Sunday, May 31, 2009

Charley Chase

TCM is doing something different in June: a variation on its annual Summer Under the Stars feature, except with directors being spotlighted instead of actors and actresses. For the morning and afternoon of June 1, the featured director is Leo McCarey. The day kicks off with three two-reelers starring Charley Chase.

Chase was a fairly popular actor of the silent era whose popularity diminished with the advent of sound. His silents have him as a seemingly kind-hearted man, who has a penchant for getting himself into a jam, and having to try to get himself out of the situation by creating an ever bigger lie. It's a style of comedy that can be painful when done wrong, but if it works well, it can be really funny. One of the advantages to doing it in the silent era is that more of the pain comes from such comedies being overly talky -- in the silent era, comedy had to be broader and more physical.

For whatever reason, Chase didn't become as popular as some of the other comedians of the silent era. Perhaps it's because he made mostly short movies, and because he wasn't producing his own movies the way that Charley Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd were. Still, his work is pretty funny, and is well worth seeing as a diversion. And since the movies are all two-reelers, you haven't wasted much time if you don't like them.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Keir Dullea

Today marks the 73d birthday of actor Keir Dullea. He's probably best known as the human star of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, putting the poor HAL 9000 computer out of its misery when it decides to try to kill the humanoids because they're imperfect. (HAL must have been running Windows.) Dullea was also in Bunny Lake is Missing, which I've recommended before. One of his earliest movies is one I haven't recommended yet: David and Lisa.

Dullea stars as David, an adolescent who's got some problems: he's an obsessive compulsive, and doesn't want to be touched by anybody, since he thinks they've all got terrible germs that will kill him. Felix Unger has nothing on him. His parents are too absorbed in their own lives to know what to do, so they send him to a special school for mentally troubled teens, although most of the people there are lower on the intelligence scale -- David is bright, and extremely arrogant about it. He thinks he doesn't have problems; everybody else does.

This changes when David meets Lisa (Janet Margolin), a naïve young woman who's suffering some schizoid tendencies, and who only talks in rhymed couplets. For whatever reason, David takes a shine to Lisa, seemingly wanting to protect her. This is put to the test, however, when the students are taken to a museum and, afterwards, Lisa wants to go back, even breaking out of the institution to do so....

David and Lisa is a poignant, well-crafted movie, with very good performances from both of its young leads in what is, to say the least, not easy subject material. David is simultaneously dislikeable for his arrogance, and yet likeable for his vulnerability -- you can feel that the arrogance is a mental defense to hide his fears. Lisa, on the other hand, is a more difficult character to play, because her mental problems are more serious (and more alien to normally healthy people) than Davids. Yet Janet Margolin makes us feel empathy for Lisa without making Lisa come across as cloying like Forrest Gump.

David and Lisa is, thankfully, available on DVD.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Jane Randolph, 1915-2009

The death has been announced of Jane Randolph, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 93. She's not such a well-known name, because she retired from acting the the 1940s. However, one of her most famous roles is in the superb horror movie Cat People, in which she plays Kent Smith's colleague, a woman of whom Simone Simon gets exceedingly jealous. It's Jane Randolph in the movie's famous swimming pool scene.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Latino Images in Film

TCM is concluding its month-long festival documenting Hollywood's portrayal of Latinos tonight. The festival was designed to focus on how Hollywood portrayed people from Latin America, and not the films from those countries. Indeed, TCM already spent a month several years ago looking at the Mexican film industry. This being TCM, the took a serious look at the industry, and excluded one of the odder parts of Mexico's cinematic history: the lucha libre movie.

If you've ever tuned in to any of the Spanish-lanugage TV channels, you might have seen that professional wrestling is just as popular as it is here in the US. One difference, though, is that there seem to be quite a few more masked wrestlers in Mexico. In the 1960s, a couple of them became so popular that they were given acting roles in a series of movies that allowed them to showcase their wrestling skills. To be honest, acting is putting it quite generously, as these movie were designed to be litle more than a series of action sequences which one doesn't even to know Spanish to be able to follow.

One of the most famous of these wrestlers is El Blue Demon, who starred in about two dozen movies in the 1960s and 1970s. One that's available on DVD is Los Campeones Justicieros (The Champions of Justice), which has a plot about a superfiend trying to kidnap the contestants in the Miss Mexico beauty pagent. (Obviously, the producers were looking for sex appeal to spice up their movie.) El Blue Demon teams up with several other masked wrestlers, with fighting including midget wrestlers, and a scientist who's invented an invisibility potion! I didn't say the movies are any good, but then, look at some of Chuck Norris' movies.

If you think that's bizarre, however, try to find a bootleg copy of El Hijo de Alma Grande. This one is set amongst the Mayan ruins of Belize, with a "plot", such as it is, involving aliens who turn unsuspecting humans into zombies because the alien queen needs the humans' eyes in order to get back to her home planet. One of the humans manages an escape and notifies El Blue Demon and his sidekick, who come to save the day. It's got some nice location shooting in Belize, a place that doesn't see very much screen time -- not just the Mayan ruins, but also the then capital city, Belize City. However, as far as I'm aware, it hasn't been officially released to DVD, not even in Mexico.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Joan Crawford dances!

Coming up tomorrow at noon ET on TCM is the interesting movie Dancing Lady. If anything, it's a testament to the studio system.

Crawford plays the title character, a burlesque girl who winds up in jail when the place she's working gets raided. She's in luck though, as the wealthy Franchot Tone just happened to be at the place when it got raided, and is able to bail her out. He's smitten with her, so gets her a spot in a Broadway production for which he's providing the financial backing. The production is managed by Clark Gable, who's badly miscast here, but we'll let that slide. Needless to say, he too gets smitten with Miss Crawford, who tries to dance her way to stardom....

In some ways, the movie really ought to be a mess. Crawford wasn't very light on her feet, and it really shows when she dances in one of the numbers with Fred Astaire, who is in one of his very first appearances. Clark Gable is also badly miscast as the production manager, playing the Warner Baxter role from 42nd Street. At this point in his career, Gable had played a bunch of gangster types, albeit gangsters with more class than what James Cagney was playing over at Warner Brothers. One can, I suppose, imagine Gable playing the sort of role Warren William had played in Lady For a Day, but in this case, Franchot Tone's financial backing makes it difficult to see this even as a Mob front. But MGM needed a role for Gable, and they gave this to him. Add in musical numbers and choreography that aren't quite as good as what Busby Berkeley was doing over at Warner's, and the movie should fall on its face.

And yet, it doesn't. It's got a very strange charm to it. Crawford's dancing is mesmerizing in its lead-footedness, and the contratst between her and Astaire makes it even more fascinating. Gable is talented even when he's miscast, and he does more than enough here to make himself enjoyable. Also, one of the muscial numbers features accompaniment by, of all people, the Three Stooges. The result of all this is a movie that seems like a quickly thrown together response to 42nd Street, but one that has all the glitz MGM could muster.

Dancing Lady has made it to DVD, too, should you miss TCM's showing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The part of Philo Vance is now played by...

