Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More 50s sci-fi

I'm a big fan of the 1950s sci-fi movies. A lot of them are pretty bad, but some are underrated, getting a bad rap mostly because they had very low budgets, leading to lesser productoin values. However, as I've mentioned before, I personally find it just as important to have a good story as it is to have realistic production values. Otherwise, all you get is an effects movie: lots of pretty explosions and other special effects, but no real story.

At any rate, TCM are airing a night of 1950s sci-fi movies tonight, including one of the very best: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at 9:30 PM ET. Kevin McCarthy stars as a doctor who's just returned home to his small, peaceful California town from a medical convention, only to discover that something isn't quite right. It seems that some patients are very agitated, and then just as suddenly, the next day, they're calm and at piece with themselves. Soon, the good doctor figures out just what's causing these people to change: apparently, space aliens have infiltrated his town, and are planting pods in people's houses that hatch while the people are asleep, and assume the identity of the people, only rather more calm and conformist. Now, if people want to change their personalities, that's one thing. But the pod aliens have decided they're going to take over Earth, and that we poor humans don't have a choice as to whether or not we want these glorious new personalities. It's up to the doctor to warn everybody of what's going on....

Despite the minuscule amount of special effects (it's the pods, and that's about it), Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one creepy movie. Just imagine that there are people out there who want to take your identity away from you, and that they could do it while you're sleeping. Worse than that, you have no real way of telling which of your neighbors are normal human beings, and which have already been turned into the dreaded pod people. Of course, if you were to tell the authorities of such a plot, they'd never believe you. In addition, the story is advanced very effectively, notably in one Saturday morning scene when the organizers of the pod people gather their fellow pod people, and distribute new pods with which the townsfolk are going to go to neighboring towns and convert their friends and relatives. It's even worse than your favorite Jim Jones-like cult.

Needless to say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers quickly gained a cult following, enough to get remade in the 1970s, and again a few years back. The original is the best, though, and is fortunately available on DVD.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Johnny Guitar

TCM is showing the bizarre western Johnny Guitar at 11:30 AM ET on March 31. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD here in the States, so it's well worth recording, as it's got somewhat of a cult following.

Joan Crawford, seen here in one of the loud-colored outfits she wears, stars as Vienna, a woman who owns a saloon in the old west. The saloon is in the middle of nowhere -- for now, at least; she knows that the planned railroad is going to be passing right near her saloon, so if she can hold on to it, she'll be rich in the not too distant future. However, holding on to the saloon is the problem. As in Shane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, there are ranchers who don't like the encroachment of other things on the range, so they'll stop at nothing to get rid of Vienna. Into all of this walks Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden), ostensibly a guitarist, but actually a man who used to be a gunfighter, as well as the former love of Vienna's life.

The ranchers, for their part, are led by Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge), whose brother was shot by a gang that's been menacing these parts; Emma thinks the gang is in cahoots with Vienna, and Emma isn't going to let anything stop her from getting revenge for the death of her brother. It's melodrama at its finest, leading up to the typically Western shootout.

Joan Crawford, as I mentioned earlier, is the star here, and she's determined to make every scene hers, from the moment she first shows up on screen in a tight black blouse, riding pants, and a green bandana doubling as a tie. She continues to make her way through the proceedings in similarly solid-colored outfits, notably a virginal white dress when a posse is out looking for the leader of the gang. (Interestingly, she later escapes the hangman's noose in that same dress, runs across the dusty desert, and doesn't seem to get a speck of dirt on the dress.) It's rare enough that one woman is the lead in a western, but here we've got both the protagonist and the antagonist being women. McCambridge does a good job, displaying suitable tension in her scenes opposite Crawford, largely because Hollywood legend has it that she didn't need to act out that tension: she and Crawford supposedly hated each other on set. Hayden is OK, too, although he really doesn't have much to do except serve as window dressing for the two female leads, while a younger Ernest Borgnine is capable as one of the members of the gang.

Maurice Jarre, 1924-2009

French-born movie composer Maurice Jarre, who is probably best known for "Lara's Theme" and the rest of the Doctor Zhivago score, has died at the age of 84. Among Jarre's other credits are Lawrence of Arabia, and Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don Juan

TCM's Silent Sunday Night feature, airing just after midnight ET tonight (late Sunday evening in the rest of the country) is the technologically significant Don Juan.

There's nothing significant in terms of plot; it's a fairly standard romance in which the famous Latin lover (played here by John Barrymore) goes to Italy, spurns Lucrezia Borgia, and falls in love with Mary Astor, causing the Borgias to try to railroad Don Juan and imprison him, leading to the climax....

What's important about Don Juan is that it was the first feature film released using the Vitaphone process of synchronizing sound. In theory, the process could be used to synchronize talking, although Don Juan doesn't have any spoken dialogue -- just a movie score and some sound effects. It wasn't until 15 months later that The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with spoken dialogue, hit theaters. But that doesn't mean Vitaphone wasn't trying to put speech on the silver screen. Indeed, when Don Juan was released, it was accompanied by a series of shorts, most of which were musical in nature. Some were instrumentals; others featured some singing as well. However, perhaps the most interesting was one in which Will Hays, the head of the Production Code office at that time, speaks and introduces the idea of talking pictures.

That having been said, though, it's not as though this was the first short with synchronized speech. Vitaphone was one of several processes in use at the time. Most of the processes were trying to convert sound into a "soundtrack" that could be printed on the film, as in Theodore Case's Movietone system, which I've mentioned previously, in conjunction with one of Case's shorts, Gus Visser and His Singing Duck. Vitaphone, however, put the sound on a disc that played on a special record player synchronized with the movie projector, which produced better sound at the expense of making synchronization more difficult. Eventually, formats putting the sound on the film as a separate track won out, with even Vitaphone converting to sound-on-film.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Freddie Bartholomew, 1924-2002

Child star Freddie Bartholomew was born on this day in 1924, and it's worth mentioning one of his best-known movies, Captains Courageous.

