Thursday, July 31, 2008

Quentin Tarantino likes Aldo Ray

One of the things that Quentin Tarantino discussed in his Under the Influence interview with Elvis Mitchell, which aired on Monday night on TCM, was his liking of certain 1950s actors, notably Aldo Ray. Ray was good at playing a certain type of blue-collar, seemingly a bit naïve character who gets himself into a less-than-desirable position. I've recommended Ray before in Nightfall. TCM highlighted Tarantino's likeing of Ray by showing a different movie, however: The Marrying Kind.

Ray stars alongside the great Judy Holliday as a married couple who are not only on the verge of divorce; they're in divorce court. The judge, however, is a sympathetic sort, and she sits the battling husband and wife down after court one day and asks them about their marriage, hoping to find out just why it went wrong. The results range from humorous to heartbreaking as we get a picture of a relationship that started with such high hopes, only to fall under the weight of expectations that couldn't be met, and a string of tragedies both small and large. (I don't wish to spoil anything for those of you who haven't seen it, so I won't go into more detail than this.)

Judy Holliday is excellent as always. Although she's best known for playing blondes who seem ditzy, but also smarter than they look, in a series of comedies, she shows in The Marrying Kind that she could do straight-up drama fairly well, too. This was Ray's first starring role (note how, in the closing credits, it says something to the effect of "We hope you enjoy him in our next feature"), and he too does quite well. It's a role that fits him, as a postal worker who, like all of us, has big dreams that are dashed. You can tell that deep down inside, this is a man who loves his wife, but who just doesn't understand what's happening to him, and has no idea how to respond to it all. The two also seem fairly believable as a couple, although at times, Holliday seems just a bit to glamorous to be playing a struggling wife.

The one other problem that the movie has it that it sometimes seems as though it's not sure what it wants to be. Is it a straight-up drama? Is it a melodrama? Or perhaps, it's a somewhat dark romantic comedy, along the lines of The Shop Around the Corner. Don't let that detract from your enjoyment of the movie as a whole, however. On balance, it's quite a nice, endearing little picture that deserves to be better remembered than it is, especially considering that it's got an Oscar-winner like Judy Holliday in it. Fortunately, The Marrying Kind has been released on DVD, so it won't fall completely into oblivion.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Those 1950s crime movies

There's something about the crime movies of the late 1950s that I really enjoy. James Ellroy picked a series of these movies when he was one of the Guest Programmers in November, and the movies, despite being fairly small, unambitious movies, are quite good. They have a bit of the sensibility of the noirs, although they're generally much brighter (in terms of physical lighting, but not necessarily in terms of mood) and more realistic, having been shot on location. One that Ellroy didn't pick, but which showed up on TCM this past Monday, is Man In the Vault.

William Campbell, who looks like Tony Curtis having a bad hair day, stars as Tommy Dancer, a young locksmith who likes to spend his spare time bowling. One night, he's approached by the gangster Willis Trent (played by Barry Kroeger), and eventually given an offer he can't refuse: make a key for a certain safe deposit box, and break into that box. It turns out that the box contains a large sum of money belonging to another gangster, Paul de Camp (played by James Seay). Unfortunately, in getting mixed up in all of this, Tommy has seen how crime hurts the wrong people, such as Betty Turner, one of the molls (played by Karen Sharpe), who has fallen in love with Tommy. Tommy eventually decides that he's going to help out Betty, and himself, by taking the money for himself instead of giving it to Trent. This, of course, is a Really Stupid Idea, but one that's necessary for these crime movies. Naturally, the gangsters find out what's going on, and come after Tommy. In one of the more interesting climaxes, the final confrontation between the good guy and the villian takes place in a dark bowling alley, with Tommy behind the pins at one end of the lanes, and the gangster both shooting at him and rolling bowling balls down the lanes.

One of the things that makes thes 1950s crime movies so enjoyable is precisely the fact that they were all made on a lower budget. This gives them a decidedly unglamorous feel, which fits in well with the fact that the crime bosses, and many of the people they deal with on a day-to-day basis, are in fact seedy people. Also, the location shooting adds to the realistic feel, much more than the backlot work you would see in Warner Brothers' gangster movies of the 1930s. Finally, the 1950s ushered in a period of social change that allowed the crime movies to have a darker edge than what the studios could give two decades earlier; however, there was still enough influence in terms of the Production Code that movies weren't yet filled with gratuitously bad language. Although there's naturally quite a bid of violence in crime movies, there isn't the swearing that can make more recent movies almost uncomfortable to watch. Naturally, there's also some sex appeal, in terms of the molls. And one of them in Man In the Vault is played by a young and gorgeous Anita Ekberg. However, the sex is understated. It's obvious that these women are sexually appealing, but we don't have to get any sex scenes to see this.

Most of these 1950s crime movies are in the 75-85 minute range, as they weren't designed to be the prestige movies; as a result, they're relatively fast-paced. Man In the Vault is no different, coming in at the short end of the range. But it packs quite a lot of fun and twists in those 75 minutes. The ending is a bit rushed, but that's probably the only big flaw with the movie. It's available on DVD, of course; I wouldn't recommend it after broadcast if it weren't on DVD. Sure, there are movies that are objectively better, but I've mentioned on a lot of occasions that there are times when it's fun just to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch a little movie. Man In the Vault fits that description perfectly.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Real, no-foolin' nudity

Recently, I teased you (or perhaps threatened you) with the idea of a naked James Stewart. On Wednesday morning, July 30, TCM are showing a pair of movies with much more real nudity.

First, at 6:45 AM ET, is Bird of Paradise. This 1932 pre-Code movie has a relatively flimsy plot about a yacht full of wealthy men sailing through the South Seas, and one of the sailors, played by Joel McCrea, deciding he wants to put off to land because he's seen the natives, and is smitten by them. He eventually falls in love with the daughter of the local chief, played by Dolores del Rio, and finds that she's got a bit of a dark secret: she's fated to be thrown into a volcano to appease the natives' volcano god. McCrea, being the good muscular Christian that he is, is horrified by this. So, to save Dolores from herself, he whisks her away to a neighboring island, where the two of them live together happily ever after in seminudity, like characters from Love Is... -- at least, until the volcano on her home island begins to rumble.

What's amazing about Bird of Paradise is just how much skin is shown. Dolores del Rio spends much of her on-screen time close to topless, with only a lei covering the important parts, and a grass skirt. Meanwhile, McCrea wears very skimpy cutoff shorts, which don't leave all that much to the imagination. Even more interesting is an underwater swimming sequence in which del Rio appears to be completely topless, although it's filmed from a distance and done using camera angles such that we don't see anything smutty.

The second movie is The Most Dangerous Game, airing at 8:15 AM ET, in which we again get to see Joel McCrea strip down to his shorts. The movie is based on the famous short story about a madman (played here by Leslie Banks) has decided that the best game to hunt is actually his fellow man, so he sets up shop on an island luring boats to be grounded, so he can offer the passengers his "hospitality" -- and eventually hunt them down. McCrea plays a passenger who survives one such shipwreck, and eventually is released, along with love interest Fay Wray, to be hunted by Banks. Of course, McCrea survives to kill Banks, and gets to spend time on the beach half-naked with Fay Wray. Not a bad propsition at that.

Both films are available on DVD, although the last time they showed up on TCM, the prints weren't the best, meaning that the nudity isn't quite as resplendent as it could be. However, they're still great guilty pleasures.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Laird Cregar

I mentioned Laird Cregar a few days ago when I recommended Don Ameche's Heaven Can Wait. Yesterday's viewing for me was the 1945 movie Hangover Square. I was going to post on it yesterday, until I noticed that July 28 is the birth anniversary of its star, Laird Cregar.

Cregar stars as George Harvey Bone, a composer in turn-of-the-20th-century London who has a bit of a problem: he has bouts of losing his memory, and every time he loses his loses his memory, he also kills somebody. (It's not much of a spoiler to point this out; the opening scene of the movie has Bone killing a man and setting the man's shop on fire.) To be honest, there's not all that much to the rest of the movie. Bone falls for a woman (Fox star Linda Darnell) but eventually strangles her, while a Scotland Yard detective played by George Sanders tries to figure out who killed these people. However, there is one very good reason to watch this, which is the classical music. The sub-plot of Hangover Square deals with Bone's trying to complete a concerto, ultimately playing it during the movie's climax when Sanders also comes to arrest him, having solved the murder. That concerto, along with the rest of the score, was composed by Bernard Herrmann, and it is worth sitting through about an hour of sub-par material to get to the fabulous Herrmann concerto.

