Friday, July 31, 2009

Three Came Home

TCM is showing several movies about the Asian theater of World War II tonight, kicking off with Three Came Home, at 8:00 PM ET.

Claudette Colbert plays Agnes Newton, an American writer married to Harry Keith (played by Patric Knowles), a British worker at one of the rubber plantations in Malaya. World War II comes and the Japanese, in their drive to take over as much of Asia as they can for the raw materials they need, push into British Malaya. They take over the British holdings, and immediately put everybody into concentration camps, separating the men and the women.

Japanese concentration camp conditions were pretty bad, but even worse for somebody like Newton who had a young child. She's also highly fortunate to have Sessue Hayakawa as her prison camp commander. He can speak English, and had read some of her books, and so has some sympathy towards her. That's not to say that she had it easy though. And certainly, nobody else had it easy. The movie is based on the real life Agnes Newton Keith's story.

For whatever reason, Three Came Home is a fairly overlooked movie, but it's really not a bad one. It apparently made its way to public domain, and so has been released to DVD, as well.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'm sorry I'm so lazy

I just noticed that somebody commented to ask me if the Cloris Leachman segment as TCM's Guest Programmer was available anywhere. There's a lot of stuff available at TCM's Media Room. Unfortunately, the Cloris Leachman segments do not currently appear to be among them. (Which is a shame, because I'd think there would be less of a rights problem with that.)

Anyhow, it took me so long to realize I had a comment in part because I get so few comments -- perhaps I ought to try posting racy pictures or something; but also because I haven't been able to configure my regular e-mail application to fetch posts from, which means I have to open another application to do that, and only remember to do so once or twice a week.

So if you comment and I don't say anything, I apologize.

The latest summer repeat

TCM has been airing the movies of 1939 on Thursday nights in prime time throughout the month of July; in fact, there were so many good movies in 1939 that the movies continued into Friday mornings. One of the last 1939 movies they're showing is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as the doomed 16th century lovers, which is airing at 7:00 AM ET on Friday, July 31.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Maybe they should have taken the 3:10 to Yuma instead

Tomorrow morning (July 30) at 6:00 AM ET, the Fox Movie Channel is airing the nifty little thriller Night Train To Munich.

The movie was released in 1940, after the start of World War II in Europe, but is set in the year leading up to World War II. Hitler wanted the Sudetenland in the autumn of 1938, and annexed the rest of the Bohemian and Moravian lands in Czechoslovakia in early 1939 (Slovakia was turned into a puppet state). This was a disaster for the Czech people and, in the case of this movie, specifically a scientist who knew about metal alloys that the Germans wanted information on. He's able to escape to Britain with the help of British agent Rex Harrison, but his daughter (Margaret Lockwood) is arrested and taken to a concentration camp. She's able to escape, though, with the help of a fellow prisoner who befriended her (played by Paul Henried), and the two of them also set off for Britain.

Lockwood meets up with her father and quickly falls in love with Rex Harrison, now seen in his front job as a carnival singer at one of the pier attractions on the southern English shore. Henried goes his merry way -- which in this case is straight to the Nazis in Britain. Henried was, in fact, a double agent working for the Third Reich, and Lockwood's "escape" from the concentration camp was actually part of a fiendish plot to get her to lead the Nazis to her father so that they could kidnap both and return them to Nazi Germany.

This plan succeeds and, when Harrison discovers what's happened, he realizes it's up to him to disguise himself as a Nazi officer, and make his way into Germany to capture the scientist and his daughter back in order to return them to freedom. Harrison gets to Berlin and finds his man, although getting everybody back out of Germany is going to be decidedly more difficult, with the result being an extended train ride (the titular Night Train to Munich) followed by a mad dash to the border, along the lines of The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Night Train to Munich and The Lady Vanishes share quite a few things in common. Margaret Lockwood is the female lead in both (although she's a much smaller character in Night Train to Munich); the writers are the same people; and the characters of Charters and Caldicott, who provided a lot of comic relief in The Lady Vanishes when they were more worried about cricket results than what was going on around them, retunr here. This time, though, they get to do something more substantial, when they accidentally overhear the intrigue that's going on amongst the British and Nazi spies.

Night Train to Munich is a lot of fun and, at only 90 minutes, doesn't really have the time ever to get dull (especially in the action-packed second half). Amazingly, it doesn't seem to have been released to DVD.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Just a quick heads up to remind everybody that TCM is airing a night of pre-Code musicals tonight, which includes the fun 1933 musical Gold Diggers of 1933, at 9:15 PM ET. The night also includes James Cagney as a producer of pre-movie musical numbers in Footlight Parade, which follows the Gold Diggers at 11:00 PM. Although Cagney doing a musical (not that he sings here) in the breezy style he had in the early 1930s is always a lot of fun, truth be told, Gold Diggers is the much more polished movie.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mob mentality in all its forms

I've recommended the movie The Children's Hour before, and although the main thrust of the movie is about the poisonous nature of gossip, it also says quite a lot about mob mentality and its damaging effects. It's a theme that's always relevant, and has been done in the movies a bunch of times, including out in the old west, in the 1943 movie The Ox-Bow Incident, which is airing tomorrow at 10:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

News has reached town that a rancher outside of town has been murdered, and his cattle stolen. The authorities call for a posse to be formed to find the perpetrators. Meanwhile, Henry Fonda is a drifter passing through with Harry Morgan, and Morgan realizes that the posse is going to turn on them as they're strangers to the town. So, they join the posse, and quickly find Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn in possession of the cattle. Nowadays, the posse would just get on their cell phones and call the relevant authorities to check the story, but this being the old west, Andrews wouldn't have had time to handle all the legalities of what he claimed was a legitimate cattle purchase. It's fairly easy to figure out what's going to happen next: the posse is going to call for one version justice, while Fonda speaks for real justice. Indeed, this is what happens as the movie quickly plays out like a Greek tragedy, with nobody really in control of the ending.

