch it. Producer David O. Selznick was looking to make a movie that could rival the grandeur of Gone with the Wind, and bought the rights this lurid Texas-set western as that attempt. But I can't help but think about my freshman college roomate, who hailed from just outside Nome, Alaska. One of the things Alaskans liked to say was "Cut Alaska in two and make Texas the third biggest state." Although such sentiments will probably rankle our readers from the Lone Star State, I believe that they perfectly fit the bombast that is Duel in the Sun.

The plot fits right in with something you'd see on any good soap opera, and being set in Texas, would fit right in with the Ewings at Southfork ranch (except that in Duel in the Sun), we don't get anybody stepping out of the shower and telling us that what happened in the past 45 minutes was all just a bad dream). We start off with Jennifer Jones (the actress, not the trashy 1990s talkshow host, although the latter would have been at home with this story) as mestiza Pearl Chavez in 1880s Texas whose father (Herbert Marshall, in a "what am I doing here" role) is sent to the gallows for killing his wife and her lover. So, Pearl is sent to west Texas to work on the "million-acre" ranch of cattle baron Lionel Barrymore and his wife, Lillian Gish. They have two sons: the impossibly virtuous Joseph Cotten, and the caricature of evil, Gregory Peck. Needless to say, both fall in love with Pearl, but the town is only big enough for one of them....

The story itself isn't that bad: noirs are filled with love triangles, and even some westerns had this tireless plot device. (For a good love triangle set out west, try Rachel and the Stranger, or perhaps River of No Return.) But this one is presented in an unbelievably over-the-top style: Orson Welles with his dulcet tones provides the opening narration, and he's only the first member of the star-after-star-after-star casting system this movie uses. In addition the those mentioned above, there's Walter Huston as a moralizer trying to get Pearl to stop sinning -- a role that reminded me of Huston's Rain where he tried to reform Joan Crawford; as in Rain I was hoping that Huston would commit suicide here, too. Also, Charles Bickford shows up as another of Pearl's suitors. Butterfly McQueen is in her usually typecast role as a servant (although in her defense of course, Hollywood didn't give other roles to black women) with her unbelievably irritating voice. And minor character actors showing up include Harry Carey and Otto Kruger.

In addition to the cast, the whole backdrop is overblown. Technicolor was used in an obvious attempt to make Texas look bigger than it is; and the script routinely calls for the characters to ride out into the open spaces for no good reason other than to show those spaces. The final sequence, the "duel in the sun" of the title, is reminiscent of what Erich von Stroheim had done two decades earlier in Greed, but there the ending was good, and not simply unintentionally funny as in Duel in the Sun.

However, if you enjoy westerns, you may want to give Duel in the Sun a chance. It's a fairly shallow movie that allows you to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and your loved ones (at least, the ones who are grown up) and just have a good time without having to think too hard.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Al Jolson vs. Ang Lee

Al Jolson and Ang Lee
Al Jolson (l.), Ang Lee (r.)

It might seem odd to compare a Jewish Roaring Twenties singer to a Taiwanese director of the 1990s and today, but I was struck by this comparison when I noticed that Ang Lee's 1994 movie Eat Drink Man Woman is airing this Friday at 6:35 AM ET on Encore Drama.

Eat Drink Man Woman deals with a Taipei widower who is also a master chef. He's going to be forced to retire due to the fact that he's losing his sense of taste. Meanwhile, he's got three daughters, all of whom still live with him as they have not yet married. But they're all grown up, and would like to go their own way and live their own lives. The only thing is, there's this pesky little thing called tradition. Each of them feels compelled to look after their father. There's also the family tradition that they get together every Sunday afternoon for an elaborate meal. All of the daughters feel this is a serious intrusion upon their lives, and yet, whatever else is going on in their lives, they come back every Sunday for the family dinner. Indeed, many of the key scenes take place at these family banquets.

Along the way, all four of the family members find love, although each does so in his or her own way, and there are quite a few plot twists as they find love. However, this slice-of-life drama constantly seems realistic, with none of the twists appearing to be anything that wouldn't happen in real life. Eventually, all four live, if not happily ever after, whatever is the real live version of reasonably happy.

But when I noticed this movie was coming up on TV, I began to think about how it compares to The Jazz Singer. Both movies deal intimately with the theme of tradition: Al Jolson's Jakie Rabinowitz is a cantor's son who wants to make his way in the modern world (at least, the 1920s version of modern), and has to leave his family when it clashes with his father's version of what a good son should be. But of course, when the elder Rabinowitz is on his deathbed on Yom Kippur, there's only one person who can sing the Kol Nidre -- Jakie, who feels torn by that clash between tradition and his "modern" life of singing jazz songs on the Broadway stage. The two movies couldn't be more different in place an time, and yet, the theme is universal.

One word of warning, however: don't watch Eat Drink Man Woman on an empty stomach. Ang Lee makes use of unbelievably gorgeous and mouth-watering food photography. Watch for one particularly humorous scene where the father, dismayed at the food in the lunchbox of his neighbor's young granddaughter, makes much more elaborate dishes for her to take to school, leaving the entire class to savor what's in her lunch box.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One, Two, Three

TCM is showing the Billy Wilder farce One, Two, Three on February 20 at 6:00 PM ET. Although it's a political comedy, and as such subject to becoming dated, it's still just as funny as ever more than 45 years on, and well worth watching.

James Cagney stars as C.R. MacNamara, an executive with the Coca-Cola company heading up the soft drinks maker's operations in West Berlin, in the period just before the Communists erected the Berlin Wall in August, 1961. (Indeed, filming occurred before the Wall went up, but the movie was released afterwards, forcing Wilder to tack on an expository scene at the beginning pointing out that the movie was set before the construction of the Wall.) He wants to advance with the company to become head of the entire European operation, while his long-suffering wife ("What's My Line" panelist Arlene Francis, in one of her infrequent movie roles) wants to return to America to raise the kids -- and to get her husband away from secretaries like the buxom Fräulein Ingeborg (played by Lilo Pulver). Anyhow, for MacNamara, the key to advancing is to look after the boss's daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), the stereotype of the vacuous young American blonde, who is traveling through Europe and will be spending some time in West Berlin.

