Friday, October 31, 2008

Tod Browning

Tod Browning on the set of Freaks

I forgot to mention Tod Browning yesterday as one of the great horror directors, and a couple of his movies aired this morning. First, there was Freaks, the movie looking at the world of circus sideshow members, and how they're thinking, feeling human beings just like the rest of us.

Freaks was followed by The Devil-Doll, in which Lionel Barrymore plays a wrongly-convicted prisoner who esacapes and, having learned from a mad doctor the secret of shrinking people and taking away their free will, devises a plan to shrink people, make them his slaves, and use them to get back at the people who framed him! The movie also stars Maureen O'Sullivan

Browning isn't known so well today, for a couple of reasons. First, he did a lot of his work during the silent era. Movies like The Unkown (with a young Joan Crawford) show up on TCM's "Silent Sunday Nights" from time to time, but silent movies don't get the attention nowadays that talkies do. The bigger reason, though, is that once Browning started making talking pictures, he made some films that were highly controversial, including both Freaks and The Devil-Doll. The humanization of the various sideshow characters in Freaks, combined with the fact that they're portrayed as having the same traits as regular people, must have been shocking for audiences even in the pre-code era. I can't imagine Browning having gotten away with some of this stuff after they started enforcing the Production Code, and that may be part of the reason Freaks was officially out of circulation for years. As for The Devil-Doll, Tod Browning doesn't receive on-screen credit for having directed this.

Happily, both movies are available on DVD for you to watch any time you wish.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cat People

With tomorrow being Halloween, TCM are airing an entire day of horror movies -- actually, two days, since they started off this morning. One of the great producers of horror movies was Val Lewton, who is responsible for RKO's great B-movies of the 1940s. Perhaps his best horror movie is airing tomorrow on TCM at 7:30 AM ET: Cat People.

Kent Smith stars as an engineer who meets an artist from Serbia played by the lovely Simone Simon. Unfortunately for her, she comes from a village that is believed by its inhabitants to be subject to a curse: some of the people in the village turn into cats. And, needless to say, she's one of them! Still, boy marries girl, although we know fully well it's going to have tragic consequences.

What Val Lewton was so good at, partly by necessity, was in making the horror based on what is unseen; what we imagine based on the fears in our own minds. Sure, we see some big cats, but they're in cages at the zoo; we don't see any trick photography turning Simone Simon into a cat. We do, however, hear the cat, in one particularly frightening scene involving the "other woman" -- one of Smith's co-workers whom Simon fears is having a relationship with him -- trying to escape from the cat. The other woman escapes into a swimming pool, but we get to see her fright when she sees a shadow of the cat on the wall and hears a cat's roar. It's tame stuff for 2008, but it shows that we don't need to see the blood and gore in order to be frightened.

As I said, it was in part out of necessity that Lewton used the techniques he did. RKO gave him very small budgets, so he couldn't use the effects that the better studios would have been able to use on their prestige movies. This leads to some imperfect production values on the one hand, but also an inventiveness that makes the movie sparkle. It wouldn't be quite the same if we could see everything perfectly polished.

Cat People, and Val Lewton, aren't so well remembered today, and that's a shame. Thanks to TCM, though, we get to see his excellent work at Halloween. And thanks to modern technology, you can watch it any time you want on DVD.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The joy of sex

You might not have seen the reports on the death of director Gerard Damiano, who died recently at the age of 80. You might not even have heard of him before now. Yet, he directed a movie with one of the most well-known titles: even if the vast majority of us have never seen Deep Throat, we've all heard of it. Yes, if you didn't know by now, the name of the informant in the Watergate scandal got his name from a porno movie. Hollywood doesn't want to talk about it, but adult movies have been one of the enduring staples of the film industry, if not the one that actually makes the most pictures. Even though Hollywood has itself always been using sex to sell its movies -- after all, look at some of the pre-code movies, and the fact that it was the sexuality of these movies that went a long way toward the strict enforcement of the Production Code -- they seem to want to consider themselves "above" adult movies.

Consider the movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno. I've only seen the promos, and don't intend to see the movie, largely because I hate going to the local sixtyplex. It sounds like a fairly dumb comedy about two people in financial difficulty who decide to try to make the money they need by making a porno movie. Such a plot could be good, but I don't expect Hollywood to do anything but go for the lowest common denominator. But what I find fascinating is that while the original commercials gave the title in full, as Zack and Miri Make a Porno, the ads I've seen in the past few days are simply calling it Zack and Miri. Go figure.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno originally received a rating of NC-17 from the MPAA. This rating only came about in the early 1990s, thanks in no small part to the adult movie industry. Of course, before there was an NC-17 rating, the movies with too much sex got an X rating. Purveyors of porn took this as a badge of honor, in many cases advertising their movies as being "XXX-rated". Hollywood felt that there were apparently movies out there that were completely unsuitable for kids, but had nothing to do with porn, and so, to try to distinguish that tiny group of films, they came up with the NC-17 rating. Again, go figure.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Billy Wilder night

Head shot of Billy Wilder,

TCM are showing a bunch of movies directed by Billy Wilder in prime time tonight, but what might be most interesting is the documentary that precedes the movies: Billy Wilder Speaks, at 6:45 PM ET. This programs revolves around a series of interviews that the filmmakers did with Wilder in the 1980s, both in English and Wilder's native German, interspersing the interviews with clips from a bunch of his famous movies. It's always nice to hear the moviemakers in their own words, and I usually enjoy programs like this as much as I enjoy the Private Screenings interviews, or the old The Men Who Made the Movies programs originally made back in the 1970s that show up on TCM from time to time.

For the record, the Wilder movies TCM is showing tonight are all from the 1950s:

Sunset Blvd., in which Gloria Swanson declares that she is big -- it's the pictures that got small -- at 8:00 PM;
Ace in the Hole, at 10:00 PM;
Sabrina, at midnight on Wednesday (that's still late Tuesday evening for people not in the Eastern Time Zone);
Witness For the Prosecution, at 2:00 AM Wednesday; and
Some Like It Hot, at 4:00 AM Wednesday.

(Please note that Some Like It Hot is listed as having a 121-minute running time, while TCM claim the first movie Wednesday morning begins at 6:00 AM ET. If you set your recording device to catch Some Like It Hot, add a few minutes to the end.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Alas, poor Carole

Tonight is the last night of TCM's October Star of the Month salute to Carole Lombard, and it's only fitting that the night should start off with her final film, To Be or Not To Be, at 8:00 PM ET.

Lombard stars as Maria Tura, the wife in a husband-wife pair of actors in the Poland of 1939. Her husband, Joseph, is played by Jack Benny. Together, they plan a great new triumph satirizing the Nazis in neighboring Germany -- until those darn Nazis invade and conquer Poland. The poor Turas are relegated to doing their stock Shakespeare. Meanwhile, a young pilot in the Polish air force, Lt. Sobinski (played by a young and virile-looking Robert Stack), goes to the Turas' theater every night to watch Hamlet. He does this because he's in love with the lovely Maria, and every night when Joseph starts Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Sobinski gets up from his seat to go see the object of his affection.

The Nazis' invasion, of course, scuppers all these plans, and Lt. Sobinski flees the country in order to go to England and fly with the Polish military-in-exile. One day, he's asked to smuggle into Poland a scientist who's part of the Polish Resistance, but he believes that the scientist is actually a double agent working for the Nazis, as this man has no idea who a famous actress like Maria Tura is. As a result, Sobieski ends up parachuting into Poland himself to meet the Turas, and get them to apprehend this man.