Bartholomew plays Harvey Cheyne, who is one of the most obnoxious spoiled brats you'll ever see on cinema. He's manipulative, and a compulsive liar and cheat, qualities that get him expelled from the tony private school where his father (played by Melvyn Douglas) has sent him. Father is asked to spend some "quality time" bonding with son, and so takes Harvey on an ocean liner to England. While on the boat, Harvey continues his rotten ways, but eventually gets his comeuppance when, as part of a game of hide-and-seek, falls overboard. Is this the end of our hero? No! He gets rescued by a fishing boat.

The fishing boat's captain, Captain Troop (played by Lionel Barrymore) isn't quite certain what to do with his new passenger, and soon makes Harvey work for his supper -- this is a fishing boat, and it's hard work for everybody. After a while, Harvey comes under the tutelage of Manuel, a Portuguese-American sailor played by Spencer Tracy. Manuel is uneducated, but knows a lot more about real life then anybody in those private schools could ever teach Harvey. And so, Manuel teaches Harvey important lessons about responsibility, friendship, and fatherhood. Although Harvey comes to love and respect Manuel, life isn't a bed of roses....

Captains Courageous is an excellent family movie, especially for boys. The emotion may be slightly over the top at times, enough to make adults cringe, but for the most part, the acting is quite good, and children won't notice the lack of subtlety. The cast is full of well-known names giving fine performances, with Bartholomew and Tracy leading the way. Tracy, of course, won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. In addition to the names I've already mentioned, there's Mickey Rooney, playing Captain Troop's son, and giving Harvey lessons by example in father/son relationships. Long Jack, one of the fellow sailors on sailors on the fishing vessel, is played by John Carradine.

Captains Courageous is available on DVD, so you can watch it any time you like.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hollywood and Occam's Razor

TCM showed the conspiracy theory movie Capricorn One tonight. I don't have a laptop at hand, so I couldn't live-blog the movie, but the premise is that NASA fakes the first manned mission to Mars. Conspiracy theories are usually full of obvious holes, and this one is no different.

Another conspiracy theory movie is coming up on TCM as part of their birthday salute to Warren Beatty on Monday night into Tuesday: The Parallax View. This time, the conspirators aren't in the military, but in Big Business, Hollywood's other bugaboo. Still, it strains credulity just as much as Capricorn One.

What's your favorite nutty conspiracy flick?

Room at the Top

I was going to blog about the Laurence Harvey movie Room at the Top, but am very disappointed to see that it's no longer in print. Considering that it won Simone Signoret and Oscar, and is an important work of 1950s British cinema, it really deserves another DVD release.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Movies to Come

TCM have been spotlighting the Korda Brothers on Thursday nights in March, and on this last Thursday we get some interesting movies with art direction by Vincent Korda. Perhaps the most interesting (even if not the best) is Things to Come, airing at 10:00 PM ET.

Based on a story by noted science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, Things to Come looks at a British "Everytown", and what happens to it over the course of 100 years, starting from 1936, when the movie was made. The first stop along the way is 1940, when the next Great War has begun. This section is closest to accurate, as it predicts substantial destruction from air raids, just as would happen to London during the Blitz.

However, movies have a tendency to get the future badly wrong, and Things to Come is no exception. It posits that the war goes on for decades, resulting in the destruction of nation-states, with city-states fighting one another in the Everytown part of the world, and the "intellectuals" having decamped to another part of the world, where they form a World Government that's going to force the city-states to stop fighting each other.

If that's bad enough, fast forward to 2035, when Science decides it's going to put the first men on the moon. Unfortunately, though, Science hasn't quite solved social problems at home, and there's a huge group of Luddites who don't want the moon shot to go forward.

The movie is visually quite interesting, especially the scenes in 2035. However, much of the movie also falls flat thanks to H.G. Wells' ham-handedness. He wrote the screenplay in addition to writing the original story, and this provided him an opportunity to insert his own favorite hobbyhorses into the story. This is too bad, since Wells had some rather loopy political views. He favored a World Government; was, like many intellectuals of the 1930s, a complete dupe (if not worse) regarding Joseph Stalin; and even favored eugenics and a reduction of the franchise to those deemed intellectually fit.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teenage Crime Wave

I mentioned the 1955 movie Teenage Crime Wave just after it aired last April. Since it's a B movie with a bunch of no-name actors in the cast, it's not out on DVD. However, it's airing again at 8:30 AM ET on March 27 on TCM.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chuck Jones cartoons

TCM's prime time line-up tonight features a new 30-minute documentary on famous animator Chuck Jones, followed by about a dozen of his best-known shorts. One of the most famous would be What's Opera, Doc?, airing at 9:50 PM ET (and repeated overnight), in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny through a Wagner opera dressed up as Siegfried, with Bugs in drag as Brünhilde. Be advised, however, that this isn't the only short Jones' team made with an operatic theme. There's also the famous Rabbit of Seville, which has as its theme Rossini's The Barber of Seville. As such, it's easy to mix up bits between the two shorts, such as Bugs Bunny's massaging Elmer Fudd's scalp, or the race of the barber chairs, both of which appear in Rabbit of Seville. Sadly, Rabbit of Seville is not airing as part of the tribute.

A very interesting short Jones produced after leaving Warner Brothers is The Dot and the Line, which airs at 10:00 PM ET following What's Opera, Doc? In this bizarre mid-60s piece, a straight line is in love with a dot, but it's an unrequited love as the dot thinks the line is too plain. The straight line eventually tries to turn itself into shapes, with a result that's certainly interesting, if you haven't seen this short before.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 3

If you're a fan of TCM, you've probably seen the promos for the new Forbidden Hollywood DVD set, which is the third volume in the collection. I mentioned Volume 2 last year, since I generally enjoy pre-Code movies. Volume 3 looks to be somewhat less of what one would traditionally think of as being "pre-Code", but is very interesting thanks to the fact that all of the movies were directed by the great William Wellman. TCM's promotion reaches its climax tonight, as they air several of the movies in the DVD set.

