Saturday, October 31, 2009

How to Murder Your Wife

I mentioned the Jack Lemmon comedy How to Murder Your Wife back in September, saying that it didn't seem to be available on DVD, and wouldn't show up on TCM until November. That TCM showing is coming up at noon ET on Sunday.

Spencer Tracy vs. Fredric March

TCM is showing both classic Hollywood versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tonight. The 1941 version, starring Spencer Tracy in the dual role, kicks off the night at 8:00 PM ET. The printed schedule lists the 1932 Fredric March version as airing overnight at 2:00 AM ET. But, it must be noted that tonight is the night that Daylight Savings Time ends, so if you want to watch it, be careful. I note that the online schedules lists the March version as being at 2:30 AM, or an hour and 45 minutes after a movie with a 92-minute running time (which would fit). This would imply 11:30 PM Pacific time as the start for the movie, and those of us in the east would have to set our recording devices properly and hope for the best.

To be honest, I can't tell you which of the two versions is better: I've actually never seen the Spencer Tracy version!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tonight's TCM Thrillers

I think I've mentioned all three of the thrillers that TCM is airing tonight before:

Gaslight (the Ingrid Bergman version) kicks off the evening at 8:00 PM ET, followed by
Night Must Fall at 10:00 PM; and
Psycho at midnight.

However, all of them are worth watching again.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Overlooked crew

Today marks the birthday of Perc Westmore, and his twin brother Ern. If you watch enough movies, you'll probably recognize the Westmore name showing up all over the place, as they were part of a long family line of people in the make-up department. That having been said, make-up was historically one of the easier to overlook parts of the moviemaking business. The make-up people never got a screen to themselves in the opening credits the way that composers did. Also, achievement in makeup wasn't recognized by the Academy until the early 1980s, as opposed to categories like cinematography and art direction, which existed all the way back in the very first Academy Awards ceremony.

Still, I don't know that makeup is the most overlooked part of making a movie. The credit rolls of today are much longer than in the classic studio era, with a lot of actors in bit parts getting credits today in roles like "Third Tall Man" that they wouldn't necessarily have gotten 70 years ago. And the makeup artists at least got credits, unlike the lighting people or individual camera operators.

So, spare a thought for all of the people who combine to make a great movie. There's something to be said about the studio system that was able to keep all of this expertise together.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Elsa Lanchester, 1902-1986

Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935)
Elsa Lanchester (l.) and Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Today marks the birth anniversary of Elsa Lanchester. She was the wife of Charles Laughton for 33 years until his death in 1962, and starred in several movies opposite him, including The Private Life of Henry VIII, Witness for the Prosecution, The Big Clock and Rembrandt.

However, she might be best remembered -- and this being Halloween time, it's particularly appropriate to mention is -- for having played the double role of Mary Wollstonecraft and the monster that marries Frankenstein's monster in the 1935 horror classic Bride of Frankenstein. Gotta love that Don King-style hair!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A British teen movie

There are a lot of similarities between adolescents all over the world, as can be seen in the British-made movie To Sir, With Love, airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET on TCM. Sidney Poitier stars as Mark Thackeray, a Caribbean-born engineer who, after working a series of jobs, has ended up at a high school in a grimy working-class part of London. These are difficult kids, but Thackeray quickly takes a liking to them, and drops his planned curriculum for teaching them about life, a change which ends up having a great effect on the students -- and him, as well.

To Sir, With Love is nothing groundbreaking, in that it treads the same material that teen movies of previous generations did, and movies from later generations (such as The Breakfast Club) would go on to do. And so, even though it's clearly a movie of the 1960s, what with the fashions and hairstyles and music, it's also in a way timeless. Still, for Americans, this one stands out because of the London settings, which make for something quite different than all the Hollywood teen movies. Poitier also gives an excellent performance as his is a role that dominates the movie.

There is one interesting difference between this and many of the Hollywood movies in the genre: several the actors playing the students -- including Lulu, who also sang title song; and Judy Geeson, whose relationship with her teacher is the main one depicted in the movie -- were only 18 when the movie was made, and the older student/actors were only a few years older. It much less of an age difference than in, say The Blob.

Village of the Damned

I can't believe that it's been a good 16 months since I blogged about Village of the Damned. It's a natural choice for a good, frightening Halloween movie, and TCM is airing it overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET. True, it's a bit late for those of us on the east coast, but that's only 11:00 PM Hollywood time, so the folks out in California get to go to bed with the frightening image of those glowing eyes. (That, and I'd love to see Robert Osborne present the movie wearing one of those blond wigs. That would be frightening.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

TCM is showing The Caine Mutiny tomorrow at 7:00 AM ET. Humphrey Bogart stars as Capt. Queeg, the martinet who is newly assigned to the USS Caine during World War II. His subordinate officers quickly begin to suspect that he is a holy terror, as he's a hell of a lot stricter than their previous captain, and some of his orders and punishments seem arbitrary at best, such as when Queen can't get a second helping of strawberries for dessert, and he's convinced somebody on the boat is hiding the strawberries. The subordinates try to get Queeg relieved of command through official channels, but there's no hope that this will happen. Eventually, the Caine is part of a convoy but has to go through a typhoon in order to stay with the convoy. Queeg intends to keep the ship with the convoy, although his subordinates believe doing so would put the ship in jeopardy, and so conspire to take the ship over during the typhoon. The thing is, that's technically a mutiny, and the officers are going to have to stand trial for it.