What happens next is sheer comedy. Naturally, the Turas have no idea how the brutality of dictatorships works, which should lead to their slipping up and letting the whole big secret out. Instead, their actions turn the exercise into such a big farce that the Nazi authorities, paranoid as they are, don't have any idea whom or what to believe.

Ernst Lubitsch directed, and was outstanding at comedy. It helped, however, that he had a cast that was equal to the task of making Lubitsch's vision work on screen. Lombard, of course, was a master of the screwball comedy, and goes through the movie effortlessly, but in no way implying that she doesn't care about the material. Jack Benny did more of his work in radio, and later television, but he was good at movies too, probably getting the best line: during a rehearsal of the Turas' Nazi satire, Benny is playing Hitler, and when he walks into the room, the rest of the cast gives the Nazi salute and says "Heil Hitler!" Benny's response? "Heil myself!" Even Robert Stack does OK here, even though he's not somebody you'd think of when you think comedy. There's also a great supporting cast, with often seen names such as Lionel Atwill, Felix Bressart, and Sig Ruman.

To Be Or Not To Be is one of the underrated comedy classics, and is not to be missed.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Laughing at the past again

One of the fun things about watching classic movies is seeing people say or do certain things in the past that not only no longer hold true; but are very far off base. A classic example of this would be a lot of the movies that are set in the future, but were made long enough ago that what was then the future is now the past. The 1930 movie Just Imagine, for example, is set in the distant future... of 1980! Needless to say, most of the predictions were nowhere near accurate.

But there are also some funny things in documentary pieces. Today, for example, TCM showed one of the Traveltalks shorts, Around the World in California. In one of the scenes, they showed a bunch of cyclists taking a guided tour of Beverly Hills, and the dulcet tones of James A. FitzPatrick intoned, "There is never too much traffic...." Yeah, right. Just imagine these cyclists on the streets of Los Angeles County now. (By the same token, last week showed Mighty Manhattan, New York's Wonder City, with a sequence of where the UN building was then going up. The East Side parkway had shockingly little traffic.)

Later, we learned about some of the ethnic communities of Los Angeles. First, FitzPatrick used a hard 'g' here, something I don't think I've ever heard in contemporary English. (Bob Cummings also uses it in Saboteur.) More humorous, however, is the comment that Los Angeles has a population of "several thousand Mexicans". That had to have been wrong even 60 years ago, considering that Spain owned the place for a few centuries, and Mexicans have always been emigrating north of the border.

Thank goodness TCM shows some of these warped time capsules.

Kiss of Death

A few days back, I mentioned that the Fox Movie Channel's web site had a glitch that prevented me from noticing Richard Widmark's Kiss of Death was airing that day. According to my box guide, it's coming up twice this week, at 2:00 PM ET today, and at 2:00 PM ET on Wednesday, October 29.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Who wants to be a pervert?

Karlheinz Böhm
Karlheinz Böhm in Peeping Tom

One of tonight's featured movies on TCM is the very interesting, and somewhat controversial, Peeping Tom, airing at 10:00 PM ET. Directed by Michael Powell, Peeping Tom tells the story of cinematographer Mark Lewis (played by Karlheinz Böhm) who has some secrets in his life. In addition to working for one of the London film studios, he's got a second job as a porn photographer, and a hidden interest on top of that: he rapes women and kills them, filming it all. It is this hidden interest that we first see at the beginning of the movie, and I can only imagine how shocking it must have been for movie audiences back in 1960 when the movie was made.

Unfortunately for Mark, his life is closing in on him in more ways than one: first, the police are naturally investigating the work of a serial killer, and slowly but surely, they're going to catch Mark. Perhaps worse for him, however, is that a young woman who is one of Mark's housemates (named Helen, and played by Anna Massey) has fallen in love with him. It's here that we begin to learn why Mark has turned out the way he did. His father was a scientist, performing experiments on him, and filming the results. Actually, he wasn't just filming the results; he was filming every aspect of poor Mark's life. It's easy to see how this could warp poor Mark's mind. Helen seems horrified but thinks she still loves Mark, while her mother has other ideas. The mother is blind, but she's one of the smart blind, able to see what other people can't see; although she can't see what's on those reels of film Mark is keeping in a spare room, she's figured out he's up to no good.

As I mentioned briefly above, Peeping Tom, in its presentation of a whole host of uncomforable topics -- rape, murder, and voyeurism just to name three -- was shocking for its time. Despite Michael Powell's fame, the movie shocked critics so much that the reviews were poor, and the British Board of Film Censors ordered quite a few cuts to the movie. It also made it impossible for Powell to get anybody to finance movies for him.

Friday, October 24, 2008

TCM's new intro

TCM have been running a promo between movies claiming that we bloggers and other social networking types can embed our favorite movie clips on our sites thanks to the TCM Media Room. With TCM finally having introduced a new primetime introduction, I figure that now would be a good time to try it out. If it works, you should see a link to the new intro.

As for the intro itself, I'm a bit ambivalent about it. The onld one with the fanfare was almost iconic, and elegant, harkening back to the days of the movie palaces in a way the new one doesn't really do. But the new one looks fresh and in keeping with the rest of the new graphics package, which isn't too bad. The new look for the trailers, in which the "screen" showing the trailer is a head-on view, is much better than the previous one, which used billboards that were at an angle.

I could go either way on the afternoon opening. TCM's previous intro during the afternoons was of a band box, which frankly didn't have all that much to do with the movies. The new one doesn't have much to do with the movies either, with people on an el train not necessarily going home to watch movies.

And as for the morning promo, TCM used to have "The Sunny Side of Life" as the theme. It was memorable, although in some ways not entirely appropriate: do you really want to play Look for the silver lining.... before a movie like The Lost Weekend? The new intro in the mornings has a big advantage in that it's acrually evocative of mornings, in its montage of daybreak and heading into work. On the other hand, the bluesy music does not, at least in my opinion, fit in as well with the early morning.

I wonder how long it will be until TCM change the montage of clips that open Silent Sunday Nights.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The art professor vanishes

Tonight at 8:00 PM ET, the Fox Movie Channel is showing the 1976 comedy Silver Streak. It's a wonderful homage to the railway movies of the past, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock suspense movies.

Gene Wilder stars as George Caldwell, an editor taking the train from Los Angeles to Chicago just to get a few days' peace. In the compartment next to his, he meets Hilly Burns (played by Jill Clayburgh), secretary to a noted but reclusive art historian. The historian has just written a biography of Rembrandt that will have some revelations about which of Rembrandt's works are authentic and which aren't, and there are apparently other people on the train who know this as well, and are out to get the man. Caldwell discovers this when, during foreplay with his new lady-friend, he sees her boss falling off the roof of the train.

Or does he really see it? Naturally, nobody believes him, except of course for the bad guys, who know what the truth is -- and they have no interest in telling him he's onto something. Still, they (in the form of Richard Kiel, the man who played Jaws in two of the Bond movies) literally throw Caldwell from the train, and this is where the fun really begins, as Caldwell finds himself teamed with an old lady rancher trying to help him get back on the train.

He gets on again -- and off, thanks to another dead body, and not getting any help from the local police, Caldwell gets help from a petty thief played by Richard Pryor. After all, he's got nothing to lose, already being a criminal. One of the best scenes in the movie involves Pryor trying to help Wilder evade the police, who are at the train station looking for him. Pryor helps by having Wilder disguise himself in blackface! Wilder, of course, has no rhythm, which is what makes the scene so funny.