Unbeknownst to MacNamara, however, Scarlett spends every night bribing the chauffeur and going out on the town behind his back; specifically, she's been going to East Berlin to meet the nice Communist boy Otto (Horst Buchholz) with whom she's fallen in love. MacNamara doesn't find out about any of this until Scarlett announces that she's married Otto! Ooh, that's going to cause MacNamara problems in trying to get to the executive suite! So, his solution is to get the marriage annulled by getting the marriage documents removed from the relevant government office in East Berlin. This works, but unfortunately works all too well: it is only after getting the marriage annulled that we learn, in a quite hilarious manner, that Scarlett has gotten pregnant by her husband! If C.R. thought Scarlett's marriage was going to cause him problems climbing the corporate ladder, just think how her pregnancy is going to do just that! The rest of the movie is one long farcical attempt to rectify the situation, involving espionage, false identities, makeovers, an escape from East Berlin, and more; everything, however, falls into place and makes the viewing experience immensely pleasurable. If you want a good comedy, you'll be laughing throughout this one.

Although One, Two, Three is a joy to watch, it wasn't a joy to make for Cagney. Billy Wilder decided that he wanted a rapid pace for this movie, evidenced in part by the frequent use of Aram Khachaturian's classic "Saber Dances" piece, but more troubling for Cagney by the extremely rapid dialog. Cagney was already over sixty, and found delivering the lines in the manner Wilder wanted to be a daunting challenge, to the point that one scene requiring Cagney to rattle off, rapid-fire, a list of clothing items he needed purchased, took over fifty takes! Cagney was so frustrated by all this that he effectively retired from Hollywood, making only a few TV movies, and an appearance in the 1981 movie Ragtime after this.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Quo Vadis vs. The Sign of the Cross

TCM showed Quo Vadis this morning. Based on a 19th century novel by Herman Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis tells the story of Christians in ancient Rome persecuted by the emperor Nero. If this sounds familiar, it's because the story is in many ways similar to that of The Sign of the Cross, which was recently recommended in this space. Unfortunately, the later version does not match up to the original.

Much of this has to do with the Production Code, which was still being enforced with some vigor when Quo Vadis was released in 1951: the studio simply couldn't show as much of the vice as Cecil B. DeMille had done 20 years earlier. Sure, Rome burns -- and the burning sequence ia probably better in Quo Vadis since 1950s moviemakers had much better Technicolor to show such a spectacle in all its glory. And by 1951, it wasn't nearly as expensive to go on location to shoot, so MGM were able to go to the Cinecittà studios in Rome to get authentic Italian backgrounds for many of the scenes. But they couldn't have Claudette Colbert, or her 1950s equivalent, bathing naked in goat's milk. Also, there's no lesbian dancing of the sort poor Elissa Landi had to put up with. And although Quo Vadis has the Christian sacrifices at the arena, here again we don't get the detail we were treated to in the arena. There are some lions, but they don't seem nearly as menacing, or as vicious, as the assorted beasts in The Sign of the Cross.

But it's not just the Production Code that is at fault here. The cast is just not as up to the job as what Cecil B. DeMille assembled two decades previously. Nobody could replace Claudette Colbert as Poppeia, and MGM only got some no-name (Patricia Laffan?). Robert Taylor, who plays the Roman prefect, might be the one bright spot in Quo Vadis, as he seems more fit to the role than Fredric March had in The Sign of the Cross. Peter Ustinov plays the Emperor Nero, and where Charles Laughton was delightfully depraved, Ustinov is simply campy, and irritating. Every time he showed up on screen, I wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck and say, "Get out of here so we can see the sex and violence!" Finally, they cast the virtuous Christian all wrong. Elissa Landi was pretty, but also gave off the air of an ingenue. In Quo Vadis, however, we get Deborah Kerr as the Christian; as an actress, she was far too genteel to play this role and seems completely unable to shake the aura of sophistication that her British upbringing gave her.

And worse, Quo Vadis goes on, and on, and on. The Sign of the Cross was somewhat long by early 1930s standards, clocking in at just over two hours. But Quo Vadis is nearly two hours and 50 minutes. Quo Vadis is, however, available on DVD, so you can check it out for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Three-strip Technicolor

Turner Classic movies is airing the love story The Garden of Allah this Tuesday (February 19) at 3:15 AM ET. The story itself is pretty treacly, and worthy of the Lifetime Channel; it might be even more of a "chick flick" than The Great Lie. But there are technical reasons for recommending this movie.

Charles Boyer plays the male lead, a monk in a Catholic monastery in North Africa who happens to be the only person who knows the secret of making a liqueur that his monastery produces. One day, however, the gorgeous Marlene Dietrich visits the monastery, and he, so smitten by her, leaves the monastery so that he can live out in the regular world and marry her. Although the two fall in love, she's a devout Catholic, and eventually discovers that he's the monk who knows how to make that liqueur which is no longer being made, so she feels it's her duty to make him go back to the monastery and take up his vows again....

I told you that this is a retch-inducing storyline. But the movie has a saving grace: it's one of the earliest features to be produced in the more advanced "three-strip" Technicolor process. I'm not an expert on the technical aspects of filmmaking, but if you want a good history of the Technicolor process, you can't do better than to visit the Wide-screen Museum web-site. Basically, however, in the 1920s, the Technicolor company, in its attempt to create color movies, used a process generally called "two-strip" (although this is technically inaccurate). The film stock was run through two filters to produce a color positive, a red filter, and a blue-green filter. The upshot is that most of the reds turned out rather pinkish, while dark greens were relatively accurate, with other shades turning into a somewhat pastel bluish green. Yellow was the one other color that was reproduced with relative accuracy, as yellow is the result of "mixing" equal amounts of red and green light. (Remember that the primary colors of light are red, green, and blue, different from the primary colors of pigment, where yellow replaces green as one of the primary colors; if you look at an old cathode-ray tube TV you'll note that it has narrow red, green, and blue vertical lines that produced the colors.) Two-strip Technicolor wasn't that successful, partly because it wasn't that accurate, and partly because it was expensive, and once talking pictures were introduced, the studios didn't want to spend large sums of money making pictures in color.

