Saturday, January 31, 2009

Jean Simmons turns 80

It was on this day in 1929 that actress Jean Simmons was born. You can watch her just after midnight on TCM as the female lead in Elmer Gantry, opposite Burt Lancaster. However, I'd like to comment on a different movie, The Robe.

Richard Burton stars as the Roman tribune Marcellus, who is sent to Judea around the year AD30. If you know your history and a bit about religion, you know this is right about the time when Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified. Well, poor Marcellus has the privilege (if you can call it that) of seeing the crucifixion, and winning Jesus' robe when the soldiers gamble for Jesus' vestments after the crucifixion. The robe has quite an effect on Marcellus, with strange things suddenly happening to him as though he were a character in one of those bad 1950s horror movies. It quite frankly horrifies Marcellus, who decides he'll do anything he can to destroy Jesus' robe, which he has since given away.

Cut back to Rome. Jean Simmons plays Diana, a woman who knew (and loved) Marcellus when she was young, but grew up to become a ward of Emperor Tiberius when her parents died. The Empress thinks Diana would make a good wife for the heir to the throne, Caligula, who got Marcellus sent to Judea in the first place. Diana tries to intercede on Marcellus' behalf, but this only makes things more difficult since jealous Caligula wants Diana. Eventually, you know that Christian virtue is going to win out, with Burton realizing that the touch of Jesus' robe is actually a good thing, and Diana realizing it too, and ending up with Marcellus.

How this happens, though, takes far too long. This is the sort of Biblical-based epic that Cecil B. DeMille might have made, except that it was actually Henry Koster and the people at Fox in charge of it all. Still, we get the requisite dose of Christianity, with an ending that's pious beyond belief, and ludicrous to the point of inducing howls of laughter. Did they think anybody would believe this? And at nearly two hours and fifteen minutes, they could have easily cut a good half hour out. Perhaps one of the reasons they didn't is that this is one of the very first movies Fox released in the new Cinemascope widescreen format, and they must have thought that people would want to see stunning panoramas in widescreen -- two hours' plus worth of panoramas. It couldn't have been for the story. Still, Jean Simmons is lovely to look at here.

If you want to watch The Robe now, instead of waiting for Easter, which is probably a more suitable occasion, you are in luck. The Robe is available on DVD.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A group of aging thespians

TCM showed Grumpy Old Men on Wednesday night as part of the "Star of the Month" salute to Jack Lemmon. A large portion of the cast consisted of veterans in their 60s and 70s who had made a lot of movies. It's always nice to see the older actors get back together, and TCM are showing another movie with a similar cast at 8:00 PM ET on January 30: Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Bette Davis plays Charlotte, a southern spinster who used to be a belle, but became a recluse in her plantation after her lover, with whom she was planning to elope, winds up brutally murdered. It's four decades later now, and the authorities (in the form of George Kennedy) are going to force her to leave her house because they've taken the property over by eminent domain and plan to build a new highway through the property. She won't leave, though, because she thinks there's evidence on the property that her father murdered her lover, and she doesn't want Father's reputation sullied. The only person Charlotte trusts to come into the house is her doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) -- and he can't get her to leave. So he gets in touch with Charlotte's cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) and gets her to come visit Charlotte, in the hopes that she can get Charlotte to leave. She and the good doctor meet again for the first time in years and....

In the meantime, an insurance investigator (Cecil Kellaway) shows up in town. He has his own reasons for looking into the murder. He knows that the dead man left behind a widow (Mary Astor), and perhaps she knows something about what happened. After all, she's been strangely silent these past four decades. Eventually, the two plot halves come together, but to explain how would be to give away too much of the story.

Bette Davis is fun here. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte came two years after her Oscar-nominated performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a movie which created a demand for her -- and other aging actresses -- to play older women in gothic movies. (The really need to re-release Tallulah Bankhead's Die! Die! My Darling! to DVD.) At least, the movies were supposed to be gothic; nowadays, the whole genre is generally looked at as pure camp. It only makes the movies that much more fun. Davis especially appears to be going over the top, which pushes most of the other cast members a bit over the top, too. Astor is an exception, but she doesn't have many scenes with Davis. That having been said, it's quite enjoyable to watch all of them one more time. The cinematography -- thankfully in black and white, as color would make it look too dated -- is lovely, too, adding the right amount of atmosphere.

There are some well-known bits of trivia regarding the making of Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. First is that the Olivia de Havilland role was supposed to be played by Joan Crawford, who had starred opposite Davis in the aforementioned What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. However, the two hated each other, so much so that Davis tried to extract revenge on Crawford, the widow of a Pepsi CEO, by having a Coca-Cola vending machine placed prominently at the studio. Crawford eventually claimed illness. A second interesting tidbit is the murdered lover at the beginning of the movie. That's a young Bruce Dern. In 1964, the year this movie was made, he also played a man who gets brutally murdered in Marnie.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Happy anniversary

It was one year ago today that I started blogging about classic cinema. With that in mind, I'd like to recommend a class movie starting with an anniversary celebration: Love Crazy.

William Powell and Myrna Loy team up again, although this time not as Nick and Nora Charles. Here, they're Steve and Susan Ireland, a married couple about to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, Steve gets waylaid by a stuck elevator, and Susan's mother tries to convince Susan that Steve is actually romantically involved with another woman. So, Susan decides she'll file for divorce.

Steve believes there's only one way to stop Susan: if he can be declared insane, the divorce can't go through for six months. So, Steve decides to act insane in order to get the court to declare him so and delay the divorce. Susan, of course, realizes the insanity ploy is just an act, so she decides to get back at Steve by pretending to have an affair with the man in the apartment below (played by Jack Carson). She gets the last laugh, although not in the way she intended: Steve is declared insane and sent to a funny farm out in the suburbs. In order to convince Susan to stay married to him, he'll have to escape from the sanatorium....

Love Crazy is fun on so many levels. Powell and Loy have their usual fantastic chemistry together. Even though you could be watching Libeled Lady all over again, a movie like Love Crazy doesn't feel formulaic. You're having too much fun laughing. There's Powell's attempts to break out of the sanatorium and then, after he does, to keep the police from finding him (which includes shaving off his trademark moustache). Loy is as elegant as ever here, and plays off of everybody well. Florence Bates plays the mother-in-law. She's annoying, and it's easy to see why Powell would want to get out of the apartment when he's supposed to be taking care of her. Jack Carson is, of course, as good as always. He seemed to make a career out of playing smarmy characters, in everything from comedies like this to dramas like Mildred Pierce. Interestingly, Jack Carson's unctuous performance in The Strawberry Blonde was the subject of my first classic movie post one year ago. And since I'm making references back to previous blog posts, watch for the elevator operator. That's Elisha Cook, who played a similar character in Don't Bother To Knock.

