Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Anthony Mann and James Stewart

TCM is concluding its June look at Great Directors with a night of movies directed by Anthony Mann. The night kicks off with a pair of movies starring James Stewart: The Man From Laramie at 8:00 PM, followed by Strategic Air Command at 10:00 PM. The Man From Laramie is a western, and Mann made a lot of westerns in the second half of his career, after about 1950 or so. He also collaborated with Stewart regularly. Indeed, I've already recommended the two of them together in another western: The Naked Spur.

Strategic Air Command isn't just a reunion for Mann and Stewart. Stewart's wife in the movie is played by June Allyson, who had appeared as the wife of Stewart's Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story. That movie, too, was directed by Anthony Mann.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bernard Herrmann, 1911-1975

It was on this day in 1911 that film composer Bernard Herrmann was born. To be honest, composers don't get quite as much attention as they deserve. Herrmann was one of the best, writing amongst others the memorable string music for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. There's an apocryphal story that the reason behind this is that Hitchcock was trying to make Psycho for a relatively low budget, and one of the ways Herrmann was able to help Hitchcock save money was by using only strings in the score, which meant having to pay fewer musicians. (Somehow, I doubt it's true, but it's a fun story nonetheless.)

Herrmann's career in the movies started two decades earlier, when he composed music for the 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Interestingly, the actress who played Kane's wife, Ruth Warrick, was also born on this day, but in 1915.

Herrmann's other work includes the original version of Cape Fear, along with the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Fahrenheit 451.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An odd Essentials Jr. choice

A few weeks back I mentioned the return of the TCM summer series Essentials Jr., looking at classic movies for kids and their families, and pointing out that TCM selected a few interesting choices this summer. One of those "interesting" choices is The Philadelphia Story.

I'm not so sure if I'd have picked it. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were together in the much more child-appropriate Bringing Up Baby, but that was an Essentials Jr. selection in a previous year. Both movies deal with somebody trying to break up another person's impending marriage, which isn't exactly the most child-friendly topic out there. But Bringing Up Baby does it with the help of a wild leopard, and animal actors are always good in movies for kids. The humor is also much closer to slapstick which, again, is better suited to the young ones. As for The Philadelphia Story, it's got domestic violence, drunkenness, a philandering father, and a child who recognizes that the movie is full of "innundo". I suppose Virginia Weidler might be the hook for introducing the movie to girls at least, but she did other more family-friendly stuff.

If I wanted to schedule a movie with the same themes as Bringing Up Baby, I think I might select The Awful Truth. Here, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne each try to break up the other's impending marriage, but it's done with somewhat better intentions -- the two got divorced too hastily, and each comes to realize they shouldn't have gotten divorced, and wants to do something to bring the original marriage back together. Even so, I'm not sure just how good a movie it is for kids.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I haven't mentioned every Hitchcock movie -- yet

Alfred Hitchcock is probably my favorite director, and it's no surprise that if TCM is going to spend a month honoring great directors, Hitchcock gets a full day. TCM can only get the rights to so many of Hitchcock's movies without having to pay a pretty penny, so most of today's lineup the more well-known, more often-aired movies. One of the movies I haven't recommended before is The 39 Steps, airing overnight at 4:30 AM ET.

Robert Donat stars as a Canadian living in London who goes to a music-hall show, and gets approached by a strange woman. He takes her back to his apartment, whereupon she gives him dangerous information that foreign agents would like about an organization called The 39 Steps. The information is, in fact, so dangerous that the agents kill her while she's in his apartment, with all the evidence pointing to his being the murderer. So, it's off on a chase around the island of Britain to find out who The 39 Steps are, and what information they're trying to take out of the United Kingdom.

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because it is. Hitchcock more or less re-used it in Saboteur when he came to America, and again in North by Northwest. I personally think that Saboteur is the best of the three, but The 39 Steps is right up there. It's often considered to be the first big success featuring the combination of suspense and black humor for which he would become famous, although in fact, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much came out a year earlier. In the case of The 39 Steps, the humorous touches include getting saved by a bible; the way he finds out who the bad guy is; and having to cover for a parliamentary candidate he has in fact never met. There's also one of the earliest Hitchcock blondes, in the form of Madeleine Carroll; she naturally doesn't believe Donat at first, but begins to accept his story once she gets handcuffed to him. All of this leads up to a satisfying ending that comes full circle to the beginning of the movie.

The 39 Steps is by no means Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movie, but it's eminently enjoyable and, thanks to its somewhat lighter subject material and shorter running time, not a bad way to introduce people to some of Hitchcock's lesser-known works, as well as a reasonably good way of introducing slightly older children to Hitchcock. It's available on DVD, but as a British import, the good prints are rather more expensive than your average DVD.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Apparently, some famous people died yesterday

By now, you've certainly heard that Farrah Fawcett died yesterday. She was much more known for her work on TV than in movies, although you can catch her in the underground car-race movie Cannonball Run.