The second half of the movie is the trial, and it shines just as much as the first half. The thing is, each of the subordinate officers is just as flawed in his own way as Captain Queeg, and their military defense attorney (played by José Ferrer) hates them for it. Fred MacMurray plays a non-career Navy man (this is a war, after all) who if anything is arrogant about being more competent than anybody else, when the opposite is actually true. Van Johnson is the first officer who, above all else, doesn't want to make waves, and deliberately scuttles the attempt to force a psychological evaluation of Queeg. Finally, there's Robert Francis. He's an ensign fresh out of college, and his fault is the forgivable one of being too inexperienced to know whom to trust. For him, Navy life turns out to be not quite what he expected.

The interesting thing is that the mutineers might have been right. Queeg isn't just a strict taskmaster; he really does seem to be paranoid and megalomaniacal to the same extent as Captain Bligh is generally portrayed in Mutiny on the Bounty. Bogart depicts these dark qualities brilliantly, to the point that he got an Oscar nomination for his role. And he could have been a contender for that Oscar, too, as could everybody else involved in the making of the movie, if he hadn't had the bad luck of being up against On the Waterfront. The Caine Mutiny is one of the underrated movies out there, and one that's well worth watching, even if war films aren't your thing. (There's not that much actual war in it, anyway.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Steve McQueen in a teen movie!

Steve McQueen had to go through some tribulations before he became a big Hollywood star, having to make such indignities The Blob, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET on TCM.

You probably know the basic plot. A "meteorite" crashes on a farm just outside a small, middle-American town that could be Anywhere, USA. The farmer goes outside to examine, and gets attacked by what looks like a bunch of cherry pie filling -- the "Blob" of the title. Steve McQueen and his girlfriend find the poor farmer, and take him to the local doctor. What they don't know is that the Blob is a malicious presence, which proceeds to jump from the farmer to the doctor, killing the doctor, and then leaving the doctor's office to wreak havoc on the whole town.

The movie is more fun than good, although it should be said that the fun is here to be had in spades. The movie is full of the tropes that appeared in teen movies of the era: fast cars; teens who are better than the authorities think they are, but can't get the authorities to believe them; and people going on 30 playing high school kids. When Steve McQueen made this movie, he was 27, and the actress playing his girlfriend (Aneta Corsaut, in one of her only movie appearances; she went on to do tons of TV work) was 24.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Speaking of Fay Wray

Fay Wray's most famous role is probably as the femme fatale in Merian Cooper's King Kong. However, TCM is showing two of her early 1930s Technicolor horror movies early on the morning of Sunday, October 25:

The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I've recommended previously, at 7:30 AM ET.

It's preceded by the movie that was made before it with many of the same cast members: Doctor X, at 6:00 AM. Here, Wray plays the daughter of the seemingly-mad scientist (Lionel Atwill, who was the madman in Wax Museum) Dr. Xavier. There's a serial killer on the loose, killing pretty young things (like Wray) every full moon. Xavier brings all the potential killers to his creepy mansion and locks them in a room together, using Wray as a pawn in a plot to uncover the real killer.

I personally think that Doctor X isn't quite as good as The Mystery of the Wax Museum, but it's another movie helped by the two-strip Technicolor, which makes a suitably spooky atmosphere, as well as providing an air of surrealism to the typically-oversized 1930s style machinery that every mad scientist had in his laboratory. Both movies are well worth catching.

Merian C. Cooper, 1893-1973

Today marks the birth anniversary of Merian C. Cooper, who spent several years as the head of production at RKO studios in the early 1930s. It was during this time that the movie for which he's most famous, King Kong, was made. However, as I mentioned the last time TCM did a Cooper tribute, he got his start as an adventurer, and only got into moviemaking when he decided to make a documentary of one of his adventures, that being the annual migration of a Persian tribe in the movie Grass: A Nation's Battle For Life. If you didn't get to see Grass the last time I recommended it, I can say that it's highly wrorth watching.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Night of the Hunter

TCM honored Lillian Gish on her birthday a week and a half ago and, although they played a few of her talkies, they didn't get as recent as Night of the Hunter. The reason is that the programmers wanted to save it for this month's Friday night look at thrillers. It is indeed one of the great thrillers, and it's airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET. It's been a while since I mentioned Dragonwyck, a Gene Tierney/Vincent Price movie that follows at 10:00 PM. The final thriller of the night (although I'm not certain I'd call it a thriller) is Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, at midnight.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Speaking of Susan Hayward

No, today isn't her birthday. But it's the birthday of Dory Previn, who turns 84. How are the two related? Previn wrote lyrics in several movies in the 1950s and 1960s, most notably Valley of the Dolls, in which Hayward sings the dreadful "I'll Plant My Own Tree", standing in front of a hideous mobile. Unsurprisingly, that scene has made it's way to YouTube.

