Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ida Corwin

Today is the centenary of the birth of Eve Arden, so I thought I'd look at the movie that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress: Mildred Pierce.

Joan Crawford stars in the title role of this women's noir. In the opening scene, we see her in a house where a man gets shot, eventually leading to Mildred Pierce's telling the police everything that led up to the shooting. It all started when she was making ends meet by baking cakes and pies to help supplement the income of her first husband, a failed real-estate agent (played by Bruce Bennett) who was cheating on her. Mildred has to earn a living not only for herself, but for her two children, notably the ingrateful Veda (Ann Blyth, who along with Arden was nominated for an Oscar), who has rather expensive tastes. Mildred eventually finds work as a waitress at a restaurant managed by Ida Corwin (that's Eve Arden), and works, and works, and works to learn everything she can about the restaurant industry: she's got her eye on a property where she'd like to open her own restaurant.

Mildred goes to Mr. Pierce's partner, Wally Fay, played by Jack Carson, who may be at his wonderfully unctuous best in Mildred Pierce; it's a shame he never became a bigger star than he was. Together, the two of them, along with the property's owner, one Monte Berrigan (Zachary Scott), become joint owners of the eventual restaurant. It's not the best arrangement, but it's the only one that will let Mildred get the restaurant off the ground. Thanks to her hard work, the restaurant becomes a success, leading to more locations being opened. Unfortunately, however, the success of her restaurant isn't matched by the success of her personal life: her younger daughter dies of pneumonia, while Veda is an even bigger ingrate than before, going so far as to lie about being pregnant in order to extort $10,000 from a wealthy family.

To try to put her personal life back together, Mildred married Monte Berrigan, but that only helps things look better on the surface. Monte is indulging Veda's lavish lifestyle, leading to financial problems for the restaurant, and worse, that doesn't seem to be the only interest Monte has....

The entire cast is excellent. I've already sung Jack Carson's praises above. Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her role, and is worthy of it (although if I had been around in 1945, I would have voted for Gene Tierney). Ann Blyth does a bang-up job of being unsympathetic as Veda, and probably deserved her Oscar nomination too, although her role is really one which is a bit too big for a normal Supporting Actress nomination, but not quite big enough for a Best Actress nomination.

This being Eve Arden's birthday, however, I'd like to focus on her role. It's much smaller than Blyth's, and closer to what would be typical for a Best Supporting Actress Nomination. But Arden plays it as though she had been born to play the part. She's saucy, wise to the world, but at the same time world-weary, too. It's an eminently believable performance, and one that Arden makes look effortless. She doesn't steal the show, because her role isn't big enough, but you're going to notice her in every scene she's in.

Mildred Pierce is of course available on DVD; otherwise, I wouldn't be recommending it when it's not showing up on TV for another week and a half.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm in Gentleman's Agreement

No, Celeste Holm hasn't died. Instead, today is her birthday. IMDb lists her as being 91 years old; my almanac only has her at 89. Holm won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the movie Gentleman's Agreement. Gregory Peck stars as the writer who takes on a job for a magazine to write a lengthy article about the daily discrimination faced by Jews in post-World War II America; Holm plays a fashion writer at the magazine.

Holm was also nominated for an Oscar for playing Bette Davis' friend in All About Eve, and is the voice of the unseen Addie, who writes A Letter to Three Wives telling them that she's going to run away with one of their husbands. All three of these movies are available on DVD.

Celeste Holm is, according to her IMDb listing, still working; she's got a role in a movie listed as being in post-production.

Post #100

So, we reach an "odometer" post. It's hard to believe just how much stuff I've written these past few months. Anyhow, having reached 100 posts, I figured my 100th post should highlight an appropriately titled classic movie: One Hundred Men and a Girl.

Child star Deanna Durbin stars as Patricia Caldwell, a girl whose father (played by Adolphe Menjou), is a struggling, unemployed classical musician. One day, she comes into possession of a purse that was lost by a wealthy woman, and so she tracks down this woman to return the purse to her. Thanks to a series of misunderstandings, Patricia comes to believe that she's got a patron, Mrs. Frost (played by Alice Brady) for her father and his fellow unemployed musicians; one who will help her get the famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to conduct the orchestra of unemployed men. Of course, things don't quite work out as planned. Our benefactress sails off to Europe, and poor little Patricia is left to use her considerable moxie and chutzpah to try to convince Stokowski to take on the task of conducting the orchestra.

If you enjoy classical music, this is a really delightful movie. It's wonderful to have Stokowski on film as a testament to his work, and the music is a joy to listen to, even if the score is filled with choices that are "safe" in the sense that they'd have to appeal to a broader audience that don't know so much about classical music. Deanna Durbin also shines as the daughter and driving force behind the orchestra. Despite the presence of bigger names, you can't help but believe that the drive and ingenuity her Patricia Caldwell displays is just enough to convince Stokowski, even outside the make-believe world of Hollywood, to take a chance on these unemployed musicians. (Despite the movie being of the Great Depression, it's not a Warner Bros. movie, and so makes unemployment out to be much less unglamorous than it really would have been.) The supporting cast is fun to watch, too; not only do we get Adolphe Menjou, but veteran character actor Mischa Auer provides comic relief for the orchestra, while Eugene Pallette plays Mr. Frost.

One Hundred Men and a Girl was released by Universal, which means that it's a rarity on TCM, or any channel for that matter. However, IMDb lists it as being available on DVD. A movie with a similar theme, They Shall Have Music, was made two years later; in the later movie, a bunch of Dead End Boys-type kids rope Jascha Heifetz into playing with their pal's music school orchestra. Sadly, this latter movie is not on DVD.

Monday, April 28, 2008

More on those "troubled teens"

There's one major salient point I forgot to mention in my recent post on Hollywood and teens: the actors playing them are often closer to 30 than 20. I watched two of the movies today, Teen-Age Crime Wave at breakfast, and The Delinquents at lunch, and when I looked them up on IMDb, was not surprised to see just how old all the actors were. Humorously enough, one of the movies had a line from one of the "meanie" uncaring parents about one of the teens looking closer to 25!

Sadly, neither Teen-Age Crime Wave (Doesn't that sound like a hoot just from the title? In fact, it was a lot of fun, even if it was decidedly "B" material. One of the highlights had the three main characters, fugitives from justice, mentioned in a TV bulletin as being fugitives. The first two, relatively plain looking, had their booking shots shown. The third, a 26-year-old "teenager" who spent the entire movie wearing a tight bra designed to show off her chest, was shown not in her booking photo, but in a bathing suit!) and The Delinquents is available on DVD. However, The Delinquents was directed by Robert Altman, so perhaps someday somebody will get the wherewithal to do a box set on Altman and include this one. I had never seen either movie before, and could not recommend them sight unseen.

Jimmy Stewart Sings!

TCM is playing the 1936 musical Born to Dance tonight at 8:00 PM ET. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that we get to see its star, James Stewart sing. Stewart wasn't exactly a musical star, but as he himself pointed out in That's Entertainment!, this was the 1930s, and musicals were extremely popular. So, the studios put everybody and their brother in musicals. (By the same token, later tonight TCM will show the Three Stooges hamming it up with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady. Who would ever have thought Larry, Curly, and Moe would do a musical? With Franchot Tone, no less?)

However, it's also not the only time Stewart sang; he got to belt out a few numbers in some of his other famous movies as important plot points. First up is 1940's The Philadelphia Story, in which Stewart holds a tipsy Katharine Hepburn in his arms, serenading her with "Over the Rainbow".

Then, there's the famous It's a Wonderful Life, in which Stewart serenades Donna Reed with "Buffalo Gals". It's too bad he didn't want to sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", however. It might have saved everybody but Henry Travers a whole lot of grief.