The other interesting, but sad piece of trivia is that Hangover Square was Cregar's final film. Cregar was by all accounts a very big man. He stood about six foot three, and had the build of a footbal lineman, weighing close to three hundred pounds. He went on a crash diet, apparently to lose weight for the making of Hangover Square and to avoid being typecast, and lost close to a hundred pounds, but not without some serious health problems. Shortly after completing filming on Hangover Square, Cregar was hospitalized with a stomach condition, and despite surgery, Cregar died several days later of a heart attack at the age of 28.

Fortunately, however, we have DVDs of Cregar's movies, including Hangover Square, so that he may live on in the hearts of classic movie fans.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jimmy Stewart Naked!

Well, maybe not. More accurately, thankfully not. However, yesterday's viewing selection for me was the James Stewart western The Naked Spur.

World War II obviously had a major effect on Stewart. After he returned to Hollywood from the war, he began to play much more complex, seemingly troubled, characters, who were set apart somewhat from the rest of society. From George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life to the professor who inadvertently gives two murders an idea in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope to the peeping tom photographer in Rear Window, it's a character type that was much darker than what Stewart had done before the war, and which Stewart usually did quite well.

In The Naked Spur, things are no different. Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a man in pre-statehood Colorado searching for an outlaw. He meets gold panner Jesse Tate (played by Mallard Mitchell), and enlists his help for the princely sum of $20 in gold coins. Eventually the two find the outlaw, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan doing another good job as the heavy) holed up atop a rock formation; with the help of a third man, discharged Army officer Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), they capture Ben, and find that he's there with his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh in her first major role).

It's here that things really get interesting: Kemp hasn't been entirely forthcoming about what he's doing; specifically, there's a $5,000 reward on the head of Ben, and Kemp wants that money so he can buy back his ranch. Ben realizes that Howard's two new friends would want some of the money, too, and begins a psychological campaign to drive wedges between the three men, as they try to bring Ben back to justice in Abilene, Kansas. The Naked Spur is not without action, however, as there is a shootout with Indians, and the eventual climax which involves another shootout on yet another rock formation and a raging river.

Direction is handled by Anthony Mann, who made several westerns with Stewart in the 1950s. Mann filmed on location in Colorado, and in Technicolor, although the print TCM showed seemed a bit blurry (but not particularly faded). It's an effective movie, and one I have no qualms recommending, but to be honest, it does feel as though there's something missing. However, it's available on DVD for viewing whenever you want.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hollywood on Hollywood

Tonight's installment of TCM's The Essentials is the 1952 soundstage melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, airing at 8:00 PM ET. It's an enjoyable, if not terribly revealing, look at the "seamy" side of Hollywood: what goes on behind the camera.

The subject of the story is troubled producer Jonathan Shields, played quite well by Kirk Douglas. He's alienated all the people he's worked with because ne's not just driven; he's a jerk about it, too. Still, he's desperate for the finanacial backing for his new production, and with the help of his executive partner Harry Pebbel (played here by Walter Pidgeon, who doesn't have too much to do but does it well), gathers three of his closest associates to tell them why they should support this new production.

We don't actually get to learn much about what the new production is, however; instead, the focus of The Bad and the Beautiful is to show us why all these people hate Jonathan Shields' guts. So, we get that wonderfully overworked Hollywood plot device, the series of flashbacks. (It could have been worse, I suppose; imagine if it were a dream sequence.) First up is that of Barry Sullivan, who plays Shields' former producing partner, Fred Amiel. The best part about this section of the story is probably the glimpses of how B movies were made back in the 1930s. Sullivan was adequate, even if he isn't so well-remembered today.

The second sequence is probably the most interesting, involving Shields' favorite actress, Georgia Larrion (played by Lana Turner). Turner's duty here is to show how beautiful the starlets of the day were, and in this she succeeds spectacularly. Perhaps she succeeds too much, in that, like the cast of the previously-recommended The Young Girls of Rochefort, Turner looks glamorous even when she shouldn't. Who cares, though? This is Lana Turner, after all. Kirk Douglas' son Michael tells a story that shows up from time to time between movies on TCM about how he was on the set the day his father had the memorable kiss scene with Lana, and how it unnerved Kirk to see his son in his line of vision when he was kissing Lana. These actors are, after all, professionals; they're just doing their job.

The final flashback is courtesy of author-turned-screenwriter James Lee Bartlow, played by Dick Powell. He's a southern history professor who wrote a book about the Revolutionary War era that was a best-seller because it was liberally sprinkled with sex. (Despite the best attempts of the people enforcing the Production Code in Hollywood, sex has always sold.) Shields brings Bartlow and his wife (played by Gloria Grahame) to Hollywood, with predictably disastrous results.

Even though The Bad and the Beautiful has its flaws, especially when it veers into melodrama, it's still quite a worthy film. The entire cast is enjoyable to watch: Turner's beauty; Dick Powell's professionalism; and Kirk Douglas' meancing nature. Douglas, still relatively early in his career, had clearly made a name for himself playing a string of characters who were slightly (or much more) menacing, from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers to Out of the Past to Champion; even when he was supposed to be the hero, as in Detective Story, he's a deeply flawed hero. There's also a string of fine character actors. Gilbert Roland plays a Latin actor; Leo G. Carroll plays a studio boss; and Paul Stewart plays an assistant. IMDb claims that well-known names like Francis X. Bushman (from the silent Ben-Hur) and Barbara Billingsley show up in uncredited roles, as a eulogist and costume designer, respectively.

The Bad and the Beautiful was part of the peculiar Oscar year of 1952. It won some of the technical awards, such as Art Direction, but was overlooked for the big prize, not even being nominated for Best Picture. That went to the circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, in what is widely considered a sop to movies that tried to compete with the new medium of television. Gloria Graham did win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Rosemary Bartlow, but even here, this is a bit curious. It's a fairly small role, and not Grahame's best; she was much better the next year in The Big Heat. Further, there was a much better nominee, Jean Hagen in Singin' In the Rain.

The Bad and the Beautiful is available on DVD, so if you miss tonight's TCM showing, you can still catch it any time you want.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Don Ameche

I'm mildly irritated with myself for not having blogged on The Magnificent Dope, a pleasant enough comedy starring Don Ameche as the head of a failing "school for success" who runs a contest to find the ideal candidate for that school, only to find that the candidate (Henry Fonda) has other ideas, teaching everybody else about stopping to smell the roses. Unfortunately, it's not available on DVD, so I can't recommend it now. However, it got me to thinking of some of the other movies of the underrated Ameche; specifically, some that are available on DVD. So today, I'll recommend Heaven Can Wait.

In this 1943 comedy, Ameche plays Henry Van Cleve, a wealthy man who's recently died. He gets sent to "the other place", where he meets Satan, wonderfully played by Laird Cregar. Satan is of the impression that Mr. Van Cleve isn't really up to the caliber of misdeeds for people to earn entry into his domain, and it's left to Henry to try to prove why he does indeed belong "down there".

It turns out that Henry is in many ways not much different than any other male lead who populated the screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s (although I wouldn't use the word "screwball" to describe "Heaven Can Wait"; it's more of a romantic comedy). He's mischievous, and somewhat less than faithful, but ultimately a good guy. The movie tells more or less the story of his life, and that of the people closest to him. Ameche is fine as the protagonist, but to be honest, the movie is really worth watching for the supporting cast.

That cast includes the gorgeous Gene Tierney as Mrs. Van Cleve, who loves Henry through thick and thin, having broken off an engagement with her original fiancé (Allyn Joslyn) to marry the impish Henry. Even better is that the movie is in glorious Technicolor, which especially helps in the turn-of-the-century scenes with the young Tierney. True, she's not quite as beautiful as she would be in Leave Her to Heaven Tierney's parents are played by two veteran character actors, Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette. Ameche's parents are similary well-played by Louis Calhern and Spring Byington, although it's clear that Henry gets his free-spirited nature from his grandfather, the always wonderful Charles Coburn. Even child star Dickie Moore shows up, playing Henry as a teenager. The direction is superbly handled by Ernst Lubitsch, who makes the movie charming but not cloying; and also touching, without becoming maudlin.

One last caveat: Heaven Can Wait is also the title of a well-known 1978 movie starring Warren Beatty, but the two have nothing to do with each other. The later Heaven Can Wait is a remake, but of the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Monument Valley

TCM showed the interesting crime movie 711 Ocean Drive at lunch time today. Sadly, it's not available on DVD, but the climax, set at Hoover Dam, got me to thinking about the use of famous sites in the movies.

If I had to guess, I'd bet that the Eiffel Tower is the most commonly used building. Since it stands out over Paris, it's visible in almost any establishing shot of Paris, at least in movies set in Paris after its construction in 1889. A few films in which important action actually takes place at the Eiffel Tower include:

  • Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll, in which Lionel Barrymore visits his daughter atop the Eiffel Tower;

  • In Ninotchka, Greta Garbo is far more interested in the technical specifications of the tower than she is in its use as a meeting-place for lovers;

  • Louis Malle's absurd French comedy Zazie dans le métro has little girl Zazie fantasizing about spending a weekend doing all sorts of nutty things in Paris, including running up and down the Eiffel Tower.