If you ever watched soap operas, you might note that the networks kept characters young by changing the actors who played them. One day, there would be a scene with a character being played by a different actor, and a whispered voiceover would say, "The part of Jane Doe is now being played by Mary Smith". How this relates to classic movies is that TCM is showing several movies in the Philo Vance mystery series tomorrow morning. The movies are a product of the early 1930s, in that they're a bit creaky, but what might be more interesting is the casting:

TCM is first showing The Bishop Murder Case at 6:30 AM ET, in which Philo Vance is played by Basil Rathbone, who would of course later go on to play sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

It's followed at 8:00 AM ET by The Kennel Murder Case, with Philo now being played by William Powell. In fact, Powell played Philo Vance several times before he started playing Nick Charles in the Thin Man series; he had even played Philo before Rathbone did, much the way that Sean Connery took a break in the James Bond series. The Kennel Murder Case is also interesting in that the female lead is played by Mary Astor, who would later go on to play the femme fatale in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon.

Later in the morning, at 10:30 AM, we get The Casino Murder Case, and Philo being played by future Oscar-winner Paul Lukas. And in between, we get Warren William, who also played Perry Mason.

In the earlier Philo Vance movies, watch also for the police detective, who is played by one of the great character actors of the 1930s, Eugene Pallette. Among his many roles is as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I forgot what day it is

Today being Memorial Day, what could be more appropriate than movies about... amnesia? An actress who always put a lot into playing sick woman roles was Joan Crawford, and she plays an amnesiac in Possessed, where she's lost her memory because her former boyfriend Van Heflin, and her stepdaughter Geraldrine Brooks, are somehow leading her to believe that she killed her husband's first wife. It's the sort of melodramatic stuff that was right up Crawford's alley.

If you want the daffy topic of post-hypnotic amnesia, try Gene Tierney in Whirlpool. On the plus side, it's got Gene Tierney. On the minus side -- well, let's not discuss the plot, and just watch the lovely Gene Tierney. This wasn't her finest moment, but it's not really her fault.

A third type of amnesia is the drunk's blackout. A good example of this occurs in Remember Last Night, which is sadly not available on DVD.

As for good memories, that would be the proverbial elephant. Elephants appear quite a bit in the circus, with movies like The Greatest Show On Earth. Edward G. Robinson pays to have his daughter ride an elephant when the circus comes through town in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. For a non-circus elephant, watch a movie with rampaging elephants, such as Elephant Walk.

Of course, probably the most famous screen elephant would be Dumbo.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Great Patriotic War

One thing we don't get to see too much of here in the US is non-English-language movies looking at World War II. In the Soviet Union, and still today in Russia, the war was referred to as the Great Patriotic War. Thanks to Soviet repression, a lot of movies from the USSR were little more than agitprop. However, after Stalin's death, there was a brief period called the "thaw", in which a more liberal policy resulted in some outstanding movies. I've already recommended The Cranes Are Flying; another one shows up overnight on TCM: Ballad of a Soldier, at 2:00 AM ET Monday.

A young soldier commits an act of heroism by singlehandedly stopping the advance of a phalanx of German tanks. He's up for a medal, but the kid doesn't want a medal, since it won't do him any good. His mother, living in a shack in a farming village, has written to him, telling him that their roof is leaking. So, he'd like a few days' leave to travel home to see his mother, and fix their leaking roof. His commanding officer shows some mercy on him, and actually grants the request.

However, the trip home isn't an easy one. Travel in the USSR during the war was chaotic at best, with trains showing up haphazardly, if they're not comandeered by military authorities, who need them for the war effort. Our hero eventually stows away in a military transport car carrying hay, and gets joined by a young woman who is trying to get back to her aunt. Along the way, they share some interesting adventures, including an attempt to deliver a couple of bars of soap to the girlfriend of a fellow soldier -- an attempt which runs afoul of some "complications".

Ballad of a Soldier is a very real and human story, with the actors playing thoroughly believable characters, much more than even in many of the Hollywood movies that used a lot of military personnel. Along the way, it tells a story that is at times warm, but just as often poignant and heartbreaking. The war barely hit the US homefront, while there were air-raids in Britain. However, in the Soviet Union, a good portion of the European part of the country was occupied by the Nazis before the Red Army pushed them back to Berlin, and that made life on the home front far worse than anything the Western Allies faced. (The Soviets weren't helped by two decades of a command economy leaving them with a much worse economic base to begin with, or all those purges in the late 1930s devastating their military command structure and leaving them in a much worse position to fight the Nazis.) Ballad of a Soldier shows all of this, with a beautiful presentation to boot. It makes a perfect double feature with The Cranes Are Flying, and both are available on DVD if you wish to watch them together.

Another British World War II picture

I mentioned the excellent movie Carve Her Name With Pride at the end of last summer, and commented on how British movies looking at World War II have a much different feel than their American counterparts. That's true of our next feature, The Dam Busters, airing tonight at 10:15 PM ET.

Nazi Germany had a number of important industrial targets, among them being dams in the Ruhr valley that provided hydroelectric power to the German war machine. The British naturally wanted to bomb them, but it was easier said than done, as the dams were incredibly well-protected. Bomb-maker Michael Redgrave eventually comes up with the idea of designing a bomb that can be bounced across the reservoirs like a skipping stone, eventually winding up at just the right distance to destroy the dams from behind -- water pressure can do quite a bit. However, it's a very daunting technical task, as the bomb has to be made the right shape to bounce, it has to be dropped from the right (very low and dangerous) altitude, at the right distance from the dam, and with the planes flying at the correct speed. Never mind that they're going to catch flak from Nazi surface-to-air fire.

The first two-thirds of The Dam Busters deal with the preparations for the boming. This is from the engineering side, as Redgrave tries to perfect the bomb's design, suffering through a series of failures along the way. But, the movie also looks at the bombers (led by Richard Todd), who are stuck in base doing practice runs for a mission they know nothing about, basically being bored out of their minds. It's only in the final third of the movie that they actually head off for the Ruhr Valley to bomb the dams.

Despite the lack of real "action", The Dam Busters is an excellent movie. It fits in well with procedural movies, meticulously building up the story. The way that the bombers figure out how to calibrate their alititude more precisely than their altimiters will let them, for example, is ingenious. When the movie gets to the "action" scenes, the effects aren't all that good, but in fact, that doesn't detract from the movie at all, as it's not really about the action.

The Dam Busters is an excellent example of British filmmaking looking back at World War II, and is one not to be missed. Thankfully, as such a good example, it's made its way to DVD should you miss tonight's TCM showing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Don't Jump!

One of my other interests is short-wave radio, and I was shocked this morning to turn on Radio Korea and learn that South Korea's ex-President committed suicide by jumping off a cliff.

There are any number of ways to commit suicide, and probably any way you can think of has made its way to a Hollywood movie at one time or another. This includes leaping to one's death. Interestingly, I've already recommended several movies with such a grisly theme.