In the early 1930s, the Technicolor company started to perfect the process that would become known as "three-strip", with three strands of film being used to create the ultimate positive. This process was first used in Walt Disney animated shorts, and a few one- and two- reelers by the studios, until 1935, when the movie Becky Sharp was released. The color in Becky Sharp wasn't the greatest, with blues, purples, and oranges still not being displayed all that well.

But The Garden of Allah, released one year later, is different. The color is absolutely brilliant, as you can see in this photo of Dietrich. Dietrich was somewhat worried about how Technicolor would make her look, but when she did some screen tests and discovered that it didn't make her look bad, she went ahead with the movie. And it's not just Dietrich who looks lovely on screen; everything does. Boyer looks handsome too, and watch for the shots of the night sky in the desert. The midnight blue is an unbelievably deep blue.

"Three-strip" Technicolor was used until the mid-1950s, when other processes became available which were cheaper and more convenient. See the Reel Classics site for a synopsis. Sadly, however, the newer processes weren't as vibrant as the three-strip Technicolor. Today, of course, it seems standard practice for big-budget blockbusters to use sets that are decked out in a hundred shades of black, and that have denatured faces. Thankfully, though, the dazzling brilliance of three-strip Technicolor can still be seen by watching the great old movies.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Although my interest is generally more in line with classic old movies, I'd like to recommend a wonderful recent movie airing this coming Monday at 1:55 PM ET on the Independent Film Channel: the 2002 documentary Spellbound.

Spellbound tells the story of eight youngsters who take part in that uniquely American phenomenon, the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. The first half of the movie looks at each of the eight kids one by one as they qualify for the national Bee by winning their local Bees. The kids represent a broad swathe of America in every way imaginable: ethnically, there's white, black, Asian, and one daughter of a Mexican immigrant; economically, they range from decidedly lower class (the Mexican-American girl whose father is still a farm laborer) to upper-middle class (the girl from Connecticut who debates whether they should bring the au pair with them to this year's Bee); and geographically, there are kids profiled from Northeast, South, Midwest, and California. The look at the kids is somewhat pedestrian and formulaic, although that can't really be helped: there aren't too many ways to present a group of children. But the director, Jeffrey Blitz, has done an excellent job in presenting the subjects in a way which does very little to play favorites (although you're probably going to find yourself preferring one or two over the others), and which engages in very little moralizing or politicking. Not only that, but the kids are on the whole much more well-adjusted than the adults (although most of the parents of these eight are fairly well-adjusted and realistic in their goals for their kids).

The second half of the film deals with the Bee in Washington DC itself, and this is where the movie really gets fun. On the face of it, watching children spell words seems as though it should be about as exciting as a trial looking at a copyright dispute: that is to say, you'd think it would take quite a bit of Hollywood literary license to make the subject interesting. But that's decidedly not the case. Having already met the kids, we have an interest in seeing them do well, especially when they're faced with arcane words they're unlikely to use on a regular basis as adults. (Unfortunately, the kids have gotten so good at spelling over the years that the organizers have to go to more obscure and foreign words in an attempt to trip them up.) One of the kids gets the word lycanthrope in the first round, and you can see a look shock cross her face as she hears her word: "Oh dear, I don't know if I know this word!" And each time one of the eight profiled kids gets a word wrong, it's genuinely a sad situation.

Spellbound was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but had the misfortune of being up against Bowling for Columbine. And since the Academy documentary voters generally seem to pick their winning movies with their political beliefs in mind, it's obvious which movie was going to win, even if it's not the better (or truer) movie.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Charles Buchinksi, et al.

TCM is airing Pat and Mike at 2:00 PM ET on Saturday, Feb. 16, as part of an entire morning and afternoon of Katharine Hepburn movies. Pat and Mike is one of nine movies Hepburn made with Spencer Tracy, and is probably the weakest of the nine. In Pat and Mike, Hepburn plays Pat Pemberton, who has quite a bit of potential to be a great female athlete, at a time when women didn't do professional sports (except for golf, and even then, the LPGA was miniscule compared to what it and other women's sports are today). A somewhat dishonest manager (played by Tracy) discovers her, and proceeds to try to take her to the top.

As far as women's sports go, you could do much better to find a copy of Ida Lupino's Hard, Fast and Beautiful. The reasons to watch Pat and Mike have nothing to do with Tracy and Hepburn themselves, and certainly nothing to do with Hepburn's sporting prowess (she was in her mid-40s at the time the movie was made, clearly a bit too old to play a professional athlete, unless it was a former professional athlete). Instead, watch for the real professionals: Babe Didrikson Zaharias has a cameo, as does tennis Grand Slam winner Don Budge.

The supporting cast of actors is also interesting. Aldo Ray shines as a boxer who is being exploited by Tracy, and has no idea of what Tracy is doing to him. Future TV rifleman Chuck Connors shows up as a police officer; Jim Backus makes a small appearance; Carl Switzer, better-known as Alfalfa from the Hal Roach "Our Gang" cartoons, plays a busboy; and watch for one of the gangsters: that's a young Charles Buchinski, who would later change his name to Charles Bronson and go on to greater things.

(If you want to see the spoilers as to who the "lesser-known" cast members are, take your mouse and highlight the text.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day for the family

I happened to turn on the TV at lunch today, and saw TCM airing For Love of Ivy, specifically the scene in which Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln were kneeling in a table at a Japanese restaurant. This brought to mind a movie that's both a romantic comedy, and suitable for the whole family: Yours, Mine and Ours.

Based on a true story, this 1968 movie stars Lucille Ball as Navy nurse widow Helen North, who has eight children. One day at the infirmary, she meets Frank Beardsley, played by Henry Fonda, a naval officer who is a widower with ten children of his own. Even if you have never seen the movie, you can guess what happens next: they eventually fall in love (with a bit of help from co-star Van Johnson) and get married, with the attendant problems that a Brady Bunch on steroids brings.

