Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nowhere over the rainbow

Everybody loves The Wizard of Oz, and TCM are showing it overnight tonight at 12:15 AM ET (that's late this evening in the Central Time Zone and points west). You know Judy Garland; Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch; and Margaret Hamilton shrieking, "I'm melting! Melting!!!". However, 12:15 AM Monday is the slot for TCM's Silent Sunday Nights, and the version of The Wizard of Oz they're showing is a silent version released in 1925.

It's got little to do with the movie that's now considered a classic. Dorothy Dwan plays Dorothy, who in this movie is purportedly the heir to the throne in Oz. The evil Prime Minister doesn't want her to sit on the throne, and he'll stop at nothing to prevent her from taking her rightful place. Sure, Dorothy gets helped by a tin man, a scarecrow, and a lion. Parts of the movie are set in Kansas, and there's even a tornado. But don't expect anything like Judy Garland or MGM's dazzling Technicolor spectacle in this one.

In fact, the movie largely gets poor reviews. Part of it is deserved; the movie has its problems. The story is problematic, and the movie can't quite decide what it wants to be. But I can't help but think there are a lot of people who remember the 1939 version fondly -- as it deserves to be remembered -- and rate the silent version on how well it compares to the classic. At any rate, this version is certainly of interest to anybody who's a fan of The Wizard of Oz, just as the later The Wiz would be. That, however, isn't all. This movie has Oliver Hardy (without Stan Laurel) in the Tin Man role (and some others), a fact which by itself makes the movie worth seeing once just as a curiosity.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Twentieth Century Columbia

Tomorrow morning's movie to watch out for is Twentieth Century, airing at 10:00 AM ET on TCM. The title has nothing to do with the movie studio of that name, but the train.

Carole Lombard stars as a struggling actress who is turned into a star on Broadway by her producer, John Barrymore. However, he turns out to be so overbearing that she runs off to Hollywood to make a career for herself in the movies. Barrymore is reduced to struggling to find backing for his Broadway endeavors -- until the day he finds that Lombard is on the same train he is. It goes without saying that he wants her back, and will stop at nothing to get her back, despite the fact that she's let him know in no uncertain terms that she hates him.

Howard Hawks directed this nifty little comedy, and it has his fingerprints all over it. As in better-known movies like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday, Hawks uses rapid-fire dialog, with the characters almost talking over each other. There is also the requisite cast of oddball supporting characters, which in this case means Barrymore's two assistants, played by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns. Both of them were Columbia Pictures regulars, having appeared the same year as Twentieth Century (1934) in It Happened One Night (Connolly as Claudette Colbert's father; Karns as annoying bus passenger Mr. Shapely). Watch also for an oddball who insists on putting put stickers with a religious them on every surface he can find.

Twentieth Century is also the movie that really made Lombard a star, showing the world how adept she was at comedy. Indeed, John Barrymore was exceedingly impressed with her work and let her know just how highly he thought of her performance in this movie. I'm not the biggest fan of John Barrymore, personally preferring Lionel, but John is fine here. If anything, the overbearing producer is the right sort of type for him to be playing -- by this stage of his career he was quite the alcoholic, and was well on his way to becoming a parody of himself.

Twentieth Century is available on DVD, should you miss tomorrow's showing on TCM.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The morning after

This being the morning after the big holiday, I found myself thinking of that dreadful song, "The Morning After", which believe it or not, is an Oscar-winner, from the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure.

The movie's been remade, so you certainly know the story. A luxury cruise ship goes on a voyage, and on New Year's Eve gets hit by a giant tsunami (yeah, right: the voyage is in the Mediterranean, where they wouldn't get tsunamis). This capsizes the ship, and begins to fill it with water, forcing the survivors to make their way where they think is up, to eventual safety. Nowadays, this is all standard-issue stuff, but in 1972, when the movie was released, it hadn't really been done before.

The cast is an all-star one, and pretty good at that. Gene Hackman plays the ship's chaplain, reduced to working on ships because no real ministry would have him anymore; Ernest Borgnine plays a cop married to Stella Stevens; Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are the older couple on their second honeymoon; Red Buttons the aging bachelor who's never been able to find true happiness in life; and Roddy McDowell the ship's purser. (Leslie Nielsen has a brief role at the ship's captain, although he doesn't survive the tsunami.) For good measure, throw in the proverbial bratty kid and his older sister. Once the tsunami hits, all of them end up together, working as a group to try to ensure their survival.

What makes this more interesting, however, is that not everybody survives. There's no particular rhyme or reason as to which of the characters are going to live, and I wouldn't spoil the movie by saying anything about it. However, the movie gives us ample opportunity to form opinions about which of the characters we'd like to see survive. As for the performances? Well, the script isn't the greatest, but the main idea of the story is much that don't need the greatest screenplay. Shelley Winters probably gets the best part, and in one key scene she gets to show off her swimming skills, despite the fact that she put on a good 20 or 30 pounds to play the role. Winters earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for it. Red Buttons is also quite good in his poignant role. Hackman is mildly irritating, and Borgnine and Stevens strain credulity.

Finally, there are the special effects. They're 1970s vintage, which means they're clearly not as advanced as they'd be today -- except that they're also not CGI. Apparently, however, the giant ship set must have cost quite a bit of money: there wasn't enough left in the budget to get a wide shot of the doomed ship for the final scene. You see the survivors on the outer hull of the Poseidon, and that's it. There's no pulling away. Still, The Poseidon Adventure is available on DVD and a great way to spend two fun hours.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A brief Thanksgiving message

This being a holiday, I don't have the time to do a full blog posting, so I'll just be putting up a brief item that I've written beforehand.

Thanksgiving is historically based on the day we give thanks for the bountiful harvest, so that got me to thinking about some of the farm harvests in classic movies. I've already posted on Our Daily Bread, a very interesting movie that's on DVD.

Another really interesting movie is Aleksandr Dovzhenko's 1930 silent Earth, about a Ukrainian collective farm that gets its first tractor. Unfortunately for Dovzhenko, his work was being used in furtherance of a policy that resulted in the deaths of millions through famine. This movie is also available on DVD,

I would like to have recommended Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, as well, in which Edward G. Robinson plays a Norwegian immigrant farmer, but it's not on DVD.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Driving Home

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays when everybody goes home to see the familiy if they can. I wanted to recommend Sunday Dinner For a Soldier as a good movie to watch on Thanksgiving, but sadly, it's not available on DVD or even VHS, which is a great shame.

There are a lot of movies about journeys of discovery -- and I've recently recommended the great Harry and Tonto as such a movie. It's a universal theme, and foreign movies like Ingemar Bergman's Wild Strawberries or the Japanese classic Tokyo Story fit the genre as well.

Travelling home, however, is a bit less common. A very interesting, and understated, little movie on the subject is The Trip to Bountiful. Geraldine Page stars as an elderly woman who is now living in a small apartment in Houston, Texas, with her son and his wife. It's a fairly pitiful existence, and the one thing she'd still like to do in her final days is to visit an old friend who lives in the tiny town of Bountiful, where she grew up. Her daughter-in-law rules the roost, however, and has absolutely no desire to let the poor old woman travel back to Bountiful. However, Page is a crafty old woman, and one day when her daughter-in-law is off at the drug store gossiping with friends, she gets up and runs away, to go to the bus station and take the bus back to Bountiful.