The only possibly negative thing about Love Crazy is that some people won't enjoy the politically incorrect portrayal of crazy people. They need to get a sense of humor. For the rest of us, this great comedy is available on DVD, and good for many, many laughs.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ernst Lubitsch, 1892-1947

Comic director Ernst Lubitsch was born on this day in 1892. I see that I've already recommended Heaven Can Wait and To Be Or Not To Be. I would have liked to recommend his final completed movie, Cluny Brown, which I first saw when TCM aired it this past Christmas Eve, but it's not available on DVD here in the US. Instead, you can't go wrong with his 1939 movie Ninotchka.

The scene is the Paris of 1939. The Soviets are trying to sell off some of their crown jewels for desperately needed foreign currency. However, the three envoys who are supposed to sell the jewels decide that Paris is much better than Moscow, so they'll do everything they can to extend their stay. That is, until faithful, no-nonsense Communist Ninotchka Ivanova (played by Greta Garbo) shows up to see what's going on.

Ninotchka seemingly has no sense of humor, and no desire for any of the finer things that the West has to offer. That is, until she meets the Leon, the count who is acting on behalf of the seller of the jewels (played by Melvyn Douglas). At first, Ninotchka maintains her icy exterior, but eventually, she falls in love with him, which causes a whole host of problems.

Who knew that Greta Garbo could do comedy? Ninotchka shows that she indeed could, and she's outstanding. Hers is, for the most part, a deadpan humor, with the laughs being found in the stark contrast to everything else that's going on around her. Paris is supposed to be a place for lovers, but when Ninotchka sees the Eiffel Tower, she's much more interested in all the technical aspects of the tower. When the Count tries to tell Ninotchka jokes in a proletarian restaurant, she finds none of it funny -- untill the Count inadvertently does a slapstick fall out of his chair! Melvyn Douglas is fine, too, although he generally serves as more of a foil for Garbo's deadpan. Although Douglas is technically the male lead, he's really playing second fiddle to Garbo. This isn't to demean Douglas; he was a fine supporting actor, as we saw last week in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; also, Douglas went on to win two Supporting Actor Oscars.

Ninotchka is one of the better anti-Communist movies made by the studio system, and it's interesting that the message (even if wrapped in comedy) could be so clearly made in the Hollywood of the 1930s, when it was generally thought that socialism was the wave of the future. Lubitsch's portrayal of the privations of the Soviet Union isn't that heavy-handed or inaccurate, except in that a real-life Ninotchka would probably have been part of the elites and enjoy a better standard of living. Of course, Lubitsch was helped immensely by a screenplay written by Billy Wilder before he became a director.

Ninotchka is available on DVD, and even though Soviet Communism is a thing of the past, this movie still glitters and remains fun 70 years on.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Holocaust Remembrance Day

The UN, and several countries in Europe, commemorate the Holocaust on January 27. (Israel commemorates it in late April, with the date being set according to the Jewish calendar; the US marks the occasion on May 8, which is V-E Day in western Europe.) An appropriate movie for the day is Europa, Europa. Remarkably, it's based on a true story.

Marco Hofschneider plays Solomon Perel, a member of a Jewish family from Germany. When the Nazis began to persecute Jews, Solomon and his family moved to Poland, with Solomon later ending up in the Soviet Union, claiming to be an orphan, after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Things got worse when the Nazis invaded the USSR. Solomon, thinking fast when the group of refugees of which he was a part was stopped by the Nazis, declared that he was an ethnic German living in the Soviet Union (many Germans had emigrated to Russia in the time of Catherine the Great, so it was a perfectly plausible lie), aided by the fact that having actually been born in Germany, he spoke fluent German.

The Germans fell for the lie, and Solomon was sent to a Hitler Youth school. Solomon was forced to maintain a false identity, doing everything he could to keep anybody from finding out that was actually Jewish. (Considering that Jews are ritually circumcised and most European Christians aren't circumcised, this posed some interesting problems.) Along the way, Perel falls in love with an Aryan girl, fights in the Nazi army, and tries to figure out what's happened to the rest of his family, who had unavoidably split up in 1939.

This is a difficult story, made all the more fascinating by the fact that it's pretty much true. Hofschneider, however, does an excellent job as the young man who can't trust anybody, and often has to play both sides against the middle just to survive. (The Soviets and Germans were both pretty harsh with each other's POWs.) Director Agnieszka Holland does a good job in telling the story, and is helped by cinematography that makes the movie beautiful to watch. The one big drawback, however, is that because of the nature of the story, there are scenes wholly unsuitable for children. Also, due to the fact that Perel has to speak multiple languages during the course of the movie, there are a lot of subtitles. Unless you're one of the few people conversant in both German and Russian, you'll have to spend a good portion of the movie reading the subtitles.

Thankfully, this amazing movie has been released to DVD.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lunar New Year

Today marks the start of the lunar new year in those Asian cultures that use a lunar calendar. In China, the Year of the Rat has ended, and we are now in the Year of the Ox. Good luck finding a movie having to do anything with oxen. The best I could think of was that somebody would have put the story of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe on film; indeed, Disney put out an animated two-reeler on the legend of Paul Bunyan in the late 1950s. (Obviously, it's easier to animate an ox rather than to train one, especially if you need one that's blue.)

There are lots of Hollywood movies set in Asia, but not too many of them make a big point of celebrating the lunar new year. Besides, TCM showed all the good Hollywood Asian movies last June in the "Asian Images in Film" series.

So, we're left with movies about the moon. I'd love to recommend Joseph Cotten in From The Earth to the Moon, but it's never been released to DVD. I suppose it's unsurprising, as it was one of the last movies made at RKO. With RKO going out of the movie production business, we're left with pretty lousy production values and special effects -- or, should we say, a lack of special effects.

Just as interesting, however, is Georges Méliès' 1902 short A Trip to the Moon. The title accurately states what this movie is about, and for something made over 100 years ago, it's quite inventive. Sure, it's unrealistic, but nobody had any idea then what rocketry, space travel, or the moon would be like. It's also available on several compilations of very early cinema, which contain lots of fascinating early movies, both fiction and documentary.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bios of the living

After The Whole Town's Talking, TCM will be showing The Singing Nun, at noon ET on January 25. The movie was made when the woman who was "The Singing Nun" was in the prime of her life, and so couldn't tell what Paul Harvey would refer to as... the rest of the story.

Unfortunately, it's a pretty sad story. Jeanine Deckers, who had entered the sisterhood as Sister Luc-Gabrielle, eventually became disillusioned with Catholic teaching and quit the convent. She tried to continue her singing career, including a song in praise of the contraceptive pill(!), but she never again reached the heights she had with the song "Dominique".

Still, she tried to do good things in life, opening a school for special needs children. Unfortunately for her, though, the Belgian tax authorities came after her, insisting that the royalties for the song "Dominique" belonged to her, meaning that she was supposed to have paid a ridiculous sum in taxes on them. Deckers claimed that she had donated the money to her old convent, which would have obviated any tax liability. Big Government wouldn't have any part of it, and continued to hound her for back taxes. Deckers, seeing no way out from under the tax liability, comitted suicide with the partner in founding her school in 1985.