It seems fairly obvious that even at the time, the studio execs were looking at the parents' generation to market this movie: Lucille Ball was an improbable 56 when the movie was made, much too old to have kids as young as Helen North did. Fonda, meanwhile, was already over 60! And the choice of the co-stars, as the man who sets up Helen and Frank, and Tom Bosley as a doctor, also seems designed to appeal to an older generation. There's some mild sexual innuendo, notably in one scene where Frank's blind date discovers how many children he and Helen each have, but for the most part, the pacing is genteel enough that it's obviously different from the teen movies of today.

But, there are also scenes for the younger children, as you would expect from any movie that's got eighteen of them in the cast. There's a scene, for example, of Helen's children trying to make her fit in with the 60s by turning one of her old-fashioned skirts into a miniskirt, with the expected consequences; also, Lucille Ball gets the chance to do the sort of comedy she routinely did on I Love Lucy in a scene where she meets Frank's children, as they spike her mixed drink with enough alcohol to make even an NFL lineman drunk.

Teenagers, however, may not care for the movie. In many ways, it's dated as a product of the 60s, particularly the more "conservative" 60s (by which I mean that it basically ignores the idea that there was any social upheaval going on, instead presenting everybody as being as clean-cut as the Bradys were before they let their hair go frizzy in the early 1970s). Have fun laughing at the interior decorating, hairstyles, and fashions of that decade. Also, some of the score can only be classified as elevator music, particularly an extended sequence in which Ball and Fonda are walking around San Francisco to the treacly MOR tune "It's a Sometimes World".

Yours, Mine and Ours was remade in 2005; stick to the original, however. Fortunately, it's available on DVD.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Always a bridesmaid

Thelma Ritter was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar six times, but never had the honor of winning. One of those six roles, in The Mating Season, is on TCM overnight tonight at 12:30 AM ET. The main story is about an engineer named Val McNulty, played by John Lund, who meets the wealthy socialite Maggie Carleton, played by Gene Tierney. They almost immediately fall in love and plan to get married. Despite being an engineer now, Val came from very humble beginnings, as his mother Ellen (played by Ritter) ran a hamburger stand -- and is not comfortable about having to tell this to his fiancée. You see, Ellen is very down-to-earth, while Maggie comes from a high-class family with an ambassdor for a father, and a mothe rwho likes to live the good life. Meanwhile, it turns out that the hamburger stand has run up quite a bit of debt, so Ellen decides to default on that debt and hitch a ride out to Ohio to see her son. Unforunately, poor Val never gets to tell his wife the truth about his mother, and things go from bad to worse when, on the day Ellen finally does show up to tell Maggie the truth, Maggie mistakes her for the temporary maid she's hired for the night! If that wasn't bad enough, Val eventually compounds the problem by having his mother play the part of their live-in maid, which works until Maggie's mother (played by Miriam Hopkins) decides to spend an extended amount of time with them. As Ellen says, there are things worse than having your mother-in-law live with you: you could have two mothers-in-law live with you!

Gene Tierney does a capable job in this romantic comedy, although her role doesn't really require to be that comedic. John Lund is somewhat wooden, and because of that woodenness, mildly unsympathetic as the husband; Lund, however, doesn't drag the movie down by his performance. The two who shine are the mothers-in-law. Miriam Hopkins has the smaller role, but is always good for a laugh as the poor put-upon mother-in-law who constantly seems to be pushed to second-fiddle status by something or other that happens in the plot. Ritter, of course, gets the most meat, and is absolutely wonderful as the decidedly blue-collar Ellen McNulty. She's the embodiment of all those stereotypes we think of when we see a fiftysomething "Dot" or a "Viv" waiting tables at the local diner. Yet, Ritter doesn't parody the stereotypes, instead imbuing her character with a depth and reality that makes all the characters (save Hopkins) love her, and will make you love her, too. She steals the entire movie, and deserved her Oscar nomination, unfortunately losing to Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Interestingly, The Mating Season isn't all that well-known a movie. Perhaps it has something to do with Paramount's not doing as good a job as some of the other studios in releasing their classics to DVD; or, it might be because the cast didn't have anybody considered a true great today. Tierney is the best of the bunch, and is quite a good actress, but is definitely not remembered as much as a Rita Hayworth from the 1940s, or a Doris Day from the 1950s. But The Mating Season is well worth a look -- and worth a second look the next time it shows up on TV.

As for Ritter, perhaps her two best known roles are as Bette Davis' assistant in All About Eve, and as the nurse to James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Thelma Ritter and James Stewart in Rear Window,
Thelma Ritter eating James Stewart's toast in Rear Window

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Chick flicks for guys, part 4

Our final "chick flick for guys" in the run-up to Valentine's Day is The Trouble With Harry. Alfred Hitchcock directed this 1955 movie, which has much less of the suspense that one normaally expects from a Hitchcock movie, instead preferring to remain in the realm of black comedy.

"Harry" is a man about whom we don't know much, other than the fact that he's dead. Indeed, his body is lying on a hill outside a small Vermont town, and as various locals happen upon the body, each of them thinks he or she is the one responsible for the man's death. Edmund Gwenn is a hunter out for rabbits, and when he sees the body, he fears that he may have shot it accidentally. Back in town, he meets spinster Mildred Natwick, who also thinks she's responsible for the man's death, having hit him over the head with a shoe after "Harry" was harassing her. Meanwhile, there's also the single mother played by Shirley MacLaine, in her screen debut, whose son (that's Jerry Mathers not as the Beaver) also discovers the body, but also has a tendency to get his dates and places screwed up, so MacLaine isn't really certain if there's a dead body -- until it transpires that "Harry" was actually her ex-husband. Add to this mix an artist played by John Forsythe, who acts partly as amateur detective, trying to figure out what really happened to "Harry", and partly as love interest to MacLaine.

Since all of them think they might have been responible for "Harry's" death, they get together and bury the body so they won't have the authorities coming after them. Only, they find that the need to determine the actual cause of death, so they have to exhume the body. Or bury it again, and exhume it again; repeat as necessary. Along the way, not only do Forsythe and MacLaine find themselves falling in love with each other, but Gwenn and Natwick do, too. Eventually they find out that they're all responsible for killing "Harry" -- or none of them is, depending on how you look at things. Hitchcock, the master of suspense, deftly brings matters to a close with a resolution that seems like a twist but isn't, mixed with a healthy does of the black comedy we've been getting the entire movie. It's not necessarily what you think of when you think of Alfred Hitchcock, but in many ways, it is. And it's a highly enjoyable movie from Hitchcock that doesn't have the deathly seriousness about it that might keep viewers from just sitting back, relaxing, and having a good time.