Vertigo, in which Kim Novak's character jumps -- or is she pushed? -- to her death, is generally considered one of the greats, although, as I mentioned in my post, I don't care for it as much as some of Alfred Hitchcock's other work.

Ann Dvorak eventually jumps out of a window at the end of the wonderful pre-code drama Three on a Match, although she does so in order to foil a crime that's being committed, and save her son.

Some suicides by jumping are prevented. Betty Hutton saves Barry Fitzgerald in The Stork Club, although this is more of an accident than an attempted suicide. Probably the classic attempted-suicide-by-jumping-that's-prevented would be in It's a Wonderful Life, when angel Clarence (Henry Travers) saves George Bailey (James Stewart). I haven't recommended that one before, surprisingly enough. Another one that I have recommended, however, is Fourteen Hours, in which policeman Paul Douglas tries to prevent Richard Basehart from jumping off a ledge, while a crowd of onlookers gathers below.

Friday, May 22, 2009

I've seen too many movies, Part 7

One of the bad things about running a blog and trying to post every day is finding that I've already posted on one movie or another that's coming up. So, as a placeholder until I can think of something else to post about today, I'll mention a few movies that I've already writte posts about, but are airing today on TCM.

49th Parallel, about a group of Nazis who try to escape from Canada into a still-neutral United States, airs at 12:45 PM ET.

As part of Sean Connery's turn as TCM's Star of the Month, and now that the James Bond movies are over, TCM kicks off Friday evening with Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, at 8:00 PM ET.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

God isn't perfect

Or at least, maybe his messengers aren't. That's the lesson that we learn at the beginning of the movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan, airing at 4:30 PM ET today on TCM.

Robert Montgomery stars as boxer Joe Pendleton, training for a prize fight. These were the days when boxing was romanticized, so instead of having tattooed thugs like Mike Tyson, you get a saxophone-playing, airplane-flying, high-class man like Montgomery. Unfortunately, though, his plane crashes on the way to New York City, and he "dies". Only thing is, he when he gets up to heaven, it's determined that he wasn't supposed to die, but, due to the incompetence of angel Edward Everett Horton, we have Joe Pendleton waiting for his trip to the pearly gates. Enter Horton's boss, Mr. Jordan, played by the inimitable Claude Raines. He eventually comes to a deal with Joe to send Joe back down to earth, putting him in another man's body.

Unfortunately, that man is a wealthy man who's got a wife who wants to murder him and run off with her lover! Along the way, Joe, who everybody else sees as that wealthy man, who was also a bit of a crook, meets the daughter of one of the people his body's previous owner defrauded (played by Evelyn Keyes, who is seen with Montgomery in the photo above). Needless to say, he's going to fall in love with her, something made more complicated by the fact that he's going to have to change bodies again.... Along the way, Joe, a boxer all along, still wants to compete in that title fight, and starts training in his new body, which of course throws everybody for a loop.

The cast is superb. In addition to all the people I've mentioned, watch for Joe's trainer, played by veteran character actor James Gleason. Gleason had supporting roles in scads of movies, from a brief appearance in The Broadway Melody through to playing the town drunk living in a dilapidated houseboat in Night of the Hunter. However, Here Comes Mr. Jordan marks Gleason's only Oscar nomination. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was, of course, remade in the 1970s under the title Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with the 1940s movie with the same title), and again at the beginning of this century as Down to Earth. The original, as is often the case, is the best. Thankfully, it's on DVD, too, so you can watch it any time you wish.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sharing a birthday with James Stewart

Leon Schlesinger, 1884-1949You may not recognize the face on the left, but it's the face an important name in Hollywood history: Leon Schlesinger, who was born on this day in 1884. Schlesinger got his start in Hollywood in 1919, with the Pacific Title and Art company, which at the time produced title cards for silent pictures (somebody had to produce them), mostly for Warner Bros. With the advent of talking pictures (the legend goes that it was Schlesinger who provided a lot of the financial backing for The Jazz Singer), Schlesinger realized there wasn't going to be as much of a need for title cards, and decided to get into a new field: talking animated pictures. So, he started Leon Schlesinger studios independently, although, like Pacific Title and Art, its biggest client was Warner Bros.; the Schlesinger studio was in fact housed in building on the Warner lot.

If you've seen Warner Bros.' animated movies of the earlier period, you'll probably recall Schlesinger's name appearing prominently in the opening credits. Indeed, it was Schlesinger who was the money man behind both the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoon series, as well as hiring the men who created the most prominent characters -- director Chuck Jones, voice man Mel Blanc, and names like Friz Freleng that you've definitely seen in smaller print in those classic old cartoons.

Schlessinger sold his studio to Warner Bros. in 1944, and died five years later a wealthy man. Of course, the Looney Tunes characters all live on, being very fondly remembered today. However, Pacific Title also lives on, not only making titles from classic movies like the original version of Cape Fear to movies of today like the most recent X-Men movie, but also restoring pictures as well. If you watched the James Stewart birthday tribute, you'll note that Pacific Title did some of the restoration work.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


As part of TCM's look at Latino Images in Film, they are showing the underrated Glenn Ford movie Trial at 9:30 PM ET tonight.

Ford plays a professor at a law school. The dean has some funny ideas, though; namely, he believes that the professors ought to have practical knolwedge. And Ford's been teaching so long that it's been years since he's actually practiced law. So, the dean tells him to spend his summer working at a law firm somewhere. Eventually, Ford is hired by Arthur Kennedy, whose firm is handling the defense of a Mexican-American adolescent accused of murdering a teenage girl from a wealthy Anglo family.

What Ford doesn't realize, until it's too late, is that the defense is being paid for by a Communist front organization. They don't really give a damn about the kid; they just want to show capitalist America to be an iniquitous country rife with racism. In fact, it might help their cause if the kid is convicted. Worse, the district attorney (John Hodiak) doesn't like those nasty commies, and there's even an unseen McCarthy-like committee in the state legislature investigating suspected Communist activity. (The movie was made in 1955, by which time Josephy McCarthy was a household name, but was set in 1947, which is before the senator really got going.)

Trial is an ambitious story, and one that's a bit complex in that it tries to do a lot. It doesn't quite succeed in doing all that it sets out, especially because it's got an ending that's a bit too neat. However, the movie is filled with outstanding supporting performances. Ford is his usual sturdy, sympathetic self, but he's almost leading an ensemble cast here. Kennedy received his third Oscar nomination for his role as Ford's manipulative employer. Rafael Campos, who plays the young defendant, is quite good, and the boy's mother, played by Katy Jurado, is even better. Perhaps the most outstanding of all the supporting roles is that played by Juano Hernandez, a Puerto Rican-born man who, because of his dark skin, is playing an Anglo black here -- the DA specifically got a black judge empanelled so that Ford couldn't complain about biased decisions from the bench. (The fix was obviously in.)