Something tells me that MGM wouldn't have covered that part of the story even if it had been known at the time The Singing Nun was released. Still, it shows the dangers of making a movie about the life of somebody who is not only alive, but still quite active.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Whole Town's Talking

TCM is playing the rarely-aired gem The Whole Town's Talking at 10:00 AM ET on January 25. I believe it hasn't aired since Jean Arthur was TCM's Star of the Month back in January 2007; and, as it's not available on DVD, this may be one of your few chances to catch a really fun little movie.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Arthur Jones, a clerk working in an office who simply tries to go through life as quietly as possible, never making waves. Everything changes for him, though, when notorious gangster "Killer" Mannion escapes from prison and shows up in his peaceful little town. This gangster looks amazingly like Jones (not a surprise, since it's Robinson playing a dual role), to the point that Jones gets arrested. After a lot of explanation, the police finally do believe that Jones is not the same person as Mannion, and give him an affidavit certifying this fact, which will allow him to go about his life. Unfortunately for him, Mannion finds this out, and forces Jones to let him use the affidavit at night. As a result, the only way that Jones is going to be able to resolve the dilemma is through his own ingenuity....

Actually, he gets a bit of encouragement in the form of the aforementioned Jean Arthur. Arthur plays Wilhelmina "Bill" Clark, one of Jones' coworkers at the office; she takes some pity on him, and eventually falls in love with him along the way.

Robinson is quite good as always. He had been stereotyped as the quintessential gangster by the time this movie was made in 1935, so it's natural to see him playing such a role here. However, he also gets to broaden his acting chops by playing Jones, who is almost diametrically opposed to Mannion. Robinson pulls it off effectively and effortlessly, and is quite satisfying to watch. As for Arthur, it feels almost as though she's playing the sort of character she would later play in The Devil and Miss Jones, that of a working girl who feels bad for her coworker. She's good, too. Both actors are helped in no small part by a script courtesy of Frank Capra's screenwriter, Robert Riskin (indeed, the movie has a lot of the Capra feel to it), along with direction not by Capra, but by John Ford.

The Whole Town's Talking was made at Columbia, which might have something to do with its reputation (or lack thereof) today. Columbia were a good ways down the studio pecking order in the 1930s, and having to do a film there was often seen as a step down. (Indeed, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were punished by their home studios and forced to go to Columbia to make what would become It Happened One Night.) In more recent times, Ted Turner got the rights to the MGM library in 1986, and later merged it with the rights to Warner Brothers and RKO movies, which became the backbone of the library of movies shown on TCM when it launched in 1994. None of this should take anything away from The Whole Town's Talking, however. It's quite a good movie, and one that everybody can enjoy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dad's Birthday

My father spent many years working as a building contractor, and later as a building inspector. For him, the perfect birthday movie would be Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Cary Grant stars in the title role, as an adman living with his wife (Myrna Loy) and two daughters in a Manhattan apartment. The apartment is much too small for the four of them, and Mr. Blandings decides that his wife's idea to renovate the apartment would be far too costly, so he decides to buy a house out in the country. This is a genre of movie that's been done a dozen times, and as you can guess, Murphy's Law strikes the Blandings. Anything and everything that can go wrong does, turning what should be that dream house on one's own several acres into an absolute nightmare which threatens to drive the family into bankruptcy.

If you've had a house built from scratch, or renovated your house, you'll probably recognize a bunch of the things that happen to the Blandings in this movie. The movie is supposed to be a comedy, and it's funny because it's true. I could relate some hair-raising gossip about nightmare customers and nightmare contractors, and Mr. Blandings has both of them. Both Cary Grant and Myrna Loy play clueless wannabes, unable to stop themselves despite the best efforts of their lawyer (played by Melvyn Douglas). One particularly funny moment comes when the carpenter asks Mr. Blandings whether he wants the lintels in the lally columns to be rabbeted. Blandings obviously has no idea what the carpenter is talking about, but doesn't want to let on that he's clueless, so he simply answers no, whereupon the contractor tells his workers to rip out the rabbeting, resulting in a rain of wood pieces falling down around Mr. and Mrs. Blandings. There's also the well-driller from hell, and Mrs. Blandings going into ridiculous detail over what paint colors she wants. (Martha Stewart was one of the guest programmers in November 2007, and Robert Osborne asked her specifically about this scene. Stewart replied that she enjoyed mixing her own colors and was rather exacting about this.)

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a great comedy that has dated fairly little over the past 60 years, and one that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Grant and Loy are excellent, and exceedingly likeable; the contractors are suitably eccentric (watch for Jason Robards among their number); and the humor is appropriately accurate. Fortunately, the movie is also available on DVD.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bette Davis vs. Gloria Swanson

On Thursdays in January, TCM has been running a series of movies comparing New York to Los Angeles. This week takes a loot at the entertainment industry in both cities. I've already recommended 42nd Street, which airs at 8:00 PM tonight, and the following movie, A Star is Born, at 9:45 PM. However, TCM is also contrasting All About Eve (an aging star in New York) and Sunset Blvd. (an aging star in Hollywood), at 11:45 PM and 2:15 AM overnight, respectively. Surprisingly, I've never recommended either.

Both movies were released in 1950, and the stars playing the old actresses -- Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. -- were both nominated for Best Actress Oscars. I can't help but think it was a big surprise to everybody on Oscar night when the envelope was opened and the award went to... Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. Anne Baxter had also been nominated for playing the title role of Eve Harrington in All About Eve, and a lot of Bette Davis fans will say that Baxter's nomination resulted in voters who would have voted for All About Eve splitting their votes, with the result that Davis lost an Oscar she "deserved" to win.

I don't believe this. Frankly, I prefer Swanson's performance as aging silent film star Norma Desmond. Bette Davis' Margo Channing is a 40-something theater actress who is entering middle age, but isn't really too old. It's not really as difficult to play that, I think, as a woman who's going insane, if not already there. Also, Davis had already played a more difficult actress role in Dangerous fifteen years earlier, and won an Oscar for that, to boot.

Having said all that, I do like to you you to judge for yourself. Both All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. are among the greatest Hollywood movies of all time; both are filled with great performances in addition to those of the lead actresses.

TCM's Ricardo Montalban tribute

TCM will be showing seven Ricardo Montalban movies on January 23 to honor the recently deceased actor:

7:30 AM Fiesta
9:30 AM Neptune’s Daughter
11:15 AM Latin Lovers
1:00 PM Border Incident
2:45 PM Battleground
4:45 PM Across the Wide Missouri
6:15 PM The Singing Nun

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gus Visser, 1894-1967

Gus Visser and His Singing Duck

Vaudeville performer Gus Visser was born on this day in 1894. He'd probably be completely forgotten today, except for a very curious bit of movie history. Visser was one of those reedy-voced tenors who seem to show up in a lot of those old musicals from before 42nd Street that all look terribly dated today. Visser's shtick was a prop duck that would "quack" at appropriate moments in the song. Not much to see today, you'd think, and you'd be right. However, he got to do his think on film in the short Gus Visser and His Singing Duck.