Any way you want it

As part of its look at movies dealing with the Great Depression, TCM is showing Gabriel Over the White House overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET. It's a very interesting historical curiosity, but one that ultimately doesn't succeed.

Walter Huston stars as political careerist Jud Hammond who gets elected President during the Great Depression. At first, he doesn't do much about the economic situation -- until one day, while driving his car, he gets in a serious accident that leaves him in a coma. He eventually wakes up from the coma, but only after he believes he's seen the angel Gabriel, telling him to be a radically different President. Indeed, he does become quite different, believing that he needs to be much more assertive about involking Presidential power, to the point that he'd be willing to adjourn Congress and personally shoot gangsters. All of this, needless to say, causes consternation for the party bosses....

Gabriel Over the White House was filmed in 1932 and funded by William Randolph Hearst for distribution by MGM; but was only released after the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt as President. Hearst and the bosses at MGM were generally strongly opposed to the domestic policies of Roosevelt and the other Democrats (remember, it was Warner Bros. that made the movies with a "social" message). In that light, the question needs to be asked whether this movie was meant to be a warning of what Roosevelt was going to do, or a prescription. And even today, a movie like Gabriel Over the White House can be used to bash either side of the political aisle. I've seen people argue that the movie has parallels to George W. Bush (on the grounds that Huston's President is a "simpleton" who thinks he's on a messianic mission) -- but there are just as many people on the other side who would claim Obama seems to think he's on a mission, and would use things like the recent kerfuffle over whether Fox News is a "legitimate" news operation as evidence that Obama, like Huston's President Hammond, is willing to bully anybody who won't go along with him. If anything, President Hammond comes across more like a big city "machine" politician, along the lines of Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah.

All of this makes Gabriel Over the White House a fascinating look at what people were thinking about the political situation in 1932 and 1933. However, as a movie, it's much more problematic. The thing is, whichever way you think it's politicking it's unbelievably blunt and heavy-handed in that propagandizing, much like Things to Come (the politics of which I generally wouldn't agree with) or I Want to Live! (which has an anti-capital punishment view that I generally agree with). It makes the movie tough to watch.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

TCM's October 2009 Guest Programmer

If you've been watching TCM, you've probably seen the promos for the monthly Guest Programmer, who for October is Dennis Miller. His selections are airing tonight, and start off at 8:00 PM ET with Dodsworth. This one isn't seen quite so often, probably because it was originally produced by Samuel Goldwyn's production company and distributed by United Artists, which wouldn't have been as prestigious as, say, MGM or Paramount in the 1930s.

Walter Huston stars as Dodsworth, a car company executive who's decided he wants to retire to a quiet life, and sells his company as a result. Unfortunately, his wife (Ruth Chatterton) is one of those social climber types who doesn't like her husband's "provincial" Midwestern values, and dragoons him into taking a European trip with her. The result is that they both find themselves drifting apart, with Mrs. Dodsworth taking up with a series of more "sophisticated" Continental types. Mr. Dodsworth, however, also ends up finding somebody understanding, in the form of American divorcée Mary Astor. Still, this being the 1930s, the chances of them all finding true happiness aren't that great....

Dodsworth is one of those peculiarly 1930s movies, in that its values are rooted in the time. People don't go on that sort of overlong European trip any more, and marriages like the Dodsworths' would have ended in divorce long before getting to this point -- it wouldn't carry the same social stigma today that it might have back then. It's also very much a movie that doesn't have a whole lot of action, with the dialogue and character development being much more important, something which is seen a lot less these days.

I've always liked the idea of the TCM Guest Programmer, as I think it's a good way to try to introduce new people to classic cinema. Dennis Miller's selection of Dodsworth is one that has me curious as to why he'd select it. The other three movies are:
The Third Man at 10:00 PM;
Suspicion at midnight; and
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House at 2:00 AM.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

William Castle night

TCM is putting the spotlight on the gimmicks of director William Castle tonight. I've mentioned Strait-Jacket (airing at 9:45 PM ET) before. I don't think I've mentioned The Tingler, however. That's following Strait-Jacket at 11:30 PM ET.

Vincent Price is a scientist investigating fear. He's come to the conclusion that all of us have a symbiotic organism in us (the "Tingler" of the title) that grows whenever we get frightened, and that letting that fear out into the open, such as by screaming, causes the organism to shrink. One day, Price meets the wife of a friend, and discovers that she's a deaf-mute, and can't scream. Naturally, this means that she's a perfect subject! Scare the bejeezus out of her, and you can find that organism that feeds off of our fears! Needless to say, the experiment goes badly wrong, and the organism escapes its host, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting people!

This is pretty silly stuff, but by now you've probably come to expect that from a William Castle movie. That doesn't mean it's bad stuff, however. Despite the myriad of plot holes (you'd think that mutes would have been frightened enough in the past that somebody else would have discovered the "tingler" decades before Price), The Tingler is, thanks to the showmanship of William Castle, entertainingly silly.