On the other hand, I suppose it's a good thing he didn't do a duet of "Que Sera, Sera", with Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Their screen son, Christopher Olsen, does, however. (And at least we didn't have to hear Peter Lorre sing "Que Sera, Sera" in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

Finally, in the 1957 western Night Passage, Stewart plays a retired sheriff protecting a railroad's payroll who not only sings a song, but gets to play the harmonica as well.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Teenagers on Trial

There's an RKO Screenliner short from 1955 called Teenagers on Trial that shows up from time to time on TCM. Tomorrow would be a good day for it, since TCM are showing a bunch of movies from 1950-1960 about wild adolescents, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on the schedule. Unsurprisingly, it's also not on DVD.

The Blackboard Jungle is probably the best-known of the "troubled teen" movies airing on TCM on Monday, but it's not the one I'd like to recommend, as it's already available on DVD. Instead, I'd prefer to point out a movie you'll have to watch on TCM, because it's not out on DVD: Because They're Young.

Dick Clark stars as a history teacher in his first teaching job. As a young teacher, he cares about his students, perhaps a little too deeply; he has yet to develop the cynicism that the older, more experienced teachers at his school have. The students have varying degrees of troubles, from a girl who doesn't get along all that well with her sick mother, to a boy who finds out a disturbing secret about his mother, and another boy who falls afoul of the law. There's also a climactic knife fight between two of the students. Along the way, there's also a concert for Clark to host: having gained fame as the host of "American Bandstand" on TV, the producers probably cast him for his affability with the teenagers and included the musicians because Clark more than any producer would be likely to have a good idea of what sort of music the youngsters of America enjoyed.

The movie is OK, although Dick Clark isn't that good an actor. He tries hard enough, and because of his likeable nature from "Bandstand" (and what we now know of he similarly likeable nature as the longtime host of the "Pyramid" game show and presenting "New Year's Rockin' Eve" for many years), it's easy to find yourself wanting to like the guy. But he just doesn't have the range necessary to achieve the emotional depth his character needs. It also doesn't help that this is material that had been seen before in better movies like The Blackboard Jungle, and would be seen again in better movies like To Sir With Love. Still, Because They're Young is a worthy document, not only for the chance to see Dick Clark the actor, but also for the snapshot of American youth in 1960. In some ways, the problems of today are worse than those 50 years ago, but the fact that they had problems 50 years ago, and suggested the same "solutions" that are suggested today (if you get hold of a copy of Teenagers on Trial, you'll see that throwing gobs of money at the problem of overcrowded schools was suggested -- and how has that worked?) implies that perhaps we shouldn't get too exercised about the problems, or excoriate those who don't call for spending more money "for the children".

Saturday, April 26, 2008

More geekiness, and a request

Warner Bros.' logo for cartoon shorts,

TCM is playing the 1935 James Cagney movie G-Men tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET. The very first thing I noticed about it is that it was a re-release print: it had a newer logo on it. (There was also a framing story in the version TCM showed that looked as though it had been tacked on after 1935.)

Many of you who have watched enough movies will recognize the classic Warner Brothers logo, with the WB shield against a backdrop of concentric circles, which would be a deep red for movies in Technicolor. (It's similar to the one above, which was used for WB's cartoons.) However, that logo was not being used in the mid-1930s: instead, WB movies had an opening shot with a cloud background, and the WB shield "flying" in. Unfortunately, the Internet image searches I tried didn't yield a copy of this logo, and WB's website insists on torturing us with Flash, so there was no way I could find it there. (I don't think they'd have it there, anyhow; the site is about driving business, not the history of the studio. By the same token, when I looked for the old Universal logo, I couldn't find anything of worth on the Universal website.)

So, I've got a few questions:

1. Does anybody know a URL that's got a good shot of the older WB logo?

2. WB's first Three-strip Technicolor movie was God's Country and the Woman, released in January 1937; this should still have the older logo on it. Is that opening scene also in Technicolor?

3. What was the first WB movie to use the newer logo?

Friday, April 25, 2008

San Francisco

I was all ready to write a review of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco today, or else write about the cinematic beauty of the city (one of the few things I like about Vertigo) today. However, it turns out that the movie that would have brought about such a post today is available on DVD: The House on Telegraph Hill.

Valentina Cortese stars in The House on Telegraph Hill, billed as a noir by Fox, as Viktoria Kowełska, a Polish woman who gets caught up in World War II when the Nazis kill her husband, destroy her house, and imprison her in a concentration camp. There, conditions are lousy (although in this movie, the depiction doesn't feel as bad as what Fox gave us in Three Came Home), but Kowełska makes a friend: Karin Demakova. Demakova has a son who made it to America, where he's living with his aunt in San Francisco. However, Demakova dies before the camp is liberated by the Allies, and Kowełska decides to assume Domakova's identity, seeing as it's the only way she can get to America.

Once in America, Kowełska meets Alan Spender (played by Fox contract player Richard Basehart, who is the guardian of the little boy. He marries her, although Kowełska comes to believe he's got bad intentions. Sadly, though, it's here that the movie begins to fall a bit flat. The idea is fine, but I couldn't help but find myself not caring all that much for any of the characters. The movie is told in the noir style of having a flashback, so we can presume that Kowełska ends up safe and sound at the end (true, she could have been killed like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., but we see his lifeless body floating at the beginning of the movie). And none of the characters seems to be very original. Worse, the plot struck me as being derivative. Spender tries to murder his wife by giving her a glass of drugged orange juice, and the minute I saw the glass, I yelled out, "There oughta be a light bulb in that glass!" (For those who don't know, that's a reference to Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, in which the light bulb in a glass was used to imply a glass of milk was poisoned.) The whole thing also reminded me of an earlier MGM movie, Shadow of a Woman, which has a similar plot of a man trying to kill his son for the trust fund money. (Shadow of a Woman, however, is not listed as being available on DVD.) The interesting thing is that I watched both of these movies on the basis of reading their plot descriptions, thinking that the plots sounded interesting; but ending up being disappointed by both.

As for the rest of the cast, another Fox stalwart, William Lundigan, plays Marc Bennett, who was a major who just happened to meet Kowełska when she was trying to gain refugee status, and in civilian life lives in San Francisco, conveniently able to play a crucial plot role as a connection between Spender and Kowełska. The rest of the names are B-players; people I've barely heard of.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A pair of DVD surprises

Recently in another forum, somebody commented about something being as likely to happen as worlds colliding. This, of course, immediately made me, being a movie geek, think of the movie When Worlds Collide. I was surprised to see that it is listed as available on DVD, figuring that a lesser 1950s scifi movie would be less likely to be released. Indeed, the cast is filled with names that aren't very familiar to me. I haven't seen the movie in almost 15 years, but from what I remember, it was quite silly and fit in well with the entire genre of "cheap" 1950s scifi. The plot, as you can probably guess from the title, is that Earth is in danger of colliding with a pair of planets, as discovered by the lone scientist who is a staple of such movies. Instead of figuring out a way to stop these new planets from hitting Earth, the decision is made to build a rocket to send people to populate the first of the two planets, which is only going to pass by Earth, but close enough to wreak havoc with the tides and other phenomenon. Since the science types can only send a limited number of people on the rocket, the usual fighting over who's going to be on the rocket ensues. It's all been done multiple times, and most of the times it's not done anywhere near as well as classics I've recently recommended. But with these 1950s scifi movies, a lot of the fun is just sitting back and having a good time, and suspending reality. Get a bunch of your friends together with some snacks and watch this one together.