I've briefly mentioned Heroes for Sale in the past; that's airing overnight at 2:00 AM ET. Richard Barthelmess stars as a World War I soldier who gets addicted to morphine, and then leads workers on a riot when the industrial laundry machine he and his business partner market is used by businesses to cut their labor force during the Great Depression. The movie is interesting until the last few mintues, which contain a scene very strongly propagandizing in favor of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Not to get into a debate over the appropriate level of government involvement in the economy, but Wellman didn't need to be so heavy-handed about it.

Just as interesting is the movie that kicks off the night at 8:00 PM ET, Wild Boys of the Road. Frankie Darro stars as an adolescent whose father (character actor Grant Mitchell) loses his job and is no longer able to support him. The same thing is happening to teens all over the country, so Darro and his friends take to the rails, living like hoboes. They meet a girl (Wellman's future wife) and travel from town to town together, as the various cities' civic fathers don't want the shantytowns these teens set up. There's certainly material here that wouldn't have made it past the censors after 1934, as it's very strongly implied that the girl gets raped on a boxcar. The only bad thing about the movie is that the ending is a bit too pat. The characters are brought before a judge, who is reminiscent of Lewis Stone's Judge Hardy. But, the ending isn't nearly as bad as in Heroes for Sale.

The "Forbidden Hollywood" set doesn't seem to be listed at Amazon yet, although it is available courtesy of TCM's web-site, partnering with Movies Unlimited. It might even be better to buy from there, as it helps TCM and gives them the impetus to bring us more classic movies.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Joan Crawford birthday tribute

March 23 marks the anniversary of Joan Crawford's birth, and TCM are marking the day by showing seven of her movies. I think I've recommended two of them before:

The Caretakers, airing at 2:45 PM ET. Crawford stars as the head nurse in a mental hospital where doctor Robert Stack is trying to introduce more "modern" methods over the objections of Crawford. It's fun, but not as campy as many of the other movies Crawford was making in the 1950s and 1960s; perhaps the highlight comes at the very beginning when an agitated Polly Bergen walks into a movie theater, and sees a newsreel full of stock images designed to drive somebody insane. Bergen obliges, ending up silhouetted against the movie screen.

Strait-Jacket follows at 4:30 PM. Here, Crawford plays the insane woman, one who just got out of the asylum after spending 20 years there following the axe-murder of her husband. Not long after she moves in with her daughter (Diane Baker), brother, and sister-in-law on the family farm, more axe murders start happening. Yes, Crawford wears that ghastly flower-print dress in the movie. Stay tuned for the closing credits as well.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

W.S. Van Dyke, 1889-1943

Head shot of Jack Carson,

Prominent 1930s director W.S. Van Dyke was born on this day in 1889. He was prolific in the 1930s, being known as "One-Take Woody" because he shot his movies very quickly and allowed his actors to improvise.

I've recommended some of his movies before, notably San Francisco and Manhattan Melodrama. Van Dyke also directed the first four movies in the Thin Man series. Somewhat surprisingly, I haven't recommended any of them before. Get the first, from 1934; it's the best.

James Cagney's gangsters partner with Humphrey Bogart's

Back in October, I mentioned Angels With Dirty Faces, in which James Cagney plays a gangster who was the boyhood friend of Pat O'Brien, now a Catholic priest. It's airing again on March 22 at 8:00 AM ET.

It's being preceded by another Cagney gangster movie, The Roaring Twenties, which starts at 6:00 AM. Both movies feature Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. Bogart had started his career back in 1930 alongside Spencer Tracy in the Fox prison movie Up The River, which is currently in the Fox Movie Channel's rotation and will be airing this coming Tuesday. Bogart, however, spent years climbing his way up the ladder, really only getting to B-level in the mid-30s when he made Petrified Forest opposite Leslie Howard. He contintued to work his way up, but somewhat surprisingly, it wasn't until 1941 when he really became a star, making both The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra.

It's interesting, though, that in a movie like Dark Victory, which aired recently on TCM as part of Ronald Reagan's turn as "Star of the Month", Bogart gets a role that is not only a supporting role, but one in which he was clearly miscast; as Bette Davis' Irish-American stable manager. (Not that Reagan was much better cast, playing one of Davis' idle rich friends.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Antowne Fisher was on this morning

IFC aired Antwone Fisher this morning. I had intended to blog about it yesterday, but didn't get around to it. Better late than never, I suppose. Anyhow, like most recent movies, it's available on DVD, so you don't have to wait for it to show up on TV.

Previously unknown Derek Luke stars in the title role of Antwone Fisher, a young man in the US Navy who's got a bit of an anger management problem. Actually, it's more than a bit of a problem. At the start of the movie, we see Fisher trying to strangle a shipmate who's mildly teasing him -- and learn this isn't the first time Fisher has lashed out. So, he's sent to Navy psychiatrist Denzel Washington. At first, Fisher wants no part of the shrink, just sitting there and letting the hour pass by, complete with the standard shots of clocks showing the passage of time. Eventually, though, Fisher has some sort of change of heart, and starts opening up. Fisher had a difficult and chaotic childhood, to put it mildly. He was born in prison, and his biological father was killed by a different girlfriend before Antwone was born. Indeed, Antwone only knows his biological father's first name. After his mother got out of prison, she couldn't be bothered to take custody of him, leaving Antwone to be "raised" by Jesus freaks and other people.

Still, our psychiatrist thinks it would be a good idea if Antwone went on leave and went back to his hometown of Cleveland to find out more about his biological family. Antwone is lucky that by now, he's got a girlfriend. It's not an easy relationship, since Antwone is as frigid as Marnie, but his girlfriend is a saint, sensing that something is wrong with Antwone, not being too prying about it, and then following him to Cleveland and calling hundreds of names in the phone book when Antwone learns the surname of his biological father.