For the women, The Trouble with Harry has all the elements of a good love story (actually, two love stories, with a mystery about a corpse thrown in. But for the guys, it's just as easy to look at the murder mystery first, and not pay so much attention to the love story.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Roy Scheider, 1932-2008

Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman,
Roy Scheider (l.) with Gene Hackman in The French Connection

The death has been announced of actor Roy Scheider. Most of the obituaries I've read mention him first and foremost for his starring role as the police chief of Amity in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws. I, however, would prefer to remember him for playing New York police detective Buddy Russo, the partner of Popeye Doyle in the 1971 classic The French Connection.

Scheider's Buddy Russo is a relatively calm and collected officer who has to deal with the manic, raging, and violent Doyle (played, of course, by Gene Hackman) while the two of them investigate a potentially major narcotics deal in early 1970s New York City. I'm normally a huge fan of the old studio movies, when everything was done on the studio back lots. Also, with the advent of color, and especially the changes to Technicolor that made it less brilliant from the 1960s on, a lot of the color movies of the period look to my eyes more dated today than do older black-and-white movies. And yet, there's something to be said about movies like The French Connection simply as a document: one of the advantages to shooting on location is the authenticity that could not possibly have been reproduced on the back lots. What a joy to be able to see New York City as it was then, falling apart and only a few years away from Gerald Ford's telling the city to "drop dead". In the old days, we would only have gotten a few establishing shots.

Scheider was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The French Connection.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chick flicks not for guys

So I finally had the chance to knock The Great Lie (Warner Bros., 1941) off the list of Oscar-winning films I had not yet seen, as TCM showed this on Friday. I can now say "been there, done that; not gonna do it again". It's not a bad movie in terms of movie-making or acting quality; everybody involved does quite a competent job. But that story-line? That would fit right in with the rest of the schlock that shows up on the Lifetime Channel. (Well, except for the fact that The Great Lie isn't blatantly anti-male, but just a women's story.)

The Great Lie is a bit of a misnomer, in more ways than one. First, it's not so much a great lie as it is a great example of the writers' mental gymnastics in trying to get around the obstacles set up by the people enforcing the Production Code. Mary Astor would eventually win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of pianist Sandra Kovak. The movie starts with her getting married at a booze-filled party to aviator Peter Van Allen (played by Warners' stalwart George Brent). However, he's really in love with socialite Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis, who does surprisingly little scenery-chewing in this movie). So how do the writers resolve this situation? They claim that Sandra's divorce decree from a previous marriage was in fact not yet valid because she screwed up the dates: she had to wait one more week and get married again, so that the marriage would be legal.

This, naturally, gives Mr. Van Allen time to run off to Maryland and Maggie Patterson, so he can marry her and not have to go through marrying Kovak. Isn't it all so convenient for the writers? Well, it gets more convenient: on the one and only night Sandra and Peter thought they were legitimately married, they obviously had sex, since she finds out that she's been knocked up. (Well, she isn't really knocked up, since she had thought the marriage was legitimate. I told you there were some serious mental gymnastics involved here!) Sandra writes Peter to tell him he's going to have her child, but in the meantime the US government has called him away on an aviation expedition to Brazil.

Of course, things go from bad to worse, as Peter disappears when his plane goes down in the Amazon rain forest. Here is the second part of the misnomer, as Sandra offers Maggie what is ostensibly The Great Lie, but what is really more of an Indecent Proposal: in exchange for a substantial sum of money, Sandra will give the child up to Maggie in order that everybody may believe the child is legitimate. So, the two go out west together so that nobody will spot Sandra's pregnancy, and share some of the film's more ludicrous moments together. The big surprise is that Mary Astor is the one hamming it up; then again, it could be that she though this was how hormone-crazed pregnant women were supposed to act. All goes well, and Sandra has the baby, and they go their separate ways.

That is, until it turns out that Peter did not die in the plane crash, and will in fact be returning from the Amazon. Sandra then decided that she's going to come back into Maggie and Peter's lives, and take both the baby and Peter away from Maggie. After all, she's the biological mother, and Peter would never love Maggie if it weren't for that kid! (Again, I told you the plot was schlocky!) Here, however, the writers seem to have run out of ideas, as they wrap up the movie quite suddenly and unsatisfyingly.

What's in it for the women? That should be obvious. What's in it for the guys? Almost nothing, unless you can get your significant other to promise you sex if you watch the movie with her. That wouldn't be any more indecent a proposal as what we get in the movie.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chick flicks for guys, Part 3

The Sign of the Cross is Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 parable about the corrupt Roman Emperor Nero, and the virtuous Christians persecuted by Nero. Charles Laughton (on the left in the photo) plays Nero, who is so corrupt that, as the proverb goes, he fiddled while Rome burned. Actually, he strums his lyre, but the point is made right at the beginning of the movie. And the point is made quite bluntly: the pagan Romans are dreadfully immoral and full of every vice known to man (and probably invented a bunch of vices, too), while DeMille's Christians are the apotheosis of God's perfection of virtuousity. Frankly: I'm understating DeMille's vision of first-century AD Rome: never let it be said that Cecil B. DeMille was subtle in his movie-making! Claudette Colbert (in the middle) plays Nero's wife, and she gets one of the more extravagant and entertaining vices in the movie. But we'll get to the vice and moral corruption in detail later.

The main plot-line of the story involves a Roman prefect, played by Fredric March (on the right in both photos), who has as part of his job the responsibility for persecuting those poor Christians. Until one day, when he meets one of the Christians, of the young, nubile, female sort, played by Elissa Landi (seen here with March). Naturally, March falls in love with Landi -- this is a Hollywood movie, after all -- but he simply can't figure out why she doesn't return the favor. Indeed, she's just so darn virtuous all the time, yet unprepossessing about it. The illicit love of a Roman prefect for one of those Christians will of course lead to tragedy, when it comes time to persecute the Christians by feeding them to the lions, and a whole bunch of other forms of torture. Meanwhile, poor Fredric March can't figure out why Landi is more willing to go to her death than to be with a virile thing like him.