  • The British Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob revolves around a plan to melt down stolen bullion, and recast it as statues of the Eiffel Tower. OK, so it's not the actual Eiffel Tower, but there was no way the thieves were going to smuggle a full-sized Eiffel Tower anywhere.

The Eiffel Tower isn't the only tower to be the climax of a movie. Never mind The Towering Inferno; there's also Devil's Tower, the natural formation in Wyoming where the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes place. And, of course, the Tower of London is a famous historical site where any number of dramas about British history are set.

The Empire State Building isn't just for giant apes to carry their girlfriends up. No, it's a place for illicit lovers to meet in movies like An Affair to Remember (which is, of course a remake of Love Affair).

I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, and he used monuments and famous buildings fairly frequently in his work. This goes all the way back to his first sound picture, Blackmail, which ends with a chase through the British Museum. North By Northwest is very famous for using a mock-up of Mount Rushmore (naturally, there was no way that the Department of the Interior was going to let Hitchcock use the real thing!) for the chase at the end. Hitchcock, however, also used a mock-up of the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur; while the characters didn't walk over the faces in Mount Rushmore, there's rather more action on the outside of Lady Liberty. Finally, the Royal Albert Hall is used in Hitchcock's 1950s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Even more of a blockbuster than Alfred Hitchcock's work are the James Bond movies, some of which involve very famous sites as well. Goldfinger has the plan to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox, while in A View to a Kill, there is a fight on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Last, but not least, I'd like to mention another natural phenomenon, Niagara Falls. These were very effectively used in the Marilyn Monroe movie Niagara.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lucille Ball in brilliant Technicolor

Tonight's recommended viewing on TCM is Du Barry Was a Lady, airing at 9:30 PM ET. It's showing up as part of TCM's month long salute to big bands, since Tommy Dorsey appears, along with his orchestra. However, the real reason to watch it is for Lucille Ball, in her first Technicolor role, showing off her unbelievable red hair.

Ball, along with the rest of the cast, plays a double role in this movie. The framing story is set in a nightclub, with coat-check boy Red Skelton (only in a Hollywood love triangle would you have a coat-check boy; real nightclubs would use a good-looking woman, and noirs would also use the hottest woman they could find for such a role) being in love with Ball, a singer at the nightclub; Ball, however, is in love with dancer Gene Kelly (before he became a big star, but wonderful in his one very athletic dance number), but can't marry him because she's of the wrong background. Through a comedy of errors, Skelton ends up slipping himself a mickey, with the result being a dream sequence story set in 18th century France. In the dream sequence, Skelton plays King Louis XV; Ball plays his mistress, the Madame du Barry; and Kelly plays the "bad guy" trying to steal du Barry, the Black Arrow.

The sets are beautiful. The costumes are beautiful. The one production number in the nightclub is beautiful, and Kelly's dancing has to be seen to be believed. Even Lucille Ball looks great. People who only remember her from her days on I Love Lucy and her later movies and television shows will want to watch to see just how nice she looked when she was young. It's much better than she looked in The Long, Long Trailer. Unfortunately, the story is not up to snuff. Skelton's antics are an acquired taste, and if you haven't acquired the taste, you'll probably find them grating at best. Red Skelton and Lucille Ball didn't really fit in doing period work; their attempts at humor during the dream sequence are about as forces as Bob Hope's period pieces like The Princess and the Pirate and Alias Jesse James. Gene Kelly is OK, but underused; obviously, MGM didn't realize yet just what they had in him.

The game of "spot the character actor" is always a fun one to play, and this time, we get "Rags" Ragland and Donald Meek. A younger Zero Mostel also shows up, as an irritating fortune teller. The full cast list at IMDb claims that a young Ava Gardner plays an extra, while Lana Turner makes a cameo appearance -- although truth be told, I don't remember either.

Thanks to the popularity of Lucille Ball, Du Barry Was a Lady is also available on DVD, if you miss tonight's TCM showing. It's a pleasant way to pass an hour and forty minutes, but it's not a "great" movie.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Night Must Fall

TCM's "Star of the Month" for July has been Rosalind Russell; every Tuesday night in July TCM is showing movies starring this actress. Tonight's prime time salute kicks off with the 1937 movie Night Must Fall, at 8:00 PM ET.

The star of Night Must Fall is not Russell, but the elegant Robert Montgomery. Montgomery plays Danny, a suave man with a hatbox who walks into the lives of the elderly, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Bramson (played by Dame May Whitty) and Bramson's niece Olivia (that's Rosalind Russell). Olivia has been taking care of her aunt, but when Danny appears on the scene, he states that he's willing to help. Mrs. Bramson seems taken with the charming Danny, and is perfectly willing for him to take over since she doesn't want Olivia to become an old maid. Olivia is somewhat smitten with Danny romantically, but she also suspects that there's something not quite right about Danny, especially when she finds out that there's been another old lady murdered in the area. Indeed, we soon find out that Mrs. Bramson has a substantial sum of money lying around the house, and when Danny finds out about this, he's after the money. However, there's more to Danny than just wanting the money....

Night Must Fall is based on a stage play, and this 1937 production looks like a filmed stage play in many ways. However, the acting is quite good. Robert Montgomery might have been at his best in romantic comedies, when he could play elegant, dashing, energetic gentlemen; some of this charm is brought with him in Night Must Fall. But there's also a much darker side to Danny, and Robert Montgomery is superb in evoking the more baleful aspects of Danny's personality. Dame May Whitty is effective once again playing another little old lady, the sort of character that her age allowed her to specialize in. Her Mrs. Bramson can be feisty, but also accepting of the idea that she's old, and this world is for the young. Rosalind Russell is the weakest of the three main characters, but that's because her character has a bit less to do than Danny and Mrs. Bramson. Russell is just fine as Olivia and doesn't detract from the proceedings.

Night Must Fall, having been based on a popular stage play, was a natural candidate for a movie to be remade, and indeed it was in 1964, with Albert Finney playing the role of Danny. However, Finney's Danny exudes none of the charm of Montgomery's; charm that's necessary to make the character's worming his way into Mrs. Bramson's house plausible. As a result, viewers would be better off watching the 1937 version.

Sad to say, but neither version of Night Must Fall appears to be available on DVD, so if you want to see it, you'll have to catch tonight's showing on TCM.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Elvis Mitchell interviews

I've been enjoying this month's TCM interview series Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence. The only bad thing about them is that they're too short; it would have been nice to spend a full hour with the interviewees instead of just a half-hour. The first two were with the late Sydney Pollack and Bill Murray; tonight's interview, at 8:00 PM ET and repeated at 10:30 PM, is with Laurence Fishburne. In between, TCM will be showing the 1965 movie A Patch of Blue.

This movie was most likely selected for airing tonight because Laurence Fishburne would have been influenced by the movie's star, Sidney Poitier. To be honest, though, Poitier is only the star because he gets top billing. The real star should be Elizabeth Hartman. She plays Selina, a blind girl in a poor family who's been treated pretty badly by her mother Rose-Ann (played by Shelley Winters, who won her second Oscar for her performance). Rose-Ann treats Selina as little more than hired help, leaving her to spend the entire day alone at her meager job, stringing beads. Selina's wish is to be taken to the park to sit under a tree in the warm sun and string her beads there, but her mother hasn't taught her anything about being independent, so she can only go to the park if someone can take her there in the morning, and then pick her up again in the afternoon.

One day, while Selina is in the park, she's met by white-collar worker Gordon Ralfe (that's Poitier), who immediately sees that there's something lousy with Selina's upbringing. He takes an interest in her well-being, showing her such new experiences as pineapple juice and shopping (pick oranges from the top of the pile!), and along the way, Selina develops a crush on Gordon. This crush presents a problem, partly because Gordon doesn't feel the same toward Selina. He's concerned about her, and likes her as a friend, but it's not really love he feels. Second, there's the problem that Gordon is [whispers:] black. Rose-Ann is racist enough to be horrified with the idea of interracial dating, but it's not just the whites who have a problem with the relationship; Gordon's brother takes the view that because whites have been racist towards blacks for so long, Gordon shouldn't be wasting his time trying to help a blind white girl. I don't wish to give away the ending, other than to say that everybody lives, if not ever after, and if not necessarily happily; the story ends both with a decided not of poignancy, and with some optimism for the future.