As I've mentioned with regards to other Castle movies, he had gimmicks that he used to help market his movies. In the case of The Tingler, that gimmick is "Percept-O". Castle had some of the seats in the theaters where the movie was shown wired with electric buzzers. At certain key points in the movie, those buzzers would be set off, giving unsuspecting moviegoers a literal shock to go along with the shock they were getting on-screen. I suppose that if you're not expecting it, it would be frightening, but nowadays, I'd think the more likely result would be a string of lawsuits.

William Castle's movies are available on DVD, and are in general immensely entertaining for those who want to watch them at their leisure.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Juanita Moore

Today marks the 87th birthday of actress Juanita Moore, who, happily is still with us. She got one great role in her career, in the 1950s remake of Imitation of Life, and made the most of it, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, though, as a black woman in the Hollywood of the 1950s, meaty roles were few and far between, and a lot of her roles were little things as in Ransom!, or worse, uncredited.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More foreign pretentions

If you want to express your displeasure with Hollywood, it's easy enough to point to some foreign movie or another, and praise it simply because it's foreign. Unfortunately, there are times that foreign movies get overrated simply because they're not Hollywood-type movies. Such, I fear, is the case with Jules et Jim, which IFC is showing tomorrow at 7:35 AM ET.

Jules, a young German man played by Oskar Werner, is one of those bohemian types living in Paris in the years just before World War I. He's good friends with Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre). They do everything together, including falling in love with the lovely Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Of course, they can't both marry her, and Catherine marry Jules. World War I intervenes, and Catherine goes to Germany with Jules, and has a daughter by him. War, however, can't dim friendships, and after the war, Jim decides he wants to reconnect with Jules, going to Germany to visit him. What he finds is that Catherine is an extremely fickle woman. She seems to have fallen out of love with Jules, but in fact, it's more that she can't decide whether she wants to be with Jules, with both of them, or with neither of them. You just know that this can't end well for the three of them, and it doesn't, although how it ends badly is something I won't reveal.

The bad thing for the viewer is that the movie really begins to bog down once Jim goes to Germany to visit Jules. The story is a bit meandering to begin with, but in Germany, it really becomes talky, and as though the director, François Truffaut, can't figure out what he wants to do with the story. It's a bit of a shame, because the movie is well-photographed, and none of the actors is really doing anything wrong. But, the movie is squarely within the French New Vague, and, like Godard's Breathless, a pretty clear break from the movies that were made before it. I've argued before that there was a similar change in style in the US, and that people like Marlon Brando got praised simply because they were different. Sometimes, different can work, even if it's different and foreign. Godard's Alphaville, for example, is a lot of fun, and Miloš Forman's work from his days in Communist Czechoslovakia is enjoyable, too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

It coulda been a Hitchcock....

TCM is airing the interesting, if flawed, movie The Wreck of the Mary Deare, tonight at 10:30 PM ET.

Charlton Heston stars as the skipper of a salvage vessel somewhere in the foggy English Channel. The ship collides wiht another one, and Heston goes aboard the other ship to investigate. Thing is, he finds that the ship is on fire and has been scuttled, with nobody aboard. Well, almost nobody. One rough-looking old man, played by Gary Cooper, is still aboard. He's claiming that the captain deliberately set the ship on fire and scuttled it, because the captain (and rest of the crew) was involved in some sort of dark, nefarious business. He (Cooper) knew that there was something fishy going on, and the captain had him locked up for that.

Heston isn't so certain whether to believe the guy, but he keeps his mouth shut at the court of naval inquiry that follows, but Cooper wants the exact location of the wreck kept a secret, because otherwise, his former bosses will find the wreck and do away with the incriminating evidence. Indeed, there's already a race on to find the Mary Deare, and Heston, with his salvage boat, is the only one who can help Cooper....

The Wreck of the Mary Deare isn't a bad movie, although it comes across as being a bit by-the-numbers. Most of the story is about the Heston and Cooper characters, so nobody else in the cast really gets their characters developed. Watch, though, for some very good actors, such as Alexander Knox as an investigator working on behalf of the owners, and a young Richard Harris as the second officer of the Mary Deare, and the villain of the movie.

The more interesting thing about it is the fact that Alfred Hitchcock was originally supposed to be involved as director. However, he and his preferred screenwriter didn't particularly like the idea behind the movie, and wanted to come up with something else. They didn't tell the studio bosses at MGM until they did come up with that "something else" -- which just happened to be North by Northwest.

Friday, October 16, 2009

All of the Thriller, none of the Michael Jackson

TCM has been showing thrillers every Friday night in prime time in October. Tonight sees three more thrillers, two of which I've recommended before:

The wonderful The Narrow Margin, in which a police detective tries to shepherd a witness in a Mob trial on a cross-country train trip, kicks off the night at 8:00 PM ET.

At 10:30 PM, Lucille Ball is in danger in Lured, as a showgirl who may or may not be dating a killer.