After thinking a bit about When Worlds Collide, I was reminded of another apocolyptic movie I haven't seen in some 20 years: Panic in Year Zero!. This is little more than your basic post-nuclear war movie; the title comes from the fact that after the nuclear war, the United Nations declares that Earth is now in "year zero". I was fairly young when I saw this one show up, so at the time I didn't really recognize any of the cast. But looking at the cast as an adult, I'm surprised at the people involved. Ray Milland stars and directs; one wonders what reduced the former Oscar-winner to this. (If I had to guess, I'd say that if he wanted to direct, it would make sense that he wouldn't get the most prestigious projects to start out with.) His wife is played by Jean Hagen, although this must be a step down for her, as she's no longer making more money than Calvin Coolidge -- put together. Their son is played by Frankie Avalon, who was probably cast to try to bring in the teenage crowd. I figured this wouldn't show up on DVD, since it was originally released by the less prestigious American International Pictures. Surprisingly, however, IMDb says that it is indeed available.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cherchez la femme

TCM's "Riding the Rails" theme on Wednesdays in prime time in April brings me to two people I've profiled in recent posts.

Richard Widmark is part of an all-star cast in Murder on the Orient Express, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET. Based on the Agatha Christie novel, Widmark stars as the victim, a man who gets stabbed to death on the Orient Express and who could have been killed by almost anybody in the car. Well, not Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney). But the suspects include Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bissett, Michael York, and Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part).

Dame May Whitty is the title lady who vanishes in Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 movie The Lady Vanishes, which immediately follows Murder on the Orient Express at 10:15 PM ET. One of the fellow passengers, played by Margaret Lockwood is sure that there's a lady missing, but she can't get anybody on the train to believe her, until Michael Redgrave has cause to believe she might be telling the truth.

The Lady Vanishes was remade in 1979, with Angela Lansbury in the title role as the lady who vanishes; Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould star as the two people who go looking for her on the train. Remakes are usually not as good as the original, especially if you're remaking a Hitchcock movie. Coincidentally, however, this remake shows up on TV this week as well, at 2:40 PM ET on Friday April 25 on Encore Mysteries, for those of you who get that channel.

All three movies are listed as being available on DVD as well.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

She done Cary Grant right

Universal, which owns the rights to the Paramount talkies released before 1950, is releasing a box set of comedies from the Universal/Paramount library to DVD today. Three of the movies: Easy Living, Midnight, and The Major and the Minor, are airing on TCM tonight in what is clearly a barter deal: Universal "pays" for the mentions of the box set, and TCM "pays" for the rights to broadcast the movies. It's a relatively rare chance to see these movies, since Universal has generally been remiss about the broadcast rights to their library. There's one movie in the set which TCM isn't airing, however: She Done Him Wrong.

In this 1933 feature, Mae West plays Diamond Lou, a Gay Nineties nightclub singer and manager who has a taste for men, or at least the diamonds they can give her, and uses her raw sexuality to win men to her. (West might not fit today's criteria for sexy, but in the Gay Nineties, and when She Done Him Wrong was released, Mae West would have been considered voluptuous.) Unfortunately, the nightclub is also being used by others who work for her as a cover for a counterfeiting ring. Into all of this walks Capt. Cummings, a Salvation Army officer Cary Grant, who is determined to save Lou's soul, but who also may have other motives. There's a lot of bawdy humor, as befits a pre-Code movie, as well as a secondary plot involving one of Lou's former boyfriends, his escape from prison, and a murder surrounding his escape.

Although the movie would stand just fine on its own as a vehicle for West and her double entendres (such as "A hard man is good to find"), She Done Him Wrong sparkles like Lou's diamonds thanks to the presence of the young Cary Grant in what was really the movie that launched him to becoming a big star. Grant shows the deft comic timing that he would have throughout his career, but is not yet tied down by the stereotypes that would eventually develop around him, leading him to spend the last 15 or so years of his career playing "distinguished", romantic older gentlemen in a series of mostly comedies. Indeed, Grant looks astonishingly young here, and the camera really flatters him (although that may be thanks in part to the stereotype about women finding men in uniform sexy).

Monday, April 21, 2008

TCM's Jules Dassin Tribute

Last night, TCM honored the late director Jules Dassin, who died on March 31 at the age of 96, by showing two of his movies. Fortunately, both of them are available on DVD, so if you missed TCM's tribute you can judge for yourself.

The Naked City. In this 1948 movie, Barry Fitzgerald plays Irish-American (there's a surprise!) police detective Dan Muldoon, who has to solve the murder of model Jean Dexter, killed in her Manhattan apartment. He's ably assisted by young detecive Jimmy Halloran, played by future director Don Taylor, who is treated quite well by the camera. The story is told in a docudrama fashion, and involves a series of suspects, some of whom may be more likely to have been involved than others, but all of whom end up being connected as the detectives meticulously gather their clues: one of Dexter's fellow models; her doctor, a friend who may or may not be more than just a friend; and even a harmonica-playing wrestler. Of note is that The Naked City was filmed on location in New York City, one of the first feature movies to do so after the movie industry left for Hollywood. This of course lends an air of realism to the proceedings that only makes the movie better. (Not that the studios didn't try hard with their earlier movies set in New York City: MGM made The Clock entirely at the studio and the backlot, but went to great pains to re-create Penn Station.)

Topkapi. This 1964 heist movie is one of the earlier examples of the all-star caper flick (although the original Ocean's Eleven had preceded it). Topkapi is the name of a palace turned museum in İstanbul, Turkey, where one of the famous exhibits is an emerald- and diamond-encrusted dagger. Melina Mercouri plays a woman who wants to steal it, and enlists the help of Maximilian Schell. Together, they recruit a team of people without previous criminal records (so that the police won't catch on) to help them, notably gadget guru Robert Morley, and acrobat Gilles Ségal. Unfortunately, they also have to bring Peter Ustinov along for the ride, when his unwitting role in the affair is foiled at the Greek-Turkish border. The scenes of actually trying to steal the dagger are fun enough, but I personally found Mercouri irritating and was glad for the actual heist itself, as she doesn't play much of a part in that extended sequence. On the bright side, Ustinov won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his effort.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

In memoriam, Daphne du Maurier

Depending on the source, this weekend marks 19 years since the death of author Daphne du Maurier. (The IMDb lists April 19 as the day she died; one of my almanacs lists April 20.)

Noted director Alfred Hitchcock directed three movies based on her works:

The Birds. I've already blogged about this movie, but suffice it to say that it's well worth watching at any time.

Rebecca. Laurence Olivier plays the widower Max de Winter with a bit of a mysterious past who marries Joan Fontaine, who discovers that because of his first wife, she's not exactly liked at the de Winter estate. TCM is currently schedule to air Rebecca as part of "The Essentials" on Saturday, May 3, at 8:00 PM ET.

Jamaica Inn. This might be the most interesting of the three movies, simply because it's something Hitchcock didn't do very often: a period piece. Set in the early 1800s, Jamaica Inn stars Maureen O'Hara as a young Irish woman going to live with her aunt and uncle at Jamaica Inn in Cornwall after the death of her parents. The night she arrives, there's a shipwreck -- one that was deliberately caused by a band of scavengers who meet up at Jamaica Inn, and who try to hang one of their number who seems less than 100% loyal. O'Hara happens to see all this through the cracks in her floor, and saves the man from being hanged. Together, they go to the local bigwig, played by Charles Laughton, to let him know the awful things that are going on. It's too bad for them that they don't know he's the ringleader of the whole band of scavengers. Hitchcock does his usual bang-up job in this 1939 movie, the last one he made before heading off to America to work for David O. Selznick and direct Rebecca. The movie almost didn't get made, but Hitchcock had the time to do it because the contract negotiations with Selznick had apparently hit a snag, and so Hitchcock directed this as a favor for Laughton, who was his good friend.

IMDb lists all three of these movies as being available on DVD.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

150 Candles

Cast of Lady For a Day

April 19th marks the 150th birth anniversary of May Robson (1858-1942). Obviously, having been born in 1858, she didn't get into the movies until and advanced age, and played older women in smaller roles in a lot of her movies: mothers, grandmothers, elderly aunts and so on. One of those smaller roles shows up overnight tonight on TCM, when they show Wife vs. Secretary at 12:30 AM ET on April 20 (that's still the evening of the 19th outside the Eastern Time Zone). Other notable supporting roles include Janet Gaynor's grandmother in the original A Star is Born; Katharine Hepburn's aunt in Bringing Up Baby, and Billie Burke's cook in Dinner at Eight. However, I'd like to talk about a movie that gave her one of her starring roles, the movie that earned her an Oscar nomination: Lady For a Day.