What makes this short interesting is that it was released in 1925, two years before The Jazz Singer. Not that The Jazz Singer was the first talkie, of course; Warner Brothers has been using the Vitaphone process for over a year, with some shorts that included synchronized singing, as well as in feature length movies to synchronize the score and some sound effects. Gus Visser's short, however, was made with a different process. Vitaphone had its sound on a heavy disc, while the Visser short, the work of inventer Theodore Case, had a sound track on the film itself. Eventually, Case sold the rights to his system to the Fox Film Corporation, who renamed the process Movietone.

As you can tell from the link above, it doesn't matter if the Gus Visser short is on DVD as an extra anywhere. It's made its way to Youtube.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


TCM showed Doris Day's It's a Great Feeling this morning. It may be a great feeling, but it's not a particularly great movie; it's got a trite storyline and is thoroughly predictable. The one nice thing about it, though, is that it's loaded with cameos. Stars like Joan Crawford and Ronald Reagan show up; more interestingly, several directors get some screen time as well.

As a movie buff, it's fun to watch a movie like this in order to look for all the stars who pop up. There are, of course, better "all-star" movies out there, although as with movies like Dinner at Eight, the stars have more substantial roles.

I've recommended The Hollywood Revue before; that's a fascinating all-star movie in that the movie was basically a screen test for all of them. Sadly, it's not available on DVD.

Another movie with a lot of cameos (and an all-star cast in the main roles) is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with everybody from The Three Stooges to Jack Benny getting brief roles.

And, of course, half the fun of watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie is to see if you can spot his cameo.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lovely buildings

I mentioned Strangers on a Train, and its tennis scenes, yesterday. It doesn't just have tennis scenes, though; a good portion of it is set in Washington since the father of Farley Granger's girlfriend is a US Senator. So, there are a few scenes set at various monuments in Washington, DC. Apparently there's some political event going on in Washington tomorrow, which got me to thinking of more movies showing the beautiful monuments in Washington, DC.

Most of them have political themes; in fact, Strangers on a Train is probably one of the least political movies to use Washington's monuments. Most of them deal quite directly with Washington politics, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. James Stewart wants to see the monuments on his first day in Washington, but the most dramatic scenes take place in the US Senate chamber. Another highly political movie with key scenes set in the Senate is Advise and Consent, about a controversial nominee for Secretary of State.

A third sort of Senate deliberation occurred in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. It was made into the 1942 movie Tennessee Johnson, in which Van Heflin plays the impeached president, and Lionel Barrymore plays US Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who prosecutes the trial in the Senate. Sadly, it's not available on DVD.

A movie that has a more indirect look at Washington politics is Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday helps foil her industrialist boyfriend's (Broderick Crawford) corrupt plans when a journalist (William Holden) takes her around Washington and teaches her a few things about the American political system. There's also the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has a key scene set at the Washington Monument. Of course, it has the very political message about nuclear weapons, although it doesn't really deal with politicians.

A similar movie to The Day the Earth Stood Still is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, in which Ray Harryhausen's special effects involve flying saucers crashing into Washington's government buildings. No political comments about that, please!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tennis, anyone

This evening (US time) sees the start of the first of the four "Grand Slam" tournaments on the professional tennis calendar, the Australian Open. Tennis never made quite as much of an appearance in Hollywood movies as some other sports, and when it does, it's usually pretty dodgy in quality.

Several professionals show up in Pat and Mike. Katharine Hepburn is expected to play at their level. Fat chance of that happening.

As I mentioned in my post on Pat and Mike, you might find the best portrayal of women's sports -- specifically, women's (amateur) tennis -- in another early 1950s movie, Hard, Fast, and Beautiful. Sadly, though, it's not available on DVD. What we know today as the "Grand Slam" tournaments were strictly for amateurs at that time (they only became professional in the late 1960s), and as a result, Hard, Fast, and Beautfiul also deals with the question of making money of of playing tennis.

Another Grand Slam tennis player is Farley Granger in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Again, the tennis isn't all that good, and Granger's character being a tennis player isn't that important to the plot. He could have been any sort of athlete. However, there's an interesting bit in the tennis match scene from a historical perspective. Granger's match reaches six games all in the fourth set, and continues, until Granger wins something like ten games to eight. It was the norm for tennis matches at the time for sets to continue until one player led by two game. Now, almost all sets are decided at six games all by the a first to seven points tiebreak (although again, you have to win by at least two points). This was only introduced at the Grand Slam events in 1970. So, a key plot element -- that Granger's tennis match could have kept going on almost indefinitely -- has since been obviated by the march of time,

Perhaps, then, I should have talked about the Hollywood studio system's treatment of Australia instead of its look at tennis. Of course, it's not as though Hollywood got Australia right, either.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Bette Davis Interview

TCM are showing the Bette Davis movie Pocketful of Miracles overnight at 1:30 AM ET. It's a remake of Lady For a Day, and it's not quite as good. (As always, though, judge for yourself.)

More interesting, however, is what follows on TCM at 4:00 AM. It's an interview Bette Davis did on the Dick Cavett show back in 1971. It's after Davis made all of her big movies, and she has a lot to talk about. She's quite an engaging storyteller, and at one point brings the house down by saying she should tell the story of her first sexual experience.

It helps that Dick Cavett was a pretty good interviewer, too. He's the last of his generation still alive; the other great interviewers of the era such as Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin have already passed away. This is also a pretty good sort of program for TCM to have. It fits in well with Robert Osborne's Private Screenings interviews, which get irregular repeats on TCM. However, Cavett was doing his interviews when there were more old stars still alive to be interviewed. If you don't pay attention, it can be shocking to see just how many stars die in any given year.

Such specials, while not actually movies, are, I think, a good way to try to introduce new people to TCM, and to classic movies in general.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Katy Jurado, 1924-2002

Katy Jurado and Lloyd Bridges in 'High Noon'

Katy Jurado was born on this day in 1924, which is as good an excuse as any to post a photo of the smoldering Mexican beauty. She's probably best known here in the US for playing Mexican shopkeeper Helen Ramirez in High Noon. She's generally not considered a classic beauty like High Noon's female lead, Grace Kelly, yet she exudes a raw, earthy sexual potency in High Noon that makes her seem much more attractive than Kelly, who looks unnaturally pure for the Old West.

Jurado had spent several years making movies in her native Mexico before doing High Noon; after, she continued to find steady work on both sides of the border.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ricardo Montalban, 1920-2009

Ricardo Montalban in a scene from 'The Singing Nun'

The death has been announced of actor Ricardo Montalban. Montalban is probably best remembered today for having played Mr. Roarke on the early 1980s television series Fantasy Island, as well as for his role as Khan in an episode of Star Trek, which he later reprised in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

However, Montalban appeared in quite a few movies before his time on Fantasy Island, from frothy romps with Esther Williams (On an Island With You); to playing a Japanese kabuki actor (Sayonara, and yes, he realy did play a Japanese man!); to his role as a priest pictured above in The Singing Nun.