If you haven't heard about Fawcett's death, it's probably because news outlets stopped covering it to report on the death of Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson did do one or two movies as an actor; notable among these is The Wiz. But when I think of The Wiz, I think of Diana Ross; and when I think of Diana Ross, I find myself thinking about Mahogany. Of course, Michael Jackson had one degree of separation with a lot of famous actors: one of the other cast members of The Wiz is Lena Horne, while his song Thriller includes a famous narration segment with Vincent Price. Price, of course, appeared with a host of famous actors; I'd prefer to think of him with Olivia de Havilland in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

You may wonder why I pay much less attention to Fawcett and Jackson when I did a more extensive post on Ed McMahon, who also didn't do very many movies. Truth be told, it's because I blog about the movies that interest me. I had been wanting to recommend The Incident for a long time. However, it's a Fox movie, and it doesn't seem to be in their current rotation. But, McMahon's death was the perfect time to mention such a wonderful movie. As for Fawcett and Jackson, they didn't do much in cinema that really interests me. Jackson appears on a lot of soundtracks, but lots of pop music gets used after the fact nowadays.

I just can't recommend Doctor Zhivago

TCM's lineup honoring director David Lean today included the movie Doctor Zhivago. A lot of people think it's a great love story; but, having read the book, I can't bring myself to recommend the movie. Boris Pasternak's novel begins with Yuri as a young boy, at the funeral of his mother, and goes through his life in a more or less direct manner, ending with his death and then two epilogues. (The second epilogue consists of Zhivago's poetry, and can't really be translated to film.) The movie adaptation, however, begins with the material that's in the first epilogue, which pretty much gives the story away. Never mind that the ending of the movie seems to glorify the Soviet-era industrial projects, while Pasternak was quite ambivalent on Communism; indeed, the fact that his novel contained uncomfortable political messages resulted in its not being published in the Soviet Union for over 30 years after Pasternak wrote it.

If Doctor Zhivago the movie is your thing, however, have at it. Otherwise, read the book, which is quite good.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Korean War

June 25 marks the anniversary of the start of the Korean War in 1950. There aren't nearly as many movies about the Korean War as there are about other wars, for any number fo reasons. It was not a particularly popular war, coming just a few years after the end of World War II, and being fought for reasons not particularly clear to Americans. On the other hand, Hollywood in the 1950s did not have as much of an ethos of making movies about the futility of war as filmmakers would starting with the much more unpopular Vietnam War. A whole generation of filmmakers trying to buck the Establishment came of age in the 1960s, making anti-war movies with Vietnam as a backdrop popular; unfortunately, these people seem to have become the New Establishment, and we have to have everything filtered through the lens of what happened in the 1960s. (If you don't believe me, think about how many pundits in the Washington chattering class talk about the Obamas channeling the Kennedys.)

Still, there are some interesting movies about the Korean War. Probably the most interesting is The Bridges at Toko-Ri, in which William Holden plays a fighter pilot who'd really rather not be back in combat in Korea. The movie also includes Grace Kelly playing his wife, and Mickey Rooney as the pilot of a rescue helicopter in what was a relatively rare dramatic performance for him. Rooney was obviously trying to get himself taken more seriously as an actor after all the time he spent at MGM, and he does a creditable job, even though his task in the movie is to provide its lighter moments.

William Holden also appeared in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, which is nominally about the Korean War in that Holden's journalist gets called to report on the Korean War, being taken away from the half-Chinese lover he can never have (Jennifer Jones), because his estrnaged wife won't grant him a divorce. If you want a chick flick about war and revolution, this is the one for you.

Both movies are available on DVD.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blogger's lousy search function

TCM is showing Dr. Strangelove tonight at 10:30 PM ET as part of a night's salute to Stanley Kubrick. I didn't think I'd blogged on it before, as it's not one of my favorite movies, but I decided to use Blogger's search box to check. What I got surprised me.

The most recent entry mentions several of Kirk Douglas' movies, including The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. There's a doctor in one of the other movies I mentioned that day, but I didn't use the abbreviation "Dr." in that post.

Then, there was a post on the movie Spellbound. Here, there is strange dream sequence. Also, the Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck characters are in love. Finally, the characters have names like Dr. Edwardes and Dr. Petersson. Yet, I obviously never used "Strangelove" (minus the space, as a single word in that post.

The upshot, I guess, is that if you use Blogger's search functions, you might not find exactly what you're looking for, for which I apologize.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ed McMahon, 1923-2009

Ed McMahon died early this morning. Of course, he's best known as Johnny Carson's announcer/sidekick on The Tonight Show. But his career was so much more than that. Among other things on TV, he served for many years as the announcer for Jerry Lewis' muscular dystrophy telethons; he hosted the 1980s talent show Star Search; and he co-hosted TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes alongside fellow TV legend Dick Clark. As this is a movie blog, though, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that McMahon did some movie work, and not just playing himself; probably his most notable work is The Incident.

The premise of this movie is very simple. A bunch of New Yorkers of various social strata are taking an elevated train back to their homes late one evening. Unfortunately for them, two young thugs (Tony Musante and Martin Sheen, in one of his earliest roles) are sharing the car with them, making everybody's life a living hell for those few minutes. These hoodlums don't seem to be out to steal their fellow passengers' wallets or even injure them; instead, they only seem to want to get their jollies out of finding each passenger's mental weakness and exploiting those weaknesses. The movie is extremely disconcerting, in large part because it's so realistic. It was filmed on a painstakingly-made replica of a New York train car, with hand-held cameras being used to heighten the sense of being trapped in a small space. (The producers really wanted to film on location, but the New York City Transit Authority wouldn't let them; the producers even went so far as to put hidden cameras in bags to try to get footage from along the actual train lines.) Also, the reaction of the passengers is depressingly realistic. We'd all like to think that we'd stand up to such a petty threat but, in reality, as long as the threat is directed at somebody else, we're more likely to be relieved that it's not being directed at us, and try to keep as unobtrusive as possible so that the bullies will stay away from us. It's worth noting that The Incident was made only a few years after the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese, as New York was in a slow slide in its quality of life that probably culminated with President Ford allegedly telling the city to "drop dead". In fact, neither the Kitty Genovese case nor President Ford's actions happened quite the way they've been depicted in the years since, and perhaps with the events of September 11, 2001, especially what happened on Flight 93, we might be more willing to intervene. (Then again, the passengers on Flight 93 had nothing to lose, and the threat was directed at all of them simultaneously.)