In Lady for a Day, Robson stars as Apple Annie, a down-on-her-luck woman hit by the Great Depression who's now selling apples to scratch out a meager existence. Unfortunately, she's got a daughter living in Spain, about to become engaged to a count's son. Annie doesn't want her daughter to know she's destitute, so she's been living a lie by sending her daughter letters on pilfered hotel stationery. But that lie is about to be exposed when her daughter informs her she's engaged, and the groom's family would like to meet her parents.

Enter gangster Dave the Dude (played by Warner's stalwart Warren William). Annies been something of a good luck charm to him, and so Dave's associates inform him of her predicament and ask if there's anything he can do for her. It's not until he reluctantly accepts that he realizes just how many strings he's going to have to pull to make Annie a "lady for a day" for her Spanish in-laws-to-be: finding a man to play her husband (pool shark Guy Kibbee); getting her a fancy hotel room, and pulling off a society party -- and when the guests include character actors like Nat Pendleton and the brassy Glenda Farrell, that's quite a task! Eventually, though, Annie's transformation to a lady is made complete, and stunning and moving too. Robson richly deserved her Oscar nomination. Watch also for the Spanish count; that's Walter Connolly, who would later go on to play Claudette Colbert's father in It Happened One Night.

One very interesting to note is that Lady for a Day was made at Columbia Pictures. Much of the cast were contract players at Warner's, and Columbia were at the time considered one of the lesser studios. (As I understand it, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were both sent to Columbia to make It Happened One Night as punishment for not wanting to do whatever projects MGM and Paramount respectively had for them.) Frank Capra directed. In fact, he would later go on to remake Lady For a Day in the early 1960s as Pocketful of Miracles, with Bette Davis in the Apple Annie role and Glenn Ford as Dave. Both versions are available on DVD.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mary Pickford

I finally got around to crossing Coquette off the list of Oscar-winning movies I hadn't seen yet. I'd do a longer review of it, but it's not available on DVD. Suffice it to say that it's a creaky melodrama, with poor Mary Pickford miscast as a young southern belle (she was 36 at the time the movie was made) trying a southern accent. In fact, Pickford, although commonly known as "America's Sweetheart", was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (And Mary Pickford wasn't her real name; she was born Gladys Marie Smith, and got the Mary from her middle name and Pickford from her mother's maiden name.) Her acting style translates better to silent pictures, and if you want to see an excellent Pickford movie that's available on DVD, get yourself a copy of Sparrows.

Pickford plays Mollie, the oldest of several orphaned children on a "baby farm" run by the evil Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Grimes makes the children do all the work and basically treats them as slaves, locking them up in a barn when anyody comes so that the visitors won't know what Grimes is up to, and giving the kids meager rations on which to survive. Meanwhile, Grimes decides to make a little money on the side by kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy local man and holding the girl for ransom. The two plots collide when one of Mollie's charges dies of malnourishment, in a very well-done sequence that involves Jesus taking the baby to Heaven with Him.

Mollie, realizing the danger facing all of the kids, decides that the only thing left for them to do is escape. The only problem is, they can't just walk out the front entrance of the farm; and the rest of the farm is surrounded by an alligator-infested swamp! Still, plucky little Mollie takes the kids and makes a break for it, shepherding her charges while fending off the alligators. (In reality, the scenes are done using splicing, so there really wasn't much danger to the cast other than possibly falling out of trees.) To be sure, it's a melodrama, but audiences of the day liked melodrama, and without the possibility of spoken dialogue, movies had to resort to broader gestures to convey emotions to the audiences. And in Sparrows, the cast is so good, and the story so engaging, that it doesn't matter if it's melodramatic and a bit over the top.

Sparrows is highly recommended, and not just for seeing Mary Pickford.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The generation gap again

Yesterday, I briefly made mention of the idea of the "generation-gap" movie; that is, movies planned by old guys in suits thinking they could get their finger on the pulse of the youth of the day simply by putting the right young people in the cast, and coming up with a plot about things they thought would be relevant to the youth of the day. For the most part, the movies now are badly dated, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were dated at the time they came out.

But in doing a bit of research, I was a bit surprised to find that some of them are available on DVD:

Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. This 1968 movie is a pale sequel to the earlier The Trouble With Angels. In the original, Hayley Mills plays a teenager at a Catholic boarding school who, under the stern tutelage of Mother Superior Rosalind Russell, grows up into a woman. It's a nice movie for Catholics with daughters, as the situations seem reasonably realistic, and everybody is handled with respect. However, it was decided that with the success of the movie, the best thing to do would be to make a sequel. Hayley Mills wasn't involved, and so the plot becomes laughable: a group of Catholic school girls led by the aforementioned Russell, and a much more "liberated", post-Vatican II nun played by Stella Stevens, set out on a cross-country trip to a religious retreat. It's the best (or worst) of post-Vatican II schlock: as part of a drive to make Mass more "relevant" to modern people, in addition to reasonable reforms like Mass in the local language, we Catholics got such crap as Peter, Paul, and Mary-style folk music at Mass, and spreading our germs around by "giving each other some sign of Christ's peace". The girls are the producers' warped view of what 1968 adolescents were like, and the situations are little more than vignettes at best. The theme music, too, is really bad and dated.

I'll Take Sweden. This is the sort of movie poor Bob Hope was reduced to doing by 1965. Hope plays a father whose daughter, played by Tuesday Weld, is smitten with Frankie Avalon (who repeatedly shows up in these movies). Hope is aghast, and so responds by taking his daughter with him on a business trip to Sweden. Of course, the producers immediately went for all the stereotypes that we still think of when we think Sweden: blond Amazons (and their male counterparts) who are so sexually liberated that it would make the staid Bob Hopes of the world faint. I don't think I've seen this movie since it showed up on one of the old independent TV stations 20 years ago, and frankly, that one viewing might have been more than enough. Perhaps the only reason I'd want to see it again is to see if it's just as bad as I remember.

Now, if Paramount could just figure out a way to release Otto Preminger's Skidoo to DVD....

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Meet George Jetson

Yesterday, TCM showed the silly Bop Girl Goes Calypso. The premise is that a psychology professor studying trends determines that rock and roll (at least, that flavor of it that was popularized by Bill Haley and others) is going to wane in popularity, to be replaced by surging calypso. (OK, stop laughing.) There's a pointless love triangle in it as well, although the main point of the movie is to show a bunch of musical numbers from second-rate acts: this is the sort of film designed by older people who think they have their finger on the pulse of what younger people want, but who are so far off it's funny. Needless to say, the movie isn't available on DVD, and I'd only recommend it if you enjoy the sub-genre of "generation gap" movies.

Being a movie geek, however, I immediately noticed the name of George O'Hanlon in the opening credits; there's also a humorous shot of O'Hanlon dressed in calypso garb. O'Hanlon worked in lesser movies for the most part, with his most notable contribution to film being the Joe McDoakes series of shorts at Warner Bros. in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of them are available on DVDs of other movies, but they're dated enough that I don't see Warners giving them a DVD release of their own. However, O'Hanlon would go on to gain a modicum of fame on TV, by providing the voice of George Jetson. Indeed, if you see any of his movie appearances, you'll find his voice as George Jetson is pretty much the same voice you get from him as an actor; that's how I first recognized him when TCM showed one of the Joe McDoakes shorts.

If you want to see a later George O'Hanlon, he has a brief appearance as the TV announcer at one of Rocky Balboa's fights in the first of the Rocky movies. (I think it's the big fight with Apollo Creed, but it's some time since I've seen Rocky.) Rocky, being one of the all-time great movies, is available on DVD.