Of course, the trip isn't so easy. Everybody except for her one friend has abandoned the town of Bountiful, to the extent that the railroad and buses don't go there anymore. And, she has to stay one step ahead of her son and daughter-in-law, who have discovered she's missing, and start searching for her. Page, in addition to being crafty, is also charming and determined, and she plans to let nothing stop her from getting to Bountiful....

The whole movie revolves around Geraldine Page, who is wonderful in this movie. She won the Best Actress Oscar, deservedly so. The rest of the cast are mere supporting props, even though they all do a good job with their parts. John Heard plays her son, and Carlin Glynn the daughter-in-law. However, the one to watch for is Rebecca De Mornay, early in her career. She plays the wife of an Army man who's been shipped abroad, and she's on the way back to live with her family while her husband serves overseas. De Mornay gets the seat next to Page on the bus, and shares her story with Page, forming a fast friendship.

The Trip to Bountiful is available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The comedy western

I've mentioned before that I'm not a huge fan of westerns. Movies that are good in other ways, and happen to be set in the old West, however, are a different story. I've already recommended the psychological drama No Name on the Bullet, and tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET, TCM is airing a comedic western: Support Your Local Sheriff!.

The under-rated James Garner stars as a man who's going through an Arizona gold rush town on his way to make his fortune in Australia. However, it turns out this little town is a lost cause, with rampant crime and sheriffs dropping like flies. Desperate for help, the town fathers (watch for M*A*S*H*'s Harry Morgan here) enlist a reluctant Garner to take on the job. Of course, he immediately has to deal with the local crime gang, and a dysfunctional town administration (the jail cell doesn't have any bars yet, for example).

Although Garner is technically the star, the movie is really more of an ensember cast. In addition to Garner and Morgan, there's Joan Hackett as Morgan's odd daughter, who falls in love with Garner; Walter Brennan as the patriarch of the gang, and Bruce Dern as one of his sons; and veteran character actor Jack Elam as Garner's deputy. All of the actors look as though they're having a blast making the movie, and it's an infectious enthusiasm that makes the movie all the more enjoyable for the viewer.

For whatever reason, Support Your Local Sheriff! isn't all that well-known today. It might have something to do with the fact that it was released in 1969, and doesn't really have any social commentary. Also, the 1969 release date is towards the end of the biggest era of popularity of the whole western genre. Third, many of the cast members were more veteran, meaning that, like Yours, Mine, and Ours, the movie comes off as being directed more toward a stodgier generation. Paradoxically, though, as with Yours, Mine, and Ours, this has the effect of making the movie feel less dated than other contemporary movies, such as Cactus Flower (which, despite being a very good movie, very much feels like a product of the 60s in a way that the others don't). It's available on DVD, too, which is a nice bonus.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The producers kindly ask that you not spoil the ending

This week sees the last night of Charles Laughton's time as TCM's Star of the Month. Laughton made many great movies, and one of those near the top of the list would have to be Witness for the Prosecution, airing at 10:15 PM ET tonight.

Laughton plays a prominent London barrister who's had a heart attack, and is about to go off to Bermuda for a well-deserved retirement. However, fate intervenes in the form of Tyrone Power, who's been charged with murdering a rich old lady. There are a lot of discrpeancies in the case, and in many ways it doesn't look so good for Power, but Laughton agrees to take the case.

What follows is a stand-out legal drama, even if it does contain some of the clichés of Hollywood movie-making. Laughton's man who's fighting against time goes back to at least the Warner Baxter producer of 42nd Street a quarter-century earlier. The vacillation between whether we should think Power is guilty or innocent is also a staple of lawyer movies, as is the dark humor.

The cast includes Elsa Lanchester as Laughton's nurse, and Marlene Dietrich as Power's wife, and the movie was directed by the great Billy Wilder, based on a play by the equally talented Agatha Christie. If seeing all those famous names in the cast and crew makes you think this is going to be a good movie, well, you'd be right.

You'll note that I haven't gone into that much of a description of the plot. That's because when the movie was made, it was well-known that the ending was going to be something to watch out for. Indeed, in the trailers for the movie, the producers deliberately asked people not to reveal the ending to their friends, as that would spoil the movie for them. And so I too won't spoil that ending, if you haven't seen it before.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Orphans of the Storm

Tonight's offering on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights is DW Griffith's 1921 film Orphans of the Storm airing just after midnight (technically very early Monday on the east coast; Sunday evening in the rest of the US).

The plot is a simple one. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play a pair of sisters living in rural France as it was (well, not really) just before the French Revolution. One sister is blind, so the other takes her to Paris for an operation that will supposedly cure her of her blindness. There wouldn't be a movie if that's all there were to the story, so we get a melodramatic plot twist: an aristocrat falls in love with the sighted sister, taking her into his world, and leaving the blind one to suffer at the hands of a cruel man who forces her to beg for a living. Worse, the French Revolution is about to intervene, and our aristocratic hero is about to fall on the wrong side of the revolution....

DW Griffith directed, and it must have been becoming clear to everybody that the world of movie-making was passing him by. Sure, Griffith had made masterpieces like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but other directors were now making pictures with more advanced techniques and better stories. Indeed, this was the last movie the Gishes made with Griffith. Still, Orphans of the Storm has some pretty nifty sequences. One involves the aristocratic class partying with gay abandon, oblivious to all the social upheaval going on outside their manors. The setting for this is more than suitably decadent, and Griffith shows very nicely the chasm between the French classes. Later, after the Revolution has begun, there's a scene involving peasant prisoners being freed by force, and tormenting their previous captors. Their literally riotous celebrating is also excellently photographed.

The other thing that's quite interesting about this movie is the historical goings-on surrounding it. The French revolutionaries were inspired by the American Founding Fathers, but clearly went much further (probably because the French governmental system was much more centralized under the King than the English system, from which the Americans broke away, had been). Griffith's intertitles on the Revolution itself comment on this, and make an interesting mention of the radicals of his day, socialists and communists influenced by what had been going on in Russia.

The version of Orphans of the Storm TCM is showing is supposed to be a restored version. They're listing the running time at just over 150 minutes, which I believe is several minutes longer than the version they've previously shown.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A three-hour tour

TCM showed the three-hour Hawaii today, and not being able to think of anything better to write about, I hit on the idea of combining Hawaii with three hours, coming up with "Gilligan's Island". The three-hour tour sung about in the theme of course turned into something quite a bit longer, but I started thinking of small boats in the movies.

Large boats and ships are obviously common, with naval battals, voyages of exploration, and the obvious tragedies like Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure. Using a smaller boat, on the other hand, is something quite a bit different. Montgomery Clift famously rented himself one when he intended to kill poor Shelley Winters in A Place In the Sun, while we recently saw a bunch of people ride boats through the tunnel of love in Strangers on a Train. And who could forget the tiny, cramped boat in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat?

One of the more picturesque boat trips would have to be that taken by Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons, when he's returning from Hampton Court after having seen Henry VIII. The trip is an overnight one, and Scofield's Thomas More wakes up to a beautifully misty England, well captured in vibrant color. Interestingly, the King later comes to see More, and gets to come on a much bigger boat.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ingrid Bergman does comedy!

Ingrid Bergman had made some comedy movies in her native Sweden in the 1930s before coming to the US, but after coming across the Atlantic, she didn't make many. One notable exception is Cactus Flower.