The girlfriend, however, is symptomatic of the problems the movie has. It just feels too pat. The acting is competent, with the exception of Luke who does quite a bit better than everybody else. Denzel Washington was making his directorial debut, and also does a competent job. But the nature of story really calls for something more than that. It's not that the movie is bad -- indeed, watching it is a rewarding experience -- but one walks away from the movie thinking it could have been so much more.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Betsy Blair, 1923-2009

Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine in 'Marty'

Betsy Blair, who played Ernest Borgnine's love interest in the 1955 movie Marty, has died at the age of 85. Blair had an early career on Broadway, married fellow Broadway player Gene Kelly (before he went to Hollywood), and moved to London to avoid the blacklist in the 1950s.

Blair and Kelly divorced in 1957, and Blair later married Czech-born British director Karel Riesz, who made such British classics as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

William Holden does comedy, too

This afternoon at 3:00 PM ET, TCM is airing Miss Grant Takes Richmond. It may be hard to imagine William Holden doing comedy, even in spite of his performance in Born Yesterday: there, most of the comedy focusses on the other two stars, Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford. Holden gets to do a bit more comedy in Miss Grant Takes Richmond, but even so, most of the comedy involves his female co-star, Lucille Ball.

Ball plays a student (Miss Grant) in secretarial school who seems bound to flunk out. She can't do anything right, and everything she does wrong is done for comedic effect. So, imagine everybody's surprise when William Holden (Mr. Richmond) comes to the school and picks the incompetent Miss Grant to be the receptionist at his real estate business. The people think he's crazy, but it turns out there's a method to his madness. The real estate business is just a front for the real operation: a numbers racket. Richmond obviously wants a receptionist who has no idea what's going on in the back rooms of the business, and Miss Grant is the perfect person for that job.

Unfortunately for him, however, she turns out to be too perfect. Miss Grant Takes Richmond was released in 1949, during the early part of the baby boom when there was a huge shortage of housing. Miss Grant and many of her friends are looking for places of their own, and when they find a section of town ripe for new tract housing, Grant unsurprisingly gets the idea that Richmond's real estate business would be the perfect one to develop it. And dammit, nothing ever stopped any of Lucille Ball's characters when they got an idea as daffy as this, as Holden learns to his chagrin. (One of the daffier parts of it comes when Grant and her friends are looking at the planned development, and decide that the houses are too small. They rectify the problem by moving the strings and stakes delimiting the planned houses, blithely unaware of the problem this is going to cause the builders the next morning.)

Miss Grant Takes Richmond is part comedy-of-lies (in which comedy is derived by one character having to go to elaborate schemes to hide the truth from another), part romantic comedy, and part screwball. Ball and Holden are both fine, although one gets the feeling that this is the sort of material Ball had done a lot of times before, and would continue to do once I Love Lucy came to television. The supporting cast is good enough too; Janis Carter plays the "other woman" in the romantic comedy half of the plot, and veteran character actors James Gleason and Frank McHugh play Holden's right-hand men in the numbers racket. While Miss Grant Takes Richmond isn't the greatest movie you'll ever see, it's a good, clean way to spend an hour and a half.

With well-known stars like Lucille Ball and William Holden, one would think that Miss Grant Takes Richmond is a good candidate for a DVD release. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

So it's St. Patrick's Day

I have some relatives of Irish descent, and one of them used to subscribe to an Irish-American newspaper that I found rather shocking in its jinning up dislike of the UK, and its constant tales of woe about how the rest of America was supposedly out to get Irish-Americans, the NINA myth. Hollywood's treatment of the Irish is similarly dire, being unbelievably treacly. I remember watching the movie Tear Gas Squad on TCM several months ago, since the title and TCM's one-sentence synopsis both sounded interesting. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Dennis Morgan doing dreadful Irish singing, complete with all the other stereotypes of the "lovable" Irish.

Instead, I'd rather be subversive and think of some movies in which the Irish characters aren't so good. The first example would be the great The Man Who Never Was, in which the Nazis send an Irish spy to infiltrate London to find out whether a dead body is really what it claims to be.

One that I haven't recommended before is I See a Dark Stranger. Deborah Kerr stars as a young Irish woman during World War II who has been infected by her father with a hatred for Britain. She's so contorted by her hate that she wants to go to Britain to engage in terrorism against the UK. So, when she grows up, she goes to Dublin and looks for the IRA terrorist that her father has been raving about ever since she was a child. The IRA terrorist is now a museum curator but, more importantly, an ex-terrorist, having decided that diplomacy is better than terrorism. This is World War II, though, and there are Nazi agents in (neutral) Ireland, one of whom recruits Kerr, and sends her to England. In England, she meets Trevor Howard, a British army lieutenant. You can guess what's going to happen next: the two fall in love, even though he's British and she's working for the Nazis.

The movie is pretty good, having been written and directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the men responsbile for helping Alfred Hitchcock with the screenplay to The Lady Vanishes. The movie is full of twists and turns, even though you have a fairly good idea of how it's going to end. Kerr and Howard are both good, too. And most importantly, it's nice to see a movie taking a different view of the Irish than what Hollywood always gave us. I See a Dark Stranger is also available on DVD.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ron Silver, 1946-2009

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz in 'Reversal of Fortune'

Ron Silver, who played attorney Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune, has died at the age of 62. Silver also appeared in such other famous movies as Silkwood, and had a long career both on Broadway and TV.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Terry-Thomas returns!

It's been just over a year since I recommended the wonderful British comedy Make Mine Mink, starring Terry-Thomas. TCM is airing another of his comedies, Too Many Crooks, at 8:45 AM ET on March 16.

In this movie, Terry-Thomas plays a wealthy businessman who's worried about losing his money. There's a gang of crooks out to swindle money from him, and if they can get a large sum of money, so much the better. However, this being a comedy, the crooks are just about as incompetent as the fur thieves in the aforementioned Make Mine Mink. Their plan is to kidnap Terry-Thomas' daughter. Being clueless, however, they actually end up kidnapping his wife instead. (She's played by Brenda de Banzie; you might recognize her from the 1950s version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, where she plays the female kidnapper.) They place a large ransom on the wife, but don't bank on what happens next: Terry-Thomas is actually pleased to see the back of his wife, as she's been nagging him to death and being otherwise all-around unpleasant. This is a shock to the kidnappers, but even more so to the wife, who had no idea how her husband felt about her. So, she gets an idea. She's going to get revenge on her, and use the gang as a means of getting her revenge. After all, they have a motive for punishing Terry-Thomas, too. And so we end up with a fairly wild comedy.