The third movie is the 1944 version of The Lodger, a retelling of the Jack the Ripper story, with the Ripper character played here by Laird Cregar; it airs at 12:30 AM.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is a documentary on thrillers. TCM aired it two weeks ago, as a way to start the month-long festival, but they're showing it again tonight at 9:30 PM ET. A lot of it looks at the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, since he's probably the director most closely associated with the genre, but it's still not a bad little documentary. Note, however, that it's scheduled in a 60-minute slot, but with Robert Osborne's commentary before the showing, it might run over by a minute or two.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mervyn LeRoy, 1900-1987

Head shot of Jack Carson,

Today marks the birth anniversary of director Mervyn LeRoy. He directed a whole host of movies across genres from the early 1930s through the early 1960s, of which I've already recommended several:

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, the Paul Muni classic about a man sent to a chain gang for a minor crime, who had to escape from it twice;

Three on a Match with Bette Davis (in her undies!) before she became a star, and Humphrey Bogart in one of his earliest roles, before he even reached the second tier;

Gold Diggers of 1933, a movie about neon violins and Ginger Rogers singing in Pig Latin. Well, that's not quite what it's about; it's one of those musicals with a threadbare plot that's more fun to watch for Busby Berkeley's ridiculous production numbers;

The dreadful epic Quo Vadis; and

The Bad Seed, about a girl who will go to pretty shocking lengths to get what she wants.

Interestingly, despite directing all of these wonderful movies, some of which are true classics, none of these earned LeRoy an Oscar nomination. He only got one nomination for Best Director, that being for the dreadfully treacly romance Random Harvest. It just goes to show how versatile the directors were back in those days, largely because they had to be -- the studios were putting out so many movies each year that the directors had to learn to do whatever type of movie the studio bosses were telling them to do.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wheeler and Woolsey

TCM is honoring one of the earlier comic duos in Hollywood history, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, by showing four of their movies. Wheeler and Woolsey are, for whatever reason, not very well-remembered today. It's most likely because their work came at the beginning of the sound era, and the sound technology wasn't quite so ready for the more rapid verbal comedy that the pair did. (By the same token, the Marx Brothers' earliest works, such as The Cocoanuts seem quite dated compared to stuff just a few years later.) Also, they are a bit of an acquired taste, and not because of the fact that comedy dates over 80 years. However, Wheeler and Woolsey did a few movies with scenes in two-strip Technicolor, and are also responsible for the original movie version of Girl Crazy, which was later made into a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musical. However, Girl Crazy and the Technicolor movies aren't among the selections for tonight.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Angels With Dirty Faces again

It's been almost six months since I made a brief reference to the James Cagney movie Angels With Dirty Faces. It's airing again overnight at 3:45 AM ET (that is, very early on the morning of the 14th).

I was going to use the airing to do a post on the various gangsters that James Cagney played. Goodness knows he played enough of them. However, it turns out that I already did that last October.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day

Today being a holiday, and there not being any particularly exciting movies on, it's time for another Lazy List Post. (Heck, there aren't even any major birthdays.) It's Columbus Day, which means any nmber of things:

Explorers. Quite a few biopics have been made about explorers. Columbus himself was the subject of one back in the late 1940s, and another pair on the 500th anniversary of his first voyage, in 1992. Marco Polo got one in the late 1930s, while Lewis and Clark were portrayed by Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston in 1955's The Far Horizons. As for fictitious explorers, you can see some Antarctic explorers in Dirigible.

Italian-Americans. One of the obvious stereotypes of Italian-Americans is as the Mob; see Little Caesar. There's also Italian-American food, such as spaghetti, although that's really Chinese, as was seen in The Adventures of Marco Polo. Spaghetti is rather interestingly mentioned as being new to America at the turn of the previous century in The Strawberry Blonde.

Leaf Peeping. Autumn Leaves isn't really about the autumn, and it's in black and white, so we wouldn't see the brilliant colors anyhow. Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound sems set at some point in autumn when Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman go picnicking, but only a week or so later, they face a heavy snowfall more indicative of winter. Besides, it too is in black and white. A better movie with the brilliant autumn colors would be Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Eight arms to hold you

TCM has selected a pair of movies starring Lon Chaney for its Silent Sunday Night feature. The first of these is The Unknown, starting just after midnight tonight.

Chaney stars as a circus knife-thrower who doesn't have any arms; instead he uses his feet. The young woman at whom he throws the knife is a very young Joan Crawford, who was about 19 at the time. She's not bad-looking here; at least, she looks good enough to have all of the "regular" men in the circus wanting to paw her. Unfortunately for them, she's got a thing about their dirty arms and minds, and can't bear to be held by men, which makes Chaney a natural protector for her -- if not a love interest. Indeed, Chaney falls in love with her, but it's a more or less unrequited love.

That's not the only problem for Chaney, though. He's got what's best called a dark secret that should remain a secret until it's revealed in the movie. Suffice it to say that Chaney is willing to go to pretty shocking lengths in order to win Crawford's love. But wouldn't you know that those lengths are all for naught, as Crawford is able to overcome her fear of being held in a man's arms, falling for the circus strongman. This enrages Chaney, who vows to take revenge....

If you haven't seen The Unknown, it's a pretty shocking movie, and one that holds up well over 80 years. It's the sort of movie that proves that you don't need large amounts blood and gore to frighten and unnerve people. But then, Tod Browning, who directed the movie, was a master of doing precisely this during the silent era, and the beginning of the sound era. The Unknown isn't quite as shocking as, say, Freaks (which will be airing at 6:00 AM ET this coming Saturday), but it's still a pretty darn good movie. And if you want to introduce silent films to people who only think of the slapstick comedy of the silent era, a movie like The Unknown isn't a bad place to start.