This love story is obviously what's in it for the women. (Well, perhaps women of the day found the idea of March in his short tunic, showing off his legs, sexy. After all, women are just as sex-obsessed as us guys.) What's in it for the guys is the moral vice. In order to show Christian virtue triumphing over vice, Cecil B. DeMille shows an unbelievable amount of vice. The aforementioned Claudette Colbert gets one of the most famous scenes, as she bathes naked in a bath of goat's milk, and asks one of her lady servants to join her. (DeMille is alleged to have done dozens of takes of the bath scene, as he wanted to get Colbert's nipples on film, but every time she got out of the bath, there was a stagehand with a strategically-positioned towel blocking DeMille's shot.)

Meanwhile, Landi's young nephew gets captured by the Romans, and yields the location of the meeting of the Christians in a scene where he gets tortured -- and it looks as though his torturers are getting aroused over whipping his sweaty, half-naked adolescent body. And that's not the only form of sex the Romans are imposing on the Christians. When Landi still won't fall for March's self-styled charms after the Christians are arrested, but before they're sent to their gladiatorial death, March assumes that there must be something wrong with her. After all, nobody can possibly be that virtuous! So what does March do? He tempts Landi -- with a lesbian dance!

Then there's the execution. Those poor Christians are humiliated with stabbings, crushings, and implied bestiality, too. It's as though the only thing that can stop DeMille is the limitations on his own imagination. After all, you can never have too much debauchery in your Christian stories!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Jack Lemmon, 1925-2001

Head shot of Jack Lemmon,Jack Lemmon, 1925-2001

February 8, 2008, marks the 83d birth anniversary of Jack Lemmon. Lemmon might be best known for his appearance in The Odd Couple, in which he played the fastidious Felix Unger; TCM is airing that at 1:45 PM ET this coming Tuesday, followed immediately by another Lemmon movie, The Apartment. (This despite the fact that Lemmon won an Oscar for Save the Tiger, airing on TCM at 10:30 PM ET on February 15.)

But I'd like to mention a different Lemmon movie, his first substantial role: It Should Happen To You. Lemmon plays a documentary filmmaker in New York City named Pete Sheppard. One day in Central Park, he meets a down-on-her-luck woman named Gladys Glover (played by Judy Holliday). It turns out that they live in the same apartment building, and Sheppard finds out that Gladys is a bit strange: she's taken out a billboard with nothing but her name on it. But this works out well for her, as the company that would normally rent that space pays Glover good money fot that advertising space, which she uses to take out more billboards, eventually leading to her becoming a celebrity.

Of course, there's a catch. She's fallen in love with Sheppard, but one of her managers, played by Peter Lawford, has also fallen in love with her -- and he's much better off financially than she could ever hope to be with poor Jack Lemmon. It Should Happen to You is a delightful romantic comedy, as Judy Holliday was always brilliant at comedy, while Lemmon was more than up to the task and is quite sympathetic as her love interest. Fortunately, this movie is available on DVD, so you don't have to wait for it to show up on any of the classic movie channels.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What is to Be Done?

Last Saturday night, I stayed up until 1:00 to watch TCM's showing of Atlantic City. This 1980 movie stars Burt Lancaster as an aging gambler who gets mixed up in one more drug deal in modern-day Atlantic City. The movie itself is quite good, being evocative of the noirs of the 1940s and 50s, such as Lancaster's The Killers, and also capturing the fading glory of Atlantic City in the days when it, like the "Borscht Belt" in the Catskills, had become passé as cheap travel enabled even working-class Americans to go to more distant holiday destinations with better weather such as Disney World in Florida; and just before developers like Donald Trump began to turn the city into a cheap day-trip destination for senior citizen gamblers.

But -- the movie was made in 1980! I can just see some of the loyal fans of TCM complaining that it is airing a more "modern" (even if perfectly appropriate) movie when they're supposed to be showing "classic" movies. And this brings up some difficult questions: what is the place of newer movies on a channel like TCM? Atlantic City is now 27 years old. Twenty-seven years before the launch of TCM, in 1994, would be the year 1967. So we must ask: when did a classic 1967 movie such as The Graduate become a classic? And what about more recent movies almost everybody considers to be classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Godfather? As such, and considering both the artistic merit and the retro sensibilities of a movie like Atlantic City, I believe it was a wonderful choice for TCM.

Further, a movie like Atlantic City is probably a good choice for people who might not realize they can find the old classic movies so enjoyable. After all, how would they recognize Burt Lancaster, if at all? They're probably aware of the oft-parodied scene in From Here to Eternity in which he makes out on the beach with Deborah Kerr. But they might not know what that From Here to Eternity is the original source of that scene -- and they'd probably say that Deborah Kerr rhymes with stir.

By the same token, when Shelley Winters died two years ago, I mentioned it in the "off-topic" section on a web board that has nothing to do with classic movies, where a lot of the people are in the under-30 crowd. Several of the posters remembered her as the grandmother on the TV series Roseanne; some remembered her in The Poseidon Adventure, and there might have been one or two people besides me who knew a classic like A Place in the Sun. Which raises the second question that I implied above: how do we get the people who only know Winters from Roseanne to discover her earlier work, and find that they might develop a love for the old movies? Fortunately in the case of Shelley Winters, she lived long enough to do work on popular TV series. But how will the people of today rememeber one of her co-stars like Montgomery Clift?

To be honest, I don't have a good answer to that question. I think TCM makes a good attempt at it with the annual "31 Days of Oscar" feature, which on average has more recent movies than the regular schedule -- but I know there are a lot of TCM diehards out there who start kicking and screaming every February 1 when the more recent movies start showing up. And by the same token, TCM's weekly "The Essentials" seems like a good idea too, especially since this year's co-host is going to be actress Rose McGowan, who seems to me as though she should be much more accessible to a younger viewer than an earlier co-host like film critic Molly Haskell. But even here, I've heard a lot of complaining about the selection of McGowan.