Walter Matthau stars as Julian Winston, a New York dentist who is also a confirmed bachelor. He serially gets into relationships with young women, such as his current relationship with Toni (Goldie Hawn), and then breaks them off by saying he can't get married to them, because he's already married to a woman who won't give him a divorce. Unfortunately for the caddish doctor, Toni responds to this rejection by closing all the windows to her apartment and turning on the gas stove, intending to commit suicide. Her next-door neighbor Igor (Rick Lenz) discovers her, saves her life, and hears her tragic story. Eventually, they hit on an idea: if she can see Dr. Julian's wife, she'll be able to convince her to grant him a divorce, or else disabuse herself of the idea that she'd want to marry Dr. Julian.

What's a doctor to do? Well, he's got a nurse-receptionist, Stephanie (that's Bergman, seen in the photo), who happens to be unmarried, and wouldn't she pretty please help him out by pretending to be his wife? Needless to say, Stephanie is horrified by the idea at first, but Dr. Julian is such a schmoozer that eventually, she agrees to go along with the plan. They say honesty is the best policy, and here, trying to keep up a lie only makes things worse, as Stephanie falls in love with Igor! It seems more logical, of course, that the two young people should end up together, as should the two old folks....

Cactus Flower is a lot of fun. It was released in 1969, and is clearly a product of the 1960s, but it's a fun trip back in time, with the horrid fashions and design. This sort of schemer is a role that Matthau was perfect for, having already won an Oscar for playing the type in The Fortune Cookie. In Cactus Flower, however, the Oscar went to Goldie Hawn, who does do a fine job as the young woman. That having been said, the one who really shines is actually Bergman. She shows deft comedic timing, and gets some of the more fun lines, notably one about Idaho champagne delivered in a 60's-chic nightspot. Her character starts off as an almost uptight, spinsterish woman, but really begins to loosen up and discover how much joy there can be in life as she meets and falls in love with Igor, who seems bohemian, but really has a conscience under that exterior. Lenz, to be honest, is competent, although he seemed to have been cast to provide eye candy, getting several scenes where he's just come out of the shower and is only wearing a towel.

Somewhat surprisingly, reviewers of the time weren't so kind to Cactus Flower. Although it's dated, it's a little gem, and not just for Ingrid Bergman's good turn at comedy. Thankfully, it's been released to DVD, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ray Bradbury

The great science-fiction author Ray Bradbury appears on TCM tonight as the monthly Guest Programmer, selecting four of his favorite movies and discussing with Robert Osborne why he considers them among his favorites. For the record, Bradbury's selections are:

The Phantom of the Opera, at 8:00 PM;
The Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, at 9:45 PM;
Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, at 11:45 PM; and
Citizen Kane, at 2:00 AM ET overnight.

However, I'd like to mention a different movie; the film adaptation of Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451. The story, of course, is well-known; an oppressive society of the future has banned books, with "firemen" burning any books discovered. Oskar Werner plays one such fireman, dutifully burning books until he meets a book owner with whom he falls in love (Julie Christie).

The thing I love about the movie is the 1960s style. Sure, the movie is set in the future, but as with all movies set in the future, they can't help but look like the time in which they were made. Things to watch out for in Fahrenheit 451 that came straight out of 1966 would include the hairstyles (obviously), the streetlights, the design of the fire trucks, and that god-awful monorail. If anything, however, the swinging 60s kitsch doesn't detract from this movie, instead giving it more of a timeless look. Fahrenheit 451 deals fairly directly with censorship, and depending on your political point of view, you can either think that the outgoing Bush administration was stifling dissent, of the incoming Obama administration will bring back the "fairness doctrine" and destroy talk radio.

The other interesting thing about the movie is that it was directed by François Truffaut, the only time Truffaut directed an English-language movie. It's available on DVD as well, since TCM aren't showing it any time soon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In Memoriam: Thomas Ince

Silent movie producer Thomas Ince died on this day in 1924. His death was shrouded in mysterious circumstances, but Hollywood has tried to guess at what happened, in the interesting 2001 movie The Cat's Meow.

The action takes place aboard a yacht owned by the famous William Randolph Hearst (here played by Edward Herrmann). He's got members of Hollywood's glitterati there for a days-long cruise/party, from thespians (both his great love Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin were there) to producer Ince (Cary Elwes), to writers like Louella Parsons. All during the party, there were rumors that Chaplin was trying to carry on a relationship with Davies, an idea which enraged Hearst. So, Hearst tried to get his revenge by.... Well, I won't tell you exactly what happens next, as that would give the story away.

It's an interesting story, although nobody is going to have any idea how much it hews to reality. As a result, the movie (like Girl With a Pearl Earring) can be looked at pretty much as a completely fictional story. In that regard, it's not bad. Herrmann's Hearst comes across as both domineering and lonely, a man who, having reached the top, finds out that it's not all he's bargained for. Kirsten Dunst plays Davies, who seems to be both smarter than she's generally given credit for, and a bit chafing about being somewhat under Hearst's thumb. The highlight of the characters is Eddie Izzard's portrayal of Chaplin. This Chaplin isn't the Little Tramp, but an obnoxious, supercilious man who is convinced of his own genius and thinks the world should bow before him because of it. I've always felt that Chaplin is overrated amongst the silent comedians when compared to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and this characterization gives me even less sympathy for him.

The other nice thing about the movie is the portrayal of 1924. The movie is a trip back in time, with the cars, the fashions (wow, those hats!), and the culture of the time -- part of the reason for the party was so everybody could get rip-roaring drunk, legally, in international waters. Although the studio system had a lot going for it, one of the advantages of modern films is that they are generally much better at portraying the look of history (even if they're just as bad at getting what actually happened correct).

The Cat's Meow is available on DVD, although it's not for everybody. The subject material is certainly not for younger people, and the characters, other than Chaplin, may be a bit of a slog for those who don't know much about the movies. I must admit myself that I had never heard of Ince before seeing this movie.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Betty Persky and Mr. Methot

TCM is showing To Have and Have Not tonight at 8:00 PM ET. The movie stars Lauren Bacall, née Betty Persky; and Humphrey Bogart, who was at the time, nearing the end of his third marriage, to actress Mayo Methot. Bogart and Bacall fell in love, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why is the love story between Bogart and Bacall the iconic Hollywood love story? To be honest, I don't know. Bogart was technically cheating on his then-wife during the filming of the movie, although to be fair, the marriage was a mess. Mayo Methot was a raging alcoholic, and by all accounts a mean drunk, with one story having her allegedly pulling a gun on dinner guests. You can't fault anybody for wanting to get out of a marriage like that.

I was going to posit Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as one of the more romantic love stories in Hollywood history. They were married for just over 50 years, having celebrated that golden anniversary this past January. What I didn't know, though, is that it wasn't Paul Newman's first marriage; in fact, he had to wait for his first marriage to be officially dissolved before he could marry Woodward -- and married her the day after that happened, according to IMDb.

Even the Woodward/Newman marriage isn't Hollywood's longest, and not by a long shot. (It's not even Hollywood's longest second marriage; Ronald Reagan's second marriage, to Nancy Davis, lasted just over 52 years.) As for those who made it to their diamond anniversary, there's Eddie Bracken (63 years until his wife's death), Charlton Heston (64 years until his death), and Bob Hope (69 years until his death). Assuming neither dies, Karl Malden and his wife will be celebrating their 70th anniversary in a month's time. But even that isn't Hollywood's longest marriage. Norman Lloyd and his wife have been married for 72 years.