Odd advertising

TCM promote their upcoming movies by showing theatrical trailers. If you've been watching TCM recently, you've probably seen that Love Affair, the 1939 romance starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, is coming up tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

However, there's somethinf wrong with that trailer. It's made of entirely of publicity stills, with a voice-over. I honestly can't recall seeing a trailer like that before. I could imagine something like this being made for a re-release, since the studio wouldn't put so much energy into editing a promo for an older movie. But, the blurb at the end calls it an RKO picture, with no evidence that this is a re-release. (If you watch other trailers carefully, you'll note that some of them state that the movie is a re-release.) Also, I can't imagine such drivel as we hear in the voice-over actually convincing the moviegoers of 1939; it sounds more like something that would have been used on TV. So what prompted making an odd trailer like this?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Glenn Ford, bad guy

TCM is airing the original version of the classic western 3:10 to Yuma at 6:15 PM ET this evening.

Van Heflin plays a rancher in the dry Arizona Territory who is trying ro fetch his herd along with his two sons. However, his attempt is interrupted when he comes along a stagecoach holdup in progress, committed by a gang of crooks led by Glenn Ford. It's a life-changing experience for all of them. Naturally, Ford is wanted by the law, and he's got a princely sum on his head. Nobody has the courage to turn him in to the authorities, though, because they know that his gang will come after them if they do so. Heflin, however, has rather more pragmatic concerns. It's those cattle in bone-dry Arizona. The place is going through a drought, and it questionable whether or not he'll be able to save the ranch. The reward money for turning in Ford would go a long way toward saving it. So, all Heflin has to do is apprehend Ford, and hold him until the authorities can come and take him away on the train -- the 3:10 to Yuma of the title -- where Ford has a date with the hangman's noose.

There's that pesky little word "all", though. It's really not that simple, or else we'd have a very different movie. Ford, despite being a remorseless killer, is also an exceedingly charming man, and quickly turns to trying to charm Heflin into letting him go, and trying to put doubts into Heflin's mind as to whether he'll even be able to succeed in turning Ford in. After all, Ford does have a gang to back him up, and they're bound to be waiting for the 3:10 to Yuma, too.

Glenn Ford has the looks of a leading man, and is definitely the lead here. He looks as though he's relishing his chance to play a bad guy, since many of the stars of that day didn't get the chance to play the bad guy all that often. Heflin, on the other hand, didn't have the looks of a leading man, and it certainly shows here, much to the film's benefit. Heflin looks uncomfortable, mostly because that's how his character should look: the man, it must be remembered, has never done anything like hold a criminal in custody awaiting transfer. (Who among us has?) He's not doing this because it's the right thing to do; he's doing it for the money. Both actors get great roles to play in a movie that has relatively little action: like the previously-mentioned No Name on the Bullet, it's more of a psychological suspense movie that just happens to be set in the Old West.

3:10 to Yuma was remade a few years back, and sadly, a lot of the search engine image searches yield more pictures from the remake than the original. The more important thing, though, is that the movie has been released to DVD.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The more modern all-star cast

There were a few great movies in the 1930s with ensemble casts full of stars, such as Dinner at Eight. The genre, however, was probably at its most prevalent in the 1970s, when it combined with the disaster movie, to make such schlock as The Cassandra Crossing, which TCM is airing today at 4:00 PM ET.

With so many stars, the plot is bound to get a bit convoluted, so let's see if I can get this right in one go without screwing things up too badly: Burt Lancaster is a US military man, working on biological weapons at a Swiss facility with doctor Ingrid Thulin. Terrorists break into the facility, but their attack goes wrong, and at least one of them ends up infected with the new superbug. Worse, in getting away, the bad guy gets on an international train full of American and European movie stars! Fortunately for them, one of those stars is a doctor, Richard Harris, who is going through marriage problems with Sophia Loren. The bad news, though, is that nobody has a cure for the bug yet, so Lancaster decides that the best thing to do is "quarantine" the train and its passengers by diverting the train to Poland. What he doesn't tell everybody is that just inside the Polish border, there's a no longer used trestle known as the Cassandra crossing, which has fallen into disrepair and will likely buckle under the weight of this train. (Perfect for Lancaster, since he'd really rather have nobody know about the military's involvement in this plague.)
Who else is on the train? Martin Sheen is playing sugar baby to Ava Gardner; OJ Simpson as a priest (and then some); and folks like Alida Valli (the female lead in The Third Man), acting teacher Lee Strasberg, and Lionel Stander.

The disaster movies of the 1970s were filled with casts like this, going back at least to Airport (which coincidentally also starred Lancaster). By 1976, when The Cassandra Crossing was released, however, the genre was running out of steam. As such, the movie is mostly overblown and rather a failure. But, it's one of those really fun failures, the sort of movie that's just so nuts that you can't help but have a good time despite it's being so crummy and cliché-ridden.

If you miss today's TCM showing, The Cassandra Crossing is available on DVD.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Have I never blogged about My Man Godfrey?