As for The Incident, it's got an excellent ensemble cast. In addition to McMahon, Musante, and Sheen, there's Ruby Dee (without Ossie Davis) as the social-worker girlfriend of a black-power type who doesn't want to intervene because whitey deserves these thugs; Thelma Ritter as an old woman with her husband; a young Beau Bridges as a serviceman with his arm in a cast; and in small roles, Gary Merrill and Jan Sterling. Sadly, The Incident has never been released to DVD, which is a huge shame.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Billy Wilder, 1906-2002

Head shot of Billy Wilder,

It was on this day in 1906 that director Billy Wilder was born. Unfortunately, TCM are not honoring him today, as they already used him for a full day in their "Great Directors" month. Truth be told, though, they could have used more than 24 hours to show all of Wilder's great movies. They apparently couldn't get the rights to his Fox movies, like The Seven Year Itch, or stuff originally distributed by United Artists, such as One, Two, Three or Witness for the Prosecution. On top of that, Wilder did some work at Paramount early in his career, and the rights to many of the Paramount movies released before 1950 are now held by Universal; those pictures show up rarely on TCM. So, no Lost Weekend or The Major and the Minor. (I'm not certain how they got the rights to Double Indemnity, but not other Paramount movies from that era.)

If you still want to see some of Wilder's work, you're not out of luck. Obviously, a lot of his stuff is available on DVD. But Wilder also started out writing screenplays when he first came to Hollywood, before he became a director. He's credited as one of the writers of Ninotchka, which is airing June 23 at 10:00 PM ET on TCM as part of TCM's salute to director Ernst Lubitsch.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers' Day

With today being Fathers' Day, I find myself wondering what would be the ultimate Fathers' Day movie. The answer, I suppose, depends upon how you define the ultimate father.

Judge Hardy in all those Hardy Family movies of the late 1930s and early 1940s, would be one good choice, as he certainly appeared more than enough times. Not only that, but Lewis Stone's Judge Hardy is an almost stereotypical father figure. Fathers are often portrayed that way, but did anybody really have a father like that?

There's the Roman Catholic "Father", the title for a priest; one of Hollywood's best-remembered "fathers" in this regard is Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in Boys Town. The alternative would be Bing Crosby's priestly roles in Going My Way and the follow-up, The Bells of St. Mary's.

Speaking of Spencer Tracy, he's playing one of the title roles in tonight's Essentials, Jr., Father of the Bride. No, he's not playing the bride; that's a young Elizabeth Taylor.

George Washington was "the father of our country", and as I mentioned back in February, he shows up in The Howards of Virginia.

But for the "ultimate" father, I think I'll select Clifton Webb. In Cheaper By the Dozen, he plays a father raising a dozen kids -- with quite a bit of help from wife Myrna Loy. If you think that's bad, try to get a copy of The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (sadly not available on DVD), in which Webb plays a bigamist who, by his two wives, has fathered nineteen children.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The ultimate chick flick?

TCM's Essentials movie for this week is Random Harvest. A brief summary is that Ronald Colman plays a World War I veteran who's got shell shock and amnesia. Not knowing who he is, he falls in love with chorus girl Greer Garson, who turns him into an author. That is, until he hits his head while on his way to sell the rights to his book. At this point, Colman is suddnely able to remember everything that happened before the first time he got amnesia, but has amnesia about everything since, including his relationship with Garson. She, naturally, follows him to the ends of the earth to find out what's happened to him, and falls in love with him all over again. Or is it he falling in love with her again?

In either case, it's the sort of turgid melodrama that would fit right in on the Lifetime channel. They call such stuff "chick flicks", but I have to wonder whether even normal sensible women like this stuff.

That having been said, I wonder what the one biggest "chick flick" from the studio era would be. I've recommended The Great Lie before, and that would certainly be a good candidate. Another excellent choice might be Dark Victory, in which Bette Davis plays a terminally ill socialite who falls in love with her doctor, giving up what's left of her life in the city to live with him as he does his medical research in the middle of nowhere. It's the sort of material that makes me want to run from the room screaming, suppressing the urge to retch. Even Now, Voyager isn't this screwed up. At least there, we can all laugh at Bette Davis when she's having her nervous breakdown. I mean, look at those eyes about to bug out. And Now, Voyager is also greatly helped by having Claude Rains in the supporting role as Davis' soon-to-be psychiatrist. Sure, what happens after she gets out of the sanatorium is treacly, but the first half of the movie is pure comedy gold.

So what do you think is the "chickiest" chick flick?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Truffaut for Dummies

TCM has been honoring foreign directors on Thursday nights in June as part of their salute to great directors. Last night was the night for François Truffaut, who was one of the driving forces of the French film movement of the late 1950s and 60s known as la nouvelle vague (French for "new vague"). Actually, vague in French means both "vague" and "wave", and it's clearly being used in the latter sense here. But personally, I find the "new wave" movies a bit tedious; they all seem overly talky, and infused with an atmosphere of "change just because we can be different". If you want to watch a more accessible Truffaut movie, you could do much worse than to watch Day For Night (known in French as La nuit américaine).