Update: a look through TCM's online schedule shows that the Joe McDoakes short So You Want to Hold Your Wife should show up between 5:45 and 6:00 AM ET on Monday April 21. It's listed at 11 minutes long.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Young Mr. Tracy

Spencer Tracy spent the first few years of his Hollywood career under contract at Fox, meaning that his movies don't show up as often as those of people who worked at MGM or Warners. I've commented on Fox Movie Channel's programming before, and wish they'd do a better job opening up their library. But it's not just that they don't show the movies on FMC so often; a lot of those Fox movies aren't on DVD either.

I bring this up because I watched Tracy's The Power and the Glory this morning on FMC. I was not one bit surprised to see that it's not on DVD, so I won't go into a discussion of the movie, other than to say it's currently scheduled again for May 2 at 9:00 AM ET; I'll probably write a post in the run-up to that airing.

One film of Tracy's from his Fox days that is available on DVD is Up the River, which also has a very young Humphrey Bogart; it was released last December as part of the massive box set of John Ford's work at Fox. That is the only one of Tracy's Fox films other than The Power and the Glory listed in the FMC site's rotation; in fact, it's airing immediately before The Power and the Glory on May 2, and once before that, at 7:30 AM ET on April 24.

Having said that, however, I was surprised to learn, in doing research for this post, that his one early non-Fox movie, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, made by Warner Bros. who had Tracy on loan, and who paired him for the one and only time in his career with Bette Davis, is also not available on DVD.

It's not until Tracy got to MGM, and started making more prestigious movies like Fury with Fritz Lang, or the disaster epic San Francisco, that he starts showing up on DVD. In keeping with my comments about what I'll blog about, I'd like to point these two out, as well as Tracy's next MGM film, Libeled Lady, since MGM put all of them out on DVD, and they are all well worth watching despite being three very different movies. (In fact, I already blogged about Libeled Lady back on March 15.)

Fox and Warner Home Video have some work to do.


I actually got an unsolicited comment to one of my blog posts the other day, which implies that my readership has gone from the infinitesmial to the merely miniscule. With the certain knowledge that people are indeed reading, I figure I should make a few "official" comments about the nature of this blog.

Of course, it's a blog about the movies, especially classic movies. Given a choice, I prefer to write what are more or less recommendations; that is, movies that are coming up on one of the cable channels in the next day or two, or, in the case of movies that I just recently saw for the first time on TV or that I'd like to see again, movies that are available on DVD. I don't particularly like the idea of saying, "Look at this wonderful movie I just saw on TCM! Too bad you can't see it too, because it's not available on DVD." It just doesn't seem like a nice thing to do to people.

I try to write a post every day, simply because I want to keep in the habit of writing. Once you stop for a day, it becomes that much easier to take more and more breaks and eventually stop altogether; I in fact know this all too well from another site I used to administer. It also means that sometimes, I have to break my above guideline of avoiding entries on movies not on DVD. However, I've tried either to campaign for a good movie to be released on DVD, or else talk about movies as they relate to a particular actor, with other of that person's movies certainly being available on DVD.

There's also another consequence of posting every day, namely that I don't have the time to write the way I would if I were writing a book on the movies, or more generally if I were getting paid to write. (Of course, if there are any press types willing to pay for my thoughts on the movies....) So, you'll quickly see that I have a dreadful habit of resorting to certain turns of phrase over and over. I do do some editing, as well as some thinking about what I'm going to write in my other free time, but by and large, the posts will have a bit of a stream-of-consciousness feel to them. Also, there are more mistakes than there would otherwise be if I took the hours to do more thorough research. This is not deliberate; I don't like misleading people. But, we're all human, and it's easy to spread an urban legend unwittingly. Truth to tell, I've learned a lot of what I know about the movies thanks to the good work that Robert Osborne does on TCM.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I've seen too many movies

Last night, I was interested in seeing TCM's airing of Rhapsody in Blue, never having seen it before. Unfortunately, I was busy doing the dinner dishes and missed Robert Osborne's introduction and the opening credits. However, as I was watching the movie, the first time George Gershwin visited music professor Otto Franck, I immediately said to myself, without even hearing the good professor speak, "That's Albert Bassermann!" Sure enough, I was right. Charles Coburn as music publisher Max Dreyfus was much easier to spot, but then, Coburn is rather more famous, having won an Oscar.

As for the movie itself, the music is lovely, but we have Gershwin himself to thank for that. Much like The Glenn Miller Story or Alexander's Ragtime Band (which is based on the music of Irving Berlin), it's easy to have a great soundtrack when you're doing a movie on the work of a great composer or musician. Apparently, however, according to Robert Osborne's remarks after the movie, much of the story as presented, especially the love triangle, is complete fiction. Also, the print TCM showed looked as if it had seen better days, which is somewhat surprising for a prestige movie from a studio that would be in the "Turner library".

If anything, though, I guess it's a sign of what a film geek I'm becoming that I'm able to recognize the character actors when they show up. By the same token, when TCM showed Hedy Lamarr's Come Live With Me last week, I was on the lookout for Donald Meek and Barton MacLane.

Sadly, Rhapsody in Blue is not available on DVD, so you can't check it out for yourself until the next time TCM show it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

When good picnics go bad

Last night, as part of TCM's series "The Essentials", Robert Osborne and Rose McGowan presented the 1955 movie The Night of the Hunter. Rose McGowan says that it's one of her all-time favorite movies (indeed, it was one of the four she selected when she was a TCM Guest Programmer back in November), and it's one of mine, too.

Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a man claiming to be a preacher who has quite the shady past: when we first see him in the movie, he's driving a stolen car, for which he gets sent to prison for 30 days. While in prison, Powell meets Ben Harper (played by Peter Graves, later of the TV series "Mission: Impossible"), who is on death row for having killed two men while robbing a bank. He learns that Harper got $10,000 in the robbery, which is hidden someplace. Powell, being the thoroughly corrupt man he is, naturally wants that money, and will go to any length to get it. The only thing is, the money is in the possession of Harper's two kids, who are the only people who know where it is, and who swore to their father that they would never tell anybody where the money was hidden.

When Powell gets out of prison, he goes looking for Harper's widow Willa (played by Shelley Winters), charming her and at a church social eventually asking her to marry him. She's oblivious to his evil, but her son John (well played by Billy Chapin) isn't. Good picnics go bad, though, and Harry marries Willa, finds that the kids are the only ones who know where the money is, and gets Willa out of the way so that he can go after the kids with impunity. (There's a magnificent shot of Willa here that I won't post, simply because it gives away an important plot point more than I already have.) But John will have nothing of it, figuring out a way to escape from Harry and run away with his sister Pearl.

John and Pearl steal a skiff and head off down the Ohio River, with Powell not far behind, eventually getting caught by Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), a woman who's taken in several orphans, and finds that, well, what are you going to do when God grants you two more orphans? She, too, quickly realizes that something is the matter, but can't quite figure out what, until Powell comes along, looking for "his" kids. She's more of a person of God than Powell, despite his claims, is, and as the Bible says, "By their fruits shall you know them"; Cooper finds Powell's fruits to be very unpalatable indeed.

The Night of the Hunter is full of suspense. Robert Mitchum is truly nasty and foreboding on the screen, creating one of the screen's more frightening villians. Shelley Winters is also quite good, despite appearing only in the first half of the movie. By the same token, Lillian Gish is excellent too, despite the fact that she only shows up in the second half of the movie. There are also some wonderful performances by the supporting actors. In addition to Peter Graves mentioned above; veteran James Gleason, who had been playing supporting characters as far back as 1929's The Broadway Melody (and whom I've previously recommended in The Clock), plays the drunkard "Uncle" Birdie, to whom John and Pearl futilely turn to for help in a key moment; and Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden as the Spoons, who own the ice cream parlor where Willa Harper works.