If there's anything wrong with A Patch of Blue, it might be that Poitier's Gordon Ralfe is just a bit too perfect. It's clear that he's supposed to be the good guy, and in so doing, almost fails to mention that he too would have the same character flaws all of us have. But for the most part, A Patch of Blue is not only high-quality filmmaking; it's intelligent, too. The movie has things to say about the issues of race and class, but doesn't try to bludgeon those points home, and also presents plausible and easily understandable motivations for the positions that those affected by Gordon and Selina's relationship take. Even Rose-Ann has something sympathetic to offer. It helps that the movie is filled with fine portrayals. I've already mentioned Winters' Oscar; the other two leads, Poitier and Hartman also deliver excellent roles. (Hartman was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, losing to Julie Christie in Darling.) Ivan Dixon is realistic as the more militant brother of Gordon Ralfe. Veteran character actor Wallace Ford makes his final movie appearance as Selina's father; 14 years earlier he played Winters' father in He Ran All The Way. Another veteran character actor who shows up here is John Qualen, playing the part of Selina's boss, Mr. Faber. A Patch of Blue is also available on DVD, and is a fine movie, not to be missed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Cranes Are Flying

This week's TCM Import, airing overnight at 2:00 AM ET on July 21 (that's still 11:00 PM ET on the 20th on the west coast) is The Cranes Are Flying. It's one of the most stunning movies I've ever seen, and if you don't mind reading subtitles, I think you'll find it stunning too.

The Cranes Are Flying is a Soviet movie from 1957 dealing with World War II. The movie starts shortly before the Nazi German invasion of the USSR in 1941, with Veronika about to become engaged to her boyfriend Boris. Of course, the Germans attack, and everybody mobilizes for war. What Americans may not be able to understand is that war footing for the USSR, a country being significantly occupied, meant something far more complete than it did here in the US, or even in the UK. Whole populations were moved out of larger cities like Leningrad and Moscow to Central Asia (at the same time, Stalin used it as a pretense to deport some ethnic minorities, too), along with the base of industrial production. And just try imagining major cities with barricades, the way Moscow's embankments had (and was accurately and beautifully depicted in the movie). Figures vary, but the number of Soviet dead, combining military and civilian losses, is most likely somewhere in the low eight figures; the high number of military casualities also resulted in a severe demographic imbalance in the generation of people who were of fighting age in 1941. Still, the Soviets won, and World War II, called the "Great Patriotic War" in the former USSR, is celebrated as a bigger triumph than in the rest of the world; May 9 is still the Victory Day national holiday.

It's only natural, then, that when the Germans invade, the people are extremely gung ho about volunteering to fight back, even more than the soldiers in an American movie like From Here to Eternity. Boris enlists, leaving Veronika heartbroken, even if she understands why he's fighting. Director Mikhail Kalatozov expertly displays this, through his use of panning in showing the soldiers, and close-ups on Veronika to show the anguish on her face. Worse for Veronika, after Boris leaves, she never hears from him again -- because he gets killed in action, in a sequence to which stills can't do justice. Not only that, but she's violated by Boris' cousin Mark, a concert pianist who's gotten an artistic exmeption from fighting, so she marries him out of duty despite pining for the Boris she'll never be able to get. Eventually, the Soviets win the war, and amongst the overwhelming joy of all those who get to see their sons, brothers, and husbands return home in a triumphant welcome, Veronika finally discovers that Boris has indeed died. Again we get to see the contrast of emotions. Again, the director effectively uses panning, as Veronika tries to go the opposite way through the crowd, but here the director also refers to allegory: the cranes are flying back over Moscow (hence the title) because it's spring again, with all that spring implies. Well, it's spring for everybody but Veronika.

The fact that The Cranes Are Flying was made in 1957 is important: this was four years after Stalin's death, and one year after Khrushchev's speech to the Communist Party Congress in which he denounced Stalin, leading to a period known as the thaw. During the thaw, artists could cover subjects that would have been taboo previously. Most significantly, of course, is the idea that war isn't simply heroic. Yes, all these soldiers died for the motherland, but that's of no consolation to Veronika, for whom the "Great Patriotic War" means nothing but emptiness. Mark's exemption would have been even more controversial in the USSR than similar exemptions and percieved lack of helping the war effort would have been in the US (as presented in movies like Since You Went Away). And Mark's violation of Veronika? That would have tested the limits of the Hollywood Production Code, never mind what the Communist authorities think. The Cranes Are Flying was an almost immediate classic, winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is just as good now as it was then, and is well worth watching. It's available on DVD, but because it's a foreign film, it falls into the category of films whose less-broad appeal lead to smaller DVD print runs, and the corresponding higher price. Still, I cannot overstress just how highly I rate this movie.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Merian C. Cooper

TCM is showing the classic 1933 version of King Kong at 4:00 PM ET today. It's an easy enough movie to do an entire blog posting on, except that everybody already knows the story: Giant Ape meets Girl. Giant Ape falls in love with Girl. Giant Ape climbs Empire State Building with Girl in hand. So, instead of talking about the movie itself, I'll comment on the movie's director, Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was also the head of production at RKO at the time, and lived quite an interesting life, to say the least. His exploits both movie related and outside of cinema, are told in the wonderful TCM documentary I'm King Kong. Cooper was an adventurer, being both a pilot in multiple wars, and used that sense of adventure in making his films, notably his first one, Grass: A Nation's Battle For Life.

Cooper and his directing partner, Ernest Schoedsack, had seen the quasi-documentary Nanook of the North when it was released in 1923, and wanted to do something similar. Eventually, they found a little-known tribe known as the Bakhtiari, in what is now southwestern Iran, and decided to do a documentary on this groups semiannual migration complete with livestock in tow. The first third of the movie is a bit boring, as it tells the filmmakers' story in how they got from Istanbul to Persia, complete with woman in tow. (That woman was the girlfirend of one of them, and having to bring along a woman was problematic. This was referenced in King Kong, when Fay Wray was treated almost as a fifth wheel during the trip to Skull Island.) However, once Cooper and Schoedsack get to Persia, the action picks up, and becomes much more fascinating and exciting.

What has to be remembered here is that the action is also real; what you see is what actually happened, without any special effects. The migration must have been extremely difficult, with the Bakhtiari having to scale high, snow-capped mountains, and ford icy rivers, carrying their children and precious animals along the way When you see an animal getting swept away, that poor animal is actually dying. It's a migration that's reminiscent in many ways of the 1930 John Wayne movie The Big Trail, which has some equally harrowing footage.

But if the migration is difficult for the Bakthiari, spare a thought for Cooper and Schoedsack. They were carrying a substantial amount of film, and the movie cameras; furthermore, they hadn't made such a trek before, unlike the Bakhtiari, who would have been used to the migration. They also had the logistical problems facing directors: not only how to get a shot of, say, the tribesmen climbing a mountain trail, but when to get it. They had to bring in all the film themselves, and couldn't exactly call Hollywood for more film and stop production for a day while they waited for it. They didn't know how much film they were going to need to bring along to get enough footage to make their movie. As it turned out, they very nearly ran out, but ended up with enough footage for a 70-minute movie. Grass was not originally intended for general release, but Cooper and Schoedsack were so successful on the lecture circuit that Paramount eventually gave the movie a theatrical release. Nowadays, it's available on DVD to watch any time one wants. Grass is a fascinating movie of a time that will never again exist, and not only in the sense of the Bakhtiari. Movie-makers in the mold of Cooper and Schoedsack are likely gone for good, too.

Friday, July 18, 2008

ABBA: The Movie

July 18 marks the US release of Mamma Mia!, the movie based on the songs of ABBA (as turned into a stage musical), the well-known Swedish supergroup of the 1970s. (The movie has been out abroad for some time, having had its world premiere in Sweden back on July 4.) Since I'm in the US, I can't comment on the movie, and I will admit to not yet having seen the stage musical. But if Mamma Mia! doesn't give you your fill of ABBA music -- and heaven knows that ABBA fans, of which I am one, can never get enough -- then find a copy of the original thing, the 1977 concert film ABBA: The Movie.

The reason any concert movie is made is to promote the artist, and ABBA: The Movie is no different. The movie is a document of the group's March, 1977 tour of Australia, a place where they were far more popular than the US. As a 1977 movie, it naturally comes before a lot of ABBA's music (such as the very discofied Voulez-Vous), only featuring perfromances from the Dancing Queen era and before, which might be the movie's one drawback. But the concert performances are excellent -- ABBA were quite good performers on stage in addition to writing effective pop songs -- and of course, the music is in some ways timeless. Yes, a lot of critics would argue that ABBA typify the 1970s, but then, critics have a tendency to pretention, preferring more obscure stuff that makes a statement over things that the great mass of people like. The mere fact that, 30 years on, ABBA's music is being re-used in a popular musical is evidence of how much the tunes fit in any era.