At least some people in Hollywood seem to be able to find their true love.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Very early Stanwyck

TCM is airing a curiosity from the career of Barbara Stanwyck at 7:00 AM ET on November 18: The Locked Door. It's the first talkie in Stanwyck's long career, having been made in 1929, and that early provenance shows

Stanwyck plays a young woman who, at the start of the movie is dating the boss' son (Rod LaRocque). They're on a gambling boat, that's legal and able to sell booze only because it's in international waters. But two bad things happen for Stanwyck on the cruise. First, LaRocque comes on to her more than she'd like, and second, the ship drifts back into American waters, resulting in a raid. Fortunately for Stanwyck, she's able to jump bail.

Fast forward about 18 months. Stanwyck has gotten maried to a respectable man, and it's their first anniversary. He's got a kid sister (about 18 years old) living with them, an into their lives walks -- you guessed it: the aforementioned Mr. LaRocque. He's having an illicit affair with the kid sister, and she's thinking about eloping with him, although for obvious reasons, Stanwyck thinks this is a bad idea. So, she goes to LaRocque's wonderful Spanish-style apartment (this set design is probably the highlight of the movie), trying to convince him not to marry her. However, her husband knows some other secrets about LaRocque, and he too is about to confront LaRocque with those secrets. Stanwyck natuarlly doesn't want her husband to see the two of them together, so she hides in a bedroom as her husband walks in. LaRocque, being a jerk, pulls out a gun, and accidentally gets shot with it in the scuffle. Worse, poor Stanwyck has been locked in the apartment with the dead man by her husband.

Boy is it melodramatic stuff. Stanwyck would go on to say later in her career that she considered it one of the worse movies she made. To be honest, it's not really her fault. First, the plot is cringe-worthy, full of overworked devices, and twists that are outrageous, to say the least. Second, in 1929, almost nobody knew how to act for the sound camera. The Hollywood actors of the day were either silent screen stars, who were used to using gestures instead of words to display emotion; or, like Stanwyck, they were imports from the stage, used to having to make certain people at the back of the theater could hear and follow the action. You don't need to do these things when a camera can get a close-up shot of you, but this lesson hadn't been learned yet by the stage actors. The result is something that looks hammy, and would probably have been consigned to the dustbin of history if it weren't for Stanwyck's presence.

This is another movie that's not available on DVD. But for anybody interested in Stanwyck, or anybody interested in learning the technical aspects of film-making (or how not to do it), there are some good lessons in here.

Payment Deferred

Charles Laughton is TCM's Star of the Month for November, and his movies are showing up on TCM every Monday night in prime time. Tonight's lineup of Laughton films begins with a particularly obscure movie: Payment Deferred, at 8:00 PM ET.

Laughton stars as the father of a British family in a bit of a financial pinch. One day, into the family's lives walks a distant cousin returning from Australia with a tidy sum of money. Nobody knows he's stopped in to see them, and since this was 1932, it would take a long time for anybody to discover that this young man is missing, or for news to get back to Australia about it. So, Laughton decides to kill the young man and take his money. Problem solved!

Not really, of course. As in Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, there's the slight matter of conscience. Laughton has buried the victim in the back yard, and realizes that if he sells the house, the new owners will eventually dig in the back yard for some reason -- if only to plant a garden -- and find the dead body. Once again, crime does not pay.

Laughton is good as always, and we're interested in his character even though his this time it's a bad man. It's completely Laughton's movie, but the rest of the cast isn't bad, either. A young Maureen O'Sullivan plays Laughton's daughter, and as for the murder victim? That's a young Ray Milland.

Payment Deferred isn't available on DVD, and I belive this is the first time it's aired on TCM since Ray Milland was part of Summer Under the Stars in August of 2005. So you'd better catch this little gem tonight.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Just as good as Foreign Correspondent

Tomorrow at 9:15 AM, TCM is airing another Alfred Hitchcock thriller that is just as good -- and just as underrated -- as Foreign Corresponden: 1942's Saboteur.

Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a worker at an aircraft factory in Los Angeles at the outset of World War II. There's a fire at the plant, and Kane and his best friend rush to the scene. Kane gives his best friend the fire extinguisher, but it does no good, as his friend dies in the fire. Worse for Kane, it turns out that the fire extinguisher was filled with gasoline. The police obviously suspect him, but Kane remembers seeing a certain Mr. Fry handing the extinguisher to him, to give to his friend.

And so begins a cross-country search for the elusive Mr. Fry (played by Norman Lloyd), with Kane also having to stay one step ahead of the police. Along the way, Kane meets a series of interesting characters, including the trucker who wants to help him against "the man", not knowing that Kane is wanted for sabotage; the blind man who recognizes without seeing him, that Kane is innocent, and the blind man's model niece Patricia Martin, played by Priscilla Lane. She doesn't agree with her uncle, and when he wants her to take Barry to a blacksmith to remove the handcuffs, Pat tries to take him to the police instead. Of course, Barry is too smart for Pat, and is able to waylay her. Eventually, he is able to convince her of his innocence, in part because she sees what the real saboteurs are out to do. Pat then follows Barry to New York City, where we reach our climax, atop the Statue of Liberty. But I won't give that part of the story away....

Saboteur is vintage Hitchcock, with themes that he would explore over and over throughout his career. There's the monument for the climax, the blonde, one great sequence after another (notably a scene in the Radio City Music Hall theater), and Hitch's trademark dark humor. Not long after meeting Pat, we learn that she's deathly afraid of snakes; shortly thereafter, Barry and Pat hop aboard a circus caravan. The sideshow characters themselves are enjoyable (Pat comments to Barry later that she felt bad for the "human mountain" because her figure had gone so much), but even better is what happens when the police stop the caravan looking for Barry and Pat. The leader of the troupe has hidden Barry, but when the policeman asks about Pat, the leader tells him, that Pat is actually their snake-charmer!

In many ways, Saboteur is the same story as the earlier The 39 Steps, as well as the later North by Northwest, in that a man falsely accused of a crime has to stay ahead of the police, while trying to find the real guilty party. It may actually be the best of the three. Saboteur has better production values than The 39 Steps, while the two have stories that are about the same quality. The big thing Saboteur has over North by Northwest is the lack of Cary Grant. This is a movie that should be story-driven, and putting a major star like Cary Grant into it, with all the baggage that he brings, really changes the story. (Not that Grant is a bad actor; just that the movie works better with a lesser actor as the lead.) Also, in North by Northwest, there's a bit of a deus ex machina in that we know the police are really on Grant's side the whole time; in Saboteur, Cummings and Lane actually have to convince him. Also, Lane actually gets to be a bit stronger of a woman than a lot of the blondes Hitchcock used. Although she's been kidnapped, she doesn't need Barry to come and save her; she cleverly engineers her own escape by using her lipstick to write a note that she throws out the window. She also takes part in the climax, tailing Fry, and detaining him at the Statue of Liberty until the police arrive.

Saboteur is also available on DVD, should you miss tomorrow morning's showing.

The Seven Year Itch

One of the commendable things the Fox Movie Channel does is its weekly Fox Legacy series, where, on Friday nights, Fox executive Tom Rothman introduces a well-known movie from the Fox studio, including some of the classics. The movies air three times in succession on Friday evenings, with a movie repeated the following Sunday. Last week's Friday selection, which will be shown again tonight at 8:00 PM ET, is The Seven Year Itch.