Although the victim of the mob here is a would-be rancher, it could be anybody, and it could be an allegory for anybody. Just a decade later came Arthur Miller's The Crucible which ostensibly was about the Salem witch trials, but which everybody knew was really a commentary on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his attempts to ferret out Communists. And, if you read the reviews of The Ox-Bow Incident on IMDb, you'll see several written after 2001 that make references to the War on Terror. But, the mob could just as easily be on the other side of the aisle; earlier this summer Nobel Economics Prize winner Paul Krugman claimed that people who disagreed with him on whether humans are responsible for changes to the earth's climate are committing "planetary treason" -- and the media, in a mob of its own, simply parrots the hyperbolic remarks of people on Krugman's side of the debate. It doesn't have to be that political, either; look at all those bogus claims of mass sexual abuse at day care centers that ruined people's lives back in the 1980s.

None of this should be interpreted as taking anything away from The Ox-Bow Incident, however; it's a pretty darn good movie in its own right, and it is available on DVD.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What is an independent movie?

IFC, the "independent film channel" is showing Fargo tonight at 10:00 PM ET. Now, I happen to enjoy the movie, but I wonder what makes it qualify as an independent movie.

Back in the Studio Era of Hollywood, it should have been somewhat easier to identify "independent" movies as those made without studio backing for the production, but only the distribution. United Artists, of course, was founded as a means for filmmakers to have more control over their movies, and what remained of United Artists was partly responsibly for bringing about the lawsuit which required the major movie studios to sell off their theater chains. United Artists continued to release movies that were produced in part by production companies created by actors themselves (eg. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, with Burt Lancaster as the big name), and perhaps that should be the starting point for the independent movies of today.

That having been said, my bigger problem is with IFC itself. Not necessarily the idea of "independent" movies and a TV channel dedicated to showing them, but what IFC has become. IFC seems to be showing more and more movies that are of questionable "independent" status, and plastering ever larger bugs in the corner of the screen. And that's when they're showing movies. It seems as though a bigger portion of their schedule is being taken up by TV series that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with movies. At least TCM's non-movie programming is documentaries about actors and directors, or interviews with them.

For those of us who are film buffs, there probably is a need for a channel for movies that otherwise wouldn't get broader attention, which includes not only the small "independent" movies of today, but especially foreign movies, including a lot of the older classics that are just as good as the things Hollywood was putting out at the same time. It just seems a shame that there's not a large enough market for that.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rope again

It's been well over a year since the last time I recommended it, but Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is airing tonight at 10:45 PM ET.

The old college try

Today being the 87th birthday of director Blake Edwards, I was looking through his filmography and noticed that he directed the dreadful 1960 movie High Time (not available on DVD, probably because it's so lousy). The plot of the movie is that wealthy widower Bing Crosby decides he finally wants go to college, where he meets and ends up befriending the young'uns (played by Fabian and Tuesday Weld), with each side learning something about how to live from the other. It's one of those generation gap movies that were popular in the 60s, when Hollywood's squares (of which Crosby might have been the squarest) tried to put young people into their movies that they thought would make the real twentysomethings of America want to come and see their movies. The actual result is a series of howlers. In the case of High Time, I don't think college was ever quite the way Crosby and company portrayed it.

Interestingly, though, Hollywood has seemingly always gotten college wrong. Sometimes it's for deliberate effect, as in Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, in which Lloyd is excited about college life, only to find out it's not quite what he imagined. It's also one of the many movies dealing with college football, which doesn't get the football very right, either.

A fascinating example of this is the movie So This is College, a very early talkie that isn't very good, but fascinating because it's got one of the earliest screen appearances of Robert Montgomery.

Perhaps the most fun, even if completely off the mark, movie about college and college football might be Too Many Girls, in which Eddie Bracken, Desi Arnaz (playing an Argentine immigrant halfback!) and Richard Carlson all fall head over heels for Lucille Ball and follow her out to a 90% female cow college in New Mexico. It bears no resemblance to college, to football, or to New Mexico, but still, the movie is a blast.

Why does Hollywood get college so wrong, anyway?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


TCM is showing the delightful comedy Topper tomorrow at 10:30 AM ET.

Cary Grant and Constance Bennett star as married couple George and Marion Kirby. They've invested and done well for themselves, as their investments have allowed them to live a life of leisure, spending it carousing as much as they want -- which is a lot. However, they do have a few duties, such as sitting in on a board meeting of a bank managed by Cosmo Topper (Roland Young). Everything changes for them, though, when they're driving back from the bank meeting. George is unable to negotiate a curve in his roadster, and the car flies off the road, hitting a tree and killing our two leads. Fortunately, though, that's not the end of the movie. The two find out that they still "exist", such as it is, as ghosts, and in order to get into heaven, they want to perform a good deed.

And they know just the right person for whom to perform that good deed: the aforementioned Cosmo Topper. He's a pillar of society, largely because he's been hen-pecked into that place by his extremely status-conscious wife, played by Billie Burke, who's just as dotty and obsessive here as she was in Dinner at Eight. Our ghostly heroes decide that they're going to show Cosmo how to live a little, and damn what his wife has to say about it.

The movie is full of sight gags, which of course depend upon the premise that nobody in the cast realizes that Cosmo is being assisted by a pair of ghosts. True, it's fairly standard stuff, but here, it's all done exceedingly well, including the special effects which, despite being 70 years old, don't look all that primitive. It certainly helps to have such a fine cast. There's also Alan Mowbray, who made a living playing put-upon butlers on screen, as he does here; Hedda Hopper in a brief role; future movie Dagwood Bumstead Arthur Lake, as a hotel elevator boy; and Eugene Pallette as the hotel's house detective.