Too Many Crooks is great fun, although it's not quite as good as Make Mine Mink. It's typical of the sort of comedy that British cinema was putting out at the time, but Hollywood really wasn't. Terry-Thomas and Brenda de Banzie are both quite good, as are the supporting cast. Having said that, it is reminiscent of some later movies that Hollywood made, such as Anthony Quinn in The Happening, where he plays a character very similar to the Brenda de Banzie character; or even to an extent something like Ruthless People. But the Brits got there first with Too Many Crooks, and we should be thankful for that. Unfortunately, it only seems to be available in a Region 2 DVD, which means many North American DVD players won't play it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Story of GI Joe

Yesterday, when I discussed Crossfire, I mentioned that Robert Mitchum had already become a star when he made The Story of GI Joe. By a happy coincidence, that movie is airing overnight tonight, at 2:00 AM ET on TCM.

The title of the movie is more metaphorical, in that there is no one GI Joe, and the movie wasn't really conceived as being the story of a GI. Instead, it's the story of journalist Ernie Pyle, played by Burgess Meredith. Pyle is serving as a war correspondent but, unlike mnay of his colleagues, he has a great desire to get closer to the troops and report their personal stories. As a result, he repeatedly ends up with the 18th Infantry as they make their way from Tunisia to Sicily to the Italian mainland. This is not a romantic view of war; instead, war is shown as the almost unrelenting horror that it was for those who had to take part in it. Thanks for that goes in no small part to director William Wellman, who had served in World War I (albeit in the Air Corps). Also lending an air of realism is the fact that many actual servicemen are playing themselves.

Although Meredith is technically the star, Mitchum steals the show. He plays the commander of the unit, and is clearly a man who's seen too much. He's tired of the war, and exudes the same constant ghastliness that war is. Mitchum does this effortlessly and brilliantly, and received an Oscar nomination for doing so.

The movie was released before the war ended, so it doesn't have a happy ending, simply because the US hadn't yet won the war. In fact, the movie doesn't even have an epilogue mentioning what happened to Pyle: he was transferred from the European theater to the Pacific, and was killed in the battle for Okinawa.

If you don't wish to stay up late at night to watch The Story of GI Joe, and don't record it, you're still in luck, as this excellent movie has been released to DVD.

Friday, March 13, 2009


TCM is airing the underrated Crossfire at 7:30 AM on March 14. It's got some definite flaws, but it's still worth watching.

The setting is Washington DC, not long after World War II (the movie was released in 1947). Three soldiers are about to be decommissioned, and are out for a night on the town before going back to their former lives. While out, they're invited to a man's apartment. The man gets killed, and one of the soldiers disappears, making him the prime suspect. But did he do it? And why would he have done it?

The cast has several recognizable names in it. Robert Young plays the police officer investigating the murder, and Robert Mitchum plays the soldiers' commanding officer. Mitchum is drafted (for want of a better word) to help the police in their investigation, specifically because he can order the soldier-suspects around. Chief among the soldiers is Robert Ryan, a bullying, hate-filled man who has the best performance in the movie. There's also Gloria Grahame, who plays a nightclub worker who lends out her apartment to the chief suspect (played by not-so-well known George Cooper).

The mystery itself is pretty good, and the direction, handled by Edward Dmytryk as a noir, is excellent. But there are a few problems. One is with the motive behind the murder. Crossfire is based on a novel, in which the murder victim was a gay man. He invited the soldiers up to his aparment, and one of them must have thought he was propositioning them, and took offense to it. Hollywood, during the time of the Production Code, couldn't mention homosexuality, and so had to turn the motive into anti-Semitism. Sure, there were anti-Semites around; Gentleman's Agreement is an outstanding movie from the same year dealing with the subject. Worse for Crossfire, the prejudice angle is made mind-numbingly clear thanks to an irritatingly blunt speech by Young comparing anti-Semitism with not liking the Irish. Although Robert Mitchum co-stars, he wasn't given much to work with. He had already become a star thanks to The Story of GI Joe and Out of the Past, but here, he's almost wooden, as though the material is too easy for him. The Robert Ryan role is the meaty one, and Mitchum's CO is never really developed.

Still, Crossfire is a pretty darn good movie. It's also available on DVD, if you don't want to get up early tomorrow morning.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I wanna watch Rembrandt sketch

TCM are putting a spotlight on the Korda brothers this month, which means that we get a lot of British movies every Thursday evening in prime time. Tonight kicks off with the 1936 biopic Rembrandt, at 8:00 PM ET.

Charles Laughton stars as the Dutch master, who has his own way of looking at the world. As such, he's constantly at odds with his patrons, and also in constant financial turmoil -- it seems you needed those consarned patrons to pay the bills for you. Meanwhile, Rembrandt has a nagging wife, but a new model, and finds her almost irresistible....

Laughton's perfomance is excellent in a movie that has a few problems. Rembrandt, despite having been made in Britain, fits in very well with the Hollywood studio system. It comes across as being as lavish as a British production could be in the day, but very clearly studio-bound. Compare this to a movie like Girl With a Pearl Earring which has gorgeous location shooting and color cinematography. Also, the plot is one that would have been in place in a Hollywood movie, where faux romantic tension was added to spice up otherwise boring biopics (notably Rhapsody in Blue).

Still, Rembrandt is worth watching, and not just for Laughton's performance. Sure, it's his movie all the way, but Elsa Lanchester also does a good job, as do the rest of the members of the British cast. In short, Rembrandt is a fun and worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half. The movie is currently out of print, but is scheduled for a DVD re-release in May.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Raoul Walsh, 1887-1980

Raoul Walsh, 1887-1980

Famed director Raoul Walsh was born on this day in 1887. I've recommended his work before, specifically The Big Trail. An interesting movie of his that I haven't mentioned in the past is Esther and the King.