Marilyn Monroe stars, but we'll get to her in a bit. The movie starts off with faithful husband Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) saying goodbye to his wife and son as they leave New York City for a summer vacation out in the country. Unfortunately, he has to stay behind and work. That's bad enough, but there are two other problems he has. First, he's got a vivid imagination, resulting in what are almost delusions of grandeur. Worse, is that that imagination is about to be let loose on his new upstairs neighbor, played by Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe is her typical steaming hot stuff, and Mr. Sherman naturally begins to believe that perhaps she's falling in love with him. Certainly, she needs a man. She's new to the city, and thoroughly incompetent, and so, she consistently ends up in Sherman's apartment, ultimately testing his marriage. The Seven Year Itch is, of course, the movie with the very famous scene of Monroe standing over a subway grate, while the air forced out by the train causes her dress to billow up around her, revealing her panties. It's still sexy today; it must have been shocking in the mid-1950s when the movie was released.

There's really not much to the story other than The Man, The Girl, and The Overactive Imagination, but this is still a pretty darn good farce. Much of that credit is due to Billy Wilder, who directed the movie, and just as importantly, co-wrote the screenplay from George Axelrod's play.

The folks at Fox should be thanked for showing this, and really ought to be encouraged to put more of their older classics on in prime time. They have quite a bit of good stuff, that's prestigious enough that they wouldn't have to play obscure movies that "regular" people wouldn't recognize. Fox Legacy has already shown Gentleman's Agreement, and they have other Oscar-winning movies like The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley that they could show, to name just two.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A fresh, unused mind

One of my favorite underrated Alfred Hitchcock movies is coming up on TCM at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow (November 16): Foreign Correspondent.

A relatively young Joel McCrea (before he got into all those westerns) stars as Johnny Jones, a journalist for one of the New York newspapers, in the days just before World War II. His editor knows that the situation on the other side of the Atlantic is volatile, but doesn't want one of his old, traditional foreign correspondents to report on it: they won't get the real story. What he wants is a fresh, unused mind; somebody who doesn't know the difference between an ism and a kangaroo. That somebody just happens to be Jones, although his name is too pedestrian for a foreign correspondent, so get gets rechristened as Huntley Haverstock.

What awaits our hero is the traditional Hithcock blend of suspense and thrills. Jones meets the Dutch foreign minister Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), just before he is supposed to speak before a peace organization's meeting in London. Jones meets him again in Amsterdam, but this time, has the great misfortune of being an eyewitness to the foreign minister's assassination. Or not -- As Jones is chasing the assassins, he sees his old friend alive, but not well, being held hostage in a windmill. And so the action really picks up, as Jones tries to convince everybody what's going on, all while trying to escape the bad guys.

This is really good Hitchcock stuff, performed by a cast of underrated players who all played a lot of great supporting roles in their careers, but (with the exception of McCrea), never quite got to be the stars of Hollywood A-level material. Closest to McCrea in that regard is the wonderful Laraine Day, who plays the daughter of the leader of the peace movement, and who eventually falls in love with Jones. Sadly for her, she will eventually have to face the fact that her father (Herbert Marshall) isn't quite what he claims to be. Jones, meanwhile, is aided by a British journalist played by a young George Sanders, and is taking over from the newspaper's former correspondent, a dipsomaniac Robert Benchley who has to go on the wagon for health reasons, and absolutely hates it. Perhaps the best of all roles is given to lovable old Edmund Gwenn, who here plays a hired killer (I haven't given anything away; Gwenn is introduced when one of the characters hires him to try to kill Jones)!

Along the way, we see some vintage Hitchcock scenes and camera work. The "assassination" of Van Meer is a typical example; it takes place on a rainy day, and McCrea chases the assassin through a crowd of umbrellas, with the action being photographed from above so that we only see the umbrellas moving. A scene in which Jones has to escape from a hotel room is another excellent one, and there is also the climax, a plane ditching into the Atlantic Ocean that is pretty spectacular by 1940 standards. (Hitchcock later explained that he had hired a pilot to film a steep nosedive over water, and then played this footage on a screen of rice paper while the actors were doing their scene. When the time came for the "crash", the screen was broken, releasing a torrent of water that had been hidden behind the screen onto the actors.)

As usual, there is also the trademark dark humor, much of it courtesy of Benchley. In addition to the humor in scenes of his not being allowed to drink, there is also a tiny line -- you'll miss it if you're not paying attention -- just as Sanders and McCrea are leaving to catch the plane bound to take the bad guy out of the country. As they're rushing off, Sanders tells Benchley, along with all the other practical instructions about dealing with their editors, "Don't forget to cancel my rhumba lesson!" Poor Robert Benchley. But all of this adds up to a tremendously good movie.

Interestingly enough, it was good enough to be honored with a Best Picture Oscar nomination (losing to another Hitchcock movie, Rebecca). What's interesting about this is that at the time, thrillers were considered to be "lesser" movies. Indeed, Hitchcock had wanted Gary Cooper for the lead role, but Cooper turned it down, thinking thrillers were beneath him.

I apologize for mentioning this movie only a few hours before it airs, and when you might miss the posting if you don't read the blog in the evening. Fortunately, however, Foreign Correspondent is available on DVD.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dick Powell, 1904-1963

It was on this day in 1904 that actor Dick Powell was born. Powell was probably best known for his singing in a string of musicals in the 1930s, including (but not limited to) 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. However, later in his career, Powell showed that he was adept at straight drama, too, playing a southern writer whose work Kirk Douglas wants to turn into a movie in The Bad and the Beautiful.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't just into serious acting that Powell broadened his career. He directed a few movies in the 1950s, such as You Can't Run Away From It, the muscial remake of It Happened One Night starring Jack Lemmon and June Allyson in the Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert roles. Not only that; Powell directed a war movie: The Enemy Below, a Robert Mitchum movie in which a German U-Boat tracks Mitchum's destroyer.

With the exception of You Can't Run Away From It (which is nowhere near as good as the original), all of these movies are available on DVD.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

David vs. Goliath

I don't usually recommend more recent movies, mostly because more of my movie-watching time is spent watching older stuff. However, there's a really good 2003 movie airing on IFC tomorrow that I'd like to recommend. I Am David airs on IFC at 9:35 AM and 3:15 PM ET.

Based on a novel by Anne Holm, I Am David tells the story of a young Bulgarian boy in 1952. He's up against a big goliath in the form of the Communists, who have set up a string of concentration camps, along the lines of the Soviet gulag. Our hero David (movingly played by Ben Tibber) is in one of these camps, trapped for reasons unbeknownst to him. Seemingly the only person he can trust is an adult fellow prisoner (Jim Caviezel of The Passion of the Christ), who one day gives him a sealed envelope, tells him how to escape and find a backpack with a few supplies, and to make his way to Denmark.

Why Denmark? Well, that's part of the story I'm not about to give away. David does get out of the camp, and proceeds to make his way to the nearest port in a non-Communist country, that being Thesalonniki in Greece. He stows away aboard a boat headed for Italy, scared to death of being caught. After all, having grown up in a concentration camp under brutal dictators, one thing you quickly learn is not to trust anybody. As David tries to make his way to Denmark, he meets some people who may or may not be willing to help him, but whom he believes won't really help him.

Until, that is, he meets a Swiss artist played by Joan Plowright. By this time, David has been underway for some time, tired and hungry. She lives alone, and puts David up at her small cabin while David begins to learn that perhaps he can trust some people.