The story itself is more than adequate, but it is the relationship between Pryor and Wilder that is the highlight of the movie. They have excellent chemistry, and impeccable comedic timing together, in the rich tradition of Hitchcock's black comedy. The movie, however, is a more modern movie, as evidenced by the sex and bad language, which really make it unsuitable for the kids. Adults will enjoy it, though, and not only for the pairing of Wilder and Pryor. The supporting cast includes several names we've all seen before, including Patrick McGoohan as the bad guy; Scatman Crothers as a train porter; and people like Ned Beatty, Fred Willard, and Ray Walston. The score, by Henry Mancini, is not so much memorable as it is thoroughly evocative of the 1970s, and fits the movie like a glove.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The October Man

TCM is showing a nifty little British movie at 1:30 PM ET on October 22: the 1947 mystery The October Man.

John Mills stars as Jim Ackland, a chemist who suffered a brain injury in a bus crash and spent a year recovering in hospitals as a result. He's released, not fully certain whether he's fully cured, and returns to work, taking a room in a boarding house that, being British, has a bunch of eccentric tenants. One evening, while walking across the courtyard to get back to his house, Jim meets a woman who's one of his housemates and needs a bit of help, and gives her a bit of money. Unfortunately for him, she turns up dead -- and Jim, having had the head injury, is the prime suspect. Jim, of course, is convinced that he's innocent, and with the help of his girlfriend, he sets out to find the real murderer.

This is the sort of interesting, quirky little film that was being made in Britain at the time, eventually reaching the shores of the US. One of the pluses of this is that it's a really wonderful little movie, with a much different atmosphere than we would get from Hollywood movies. Things might look a bit cheap, but then, it has to be remembered that Britain had been through the long World War II, which was a much bigger drain on British resources than on the USA's. From what documentary evidence I've seen, it looks as though these movies aren't that far off in their depiction of the economic state of the UK at the time. As for the plot, there are enough interesting characters, as well as twists and turns, to keep anybody interested and guessing what will happen next. As such, it's a movie I can fairly strongly recommend.

There is one negative to such British movies: there's less of an interest for them than there is for a lot of Hollywood movies of the same era, which means that if they're released on DVD, they're relased in smaller runs and are more expenseive as a result. That, however, is for the ones that get released on DVD in the first place. The October Man does not seem to have been put out on DVD in the US yet. And that's a shame.

Charm: offensive

Cary Grant was a charming, elegant actor. This is obvious in most of his performances, and toward the end of his career he was typecast as the elegant, romantic older man. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with being charming and elegant, but unfortunately, it sometimes makes it more difficult to play certain roles. Our evidence for this is the two Cary Grant movies TCM showed today.

Just look at None But the Lonely Heart. Cary Grant plays a ne'er-do-well Cockney who returns home to run his mother's secondhand furniture store when he finds out that she's terminally ill. Business is really tough, with the result that Grant's character is tempted to join a robbery gang to earn enough money to make ends meet. The story itself isn't bad, but Cary Grant oozes so much class that it's really difficult to find him believable in the role.

There's no reason one cannot be both charming, and a bad guy. After all, there are criminals out there who prey on their victims by charming them and by appearing to be something other than what they actually are. Robert Montgomery, another actor whose roles always exuded elegance, played such a bad guy brilliantly in Night Must Fall. Cary Grant played such a man in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, where he plays an idle playboy who mooches off other people's money, especially that of his wife, Joan Fontaine. Eventually, she comes to believe that he's out to murder her for her money. The problem with the movie, however, is that the producers hated the idea of Cary Grant playing a bad guy, and so they forced Alfred Hitchcock to come up with an ending that would have Grant not be a murderer, which comes across as a deus ex machina.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

James Cagney's gangsters

Tonight on TCM, there's a tribute to the great gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. They're starting out with a new documentary on the subject, airing at 8:00 PM ET. Later in the evening, we get to compare James Cagney in some of his great gangster roles:

One of the earliest is in The Public Enemy at 9:45 PM. A young Cagney becomes a star, as he plays Tom Powers, a hoodlum who rapidly makes his way up the crime ladder through his willingness to resort to violence. This is, of course, the movie with the iconic image of Cagney squashing a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face. (The girlfriend was played by Mae Clarke, and not Jean Harlow as some sources erroneously claim. Harlow does have a small role in the movie, however.)

One of his last gangsters was as Cody Jarrett in White Heat which TCM is playing at 4:00 AM ET overnight. Cody isn't just violent, he's practically psychotic as he gives a guy air -- by shooting him up in the trunk of the car! White Heat also has a very memorable scene, near the end when Jarrett has cornered himself up a holding tank at a gasworks, he says, "Made it Ma! Top of the world!"

A Cagney role which isn't airing tonight is in Angels With Dirty Faces. Here, Cagney plays a gangster who is seen as a hero by the Dead End Kids, much to the consternation of priest Pat O'Brien. What's particularly fun is one scene in which Cagney is teaching the Dead End Kids how not to commit fouls while playing -- by getting even rougher with them than they were getting with Father Pat! I've already mentioned this scene once before, along with an interesting anecdote about what happened off-camera.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Did they really make movies this bad?

I've mentioned some movies that are so bad they're actually fun to watch: Skidoo and Xanadu are two examples of this. Part of what makes them fun is that you can laugh at just how bad they are, and think, "What was everybody thinking when they made this?" Unfortunately, being able to laugh doesn't work as well when the truly bad movie is supposed to be a comedy. And that's the case with the 1959 movie The Rookie, airing at 10:00 AM ET October 21 on the Fox Movie Channel.

Peter Marshall (the same one who would go on to be master of The Hollywood Squares for 15 years) stars alongside his nightclub comedy partner Tommy Noonan in this dismal service comedy. Marshall plays a sergeant in the US Army in 1945, just as the Japanese are about to surrender. Noonan wants to enlist, but with the Japanese surrender, the Army is demobilizing everybody. But, they don't want the bad publicity of turning down somebody who wants to enlist, so they foist him upon poor Marshall, who was just about to be discharged himself (and is about to get married to the hot Julie Newmar, one of the only bright points of the movie).

Things go from bad to worse, not only for viewers, but for Marshall too. Thanks to a comedy of errors that's at best trite, Noonan is led to believe that Newmar is going to marry him, and he's going to go with Marshall to Japan to serve alongside the occupation. However, a mishap on the ship taking them to Japan result in everybody going overboard, and ending up drifting in a liferaft to a small Pacific island where they're the only people to know World War II has actually ended. This is A Bad Thing because there are Japanese soldiers on the island. Worse, however, is that these "Japanese" soldiers are actually Marshall and Noonan playing Japanese soldiers, and doing so by appealing to every single stereotype they could think of. It's shockingly bad. If you've seen a movie like Al Jolson's Wonder Bar, you'll recall the bad blackface scenes in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, some of which were so over the top that they would be funny if they weren't so offensive. The yellowface scene in The Rookie, on the other hand, is nothing but offensive.