Esther here is indeed the Old Testament Esther, at least in name. She's played here by Joan Collins, which should give you some semblance of what the movie is going to be like. The story is spiced up, with the women wearing the slinkiest of garments, and the men wearing tunics that show off their calves and arms. Esther is a Persian Jew who is in love with a fellow Jew, but discovered by King Xerxes (Ahaseurus) after he's had his first wife executed. Thanks to complicated palace machinations, Esther's uncle is working in the palace, and the King's right-hand man wants Esther killed so that his preferred choice can marry the King. Esther has to save the Jews of Persia from, well, the same sorts of things that befell them ever since they ended up in Egypt.

Esther and the King was made in 1960, at the end of a period in which a whole host of Biblical epics had been made. The genre had pretty much run its course, and so today, Esther and the King isn't remembered anywhere near as well as The Ten Commandments. That's not to say it's a bad movie. Joan Collins actually does fairly well, and the cinematography is quite pretty. And there's also more than enough flesh to satisfy anybody. It's a fun little movie for Easter if you want a different Bible story than the ones that normally get shown, and it's available on DVD, too.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And odd look at history

I've commented a couple of times about Hollywood's treatment of history. A more recent movie with a very different look at American history is airing tonight at 8:30 PM ET on the Independent Film Channel: CSA: The Confederate States of America.

The premise of the movie is that the Confederacy won the Civil War in 1864 and conquered the Union, driving Lincoln from the White House and making the Confederate governement the government of the whole country. 140 years on, a British TV channel made a documentary of the past 140 years of American history that can now be shown on American television for the first time. The whole of CSA is not just the mockumentary, but the purported Confederate TV broadcast of that mockumentary.

The movie is certainly very different. The mockumentary is presented using a lot of the techniques that Ken Burns used in his epic PBS documentary on the Civil War (and later documentaries), combined with a look at one of the CSA's most prominent contemporary families, whose scion is now running for President. Parts of the presenation are quite good, especially when parodic humor is used, such as a "D.W. Griffith" portrayal of Harriet Tubman shepherding a blackface Abraham Lincoln into Canada via the Underground Railroad, and another look at the way the Hollywood of the 1940s might have depicted the government of the era just after the War. There are also the talking-heads, historians who are supposed to be "experts" about Confederate history, although these sequences aren't quite as good.

More controversial, however, will be the parts of the movie that are "commercials", the breaks between the bits of the mockumentary as it would have been shown on TV. These are for fake products with names that some might find offensive, and ad presentations that could almost fit in with Hollywood's blackface musical numbers of the 1930s. It would be easy for viewers to find these very offensive, although the producers don't have that intention in mind at all, making their intentions clear in the closing credits.

CSA is an intriguing movie that deserves a viewing, although it may not be to everybody's tastes. If you prefer a more conventional look at history, you might prefer switching back to TCM afterwards for Cornelius Ryan's A Bridge Too Far, airing at 10:00 PM ET.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bathtubs and Showers

IFC aired the classic French movie Les Diaboliques today. (Don't watch the Hollywood remake with Susan Sarandon.) I won't give anything away, other than to say that afterwards, you may be skittish about taking a bath. If you want to make yourself even more skittish, watch this as part of a double feature with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

One thing I find interesting is that bathtubs and showers could still make it into Hollywood movies under the restrictions of the Production Code. True, a lot of the time showers were used, it was for comic effect, as in the opening of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, or in Easy Living, when a very fancy hotel shower goes awry.

Hollywood were lucky that the Production Code wasn't so strict that they couldn't show men topless, which meant that they could show the military's communal showers in all those old war movies. Technially, this would be accurate, although I can't help but think that Hollywood included such scenes in order to have some beefcake for the ladies.

Showing people in a bathtub is more difficult. You have to cover up a lot of a woman in order to do it, and the simplest solution for this would be to put her in a bubble bath. Think, for example, of the scene in Some Like It Hot in which Tony Curtis, disguised as the millionaire, is trapped in his hotel room, where he's supposed to be disguised as a woman. The solution? Put on a wig and hide in a bubble bath.

That having been said, it's amazing that we get to see as much of Edward G. Robinson as we do in Key Largo, where he's shown half-naked and smoking a cigar in his bathtub. It's as frightening an image as it sounds.

Production Code or no, however, it's probably a good thing from the point of view of classic movies that American bathrooms don't normally have bidets....

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tokyo Story

I mentioned the 1953 Japanese classic Tokyo Story back in September and again in November. Tokyo Story is this week's selection for TCM Imports, and is airing at 2:00 AM ET on March 9. It's well worth watching, even if it is a bit too long.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A new season of TCM's Essentials

Now that 31 Days of Oscar is over, TCM is starting the 2009 season of The Essentials, in which Robert Osborne sits down with a guest host to discuss some movies that are "essential" for any movie buff to see. This year's guest host is Alec Baldwin, and their first selection is the 1935 Marx Brothers' movie A Night at the Opera; tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

To be honest, I'm not that big of a fan of the Marx Brothers. However, I do think that The Essentials is a good idea. As I have mentioned before, not everybody knows the classic movies all that well, and for those of us who would consider ourselves serious film fans, our taste in movies might seem a bit obscurantist when viewed from the eyes of an average person. (After all, we get the Korda brothers on Thursdays this month.) Consequently, it's a good idea for TCM to do things to introduce some of the better-known classics to people who might not realize they'll like such movies.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Horton Foote, 1916-2009

Horton Foote, the playwright who also won two Oscars for his screenplays, has died at the age of 92. Foote's Oscars were for adapting the novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen, and for his screenplay for Tender Mercies. Interestingly enough, I haven't posted about either of these movies, but have mentioned two other of Foote's works: Tomorrow, which is based on a story by William Faulkner; and The Trip to Bountiful, in which Foote adapted his own play.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Runaway

On Friday, March 6, at 1:45 PM ET, TCM is showing a movie that took 45 years to see the light of day: The Runaway.