Charles Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter, the only time he directed a movie. The movie was not a financial success when it was first released, and this apparently soured Laughton on directing movies. It probably didn't help, either, that he didn't like children, which must have made this movie an exceedingly difficult task for him. Apparently, Robert Mitchum had to act as a go-between for Laughton and the child actors. But while the movie didn't do well at the box office when it was originally released, we now have cable channels and DVDs to enable us to re-examine the old movies, and the reputation of The Night of the Hunter is rightly much higher now than it was 50 years ago. This is a movie to which I can give one of my strongest recommendations.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Paris when it fizzles

TCM is showing a movie with an interesting idea, tomorrow, April 13, at noon: Paris -- When It Sizzles. Although the premise is inventive, unfortunately, the execution falls a bit short.

William Holden stars as Richard Benson, an American screenwriter living in Paris working on the latest movie of producer Alexander Meyerheim (played by Noël Coward). Meyerheim knows that Benson is quite the drinker (not much of an acting stretch for Holden), so he sends a secretary, Gabrielle Simpson, played by the lovely Audrey Hepburn, to check up on his screenwriter. Naturally, she gets to his apartment hotel and finds that he hasn't written a single page. So, together, they come up with a plot -- and it is this plot that is portrayed on the screen for us, with Holden and Hepburn playing the two characters who are part of the plot.

The movie should be quite fun, but throughout, there just seems something not quite right. Holden and Hepburn were delightful as two-thirds of the love triangle in Sabrina several years earlier, but they don't have nearly as much chemistry here. It's just not easy enough to care about them in the professional capacities of a screenwriter and a secreatry, or the possible love that may bloom between them.

It's also difficult to care for what happens to the characters they play in the movie-within-a-movie. The plot is convoluted, as it should be: they have only one weekend to come up with an entire screenplay, and that naturally leads to coming up with whatever one can off the cuff, which is bound to be as much of a mess as anything Norma Desmond needed Holden's Joe Gillis to doctor in Sunset Blvd. The Parisian locales, while lovely as always, aren't enough to make the plot any more compelling.

In short, Paris -- When it Sizzles! is a movie where everything is capably done, but the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. That's a shame, since the main cast members (I haven't yet mentioned Tony Curtis as Gabrielle's boyfriend who also shows up in the movie-within-a-movie) are normally quite enjoyable, and the idea and locations ought to make for a joy to behold. But, as always, you should probably judge for yourself.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Screaming at pan and scan

Yesterday's lunchtime viewing was the 1966 biopic, El Greco. As movies go, it was OK, but not nearly as good a look at an artist as Lust for Life was with the life of Vincent van Gogh. Unfortunately, the viewing experience was made that much worse by the Fox Movie Channel's showing it not in the original widescreen, but instead in a panned and scanned version. Indeed, there was one rather humorous scene in which the artist was supposed to be talking with his patron, while he was on a ladder painting one of his larger canvases. The two men and the large painting would fit in in Cinemascope, but what we got in pan-and-scan was a scene of El Greco talking down at thin air, followed by a cut to his patron, looking up, apparently declaiming to something, but God only knows what.

Widescreen really took off in the mid-1950s with the introduction of Cinemascope and Cinerama (there were some experimental widescreen formats as early as 1930, but they didn't last), and this presented a problem for movies on TV: the standard TV screen of the time was 4x3, about 1.33, while the new widescreen formats were anywhere from 1.86 to 2.35. (Indeed, the new "high definition" TVs, which have wider screens, are only in a 16x9 ratio, which is about 1.78. They'll still have the problem, albeit less so than the old TVs.) How do you translate that wide picture to a relatively narrow TV screen? I distinctly recall as a kid seeing some movies on TV in which the problem was solved simply by stretching and squashing the image so that all of the height and width were preserved, which had the effect of making everybody as thin as Olive Oyl. It's the ultimate Hollywood diet. The other solution was the pan-and-scan, in which "extraneous" parts of the image on either side are removed, so that the remaining image can be put in a 4x3 box. Of course, this often doesn't work either.

But now that we have letterboxing, all of the above information is fairly well known to viewers. What I'd like to spend the rest of this post doing is thinking of some scenes in older, pre-1950s movies that could have benefitted from a wider screen.

The first obvious choice would be Gone With the Wind. David O. Selznick pat a lot of effort into the scene depicting the sacking of Atlanta, but the massive scale of the effort was such that maybe a half of the bodies on screen are real human extras. A wider shot would have been much better for showing the devastation, as well as hiding the fact that many of the bodies are, in fact, dummies.

In TCM's piece on letterboxing, they mention Lawrence of Arabia where the widescreen format is essential. However, Erich von Stroheim would have been just as original 40 years earlier if he had had widescreen available to him when making Greed. The climactic scene is set in Death Valley, and von Stroheim would have been able to do just as good a job showing the foreboding nature of the desert as David Lean would do, if only he could have filmed the shot in widescreen. (Then again, perhaps von Stroheim should have spent his money developing a widescreen format instead of making nine hours' worth of movie!)

Stagecoach. John Ford made Utah's Monument Valley look gorgeous in his landmark 1939 movie, but I can't help but think just how much more beautiful the backgrounds would have looked if only he had been able to film them in a widescreen format.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

April 10 birthday greetings

Whenever I'm strapped for lack of ideas, or, as is the case today, finding that the movie I'd like to recommend becayse I just saw it on TCM is unfortunately not available on DVD, the easy way out is to look up who's celebrating a birthday today, and type out a quick post on that subject. To be honest, it's something I could do 365 days a year, since it would guarantee no repeats, but it would get boring mighty quick. This week's schedule on TCM happens, by lucky coincidence, to contain a few movies relating to people with April 10 birthdays, but aren't on the schedule because of the people born on April 10.

Yesterday, I mentioned Juggernaut, with the ship's captain being played by Omar Sharif. Today, it turns out, is Sharif's 76th birthday. Sharif, in addition to acting, is a fairly expert bridge player, probably much better than Norma Desmond's waxworks in Sunset Blvd..

Also, as part of TCM's tribute to Charlton Heston, they're showing Heston's Oscar-winning performance in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. The epic movie is probably best known for the famous chariot race sequence, filmed in glorious wide screen. To be honest, though, I prefer The silent version. The original author of the novel, Lew Wallace, was born on this day in 1827. (No, he's not still alive!)

But happier birthday wishes go out to somebody who isn't appearing on TCM any time soon: Max von Sydow. Von Sydow's most famous movie is probably Ingemar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, in which von Sydow, seen on the right in the photo, plays a soldier returning from the Crusades who is confronted by Death and challenged to a life-and-death game of chess. Von Sydow's other most famous role is probably as Jesus in George Stevens' epic Bible movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

70s Style

Last night, TCM showed a movie that was frankly new to me: Juggernaut. The plot of this thriller is relatively shopworn, having been done a number of times: a mysterious terrorist, calling himself "Juggernaut", has planted a series of bombs aboard the cruise ship Britannic, which is crossing the Atlantic. He's rigged them all to go off in 24 hours, unless the shipping company pay him £500,000 cash. So, a bomb squad are parachuted in to the middle of the Atlantic to try to defuse the bombs in a clichéd race against time. It's been done before; it's been done better; but for the most part, Juggernaut is part of a genre that's more about sitting back with a bowl of popcorn and not thinking too deeply as you watch.

Richard Harris plays the head of the bomb squad, a man who's clearly been there and done that and, having been through it a few times too many, has frankly developed a sang-froid attitude towards death. He's fine in his role, and, as far as I can tell, the technical aspect of the bombs isn't that unrealistic. Omar Sharif plays the ship's captain, and is his usual self. He still expects it to be his ship, despite his having no control over whether the bombs are defused. He doesn't have much to do, and does his nothing capably but not memorably. Perhaps the best part belongs to the ship's entertainment director, played by Roy Kinnear, who has to try to keep a good attitude in the face of an impending disaster. Despite his best intentions, nothing ever goes right for the poor guy, including one notable line in which he makes the Freudian slip of saying the night is going to be "a night to remember". The unfolding of the bomb plot back in England is also interesting, notably in the way in which there's a hiccup that might bring a break in the case.