Topper was enough of a success that it's been often imitated, but never duplicated. The original cast, minus Cary Grant, returned to make two more movies; it became a TV series in the 1950s; and there are even plans for another remake to be released in 2010.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Another unfortunate name

In looking for somebody to write a birthday post about, I noticed that today marks the birth anniversary of Edward R. Robinson. No, not the guy who played gangsters in movies like Little Caesar and Key Largo. That's Edward G Robinson. For obvious reasons, studios didn't want there to be people with names that were easily confused with one another, which would necessitate the use of the middle initial.

As for Edward R. Robinson, he was a set decorator in the 1940s and early 1950s, who started off getting credited as E.R. Robinson, presumably so that nobody would see an Edward Robinson and wonder what was going on. Indeed, in later movies, the set decorator went under the name Ray Robinson -- thankfully, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson wasn't too involved with movies. On the other hand, Edward R. did have one thing going for him that Edward G. didn't: an Oscar nomination, for his work in the 1942 movie The Spoilers. (Amazingly, Edward G., despite all his great screen performances, never received a competitive acting nomination.)

That having been said, this is also another way of saying that it's not just the actors who made the movies of the day what they were. It took a whole lot of people, a lot of whom are largely forgotten since they never appeared on screen or received any screen credits. Once in a rare while, TCM will have a night of movies honoring such a person, but it's usually directors, followed by writers, who get the TCM treatment.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dark Victory

I've mentioned Dark Victory a couple of times, but never actually done a full review of it here. TCM is airing it tonight at 10:00 PM ET as part of the TCM salute to the films of 1939, so today is a good time to do that full review.

Bette Davis stars as Judith Traherne, a spoiled adult brat. She's used to getting whatever she wants, and because she's living off her late father's estate, that whatever is quite a lot. She spends her days driving her roadster and running her horses, living it up with friends like Ronald Reagan and Geraldine Fitzgerald. All this changes one day, however, when she finds that her blurry, double vision is preventing her from taking jumps with her horse. She doesn't want a doctor, of course; she's too proud for that. But a doctor is necessary, and eventually they bring in specialist Dr. Frederick Steele, played by George Brent, who was perenially getting the leading man parts opposite Davis in the 1930s. What happens next is obvious: the doctor and his patient are going to fall in love.

Unfortunately, though, that love is going to be tragic. Dr. Steele has diagnosed Judith as having a glioma, a type of brain tumor that's eventually going to kill her: prognosis negative, as he writes in her medical chart in the movie. However, he's been able to operate on her and relieve the symptoms to the point that she won't have any symptoms until maybe a half day before she dies, when she'll suddenly go blind. On top of that, he's loath to tell her of her impending death. But, you know she's bound to find out soon enough. Will that spoil the love between doctor and patient? Will Judith be able to live out her last months enjoying life? Well, I'm not going to give those away.

I wrote once in another forum, before I was blogging, that Dark Victory is the sort of movie that screams "chick flick!" and won't shut the hell up. It's melodramatic, to the point of groan-inducing and beyond. Bette Davis is hamming it up as much as she always does, and George Brent is about as exciting as he always is, which is to say not very. Reagan is OK as one of Davis' socialite friends, except for the fact that his likeable eternal optimism shines through as it always does, and it's no so fitting here. Worst, however, is Humphrey Bogart. He was cast in this movie as Davis' Irish stablehand, complete with terrible brogue. It's a role for which Bogart was badly miscast, and Bogart seems to play the part as though he was wondering, "What am I doing in this role?"

That having been said, if you like chick flicks, you'll love Dark Victory. It has been released to DVD as well.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cloris Leachman

One of the things TCM does that I think is a good attempt to bring new people into the world of classic film fandom is the monthly Guest Programmer series. People might not realize just how many good movies there are out there, but with somebody in their area of interest (say, game show host Alex Trebek or a professional wrestler-turned-actor) coming in to present movies for a night, there's a good chance of drawing new people to TCM.

With that said, recent Dancing With the Stars contestant Cloris Leachman is the Guest Programmer for July, and she's selected three movies which are airing tonight:

The 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge, starring Vivien Leigh, at 8:00 PM ET;
The Bridge On the River Kwai at 10:00 PM; and
The Adventures of Robin Hood at 1:00 AM Thursday.

Of course, Leachman is an Oscar winner herself, so she's a natural for presenting movies, but still, as a woman who's been active in other areas, she's a great choice for the Guest Programmer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Maria-Renée Falconetti, 1892-1946

Maria-Renée Falconetti in 'La passion de Jeanne d'Arc'
July 21 marks the birth anniversary of several famous movie people, among them Maria-Renée Falconetti, who was born on this day in 1892. She's known for just one role, but what an acting job it is: the title role in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc's story is well-known; the young girl who claimed to see a vision from God telling her to lead a French army against the English at the Battle of Orléans. However, she was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. This 1928 movie focuses on the trial and its aftermath, skipping over the military victory. Danish-born director Carl Theodor Dreyer uses extreme close-ups to show the characters' emotions, and it's a very effective technique. But credit goes even more to Falconetti herself, who puts on a naturalistic performance in which it seems as though she is not acting at all.