Roger Mobley plays the title role, Felipe, a Mexican boy with a very poor life. He crosses back and forth between the US and Mexican sides of the border, claiming that he's got family in the US, but keeps getting deported to Mexico. As the movie opens, he's living with an older couple that breeds dogs but, due to having committed some petty crime, has to leave. As he leaves, he takes one of the greyhound puppies with him. Felipe stows away on the truck of a Catholic priest, Father Duke (played by Cesar Romero), who lives on the American side of the border but does a lot of work on both sides. Unfortunately for Felipe, he's found out at the border. There's a bright side, though, which is that he is remanded to the custody of Fr. Duke, who takes him to his rectory in America.

What happens next is fairly predictable: the good father takes this boy under his wing, using the dog as a way to get to the boy's heart and turn him into a much better-behaved boy than he's been before. The dog being a greyhound, you also know that the two are going to turn to racing the dog (never mind the fact that greyhound racing is much less glamorous than it's portrayed to be in the movie).

The Runaway is a good family movie, although in the grand scheme of things it's nothing special. While much of what happens is predictable, that's not necessarily a bad thing when dealing with movies for your kids to watch. Mobley turns in a good performance as the boy, while Romero is equally good as the priest. And dogs are always nice to look at on the screen. The credits also claim that the nun in the movie is played by Anita Page. However, she hadn't made a movie for 25 years, and wouldn't make another movie for 35 more years afterwards

For some reason, the makers of this movie couldn't get a theatrical release at the time they made it (a fact which might have something to do with the paucity of credits). It lay languishing somewhere for 45 years, until TCM resurrected it and gave it its premiere in the fall of 2008. As a result, it also hasn't made its way to DVD, and it's probably not likely to any time soon. Still, if you've got kids, this is a good movie to record for them.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ronald Reagan, Part 3: The Shortcoming

I've mentioned Reagan's better qualities as an actor in two previous posts, while also claiming that he wasn't exactly the greatest actor. Our next selection highlights that shortcoming: Night Unto Night, 1t 10:45 AM ET on March 5.

Here, Reagan plays scientist John Gaylord, who's been diagnosed with epilepsy, and is sent to Florida because the air down there is allegedly better for his health. He rents a large house so that he can continue to do his research, and while in Florida, meets prominent artist C.L. Shawn (played by Broderick Crawford). Meanwhile, Gaylord learns that Ann Gracy, from whom he's renting the house (played by Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors) has some secrets of her own. She's a widow, and thinks she heard the voice of her dead husband in that big house while she was packing up her things.

Well, you can guess what's going to happen next: John and Ann fall in love. There are a bunch of problems, however. First, John doesn't want Ann falling in love with him, because his epilepsy is leading him to believe that he's got a much reduced life expectancy, meaning Ann is about to lose another she loves. Also, Ann's sister has a thing for him. So, John becomes moody and withdrawn, not wanting Ann to have anything to do with him -- especially when he has another seizure.

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, they do, as a hurricane is threatening to come ashore, making life a mess for everybody....

Night Unto Night has so many problems. Reagan, being the lead here, has the biggest problem, which ironically is the boundless optimism that served him well in the B movies a decade earlier. John Gaylord is a much darker character, and Reagan seems wholly unable to tap into any emotions that could bring out such darkness in John. Instead, Reagan comes across as stiff and wooden. It's the sort of role that really should have been played by somebody like Gregory Peck, or even James Stewart after he came back from serving in World War II.

But to say that Reagan's casting made this movie a failure is a bit unfair to Reagan. Broderick Crawford was an excellent actor, having won an Oscar for All the King's Men, and later appearing in the outstanding Born Yesterday. But Crawford is all wrong in Night Unto Night, being wholly unconvincing as an artist. Lindfors was brought in by the studio specifically to be the new Swedish thing, and it seems as though the studio bosses paid no mind to whether she was in fact given any good material for her first Hollywood project. So perhaps the fault lies with director Don Siegel, or maybe even with the people who wrote the formulaic screenplay which seems to be cobbled together from bits and pieces of plot devices from old movies.

Or perhaps the production Night Unto Night was doomed by events outside its control: At the time of filming, there was a strike involving one apparently corrupt union trying to muscle another less corrupt union out of Hollywood. Night Unto Night was effectively breaking the strike by virtue of simply making the movie. Whatever the problem, though, Night Unto Night is a deeply flawed movie that's all the more fascinating for those flaws. Like much of Reagan's work, however, it's not available on DVD.

Ronald Reagan, Part 2

Ronald Reagan's likeableness and eternal optimism made him an obvious choice to be the leading man in several of Warner Bros.' B movies of the late 1930s other than the action movies in which he played Brass Bancroft. The one which most clearly shows this is Accidents Will Happen, airing overnight, at 4:30 AM ET March 5 on TCM. Here, Reagan is the leading man, playing an insurance investigator who has to face a fraud ring: a group of criminals are staging fake accidents, and then claiming the insurance money. It's Reagan's job to prove that they are in fact committing fraud. Along the way, he has to deal with his wife, who wants the better things in life that the fraudsters are getting, and that Reagan can't because he's just too gosh-darn honest. Despite a completely different plot, it shares a lot of foundation as the Brass Bancroft movies: it's breezy and full of activity, and always fast-paced at a short 62 minutes. Is it a great movie? Not by any means. But as I've mentioned a lot with the B movies that Hollywood was making back in the 1930s, the studios needed a lot of product to put on their screens as part of the double feature with the big movie, and Accidents Will Happen is a fine example of that. You could find a lot worse ways to spend those 62 minutes than to watch Accidents Will Happen. Heck, just try watching some of the musicals that Hollywood put out before 42nd Street if you want to see some bad movie-making.