Montalban was 88.

If you wish to see the rich diversity of Montalban's work, TCM will be preempting their previously scheduled programming on the morning and afternoon of Friday, January 23, in order to show seven of his movies.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

You, John Jones!

Back in December, I recommended the short You, John Jones!. Readers who would like a brief heads-up may be interested to know that it's scheduled to air on TCM at 10:45 AM ET on January 15.

Multitalented directors

Jack Lemmon is TCM's Star of the Month for January, and tonight, TCM are showing the movies that he made with director Billy Wilder. Although some truly great movies are being shown, starting off with The Apartment at 8:00 PM and Some Like It Hot at 10:15 PM, it's interesting to think about many of the great Billy Wilder movies that aren't airing tonight, and span a bunch of genres: mysteries like Witness for the Prosecution; romantic comedies like Sabrina, wild farces like One, Two, Three, and hard-hitting dramas like Sunset Blvd. or The Lost Weekend.

Wilder himself, however, said that he wasn't quite the greatest director, largely because he felt he couldn't do a musical. Indeed, Irma La Douce (airing overnight at 12:30 AM) was based on a musical but doesn't have songs. Other directors, however, were just as broad as Wilder, and directed musicals too.

Michael Curtiz was under contract to Warner Brothers for years, making back-to-back movies out of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and Mystery of the Wax Museum early on in his career. Two different genres you may not find, until you consider that he won the Oscar for directing Casablanca -- which he made immediately after the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Or, consider Howard Hawks. Early in his career, he made the hard-hitting crime drama Scarface. Usually, of courses, he's remembered for his comedies like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. But he also did a pretty good job on movies with lots of musical numbers, like A Song is Born, or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Having said that, Wilder did have a talent that Curtiz didn't (and Hawks had, but only to a lesser extent): he was a great screenwriter. In addition to co-writing the scripts to most of his own movies, Wilder was responsible for some of the great movies of the late 1930s like Ninotchka.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fox docudramas

January 13 marks the birthday of Igor Gouzenko. Gouzenko worked as a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada, but in 1945, learning that he and his wife were to be sent back to the USSR and having seen what life in the free West was really like, he decided to defect. He stole several dozen documents from the Soviet embassy to give to the Canadian authorities when he defected, documents that revealed Soviet attempts to steal US atom bomb secrets, as well as the recruitment of Soviet agents within Canada.

Why am I mentioning this in a classic film blog? Gouzenko's story was turned into the 1948 movie The Iron Curtain, released by 20th Century-Fox. Gouzenko was played by Dana Andrews, with Gene Tierney playing his wife, Svetlana. It's told in a docudrama style, and isn't that bad. Unfortunately, it's not currently available on DVD.

However, the docudrama style of The Iron Curtain is something that Fox used quite a bit during the late 1940s. TCM has in the past few months obtained the rights to show another Dana Andrews docudrama, Boomerang!, which is also not available on DVD. (For the record, it's going to show up again during 31 Days of Oscar.) Two which have been released to DVD and are worth watching, are:

13 Rue Madeleine, a look at US intelligence during World War II starring James Cagney as the head of a military intelligence group, who has to go into occupied France himself; and

Call Northside 777, in which James Stewart plays a crusading journalist who has reason to believe that a man convicted of murder ten years earlier is in fact innocent.

I've already recommended a number of docudramas from other studios, such as the wonderful He Walked By Night, as well as a later one from Fox, The Man Who Never Was.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Golden Globes were awarded last night

Would you believe I didn't even know that last night was the big show? To be honest, I don't watch any of these awards shows. Part of it is that I prefer classic movies that received their honors decades ago. Niagara was much more satisfying last night. But also, there are a lot of things about awards shows that I just don't like.

First is the fact that they're interminably long. There are always a bunch of pointless musical numbers -- or worse, dance numbers -- that serve no function other than to add time so they can put in more commercials. I remember reading several years ago that one of the awards shows gave most of the awards out in a previous ceremony, and were handing out just 12 of the awards in the broadcast.

Another thing I can't stand is the handling of the Oscars' "Parade of the Dead". As with TCM Remembers, it's quite fitting that they honor the people who will, sadly, no longer be with us. The problem is that the Academy seems to have no problem with its studio audience cheering in memory of certain of the dead people. When somebody like a cinematographer is shown, there is at most polite applause. But when somebody on the caliber of a Paul Newman shows up, there's much louder cheering. Not only is it really tacky -- it's disrespectful to the lesser-known people.

What do you hate about awards shows?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Incongruous couples

I mentioned the casting as husband and wife of Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight. If you think that's odd, tune in to TCM at 8:00 PM ET on January 11 for Niagara.

The couple here is Marilyn Monroe and... Joseph Cotten, playing George and Rose Loomis. They take a vacation to Niagara falls, with Cotten not knowing that Monroe is taking her there with the intention of killing him! She's fallen in love with another man, and the two of them decide that Cotten's not the most stable man mentally, so they're going to cause him to have an "accident" at Niagara Falls.

In the meantime, the Loomises meet another couple at the bungalow resort they're staying at, the Cutlers. Mrs. Cutler tries to comfort Mrs. Loomis after the loss of Mr. Loomis, but strange things start happeing. Indeed, Mrs. Cutler thinks she's seen the ghost of the dead Mr. Loomis!

Niagara isn't that bad a movie. Monroe is generally remembered for her comedies, but she was a better actress than that. She is more than capable of handling the material in a movie like Niagara. Cotten is good, as always. The rest of the cast, however, is filled with relative unknowns, and they don't give Niagara the heft that it really deserves.

On the other hand, Niagara also has beautiful scenery. It's in color, and as such, it's a lovely look at how the once-popular honeymoon destination (back in the days when overnight train was the easiest way to travel somewhere) looked 55 years ago. Thankfully, Niagara has been released to DVD.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The greatest ensemble cast?

I don't think I've devoted a whole post yet to the 1933 classic Dinner At Eight, which is airing on TCM at 8:00 PM ET on January 10, kicking off a night of movies starring the great Jean Harlow.

Harlow isn't the star here; she's only one of the stars -- but a bit more on that later. The plot of the story involves ditzy socialite Millicent Jordan (wonderfully played by Billie Burke), who decides that she wants to have a dinner party at her house in honor of some British aristocrats who are soon to arrive in New York. The movie, however, isn't about the dinner party itself; it's about the lives of the hosts and invited guests. And those lives all have some rather serious problems. First, there's Millicent's husband, Oliver (played by Oscar-winner Lionel Barrymore). He's the head of an old shipping company that's fallen on hard times thanks to the Depression; this is the first time in a century that a Jordan Line ship's leaving port was cancelled. Worse, Oliver soon learns that he's got a heart condition that is in all likelihood fatal. Not that that gives him a respite from his business. One of the major stockholders, old and now-going-bankrupt actress Carlotta Vance (there's another Oscar winner, Marie Dressler) wants to sell some of her stock. She gets invited to the dinner party largely because Oliver used to have a crush on her back in the day.