Truffaut plays a movie director making a not-very-good movie with, among others, an American star (played by Jacqueline Bisset); the movie focuses mostly on the tribulations our poor director goes through while trying to make the movie. It's a French version of one of the many Hollywood looks at Hollywood" movies, albeit from a thoroughly French point of view. But that similar subject material is what makes the movie so easy to follow. The characters seem almost a parody of actors in that they've got every problem known to man, which makes the director wonder if he's even going to be able to get the movie finished. Although these problems, and the accompanying jealousy and back-stabbing among the characters may seem clichéd, that's not a particularly bad thing for Day For Night, as the movie is in part, if not in whole, a comedy.

Even though it's a foreign movie with subtitles, Day For Night is a very easy movie to watch, in no small part because movie buffs will find most of the themes are universal. For people who aren't such big movie fans, the themes should still be humorous, and the subject material much easier than Truffaut's other work. Thankfully, Day For Night has been released to DVD.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More brute force

I recommended the movie Brute Force six months ago; I see it's airing again today at 6:15 PM ET on TCM as part of a salute to director Jules Dassin.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Grant Mitchell, 1874-1957

I've mentioned quite often that I'm a fan of character actors, as they bring so much to the movies of the 1930s and 1940s. One of the underrated character actors, Grant Mitchell, was born on this day in 1874. Needless to say, I've mentioned several of his performances before. One that's showing up overnight tonight on TCM is Wild Boys of the Road, in which he plays Frankie Darro's father; that's airing at 4:45 AM ET tomorrow. He's also got a brief appearance at the end of Dinner at Eight; that's going to be airing at 8:00 AM ET on June 28.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Orson Welles the actor

TCM's salute to great directors continues tonight with a night of Orson Welles' movies. I've mentioned before that I think Orson Welles is overrated as a director. That having been said, he was perfectly capable as an actor. He does quite a good job in Citizen Kane (tonight at 8:00 PM ET), for example, as well as in another movie that he directed, but which TCM is not showing tonight: The Stranger.

The scene is just after the end of World War II. Two men show up in the small town of Harper, Connecticut, each of them seemingly having a past. First is Welles, playing Professor Charles Rankin, who takes a job at the local school. He's quickly followed by Edward G. Robinson, who we later find out is a government investigator on the trail of the "Professor", on the grounds that he had committed war crimes during the recent war.

Nobody in town knows this, of course, and as so often happens on film when a stranger shows up in a small town, everybody falls for him. This includes Loretta Young, who is the daughter of the local judge. Eventually, though, her husband's secret past begins to catch up with him after a dead body is discovered, and Robinson approaches her to get the goods on her husband. What she doesn't realize is that he's nasty enough that he's willing to kill her to protect himself.

One of the set pieces in the movie is the clock in the town's church tower, which hasn't been working for years, and which Welles' character has decided to try to fix -- something which eventually gives him away, as he liked tinkering with clocks in his Nazi past, too. It offers a suitably tense, if somewhat shocking, climax.

All that having been said, everybody is quite competent here. Loretta Young is OK, even if she is a bit of a third wheel. Even though she has important things to do, the movie isn't really about her. Robinson could play almost anything (well, I don't know if I'd want to see him as the lead in a musical...) and is treading much the same ground here as he did two years earlier as the insurance fraud investigator in Double Indemnity. Welles is quite good too as the bad guy. One can't help but wonder just how difficult he was as a director (obviously, the producers hated him), and whether or not he was channeling any of that into his performances.

The Stranger has made its way to DVD, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Just because it's old doesn't mean it's a classic

There are a lot of old, not very good movies out there. However, a lot of them deserve one viewing, at least to say why they've earned the obscurity they so richly deserve. A good example of this is Barricade, which will be airing at 7:30 AM ET tomorrow on the Fox Movie Channel.

Alice Faye, Fox's singing star of the late 1930s until the rise of Betty Grable, stars as a nightclub singer who's ended up in Shanghai, putting on a phony Russian accent because she's got a past she's trying to hide. On a train in China, she meets Warner Baxter, playing drunk reporter stereotype #167. Boy Meets Girl is one of the oldest movie plots, and dammit, you know these two are going to fall in love for no good reason. (Perhaps they knew Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was going to be made 18 years later and realized that every time you put a man and a woman in a tight space, they have to have sexual tension.)

Anyhow, this is the China of the 1930s, a turbulent era filled with all sorts of tensions. The Japanese had invaded and were in the process of occupying the entire country, while the Nationalists and the Communists, who would end up at each other's throats after the war, were both trying to fight the Japanese. None of this is really referenced here, except for mentions that there are "bandits" about. Those "bandits" duly stop the train, leaving Faye, Baxter, and the rest of the Americans trapped in an out of the way American consulate, waiting for any cavalry to arrive and save them.

Boy is this stuff predictable. Alice Faye doesn't get much singing to do, while Baxter looks as though the musical he produced in 42nd Street really did do his ticker in. And, needless to say, the movie is full of the stereotypes that were common back in the 1930s. In short, Barricade is one of those movies that deserves maybe one viewing. If you want a better movie about China made in those turbulent years, try to get an old VHS copy of Marlene Dietrich's Shanghai Express. Neither movie is available on DVD, but at least Shanghai Express deserves a DVD release.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On an island with you

This afternoon at 1:30 PM ET, the Fox Movie Channel is showing the drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.