However, what I found most interesting was the set decoration. The 1970s are generally thought of today for their lousy style, most notably in terms of clothing (and sure enough, vintage clothes abound here) and hair styles. But watching Juggernaut, I wasn't at all interested in these; instead noting almost immediately how crummy 1970s opulence was. Perhaps the Britannic was meant to be a "budget" cruise liner, but in no way did anything on this ship compare to some of cinema's luxury liners of the past, in the days when it was the norm to cross the Atlantic by ship, if not the only way. True, unlike, say, Love Affair, the one cabin we see isn't a stateroom, but even the dining rooms and the vinyl-upholstered chairs look cheap compared to what can be seen in Love Affair or similar movies. Perhaps this was meant to be a subtle commentary on the state of Britain in the 1970s? Britain was beset by labor strife and a declining industrial base in the 1970s, as was also obliquely referenced when one of the bomb squad members asked whether anybody in Britain works any more.

If you missed Juggernaut on TCM, IMDb lists it as being available on DVD. Compared to more recent movies of the genre, there's very little bad language or sex; the only violence is when there are some explosions.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Narrow Margin

TCM is airing one of my favorite low-budget movies, The Narrow Margin, as part of its "Riding the Rails" salute to films on trains, this April 9 at 8:00 PM ET. I've commented several times in the past about how I believe a good story is just as important to a good movie as effects or A-list stars, and The Narrow Margin might be one of the best movies to show this point.

Charles McGraw, a staple of B noirs and mysteries, stars as a policeman who's part of a pair taking a mobster's wife (played by the slightly better-known Marie Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train so that she can testify before a grand jury. She's a widow, because the Mob have already gotten to her husband, knowing that he was about to testify. Naturally, everybody is afraid that the same fate may befall her, so they take great pains to ensure nobody knows her identity. Of course, this being a Hollywood movie, things immediately go wrong, as a shootout at her run-down apartment kills McGraw's partner before they can even board the train. In part because of this, Windsor takes a severe dislike to McGraw, making life difficult for him at every turn.

It's on the train where the story really picks up steam, no pun intended. Danger lurks in every compartment, as each of the people our cop meets may be out to kill his witness -- or may be one of the good guys. Lightening the proceedings is a bratty little kid who seems to have a knack of always being where he shouldn't be. To recreate the atmosphere of being aboard a train, the director had extremely cramped sets built (only a few establishing shots were filmed aboard actual trains), and used handheld camera that would shake, much the same way that a cross-country train is not the smoothest of rides. Sure, it's a low-cost gimmick, but it works and makes The Narrow Margin an exciting ride all the way until the train reaches the end of the line.

The Narrow Margin isn't the first movie to follow this formula; Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes explored much of the same ground 15 years earlier, and the opening sequences of another movie airing on TCM on April 9, Berlin Express, are also reminiscent of The Narrow Margin. But The Narrow Margin presents interesting and believable characters, along with a gritty reality that maintains a fast-paced exciement throughout. It's well worth watching, even 55 years after being made.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston tribute

TCM have announced their tribute to Charlton Heston, which will be airing on April 11:

  • 2:30 PM Private Screenings: Charlton Heston

  • 3:30 PM The Buccaneer (’58)

  • 5:30 PM The Hawaiians

  • 8:00 PM Private Screenings: Charlton Heston

  • 9:00 PM Ben-Hur

  • 1:00 AM Khartoum

  • 3:30 AM Major Dundee

Note that the last two movies are actually overnight between Friday and Saturday. All times are Eastern.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Anybody who speaks German will probably recognize the above name immediately: Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) was a Swiss playwright most famous for his play Der Besuch der alten Dame, which literally translates to The Visit of the Old Lady, but is generally presented in English as The Visit. This play was adapted into a movie in 1964, under the title The Visit; Fox Movie Channel is showing it on April 8 at noon ET.

Set in Güllen, a fictional city-state somewhere in Central Europe (it's never quite mentioned where, although Istria on the eastern Adriatic is a reasonable guess due to signs in both Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet, as well as references to Trieste), The Visit naturally deals with the visit of an old lady, Klara Zachanassian (played by Ingrid Bergman), back to the town where she grew up. Unfortunately, Güllen has fallen on hard times, while Klara married into wealth and is now one of the wealthiest people in the world. The poor townspeople hope to make a good impression on Klara, so that they will spread some largesse on them by investing in the town, but it turns out that she's got other ideas for them.

It seems that when she was younger, she was knocked up by one Serge Miller (played by Anthony Quinn, in a role reminiscent of The Ox-Bow Incident). He lied, and got witnesses to lie for him, at the resulting paternity trial, and she had to give up the kid, who died young, and leave town. Now that Klara's back, she wants revenge: she'll give the town a large sum of money for, and distribute an equal amount equally amongst the town's residents: if they change their constitution to make capital punishment legal again, and try and execute Serge Miller for having deflowered her all those years ago. (No qualms about double jeopardy here.) The rest of the movie is an uncomfortable study of what people will do for money, especially if they're desperate; and of the extent to which people will compromise their morals in order to go along with the majority and not make waves. (Although it deals with dark themes, Dürrenmatt always claimed his play was a comedy.) The movie is good but not great; Bergman and Quinn both put in fine performances, and the set design and location shooting very effectively depict a town that's fallen into decrepitude thanks to its poverty. Unfortunately, the last time FMC aired this movie, they only showed a panned and scanned version, although they have in the past switched from pan/scan to letterboxed versions of other movies.

One final warning for those who are familiar with the play: there are some fairly liberal adaptations made in turning Dürrenmatt's original into a screen version.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston, 1924-2008

Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments

The death has been announced of Charlton Heston, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the 1959 film Ben-Hur. Heston was 84.

TCM are sure to have a tribute for him at some point in the near future, although I have not yet been able to find any announcement of what movies they will be showing, or when the tribute will air. However, there was one Heston movie on the schedule already for Monday, April 7: The Wreck of the Mary Deare, at 10:00 AM ET. In The Wreck of the Mary Deare, Heston plays a sailor who finds a ship adrift in the English Channel, manned only by Gary Cooper. Together they scuttle the ship, with Cooper insisting that the captain was involved in something untoward. It's a reasonably good thriller, one that's nice enough just to sit down with a bowl of popcorn and watch. The Wreck of the Mary Deare is immediately preceded by a "Private Screenings" interview that TCM host Robert Osborne did with Heston back in 1997; this starts at 9:00 AM.

Two other Heston movies were already in the schedule for April: Major Dundee 10:00 PM ET on April 8, and Khartoum, at 8:00 PM ET on April 29.

Other Heston movies that ought to be part of the TCM tribute are the aforementioned Ben-Hur, and:

Soylent Green, in which Heston plays a cop in the severely overcrowded New York of 2013, and learns the disturbing truth about the food being produced by the Soylent Corporation;

Will Penny, a western also starring James Stewart that has aired often enough on TCM in the past several months; and

Touch of Evil, in which Heston plays a Mexican cop opposite Orson Welles' corrupt Arizona cop.

Unfortunately, The Ten Commandments is a Paramount movie, and, showing up on ABC every Easter weekend, it's not likely that TCM can get the rights to show it. Planet of the Apes was distributed and co-produced by 20th Century Fox, so we know how likely that is to show up on TCM.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Please release me, Vol. 2

William Lundigan showed up on the Fox Movie Channel this morning, in Elopement, in which he tries to elope with Clifton Webb's daughter, played by Anne Francis. No, I'm not pointing this one out as a movie that ought to be released on DVD. I probably should do a post some time on Clifton Webb; but seeing Elopement reminded me of a different Lundigan movie I'd like to recommend: Inferno.