A much more interesting movie than Accidents Will Happen with Reagan in the cast is Girls On Probation, airing at 2:00 AM ET on March 5. Here, Reagan is only in a supporting role; the star is Jane Bryan. She plays a "good girl" working at a dry-cleaners, who falls afoul of the law when her bad-girl friend (Sheila Bromley) working there borrows two of the dresses for them to wear to a party. Instead of being sent to jail, however, she's shown pity by insurance adjuster Reagan who, having fallen for her, gets her probation and a job in another town. In that other town, Bryan meets Bromley again, and decides to give her a piece of her mind, climbing into Bromley's car to do it. Unfortunately for Bryan, Bromley's driving the getaway car for her bank-robber boyfriend, and Bryan's being there for it has some pretty serious legal ramifications! The plot twist is ludicrous at best, but typical for the late-30s B movie; in fact, it's one of the things that makes some of these B movies so much fun. Reagan is adequate here, but he doesn't have much to do.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jean Harlow, 1911-1937

Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow in 'Dinner at Eight' (1933)

Jean Harlow was born on this day in 1911. Sure, any day is a good day to post photos of the lovely Miss Harlow, but the anniversary of her birth is the most approriate day.

In the photo above, from the 1933 movie Dinner at Eight Harlow is seen with Marie Dressler, after just having told Dressler that she's read a crazy sort of book. If you haven't seen the movie, Dressler goes on to deliver one of the great one-liners.

I've also recommended Harlow in Libeled Lady, from which this second photo is taken. Harlow, of course, is the blonde second from right, talking with Spencer Tracy who has his back to the camera. Harlow, of course, died tragically young, at the age of just 26. It's interesting to think about what might have come in her career later, but also a shame that she died young enough to allow this.

Ronald Reagan, Part 1

TCM's Star of the Month for March 2009 is Ronald Reagan. Reagan has come in for a lot of criticism as an actor by those who opposed his political career, and I think those criticisms are somewhat misplaced. Sure, Reagan spent the better portion of his career making the "B" movies that Hollywood needed to churn out in the studio era, but so did a lot of the other people. A lot of those Reagan performances are serviceable, even if they're nowhere near as good as what you'd get in a "prestige" movie.

TCM's look at Reagan starts off on Wednesday, March 4, with the four movies he made playing Secret Service agent "Brass" Bancroft. These are all solidly B pictures, and as such they're of varying quality. But when they go wrong, it's not Reagan's fault. They all run about an hour, and Reagan is likeable as the Secret Service agent who maintains his optimism in spite of whatever troubles befall him. In Code of the Secret Service, airing at 9:15 PM ET Wednesday, for example, Reagan's Bancroft has to head to Mexico to figure out what happened to one of his colleagues who was murdered investigating a counterfeiting ring. There, Bancroft meets a priest played by veteran character actor Moroni Olsen, who just happens to be the bad guy. It's no great shakes, but it's enjoyable enough entertainment.

Perhaps the best of the four movies might be Smashing the Money Ring, at 10:30 PM Wednesday. Again, Bancroft has to deal with counterfeiters. (This isn't the fault of the writers; the Secret Service was founded to deal with counterfeiting, not protecting the President. It was originally part of the Treasury Department, but its became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The writers couldn't possibly have anticipated this.) This time, Bancroft goes undercover in a prison to investigate rumors that money plates are being smuggled through the prison printing press. The plot quickly turns to a gambling ship, though, in a typical example of a B-movie's plot suddenly veering from one thing to another. Still, it's fast-paced, and more than enough fun.

The worst example is probably the last of the movies, Murder in the Air, at 11:30 PM ET Wednesday. This time, Bancroft ends up on a blimp (years after the Hindenburg disaster effectively put a huge crimp in blimp research), and gets involved with a device that can stop engines via remote control. It's far more laughable than the previous Brass Bancroft movies. But the fault is largely that of the script writers. Reagan tries his hardest with impossible material.

Monday, March 2, 2009

More on The Philadelphia Story

I mentioned The Philadelphia Story about a year ago, specifically in reference to Katharine Hepburn's playing a self-absorbed jerk. It's airing again at 10:00 PM ET on March 2, and if I weren't in the Eastern Time Zone, I'd stay up to watch it to the end. From Franz Waxman's opening piano theme to the photographic ending, it's a movie that glitters with MGM class in every single shot.

Today, though, I'd like to mention a different cast member's performance: Virginia Weidler. She plays the kid sister of Katharine Hepburn, and she's perfect. She's precocious and bratty, even before the grown-ups get the idea to put on an act for the tabloid reporters played by James Stewart and Ruth Hussey. As such, she gets some really choice lines in the movie. Their father has been doing something (presumably fooling around and drinking) that causes Hepburn not to want him at the new wedding, and Weidler knows fully well that something is up: "The papers are full of innundo," she says. And she knows about what happened between her sister and the first husband (Cary Grant): "Is he going to slug her again?" she asks her mother. And then, there's her rendition of "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady", which has to be seen (and heard) to be believed....

Sadly, Virginia Weidler retired young from the movies and suffered a lifelong heart ailment that eventually caused her premature death when she was only in her early 40s. However, we still have her movies, and The Philadelphia Story is one of her best.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lions and Lambs

Today being the first day of March, I'm reminded of the proverb about March "coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb". (Or is it the other way around?) If you want lions in the movies, you can't miss. Just watch any MGM movie.

Seriously, for lions in the movies that are real characters, there are still quite a few. The old fable of Androcles and the Lion has been made into a movie a bunch of times, most notably by Hollywood in 1952 with Victor Mature and Jean Simmons. Lions in Roman times are a suitable combat partner for gladiators, as in Cecil B. DeMille's outrageous The Sign of the Cross.

There are more contemporary lions in 1960s movies such as Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion, or the true story Born Free. And for a completely different kind of lion, you can't go wrong watching Paper Lion, about George Plimpton's tryout with the Detroit Lions football team.

Lambs don't seem to show up as much, simply because they're not as interesting as lions. The good people of the island of Foula herd sheep in Michael Powell's excellent The Edge of the World, but other than shepherds, I can't think of sheep showing up too often. I suppose I could mention Lambada, but that has nothing to do with sheep....