Sadly, Trial isn't as well-remembered as it should be. A lot of that probably has to do with its strongly anti-Communist stance. Thanks to the excesses of Joe McCarthy, the anti-anti-Communists gained sway in Hollywood in the 1960s and beyond, and any criticism of Communism is seen as nothing more than propaganda. In fact, the real-life Communists were about as bad as they're depicted as being in this movie, using whatever political issue of the day they could to their benefit, and having no compunction about throwing people overboard when their usefulness is up. Trial also tackles the anti-Communists (who, despite being largely unseen, don't come off in such a good light themselves), as well as issues of race. (Note how movies get criticized for being too bluntly anti-Communist, but never seem to get criticized if the bluntness of their anti-racism detracts from the story.) Trial is one of several movies from the 1950s with strong anti-Communist themes that has not been released to DVD but deserves to be seen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Young James Stewart

Wednesday marks the birth anniversary of James Stewart, who was born on May 20, 1908. TCM are celebrating the day with several of his movies, but they're the better-known movies that Stewart made later in his career, after he became a big star. If you want to see a much younger Stewart, you'll have to tune in tomorrow, for Speed, at 8:00 AM ET.

In the movie, Stewart plays a man trapped on a runaway bus that's been wired to explode if it goes slower than 50 MPH. Wait a minute; that's a different Speed. The James Stewart version is a movie that's got a plot about as original as Dirigible. Stewart plays a test driver for a race car manufacturer, who's constantly at odds with the firm's engineer. Worse, they both fall in love with the same woman, who works in the firms public relations department (played by Una Merkel). Original, isn't it? But, it was one of Stewart's earliest starting roles, having been released all the way back in 1936.

Unfortunately, Speed doesn't seem to be available on DVD. If you want to see a young James Stewart without waiting for TCM to show the movie, look for a movie Wife vs. Secretary, in which Stewart plays the boyfriend of the title secretary, Jean Harlow. Wow, there's a relationship! The wife is played by Myrna Loy, and her husband by Clark Gable, making this the only movie with both Stewart and Gable in the cast (not counting archive footage). Or, you can see Stewart play a suspect in a murder case in After the Thin Man, also with Loy.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Before the Hindenburg

When most people think about the olden days of blimps, the first thought is probably of the Hindenburg, which famously exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Lighter-than-air craft had only been around for a few decades, and during that time, people were trying to come up with all sorts of uses for them, including military applications. An interesting look at those days of airships can be seen in the 1931 movie Dirigible, airing May 18 at 11:45 AM ET on TCM.

To be honest, the fact that the movie is about airships is probably more interesting than the plot. Two men are in love with the same woman. One an airplane pilot for the military, is married to her; the other, a dirigible pilot, has a perhaps-not-unrequited love for her. A French explorer comes along with an idea to lead an expedition to the South Pole. The military feels this is a perfect opportunity to test out their dirigibles, but in the training flights, one of the dirigibles is ripped to shreds, leaving our airplane pilot hero to rescue the dirigible pilot. This also results in the expedition deciding to use planes instead of dirigibles.

Of course, you know what's going to happen next: the planes are going to run into difficulties trying to get to the South Pole, and it's going to be up to the dirigibles to rescue our airplane pilot hero. Oh, not only that, but it's going to look like the airplane pilot might lose his wife to the dirigible pilot. Yeah, it's a predictable plot that's overworked and toothless. Oh, the humanity.

Having said that, the movie still has a lot of interest. It's an early talkie, so it's fun to see what moviemakers were trying to do in those creaky days. In this case, the moviemaker is interesting because the director is one Frank Capra -- the same Capra who went on to make classics like It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life. (Indeed, Dirigible is being shown as part of a TCM birthday tribute to Capra.) The screenplay was written by Frank "Spig" Wead, a former US Navy airman who would go on to write about two dozen more screenplays for movies based on military aviation, and whose life story would be told in the movie The Wings of Eagles. There's also the interesting vintage footage of airships as they were in those days before the Hindenburg. Finally, watch for the love interest. That's a young Fay Wray, two years before King Kong.

Dirigible has not been released to DVD. It might be a good candidate for a Frank Capra box set, even if it is one of his more obscure titles.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

More room at the top

Several weeks ago, I briefly mentioned the movie Room at the Top, and my disappointment that the DVD has apparently been discontinued by the manufacturer. TCM is showing it tomorrow at 8:00 AM ET, and it's a pretty darn good movie.

The movie is reminiscent of A Place in the Sun. Laurence Harvey plays a British World War II vet who, having served, is looking to move up in life. He's left the grimy town in which he grew up, and has moved to a "better" town to take a job with the municipal government. There, he meets an older woman (Simone Signoret) with whom he falls in love. But, it's a problematic relationship in that she's separated from her husband, who won't give her a divorce. (Worse, he can get pictures of Signoret and Harvey together, meaning that he can be the one to win alimony.) If that's not bad enough, poor Signoret is about to be hurt by Harvey: he meets the daughter of the town's plutocratic factory owner (played not by Elizabeth Taylor, but by Heather Sears), and promptly falls in love with her -- although unlike A Place in the Sun, her parents don't like the idea of her having a relationship with this middle-class-at-best civil servant.

Harvey is quite good here. When he starred in The Manchurian Candidate, his character made a comment about there being two types of people: those who are naturally likable, and those who aren't, and that the character was definitely of that second type. The same is true of Room at the Top (and, indeed, is true of Montgomery Clift's character in A Place in the Sun). Harvey seems like such a user, not caring about the people around him, and only out to get what he thinks is in his own best interest. It's bound to have a tragic ending, although I'm not about to reveal the nature of that tragedy.

The movie was also considered shocking when it was released in Britain 50 years ago. This was the sort of subject that just wasn't discussed in the more class-conscious Britain, especially the blunt references to sex. (Not that sex was discussed in Hollywood movies, either....) True, a half century on, it seems relatively tame, but Room at the Top was one of the earliest of the more realistic movies in what was the British equivalent of the French New Wave. If you look at most of the British movies from this era and earlier that I've recommended, they're either comedies or else not much more realistic than the Hollywood equivalents. (Sure, there were World War II movies, but Hollywood was making those, too.) Room at the Top represents a break from tradition, and as such deserves to be seen.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It happened in Austria

TCM showed The Third Man as part of a birthday salute to Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) today. The movie looks at the darker side of Vienna in the years after World War II, when it was occupied by the four Allied powers, and there was a thriving black market. The Third Man is one of cinema's more famous location shootings, and the movie has rightly become famous for this.

Its popularity is enduring, to the point that there is a museum dedicated to the movie, as well as a walking tour of the Vienna locatoins in the movie. One location that's easily accessible to the public, and the setting of one of the most famous scenes in the movie, is the Riesenrad, the giant Ferris wheel on which Cotten's Holly Martins met Orson Welles' Harry Lime. The same wheel was also used as a setting in the 1987 James Bond movie The Living Daylights.