I Am David is a journey movie in the long tradition of great movies like Saboteur or Harry and Tonto. There's quite a bit of coincidence that happily helps our hero escape from the bad guys just when it seems things are at their bleakest, and the good people (like Plowright, or an Italian girl David saves from a fire) who show up in just the right place at just the right time. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that I Am David is an excellent movie. Ben Tibber is outstanding; the rest of the cast is more than good enough; and there's some beautiful cinematography to boot. The only possible problem is the flashbacks that might make the movie a bit difficult to follow at times, as every time David begins to think he might be able to trust somebody, he has a flashback to what happened in the concentration camp.

That, however, is only a minor quibble. I Am David is well worth watching, and is also happily available on DVD should you miss tomorrow's showings on IFC, or don't even have IFC.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Creative writing on a train

TCM is airing Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train at 10:00 PM ET this evening. If you don't know the story, a tennis player (Farley Granger) with an estranged wife meets a wealthy young man (Robert Walker) with an overbearing father on a train trip. Each would like to get out from under the relationship, and Walker, who turns out to be deranged, comes up with the idea that each of them can murder the other person's unwanted party, since nobody knows the two have met. It's pretty good Hitchcock stuff, but unfortunately, it's ripe for parody.

One of the great homages to Strangers on a Train, however, is the 1987 comedy Throw Momma From the Train. Billy Crystal stars as a creative writing teacher who's got writers' block, and is depressed over the fact that his ex-wife has just written a best-selling novel. One of his students, played by Danny DeVito, lives with his overbearing mother. One day, Crystal gives DeVito the writing advice to see an Alfred Hitchcock movie, on the grounds that it will help with coming up with coherent plots and character motivations. Unfortunately, DeVito gets the wrong idea, and thinks that Crystal wants him to kill the ex-wife, while Crystal would then kill DeVito's mother.

The humor in all this is that the mother (Anne Ramsey) is truly the mother from hell. It's obvious from the very beginning why DeVito wants her dead, and frankly, after spending a few minutes with her, it's easy to see why anybody would want her dead. However, she's tough as nails, and no matter what anybody tries to do, there's no way they're going to be able to bump her off.... Ramsey received an Oscar nomination for her role, and she's the highlight of the movie

Throw Momma From the Train is certainly not a movie for everybody. It's full of adult situations, so right off the bat, it's not for the kids. It's also a very dark comedy, and there are a lot of people who may find the movie too cynical. For the rest of us, however, it's a hilariously warped view of life. Throw Momma From the Train is available on DVD, which is a good thing, since it doesn't seem to be scheduled on any cable channel in the near future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two interesting spy movies

TCM are showing a bunch of espionage movies on Wednesday, from the 1930s and early 1940s. Two of them are quite interesting, albeit for different reasons:

Confessions of a Nazi Spy, airing at 10:45 AM ET. Edward G. Robinson stars (although he only shows up in the second half of the movie) as the FBI man who helps break up a ring of Nazi agents in the US. These agents are operating under cover of the German-American Bund, an organization ostensibly of German-American heritage, but that was used in the 1930s to try to spread the idea of isolation, keeping the US from backing Britain in the upcoming World War. Paul Lukas plays a doctor who speaks about Hitler's racial policies at various Bund meetings, and George Sanders plays the Nazi agent who is a go-between connecting the Nazis in America with their paymasters back in Germany.

This movie is interesting for a bunch of reasons. It's told in a bit of a documentary style, presaging a lot of the police procedurals that would come into vogue after the Second World War. More interestingly might be the fact that the movie was made at all. Confessions of a Nazi Spy was released in May 1939, months before Germany invaded Poland. There was a substantial strand of American thought that considered the events in Europe a strictly European problem, and wanted the US to stay out of things. The idea that Hollywood would make movies that were seen as anti-isolationist propaganda horrified these people, so much that Congress eventually held hearings on the matter in 1941. A final interesting point is to watch for the wife of low-level agent Kurt Schneider. That's Grace Stafford. You might not recognize the name, but she went on to bigger things, marrying Walter Lantz, and becoming the voice of Woody Woodpecker.

The other interesting movie is Stamboul Quest, at 6:30 AM. This is a World War I movie about Germans passing secrets to Britain via a Turkish agent in Istanbul. The fascinating thing about this 1934 film is the casting: Myrna Loy plays the German agent. She's dispatched to Istanbul via train, which is where she meets an American doctor played by George Brent, another interesting casting choice considering that the movie was made at MGM and Brent was a Warner Brothers contract player. The movie itself is somewhat typical for the early-1930s studio era, a lot of fun despite the not terribly good production values.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bad clergy

TCM showed Becket today. Based on the play by French playwright Jean Anouilh, it stars Richard Burton as Thomas à Becket, the priest and confidant of English King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) who got himself assassinated when he decided to follow his conscience and submit to God's will instead of the King's will. The movie isn't bad, although it is a bit too long. However, that's not why I was thinking of the movie. One of the most famous lines in the movie is King Henry asking, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

My natural reaction is to think of some of the clergy in classic movies who, unlike Thomas à Becket, would more likely to end up spending eternity in "the other place". Elmer Gantry comes right to mind, although having been born Catholic, I can't help but wonder whether lay people who take it upon themselves to preach the Gospel in the way the revivalists of the 1920s did really count as clergy.

There's also Black Narcissus. Deborah Kerr leads a group of nuns from their mission in Calcutta to a place high in the Himalayas, and it eventually drives several of them to various forms of temptation. Oops. It's a visually beautiful movie, and somewhat surprisingly, none of it was shot anywhere close to Asia, but in the British Isles.

Who's your favorite bad member of the clergy?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Another man should keep his day job

Several weeks ago, I commented on the acting skills -- or more precisely, the lack of acting skills -- of Babe Ruth. It's not just athletes, though, who found the transition to acting a bit beyond them. Our next selection shows the same thing can happen to musicians: They Shall Have Music, airing at 4:15 AM ET Monday on TCM.

The movie was designed by producer Samuel Goldwyn to feature the famed violinist Jascha Heifetz. The plot is a fairly simple and predictable one: child actor Gene Reynolds plays a boy living with his aunt and uncle after his parents die. He used to take violin lessons, but there's no money for that, and he's fallen in with a gang of kids who Goldwyn obviously though were going to be the next East Side Kids. Reynolds' uncle is an exceedingly stern man, and eventually destroys the boy's beloved violin, causing him to decide to run away. He ends up at a school for music that's struggling financially, and this is where Heifetz (eventually) comes in.

Reynolds and several of the students go to one of the fancier parts of New York City and run into Heifetz, who says he might be willing to do something to help their benefit if he can fit it into his schedule. The students take this to mean "yes", when it's only a "maybe", which you just know will cause problems later. Meanwhile, Reynolds' old friends in the gang get a violin for him -- by stealing Heifetz' violin! Eventually, everything comes out right in the end, of course, but part of the fun is seeing the route they take to get there.

The movie was done on a fairly limited budget, so it doesn't have the best production values, and parts of the story are a bit off. Heifetz was a good violin player, but he couldn't really act; of course, the patrons wouldn't have been paying to watch him act. Indeed, the music is quite good, both from Heifetz himself, and from the students, many of whom were in fact classically trained musicians in an actual youth orchestra. And there are also the adult actors, whom I haven't mentioned yet. Walter Brennan, of all people, plays the headmaster of the music school. His daughter is played by Andrea Leeds, who never went on to bigger and better things. Her boyfriend, who works at a music store and provides the students with instruments against the better judgment of his boss, is the improbably cast Joel McCrea. All of them do a competent job, although the story isn't really about them.