Hovering over all of this is dishonest businessman and Friend of the Roosevelts Dan Packard (the third Oscar winner: Wallace Beery). He sees that the Jordan Line is in trouble, and is willing to "help" -- but in a way that's only going to help him. He's got a troubled marriage of his own, to wife Kitty (the aforementioned Harlow), whom he clearly married because she's a trophy wife. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of love going on, because she's making out with her doctor (Edmund Lowe). The Packards get invited to the part largely because Oliver wants it. Millicent wouldn't have any part of the "vulgar" Packards: she's really a snob, and they're too common for her.

The final intended guest, intended as a partner for Carlotta, is fellow struggling thespian Larry Renault, played by John Barrymore. Renault is now an alcoholic, reduced to trying to do anything to get a drink, and get a part, although he thinks he's still good enough to get any part he wants. He's currently got a love interest -- Millicent and Oliver's daughter, who is actually engaged to another man, but intends to leave that man for Renault. Not that Millicent and Oliver know anything about this, though.

All of these personal tragedies go on without Millicent knowing anything about them. Despite the fact that everybody's got their own tragedies, Dinner at Eight is really a comedy, and a great one at that. The contrast between Millicent's ditziness and the other characters' problems is perhaps best shown in a scene where Oliver comes home ready to tell his wife he's going to die, at the same time that their daughter comes home to tell her parents she's going to break off the engagement. Millicent stops both of them, because her problem is more important: the maid (Oh -- that's May Robson, who would receive an Oscar nomination the same year for Lady For a Day) dropped the aspic, which was supposed to be the pièce de résistance of the dinner, and the other servants were fighting. The way Millicent brushes off her husband and daughter, acting like a Stepford Wife on the fritz, is absolutely hilarious. And it may not be the funniest moment in the movie, either. Watch for the end, when Kitty Packard tells Carlotta that she's been reading a book.

The cast of Dinner at Eight is filled with one star after another. Harlow, in fact, is billed behind both Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, who had been stars at MGM for longer, and John Barrymore. Surprisingly, despite the fact that Lionel Barrymore had already won an Oscar, he gets billed after Harlow. And there are more character actors I haven't even mentioned. Lee Tracy appears as Larry Renault's long-suffering agent; Karen Morley plays the doctor's wife; and Grant Mitchell appears briefly at the end as the husband of Millicent's cousin, pressed into service as a dinner guest when the guests of honor skip out on the dinner.

Despite this massive star power, every member of the cast gets his or her moment. The cast shines, both individually and together, making Dinner at Eight one of the great movies of all time. It's available on DVD too, as it rightly deserves to be.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lots of remakes

Hollywood isn't very original. They've been re-making their movies (and other people's movies) since time immemorial. Today, for example, TCM showed the 1960s remakes of Best Picture winners Cimarron and Mutiny on the Bounty. For the most part, they take well-known movies, and come up with lousy remakes. Who ever thought Psycho needed to be re-made?

There are, of course, cases where the original isn't so well remembered today, while the remake is. The biggest group of such movies would have to be the talkie remakes of silent pictures. This is one case where it was a pretty darn good idea to remake the movies. Once The Jazz Singer came out (the Al Jolson version, not the Neil Diamond version!), audiences wanted talking pictures. Since the remake had already been a cheap source of ideas, it was an obvious idea to update older, silent movies by adding more dialog and having a new cast make a talking picture with the same story. Perhaps the best pair of silent/talking versions would be the Ramon Novarro and Charlton Heston versions of Ben-Hur.

A second group of remakes is fairly common to the 1930s: studios made cheap B-movies, and then remade them as -- cheap B-movies. Some of these movies are quite interesting, in that they star people who were later to become quite famous. I've mentioned James Cagney in The Mayor of Hell; it was remade in the late 1930s as another B-movie, Crime School, which starred Humphrey Bogart. Bogart made another interesting B remake a few years earlier, known under the alternate titles of Two Against the World and One Fatal Hour. (The latter is the title under which it shows up, albeit rarely, on TCM.) It's a remake of a 1931 movie Five Star Final, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (It should be mentioned that there were actually eight Best Picture nominees that year, compared to today's five. Obviously, Hollywood made better pictures then than now.)

The most interesting group is those pictures where the original isn't so well known, but the remake is famous. Humphrey Bogart became a big star thanks in part to the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon. However, it's a remake of a 1931 movie starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. A couple of other examples I've previously recommended are Gaslight, originally made in 1940, but better known for the Ingrid Bergman version. There's also Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was remade 20 years later as House of Wax.

With any luck, Hollywood will make its first truly original movie in 2009.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Elvis movie TCM didn't show

Today marks the 74th birthday of Elvis Presley. Elvis made a string of popular but undemanding movies in the 1960s, with the emphasis on the undemanding. This was probably in no small part due to Elvis' manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, who thought that this was what Elvis fans wanted to see. While Elvis' songs may be enjoyable, the later movies are little more than time capsules thanks to the insipid plots. Elvis did, however, show that he had some real acting chops, with the movies that he made early in his career before being drafted into the Army. TCM showed one of these in King Creole; one that they didn't show is Jailhouse Rock.

In Jailhouse Rock, Presley plays Vince Everett, a young man doing manual labor and living for the weekend. One Friday night, however, he gets in a bar fight thanks to his temper, with the result that the man challenging him to the fight dies in the fight. As a result, Everett gets sentenced to prison on a manslaughter charge. While in prison, Everett is taught guitar by his cellmate, Hunk Houghton (played by Mickey Shaughnessy). This, combined with Elvis' natural singing abilities, stand to serve him in good stead once he's released from prison, as he meets a young lady (Judy Tyler) and gets a singing contract. However, success also goes to his head, which could be disastrous for his relationship with Tyler.

Elvis has to play a lot of things here. At first, he comes across as a naïf, and it seems that everybody is going to walk right over him. Later in the movie, though, we learn that he's got a lot more street smarts, getting back at Hunk, who is trying to sponge off of Vince's success. There's also a troubled side to Vince, especially in that he doesn't want to deal with the rich people who are the higher-ups in the entertainment business and who really have classist attitudes toward a man like Vince. Elvis does a pretty good job of displaying all of those contrasts; one wonders if Elvis wasn't dealing with a lot of these very same things in his own life. (Other than the prison, of course.) Still, Jailhouse Rock is a movie that has its high points in the musical numbers. Chief among these is a TV special in which he performs the title song. (If you've ever seen clips of the performance and wondered why the jail doesn't look like a real jail, this explains it. The hypothetical TV producers wouldn't have been striving for reality.) Elvis' dancing, especially the hip-swivelling, is powerful, even though it's nothing like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly would have done. The singing is arresting, too, and Elvis' presence during the muscial numbers is charismatic. It's easy to see why Col. Parker would want later Elvis movies to focus more on the musical numbers.