The other popular Austrian-set English-language movie, The Sound of Music, isn't so popular in Austria. Authorities have wanted to open a museum in Salzburg dedicated to the movie, as that's where much of the movie is set, but locals don't want it. The museum doesn't seem to have been built yet, as there's no hit for an official site on Google, and the Salzburg tourist agency doesn't list any official museum.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Signs I'm getting old

I saw that today is the 65th birthday of George Lucas. I have vague memories of when Star Trek came out, as I was just shy of my fifth birthday at the time. What I have more distinct memories of, however, is Meco's disco arrangement. In fact, it wasn't until I saw the movie that I learned the Meco version was not, in fact, the actual theme of the movie. Another 1977 movie song I remember (I sure don't remember the movie, since it wasn't very successful at the time) was You Light Up My Life. I remembered the lead actress, Didi Conn, from the sitcom Benson, and remember being quite surprised when I learned that Didi Conn had appeared in "the movie with that Debby Boone song". Not only that, but Boone doesn't sing the arrangement in the movie. Even more surprisingly, You Light Up My Life has made it to DVD.

Other movie-related things I have vague memories of from my distant childhood include the 1970s remake of King Kong, which came out about the time I would have seen my first movie. I distinctly recall seeing the Fay Wray original as part of a Saturday morning program the local library did for kids. I'm not certain if that was my very first movie, though. My uncle was a projectionist who later managed the local "Cinema 1-2-3" (back in the days when it was a big deal to have three movie screens under one roof! Ha!), and had a bunch of old movies that he would show on a sheet put up in Grandma's back yard in the summer. The only one of those movies I remember seeing was the Doris Day western Calamity Jane. For a kid of about four or five, it's dreadfully dull, and perhaps it's clouded my judgment of musicals and westerns to this day. I'm not certain of the first movie I actually saw in a theater, but it might have been Disney's The Rescuers.

A year or two later, I remember seeing the local newspaper listings of movie times showing An Unmarried Woman for weeks on end. With a title like that, and its R rating, it sounded so exotic and grown-up for a six-year-old. Obviously, at the time, I had no concept of the "chick flick".

Fast forward a few years to when I was old enough to start buying singles. Even the idea of buying individual songs on 45-rpm vinyl records is old-fashioned now, of course. Of the records I bought, one of the first was Sheena Easton's For Your Eyes Only, which of course is the title song from the James Bond movie. And as another sign of how old I'm getting, consider that late last month, Sheena Easton turned 50. Yikes.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Another great 50s low-budget movie

I've posted quite a bit about how I love the 1950s scifi and horror movies, because the good ones show the importance of a good story above the importance of special effects. Our next movie displays that quite nicely: I Bury The Living, today at 4:15 PM ET on TCM.

Richard Boone plays the chairman of a tony cemetery. In the caretaker's house, there's a map of the cemetery plots, with white pins for people who have purchased plots but not yet died, and black pins for the people who have died and thus filled their plots. One day, Boone accidentally puts a black pin in the plots of a young married couple instead of the white pin. It's a simple enough mistake, but Boone is shocked when he learns soon thereafter that the couple died in a car crash! Boone thinks he might have done something to cause their deaths, and comes up with a really smart experiment to test that hypothesis: he puts black pins in other still-living people's plots. They die, too, and now Boone thinks he's got the power of life and death over people. It's not a power he wants, though....

There's not much in the way of sets, other than the cemetery, and so the movie could be done fairly cheaply. That having been said, it's a very interesting little movie.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

TV Stars together

With the recent premiere of the new Star Trek movie, and TCM's showing a William Shatner movie, I started thinking about the other cast members of Star Trek and what movies they've done. I knew DeForrest Kelly appeared in the overblown Civil War movie Raintree County, and have previously recommended George Takei in Walk, Don't Run, along with Majel Barrett in Westworld.

Leonard Nimoy, on the other hand, did a lot more TV work than movie appearances. Most of his earlier stuff is listed as "uncredited" according to IMDb, and other stuff is obscure foreign or independent stuff. I had never heard of Deathwatch before, although when I looked the IMDb page, what jumped out at me was the presence of Gavin MacLeod in the cast. I've mentioned before that one of the fun things in watching classic movies is looking for people who went on to TV work and are best known for the roles they played on TV, and MacLeod, who appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Love Boat, is certainly one such person.

Interestingly enough, speaking of Gavin MacLeod on a boat, and appearing in a movie with another TV star, those two bits of trivia come together in the 1959 movie Operation Petticoat. MacLeod plays a member of a submarine crew in World War II that, amongst other things, picks up a group of stranded Navy nurses. In the group of nurses is one Marion Ross, who would of course go on to play Marion Cunningham in the long-running TV series Happy Days.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Callaway Went Thataway

Getting away from the past few British movies I've recommended, the next selection is something decidedly American: Callaway Went Thataway, Monday at 10:15 PM on TCM.

Set in the early days of TV, it stars future TV star Fred MacMurray as a marketing man who, with his business partner Dorothy MacGuire, faces a dilemma. They took the old cowboy movies of a popular screen cowboy and repackaged them for TV. They wound up with a hit, but now need new episodes. So, they look for the actor who had played the cowboy back in the day (Howard Keel), and eventually find him -- and discover that he's given in to the bottle, and is in no condition to do TV.

After some consideration, they get the idea of finding a new actor to play the cowboy. After all, those movies were old, and nobody will really notice it if the actor looks similar but isn't quite the same person. It helps that they're able to find Howard Keel playing a dual role in this movie, both as the drunk old star, and as the stand-in. No wonder he looks like Howard Keel.

Naturally, though, this doesn't solve the problem entirely. Howard Keel #2 takes the job, but you know that drunk Howard Keel is going to discover that his Doppelgänger has taken what should be his job -- and Howard Keel #1 wants his job back from Howard Keel #2.

Callaway Went Thataway is billed as a comedy, and it's pleasant enough. That having been said, it's nothing groundbreaking. The plot is predictable, and the actors were capable of much better -- just imagine MacMurray in Double Indemnity, or Howard Keel doing more prestigious movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Just as both men went on to fairly long-term roles in TV (on My Three Sons and Dallas respectively), Callaway Went Thataway plays more like an extended TV show than a major motion picture. (And speaking of TV stars, watch for a small role by future castaway Natalie Schaefer.)

Callaway Went Thataway is not available on DVD, and probably won't be any time soon.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

You have the right to enjoy this movie

Our next selection is another British movie; Miranda, airing at 6:15 AM ET May 11 as part of a TCM birthday salute to Margaret Rutherford. Miranda is played not by Rutherford, but by Glynis Johns. However, we'll get to both of them a little later. Griffith Jones plays a London doctor who's on one of his regular fishing vacations to the southwest coast of England. This time, however, his boat gets capsized and the good doctor finds himself apparently in an undersea cave.