What else can be done? How do we who love the classics inculcate that love in the next generation?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chick flicks for guys, part 2

DVD Cover for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Our second "chick flick" for guys to rent to watch with their significant other on Valentine's Day is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. This wild comedy, directed by that master of wilde comedy, Preston Sturges, stars Betty Hutton as a young woman in small-town Middle America during World War II with the name of Trudy Kockenlocker. One night, there's a dance in honor of soldiers departing for the war, so Trudy defies her father's orders and goes to the dance. At the dance, she parties as hard as the young do today -- with the predictable result that she gets drunk. But worse, she gets so drunk that she marries one of the soldiers -- and is completely unable to remember the name of the man she married. Matters go from bad to worse when she finds out that she also got knocked up on her wedding night.

Enter Trudy's partially-serious boyfriend Norval Jones (played by Eddie Bracken). When Trudy finds out she's pregnant, she's got to have somebody appear to be the actual husband, and Norval Jones is just the man! There's even a scene of Jones and Trudy's father (veteran character actor William Demarest) on the front porch, complete with Mr. Kockenlocker cleaning his shotgun! The only thing is, father doesn't know daughter is already married -- and pregnant, and daughter wants her marriage to Jones to be legitimate, so she has to go through the process of getting an annulment, and then getting legitimately married to Jones. Of course, everything that can go wrong does. There's accusations of kidnapping, a jailbreak, pratfalls galore, and an ending that, while improbable, seems to fit in with the movie.

It's a romantic comedy that can appeal to both women and men, and the entire cast puts in excellent performances: Betty Hutton as the wild Trudy; Bracken as her nebbish, put-upon boyfriend; Demarest as the father; and Diana Lynn as Trudy's kid sister, who seems surprisingly knowledgeable about the world for a teenager.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I don't get Vertigo

I suppose it's nice to be able to climb up a ladder and not get an overwhelming sense of dizziness. :-) Of course, that's not really what I mean. Turner Classic Movies is airing the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo Wednesday, February 6 at 8:00 PM ET. And I seem to be the one person who doesn't understand the greatness of this movie.

Now, I should point out here that I'm a huge fan of the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Immediately preceding Vertigo on TCM, at 5:45 PM Wednesday, is Hitchcock's 1940 movie Foreign Correspondent, which I love. And Vertigo will be followed at 10:15 PM by Rear Window, another of Hitchcock's greatest movies. But I just can't help but find Vertigo terribly overrated.

James Stewart plays a San Francisco cop who develops a severe case of vertigo after he sees his partner fall to his death from a rooftop. He is then hired as a sort of private detective to follow around a woman who, her husband believes, is going insane. She dies by falling from a belfry after Stewart's vertigo prevents him from following her up the belfry. He then proceeds to meet a woman who looks suspiciously like the one who had fallen from the belfry....

The plot itself isn't that bad, but I can't get into the characters, or the direction. Stewart comes across as a frigid (or the male equivalent), heartless bastard, treating his caretaker (Barbara Bel Geddes) like dirt and spending much of the movie being totally unsympathetic. And he's supposed to be the good guy! Stewart is also a hard nut to crack in Rear Window, where he spends the entire movie laid up in a leg cast, but he's much more likeable in Rear Window: Hitchcock gives the audience reason to believe that Stewart is in the right, and we can understand why he acts the way he does even when nobody else believes him.

The woman Stewart is supposed to follow (played by Kim Novak) is little more than a walking mannequin with next to no character development, and the scenes of Stewart following Novak around are unbelievably slow to develop. Now, a lack of action isn't necessarily a bad thing. There isn't very much action in Hitchcock's earlier Notorious, but the plot is much superior, the characters are more interesting, and critically, the suspense is much better developed in Notorious.

But the folks at the AFI selected Vertigo as the #9 American movie of all time, higher than any other Hitchcock movie. So obviously, there's a fairly substantial consensus out that that Vertigo is this utter masterpiece. What is it about the movie that I just don't understand?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Oscar cage match: Dana Andrews vs. Fredric March

Fredric March (l.) and Dana Andrews (r.)

TCM is showing one of the great movies of all time, The Best Years of Our Lives on Tuesday, February 5, at 8:00 PM ET. The movie won a slew of Academy Awards, including the Best Picture of 1946, as well as a second Best Actor Oscar for Fredric March. Allow me, however, to make the case that the Academy honored the wrong man: March's costar, Dana Andrews puts in the better performance.

For those who don't know the plot, The Best Years of Our Lives looks at three soldiers returning home from World War II, and the challenges they face readjusting to civilian life. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, a well-to-do banker with a loving wife (Myrna Loy) and two kids (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall). He has in many ways the tradition lead role, as it is through the viewpoint of his family that much of the action is seen. But his is a relatively easy readjustment. (At least, it's made to appear the easiest, by a good ways, of the three main characters, as well as compared to other ex-soldiers in minor roles in the movie. I don't claim to know how easy or difficult readjustment was for any soldier after years of fighting in Europe or the Pacific.)

Dana Andrews' character, on the other hand, has a much more difficult time of things. Andrews plays Fred Derry, a pilot who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks (literally) in a ramshackle apartment. Derry didn't have much of a life on the home fromt before joining the war, but has a distinguished service record. Unfortunately for him, this doesn't help him once the war is over: he's forced to take the job he held before he left for the war, as a drugstore soda jerk. Derry is also suffering through an unhappy marriage to a woman (played by Virginia Mayo) with whom he rushed into marriage just before leaving for the war. She spent the war working in a nightclub, earning good money and enabling herself to live the good life, and she wants to continue living that good life. But Fred Derry faces the humiliating prospect of being completely unable to provide any semblance of such a life.

In addition, Derry has problems dealing with the things he saw during the war. The first night we meet him, we see that he suffers from nightmares about his period of service. He's ministered to by the Stephensons' daughter, who just happened to spend the war working as a nurse. She falls in love with him, although this is of course complicated by the fact that he's married. But having grown up, [first name] realizes that Fred is stuck in a loveless marriage, so she'll "solve" the problem -- by breaking up the marriage! (This brings up one of the funnier lines in the movie, when Al asks her, "How are you going to break up their marriage? With an axe?")