In one of the more interesting cases bolstering the argument for film preservation, the original cut The Passion of Joan of Arc was believed lost for decades when the negative burned up in a fire. However, a surviving cut was found quite miraculously, in the closet of a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway, in the 1980s. This restored print has been released to DVD, but because a foreign silent film is generally not of as great interest to the general public, it's again a much pricier DVD.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Voyage to the Moon

TCM is spending all day and night today celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Among the interesting movies showing up is the groundbreaking A Voyage to the Moon, at 8:00 PM ET

The movie is short, running about 12 minutes, but it was made back in 1902, at a time when a movie that length would be considered a feature film. It tells the story of a group of French scientists who decide to go to the moon in a rocket ship, and what happens to them when they get to the moon. Although films of this time were silent, the movie has spoken narration, which at the time would have been given by director Georges Méliès

The effects are primitive by today's standards, of course, especially the iconic shot of the rocket ship landing in the eye of the "man in the moon", which you've probably seen since it shows up in so many documentaries on early filmmaking. However, you have to remember that this was made a year before America's groundbreaking movie, The Great Train Robbery. Méliès, was a magician and stage-show producer by trade, but when movies came along, he realized that there was a new, enormous power to manipulate reality and perception. The result was dozens and dozens of movies, of which A Voyage to the Moon is probably the best known.

A Voyage to the Moon has made its way to DVD, where it can be found on compilations of early film. (Never mind the fact that it's in the public domain.) But, in the 21st century, it's also made its way to YouTube.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Burmese Harp

This week's TCM Import is The Burmese Harp, overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET. Although some people might see it as containing a bit of whitewashing of history, it's still an outstanding movie.

The setting is Burma, at the end of World War II. The Japanese are supposed to be surrendering in Burma, but because of the chaotic communications, not all of the troops have gotten the message. One platoon commander sends a soldier to inform another platoon that's holed up and still fighting the British, that their government back in Japan has surrendered, and so they're supposed to do so, too. The journey isn't easy, and worse, the holed-up soldiers don't particularly believe the Emperor would ever surrender, so they'd rather fight on. On his way back to his original platoon, our hero sees that one of the horrors of war is soldiers who haven't been buried because there's just no time to do it.

So, he decides that he's going to desert and become a Buddhist monk, in order that he can fulfill what he sees as his duty to give the fallen soldiers a proper burial. His former comrades are by now POWs, but one day they think they see him in a procession of monks. Their suspicions become even stronger when they hear their comrade's harp playing; he had been the platoon's musical accompaniment when they sang in camp. Our protagonist, however, tries to avoid meeting them, so that he doesn't have to give the game away.

The movie is quite well made, and beautifully poetic, but as I said before, there are a few problems with history. By all accounts, the Japanese were very tough in war, and even a movie like Bridge on the River Kwai (also set in Burma) came under criticism by some of the British POWs who thought it sugar-coated the Japanese actions. Then again, this can be forgiven, since the movie is not so much about the war as about the aftermath of war.

The Burmese Harp has made its way to DVD, but like many foreign films, the lesser interest results in a higher DVD price.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Next time, try e-harmony

Granted, they didn't have sophisticated services like e-harmony or back in the 1940s. Even so, common sense should have told Kent Smith to stay away from Nora Prentiss, which airs overnight, at 4:00 AM ET Sunday on TCM.

Smith plays Dr. Richard Talbot, a San Franciscan who's relatively happily married, with two children. That is, until nightclub singer Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) has a minor collision outside of Dr. Talbot's office. He, being a good doctor, comes to her aid, providing the medical assistance she needs. But, this being a Hollywood movie, you just know he's going to fall in love with her. This love affair is naturally problematic for Dr. Talbot, since he's supposed to be a decent married man. In fact, Talbot is spending so much time with Prentiss that he's neglecting his family to the point that his wife is thinking of getting a divorce.

But, Dr. Talbot comes up with a bright idea. Or, more accurately, he has a bright idea fall right in front of him -- literally. One of his patients, a man with a heart problem, comes into his office just as Talbot is about to close up and, fortuitously, after everybody else has left the building. The patient then proceeds to have a heart attack and drop dead right in front of the doctor. Dr. Talbot then sees this as an opportunity: since he and the dead guy are about the same height and build, he decides to stick the dead guy in his car, push the car off a cliff and fake his own death, so that he can assume a new identity and run off with Nora Prentiss. Ingenious.

Then again, as in Payment Deferred, maybe it's not so ingenious. After Prentiss and Talbot run off to New York, he realizes that he can't practice medicine, since he doesn't have a license in his new name. Worse, there are people in New York who knew him in his old life, and who think they recognize him when they see him and Nora together in New York. Not only that, but poor Dr. Talbot starts developing a serious case of paranoia as he's forced to hide in his apartment hotel while Nora resumes her career as a nightclub singer -- working for the same man she worked for back in San Francisco!

Nora Prentiss is a very engaging, if dark, story. The cast isn't quite to the level of fame as appeared in some of the more well-known noirs, but that doesn't take anything away from the movie. It doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Early Edition

I suppose I should get back to writing more substantial synopses of upcoming movies. So, the next selection is the rarely-seen 1944 film It Happened Tomorrow, which TCM is showing at 8:30 AM ET Saturday, July 18.

Dick Powell, who at this stage of his career was trying to get into more serious roles as a way of changing his image as a musical actor, stars as Larry Stevens, a man who at the start of the movie is seen celebrating his 50th anniversary with his wife Sylvia (Linda Darnell). Sylvia comments that nobody would believe Larry's story of how they met, so we flash back half a century ago to the gay nineties, and the events that brought them together.... (Sadly, the fact that the story is told as a flashback does give away an important plot point later on in the story.)

It's now the 1890s, and Larry is a young reporter at one of the New York City newspapers. He and several of his colleagues are having a celebration in the newspapers "morgue", where the old papers are kept, and Larry makes a point that he wished he knew what tomorrow's news could be, because that would make him a better reporter. The oldest guy there, the morgue's librarian, tells him to be careful what he wishes for, because it may come true and he might not like the consequences. It's easy to see what happens next: Larry is given a copy of the next day's newspaper, and nobody believes that he knows ahead of time what's going to happen.