For that, he can thank Miranda, who happens to be a mermaid. She apparently is tired of mermen, and wants to see the human world. She'll let the doctor go, but only if he'll take her back to London with him in order to show her what human life is like. Eventually, he gives in, claiming that Miranda is a "patient" who will be staying at their London flat. This is a bit of a difficult ruse to keep up, as doctor has to hide his patient's fins. It doesn't help that she has to have a cold bath drawn for her every night (so that she doesn't dry out), and be fed a diet of raw fish. However, the two are somehow able to keep up the charade, although even then, that's not the end of the problems. Miranda is exceedingly charming, and has the effect that almost every guy she meets seems to be smitten by her. It's not only that there are married men who have to keep this from their wives, but also they have to keep it from each other. As for birthday girl Margaret Rutherford? She plays Jones' nurse, a dotty woman who is the only other human who believes in the existence of mermaids and other "fictitious" creatures.

Miranda is a British movie, made in 1948, at a time when the British were making a lot of "little" pictures that couldn't get the budgets of Hollywood movies, but thanks to their original plots and casts of very talented actors, are generally charming and quite good. Of course, it helps to have somebody as radiant as Glynis Johns in the title role. Sadly, though, Miranda doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch TCM's showings, which are too few and far between.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Under the Sea

Our next movie is one that has some fascinating visuals, but a dull-as-dishwater plot: The Tunnel (also known as Transatlantic Tunnel) overnight at 2:30 AM ET on May 10.

The second title, Transatlantic Tunnel is a near-perfect description of what the movie is about. Released in 1935, Transatlantic Tunnel tells of a time in the distant future (around 2000) when engineers are trying to build a tunnel from England to North America in order to make the two biggest English-speaking regions even closer together than they already are culturally and politically. (Even today, there are people promoting the idea of a strong Anglosphere, if not via physical connections.) Naturally, the tunnel is fraught with all sorts of engineering problems, and seeing the scenes of tunneling equipment, and the problems the builders face, makes Transatlantic Tunnel a very visually interesting movie.

Unfortunately, the movie has a tacked-on domestic plot that's terribly predictable. The lead engineer (Richard Dix) has a wife and young kid, but he's neglecting them because he's so obsessed with completing the tunnel. The son, however, idolizes his father, and wants to work on the tunnel when he grows up, since the project is taking so long. Meanwhile, the strained love between the engineer and his wife turns tragic when she tries to visit him in the tunnel but is overcome by fumes that can blind people. There's also a possibility that father and mother are going to have to sacrifice their son in one of the numerous engineering accidents....

Much more interesting are not only the visuals, but the movie's attempt to look at the future. As I've mentioned before, one of the fun things about watching movies set in the future is seeing how wrong the movie makers get things. In the case of Transatlantic Tunnel, they get much of the engineering and science of the problems of the tunnel project wrong. Nobody really knew about plate tectonics at the time, so there's absolutely nothing about how the movement of the continents is going to make the tunnel an intractable problem -- just wait for the first earthquake. More humorously, there's a suggestion that the engineers here had built a tunnel under the English Channel, and done so much more easily than would later be done in real life. On the other hand, there are some interesting (and not too far-off) depictions of videoconferencing technology. OK, so we don't all have huge screens in our homes for the purpose. But one of the scenes shows a video hookup between the US Capitol and the British Parliament building. It's not only technologically interesting; the US President is played by Walter Huston, while the British Prime Minister is played by George Arliss.

Ultimately, though, Transatlantic Tunnel is a curiosity fraught with as many problems as the engineering project it depicts. Put the plot aside and focus on the technology, and you might have a lot of fun. At the same time, though, it still is a movie that deserves at least one viewing. Transatlantic Tunnel has not been released to DVD, so you'll have to catch TCM's airing if you want to see it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Young William Shatner

TCM are showing The Explosive Generation at 11:30 AM ET today. In this 1961 movie, future Star Trek star William Shatner plays a teacher who gets into hot water when his students write about... sex. It's easy to forget that 50 years ago, Shatner had pretentions of being a serious actor. Indeed, he was trained in the Shakespearean tradition, and tried to display this background in his infamous album The Transformed Man, in which he recited the lyrics of popular songs in a Shakespearean style, making a complete mess of 1960s hits like Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. If you want to see Shatner in a truly serious movie, watch for him in Judgment at Nuremberg, where he plays Spencer Tracy's adjutant.

As for The Explosive Generation, watch for the female protagonist amongst the students. That's Patty McCormack, whom you may recall as the truly evil girl from The Bad Seed. She's had a career as long as Shatner's, having starred most recently as Pat Nixon in last year's Frost/Nixon.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Border Incident

As part of the Latino Images in Film series, TCM is showing Border Incident tonight at 9:45 PM ET. It's a marked change from the movies they aired this past Tuesday, and a very good one at that.

In the 1940s, as today, Mexican workers were imported to do season farm labor that white Americans either didn't want to do, or couldn't be obtained in large enough numbers to do. Although the US and Mexican governments tried to set up a regime governing the importation of labor, abuses were still rife. Jumping off from this point, Border Incident tells a story of US and Mexican agents trying to infiltrate a ring of labor-smugglers. The way to do that is to get a Mexican to pose as a wannabe farm worker, and the late Ricardo Montalbán plays that Mexican agent. However, as he's going to be doing farm work in the US, he needs to work with the US authorities who have jurisdiction, and George Murphy plays the American agent working on the outside in conjunction with Montalbán.

The operation is risky and at times harrowing, and the movie portrays this well, telling the story in a docudrama style which really fits the story. The people running this illegal ring, led by Howard Da Silva and Charles McGraw, are callous and brutal, not caring about the welfare of the people they're bringing into America. Indeed, when it looks as though the law will finally catch up to them, they have no qualms about simply abandoning the workers to whatever fate might befall them. Even worse, though, is the way they would treat any agents who try to infiltrate their organization....

I referenced He Walked By Night in one of my links above, and that's intentional: not only was it, too, a docudrama; it had the same director (Anthony Mann) and cinematographer (John Alton) as Border Incident. That cinematography puts the movie squarely in the 1940s, but the themes it portrays are still relevant today. Border Incident is a very high-quality film, which still holds up 60 years on. And for those who only remember Ricardo Montalbán as Khan or from Fantasy Island, Border Incident is a good way to see just what a talented actor he was.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Another Fox anthology

When I recommended A Letter to Three Wives last week, I mentioned that there was another episodic movie coming up on the Fox Movie Channel this week. That movie, Phone Call From a Stranger, airs at 10:00 AM ET on May 7.

Gary Merrill stars as a passenger on a plane west to Los Angeles. Due to the fact that the plane gets delayed, he and three fellow passengers, strangers all, have the opportunity to get to know each other. Those passengers are Michael Rennie, a doctor who's got a secret that could get him in legal hot water; Shelley Winters, a wannabe theater star returning from a failed stint in New York City; and Keenan Wynn, a toy salesman who's a bit of a friendly, if slightly annoying, clown, and who keeps showing off a photo of his hot wife. The weather problems that lead to the flight delays prove more ominous as they result in the plane crashing, killing all of our new-found friends except for Merrill. It is thus left to him to return to Los Angeles and help the surviving relatives of his three dead friends tie up the loose ends of their relationships with the deceased. Of course, Merrill also has his own issues....