It's a movie with a very limited cast; we see only two actors' names showing up in the opening credits. Robert Mitchum shows up on screen first; he plays US Marine Corporal Allison. He's in a life raft somewhere in the South Pacific, as his boat has been destroyed by the Japanese. He washes up on an island that obviously had some human habitation in the past, as there are buildings, including a church. Of course, he's worried that there are Japanese soldiers on the island, so he sneaks his way around, until he gets into the church -- where he finds Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) lighting candles. It seems that she got left behind because she was taking care of a priest who couldn't get off the island when the Japanese were coming after the rest of her convent's members on another island; that priest since passed away. But, for the time being at least, there aren't any Japanese on the island.

What comes next is a bit predictable, in that the two leads are going to form an unlikely friendship. Cpl. Allison is gruff at best, being in the Marines largely because his earlier life was so messed up that the Marine Corps is the only thing that can provide stability in his life. The good Sister, meanwhile, is naïve at best, and that's being kind. She thinks she can just give herself up to the Japanese should they come, and everything will be reasonably OK for her in an internment camp. Still, the two work together trying to figure a way out of their predicament.

The next thing that happens is predictable, too: the Japanese return. This forces our two unlikely friends into a cave together, whereupon the tight spaces quickly reveal the two have human passions that they have to resist.... Eventually, the Japanese are driven off the island, only to return again, while all along Cpl. Allison and Angela's relationship grows. Will the Americans come in time to save them from the Japanese? More importantly, will the Marines come in time to save our two protagonists from themselves?

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a very well-made movie, even if it touches on themes that were visited in a lot of earlier movies. Love in tight spaces shows up a lot, as I mentioned a few days ago, even including Lifeboat as an example of a movie where two people who would otherwise never meet fall in love thanks to spending lots of time next to each other. Closer to Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, though, would be The African Queen, although in that case, it's more plausible for the religious lady to give in to her passion as she's only a missionary, not an ordained nun with a vow of celibacy. At any rate, Mitchum and Kerr both give excellent performances. Unlike earlier movies, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was shot in Cinemascope, making the island look much more beautiful than any of the scenes in The African Queen. It's also available on DVD.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Art vs. Life

TCM's Essential for this week is The Fortune Cookie, airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight. Jack Lemmon plays a television cameraman who gets slightly injured filming an NFL game when the game action comes his way. He'd recover just fine, if it weren't for the fact that his brother-in-law (Walter Matthau) is an ambulance-chasing lawyer who encourages Lemmon to sue for as much as he can get. It's typically biting farce from director Billy Wilder, and Lemmon and Matthau are as good in their roles as they ever were together.

What might be more interesting, however, is the real-life case of a photographer who gets hit by an NFL player. At a San Francisco 49er game in 2000, photographer Mickey Pfleger was on the sidelines taking photos when he got hit by Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez. The story has a much happier ending, though, with no lawsuit involved. Pfleger was taken to the hospital, and when they ran the tests to see if he was OK, it turned out that he wasn't: Gonzalez hadn't hurt him, but he had a brain tumor that would never have been discovered if it hadn't been for Gonzalez' hit forcing him to go to the emergency room.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jane Randolph again

I mentioned in Jane Randolph's obituary that she's most famous for the frightful swimming scene in the 1942 horror flick Cat Peopel. You can watch that this evening at 6:30 PM ET on TCM, as part of their salute to director Jacques Tourneur.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Riding in boats with criminals

I have to confess that I had not seen The Lady Eve before last night. The storyline combines to frequently-used plot devices: falling in love with somebody not realizing that person is a criminal, and falling in love with somebody on a boat trip.

As for the criminals, there are some outstanding movies I've recommended before like Hide-Out, with Maureen O'Sullivan falling in love with gangster Robert Montgomery, and Night of the Hunter, in which Shelley Winters falls in love with the very criminal Robert Mitchum.

Boat voyage love stories might be even more common: put man and woman together in a confined space, and what do you expect them to do? The classic in this genre is probably An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr falling in love on a transatlantic voyage despite being engaged to other people. It is, of course, a remake of Love Affair, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne taking the romantic leads. There are some even more dramatic love scenes taking place in smaller boats: Tallulah Bankhead got the hots for John Hodiak while stranded on Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

Interestingly, The Lady Eve is not the first movie to combine the two themes. About a decade earlier, Warner Bros. released One-Way Passage, in which Kay Francis plays a woman who falls in love on a transpacific boat voyage with William Powell. She doesn't know that he's being transported back to the States to face the gas chamber, while he doesn't realize that she's terminally ill. Still, they fall in love anyway in this melodrama (which, unfortunately, has not been released to DVD). Apparently, it wasn't melodramatic enough, as the Warners decided to remake the movie in 1940 under the title 'Til We Meet Again (also not available on DVD), this time with George Brent and Merle Oberon as the condemned criminal and dying socialite.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How not to marry a millionaire

Preston Sturges was one of the most biting comedic directors, and it's no surprise that TCM have included him in their salute to directors month, with a night of movies tonight. Among those wild comedies is The Palm Beach Story, airing at midnight ET (that's 11:00 PM on June 10 in the Central Time Zone).