Along the way, he meets Sylvia, the daughter of a vaudeville psychic (and accomplice in his act), and falls in love with her, although not everything is a bed of roses. When Larry gets news about a gang of bank robbers, and knows the news before it happens, the police department's natural assumption is that Larry is part of the ring of crooks. If that's not bad enough, Larry eventually gets a newspaper in which his own obituary is the banner headline. Of course, we know he can't die, since he has to live for his anniversary all those years later, but it sets up a tense enough climax.

It Happened Tomorrow is a satisfying enough movie. It won't be put up there with the truly great movies of the era, but it tells an interesting story, it tells it well, and it's good for the whole family to enjoy. It was directed by René Clair, a French director who was part of the wave of people who went into exile in the US after the Nazi occupation and made some highly original movies during their years in Hollywood (see Julien Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan). It Happened Tomorrow is just as original, and happily, has been released to DVD.

A confession

Would you believe I have not actually seen any of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies before? TCM is airing four of them in prime time tonight, starting at 8:00 PM ET, and I am looking forward to them.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Father Goose

I mentioned the Cary Grant movie Father Goose six weeks ago, although it wasn't airing at the time. It does, however, show up on the TCM schedule today, July 16, at 6:00 PM ET.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Check your local listings

Tomorrow, July 16, marks the birth anniversary of Barbara Stanwyck. TCM are marking the occasion with three movies:

The Locked Door, in which Stanwyck sees her husband accidentally shoot a former boyfriend of hers, at 6:00 AM ET;
Remember the Night, in which thief Stanwyck falls in love with her prosecutor Fred MacMurray, ostensibly at 7:30 AM; and
Double Indemnity, in which MacMurray returns to help her kill her husband, scheduled for 9:00 AM.

However, it should be noted that those times may not be correct, despite what the schedule I printed out at the end of June says; what TCM's on-line schedule claims, and what the satellite box guide claims. The thing is Remember the Night has a run-time of 94 minutes, which means that it either ought to run in a one and three-quarter hour slot (7:15 AM to 9:00 AM); or, it will run several minutes over and Double Indemnity won't begin until about 9:05 AM ET. I would think the former is more plausible, because The Locked Door is listed as being 74 minutes, which is just the right amount of time to fit in a 6:00-7:15 time slot, with Remember the Night beginning at 7:15 AM (give or take a minute, since TCM has the what's coming up schedule and the intro music as interstitials between movies) and running until about 8:50 AM. (Note that Double Indemnity is listed as 108 minutes, meaning that even if it starts a few minutes late, it shouldn't run past the 11:00 time listed as the start for the next feature.)

One hopes that this does not cause any problems for TCM viewers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The mysteries of DVD releases

A good, but not great, movie like A Life in the Balance has never been released to DVD. However, a mess like The Chairman (which coincidentally airs tomorrow at 2:00 PM ET on the Fox Movie Channel) has. Hmm....

Gregory Peck plays an American scientist who's an expert in biochemistry, who in the past collaborated with a scientist in Communist China. That scientist is on the verge of discovering how to synthesize an enzyme that could solve much of the world's food supply problems -- and, in so doing, make Red China the world's new superpower. The Americans, British, and Soviets all know this, and are desperate to get the structure of the enzyme for themselves. Naturally, in a Torn Curtain-like move, they decide that sending in an American scientist is the way to do it. The only thing is, there's no guarantee that Peck will be able to get back out of Red China, But the western spy agencies have a solution to that little problem; at least, one that solves their problems, Peck's be damned: they'll implant a spy bug in his cranium, which will pick up everything Peck says and hears, and transmit that information to a satellite.

Oh boy is this a doozy of a plot. Needless to say, you haven't heard the half of it. The movie was filmed during the Cultural Revolution, at a time when intellectuals like the Chinese scientist (Keye Luke) were the target of derision at best, if not forced re-education. That certainly makes life tougher for Peck, as many of the research materials are made inaccessible to even Luke, who can only see them through a film projector. Peck also has to gain Chairman Mao's trust and, in one of the movie's more ludicrous scenes (and goodness knows there are a lot of ludicrous scenes in this movie), tries to win Mao over during a game of table tennis! Even worse for Peck is that the bug inside Peck's head also contains a bomb that the spymasters can detonate via remote control. And it looks like they will when Peck has to try to escape from the compound and make a break for the Soviet border....

The Chairman is a mess, and a movie that makes one wonder, "What on earth were they thinking?" True, that does make the movie worth watching once, as long as you know you need to be in the right mood. If you're expecting an intelligently serious spy movie, you're not getting it from this. The aforementioned Torn Curtain is much better. Still, for reasons known only to the executives at Fox, The Chairman has been released to DVD.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Lee Marvin is being mean again

Our next selection is the little-seen movie A Life in the Balance, airing at 7:30 AM ET tomorrow on the Fox Movie Channel. Given its cast, you'd think it would be more remembered than it is, but such are the vagaries of time.

Ricardo Montalban plays a widower in Mexico City struggling to raise his young son. He only works intermittently, and as a result, money is always a problem, and the neighbors want to take custody of the son because they can take better care of him. However, Montalban knows a woman who owes him a bit of money, and he goes to her apartment to collect it. Unfortunately for him, the woman winds up dead, the victim of a serial killer -- and Montalban was the last person seen with the woman, so he's the natural suspect for the police. In fact, at the time of the murder, Montalban was at a pawn shop buying a guitar for his son, where he met the lovely Anne Bancroft. He was on his way to a local night spot, where he was going to meet his son again, and takes Bancroft there with him, so at least he's got an eventual alibi.

The son, on his way to meet his father, happens to see the real murderer, Lee Marvin. Unfortunately, Marvin sees the kid, and kidnaps him. Worse, Marvin is perhaps even more psychotic here than he was in The Big Heat. Eventually, the police decide to use Montalban as bait to find the real killer....