Finally, we have to criticize the Fox Movie Channel. Not for showing the movie, but for the print they show. The last time they aired it, it was for the most part a pan-and-scan version. That is, except for the closing credits, when Marshall and Noonan were put on the Cinemascope diet: the whole widescreen image was squeezed to fit into a 4x3 screen, resulting in the characters looking taller and thinner than they really were, a la Olive Oyl. The FMC's web-site claim that this is going to be the pan-and-scan version again.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

She's a wax house

TCM are showing the really fun horror movie Mystery of the Wax Museum overnight at 3:45 AM ET. It's the original version of the movie remade twice as House of Wax, and while it's not as well-known as the remakes, it's actually the best of the lot.

The story starts off in the London of 1921, at a wax museum that's facing financial difficulties. One of the partners wants to burn the place down for the insurance money, but Ivan Igor (played by Lionel Atwill), the artist actually responsible for making the wax figures, is horrified by this prospect. Eventually, though, his partner burns the place down, with Ivan in it, leaving Ivan a cripple.

Fast forward about a dozen years, to Christmas 1932. Ivan, now wheelchair-bound, is now in New York, about to open up a new wax museum thanks to figures made under his supervision by his apprentices. Everybody who sees the statues remarks how amazingly lifelike they are. At the same time this is happening, there's a string of disappearances -- of dead bodies being taken from the morgue. Are the two events related?

Well, this being a horror movie, you know fully well they are. How is this shocking crime going to be discovered? Through the resourcefulness of reporter Florence Dempsey (played by Glenda Farrell). Florence finagles her way into the museum before its official opening thanks to the help of her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray), whose boyfriend works at the museum. Florence thinks she sees one of the toe tags still attached to a "statue", but can't quite prove it. Meanwhile, her friend Charlotte looks amazingly like Marie Antoinette....

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a heck of a lot of fun, thanks in no small part to Glenda Farrell. Her characters consistently had a lot of brass and chutzpah, and in this movie, that works incredibly well in playing the intrepid lady reporter stereotype. The rest of the cast is more than competent, if not exactly great, and the two-strip Technicolor lends a great atmosphere to the movie. The dark parts of the movie here look anywhere from dark green to brownish, an atmosphere that works much better for a horror movie than the black-and-white photography generally in use at the time. It's directed, surprisingly enough, by Michael Curtiz, the man who went on to win an Oscar for Casablanca. Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on DVD, should you miss the overnight showing.

A note of trivia: everybody in the movie marvels at how the wax statues are supposedly lifelike. The funny thing is that the statues actually were real live actors. Because Warner Brothers were using color, the lights had to be even brighter than normal, and when they tried to use wax statues, the statues melted.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Lotte Lenya. She spent most of her career on the stage, first in Weimar Germany, and then on Broadway; as well as singing the songs of her first husband, Kurt Weill. However, later in life she made a very few movies, even receiving an Oscar nomination for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. However, the role for which she's probably best remembered is that of Rosa Klebb, in From Russia With Love. Klebb is a nightmarish-looking assassin who, in the great tradition of the Bond movies, has an innovative weapon -- a poison-tipped shoe.

Rosa Klebb might be the best screen villainess ever. Not far behind is the lovely but nasty Ellen Berent, played by Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven. As I mentioned back in January, this woman has no compunction, watching her brother-in-law drown to death, while she sits there doing nothing; and committing suicide but staging it such that it looks as though her sister has murdered her!

Who's your favorite screen villainess?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fox Movie Channel's lousy web-site

My DirecTV box lists Richard Widmark's Oscar-nominated role in Kiss of Death as showing at 2:00 PM ET today on the Fox Movie Channel. Unfortunately, FMC's own web-site gives different information, and seems to be wrong. They're suggesting that Sentimental Journey was supposed to be on at 8:00 AM, while the box guide says it should be Decision Before Dawn, which the few seconds I watched showed it to be.

The first upshot of this is that it makes life tougher on anybody who wants to see some of the great old classics that were made at Fox -- I probably would have blogged about Kiss of Death had I known more than a few hours in advance that it was going to be shown today. However, FMC's web-site isn't very good in more than just being factually incorrect. It's entirely Flash-based, which is a huge pain in the rear for web navigation. I for one like to be able to right-click on links and be able to open them in a new browser tab. Flash doesn't let you do that; a right click only brings up the Flash dialogs. The site's old design, which changed probably two years ago, also allowed for browsing the schedule a week at a time; now, you're limited to one day at a time. Worse, if you click on the title of a movie to get a synopsis, and then go back in your browser, you don't get sent back to the day on which the movie aired. You get sent back to today's schedule, which can be highly inconvenient (especially if you're looking through a week of movies that's part in one month and part in another).

If anybody from Fox is reading this, please come up with a site design that doesn't require Flash.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The godfather of the township

I generally recommend older movies, mostly because that's what I've seen more of, but there's an excellent newer movie on TV tomorrow: Tsotsi, airing on IFC at 9:30 AM and 3:05 PM ET.

Set in the South African townships, Tsotsi tells the story of a young thug (the word Tsotsi is his nickname, taken from one of the African languages' word for "thug"). He's in a particularly violent gang, as this is one of the few ways for many in the impoverished townships to make their living. Tsotsi has no compunctions about shooting people and leaving them to die, until one evening when he carjacks a woman. He shoots her, but finds that she's got an infant in a car seat in the back seat. And Tsotsi has an epiphany.

Tsotsi feels he can't let this baby die, and takes it back home with him, but he has absolutely no idea how to take care of a baby. In one particularly poignant scene, he follows a young mother around the narrow streets of the township, and when he gets to her home, he pulls out his gun on her and forces her to breast-feed "his" baby. Tsotsi eventually learns that the mother of the child survived the attack, giving him the idea that perhaps he should take the baby back to her, even if it means arrest for him.

Tsotsi is a very-well made movie, even if it's terribly sad in its portrayal of the grinding, unrelenting poverty of the South African townships. In fact, that poverty is much better displayed than anything Hollywood could ever have done in the studio era. It's not just the poverty, though; James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson had nothing on the violence of Tsotsi. As I was watching Tsotsi, I found myself thinking of the closest thing Hollywood ever had to such a movie, which would probably be the two versions of Three Godfathers, but Tsotsi is a much more realistic movie than any Hollywood treatment of the subject.

Tsotsi is by and large not in English, as those characters who live in the townships speak Xhosa or Zulu. This can be problematic if you're watching on a high-definition TV. IFC's showing is letterboxed, with the subtitles in the black area below the letterboxing. This means that if you try to watch on your HDTV in one of the modes that are designed for letterboxed movies (the ones that cut off the top and bottom of the image and blow the rest up to fit a 16:9 area), you'll lose some of the subtitles.

Edie Adams, 1927-2008

Edie Adams with Sid Caesar (r.) in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Edie Adams, whose career spanned Broadway, TV, and the movies, has died at the age of 81. She was married to Ernie Kovacs, and was supposed to appear with him in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World until he died in a car accident.

Amongst the other movies Adams appeared in is Billy Wilder's great comedy The Apartment, in which she played the secretary of Fred MacMurray; that's Adams on the right alongside Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Adams also played wife to Cliff Robertson in Gore Vidal's political convention drama The Best Man.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Neal Hefti, 1922-2008

Odd Couple TV title card

Composer and arranger Neal Hefti has died at the age of 85. Most of his work was for jazz albums, but he did some work for the screen, both the big screen and the little screen. He might be best-known for the theme to the 1960s TV series Batman, but his jazzy theme to The Odd Couple can't be far behind. Other movies he scored include Robert Redford's Barefoot in the Park, and Jack Lemmon's How to Murder Your Wife.