They Shall Have Music is a heart-warming movie that's suitable for the whole family. It's the sort of entertainment that Hollywood doesn't really make any more (could you imagine a G-rated version of Little Miss Sunshine?). What's an even bigger shame is that They Shall Have Music hasn't made it to DVD, and it rarely shows up on TCM as it is. So this is one of your only chances to catch it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

For those without IFC

I know that IFC isn't as widely available as TCM, so if you don't have DirecTV, a good movie to watch tomorrow morning would be The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, at 10:15 AM ET.

I've already blogged about it, so you should just click the link above if you want to learn more about this wonderful comedy.

Umberto D

The Independent Film Channel tends to air foreign films on Sunday mornings, and tomorrow, they're airing a very interesting one: Umberto D, November 9 at 10:05 AM ET.

Carlo Battisti stars in the title role, as a poor pensioner in the Rome of the early 1950s. He lives with his beloved dog Flic, but other than that, doesn't have much of a life. The building in which he takes a room is decrepit; the owner wants to evict him, anyhow; and it's not like he would have any place else to go. Life isn't much better for the other pensioners, either, and the all try to eke out a meager existence in what ought to be their golden years....

Umberto D is part of the "neo-realism" genre, a genre which produced several famous Italian movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The actors aren't professionals, but they're actually quite good, being put in situations that are quite familiar to them, as they mirror what would have been going on in their real lives.

One warning, though: despite being a very good movie, Umberto D is also a very sad movie.

Friday, November 7, 2008

La Jetée

TCM have scheduled the experimental short movie La Jetée overnight tonight, at 1:15 AM ET. It's a very interesting movie in that it's got almost no motion in it. Instead, it tells its story almost entirely through the use of photographs, with some clever editing to give the appearance of motion.

The story is that a man wakes up after a nuclear war, having an odd memory of a time he was a kid, before the war, standing at an airport, when he sees somebody getting killed. It turns out that, after the nuclear war, there are people experimenting in time travel, drugging their subjects to get them to travel through the past to do their bidding. However, our hero meets a girl he loves, and hopes that he can go back with her to that memory he has from his childhood....

It's a very interesting story, and one that's hard to talk too much about without giving away too much of the plot. If you haven't seen it yet, it's one I can highly recommend.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Richard Widmark is better than Patrick Swayze

The Fox Movie Channel showed Road House today. Not the Patrick Swayze movie from the late 1980s, but the noir from the late 1940s. Fox produced quite a few noirs like this, and generally did a fairly good job of it.

In Road House, Richard Widmark plays Jefty Robbins, the owner of the title road house. Although he owns it, he's hired his good friend Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) to manage the place. The arrangement works fine, until the day the femme fatale walks in, in the form of singer Lily Stevens (played by Ida Lupino, although I thought the way she was made up made her look more like June Allyson than the way Lupino looked in High Sierra). Jefty hires her against Pete's advice, and you know trouble is about to break out.

It does, in the form of the love triangle. Jefty falls in love with Lily, but Lily isn't quite certain whether she's in love with him. Jefty leaves for his cabin in the woods to decide whether or not to ask Lily to marry him, but while he's away, the mouse will play: Lily falls in love with Pete. This is bad news for Pete, as Jefty responds by framing Pete for grand larceny.

Richard Widmark, having played Tommy Udo a year earlier in Kiss of Death, shows again that he's quite good at playing evil. Jefty, you see, doesn't stop at framing Pete. Although the jury finds Pete guilty of the grand larceny, Jefty convinces the judge to give Pete a suspended sentence and probation, releasing Pete into Jefty's custody. This effectively makes Pete Jefty's indentured servant, and Pete and Lily can tell that Jefty is going to try something worse.

Widmark is wonderful in this movie, although the plot fizzles a bit at the end. Ida Lupino is quite good, too, even despite the fact that she's pretty badly made up. She could have played the singer role quite well with her normal hair color and style, without having to be made up to look almost like a monstrosity. The June Allyson look is one that I found distracting, as it made me wonder whether Allyson would have been able to play the role. On the other hand, we do get to hear Lupino sing, which is a bit of a treat.

Cornel Wilde is a bit of a third wheel, and does a competent job, if not a memorable one. The same can be said for the second woman, played by Celeste Holm, who plays the cashier at the road house and serves as a bit of a sounding board for Pete and Lily. Road House, however, is Widmark's film all the way. It's been released to DVD, too, so you don't have to wait for the next time it shows up on the Fox Movie Channel.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Late Joan Crawford

I taped Strait-Jacket when TCM showed it a week and a half ago, and finally got around to watching it. What a riot.

Crawford stars as Lucy, a woman with a mental condition. We first see her twenty years before the main action of the movie, coming home early from a trip, only to find her husband (Lee Majors, in an uncredited role) sleeping with another woman. This enrages Lucy so much that, in a fit of jealousy, she grabs the nearest axe and murders both her husband and his girlfriend! (Yes, Strait-Jacket is that scholocky.) However, apparently she was able to get off on an insanity plea, as she wasn't sent to a prison, but to an asylum.

Fast forward twenty years, and Lucy is about to be released from the asylum, to be turned over to the care of her brother and his wife, who have raised Lucy's daughter Carol (played by Diane Baker, having just as much fun here as she was in Marnie) on their farm. Carol wants things to be just as they were twenty years ago, right down to the same ghastly dress and wig Lucy wore back then. There's also the problem of Lucy's past; Carol is about to get engaged, but worries that her boyfriend's parents won't approve of Lucy. Things go from bad to worse when Lucy's former doctor pays a visit, and gets his head chopped off. Of course Lucy did it... or did she?

Strait-Jacket is delightfully over the top, as Joan Crawford runs the gamut of emotions from a repressed librarian type (think Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life during the scene when George Bailey is being shown what things would be like if he had never been born), to libidinous vamp, in a scene when she comes on to Carol's boyfriend. William Castle directed it. He was known for introducing gimmicks to get people to see his movies; it was he who had theater seats wired to produce electric shocks at key points of The Tingler. Here, though, there isn't really much of a gimmick, just a fun little thriller, even if the plot is predictable. Watch also for George Kennedy as a farm hand, and the obligatory product placement for Pepsi -- at this stage of her career, Crawford was the widow of a Pepsi executive, owned a lot of stock in the company, and sat on the board, leading her to place Pepsi products in her movies.

Strait-Jacket is available on DVD, and deservedly so. It's not exactly great, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Art Carney, 1918-2003

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of actor Art Carney. Carney was an Oscar-winner, picking up a Best Actor statuette for the wonderful 1974 movie Harry and Tonto. The basic story involves Carney as Harry, a retired teacher and widower living with his cat Tonto in a New York City apartment. Life isn't so good to him, though, as one of his close friends dies and the owners of his apartment building are trying to tear it down to replace it with a parking lot. Harry doesn't want to leave, but it eventually forcibly evicted.

Thus begins a journey of discovery for old Henry. He first moves in with one of his sons, but finds that that son's family is a bit off-kilter and not really a suitable place for an old man to live. So, Harry and Tonto pack up to go out to Chicago to see another of his kids. And here is where the story really picks up. Along the way, Harry meets a whole host of interesting characters, including a runaway who's heading out to live on a commune; a Jesus freak, a traveling salesman, an Indian, and on and on. As Harry meets each of these people, he learns that he's got life left in him, while they learn a bit about themselves and how to live. There's comic relief, but Harry and Tonto isn't a straight-up comedy. After Harry makes it to Chicago, though, he finds that it's not the best place for him, and continues on his journey to meet his third child, out in Los Angeles.