The movie isn't bad, although truth be told, it's not great, either. Everybody is competent, and yet it feels like something is missing. A big plus, however, is the location shooting; the movie was made in Mexico City, and the locations are more than suitably ramshackle. But perhaps the lack of anything special is why the movie isn't so well-remembered, and why it's never been released to DVD. Still, it deserves a viewing.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Those nasty temperance workers

I don't mind a good drink. In fact, if I could figure out a way to make good money writing about the movies, I wouldn't mind drinking a better class of wine than I currently do, from fine champagne flutes. And while there's a lot of drinking in the movies, there are also the tedious agents of temperance, trying to hector everybody into not drinking. One such example is from tonight's Essentials Jr. movie, The African Queen, in which missionary Katharine Hepburn pours all of Humphrey Bogart's gin into the river. Even though the movie turns into a love story, the Hepburn character is thoroughly self-centered and unappealing. The same, I suppose, can be said for the Walter Huston missionary character in Rain, although at least we get the redeeming ending of him committing suicide because he falls for streetwalker Joan Crawford.

There are some comedies that have anti-drinking scenes, and at least here, the fact that the anti-alcohol message is being used to comic effect doesn't make it annoying. One that comes to mind is Leslie Caron's hiding Cary Grant's booze in Father Goose. Grant himself played a moralizer early in his career in She Done Him Wrong, but at least here, the Salvation Army uniform was only a disguise for his real work as an undercover policeman -- and he lets one of his targets, Mae West, get away with a lot.

That having been said, there's also a sad campaign from the real-life moralizers. It doesn't have to do with drinking, though, but smoking. I've long felt that if we get saddled with another production code, the issue most likely to trigger it is going to be smoking. Indeed, there's a campaign to require movies with smoking scenes to get an R rating.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Point for discussion

Why is Peter Sellers considered a genius, but Jerry Lewis is much more denigrated?

TCM is showing The Mouse That Roared tonight at 8:00 PM ET as part of The Essentials, which stars Sellers as the leader of a tiny country that takes on the US, in the hopes that it will lose a war and get development aid. Sellers' movies, and his physical comedy, bet a lot of praise; notably something like Dr. Strangelove.

Jerry Lewis, on the other hand, is treated as somehow dismissible, with the like being that "the French love Jerry Lewis", with the obvious implication that the French are just different and somehow weird. However, I don't see the difference between the manic gestures of Sellers at the end of Dr. Strangelove, or any of Lewis' physical comedy in, say, The Bellboy.

I suppose it can be said that some of Sellers' work is political satire and not just entertainment, and that this would explain why those movies get praised. But, at the same time, Sellers' Pink Panther movies are nothing more than light entertainment (they're good, but there's nothing deep about them), just as light as the movies Jerry Lewis made with Dean Martin.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Repeats

It's been about 14 months since I recommended the movie Panic in Year Zero!; TCM is showing it tomorrow at 10:00 AM ET. It stars Ray Milland as the father of a family that has to try to survive a nuclear apocalypse. It's kind of sad to think what happened to poor Ray Milland later in his career. He had won the Oscar for The Lost Weekend in 1945, but by the early 1960s, he was reduced to doing B-movies like this. If you want to see another example of the work Milland did later in life, the Fox Movie Channel is running his 1969 TV movie Daughter of the Mind, in which Milland plays a man who thinks his dead daughter is communicating with him; the next airing is overnight tonight/tomorrow at 4:00 AM ET. Milland's wife in the movie is played by Gene Tierney, who unfortunately didn't age all that well; she's looking nowhere near as resplendent as she did in Leave Her to Heaven.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

TCM's Karl Malden Tribute

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront'

TCM has announced its programming change for the late Karl Malden, who died on July 1 at the age of 97. They will be pre-empting Friday's primetime lineup in order to show three of his movies:

On the Waterfront at 8:00 PM ET;
A Streetcar Named Desire at 10:00 PM ET; and
The Birdman of Alcatraz at 12:15 AM ET Saturday.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Eugene Pallette, 1889-1954

Head shot of Eugene Pallette,

One of the phrases that I use a lot on this blog is "veteran character actor". That's because there were a bunch of these actors who appeared in movie after movie after movie, often playing similar characters. One of the best of them, Eugene Pallette, was born on this day in 1889. Pallette had appeared in silent movies in the 1910s, but didn't quite have the heft to be a true star, so he remade himself by gaining weight and, with the advent of talking pictures, became a heavyset, gravelly-voiced comic father figure, playing patriarchs or boss types. I've mentioned Pallette as Bette Davis' father in The Bride Came C.O.D., and as Gene Tierney's father in Heaven Can Wait. Perhaps his best-known father role is as the sane father in an otherwise insane family in My Man Godfrey.

Pallette was always in demand, making five dozen movies in the 1930s and another three dozen in the first half of the 1940s before retiring due to poor health. Although he played quite a few patriarchs, his role in My Man Godfrey might even be eclipsed by that of Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Pallette's Tuck takes on Errol Flynn's Robin Hood in hand-to-hand combat and beats him.

Pallette never fails to delight, and is always worth watching whenever one of his multitude of films shows up on TCM.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Funerals on Film

Broadcast TV decided to spend a bunch of time today covering some memorial service. I couldn't help but think of some of Hollywood's more interesting funerals. Not the funerals of actual dead actors -- although Pola Negri's actions at Rudolph Valentino's funeral come to mind.

Left-aligned photo Perhaps one of the most humorous funerals in a Hollywood movie is in Douglas Sirk's melodramatic version of Imitation of Life, when Susan Kohner, playing a woman who was as black as Michael Jackson, returns for her mother's funeral. Of course, the movie was meant to be a serious drama.