Little Caesar

Today marks the birthday of director Mervyn LeRoy, who was born on this day in 1900. One of his best movies was one of his earliest, the gangster movie Little Caesar.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Rico, a small-time thug who's got a friend in Joe Massara (played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). Together they go to the big city, and while Joe eventually tries to go straight and work at a nightclub, Rico, nicknamed "Little Caesar", joins up with a bigger gang. Little Caesar has big ideas, though, and quickly tries to muscle his way to the high end of the hierarchy. Of course, crime does not pay, and we see that even though Little Caesar is rich for a while, it's bound to come crashing down on him eventually. It's a fairly straightforward, if violent, crime arc.

However, Edward G. Robinson showed right away that he was special. As Little Caesar, he's not just violent; he's sadistic and ruthless, too. At the same time, however, he's charismatic. His Caesar completely overshadows the rest of the characters, or at least the other gangsters, who look one-dimensional in comparison. Little Caesar has often been compared to The Public Enemy, and with good reason: both were gangster movies; both focused on the anti-heroes their gangster protagonists were, and, in so doing, served as a blistering indictment of the Prohibition-era laws; and both movies made stars out of their lead actors, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectively. Even though both gangsters get theirs in the end, it's easy to see why such movies would make the men who wanted to enforce the Production Code livid. Even though the movies are tame compared to what we see on screen today, in 1931 they must have been almost shocking for the amount of violence they unapologetically portrayed.

Even though Little Caesar was a star-making vehicle for Robinson, there are some other good performances in it, most notably by Glenda Farrell. She plays girlfriend to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., but seems as though she'd be better suited playing Caesar's gun moll. She's tough as nails, and shows why she would go on to spend the entier 1930s playing a string of women who seemed to have more cojones than most of the men in her movies. It's too bad she never really got to be an A-list star.

Even if you consider Little Caesar to Mervyn LeRoy's finest movie, his career wasn't exactly downhill from there. He would go on to make another groundbreaking crime movie, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, as well as classic musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and, 30 years later, Gypsy. And yet, none of these got him his Oscar nomination, which came for the 1942 romance Random Harvest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ebony and Ivory

Tonight on TCM, Robert Osborne sits down with Guest Programmer Rainn Wilson, who selects four of his favorite films. The last of these is The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, airing overnight at 1:00 AM ET. (That's late this evening on the west coast.) The plot is a fairly simple one: Young boy Bart (played by Tommy Rettig) is the son of a single mother, and fears that his mom is falling in love with his piano teacher (Dr. Terwilliker), whom he doesn't really like. One day, he falls asleep and has a dystopic dream about them. In the dream, Bart finds himselfin a world where his piano teacher has Svengali-like powers and is running a demon academy allowing musicians only to play the piano, and having a plan to have 500 boys play a giant piano simultaneously. It's up to our little hero to save the day, with the help of a kindly janitor (played by Peter Lind Hayes).

Two things are notable about this production. First is the design, by Theodore Seuss Geisel -- better known as Dr. Seuss. This is the only live-action film he made (it's based on one of his stories), and the set design bears all the hallmarks of Dr. Seuss' whimsically fantastic drawings. The scene pictured here is from a bizarre musical number involving musicians who play instruments other than the piano. Dr. T. has decreed that they all be sentenced to an underground dungeon, where they're doomed to be tortured and play horrible dissonant music. The movie is in gorgeous Technicolor, doing even more justice to Dr. Seuss' vision than the still here can do.

The other standout is actor Hans Conried, who plays Dr. Terwilliker. He's delightfully evil, and steals the whole show. This is a cartoonish movie by design, and the villains, while being obvious bad guys, are also supposed to be fun in their almost larger-than-life badness. This is what Conried portrays so well, coming across as both menacing, and charismatic at the same time. It's really a shame that Hollywood couldn't figure out how to use his talents better.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is available on DVD. Despite being a Dr. Seuss story, it's not just a kids' movie. Younger children, in fact, might be a bit scared, because the movie touches on themes that occur in real life, notable that of whether or not to trust authority figures. However, in the set design, there's quite a bit for adults, too.

Monday, October 13, 2008

William Powell vs. Robert Montgomery

TCM is showing My Man Godfrey tonight at 8:00 PM ET as part of the salute to Star of the Month Carole Lombard. In the movie, William Powell plays a "forgotten man" whom Lombard finds in a scavenger hunt, becomes the family butlef, and eventually falls in love with Lombard. Powell exudes elegance, as always. It seems that in most of his roles, William Powell comes across as a gentleman, even when he's supposed to be playing a bad guy as in Jewel Robbery.

It seems to me as though certain actors got typecast as elegant. Cary Grant would be an obvious example, eventually playing older, suave gentlemen in a series of comedies at the end of his career. An actor who always seemed elegant on screen from William Powell's day would have to be Robert Montgomery. Even when he's playing a murderer, as in Night Must Fall, or a gangster, as in Hide-Out, he still exudes the essence of dignity. True, in all of the "bad guy" movies I've mentioned, the characters are trying to con people, and are using elegance as a means of conning them. But I find it a bit tough to imagine either really coming across as a bad guy in the way that James Cagney could.

Interestingly, both played a male lead alongside Lombard, so this month we can judge for ourselves. While My Man Godfrey teams Lombard with Powell tonight, we can see her alongside Montgomery in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, at 10:00 PM ET on October 27.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Funny car crashes

I read a bunch of international news sites, and one of the recent headlines is the death of a prominent European political figure in a car crash. Now, that's not funny, but I couldn't help but think Hollywood's treatment of cars and how unrealistic it was in the studio era.

A lot of this, I think, has to do with rear-projection photography. A lot of the time that characters are in cars -- especially when they're in convertibles -- they're not on any real road, but on a sound stage with stock footage of roads playing on a screen in the background. The result is a scene that looks obviously fake. Watching a drunk Cary Grant trying to negotiate rear-projection in North By Northwest is a hoot, even though it's supposed to be a suspenseful scene.

But it's not just the rear-projection that's bad. Lana Turner gets in a car crash in The Bad and the Beautiful. After she finds Kirk Douglas sleeping with another woman, she leaves Douglas' palatial estate in tears and tries to drive through the tears, and it's unintentionally. It's not the only time Lana Turner got into such a funny car crash, either; she's in one at the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Of course, there are also the times that Hollywood intended car crashes to be funny. This is in all those ultraviolent cartoons that are supposedly a bad influence on the kiddies, when characters get into crashes and come out seemingly unscathed. Think of poor Wile E. Coyote. But even in live-action movies, bad driving could be a source of humor. Barbara Stanwyck takes the stick shift from Ben Lyon at the end of Night Nurse, leading to multiple instances of her putting the car in reverse, and accidentally hitting the car behind them. And who can forget Gene Tierney in The Mating Season? She get a car trapped on the edge of a steep hill, and when John Lund tells her there was a lot of space to turn the car around, she responds, "I'm a pretty lousy driver", just before the car goes crashing down the hill.

They don't make car jokes like they used to.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What's in a name?

I noticed that today is the birthday of documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner, which brings up the chance to recommend a fun little documentary he made, The Sweetest Sound.

The genesis of this movie is that Berliner's parents were always getting congratulated for things that some prominent dentist did, even they had no idea who this dentist was. The reason is that the dentist, and the filmmaker, share the name Alan Berliner. This led the filmmaker to an inspiration: try to find all the people he can named Alan (or variations of the spelling) Berliner, and invite them together for a dinner -- and that is nominally what The Sweetest Sound is about.