There's more to any concert movie than just the performances, though. In the case of ABBA: The Movie, the best part of the "extras" is probably the downtime footage of the group. Björn and Benny play Swedish folk music backstage on a concertina, and in their hotel suite, they discuss the press coverage, including one memorable scene of one of the women asking their producer what the word "kinky" means. There's also a barebones plot linking all the concert footage, in which a radio reporter has to get an interview with the group in order to save his job. His attempts constantly go wrong, although along the way he gets to interview a lot of "regular" people their opinions of ABBA, which makes for some of the more charming moments in the film. In one, two schoolgirls about six or seven years old are talking, and one of them says the group is "sexy", which sends the two of them into fits of giggling. There's also a taxi driver who frankly hates ABBA (this guy's rant is too good, however; I think this one is a professional actor. Finally, stay for the closing credits, in which the song Thank You For the Music is played over a background of the outer islands of the Stockholm archipelago. The wooded islets are just as beautiful as the music, and a fitting coda to the movie.

The sun'll come out

TCM's prime time lineup tonight consists of three movies set in Mississippi. The third of them, airing at 12:15 AM ET (technically tomorrow for those of us in the East; still tonight for people in other time zones) is the little-known but very affecting 1972 movie Tomorrow. It last aired on TCM back in April, and I tuned in not knowing anything about the movie. It's based on a story by William Faulkner (who, to be honest, I don't particularly like as a writer) which was turned into a play by Horton Foote (who also wrote the play for The Trip to Bountiful and the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird). I don't know why I didn't change the channel when Robert Osborne mentioned that Tomorrow is based on a Faulkner story, but I'm glad I didn't.

Robert Duvall is the star of the movie, playing a simple, poor man. At the beginning, we see him as the lone holdout juror in a 1930s murder trial, and his holdout causes a mistrial. However, Tomorrow is no 12 Angry Men styled jury movie; the jury deliberations are just a frame for the actual story, which is supposed to explain why Duvall votes the way he does. In that story, set twenty years before the murder trial, Duvall's poor man goes to work as the winter watchman at a sawmill, living a bare existence in a one-room shack, although he's got the offer of better prospects once the sawmill stars up again in the spring. It's Christmas Eve, and like James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, he's about to be thrown a curveball. In Duvall's case, it's Olga Bellin, playing a pregnant woman who's been treated harshly and abandoned by her husband. Duvall offers to help take care of the woman until she has the baby, and in doing so, falls in love with her. Of course, there's a rather big problem in this, in that she's still married, and since this is the 1910s, divorce is taboo. Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Duvall, though. To mention how would unfortunately be to give the plot away.

What I can say, however, is that Tomorrow is a movie well worth watching. Duvall gives an outstanding and moving performance which in many ways reminds me of Billy Bob Thonrton in Sling Blade, albeit with the big difference of Duvall's character not being mentally deficient. Bellin is also quite good as the weak and sick pregnant woman; for once, pregnancy on the silver screen looks something like it does in real life, and not the way it was normally portrayed under the studio system, when allegeldy nine month pregnant women loooked maybe four or five months along, and still looked radiant in gowns by Adrian and makeup by Max Factor. No, Bellin's preganat woman is decidedly unglamorous. The rest of the performances are fine, but are much smaller roles compared to the two main ones. The one minor problem is with the print. When TCM showed Tomorrow back in April, the print looked almost like a TV movie instead of a feature film. This may, hoewver, be the way the movie was originally made; it was an independent production by a company called Filmgroup that seems to have made little else. (Don't let the print quality put you off, however. I still give it a very strong recommendation.) Tomorrow is available on DVD, although being an obscure independent film it's got lower interest, leading to a more limited DVD print run and corresponding higher prices. This being an obscure movie, there weren't many images online to illustrate the post; the few I could find all come from the Ferdy on Films blog.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The musicals I like, part 2

A topic I had originally intended to write about in yesterday's post, but didn't get around to, is movies about musicians, both real and fictional. Here again, the presence of music in the movies makes a lot of sense; a lot of the time, good music will outweigh a lousy plot.

The Glenn Miller Story might just be my favorite biopic, in part because the music is good, but also because James Stewart and June Allyson are both very fine actors, giving convincing performances as Glenn Miller and his wife. Sure, some of the things in the plot are just too neat, but that's par for the course in a biopic; we expect things to be dramatized.

There's actually far more dramatizing in Rhapsody In Blue, Warner Brothers' 1945 biopic about George Gershwin. The writers have Gershwin be torn between two lovers, played by the lovely Joan Leslie and Alexis Smith. However, neither of the two existed in real life!

I see that in my April post on Rhapsody in Blue I mentioned that point of trivia, as well as the next movie, Alexander's Ragtime Band. It's based on the songs of Irving Berlin, which is a darn good thing: the plot is pretty lousy. It's an overworked story about a struggling musician who makes terrible sacrifices for the sake of his music and his band; on top of this, however, is one of Hollywood's most original plot twists: the love triangle. (To be honest, I'm not certain which of the two plot devices is more overworked in Hollywood history.) Fox released this movie in 1938, and it says something about Hollywood that it actually earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Of course, there were ten Best Picture nominees in those days, and one could probably argue that Alexander's Ragtime Band is no worse than some of today's Oscar nominees. Tyrone Power plays the bandleader, Don Ameche the band's pianist, and Alice Faye plays the girl. Despite the silly plot, it's a fine movie for all that music, and is fortunately available on DVD.

And then there are all the movies about classical music. The Great Waltz is a movie full of the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr., but the story is unreal -- and sadly, the movie isn't available on DVD. And how much of Amadeus is real?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ginger Rogers' birthday, and some thoughts on musicals

July 16 marks the 97th birth anniversary of Ginger Rogers. I've recommended several of her movies before, and there are a lot more I could recommend but haven't gotten around to doing yet. TCM has been honoring her with a number of her movies, and I watched Tight Spot over lunch. Unfortunately, it's not available on DVD, so I can't really recommend it right now.

Having recommended movies like Black Widow and Rafter Romance, and knowing that she won the Oscar for 1940's Kitty Foyle, I can easily say that Rogers was overall a talented actress. However, she'll probably always be remembered most for dancing with Fred Astaire. They were fine together, although truth be told, I'm not a big fan of musicals.

I think the thing that I don't care so much for about musicals is that they're terribly unrealistic. Bill Maher encapsulated my thinking when he was the TCM Guest Programmer back in June, and selected My Fair Lady as one of his searches. He commented that musicals are like porn in that in musicals, you have people acting for a bit, and all of a sudden, for no reason, they break out into song. By the same token, in porn, you have people acting for a bit, and all of a sudden, they break out into... well, you get the picture. Maher's line made both Robert Osborne and me laugh.

A lot of the musicals I've recommended, and indeed, the ones that are generally my favorites, have been closer to reality, if you will, in that they're musicals about the entertainment business. If you're writing a movie about the dawn of the talking picture era, it's not unnatural for the movie-within-a-movie to have songs in it, and so the presence of some of the songs in Singin' In the Rain feels more normal. By the same token, the musical numbers fit in even better in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (which also stars Ginger Rogers, but which I didn't tag with her name largely because the thread wasn't about her). On the other hand, with movies like Meet Me In St. Louis, the songs are much more tacked on (and the fact that the "Trolley Song" drives me up a wall doesn't help, either). Perhaps the most obnoxiously unrealistic musical -- at least of the ones I've seen -- is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Still, Ginger Rogers is always beautiful dancing with Fred Astaire, and if you pick one of their movies together, you can't really go wrong. The most fun might be Flying Down to Rio, just for the Busby Berkeley number at the end with all the scantily clad pre-Code chorus girls dancing on the wings of airplanes. Unrealistic? Heck yeah. But it's still fun. As for a Rogers non-musical I haven't mentioned before, her screwball comedy The Major and the Minor is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

O brother, where art thou?

TCM showed the Marx Brothers' overrated A Night At the Opera last night. At least the Marx Brothers are A-grade material, having made some fine movies like Duck Soup. It could be worse; TCM could have shown a movie from the Z-grade comedy team the Ritz Brothers.

The Ritz Brothers didn't make too many movies, but when they did, they seemed to be trying to be like the Marx Brothers, but not succeeding. The appear alongside Adolphe Menjou and Sonja Henie in Fox's 1936 movie One In A Million, but do little besides constantly getting in everybody else's way. It's not available on DVD, but it has been showing up on the Fox Movie Channel recently.

A Ritz Brothers movie that you can get on DVD is The Goldwyn Follies. Adolphe Menjou stars again, this time as a producer who's trying to discover what the common person wants so that he can put it in his next big movie musical. The movie fails pretty badly from a plot angle, but it's a great historical record. A fair portion of it is in the style of a revue, with various acts doing their thing, notably Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. The music is derivative, with many comparing the male lead, Kenny Baker, to Dick Powell. However, the songs are by George Gershwin It's also in Technicolor.