A more interesting topic might be those movies which open with a funeral, and then go into flashback mode to show the viewer important points in the deceased person's life. I recommended Spencer Tracy's early movie The Power and the Glory a year ago, but it still hasn't been released to DVD.

A movie I recommended which has made its way to DVD is Chariots of Fire, which opens at the funeral of 1924 Olympic gold medallist Harold Abrahams, and then goes on to recount the story of the Paris Olympics, and how Abrahams won his gold medal.

One I don't think I've recommended before is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. The movie begins with James Stewart, now a US Senator with aspirations of becoming Vice-President, returning home for the funeral of his good friend John Wayne. Cue the dissolve to decades ago, when Wayne was still alive, and helped make Stewart the man he became....

Monday, July 6, 2009

More Richard Conte

I mentioned Richard Conte a few days ago as the Nazi spy in 13 Rue Madeleine. He's appearing again on the Fox Movie Channel in the crime drama Cry of the City, at 6:00 AM ET July 7.

Conte stars as Martin Rome, a hoodlum from Little Italy who's constantly on the wrong side of the law. He's currently in a hospital prison ward, having been wounded in a gunfight during which he killed a police officer -- which the police think is the worst possible crime you can commit. One of the police detectives, Lt. Candella (Victor Mature), suspects that Rome is involved in another crime, a jewel robbery that ended in murder, and spends the entire movie trying to figure out Rome's role in that crime. It seems as though Candella may have some information from Rome's lawyer, and Marty fears that this information is going to implicate one of his many past girlfriends. In a panic, Marty escapes from the prison ward, and gets his current girlfriend (Shelley Winters) to ferry him around the city in search of a doctor who will treat him without reporting the gunshot wound....

Truth be told, most of the plot is beside the point, as the story is more about the characters, and stock characters abound here: the boy who grew up to be a cop; his friend who ended up on the wrong side of the law; the kid brother who idolizes his hoodlum brother; the Stereotypical Italian Mother; and various femmes fatales. In addition to Winters, there's Debra Paget, and; as a criminal accomplice running a massage parlor as a front, Hope Emerson.

All of the performances are good (especially the underrated Hope Emerson), but the story is a bit too by-the-numbers to be a truly great movie. Fox released this in 1948. In the years just after World War II, while MGM were turning out light fare like Freed Unit musicals to try to get America to forget the dark days of the war that was over, Fox was making a lot of more realistic movies, along the lines of what Warner Brothers had done in the early 1930s. I've mentioned all those Fox docudramas before, but there were also movies tackling the new social problems of the day like Gentleman's Agreement and No Way Out. Cry of the City is competent, but unfortunately gets lost in a sea of superior product from the same studio.

That isn't to say that Cry of the City isn't worth seeing. It's well worth a view. It hasn't been released to DVD in the US, either, so you'll either have to catch it on the Fox Movie Channel tomorrow, or find a DVD from abroad.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Last night was July 4, a time when there are many fireworks shows here in the US. Interestingly, both of tonight's movies in TCM's prime time lineup have fireworks scenes.

TCM's Essentials, Jr. pick, airing at 8:00 PM ET, is Mr. Hulot's Holiday, in which Jacques Tati inadvertently sets off an entire shed full of fireworks.

It's followed at 10:00 PM ET by Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, in which the fireworks are used as a way-too-obvious Freudian metaphor during a kissing scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Politically unconscious movies

TCM's Essential for this week, airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight, is Rocky, the Sylvester Stallone movie about a boxer with a dead-end life in working-class Philadelphia who gets his chance at the big time when champion Apollo Creed picks him to be his next opponent.

Ostensibly, the movie is about boxing, but it's really more of an Everyman story about the desire to rise above one's circumstances. It's a desire that's a universal part of the human spirit, and Rocky simply happens to set this desire in the white working-class life that seems to be dying out in America's cities. In speaking to eternal human values and, combined with some superb acting, Rocky took home the Oscar for the Best Picture of 1976.

Some latter-day critics seem to have a problem with that Oscar, though. One of the other movies up for Best Picture that year was Network, Paddy Chayefsky's satire about the American TV industry and its chase for ratings that in many ways holds just as true today as it did a third of a century ago.. Network is an outstanding movie in its own right, and wouldn't have been an unworthy Best Picture winner, either. But it's also one with a much blunter "message" than Rocky, and I can't help but wonder if that sort of cynical message about America (a stark contrast with what is ultimately an uplifting optimism in Rocky), coming as it did in the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era of the mid-1970s, isn't what makes the more politically-minded want to see Network as the clearly superior picture.

It wouldn't be the first time it's happened, or the last. Art Carney won the Best Actor Oscar in 1974 for Harry and Tonto, a movie which has some echoes to Rocky in that they're both very obviously about the human spirit and man's ultimately underlying dignity. Harry and Tonto, even more than Rocky, has nothing political to say, and Carney beat out, amongst others, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, with Gene Hackman in The Conversation not even being nominated.

There's also Chariots of Fire, another movie with obvious tones about the human spirit and its uplifting side that has little to do with politics. It won the Best Picture Oscar for 1981, and is one of the movies that had a big influence on all those lush period pieces about pre-World War II Britain that have come about in the era since. But, it beat out Reds, Warren Beatty's overlong paean to a Communist apologist. And since Communists were blacklisted from Hollywood in the 1950s, anything that can be seen as trying to rehabilitate them must automatically be good. Sorry, but give me a good story about the human spirit any day instead of a turgid piece of agitprop.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Howards of Virginia

Several months back, I mentioned the movie The Howards of Virginia as one of the few to deal with the Revolutionary War. TCM is showing a bunch of movies dealing with the American Revolution on the morning and early afternoon of the Fourth of July. The Howards of Virginia is among them, airing at 10:00 AM ET on July 4. It stars Cary Grant as a colonist who'd rather work his farm in western Virgina than get mixed up with politics, except that there's that pesky little war of independence. Grant is rather hilariously miscast here; despite how good he was as an actor, period pieces weren't for him. Just look at that ghastly hair and buckskin outfit. Yikes.