In reality, though, it's really about names. Intertwined with the story of the filmmaker finding all his Doppelgänger and bringing them together, we learn about some of the things that names can mean to people. Apparently, there's a nationwide club for people named "Jim Smith", appropriately named the Jim Smith Society. Who knew? Other topics Berliner hits upon are people with unorthodox names, and the question of whether or not immigration officials at Ellis Island really changed peoples names to make them sound less ethnic. Perhaps the most interesting, however, is when the documentarian goes around asking people what they think of when they think about somebody named Alan. The responses aren't necessarily flattering, and not necessarily accurate, either.

Or are they inaccurate? Eventually, we do get to see the gathering of the Alan Berliners, and find out just how many of the stereotypes fit. It turns out they are all male -- there are no gender-bending names here. As for any other preconceptions you might have about the Alans of the world? I'll let you discover those for yourself.

The Sweetest Sound is a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, despite the fact that the topic of names can bring up some thought-provoking questions. The result of not taking itself too seriously, however, is to the movie's benefit, as it's quite fun and light. It is available on DVD, but because documentaries aren't a topic of that much interest, the resulting low print run leads to higher prices.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Portrait Snatcher

TCM are showing the underrated 1948 movie Portrait of Jennie tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM ET. It's not a very well-known movie, but that doesn't mean it's not a good movie.

Joseph Cotten plays the male lead as Eben Adams, a starving artist in 1934 New York City. He's trying to sell his paintings to a pair of gallery owners played by Cecil Kellaway and Ethel Barrymore, albeit with little success. All this changes when, one day in Central Park, he meets a strange young girl who goes by the name of Jennie.

Jennie is played by Jennifer Jones. Jones was in her late 20s when she made this movie, and at first it might seem odd that somebody so old is playing somebody so young. But Portrait of Jennie is not a straight-up romance, but a romantic fantasy. Eben only sees Jennie for a few fleeting minutes at a time, and in the few days between each meeting, Jennie ages by months or years. At first, Eben is intrigued because Jennie is talking about people and things that haven't existed for a quarter century or more; he then becomes even more intrigued by the girl's life story and trying to figure out whether or not she is (or was) a real person, and if so, what ever became of her. I won't give away any of the details, but suffice it to say that this love story poses problems for our poor artist.

The story isn't the greatest, although the acting is fine, especially amongst the supporting roles. In addition to Barrymore and Kellaway, watch for Lillian Gish as the head Mother at a Catholic school. What is, however, outstanding, are the technical aspects of the movie. Several sequences introducing Jennie have an old-fashioned look about them that isn't just the sepia tone of old photographs, but almost looks like a cross between an old photograph and a needlepoint of a picture. There's also a storm scene, which is depicted through a green filter. What might be the most memorable, however, is the haunting music that permeates the film. It's Claude Debussy's Arabesque No. 1, and you might have heard it elsewhere. That's because an electronica version of the arabesque has been used as the theme to Jack Horkheimer's PBS astronomy show, which many of you may have seen ending a PBS station's broadcast day back in the time when broadcast stations didn't necessarily broadcast 24 hours a day. It's only too bad they didn't have electronic music back in 1948 when Portrait of Jennie was made; the score than would be even more haunting.

I cannot give a strong enough recommendation to Portrait of Jennie. Watch it yourself, and be amazed.

TCM's Paul Newman tribute

I've been remiss in not posting that TCM announced their tribute to the late Paul Newman which will preempt their regularly scheduled programming. TCM have selected eleven of Newman's movies in a 24-hour salute all day and night Sunday TCM time. Those movies are:

The Rack, at 6:00 AM ET (all times are in Eastern);
Until They Sail, at 8:00 AM;
Torn Curtain, at 10:00 AM;
Exodus, at 12:15 PM;
Sweet Bird of Youth, at 3:45 PM;
Hud, at 6:00 PM;
Somebody Up There Likes Me, at 8:00 PM;
Cool Hand Luke, at 10:00 PM;
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at 12:15 AM Monday;
Rachel, Rachel, at 2:15 AM; and
The Outrage, at 4:00 AM.

I believe this is TCM's first 24-hour tribute since the death of Shelley Winters back in January 2006. It's unfortunate that TCM had to wait two weeks to be able to juggle the schedule to show everything, but they've had so many specials in prime time lately that they didn't have to many free places to put such a long (and well-deserved) tribute.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Orson Welles' pretensions return!

Back in August, I mentioned what I think it the pretentiousness of Orson Welles, and my theories on why some people seem to praise him for it. For those who wish to see another example of this, you can watch Welles' take on William Shakespeare's Macbeth, tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET on TCM.

Welles plays the title role in a version that is very spare, as it was made on a low budget at Republic Pictures. (Presumably, by this time, everybody in Hollywood knew about Welles' profligacy and the only way Welles could get a picture made was to work under an exceedingly tight budget at a crummy studio.) There's a lot of fog, and a lot of bogus Scottish accents.

To be honest, I'm somewhat prejudiced against the movie, not only because of my prejudices against Welles' work, but because Macbeth isn't my favorite Shakespeare play by a long shot. Even taking all this into account, this movie can't possibly hold a candle to Warner Brothers' 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Perhaps somebody should have told Orson Welles to stick to acting.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Jewel Robbery

One of the movies that TCM showed in September as part of the Star of the Month salute to Kay Francis is Jewel Robbery. I hadn't seen it before, so I couldn't recommend it at the time. But having seen it, I can say that it's a hoot. And it's showing again tomorrow at 6:15 AM ET.

Kay Francis plays the female lead, as a woman married to a Viennese baron but feeling trapped in a loveless marriage. She wants some excitement in her marriage, and gets it when one day, while shopping a jewelry shop, in walks a notorious jewel thief played by William Powell. Immediately, she feels smitten by Powell, and wants to be with him instead of her crummy husband.

The movie was made in 1932, and as such the plot is both a bit old-fashioned and influenced by the fact the Production Code was not yet being enforced. It doesn't take long at all for the police to figure out who their man is, and get him into a stake-out, which is typical for the shorter movies of the early 1930s. On the other hand, there's also the intimation that crime does pay.

More interesting, however, is the actual jewel robbery. Powell gives his victims cigaretts that are filled with wacky tabacky, although the script never actually uses any words to describe it that way -- and espcially not the word marijuana. The cigarettes make their smokers giddy, to the point that Powell leaves a pack with the police, and when they smoke them, the police start making prank phone calls! One of the victims gets sleepy, and Powell tells that victim that when he wakes up, he'll be hungry!

Jewel Robbery is the sort of movie that they don't make any more, and probably can't make any more, largely because for all the shock it would have caused in 1932, it would be seen as quite tame today. The other consequence of this is that Jewel Robbery isn't available on DVD, either. Perhaps with TCM's Star of the Month treatment of Kay Francis, Warner Home Video will finally get their act together and release more of her movies to DVD.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The "lost" RKOs

Back in June, I recommended Rafter Romance, one of six RKO movies the rights to which were transferred to Merian C. Cooper, leaving them out of circulation for decades. It's airing again tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET as part of TCM's 80th anniversary salute to RKO, followed by another of the six: One Man's Journey, at 7:15 AM.