What all this means is that Andrews has quite a bit more to go through than March. Andrews effortlessly displays the full gamut of emotions, and makes us feel sympathy for his character to a much greater extent than we do for Al Stephenson. (Not that Stephenson is unsympathetic; it's just that he doesn't need our sympathy.) And for that, Andrews is more deserving of the Oscar than March.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Seminal movies: 42nd Street

As part of TCM's "31 Days of Oscar", there will be an interesting juxtaposition of movies overnight between Monday and Tuesday: the Best Picture of 1929, The Broadway Melody of 1929, will be airing at 12:15 AM ET on February 5, followed at 2:15 AM by 42nd Street.

Both movies have threadbare plots: in Broadway Melody a sister vaudeville act (played by Bessie Love and Anita Page) go to New York City to make a name for themselves, but the act hits a bump when one of them is noticed on Broadway, and falls for the bright lights (and rich men) of the big city. 42nd Street, on the other hand, takes a look behind the scenes of a Broadway revue, with every cliché known to man: a producer racing against the clock of life; a sugar daddy (character actor Guy Kibbee) threatening the production); a star who gets injured just before opening night, and on and on. Yet both movies are well worth watching in spite of their plots.

Broadway Melody doesn't have that many musical numbers; and what numbers it does have are very stagey. In the earliest days of talking pictures, a lot of movies looked like filmed plays in that they give the appearance of having a camera in the back of a theater, which records the action on stage. Broadway Melody overcomes this in that it has better production values for its musical numbers, and somewhat more elaborate numbers than in other early movie musicals. Indeed, the lack of imagination of other musicals meant that the genre was in serious decline by the early 1930s.

The movie that changed all this was 42nd Street. Released in early 1933, 42nd Street is revolutionary compared to Broadway Melody thanks to the work on its musical numbers by choreographer Busby Berkeley. Berkeley figured that since these were movies, and not stage musicals, there was no reason to have a static camera in the back of the theater filming the action; instead, you could put cameras almost anywhere -- notably, above the action, filming the dancers making all sorts of geometric figures. Also, not being confined to the live, one-chance action of a stage, you could produce much more elaborate musical numbers through editing and the advantages of the bigger studio soundstages. The final two musical numbers, "Shuffle off to Buffalo" and "42nd Street" show this fairly well, although it must be said that Berkeley hadn't reached his zenith yet. Compared to later movies -- even just to two other 1933 movies like Flying Down to Rio with chorus girls dancing on the wings of airplanes and Gold Diggers of 1933 with its curving staircases and neon violins, 42nd Street looks downright primitive. But put 42nd Street next to Broadway Melody, and you can see why it's such an important movie in Hollywood history: it went a long way towards revitalizing the entire genre of the musical for the next quarter of a century.

A few final notes about the casts: In 42nd Street, Ginger Rogers has a fairly sizeable role -- but astonishingly, does not dance even one step. And watch the very beginning of Broadway Melody: that music publisher is none other than veteran character actor James Gleason.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Family-friendly birthday greetings

Bonita Granville, 1923-1988

February 2 marks the 85th birth anniversary of child star Bonita Granville. Among her better-known roles was as juvenile detective Nancy Drew in a series of four movies for Warner Brothers in the late 1930s.

The Nancy Drew movies are decidedly B material, each with a running time of around 70 minutes, and they're certainly a product of their era. The problems of a teenage girl in 1938, at least as seen through the eyes of studio executives, are minor. And in this modern world when we have a much greater concern about pedophiles, and structure our young people's "free" time to a much greater extent, the amoung of independent gallivanting Nancy and her boyfriend (played by Frankie Thomas) do may seem surprising. But they're still enjoyable 70 years on, and well-suited to families (or at least, to daughters; boys may not be so interested in a female lead).

The four movies have been released on DVD.

Grown-ups may prefer seeing Granville as Bette Davis's niece in Now, Voyager.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The programming philosophy of the Fox Movie Channel

Fox has a cable channel to show its own movies: the Fox Movie Channel. It appears to me, having looked at the schedule on a regular basis for quite some time, that they have a curious programming strategy: show a fairly limited number of their (older) movies over and over for a period of several months, and then phase out those movies in favor of a different set of classic Fox films.

I mention this because FMC are airing Dragonwyck at noon ET on February 2. As you might have guessed from my commentary on Leave Her to Heaven, I'm a big fan of Gene Tierney. Searching through FMC's site for her movies has been disappointing over the past several months, as the search on their site was only showing three of her lesser movies: The Return of Frank James, The Iron Curtain, and The Left Hand of God. But Tierney is one of the stars of Dragonwyck, being teamed up again with Vincent Price.

What does this mean? I believe it's been at least a year and a half since FMC aired Dragonwyck, and I'm fairly confident that some of Tierney's classics haven't aired since 2005 -- I've been writing a weekly look at classic movies on TV since the end of 2005, and would definitely have recommended Leave Her to Heaven and Laura if either of them had shown up on FMC. (I believe they have shown up rarely on the Encore channels or other premium channels.) Likewise, Tierney's version of Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with the Warren Beatty football movie) and The Razor's Edge have been missing in action for almost two years. But, if Dragonwyck is returning to the FMC schedule, there's a good chance that we'll finally get another chance to see some of the other classics that have been out of the FMC rotation for years.

(For the record, a search through the next two weeks also shows The Egyptian showing up on FMC on February 6 at 10:00 AM ET, and Son of Fury at 10:00 AM ET on February 13.)

It's not just Tierney's movies here; other Fox classics from the 1940s and 1950s that haven't shown up in a long time include: A Letter to Three Wives (with a great ensemble cast who helped win Joseph L. Mankiewicz a Best Director Oscar), Gentelman's Agreement (Best Picture of 1947, and another Best Director Winner, for Elia Kazan), No Way Out (Sidney Poitier's film début), Pickup on South Street, James Stewart's Call Northside 777 and a whole host of other classics. There are also the more recent movies that would be more likely to show up in prime time, such as The Poseidon Adventure.