However, what really made me think of the Ritz Brothers wasn't the fact that TCM showed a Marx Brothers movie; it was the short they showed after A Night At the Opera: WC Fields' 1932 two-reeler The Dentist. The "plot" of The Dentist involves dentist Fields not being happy with his daughter's choice of boyfriends, an "iceman" of the pre-refrigerator days. Much of the "humor" comes from Fields locking his daughter in the room above his dentist's practice, with her stomping around and knocking down plaster while Fields is trying to perform dentistry on his patients. Yikes. Fields was excellent in feature films like The Bank Dick, and even in his short appearance in Tales of Manhattan, but here, the slapstick is dreadful.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastille Day

July 14 is Bastille Day, the French national holiday, marking the start of the French Revolution in 1789. TCM has been celebrating the day with an entire morning and afternoon of movies set against the backdrop of the French Revolution: two versions of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and the Norma Shearer biopic Marie Antoinette feature prominently. A very interesting "little" picture, however, that wouldn't get as much attention, is The Black Book.

The Black Book deals specifically with the end of the Reign of Terror, the period in 1793 and 1794 when Maximilian Robespierre (played here by Richard Basehart) was running the Revolution with a ruthless iron fist. The "black book" refers to Robespierre's "enemies list", which Robespierre intended to use to trump up charges against his political enemies and consolidate his political power as dictator. Whether or not the real Robespierre had the names in a book form is a matter for debate, although he almost certainly did have an enemies list. But it's convenient for the sake of a Hollywood movie that there actually be a physical black book.

The actual plot of the movie is told almost as an adventure story/thriller, with the enemies of Robespierre desperate to get their hands on the black book, and Robespierre having claimed the book has been stolen by his enemies and that he needs it back. Given the task of finding the black book is the chief prosecutor of Strasbourg, a certain M. Duval. However, he gets killed at the beginning of the story by our hero, played by Bob Cummings, who then assumes the identity of Duval.

The story is quite a fun one, with lots of twists and turns, and narrow escapes. Since the essential plot elements all deal with crossing and double-crossing ones enemies, and pretending to be somebody other than who you really are, it can get a bit difficult to figure out what's going on. However, since it's got a lot of thriller elements to it, the complexity (or should it be duplicity) actually adds to the experience.

What really detracts from the story, hoewver, is the copy of the print. The movie was made by tiny Eagle-Lion films, originally under the title Reign of Terror, and later re-released with the title we see on TCM's presentation and the DVD. Obviously, the movie must have fallen into the public domain at some point, as the print is a very bad TV print, very murky and with relatively poor sound quality. This is a huge shame, since the story is quite good and told very well. In addition to the fine leads of Cummings and Basehart, there's Arlene Dahl playing the female lead, Norman Lloyd (the bad guy in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur) as one of Robespierre's enemies, Charles McGraw (the male lead in The Narrow Margin) in a smaller role as a sergeant, and veteran character actress Beulah Bondi as an elderly farmer who shelters Cummings and Dahl.

If you can stand a movie with a terrible print quality, I can strongly recommend The Black Book.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cross-dressing for fun and profit

TCM is showing Some Like It Hot this afternoon at 4:00 PM ET. It is one of the great American comedies. The story, of course, is that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play down-on-their-luck musicians who witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, and need to escape the Mob, which the do by dressing up as women to join an all-girls' band. Cross-dressing is a tried and true subject for comedy; indeed, I've mentioned a few of the cross-dressing comedies before:

Tootsie, in which Dustin Hoffmann dresses up as a woman to get a part on a soap opera.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Joe E. Brown (who also appears in Some Like It Hot) is part of an all-male acting troupe.
Love Crazy. William Powell shaves his trademark moustache and dresses up as a woman to stay ahead of the police, who want to take him back to a mental asylum; Powell gets in trouble though when the ball of yarn he uses for a fake boob gets caught on the spindle of a record player.

Women dressing up as men for comedy seems to happen a bit less. There's the more recent classic Victor/Victoria, with Julie Andrews donning men's clothes so she can play a man playing a female impersonator in the cabarets of Berlin.
In Sylvia Scarlett, Katharine Hepburn cuts her hair and plays a boy in order to evade the law, alongside her father Edmund Gwenn.

There's cross-dressing in mysteries, too. Psycho would be the best-known example of this, although my mentioning it gives away a key element of the plot. (Of course, this being Psycho, everybody already knows the plot, don't they?)
One mystery in which the cross-dressing doesn't give away the plot would be Nancy Drew, Detective, in which the child detective, played by Bonita Granville gets boyfriend Frankie Thomas to dress as a woman to evade the bad guys who are watching them.

Serious dramas involving cross-dressing seem to be rarer still, at least from the classic studio period. One of the few I can think of is Queen Christina in which Greta Garbo, playing the Swedish queen, dresses up as a man (and shares a bed with John Gilbert).
Before you ask, I don't consider Glen or Glenda serious drama.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Rochefort files

One of the more cinematically interesting musicals ever to hit the big screen is airing on the Independent Film Channel at 9:45 AM ET on July 13: The Young Girls of Rochefort.

The story is a simple one: a group of impossibly thin and good-looking dancers flit around the French seaside town of Rochefort one weekend, bemoaning their lost loves, only to find that the loves they seek have been under their noses all along. It's the way this story -- or more accurately, the myriad of intertwined stories -- is told that makes it so interesting. The main love stories involve a pair of French twins (Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac) who eventually fall in love with a concert pianist (played by Gene Kelly, still looking fabulous in his early fifties) and a sailor/artist who is looking for his idéal féminin (Jacques Perrin, who must have had a ton of makeup on, because nobody can look that stunning in real life). However, there is also their mother, who left a music-store owner behind (although he's come back to Rochefort), and two carnies (George Chakiris from West Side Story and Grover Dale) who come into town with their fair and serve as the catalyst for much of the film's action. The plot lines are largely coincidence driven, but not in the sense that they're unrealistic. True, much of the story defies reality, which I'll get to in a bit, but the coincidences all stem from everybody magically being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.

This being a musical, there's a lot of singing and dancing. The dancing is not of the Fred Astaire type, or even the normal Gene Kelly type that we saw in his musicals for MGM, but the angular, muscular dancing of West Side Story. (It should probably be mentioned, however, that Kelly did have some familiarity with this sort of dancing, having hosted a famous episode of Omnibus in which he compared the movements sports to those of dancing.) The lyrics in the singing are also quite urbane, and the translation of the IFC print is intelligent, preserving as much as possible the wit and rhyme of the original French.

Where the movie is at its most unrealistic is in its visuals. The Young Girls of Rochefort uses a largely pastel color scheme, and everything looks absolutely gorgeous. (Some of the best pictures I could find are at Tao Yue's review.) There's no way, though, that any French town would look that good in real life; as much as people might try to keep their towns clean, the natural state of affairs is for everything to end up slightly dingy. By the same token, I don't think anybody wears the colors the actors here wear, especially Chakiris and Dale. However, the stunning visuals combine with the singing and the dancing to make this movie full of pure joy. It's fun to watch, and everybody involved makes it look as though they were having fun making it, too. Fortunately, it's also available on DVD, should you miss IFC's showings.

Evelyn Keyes, 1916-2008

Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Evelyn Keyes, who came to prominence in Hollywood when she played Scarlett O'Hara's sister Suellen in the 1939 production of Gone With the Wind, has died at the age of 91. Keyes' other roles included the love interest to Robert Montgomery in the 1941 fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan (from which the photo above is taken), and, after World War II, a series of lower budget noirs.

In reading Keyes' obituary, I really wanted to recommend The Killer That Stalked New York, in which Keyes plays a woman smuggling diamonds from Cuba who unwittingly brings in not only the jewels, but a raging case of smallpox. It's an excellent tense procedural that follows the police department's desperate effort to find the source of the smallpox outbreak (Keyes) before she can do more damage. Unfortunately, it hasn't been released to DVD.

Friday, July 11, 2008

You're In the Picture

Recently, I briefly mentioned Jackie Gleason as the host of the disastrous game show You're In the Picture. I must admit that I have never seen its one episode, so I am not fit to comment on how bad it was, although I have read reviews claiming it's not quite as bad as the legend makes it out to be. What truly is bad, however, is Gleason's 1968 movie Skidoo, airing at 2:00 AM ET on July 12 as part of TCM Underground.

The quick plot summary doesn't sound so bad: Gleason plays a retired gangster who is brought out of retirement by his boss (nicknamed God and played by Groucho Marx in his final film) in order to carry out a hit on a stool pigeon (Mickey Rooney). Unfortunately, director Otto Preminger looked at the story on which the film was to be based, and wanted to make the story about the Establishment (represented here by the Mob) and the counterculture, which in 1968 was represented by the hippies. So, we get a movie that tries to play to the young, hip audiences of 1968, but made by a bunch of old squares -- and the result is predictably disastrous, albeit in a way that, forty years on, is wildly funny.