13 Rue Madeleine

The Fox Movie Channel is airing the interesting James Cagney docudrama 13 Rue Madeleine at 8:00 AM ET on July 4. It's a look at the work of the OSS, the World War II-era forerunner to the CIA, and a movie that's actually quite appropriate for the Fourth of July holiday.

Cagney stars as Bob Sharkey, the man commanding the training of the spies-to-be who are going to do operations behind Nazi lines. The first half of the movie is documentary in nature, looking at the way in which agents are trained and learned to evade detection. That evasion is important, as Sharkey and the other spy bosses come to believe that one of the men he's training, Bill O'Connell (played by frequent Fox heavy Richard Conte), is actually a double agent, working for the Nazis. Sharkey decides to test this hypothesis by feeing the alleged double agent some false information before sending him off on a mission. Sharkey learns that O'Connell is in fact a double agent, but not because of the false information. Instead, O'Connell has discovered that the Americans are onto him, and kills the OSS man sent on the mission with him (played by Frank Latimore) by sabogating the man's parachute. What a way to die.

It's also here that the action really picks up. The mission is in jeopardy, but, since it pertains to the upcoming D-Day invasion, is of vital importance. There's only one man who can carry out that mission, that man being Sharkey himself. So, he proceeds to prepare for parachuting behind enemy lines, knowing that he faces grave danger should he be captured....

The first half of 13 Rue Madeleine is effective. It's not quite as good as either The Naked City or He Walked By Night, but it does its job at showing us the meticulous preparation wannabe spies face, and is far more realistic than, say, a James Bond movie. The second half, the spy operation in occupied France, is even better, with quite a bit of suspense, and Cagney shining. We even get a bit of a surprise ending.

13 Rue Madeleine is by no means the greatest movie ever made, but it's quite an enjoyable movie that's been largely forgotten 60 years on, which is a bit of a shame. However, it has made its way to DVD, so you don't have to wait for any of Fox's showings like tomorrow's.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who should sing opera?

Among the musicals TCM is showing today is the interesting concept Carmen Jones, at 3:45 PM ET. The plot is an updated version of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen, being set at a World War II-era munitions plant and army base in the Jacksonville, Florida area. As World War II was a time when the US military was still segregated by law (it wasn't until 1947 that Harry Truman desgregated it), the movie has an all-black cast. Dorothy Dandridge stars as Carmen, the seductive temptress, who woos army man Harry Belafonte into going AWOL, following Carmen all the way to Chicago, for the climactic prize fight. Oscar Hammerstein updated the lyrics for mid-century American audiences, but the music is still largely operatic in its arrangements.

This operaticism is the one glaring problem the movie has. Although all the cast members were reasonably capable singers, none of them had any opera training, which resulted in a dilemma: either dub all the songs and hope the actors can make it look as though they're realistically singing in an operatic style, or have the actors sing in a style which does not fit in with the music. It sounds as if the producers did some of both. Dorothy Dandridge was dubbed by Marilyn Horne, and Dandridge does a reasonably good job of looking like an authentic opera singer. Harry Belafonte, on the other hand, falls flat in this regard, either sounding reedy, as though he's using his own voice to sing, or looking completely ill-at-ease in the musical numbers. The supporting cast members have various degrees of success at looking operatic, with none quite reaching the level Dandridge does.

Special consideration, though, should be given to Pearl Bailey, playing one of Dandridge's friends. She doesn't sound operatic at all, but she brings so much energy to her scenes that it's easy to overlook her lack of skill at opera. It helps that she gets to sing one of her numbers, "Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum", to an extremely energetic dance scene. Indeed, it's in the choreography that Carmen Jones really shines. If you can focus on this and Dorothy Dandridge, you can almost forget that you're watching opera.

Carmen Jones has been released to DVD.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Karl Malden, 1912-2009

Karl Malden ministering to Eva Marie-Saint in On the Waterfront.

The death has been announced of actor Karl Malden. Malden won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire, and was nominated a second time three years later for his role as the priest who ministers to the downtrodden dockworkers in On the Waterfront. Malden was 97.

Malden was born with the name Mladen Sekulovich, and with a name like that, it's easy to understand why his name was changed for Hollywood. However, Malden was extremely proud of his Serbian heritage, and tried to get the name "Sekulovich" inserted into the movies he made if at all possible. For example, in On the Waterfront, when the heads of the union local are called to testify before the grand jury, one of the delegates is named Sekulovich.

Malden's career was surprisingly varied; for example, he can be seen tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM ET in the Disney movie Pollyanna. He also appeared in the musical Gypsy; dramas like The Birdman of Alcatraz, and military movies like Patton.

As of this writing, I haven't come across a TCM schedule change announcement, although I'd expect one to come.

Perry Mason

I've mentioned the Perry Mason movies before. TCM is airing all six of them today, starting at 9:30 AM ET with The Case of the Howling Dog.

The movies are interesting enough as a B-movie series: nothing spectacular, but more than good enough entertainment. Warren William, who had been a bigger star at Warner Bros. back in the early 1930s, even being lent out to Columbia to make Lady For a Day plays Perry Mason here, a portrayal rather different from Raymond Burr's role. But then, the movies focus more on the detective work than on the law-room histrionics.

As I've also mentioned, The Case of the Curious Bride, airing at 11:00 AM ET, is interesting in that the murder victim is played by a young Errol Flynn, appearing very briefly.

I don't think any of the Perry Mason movies have made it to DVD yet, so this is your chance to watch them.