Lionel Barrymore stars as Dr. Eli Watt. Financial problems prevented him from making it in the big city, so he returns home with his young son to practice medicine in his home town. His first case is a childbirth case, and when the mother dies in childbirth, the father doesn't want the baby, so the good doctor ends up with both a foster daughter, and a housekeeper (played by May Robson).

This isn't a very rich town, so Dr. Watt struggles to pay all the bills while all his clients pay him in any way they can. Our doctor continues to minister to the poor, even as his son grows up to be Joel McCrea, and as other doctors grow wealthy. Barrymore's Dr. Watt would like to go to New York to do research, but it seems as though something always happens to prevent him from doing so. In lieu of this, he insists that his son go on to the bigger and better things as a doctor that he could never have for himself.

The story line here, to be sure, is somewhat old-fashioned and predictable, so we expect that our hero will get his day in the son, although the way it happens is not quite what we expect. The upshot, however, is that we shouldn't really watch this movie for its story, but for the acting in it. Lionel Barrymore had already won an Oscar for A Free Soul, but he's phenomenal here. You can really feel for this poor put-upon doctor whom life keeps throwing a curveball, but takes it with aplomb and dignity. His Dr. Watt is the epitome of the good country doctor making house calls for whom we all hold a nostalgic spot in our hearts, even if the doctors we knew grewing up really weren't like this. May Robson is wonderful, as always; she was nominated for an Oscar the same year as this (1933) for playing Apple Annie in Lady for a Day. Playing the older, motherly housekeeper seems right up her alley: she plays it much the way Ann B. Davis played Alice in The Brady Bunch, ie. the sort of housekeeper that anybody old enough and from a rich enough family to have had a housekeeper might remember the stereotypically good housekeeper. Joel McCrea isn't quite as good as he'd later go on to be; however, it's not entirely his fault as he isn't given all that much to do with his role. Despite the father-son relationship being an important part of the movie, especially the conflict of a father wanting something for his son that the son isn't so certain he wants, all this is clearly being examined from the father's point of view. One of the interesting bits of trivia about One Man's Journey is that the McCrea character marries a woman played by Frances Dee, who would shortly become McCrea's real-life wife, and spend the next 57 years of her life with him until his death in 1990.

As I mentioned with Rafter Romance, these movies never received a DVD release, having been out of circulation so long. In the case of both Rafter Romance and One Man's Journey, it's really a shame, since they've both got stars well enough known for the movies to merit being released on DVD. What this means, of course, is that you'll have to watch the movie when it shows up on TCM tomorrow.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Anybody who thinks journalists are a paragon of objectivity is probably deluding himself. Anybody who thinks today's state of affairs is any worse than it was in the past is, however, also deluding himself. Journalists have been bending the rules for decades if not longer, as we have already discussed regarding 1933's Picture-Snatcher. One of the best movies about dishonest resporters is airing on TCM at 10:00 AM ET on October 7: Billy Wilder's Ace In the Hole.

Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a drunken reporter whose lack of ethics has gotten him fired from or made persona non grata at, all the important papers in major US cities. Tatum is passing through the Albuquerque of the early 1950s, a time when New Mexico was even more sparsely populated compared to the rest of the US than it is today. The editor of the newspaper there gives him a chance, and Tatum takes it to go quickly back to his old ways.

While driving around the more out-of-the-way parts of New Mexico, Tatum comes across a man who's trapped inside an abandoned mine that caved in. When Tatum investigates and finds out that the man seems to be OK for the time being, he decides to engineer things such that the rescue will take much longer than it should, in order that he may draw out the rescue and have it be a major news story for longer. Anybody who remembers Jessica McClure will recognize that such a story presents more than enough opportunity for a media circus. In the case of Ace In the Hole, a literal carnival forms at the mine entrance, complete with bright lights and amusement-park rides.

Tatum, meanwhile, grows even more scheming, deciding to try to bribe the trapped man's wife (the impossibly gorgeous Jan Sterling; one wonders how on earth she got stuck in the middle of New Mexico) and getting the local sheriff to sign off on his plans because there's an upcoming election. Of course, everything eventually goes wrong: we find out that the wife really doesn't love her husband, and was planning to divorce him, and the poor trapped man eventually dies. But who cares about him? To the media, he was just a story. At the time the movie was released, it was a commercial failure, so much so that they tried re-releasing it under a more friendly title, The Big Carnival. That didn't help.

Normally, I don't care to hear that a movie is "relevant" half a century on. However, things haven't changed in the media, and that's true regardless of one's political views: reporters seem to have no qualms about trying cases in the media, or about exploting children, for example. (Every time you hear a reporter say that "ten people died in a fire; three of them were children", ask yourself why they don't mention that seven of the dead were adults.) Ace In the Hole is a pretty damn good indictment of all this, yet remains a highly entertaining movie in its own right.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Don't quit your day job

TCM's Silent Sunday Night feature this week is Headin' Home, airing overnight at 12:45 AM ET. (That's very early Monday for those of us on the east coast; late Sunday for those of you in the rest of the country.) It stars Babe Ruth (yes, that Babe Ruth) as a baseball player who makes it big, and claims to be based on the life story of Babe himself, although it's a complete fabrication.

The real-life Babe Ruth was born and raised in Baltimore, and was a bit of a troublemaker growing up, largely because his parents didn't have time to raise him properly. In Headin' Home, however, our hero is portrayed as having come from the epitome of small-town America, and being a pretty good guy, among other things saving his kid sister's dog from a malicious warden. If you haven't figured it out yet, the plot -- such as it is -- is relatively dumb. Actually, "dumb" is a bit unkind; it's more that the plot is a collection of stereotypes of what people thought of as the good points of small-town America as it was in 1920. The reason to watch this movie, therefore, is not for the story, but for the people in it, especially the Babe himself.

In 1920, Babe Ruth was already famous enough to get a part in a motion picture, although it was right at the end of baseball's "dead ball" era, in which home runs were almost as rare as hen's teeth. The single season record for home runs at the time was something like 20 home runs. In 1919, however, the Chicago White Sox were involved in a betting scandal in which eight of their players effectively threw the World Series (told more or less in the movie Eight Men Out), and baseball's popularity was in serious trouble. One of the ways Major League Baseball responded was apparently to reformulate the inside of the baseball (they've been accused of this on a number of occasions, including after the 1994 strike, although the assiduously deny ever changing the make-up of the ball), resulting in a barrage of home runs by everybody, and making Babe the "Sultan of Swat". But Headin' Home was made before he became that Sultan. Here, he can barely act, although it's still quite obvious that the man had a lot of charisma, and it's easy to see just why somebody would want him to "act" in their movie. As for the rest of the cast, watch for the little girl who plays Babe's kid sister; she's just as charming as a Virginia Weidler or a Margaret O'Brien would be in later decades.

Babe Ruth himself would go on to make cameos in a number of movies, most notably as a taxi passenger in Harold Lloyd's Speedy. He also went on to set the standard for athletes who ought to have stuck to playing their respective sports. What was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thinking when he made Airplane!, or George Foreman when he became the star of his own TV show? At least in Pat and Mike, the athletes are generally there to compete as themselves.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

All the soap opera, none of the Sirk

Last night TCM showed Peyton Place, the well-known exposé of what life in those picturesque New England towns was really like. (Indeed, director Mark Robson insists on showing us how picturesque these towns are supposed to be by having the opening credits over a montage of stock footage of stereotypically beautiful small-town New England images. Don't let it be said that Peyton Place is a subtle movie.) Set on both sides (temporally) of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, it's based on a novel by Grace Metalious, who was believed to be writing about her hometown of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, and the novel was notorious for having scandalized the residents of Gilmanton.