First up amongst the hilarity is Gleason's wife, played by Carol Channing. She was in her late forties when the movie was made, but because of her raspy voice and her hair having gone prematurely white, she looked more as though she was in her mid-sixties. Their daughter has taken up with the hippies, and she clearly has more sympathy for them than does Gleason. Indeed, when Gleason is taken away to perform the hit on Rooney, Channing responds by going to the mobster responsible (played by Frankie Avalon, who might have appealed to the hipsters of 1960, but would have been passé by 1968) and doing a striptease, ending up in just yellow tights and a translucent bra. Yikes. Channing later gets to perform the final musical number, dressed up in a Napoleon outfit, which is almost as frightening as her striptease. As for the aforementioned Avalon, he and his screen father (Cesar Romero) wear a pumpkin decor, of a black blazer over a bright orange shirt. (Actually, Romero is worse, wearing not a shirt, but a turtleneck, making the fashion faux pas even worse.)

The hippies of the late 1960s are known for dropping acid, and the comprises a significant portion of the plot of Skidoo, as well as the back story. Director Preminger and cast member Groucho Marx are amongst those who, as legend has it, actually experimented with LSD for the making of this movie. Jackie Gleason, on the other hand, was entirely opposed to it, and his acid trip scene is funny (although I have no idea how realistic it is, as I've never used illicit drugs other than alcohol before I hit the legal drinking age). Indeed, Gleason's trip sets off the second half of the plot, and some of Skidoo's funniest sequences. Gleason and Mickey Rooney are both in prison; Rooney for his own safety in solitary confinement, and Gleason there for the hit. After Gleason's acid trip, he decides to turn to the side of peace and love, which requires escape from prison. The escape plot entails spiking the prison's food supply with LSD, while Gleason and the man who unwittingly introduced him to acid (played by John Philip Law). Amongst the acid trip scenes we get to see here are naked football players, and a balloon made from burlap sacks that the prison guards (including singer Harry Nilsson, who claimed to be playing drunk instead of stoned) mistake for a big flower. Also in the prison is warden Burgess Meredith and grandstanding politician Peter Lawford (who was probably drunk for shooting, and not just playing drunk) there to observe prison conditions.

The final scene takes place on God's boat, anchored just outside US territorial waters. The captain of the ship is played by George Raft, in one of his final roles; fortunately for Raft, he doesn't have much to do here. The scene involves, as I mentioned earlier, Channing singing the title number, with the hippies "fighting" the ship's crew in what looks more like kabuki than real fighting. Also on the ship is actress Luna, playing "God's Mistress", wearning a dress that's so backless that you can see her butt crack. After all this, we get the closing credits -- sung by Harry Nilsson.

Skidoo was such a failure at the time it was released that it faded into obscurity, rarely if ever being shown. Indeed, the heirs to the Preminger estate supposedly wanted it destroyed, that's how bad it is. Needless to say, if they wanted it destroyed, it's obviously never made it to any form of home video, so your only chance to watch is the TCM Underground showing.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I have a feeling we're not in Kansas

Sally Field sits down with TCM host Robert Osborne tonight to present four of her favorite movies as TCM's "Guest Programmer". I've already mentioned one of her selections, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is airing at 2:15 AM ET Friday. Immediately preceding The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Field has selected All About Eve, at 11:45 PM ET.

There's a lot to recommend about All About Eve, but since I don't have the time to write an extended post about one movie today, I'd just like to mention one scene. Towards the end of the movie, George Sanders (playing theater critic Addison DeWitt) is ostensibly in New Haven with Anne Baxter (playing Eve Harrington), walking down a sidewalk. The scene was done on a Fox soundstage with a rear-projection sequence of a street scene, as was quite common during the studio era. What's shocking about the scene, though, is just how obvious the rear projection is. Considering that this was one of Fox's prestige movies, it's really surprising that such a badly-produced sequence would make the final cut.

A lot of B movies have obvious rear projection, but there are earlier movies where the rear projection is fairly convincing. One example would be Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, in which a pivotal airplane crash sequence was shot by a pilot doing a steep dive, with the footage projected onto a rice-paper screen. That screen is important, since it was right in front of a large tank of water; when the plane was supposed to crash into the Atlantic Ocean, Hitchcock had the water burst through the screen, overflowing the set and leaving everybody to try to make their way out of a sinking plane.

Location shooting was done in the old days, although not to the extent it is nowadays, simply because it was cheaper to film on the back lot than it was to take an entire film crew to all ends of the earth. For example, a more recent movie like yesterday's Sleeping With the Enemy filmed in a small town in South Carolina for the scenes that were supposed to be in Iowa. But much of what you see in a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird is not in small-town Alabama: it's the back lot of Universal Studios; the set design deservedly won an Oscar.

True, many movies couldn't do all their scenes on the soundstages or back lots, and had to go on location. Westerns are the best example, with John Ford's use of Monument Valley being iconic and leading other directors to make their westerns in that area. The Adventures of Robin Hood uses a state park not far from Chico, California, for Sherwood Forest, while Nova Scotia is substituted for by the northern California coast in Johnny Belinda

One interesting scene is Marlon Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" scene from On the Waterfront. It was set in a taxi, so the scene obviously called for rear projection to show a street scene through the taxi's rear window. However, the day they were supposed to film that scene, the rear projection equipment never showed up. So, director Elia Kazan solved that problem by putting up a venetian blind over the taxicab's rear window! The ironic thing is that the scene actually works better this way, causing viewers to focus on the actors and not see anything that's going on outside the taxi.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sleeping With the Enemy

Last night, I finally had the chance to see Rosalind Russell in the first sound version of Craig's Wife, about a wife who's so obsessed with the social standing that her marriage brings her that she'll push everything away just to keep it. I had already seen the remake, 1950's Harriet Craig, with Joan Crawford taking on the Russell role. Unfortunately, neither of these movies has been released to DVD yet.

One of the key scenes in Craig's Wife is how she wants the rooms of her house so immaculate and pristine that she notices when even a Grecian urn on the mantelpiece ever so slightly out of place. It's symptomatic of her obsessiveness, so much so that her husband deliberately smashes the urn to signify a break in his acceptance of the way his wife is treating him. When I watched that scene last night, it immediately made me think of the more recent movie Sleeping With the Enemy.

In Sleeping With the Enemy, Julia Roberts stars as a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. Her husband (played by Patrick Bergin) doesn't only beat her and use her for sex on his terms; he's obsessive to the point of wanting the hand towels in the bathroom to hang off the towel rack to exactly the same length, and have the labels on everything in the kitchen to face exactly the same way. Needless to say, Roberts grows tired of this, and makes a plan to escape by faking her own drowning. She does so, and hops a bus out to Iowa, where she hopes to make a new life for herself.

However, Sleeping With the Enemy is a Hollywood movie, so we know this isn't going to be the end of the story. Eventually, Bergin finds his wife's wedding ring, realizes she's still alive, and.... Well, you can figure out the rest of the plot from here. The only thing I'll say about the rest of the story is that the movie needed one more bullet.

Sleeping With the Enemy falls short, mostly because it makes the husband too much of a cardboard cutout. His obsession isn't chilling (like, say, Kathy Bates' in Misery, where we don't know about the penguins until it's too late); it's more buffoonish. Seeing Julia Roberts go through her house, and find mounting evidence that her husband is back (there's those pesky towels and canned goods again!) is less frightening than it is amusing. The sex scene is supposed to show us just how abusive Bergin is, but it really feels tacked-on; we also get the spectacle of Bergin working out half-naked on a treadmill, which really gives the impression that the producers felt they had somebody good-looking here, so they better figure out a way to use his body. At any rate, Sleeping With the Enemy is, like most more recent movies, available on DVD, if you wish to judge for yourself.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A military procedural?

Yesterday's showing of He Walked By Night got me thinking about another movie that focuses a lot on crime procedure, albeit with a decidedly military twist: The Man Who Never Was.

Clifton Webb stars in this dramatization of a true story as Ewen Montagu, a British Army Commander working with the high command in London during World War II. It's the period just before the Allies invaded Italy. Everybody knows that Sicily is the obvious place for the Allies to start their invasion of the Continent, and the Germans and Italians have consequently massed their forces in Sicily. The thinking goes that if only the Allies can somehow convince the Axis powers that the invasion might come not in Sicily, but Greece, they might move some of their troops there to defend against the possible invasion, leading to fewer deaths (and an easier time of defeating the Nazis, of course). The problem, of course, is how to convince the Nazis to move some of their troops to Greece. Eventually, the solution is reached that if the Nazis could just happen to come across some planted information discussing an invasion of Greece, they might fall for it, a state of affairs which is much easier said than done.