Jailhouse Rock is available on DVD. Even though the plot isn't quite as good as, say, King Creole, it's still passable, with a performance from Elvis interesting enough to give a glimpse into his true acting ability. And don't forget -- Elvis could sing, too.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Russian Orthodox Christmas

And you thought the holidays were over.... The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7. The studio system's treatment of Russia was fairly lousy. In the 1930s, with the Great Depression raging, a lot of academic types thought that the Soviet economic system was going to be the wave of the future, and so filmgoers got an overly romantic look at Russia. Of course, after World War II, Communists were to be feared, so Hollywood gave us a lot of movies with fairly blunt messages about the evils of communism. A lot of these 1950s movies aren't very good; it's as though the studios were only putting these movies out in order to appease the Communist hunters in Washington.

It's not as though the doe-eyed look at Russia in the 1930s is much better. Consider a movie like 1934's We Live Again. It's based on Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection. Anna Sten, whom Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a star, plays the lead, as a servant girl who is the object of the infatuation of one of her masters, a young Army officer played by Fredric March. He knocks her up and leaves her, forcing her to have the baby alone, with ultimately tragic results. First, the baby dies, and then Sten is forced to go to Moscow, where she does whatever she can to survive, even if that results in falling afoul of the law.

And here, the story starts to get silly. Sten gets a jury trial -- and March is one of the members of the jury! Still, that doesn't get her out of any punishment (although the movie makes maddeningly clear that she was just an innocent girl caught in the wrong place at the wrong time); she gets sentenced to five years in Siberian exile. March feels bad for the girl, and vows that he'll do anything he can to set matters right. If you thought the story got silly once you saw March on the jury, wait until you see what happens after the trial. Imagine me holding my head in my hand, and you'll get an idea of the direction this movie takes.

I should probably cut a bit of slack to the moviemakers, though. Part of the problem is that they were dealing with a Tolstoy novel. Tolstoy always had one foot firmly in the camp of Russia's peasants, with his books devoting significant chunks of space to paeans to the simpler life of the peasant -- they were closer to nature, and to God, less sinful, and all that stuff. It makes novels like Anna Karenina tough going. And with a story like Resurrection, where the peasant/noble contrast is an integral part of the story, there's not a lot the screenwriters and director could do.

We Live Again has been released to DVD. If you're interested in Russia, or the movies of Fredric March, you may want to give it a try.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Harriet Craig

I briefly mentioned the Joan Crawford movie Harriet Craig back in July. I mentioned then that it was a remake of the 1936 movie Craig's Wife. The two movie are airing back-to-back on January 7. The original, starring Rosalind Russell, airs at 7:45 AM ET; the Joan Crawford remake follows at 9:15 AM.

I personally prefer the Joan Crawford version, if only because Crawford was so good at reaching over the top and playing nasty, shrewish, manipulative characters like Harriet Craig. Crawford seemed to make a career of it after leaving MGM, and while the result is often movies that are campy, if only because of Crawford's acting style, it's also never less than fun.

Harriet Craig is not on DVD, so if you want to watch it, you'll have to tune in tomorrow. If you do want to see more of that over-the-top Crawford, you could do worse than to find the DVD of Queen Bee.

Lon Chaney silents

Today marks the birthday of Loretta Young, which reminded me of one of her earliest movies, the 1928 silent Laugh, Clown, Laugh, made when Young was a young 13. It's part of a two-disc collection of three of the great Lon Chaney's silents. Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a pretty good movie, although slightly melodramatic. Chaney plays a clown who adopts the orphan Young, only to fall in love with her, with tragic consequences. It's interesting to see Loretta Young at souch an early age; however, Lon Chaney is much more interesting, simply because he always made his movies interesting.

Another interesting in the set is The Unknown, where Chaney plays an armless man who throws knives with his feet. One of the things that makes The Unknown so interesting is the female lead -- a young Joan Crawford. The other is director Tod Browning, who made his movies both shocking and controversial. I won't go into the details of The Unknown largely because I don't want to give away the shock.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Inaccurate trailers

TCM is airing Executive Suite at 6:15 PM on January 6. If you watch enough TCM, you've probably seen the trailer. What's interesting about the trailer is the melodramatic music that plays constantly in the background. That was added to the trailer, and is not part of the movie. In fact, director Robert Wise eschewed a music score entirely for Executive Suite, instead using only the normal ambient sounds of a city.

As for the movie itself, it's pretty good, although the ending is a bit predictable. As for that lack of a score, it makes the movie much more enjoyable than the trailre. Executive Suite is well worth watching, and it's available on DVD, too.

Crowded House

TCM are honoring director King Vidor tomorrow, and I'd like to mention one of the movies that has not been released to DVD: the 1928 silent The Crowd, which airs at 6:00 AM ET on January 6.

James Murray stars as John, an everyman who leaves his small town and moves to the big city to try to make it in life. He gets a job behind a desk, and eventually meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman), falls in love with her, and marries her. However, life is not a bed of roses for the two of them, as they face financial problems and other hurdles that threaten to tear their marriage asunder.

The story is somewhat reminiscent of the later The Marrying Kind, in that it tells the story of two people who could be almost anybody. There's nothing particularly special about them, or glamorous about them. There's also nothing particularly happy about the couple. The story is not all that upbeat, although it does end on a hopeful note. As such, it can be a tough go at times. Indeed, the normally very astute Irving Thalberg feared that audiences wouldn't want to see a movie with a downbeat ending, and was very worried about how Vidor would end it. It turned out that the film was a financial success for MGM, however.

If the movie is a story about everyman and isn't particularly happy, then why watch it? There are a bunch of good reasons. One is that Vidor did quite a bit of location shooting in New York, using real people and not actors, as though he were filming a documentary. The footage of New York City as it was in 1928 is a treat. Also, there is some pretty amazing cinematography here. Of particular note is a tracking shot leading up the side of a skyscraper, into it, eventually ending up at Murray's desk. It's a precursor to the opening shot introducing Jack Lemmon at his office desk in The Apartment.

As I said, The Crowd has apparently not been released to DVD yet, and that's a huge shame. The movie has a great deal of artistic merit, and is well worth a viewing by anybody interested in learning more about silent movies, and how visuals tell a story.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

William McKinley?

Some historical figures, for obvious reasons, appear more often on screen than others: Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I of England, or Abraham Lincoln would be obvious choices for Hollywood movies. Somebody who should be expected to get much less attention is President William McKinley. But he did show up as an important character in one studio era movie: This is My Affair, airing at 6:00 AM ET January 6 on the Fox Movie Channel.

Robert Taylor stars as a young Navy lieutenant at turn of the 20th century. There's been a string of bank robberies in the midwest, and President McKinley brings Taylor in as a special agent to try to infiltrate the gang; Taylor is to report only to McKinley because McKinley thinks one of his advisors might be in cahoots with the gang. Along the way, Taylor falls in love with Barbara Stanwyck, a moll who'd really rather be out of the gang. However, just when it looks as though Taylor is about to crack the case open, McKinley gets assassinated. T he gang gets arrested, with Taylor being sentenced to execution -- unless he can prove his case.