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert star as the Jefferses, a married couple who find out that "and they lived happily ever after" is the stuff of fairy tales, and not real life. He's an inventor with an idea for a new type of airport, that he could develop if only he had the funding. That lack of funding is causing all sorts of problems, including not being able to pay the rent, and eventually husband and wife get into a fight over money. She's got an idea: she'll head down to Palm Beach, Florida; get a quickie divorce; and then find a millionaire to marry who will fund his airport project. Sure, it's a daft plan, but this is a movie, not real life. Naturally, though, Mr. Jeffers isn't thrilled with the plan, and tries to stop his wife from carrying it out.

She runs away, though, taking a train down to Florida, where she meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), an obvious take-off on John D. Rockefeller. Hackensacker is one of America's richest men, but prefers to travel incognito, which is why Mrs. Jeffers is able to meet him on a train. Needless to say, he falls in love with her, and feels pity for her because she makes her husband sound worse than he really is. Re-enter Mr. Jeffers, who has followed his wife down to Florida. She passes him off as her brother, Captain McGlew, since she wants Hackensacker's money and knows that he'd never give it to Mr. Jeffers based on the stories she's told Hackensacker. Meanwhile, Hackensacker has a sister (Mary Astor) who goes through men like Nick and Nora Charles go through martinis, and she immediately falls in love with Mr. Jeffers, not knowing he's actually the husband of the woman claiming to be his sister. How are they going to resolve this conflict? Well, I won't say how, except to say that if anybody but Preston Sturges tried to solve the problem this way, audiences would have left the theater screaming in outrage.

As for The Palm Beach Story, it's a great deal of fun. Joel McCrea does quite well with comedy, even if he is mostly playing the straight man. Colbert is just as good as she was in It Happened One Night, while Vallee and Astor are suitably daffy. Vallee, more known as a radio star than an actor, even gets to serenade Colbert with a song. The minor characters add quite a bit to the story, as is common with a Preston Sturges movie. There's a hard-of-hearing "Weinie King" who appears at the beginning of the movie to give Mrs. Jeffers the money she needs to pay the rent and get to Florida, while Sturges stalwart William Demarest shows up as part of an overly rowdy hunt club with a private train car on the train to Florida.

Thankfully, it's also available on DVD.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sooner or Later

TCM is airing Oklahoma! tonight at 9:30 PM ET as part of its salute to director Fred Zinnemann. It's an interesting movie for several reasons. First, perhaps, might be the fact that it's got Fred Zinnemann directing, a definite change in genre for him. It would be like Alfred Hitchcock making a screwball comedy -- oh wait, he did; Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Oklahoma! is also the feature film debut of Shirley Jones, who later came on and got happy as the matriarch of the Partridge Family. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of musicals, so I'd prefer to see Jones in a movie like Elmer Gantry, especially because her character there is rather less wholesome than what she became known for as Ma Partridge, or even in The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Oklahoma! is, of course, set in Oklahoma, although because it's set at the turn of the last century, the filmmakers needed places more undeveloped than they could find in the real-life Oklahoma, so they used Nogales, Arizona instead. Surprisingly, there aren't all that many movies from the classic era set in Oklahoma. You'd think that with its history of being the last place in the Lower 48 to be opened to settlement, it would have a lot more movies made about it than it does. Probably the two most famous are the two versions of Cimarron, although perhaps more interesting might be The Oklahoma Kid, because it's got James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart together in a western; Cagney complete with ridiculous ten-gallon hat!

Monday, June 8, 2009

But do you know what I did last summer?

TCM will be spotlighting British director Michael Powell on the morning and afternoon of June 9, and the first of his movies they're showing, at 6:00 AM ET, is I Know Where I'm Going!

Wendy Hiller stars as a young English woman who, indeed, knows where she's going, and what she wants out of life. She was born into a middle-class family, but now that she's an adult, she's fallen in love with a wealthy industrialist, and is taking a journey to the Hebrides in Scotland in order to marry the man, who's rented an entire estate for the purpose of holding the wedding. Unfortunately for her, though, she hits a snag during the journey: she has to take a ferry to the island, but the weather in the Hebrides is such that she's just going to have to wait before any boat will take her to the island. Among the people she meets while waiting is Roger Livesey. He's serving in the Royal Navy, as there's a war on, and he's on leave. He too, wants to get to the island -- because he's the one who owns the place. So he and Hiller wait together, and -- you guessed it -- they fall in love. Perhaps Hiller doesn't really know where she's going.

Despite the film following a fairly predictable formula, it's still a nice romance. The Scottish setting helps. Although the village isn't as remote as the island of Foula that was the location for Powell's earlier The Edge of the World (which follows I Know Where I'm Going! at 7:45 AM ET), it's still far enough away to be something completely different from what a woman like Hiller would know. It also helps that the movie is filled with wonderfully eccentric characters and, if you like Celtic culture, some Scottish singing and dancing. It's unfortunate that the movie has to be in black and white, but with the war on, it would have been difficult to obtain that much color film stock. Besides, the black and white photography gives I Know Where I'm Going! a timeless quality that most Technicolor movies of the day didn't have.

I Know Where I'm Going! is available on DVD, but as a British import, it's a bit pricey.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

One of my other passions

Left-aligned photo By now, you probably know that Roger Federer has won the French Open tennis tournament and created a bit of history by doing so. Now, tennis is one of the other things that I really enjoy -- watching, at least; I'm a dreadfully bad tennis player. I've actually posted about tennis in the movies, and Paris before, so I figured a different way to combine Roland Garros and the movies would be to talk about the clay surface on which Roland Garros is played.