Art Carney does an outstanding job in Harry and Tonto, running the whole gamut of emotions, shwoing us that although life has its poignant side, there is also joy to be found, and, if you work hard enough, a sense of purpose and triumph too. Perhaps the very best scene is when Harry talks to the teenage runaway about an old girlfriend of his, who separated from him fifty years ago in order to dance with Isidora Duncan. The young girl convinces him to look her up in the midwestern town where she settled down, which he does. Unfortunately, she's gone senile and is in a nursing home, and doesn't recognize Harry. Still, they dance together in what would have been a heart-breaking moment for a real-life Harry.

I've read a lot of people who think that Carney didn't deserve the Oscar, and I can't help but think there's a bit of politics involved in the reasoning. Harry and Tonto is, at heart, a movie with a message that's not political at all; and is definitely of a different cultural norm from three of the other nominees: Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce; Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II, and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. (For some reason, I always thought Gene Hackman was nominated for The Conversation, another movie obviously involved in consciousness-raising; he wasn't, although the movie itself was nominated for Best Picture.) Carney's performance, though, shines, and makes this little movie a truly memorable experience. In fact, it's a good thing the he won; if he hadn't, Harry and Tonto would probably be largely forgotten today. As it stands, though, it's remembered, and is also out on DVD, and is well worth viewing by grown-ups. The only downside is that, despite the seemingly innocuous plot, it does have enough adult language and situations as to be unsuitable for children.

Monday, November 3, 2008

He's Henry VIII he is

Monday nights in prime time in November on TCM are given over to Star of the Month Charles Laughton. This first Monday in November sees a bunch of biopics starring Laughton. The best of them is The Private Life of Henry VIII, airing at 11:30 PM ET.

Laughton plays the title role, as the English king who had six wives. However, we don't actually see the first of them -- Catherine of Aragon. As the opening of the movie tells us, her story is of no particular interest because she was a "decent and respectable woman". From this, we can deduce that the film isn't going to be just a straight biography, but one that sets out to have a bit of fun with history. Indeed, we only see a bit of wife #2, Anne Boleyn, as the story starts on the day of her execution. But then, this biography isn't really about the wives; it's about Henry. If anything, it's a personal story of the man, as we really see very little of the affairs of state, or of whatever disputes England had with other European countries. There's no Thomas More here.

And as for Henry, Charles Laughton is brilliant. His Henry VIII is larger than life, full of life, and charismatic to boot. If anything, this Henry is a boy who never grew up, trapped inside the body of a man who by accident of birth has to be the English monarch. Laughton looks as though he's having a blast making this movie, and steals every scene he's in, if you can say that the lead steals scenes. Watch for Henry taking on a wrestler at a banquet, in order to show one of his wives that he's still got it, or a gluttonous Henry irritating wife #6 (Catherin Parr) by continuing to eat even though she's telling him how bad it is for his digestion. Laughton won the Best Actor Oscar, and in doing so became the first person to win a major Oscar for a non-Hollywood movie. He richly deserved it, too; this is one of the very best performances of the entire first half of the 1930s, and probably wasn't surpassed until Laughton himself played Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty two years later. (The only performance that comes close is Paul Muni's in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, who was up against Laughton and lost.)

Even though Laughton is good, we shouldn't overlook the rest of the cast. Robert Donat plays King Henry's right-hand man, Thomas Culpeper, and is fine; the Queens Consort include Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves), and character actresses Wendy Barrie and Binnie Barnes.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jimmy Stewart vs. the Nazis

Today's TCM recommendation is The Mortal Storm, airing at 4:15 PM ET.

Released in 1940, The Mortal Storm tells the story of the rise of the Nazis, and how it affects not only the Jews of Germany, but people who don't particularly care for the Nazis and would otherwise just lead a quiet life. Frank Morgan plays Professor Viktor Roth, a man who doesn't care for the Nazis, and is fairly open about it. This opposition lands him in prison, of course, making life difficult for his family. His daughter Freya (played by Margaret Sullavan), is engaged to a Nazi officer, and when her father is imprisoned, it strains the relationship. Meanwhile, family friends of the Roths, the Breiters (son Martin is played by James Stewart), support the Roths even though it might make life difficult for them....

Although The Mortal Storm is fairly clear in its anti-Nazi beliefs, it is at the same time not much more than a standard romance/crime story set against that Nazi backdrop. It's fairly obvious that Martin is going to fall in love with Freya, and help her escape when the time comes; the escape is also standard-issue stuff. However, Stewart, Sullavan, and the rest of the cast all do more than capable jobs. And this having been released by MGM, the rest of the cast is filled with well-known names: a young Robert Stack, a young Robert Young, Bonita Granville as a girl living with the Breitners; Maria Ouspenskaya as Stewart's mother, and so on.

The thing about The Mortal Storm that's probably most interesting is the fact that it was released a full 18 months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, pushing the US into World War II. That, and the fact the movie was made at MGM. It was Warner Brothers that had spent the 1930s making socially conscious movies, while MGM made mostly glitzy stuff. Also, there was a strong isolationist sentiment in the United States in the years leading up to December 1941, and there were more than a few people who didn't like it when entertainment was used to try to make messages they feared would get the US involved in another European war. Indeed, The Mortal Storm is one of the movies that led to a Congressional investigation of the movie industry.

Sadly, The Mortal Storm is not available on DVD.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Id, Id, Id

Science fiction movies really started to take off in the 1950s, first as an aftereffect of World War II and the sighting of UFOs, and then with the space race. A lot of the movies are schlocky (but often fun) B pictures, but once in a while, a really good movie was made in the genre. When MGM tried to put its classy sheen on a sci-fi movie, the result could be something as good as Forbidden Planet, which airs tonight at 6:15 PM ET on TCM.

Leslie Nielsen is one of the male stars, as Captain Adams, the captain of a spaceship sent to check up on the colony at Altair-4, since they haven't made contact with Earth recently. He discovers that there are only two survivors of the colony left on the planet: Dr. Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), and the good doctor's lovely daughter, played by Anne Francis. Morbius warns the crew of the spaceship to get off the planet, because what happened to everybody else might happen to them, too, and it's the crew's risk if they stay on the planet. Of course, Morbius knows full well why everybody died, and is trying to keep that a secret. (No surprise there; we wouldn't have much of a plot if that weren't the case.) Naturally, strange things start happening, resulting in the deaths of multiple crewmen. Adams can't possibly let that go, and investigates further, eventually discovering that the planet was previously home to a super-advanced race called the Krell, that they all died long ago, and that Morbius has learned the secrets of the Krell. Adams also learns the dark secret that killed the Krell, and killed all the earthlings....

Obviously, I'm not about to give away the ending if you haven't seen the movie. This is sci-fi, MGM-style, and it's pretty good stuff. To be honest, that's partly because the movie is very loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Shakespeare is a pretty good starting point. In some ways, it's less a genre film, and more a psychological story that has been shoehorned into a different genre. But there's more to it than just that. Walter Pidgeon adds a presence that the B sci-fi movies never had; the sets are much better; they're also in brilliant color and Cinemascope. The score, such as it is, is excellently evocative of the future. (In fact, the credits don't call it a score, or music, but "electronic tonalities".) The highlight, however, might be the non-human character, Robby the Robot, who provides the comic relief and steals a lot of the scenes he's in. Forbidden Planet is a heck of a lot of fun, and not just if you only know Leslie Nielsen from his later comedies.