The basic idea behind the story isn't too bad, although it's fairly predictable and been done a number of times. Perhaps because of that predictability, This is My Affair falls flat as a movie. The actors simply go through the motions, as though they're not really trying. It doesn't help that Stanwyck is asked to sing here, and wear ghastly outfits, neither of which really suited her. Even worse, though, is the ham-handed treatment of McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt. We see Roosevelt come up with his "speak softly and carry a big stick" slogan in what is a thoroughly contrived manner.

It is unsurprising then, that despite the two leading stars, that This Is My Affair hasn't made it to DVD. Still, those who are Barbara Stanwyck fans may want to watch. It doesn't show up on the Fox Movie Channel all that often, so this would be a good time to catch it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beautiful birthday greetings

Anna May Wong, 1905-1961

On this day in 1905, Ray Milland was born. However, on the very same day, the much better-looking Anna May Wong was born. Wong's films show up on TV less frequently as well, so it is with that (and not her looks) in mind that we celebrate her birthday today.

Wong received a prominent place in TCM's series last June on Asians in Hollywood, and rightly so. Wong was American, but of Chinese descent, so any time the studio needed somebody "exotic" to play an Asian, there she was. Wong was the star of Toll of the Sea, a 1922 retelling of Madame Butterfly, in which an American in China falls in love with Wong, despite his being betrothed to somebody back home, resulting in tragedy for all. Toll of the Sea has the distinction of being the first movie released in two-strip Technicolor, which has held up surprisingly well for a movie so old.

However, Wong's career in Hollywood eventually stalled, leading her to go to Europe. In Britain, she starred in the 1929 silent movie Piccadilly, playing a dishwasher at a nightclub who eventually becomes the star dancing attraction after the boss sees her performing a rather alluring dance for the kitchen staff. Eventually, though, Wong's charms prove to be the melodramatic downfall of her. Technically, Wong wasn't supposed to be the star of Picadilly, but she makes it her own with that dancing.

Both Toll of the Sea and Piccadilly have been released to DVD, but you'd probably be better off renting than buying. This is especially true of Toll of the Sea, which was released only as part of a large collection of "rescued" movies that were all found languishing in various archives.

Wong later returned to Hollywood, where she played opposite the equally lovely Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, about a group of passangers trapped on a train caught up in the Chinese civil war. Surprisingly, however, it's not available on DVD, which is a real shame. Even worse, though, is what happened to Wong's career. She wanted to play the part of Olan in the MGM version of Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth. However, Paul Muni was playing the male lead, and at the time, the rules on miscegenation in the movies were such that an Asian-American like Wong wouldn't be allowed to play opposite a white man (even if in "yellowface").

Friday, January 2, 2009

Oscar Micheaux and race movies

January 2 marks the birth anniversary of pioneering black director Oscar Micheaux. TCM showed three of his movies, which are in the genre known as "race" movies: movies with predominantly black casts and crews, made specifically for black audiences at a time when Jim Crow laws were the order of the day and black actors couldn't get good roles in Hollywood.

Although some race movies dealt with topics of particular interest to blacks (especially Micheaux'; he felt with his movies that he was trying to contribute to the advancement of blacks by trying to impart a message on the importance of education), other movies were much closer to being black versions of the sort of movie genres that were popular among white audiences; genres in which white movies were being made for white audiences. There were westerns, mysteries, comedies, and more; one of the more interesting race movies is the 1940 mob movie Gang War.

Gang War is comparable to a lot of the B-movies that the Hollywood studios were putting out in the 1930s. It's a story two rival gangs trying to control the jukebox racket in Harlem. Like Warner Brothers' "socially conscious" movies of the early 1930s, Gang War tries to be "ripped from the headlines", to the extent that it uses the clichéd conceit of using newspaper headlines to frame the scenes and drive the plot. (This isn't a criticism; white B-movies did this sort of stuff too.) There's the typical chase scenes between the police and the mob; however, because race films had extremely limited budgets, Gang War pretty much reused the same footage from one chase scene and showed it over and over. However, it makes the movie look even more zippy in its pacing that it is, which is a big plus.

The one big difference between Gang War and white gangster movies is that Black audiences liked pointless music and variety numbers even more than white audiences. As such, even a movie like Gang War has a few pauses for musical relief that might seem jarring to a viewer used to Hollywood gangster movies. On the other hand, the Black musical talent being showcased here wouldn't have had any other chance to appear on screen. And despite the low budget and concomitant bad production values, Gang War is still well worth watching and comparing to the B crime movies made by Hollywood. Fortunately, it's available on DVD.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Killer That Stalked New York

On New Year's night, TCM are giving us plagues and pestilences; just what you always wanted for the new year. The night kicks off at 8:00 PM ET with the classic King Kong, and is followed at 10:00 PM ET by the previously-recommended Them!. So, I'd like to point out the night's third movie, airing at midnight ET: The Killer That Stalked New York.

This low-budget B-grade crime drama from Columbia Pictures in 1950 stars Evelyn Keyes (who played Scarlett O'Hara's sister Suellen in Gone With the Wind) and a cast of relative unknowns. Keyes plays Sheila, a woman who's part of a ring smuggling uncut diamonds in from Cuba. Because of this, she's well aware that the police are hot on her tail, and has already mailed the diamonds to another member of the ring. What she doesn't know, however, is that diamonds aren't the only thing she's smuggled into the US: she's smuggled in a pretty bad case of smallpox. The Killer That Stalked New York is part crime drama, and that part is relatively predictable. It's obvious that the plot isn't going to go according to plan, in this case meaning that Sheila's unfaithful boyfriend, the other part of the ring, is trying to skip town with the proceeds, forcing an ever-sicker Sheila to leave her apartment to try to find him.

However, it's also part medical mystery, and that is where the movie gets really interesting. In 1950, smallpox was in a state that polio is today: it had been eradicated in the industrialized countries, but still existed in some Third World countries. Most New York doctors wouldn't have seen a smallpox case in their practising careers, and so are confronted with symptoms that at first seem baffling to them. Eventually, of course, an older doctor realizes, much to his horror, what's going on, leading to the desperate search to find out who's spreading smallpox around New York, at the same time trying not to panic the general population. (The doctors and police don't realize until fairly late that they're after the same person.)

The Killer That Stalked New York is, in many ways, typical of the B-movies that were being released by Hollywood in the 1950s. It's competent, with a cast of fairly little-known actors all giving their best. The subject material (it was based on a real incident), however, helps the movie rise a cut above other B-movies. It's certainly nowhere near as good as the great 1950 movies like Sunset Blvd., but it's more than good enough to hold its own with the standard suspense fare that Hollywood is putting out today. Sadly, it's not available on DVD.