Well, not a full post, although I've mentioned it in passing once or twice. However, the classic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey is airing tonight at 11:15 PM ET on TCM.

Carole Lombard stars as a ditzy socialite who's involved in a scavenger hunt for charity. One of the things she needs to win is a "forgotten man", and at the city dump, she and her sister meet the perfect forgotten man: William Powell Lombard takes Powell back to the headquarters of the scavenger hunt, wins the hunt, and then, after the hunt, gets him a job as the butler in her family's posh estate.

Unfortunately for Powell, this is one nutty family for which he'll be working. Not only is daughter Lombard flighty; the other daughter (Gail Patrick) is a terrible snob who hates Powell; and Mother (Alice Brady) is busy funding her protégé (Mischa Auer), a Russian immigrant who really can't sing. Powell has to put up with all this, as does the poor father (Eugene Pallette), who also has to deal with serious financial problems, as it looks like his business might go under. There is a Depression on, after all.

Fortunately for Father Pallette, though, Powell is there to help save the day, not only as a sympathetic ear for Pallette's personal problems, but also with a plan to save the business. Powell, it seems, is not a "forgotten man" but a man with a past, trying to hide that past from both the family for which he's working, and the wealthy Boston family into which he was born.

My Man Godfrey is zany an incredibly fast-paced, filled with non-stop laughs. It's got two great stars in the leads, and a bunch of good second-tier actors playing the supporting roles. If actors back in the Studio Era had egos like the stars of today do, at least they were better about hiding those egos on the screen. Movies like this were "escapist" comedy for the people having to deal with that Depression, and I can certainly imagine people being entertained for an hour and a half. You will be, too.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Life imitates art

TCM is showing Cactus Flower again, at midnight ET tonight. I've recommended it before, but found out something interesting in the year since that does pertain to the movie.

Ingrid Bergman in 'Cactus Flower' (1969)As I mentioned a year ago, there's a scene in a chic 60s nightspot in which the Ingrid Bergman character is getting drunk on "Idaho champagne". It turns out that in the past few decades, Idaho has been getting into the wine business, to the point that you can even get an Idaho-produced sparkling wine. (Technically, they can't call it "champagne" since that's reserved for sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France.) Who would have foreseen this back in 1969?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gratuitous photo thread

TCM is promoting a new DVD box set of Esther Williams movies tonight in prime time, with five of the six movies in the set being shown. I'm not personally a fan of the water musical movies, but they're inoffensive enough, and I can certainly understand why other people might be a fan of such movies. TCM can't program for me or any other viewer alone, and so of course there are going to be days with movies for which I don't particularly care. That having been said, a night of Esther Williams is a good excuse for posting a photo of her in those skimpy bathing suits.

Today also marks the 67th birthday of actress Britt Ekland. Probably her most famous role is as Goodnight, the CIA agent and love interest of James Bond, in the movie The Man With the Golden Gun. It's an excuse to show another photo of a scantily-clad woman, although I could just as easily have mentioned another of Ekland's movies: Scandal. This out-of-print movie deals with the Profumo Affair, an incident in the early 1960s when the British Minister of War, John Profumo, was discovered to have been sleeping with a showgirl. That's somewhat problematic, but the bigger problem is that the woman, Christine Keeler, had also been sleeping with a military attaché from the Soviet embassy. Oops. Scandal is an interesting but very racy look at London when it was at the beginning of the Swingin' 60s.

Monday, October 5, 2009

'In' is not 'At'

Tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM, TCM is showing the movie The Young in Heart. Pay attention to the title carefully; this is a completely different movie from Young at Heart and has a totally different plot.

Janet Gaynor gets top billing as the daughter of a family of professional moochers, playing their trade along the French Riviera. However, they're found out, and forced to leave the country for England. They have barely a sou to their collective names, but fortune smiles upon them, literally, in the form of a rich lonely old lady named Ellen Fortune (played by Minnie Dupree). She lets them sit in her compartment, and when they all get back to London, she's so taken by the family that, not realizing they're phonies, decides to bequeath her considerable estate to them, since she doesn't have any natural heirs. Her solicitor isn't so sure, though, and to convince him that they're honest people, they actually have to start working, which produces a profound change in them: they (especially the daughter) start to become more honest people.

The Young in Heart is a too-rarely seen movie with a surprisingly good cast. Gaynor's brother is played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., while the parents are played by Roland Young and Billie Burke, playing a couple as they did a year earlier in Topper. The job that Fairbanks takes is as a car salesman, leading to some humorous scenes with cars being driven much too fast for the good of the people in the cars. As for the humor, the movie is supposed to be a comedy and for the most part is, although with a story revolving around a lonely old lady, there's also more than a fair bit of sentimentality. Watch also for Paulette Goddard and Richard Carlson as the love interests of Fairbanks and Gaynor.

The Young in Heart is a movie that is not without its flaws, but is nevertheless quite enjoyable. It also seems to have made its way to DVD already.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Whistler's Mother

TCM is showing several of the movies in the Whistler series tomorrow morning, starting off with The Whistler at 6:00 AM ET.