Technically, Roland Garros is played on terre battue, or crushed brick, which is what gives it that distinctive red color. But everybody in the English-speaking world calls it clay, so we'll stick with that. The most natural place to look for clay in the movies would be pottery, and perhaps the best-known instance of pottery in the movies is the scene in Ghost where the ghost of Patrick Swayze helps Demi Moore on a potter's wheel. It's a scene so famous that it's been parodied a host of times, probably most notably in Naked Gun 2-1/2, with Leslie Nielsen helping out Priscilla Presley on the potter's wheel, followed by a bunch of stock film scenes depicting various Freudian sexual images that are even more blatant than the kiss in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.

The other use of clay in the movies would be claymation, a form of stop-motion animation. A good recent example of this would be the Wallace and Gromit movies.

Essentials, Jr. Returns

TCM's summer series Essentials Jr., looking at movies the whole family can enjoy, returns for the summer this Sunday evening at 8:00 PM ET. They've got some interesting selections that push the envelope for how I'd want to introduce the topic classic movies to kids, but the first movie is more than appropriate: Jimmy Cagney's Oscar-winning performance as George M. Cohan in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


About three months ago, I made brief mention of the French movie Les Diaboliques, and its climactic scene set in a bathtub. IFC is once again airing Les Diaboliques in its Sunday morning foreign-film slot, at 8:00 AM ET tomorrow.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Another reason to mention The Children's Hour

Yesterday, I made brief mention of Audrey Hepburn's elegant teacher role in The Children's Hour. The movie gets another mention, and not just because it will be airing as part of TCM's salute to director William Wyler. That airing will be at midnight ET between June 6 and June 7 (or late Saturday evening in other time zones). However, The Children's Hour was based on a Lillian Hellman play of the same name; and that play had already been made into a movie once before, with the title These Three. That movie was also directed by Wyler, and is airing tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM ET.

The play and the later movie both dealt with a child's allegation that her two teachers were having a lesbian relationship. As These Three was made in the mid-1930s, however, there was no way that they were going to get a topic such as lesbianism past the Production Code office. Instead, the topic of gossip is that one of the teachers was involved in an adulterous relationship. Interestingly enough, this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the movie. Back in the 1930s, homosexuality would have been an even more shocking topic than it was in the early 1960s, and using such strong shock value takes away from the theme that malicious gossip can be highly damaging. (By the same token, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope works better with the idea that the two male leads are having a homosexual relationship being understated.)

As for the cast, the two teachers are played by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins; the latter being interesting in that she would play the aunt in the 1960s remake. The male love interest is Joel McCrea, a sturdy actor who was fine in a lot of dramatic movies in the 1930s, but who spent the second half of his career doing westerns. As for the vindictive, manipulative kid, that's Bonita Granville, who of all things would later go on to do a series of Nancy Drew movies! Margaret Hamilton and Walter Brennan also show up in bit parts.

These Three has not been released to DVD, so you're going to have to watch the TCM showing.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Trevor Howard

TCM's look at directors is spotlighting Carol Reed on June 5, and you can see the British actor Trevor Howard in two of Reed's movies tomorrow: the romantic drama The Key, at 6:00 AM ET, in which Howard plays one of two World War II convoy captains vying for the affections of Sophia Loren; and The Third Man, at 6:00 PM ET, in which Howard plays a British Army officer. Another Howard movie I'd like to recommend, even though it's not airing soon, is Father Goose.

Howard doesn't have such a big part here; he's playing another military officer. This time, though, it's one in the Royal Australian Navy, specifically charged with overseeing monitoring stations on several Pacific Islands in World War II. One day, into the port where he's stationed sails Cary Grant, a hard-drinking loafer who wants no part of the war. However, Howard dragoons Grant into manning the station in exchange for drink, and then makes certain Grant will keep his end of the bargain by scuttling Grant's boat (which isn't even really his, but that's another story).

Grant begins to look out for Japanese planes and ships, but soon gets more than he bargained for. Not in the form of the Japanese -- they're saved for the climax of the movie -- but the lovely Leslie Caron, who's been stranded herself by a Japanese attack. Worse, she's a teacher, and has seven of her young female students in tow! She's also very proper, and proceeds to hide all of Grant's liquor, in order that he'll actually do the job he was sent to the island to do.

Of course, this is where the plot gets predictable: you know that Grant and Caron are going to fall in love, that the Japanese are going to come back, and that the two adults and all the children are going to have to try to make a daring escape. Still, it's not a bad little comedy. This was made in 1964, near the end of Grant's career. By this time, he had become stereotyped as a distinguished older gentleman, and wanted to do a movie that would have him be a bit less of a gentleman. Leslie Caron is a bit too elegant to be a teacher, but that wouldn't be a first for a Hollywood movie; Audrey Hepburn was impossibly elegant in The Children's Hour. The children can be obnoxious at times, but really are necessary to the plot. All in all, it's a pleasant enough movie that's well worth watching and avoids the bad language that plagues movies of today. It's also available on DVD.

David Carradine, 1936-2009

David Carradine has been found dead in his hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand, according to published news reports. He was 72. He was probably more famous on TV than on movies, having starred in the early 1970s TV series Kung Fu and doing a lot of guest roles in episodes of various TV series. Amongst his movie roles, he might be best remembered for playing Woody Guthrie in the 1976 movie Bound For Glory.