The first half of the movie plays out almost like the police procedurals, or peraphs like an episode of CSI in reverse. Eventually, the decision is made to have the body of a dead British officer wash ashore along the coast of Spain, with him carrying the information on the grounds that he's also got information of a personal nature that the higher ups wouldn't want sent through the normal channels. The British can't just kill somebody for their purposes, though, and anyhow have to find somebody who looks as though he's drowned. Eventually, all of the details -- or at least, every one they can think of -- are attended to, and the dead body is transported in secrecy to its eventual launching off Spain

The second half of the movie is just as good as the first half: the Fascist authorities in Spain find the body, and the intelligence information it's carrying is passed on straight away to the Germans. The Germans respond with a natural dose of skepticism, eventually deciding to send an Irish collaborator to Britain to check up on the dead "officer". (The collaborator is played by Stephen Boyd, who is probably best known for playing Massala in the Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur. Boyd's scenes are fraught with tension, as some of the possible glitches in the British plan dawn on British intelligence, forcing them to make quick decisions about what to do to ensure the plan doesn't go wrong. There's one particularly good scene involving the roommate of the girlfriend of Webb's fellow officer. This woman, played by Gloria Grahame, nearly causes the plan to go awry through no fault of her own, as she's found that her officer-boyfriend has just been killed in action -- although that might actually be a good thing for the sake of the plan.

The Man Who Never Was is Clifton Webb's movie all the way, though. He plays what is an atypical role for him, having been almost typecast as a family man in light by the mid-1950s. (Amazing this, considering Webb had been so good in a movie like Laura at the very beginning of his career.) Webb provides enough seriousness to make the movie believable as it goes along, and enough intelligence to keep the British plan from falling apart at key points. Despite a relative paucity of action -- there's almost no violence, and Gloria Graham gets about the only emotional histrionics in the movie -- it's an outstanding movie that maintains its tension and suspsense, and should keep you waiting in anticipation to see how the British plan turns out. Happily, it's available on DVD for viewing any time you want; you don't have to wait for it show up on the Fox Movie Channel.

Monday, July 7, 2008

He walked at 9AM

While the Fox Movie Channel was airing The Rookie this morning, TCM was showing a much better movie, He Walked By Night.

He Walked By Night is what is often called a "police procedural", a docudrama dealing with the solving of a murder, much along the same lines as, say The Naked City. However, while The Naked City is a combination of drama and mystery, He Walked By Night is much more of a noir, and also focuses more on the criminal (no spoilers here, since we know he's guilty) than does The Naked City, where it takes just as long for us to figure out the identity of the killer as it does the police.

Richard Basehart plays the killer, an electronics expert (actually, he's stealing other people's technology and passing it off as his own) who shoots a policeman one night when the cop gets too close to inquiring about Basehart's less than honorable activities. Life isn't glamorous for the police, who have to do a lot of grunt work, but eventually, they're able to put all the clues together, and get their man in a tense climax. A lot of the credit for this goes to uncredited director Anthony Mann. He uses light and shadow quite effectively to heighten the tension. Watch the climax, which takes place in the sewers beneath Los Angeles; one wonders if Carroll Reed saw this before setting the climax of The Third Man in the sewers of Vienna. There's also an excellent scene in which Basehart returns to his bungalow after he's been shot by the police and removes the bullet from his own shoulder himself (since he knows the police are scoring the local emergency rooms looking for gunshot victims). It's obviously uncomfortable, and you see the sweat beading up on Basehart's face as he performs surgery on himself.

As for the rest of the cast, watch for police lab technician Lee; that's Jack Webb before he became famous. It was clearly on the set of He Walked By Night that the idea for Dragnet was born, with webb as Sgt. Friday. Indeed, it wasn't long after the release of He Walked By Night that Dragnet became first a radio show, before eventually making the transition to TV and even the big screen.

He Walked By Night was produced by the minor Eagle-Lion Films, but is one of those movie that shows just what good work can do to overcome a small budget. Perhaps it helps that it was based on a true story, that of Erwin Walker. It's an outstanding little movie from the late 1940s, and one that is just as exciting today as it must have been 60 years ago when it first premiered on screen. Happily, it's available on DVD for anybody who wants to watch it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I'm a game show fan

I noticed that the Fox Movie Channel are airing a movie called The Rookie at 9:00 AM ET on July 6; one of the stars is credited as "Pete Marshall". That's the same Peter Marshall who would later become the master of The Hollywood Squares. The movie was made several years before Marshall got the hosting job on Hollywood Squares. Also, Marshall isn't the only prominent host who did "real" acting, by which I mean playing a part instead of just a cameo.

There have been any number of people best known as actors, who went on to become game show hosts, both famously and hosting relatively little-known game shows. John Wayne's son Patrick appeared in quite a few movies with his father, and starred in some lesser movies, and after all this went on to host the failed 1990 version of Tic Tac Dough. Groucho Marx is well-known for hosting You Bet Your Life, although he's obviously better-known for the movies he and his brothers made. Ditto Jackie Gleason, although his one game show effort, You're in the Picture is famously remembered for having a debut episode that turned out so badly that Gleason came on the next week to apologize, cancelling the game show and replacing it with a chat show.

As for people best-known for their game show work, there might be Dick Clark, although his movies came before he got the Pyramid job -- and his most famous work might just be American Bandstand, anyway. On the other hand, the original host of Jeopardy!, Art Fleming, did some acting work after his game show was cancelled; if you look carefully you can see him as a secretary in Gregory Peck's biopic of Douglas MacArthur, titled MacArthur.

Perhaps the most interesting, though, is Bob Clayton. He eventually got the hosting job on Concentration, although most of his game show work is in announcing. He made one feature film, The Bellboy, and in it, he shows just how much acting there is in being a good announcer. Jerry Lewis is the star and title character, a bellboy at the Hotel Fontainebleau in Miami, in what is little more than sketch comedy. The sketches are somewhat predictable, but still quite funny, as Lewis plays the always silent, and well-intentioned but incompetent, Stanley. For the most part, Clayton, who plays Stanley's boss, has little blocking; he stands or sits in one spot while Jerry Lewis is being funny around him. However, Clayton has to use his voice to get his emotions across, and this is especially noticeable in one scene in which he points to a pile of bags in the background and says to Stanley, "You see that steamer trunk?" Stanley then immediately goes over to the bags, and struggles with them before finally dragging the steamer trunk over to his boss. At that point, Clayton berates Stanley: Now, Stanley, you never let me finish what I have to say. I didn't want the steamer trunk; I wanted the hat box on top of the steamer trunk. And we're left with poor Stanley having to drag the trunk back to where it was so he can get the hat box. The Bellboy is fun, escapist comedy, and it's timeless, too. It was a huge hit when it came out in 1960, and audiences of all ages can still enjoy it today. Thankfully, it's available on DVD.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sister Act

Venus and Serena Williams played against each other in the Wimbledon Ladies' singles final this morning, so perhaps it's a good time to discuss cinematic sisters. Probably the most famous pair is Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, both of whom are happily still alive. Joan Fontain was of course born Joan de Havilland, but took the name Fontaine from her stepfather because she didn't want to be seen as playing off her sister's success. Interestingly, in Fontaine's first movie, 1935's No More Ladies, she was credited as Joan Burfield; legend has it that she got that name from a street sign.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish are another pair of very famous sisters, and they appeared together in quite a few of D. W. Griffith's silent movies. They're not the only pair of famous sisters who starred together in the movies; the Lane sisters (Priscilla, Rosemary, and Lola) did, too, with Rosemary and Lola appearing together just this past week when TCM showed Hollywood Hotel.

On the other hand, I can't think of any sister comedy acts along the lines of the Marx Brothers or the Ritz Brothers. Musical sisters have been less uncommon in the entertainment industry. A curious example from a historical standpoint would be the Three Gumm Sisters. The showed up in a few shorts in the 1930s, most notably the early Technicolor Fiesta de Santa Barbara, which includes cameos from a bunch of more famous people: Warner Baxter, Ida Lupino, Gary Cooper, Andy Devine, and several others. The Gumm Sisters act is important, though, since Frances, the youngest of the three, was noticed by the bigwigs at MGM, who changed her name to Judy Garland, an actress who went on to somewhat bigger things. It's too bad that Fiesta de Santa Barbara isn't available on DVD.

The Gumm Sisters weren't the only time one sibling was overshadowed by another. As I pointed out when I recommended The Big Heat, the character of Glenn Ford's wife is played by Jocelyn Brando. She does a serviceable job, even if her character does get killed off early on. However, today she's probably much more remembered because her kid brother is Marlon Brando. At least Jocelyn could enunciate clearly.

There's even a classic movie about one sister being overshadowed by another, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which Bette Davis plays the child star who was eclipsed in adulthood by sister Joan Crawford, and now has to take care of Crawford after a car accident crippled her. Therein lies an entire blog post....