The plot is a simple one: Robert Ryan plays a wealthy businessman married to the lovely Rhonda Fleming. (The fact that she's in Technicolor here makes her even lovelier.) The only thing is, she's no longer in love with him, but with the aforementioned Lundigan. So she and Lundigan plot to kill Ryan by getting him liquored up on a business trip in the desert, having him "accidentally" fall off his horse, and leaving him to die. The only problem is that when Ryan regains consciousness, he, like any other sane person, decides he'd really rather not die. (For once, we have a plot device that Hollywood doesn't need to make up.) So, Ryan tries to set his leg, and crawl off to someplace -- anywhere that he thinks might get him out of that lousy stinking desert.

Inferno was made when the Production Code was still being fairly rigorously enforced, so you can make a good guess as to what's going to happen. But it's a fun enough movie, with adequate suspense to keep your attention, and fine acting, if you can call it that: since our hero is stuck in a desert, the situtation doesn't really call for acting, but action instead. Any reasonably fit man of an appropriate age to be plausibly married to Rhonda Fleming could have played the role.

What makes Inferno really interesting, however, is the fact that it was originally filmed in 3-D. Most of the 3-D movies of the day were designed so that they'd have a scene or two where something appeared to be coming out of the screen towards the audience, and Inferno does have a few of these shots: rocks falling down a hill, something being thrown at the camera during a fire, and the like. But for the most part, Inferno uses its 3-D differently. Instead of having stuff pop out of the screen, it's used to make the desert extend into the screen, making it appear deeper, vaster, and more forbidding than they could have gotten in plain old 2-D. Unfortunately, I haven't actually seen the effect, since the special presentations of such movies are limited to places like Los Angeles and not my middle-of-nowhere neck of the woods. But the reports I've read from people who have seen the 3-D print imply that Inferno was fairly successful in its intention.

Fox really need to release this to DVD, preferably with a 3-D option and 3-D glasses, too.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Extra happy over Day Day

Yesterday, as I pointed out, was the birthday of Doris Day, and TCM responded by showing several of her movies. What I didn't realize until going on to the TCM discussion boards is that yesterday was also the birth anniversary of Marlon Brando (1924-2004). Several posters were complaining that TCM didn't better honor Brando, but I'm even more thankful that they chose Doris Day, now that I know whom they snubbed.

I've never been a very big fan of Brando's work. He does a fine job in On the Waterfront, but watching how everybody in that movie is excellent, and seeing several of Brando's other movies, I'm more of the opinion that director Elia Kazan deserves more of the credit for getting a good performance out of Brando.

A good movie for showing Brando's deficiencies is Sayonara. Brando plays a US Air Force officer stationed in Japan who falls in love with a Japanese dancer, despite the fact that this is strictly against regulations -- and despite the fact that he's already engaged to the daughter of a general (look carefully; that's Kent Smith from Val Lewton's Cat People). This illicit love is supposed to be seen sympathetically by the audience, but watching the movie, I just couldn't help but think Brando was badly miscast, and playing the character as an arrogant jerk to boot. There's much more sympathy, and better acting, to be found in the supporting love affair, that between Oscar-winners Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki, both of whom do an outstanding job in what should be the main story line. Sayonara would be a beautiful movie if it weren't polluted by Brando.

I'd never been able to figure out why Brando is not just popular, but nearly revered, until I saw a documentary on him that TCM aired first in 2007 (and is the one thing of Brando's they aired on his birthday). In it, they were discussing his work in Julius Caesar, and one of the commentors mentioned that he was actually cheering at how Brando was, in his opinion, out-acting John Gielgud. And that's when it dawned on me. Brando represented a new generation, the one too young to have fought World War II, and the one which was born in just the right time to be the people responsible for the influence of the 1960s. Yes, Brando was born in 1924 and would have been old enough to fight from the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, but his film career really only started in about 1950; the people of an age to be influenced by his performances would have been born in about 1930 or later. Not only was he a new face; he was a new method of acting, a method that directly challenged that which had come before him. I believe it is this challenge that is a big part of the appeal of Brando. Those who would have been too young to fight World War II themselves wanted something different, something to challenge their parents, and along comes Brando. What a perfect fit.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Day Day

Today is the 84th birthday of actress Doris Day, and in her honor, I'd like to mention one of her movies that deserves to be released on DVD, and that TCM did not show as part of their birthday tribute to her: Julie.

In this rare straight-up dramatic role, Day plays Julie Benton, a stewardess whose first husband has died and has retired from her job after remarrying, this time to Louis Jourdan. Unfortunately, she discovers that he's insanely jealous -- and she slowly has good reason to believe that he's jealous enough to try to kill her! Now, I could understand wanting to kill Doris Day because she's too goddam perky all the time, but not for this!

So, she decides to leave him and go back to her job as a stewardess. Unfortunately for her, he finds out where she is, and you can guess what happens next. He ends up on one of her flights, and when she goes into the cockpit, he follows her in there eventualy shooting the pilot in the ensuing scuffle, which forces her to land the plane! Never let it be said that Hollywood can't come up with a doozy of a plot!

The interesting thing, however, is that despite the half-baked nature of the plot, Day shows that she could have a broader range if the movie called for it. And as such, it's too bad that she spent most of her acting career singing and playing in light romantic comedies. Louis Jourdan isn't that bad, either, despite being the one forced to play the worse (in the sense of the way he's exploited by the plot) role. The "insanely jealous" spouse movie seems to produce a lot of melodrama and overwrought characters, with it being difficult to pull off the role of the jealous spouse well. Even a normally excellent actress like Joan Crawford wasn't quite up to the task in 1950's Harriet Craig.

As I mentioned, Julie is not yet available on DVD, and that's a shame, since more people ought to see that Doris Day was better than being stuck in "light" entertainment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hitch's brats

So I watched The Birds on TCM last night. It's a fun enough movie, although to be honest I'd probably rate a dozen or more of Alfred Hitchcock's other movies ahead of this one. Perhaps, though, that's more a testament to just how good a director Hitchcock was. However, I'm not going to talk about the direction or the general plot of The Birds, as that's been done a thousand times before by other people who are better writers than I, but one of the characters who struck me.

The Birds is one of three movies that Hitchcock set, and filmed, in northern California; the other two being Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo. While all three have this in common, Shadow of a Doubt and The Birds also have something else interesting in common: a bratty kid sister. Tippi Hedren consoling Veronica CartwrightIn Shadow of a Doubt, Edna May Wonacott plays the humorously obnoxious kid sister to the lovely Teresa Wright. In The Birds, that role is filled by Veronica Cartwright, who plays the impossibly young sister of Rod Taylor -- and their common mother, Jessica Tandy, is entirely too old to be her mother. Yet another of the joys of Hollywood casting. Cartwright does a fine job, making the audience laugh when she refers to the clients of her defense attorney brother as "hoods", but also doing an excellent job of playing frightened when the adults find her with a dead Suzanne Pleshette.

In doing the brief research for this blog post, I was interested to see that Cartwright is not only alive and well, and still acting, but also has her own official website. Her younger sister Angela also acted, most notably playing Penny Robinson on the TV series Lost in Space.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Riding the rails

One of TCM's features this month has them riding the rails, as they show a bunch of movies involving trains and railroads every Wednesday in prime time in April. This week's installment looks at trains in the old west. The first movie up is one of the seminal movies: The Great Train Robbery, April 2 at 8:00 PM. The title, as you might have guessed, is descriptive of what the movie is about: bandits rob a train. And yet, this would have been revolutionary to audiences in 1903; most of the movies made to that time had been documentary subjects. Also, The Great Train Robbery has more extensive editing than anything done in the few years of film history prior. The well-known final shot, which involves one of the bandits shooting his gun -- pointed straight at the camera -- must also have been revolutionary to the audiences of the day.

It's just a 12-minute short, but it's an important movie in the history of cinema, and is well worth seeing. Kudos to TCM for showing it.