His other claim to fame would be being part of an acting family that includes, among others, half-brother Keith, who appeared in movies like Robert Altman's Nashville, and father John, a veteran character actor whose lengthy list of credites includes The Grapes of Wrath and, amongst movies I've commented upon, Of Human Hearts.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Magnificent Dope

Ten months ago, I made brief mention of the Don Ameche movie The Magnificent Dope, in which Ameche plays the owner of a Dale Carnegie-like "school for success" that's falling on hard times, and so he tries to jump-start the place by finding the "biggest failure" (Henry Fonda) to make him a success, and show that anybody can be a success if only you go to his school. As I mentioned then, the movie hasn't been released to DVD, so you'd have to wait for it to show up on the Fox Movie Channel if you want to see it. With that in mind, you're in luck, as FMC will be airing it on June 4 at 6:00 AM ET.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It Happened Tonight

One of the great comedies of all time, It Happened One Night, is airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight on TCM as part of TCM's salute to director Frank Capra. The story is well-known; Claudette Colbert plays an heiress who wants to marry somebody of whom her father (Walter Connolly) doesn't approve. So, she jumps off their yacht anchored off Palm Beach, and tries to make her way back to New York City. Meanwhile, Clark Gable is a journalist in despearate need of a story, and here's one that's about to fall right in his lap! So, while she's trying to make her way back to New York on a bus, he "protects" her to try to get his exclusive scoop. Along the way, you know he's going to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she's one of the most spoiled and naïve things you'll ever see.

What makes It Happened One Night so good? That's a bit of a paradox. In many ways, the movie is fresh and timeless, despite having been made 75 years ago and being filled with 1930s references (motels being referred to as auto-camps; the autogyro, the Depression, and others). Even today, though, we still have elopements, and the gossip of the idle rich (or nowadays, Hollywood celebrities and American Idol contestants) filling newspapers and entire TV channels. The movie strains credulity -- you'd think Colbert could just call her fiancé collect and have him pick her up in, say, Jacksonville when she gets stranded there. And yet, the movie doesn't seem at all like the escapist stuff we have today.

Also, although the movie is loaded with sexual tension, it still comes across as something that the younger viewers can enjoy -- the real sexual tension will just go over their heads. Clark Gable takes of his shirt and -- surprise surprise -- he doesn't have an undershirt on. Yet, at the same time, he insists on having a "wall of Jericho" between them. And of course, there's also the famous hitch-hiking scene, when Colbert gets a car to stop for them not by using her thumb, but by using her legs. You could say she's using sex to sell herself, but for the young, it can be seen as nothing more than female cartoon characters like the cat Pepe Le Pew keeps falling for.

It helps that the cast is wonderful. It's not just Gable and Colbert who are great together; Walter Connolly is good as the poor put-upon father (a role he would later reprise in Libeled Lady), while character actor Roscoe Karns plays an obnoxiously unctuous bus passenger who harasses Colbert until Gable comes to her defense. The premise is so good that Columbia Pictures remade it twice; once in the 1940s as Eve Knew Her Apples starring Ann Miller, and again a decade later as You Can't Run Away From It with June Allyson and Jack Lemmon. The original is the best, though.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What is marriage?

Last month I mentioned two of Fox's anthology movies. A third one is coming up tomorrow at 9:00 AM ET: We're Not Married!.

The movie starts with Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers stopping at a justice of the peace on Christmas Eve. The need to get married for the sake of their careers as the "husband and wife" hosts of a radio show, and they're fortunate to find a justice of the peace who can marry them. He has a bit of difficulty, though in that it's his first day on the job, but he has no qualms about marrying the young couple in love.

Fast forward two and a half years. The "happily married couple" are constantly bickering, but have to stay married if they want to keep their lucrative radio show going. Events reach a head with an interesting dilemma for them: it turns out that the justice of the peace who had married them wasn't officially a JP at the time he performed their marriage; although he got the letter informing him of his commission, that commission wasn't vaild until the new year. Worse, in between Christmas and New Year's, the not-yet-JP performed four other marriages as well, all of which are technically invalid. Oh well; just send each of the couples a letter informing them of the clerical error, and we'll even refund you your money.

Naturally, though, the news is problematic for each of the four other couples, just as it is for Allen and Rogers. First up are David Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. She's busy winning the Mrs. Mississippi beauty pageant, leaving him to be a househusband. Worse, her manager (James Gleason) wants to take her around the country to market her. Next up is Paul Douglas and Eve Arden as a couple in a bit of a rut, followed by Louis Calhern and Zsa Zsa Gabor, who are on the verge of divorce, with Gabor planning to take Calhern for all he's worth. Finally, Eddie Bracken plays a Navy man about to leave for sea whose wife (Mitzi Gaynor) is pregnant, and he's worried that the kid is going to be a bastard kid if their marriage isn't valid.

As with all episodic movies, if you don't like one story, wait a few minutes, and another one will come up. In this case, though, the stories are all pretty good. The first one, with Allen and Rogers, is probably the weakest, but even that one isn't too bad. Monroe is fun to watch as always, as are Paul Douglas and James Gleason, two character actors who never quite got as much leading male attention they both deserved. (Douglas did get a few starring roles at Fox, but mostly in B movies.) Eddie Bracken might be the best of them all, as his story is tailor made for the type of lovably insecure comedy he did in several of his other movies, most notably The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

We're Not Married is available on DVD, too.

More Andy Devine

I've commented in the past that I enjoy the work of Andy Devine. If you want to catch him in one of his smaller roles, TCM are showing the 1939 version of Stagecoach tonight at 10:00 PM ET.