The weakest segment is the first, involving Rennie's wife (Beatrice Straight) and estranged son. Part of the problem is that when Rennie is in the movie in the first half, he's wooden and unsympathetic, making us care less about his character than either Shelley Winters' or Keenan Wynn's characters. The ending of Rennie's story is also too pat. But, as is always good with episodic movies, if you don't like one story, wait 10 minutes for the next story.

Shelley Winters' story comes second. She was returning to a marriage that's more or less broken up, with an overbearing mother-in-law who is a faded vaudeville star and who thinks Winters is only after the family's money and her famous name. The husband and mother-in-law are both good, but it's Shelley Winters who really shines when she's around before the plane crash. Her character, in addition to having to face her husband after not making the big time in New York, is also deathly afraid of flying. However, it turns out that there is more than this going on -- in one way, Winters failed, but in another, she really didn't.

Perhaps the most interesting is the last story. Merrill goes to see the beautiful lady whose photo Keenan Wynn kept showing. The only thing is, that was a really old photo, and the lady is now a 45-year-old Bette Davis -- and a Bette Davis who is in traction after a swimming accident left her partially paralyzed. She had originally been put off by Wynn's extroverted attitude, and was going to leave with another man, but that other man didn't want her after the swimming accident and she realized that perhaps Wynn wasn't so bad after all. Davis also helps Merrill deal with his own issues....

Bette Davis was probably only in the cast of Phone Call From a Stranger because at the time it was made, she was married to Gary Merrill. Indeed, she doesn't have all that much screen time. But, she adds quite a bit to the movie. That having been said, Phone Call From a Stranger would still be a very good movie even without her; the ensemble cast is, with the exception of Rennie, quite good all around. Thankfully, Phone Call From a Stranger has made it to DVD, and should be a treat especially if you enjoy the movies of Davis or Shelley Winters.

Short Themes

Back in the Golden Age of the studio system, the studios produced all sorts of short subjects that were one or two reels long. In the early days, a lot of them were more or less test subjects to try out new directors and actors, but there were also quite a few popular series. I've already mentioned the Traveltalks and Dogville shorts. Tonight on TCM brings an opportunity to see another series: at 7:30 PM ET, TCM's Festival of Shorts is scheduled to air two of the short in the Ripley's Believe it or Not series.

Robert Ripley, the man who created the series, died back in 1949, but the franchise lives on, with museums all over the world, and several TV shows having been made. However, the movie shorts were made in the early 1930s, at the dawn of the sound era, and feature Ripley himself.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Another ethnic mismatch post

TCM is continuing its series of festivals looking at the way Hollywood portrayed minorites in the movies.  Over the past three years, we've had Hollywood's look at Blacks, gays, and Asians; this year it's the turn of Hispanics. One of the interesting things about such series is when actors who wouldn't be classified as anything but white get ethnic roles. I've commented on this a few times in the past when actors get asked to play various European nationalities, either playing actual Europeans, or immigrants of various ethnic groups. That's not too egregious, as the differences between say, and Irish immigrant and an Italian immigrant aren't quite that large.

Expecting whites to play Asians is rather a bigger stretch, while in the case of Hispanics, it doesn't necessarily have to be such a big deal. After all, there are a lot of relatively light-complected actors and actresses from Mexico and the rest of Latin America who, if they didn't have foreign-sounding names or accents, could easily have been considered just plain white Anthony Quinn, for example was born in Mexico to an Irish immigrant father (hence the surname, which always was Quinn), and a Hispanic Mexican mother. It would be easy enough to name Ricardo Montalban, Katy Jurado, Dolores Del Rio, Carmen Miranda, or a lot of others.

But this is a post about white guys playing Mexicans, with one of the most egregiously bad selections showing up overnight tonight (at 4:15 AM ET Wednesday): Viva Villa! It's a Hollywood biopic (which of course means it may or may not be accurate) about the early 20th century Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, in which Villa is played by... Wallace Beery. Oy, to mix ethnic metaphors. I suppose it could be worse, though, in that Marie Dressler wasn't playing his love interest.

Viva Villa! has some interesting trivia about it, too. Howard Hawks was originally scheduled to direct, but the movie was filmed on location in Mexico, and after a night of heavy drinking, cast member Lee Tracy peed from his hotel balcony on a group of Mexican soldiers below. This is a major no-no, and unsurprisingly, the Mexican authorities were livid. Tracy was fired from the movie and released from his contract with MGM, and only played small parts the rest of his career. Hawks stood up for Tracy, and got fired from his job as director.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Three stars, 16 years apart

Tonight's line-up on TCM includes a pair of interesting movies, which have the same three actors playing roles which aren't always leading roles, but are important nontheless. First, at 8:00 PM ET, is the 1932 movie Payment Deferred, which I recommended back in November when Charles Laughton was TCM's Star of the Month. In addition to Laughton, the cast includes Maureen O'Sullivan as his daughter, and Ray Milland as his cousin, who gets murdered.

The three stars reunited in 1948 to make The Big Clock, which follows Payment Deferred at 9:30 PM ET. By this time, Ray Milland became the star and got lead billing. We see him at the beginning of the movie hiding inside a giant clock, and we quickly learn why he's hiding there. He's an editor for a crime magazine that's part of a publishing empire run by his tyrannical and quirky boss, played by Charles Laughton. (O'Sullivan plays Milland's wife, and has a relatively small role.) One night, Milland meets a woman with whom he spends an evening on a completely friendly basis, before taking him back to her apartment. Milland is about to leave, when he sees Laughton coming up -- it turns out that the woman is Laughton's mistress. Laughton sees Milland from behind but doesn't realize who it is, and goes into the apartment, where he gets into an argument with his mistress, killing her during that argument. Laughton realizes that somebody else had been in the apartment before him, so he has right-hand man George Macready go back to the apartment and frame that man for murder.

As I said before, though, Laughton doesn't realize that the man he's framing is one of his editors. To make things more complicated, Laughton then proceeds to investigate the murder (in attempt to find the man he framed) -- by having his crime magazine running the investigation, since they know quite a bit about crime! This of course means that Milland, the man who's been framed, is in charge of leading the investigation, which he has to sabotage without anybody's realizing it. The Big Clock is an enjoyable mystery/noir, with good performances all around. Laughton is his usual superb self, while Milland is fine. He had already played a wrongly accused man a few years earlier in the movie Ministry of Fear, but is still enjoyable while playing the same sort of role. O'Sullivan doesn't have much to do here, showing up for several scenes as the wife who doesn't get much attention, and then appearing again at the end. Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester also shows up, playing an artist who is given the task of coming up with a picture of the suspect, but instead comes up with.... Well, let's just say she provides some needed lightening of the movie's tone.

The Big Clock was remade in the 1980s as No Way Out, but the original is the superior movie. Fortunately, it's available on DVD.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The bizarre mélange

One of the few things that the Fox Movie Channel does well is its Fox Legacy series, highlighting some of the more famous films from Fox on Friday nights, with a repeat the next Sunday, all introduced by Fox executive Tom Rothman. (Even here, though, there's a limited selection of movies, and they're not as well introduced as what we get from Robert Osborne.) Tonight at 8:00 PM ET sees a repeat of last Friday's movie, Phantom of the Paradise.