However, the movie isn't nearly as steamy as the reputation that precedes it would lead viewers to believe. The nominal star of the movie is Lana Turner, playing Constance MacKenzie, a single mother who, it turns out, has a dark secret of her own. Of course, as we soon discover, everybody in this town has a secret, most notably the film's real star, Hope Lange, playing Selena Cross. Selena is the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks -- literally: we're introduced to her as the school's new principal-to-be is driving into town, and has to stop for the train that goes right by the Cross' shack. Cross' stepfather Lucas, played by Arthur Kennedy, is the school's janitor, and has a penchant for drinking, as well as lusting after his stepdaughter. Eventually he rapes her, at which time she gets knocked up. Not that Hollywood could use the phrase "knocked up" at the time, or even "pregnant". Still, Selena and the town doctor cover up the miscarriage that he induces, until it's needed for the Melodramatic Climactic Court Scene. The doctor forces Lucas to leave town, which he does, but eventually returns on leave from the navy, and tries to seduce Selena again, at which point she kills him in self-defense. The truth will out at that trial....

Cross is liked, but it's not as though the good people of Peyton Place are good character references for her defense. In addition to the aforementioned Turner, there's her daughter, played by Diana Varsi (who also serves as narrator), who causes a mini-scandal when she's allegedly seen skinny dipping with her boyfriend, played by Russ Tamblyn, who has his own secret -- his mother seems to be doing everything she can to make him sexless, in a relationship that seems to presage Norman Bates and his mother. There's also "bad girl" Terry Moore, who's in love with the son of the local factory owner, but of course, the big businessman thinks she's no good for him -- until after he gets killed in action in World War II.

There's a lot of story here, and it takes over two and a half hours to tell it all. All the secrets, and melodrama they entail, along with the glossy color and swelling score, make the movie look like the sort of soap opera that Douglas Sirk was famous for making in Hollywood in the 1950s. Indeed, Sirk would later go on to direct Turner in Imitation of Life. However, Peyton Place was not directed by Sirk. Instead, that honor befell Mark Robson (who amazingly started his career directing for Val Lewton). The end result is that Peyton Place is an interesting document of its time, but nothing really groundbreaking. It does, however, show that the more things change, the more they stay the same: the children of 1941 had the same generation gap with their parents that they would in the 60s, and still do today. Peyton Place is available on DVD, so you can revel in its glitzy steam to your heart's content.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Day of German Unity

October 3 marks the anniversary of the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany. I really wanted to do a post on Escape From East Berlin. It's a 1962 movie about a group of East Germans, led by Don Murray, who engage in a daring escape to the West by tunneling under the Berlin Wall. However, the movie is not available on DVD.

As for other movies set in East Germany, I've already recommended One, Two, Three, but it's so funny that it's worth mentioning again. James Cagney stars as a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who has to look after the boss's wild daughter, and find that while he wasn't looking, she ran off, married an East German Communist, and got pregenant by the young man. It's marvy!

The late Paul Newman defected to East Germany in order to get at a nuclear physics equation in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. Unfortunately for him, his wife (played by Julie Andrews) didn't know the defection was a ruse, and followed him to East Germany, making his plan to escape back to the West much more complicated.

Of course, there was also a slew of 1960s spy movies, some of them set in Berlin. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold explicitly shows the Berlin Wall, although not all of them do. It might be the best of the genre, too. I am not a fan of The Ipcress File, and later movies like The Odessa File, reducing the Germans to little more than neo-Nazi conspirators, might be even worse.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What Price Hollywood?

As part of TCM's 80th anniversary salute to RKO Radio Pictures, they showed the 1932 movie What Price Hollywood? last night. The story is of an alcoholic producer who meets and falls in love with a wannabe actress. If the story sounds familiar, it should: it's been more or less remade several times, under the title A Star Is Born.

I personally prefer the 1937 version of A Star Is Born. Janet Gaynor plays Esther Blodgett, the young woman who leaves her home in the Midwest against her parents' wishes to try to make it in Hollywood. Needless to say, Hollywood isn't so kind on her, as she finds out that there are tens of thousands of people who want to become stars.

Fate hands her a lifeline, however, when, with the help of housemate Andy Devine, she gets a job as a waitress at a big Hollywood party. Drunk actor Norman Maine (played by Fredric March) sees her and is immediately smitten with her, helping her in her career, and eventually falling in love with her despite the fact that her career, after a change of name to Vicky Lester, is on the rise, while his is waning due to his constant drinking. A Star Is Born is melodrama, to be sure, but in this case, it's quite good melodrama. Janet Gaynor is good, Fredric March is excellent, and the supporting cast is full of the sort of people who played secondary roles throughout their careers, but were of great use to the studio system in that their presence made everything they were in sparkle. Adolphe Menjou plays a movie producer; the aforementioned Devine is constantly genial, and elderly May Robson is wonderful as Esther's grandmother, who goes against the wishes of Esther's parents and encourages her to go to Hollywood to fulfill her dream.

The 1937 version of A Star Is Born is in lovely Technicolor, and this was a deliberate decision. It was felt that filming the movie in color would help to make Hollywood look even more glamorous, showing the very glamour that drove all those Esther Blodgetts to make their way to Hollywood to try to become the next Vicky Lester. The more interesting thing, however, came about at Oscar time. Despite being very similar to What Price Hollywood?, A Star Is Born was nominated in the Best Original Story category. Even more surprisingly, it won. A Star Is Born has been remade under that title twice; in the 1950s with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in the 1970s with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. (What on earth was Hollywood thinking in the 1970s?) All three versions of A Star is Born are available on DVD, but What Price Hollywood? doesn't seem to be.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I've been remiss in not pointing out yet that TCM is airing Cimarron tonight at 8:00 PM ET. This, the 1931 version, is the only movie produced by RKO to win the Best Picture Oscar. (They distributed The Best Years of Our Lives, although it was produced by Samuel Goldwyn). It's a very fine picture, although it does betray its creaky 1931 provenance.

The story is a broad one, that of pioneer Yancey Cravat (played by Richard Dix), and his wife Sabra (played by Irene Dunne). Yancey is a restless man, and when Oklahoma is opened for white settlement in 1889, nothing can stop him from staking his own land claim. Eventually, he gets Sabra and the rest of the family to join him in a new town where he's opened up a newspaper. But the town becomes settled down, and Yancey can't take that, so he leaves for bigger and better things, leaving Sabra to take care of the kids and the newspaper for the next 40 years.

Cimarron is the sort of epic story you can see the Academy loving, and it's no wonder it won the Oscar. Some reviewers think that Dix's acting is over the top, but in his defense, it has to be pointed out that his is a larger-than-life character. Dunne's Sabra is the rock of the family, providing the needed emotional stability, and in this she does quite a good job.

At the same time, however, there are some technical shortcomings of the movie. As an early talkie, Cimarron has points in which it looks more like a filmed play than a movie. Also, there are some scenes that use little dialogue or else use obviously dubbed in sound. The most famous of these is the opening sequence, of the 1889 land rush. It must have been impressive at the time, with all the covered wagons spreading across the plains, but the sound sounds very much as though it was all added in post-production.

Still, Cimarron is quite a treat, and deserves being seen. It was remade in 1960 with Glenn Ford and Maria Schell as the Cravats. Both versions are available on DVD.