You'll probably recognize a lot of the storyline as being bits and pieces of other stories. Indeed, the title implies that this movie is related to Phantom of the Opera, and it is. William Finley plays Woodrow, a songwriter writing a rock cantata retelling the Faust story. Although the guy is a pretty good songwriter by 1970s standards (what he's writing would fit in with the rock operas and symphonic rock of the day), he's a lousy singer. The producer Swan (Paul Williams), who's set a bunch of trends in music, including the latest one -- retro doo-wop -- likes Woodrow's music, and wants to use it to open up his new theater. So, he simply steals the music from Woodrow. When Woodrow finds out, he gets enraged, leading to a series of events that results in Woodrow getting sent to jail, losing his face and his voice, and being left for dead. So, he comes back as the Phantom, determined to see that his music will be performed only the way he wants it performed, and willing to kill anybody who tries to do otherwise.

As you can see, this is highly reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera. But there are more references thrown in from other stories. Rod Serling handles the opening narration in a way that strongly suggests his old Twilight Zone; the film's storyline itself mirrors Woodrow's Faust-based cantata, and there are elements of The Picture of Dorian Grey and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho thrown in amongst others, along with a hunt for a sniper that seems taken out of The Manchurian Candidate. The Psycho reference is probably the best, involving the Phantom coming after Swan's choice for male lead, a queenish gay amphetamine abuser named Beef, with a plunger, while Beef is in the shower.

The result is a mix that can kindly be referred to as "ahead of its time". The audiences of 1974 weren't ready for it, and the movie flopped -- only to become a cult hit decades later, along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That having been said, Phantom of the Paradise is certainly interesting, although it's not always good. If you have the right taste, you might wind up loving this movie, but it's one that's not for everybody. Still, I do like suggesting that people watch in order to judge for themselves. The movie is also available on DVD, in case you miss the FMC showings.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Today is the Kentucky Derby. I have to admit, I'm not a fan of horse racing. I don't understand why it gets called the "sport of kings", while auto racing (for which I also don't care) is thought of, especially by the sort of people who seem to be bigger horse racing fans, as a low-class sport. Never mind that if a poor horse breaks its leg (Barbaro, anybody?), it has to be put down.

I can think of a number of horses killed in the movies. Back in the day, of course, they had to shoot a horse on the spot; none of the euthanasia drugs we have today. In some cases, the horses had to be killed out of necessity. Tippi Hedren's horse fails to clear a jump in Marnie, breaking a leg in the process. Hedren's response is to go absolutely nuts, screaming for somebody -- anybody -- to shoot the poor horse. Slightly worse is the opening land-rush scene of the 1930s version of Cimarron. Estelle Taylor and her horse take a tumble down a hill into a ravine, and she calls for help to leading man Richard Dix. He puts the horse out of its misery -- but Taylor repays him by stealing his horse and his land claim!

A much more malicious shooting of a horse occurs in The Public Enemy. James Cagney's gangster has a very close friend who got him into the mob business. When that friend dies in an accident with a horse, Cagney's violent response is to go to the stables and shoot the horse dead. In all of these cases, of course, we only hear the gunshot, with the implication that the horse is dead; we don't see the horse's head jerk like John Kennedy's head in the Zapruder film.

On the other hand, there's the famous scene in The Godfather in which we actually see a real horse's head....

The lurid title

TCM's Essential movie for this week is I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET. The title makes the movie sound shocking -- and it certainly was when it was released in 1932. Today, it stands as a monument to the social commentary Warner Brothers gave us in the early 1930s.

Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a young man returning home from World War I. Having served in an engineering battalion in the war, he's seen that there's more possibilities for him in the world, and he doesn't want to be stuck in the old job he had before the war. So, he sets out on his own, only to find out that the economic situation isn't so great. After taking a series of temporary construction jobs around the country, he gets hoodwinked by a friend who gets him entangled in the robbery of a burger joint, for which he gets five years' hard labor on the chain gang.

The chain gang is absolutely brutal, and Allen vows to escape, which he eventually does. He makes his way north to Chicago, where he becomes a highly respected engineer. The only problem is that he falls in love with the boss' daughter, and he's already got a wife (played by Glenda Farrell). She blackmails him by telling him that she'll turn him in, but he calls her bluff. The only thing is, it wasn't a bluff, and Allen gets sent back to jail in the original jurisdiction, after an agreement that will allow him to get out after a symbolically brief sentence. Unfortunately for him, the authorities want to make a point about not escaping, and so abrogate that agreement, forcing Allen to try to escape again....

Amazingly, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is based on a true story. Robert Burns, the fugitive who wrote the book on which the movie was based, made his way to Hollywood incognito to be a consultant on the movie, giving the movie a more realistic feel (although with Hollywood, you can never be quite certain how much of it is the unvarnished truth). Audiences and authorities picked up on this, as the movie was hugely controversial when it was released. Even though the state in which Allen is put on the chain gang is not mentioned in the movie (from the map montages, it looks as though St. Louis was his last stop before getting arrested), Burns was a fugitive from the Georgia authorities, and it was widely believed that the movie was about Georgia -- so much so that Georgia tried to prevent the movie from being shown in their fair state. It's easy to understand why, because I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a blistering indictment of the prison system. Muni gives an outstanding performance, earning an Oscar nomination (but losing out to the equally outstanding Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII). Glenda Farrell is as good as always, and the rest of the cast and crew do a good job, but this is Muni's movie all the way.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is available on DVD should you miss tonight's showing. One final note: it wasn't the only chain gang movie released in 1932. A few months early, RKO put out Hell's Highway starring Richard Dix, which is a very interesting movie in its own right (not available on DVD), although not nearly as good as I Am a Fugitive Form a Chain Gang.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sean Connery, Star of the Month

It's wonderful to see TCM get the rights to some of the James Bond movies. Even though they're available on DVD due to their popularity, and the movies regularly show up on the commercial cable channels, they've never shown up on TCM before, and this is a good way to try to bring new fans to TCM. Sean Connery made seven films in which he played James Bond, and TCM will be showing six of them. (The seventh, Never Say Never Again, is generally considered not to be part of the "official" Bond canon, as it wasn't made by the same people who produced Dr. No and all the others that followed.) The six Bond movies will be airing in order, two by two, on the first three Fridays in May, starting at 8:00 PM; they'll be repeated on Saturday afternoons. The first week of May stars with Dr. No at 8:00 PM ET, followed by From Russia With Love at 10:00 PM.

The only bad thing about TCM's scheduling is that they couldn't show more of his movies. TCM have aired Murder on the Orient Express and A Bridge Too Far in the past, and made some other interesting movies that, admittedly, would be tougher for TCM to get the rights to. (Perhaps I should write a post on Zardoz some day. There's an interesting movie....)