Richard Dix starred in much of the series, although it was based on a radio mystery/anthology series, which means that Dix is actually playing different characters in the movies. In The Whistler, he plays a man who's lost his wife. Despondent over that, he pays somebody to go find a hitman and have that hitman kill him (obviously, he didn't want to know who the hitman was, so that he wouldn't know when he was going to be killed). However, before the hitman can carry out the hit, Dix gets a telegram informing him that his wife has been found, and that the two will be reunited shortly. So, Dix goes to find the middleman he paid -- only to find that the guy has died!

Formulaic? Sure. After all, these movie series were B stuff for the most part. But, the movies are atmospheric, and perfectly entertaining. This was also directed by William Castle, a dozen years before he started getting schlocky.

It shouldn't be a surprise, however, that a B movie series like this hasn't made its way to DVD, so you'll have to catch TCM's showings.

I thought the name sounded familiar!

When I can't think of a subject for a blog post, I look through the IMDb's list of birthdays. Today is the birth anniversary of Buster Keaton, but I mentioned him just a few weeks back. However, it's also the 77th birthday of actress Felicia Farr. I knew I had seen that name before, but I couldn't remember where. The answer, it turns out, is the western 3:10 to Yuma (the Glenn Ford version, not the recent remake). It's airing this coming Saturday, and if I remember, I'll write a lengthier post on that movie in time for the Saturday showing.

I also didn't know that Farr was married to Jack Lemmon for almost 40 years, until his death.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Two unrelated repeats

Overnight tonight, at 2:15 AM ET, TCM will be showing the 1974 thriller Juggernaut, in which Richard Harris plays a bomb-squad man called in to defuse a series of bombs on a luxury liner in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Later on Sunday morning on TCM, at 7:45 AM, is the 1935 horror flick Mad Love, in which Peter Lorre plays a mad doctor who grafts a knife-thrower's hands onto the gnarled arms of concert pianist Colin Clive, who suddenly develops an uncontrollable urge to throw knives himself.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I have a confession

I'm just not that big a fan of the Marx Brothers. To be honest, they're certainly talented, and nowhere as near as irritating as the Ritz Brothers. And yet, there's something about their features that I find grating after a while. I don't know that it's a matter of the movies being more a series of vignettes than having a coherent plot. After all, I've commented quite favorably on similar movies, such as Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy, or Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot's Holiday.

Perhaps it's because Lewis and Tati were almost silent in their movies, while Groucho Marx is all about the puns and insults? Perhaps: I can certainly understand why people find Red Skelton annoying in a lot of his movies. But, that wouldn't explain Harpo.

Maybe it;s that the Marx Brothers would just work better in short doses, and I'd find them more enjoyable if they had done two-reelers. Indeed, some of the Laurel and Hardy stuff, like Sons of the Desert, when they first started making features, doesn't really work all that well, while the two reelers they did just before, such as The Music Box, are outstanding. Then again, there are short comedies, even from the sound era, that don't work so well, even those that have high-quality stars in them.

So it could just be another case of the old adage de gustibus non disputandam.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making gossip easier

One of tomorrow's better movies is The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, airing at 6:00 AM ET October 2 on the Fox Movie Channel.

Now, you should recognize Bell's name as that of the inventor of the telephone, which is more or less what the movie covers -- well, that, and all the ancillary events that led up to it and the effects; just the famous discovery with Dr. Watson wouldn't make for a particularly exciting movie. Bell is played by Don Ameche, one of the Fox studio's top male actors of the late 1930s. The real life Bell was a Scottish-born Canadian who worked with deaf children, trying to figure out a way to get them to be able to hear again. This led to a natural interest in sound-transmission devices, which led to the ultimate invention of the telephone. Along the way, Bell met the young deaf woman who would become his wife (played here by Loretta Young).

Eventually, Bell spilled acid on himself, yelling for Watson (played in the movie by Henry Fonda) to come and help him. When Watson came, claiming he heard the call for help over the apparatus, they had an invention. But, of course, it wasn't all clear sailing for Bell. On the same day Bell filed his American patent application, a rival inventor, Elisha Gray, also filed an application to patent a device for the elctric transmision of sound. This resulted in a protracted court case to determine who should really hold the patent, a case which would have bankrupted Bell and his backers had it gone against them.

As best as I can tell, not being an expert on the history of inventions, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell seems surprisingly accurate. All of the main events in the telephone invention timeline seem to be there: notably, the work with the deaf; the difficulty in inventing the telephone; the scene with Watson; Bell's demonstrations of the phone; and the trial. A lot of the scenes with Ameche and Fonda seem to turn him into a bit too much of a "starving artist" who altough starving is happy; I can't believe Bell was really like that. That having been said, the movie is one that's filled with enjoyable performances, and tells a good story that, for the most part, is quite true. In addition to Ameche, Fonda, and Young, the cast also includes Charles Coburn as Bell's father-in-law and one financial backer; Gene Lockhart as another financial backer; and Spring Byington as Coburn's wife.

I find it very surprising that The Story of Alexander Graham Bell has not made its way to DVD. It was also omitted in TCM's look at the great films of 1939 back in July, which was another sad omission.

TCM's October Spotlight: The Great Depression

This month marks 80 years since the stock market crash of 1929, one of the events which led to the Great Depression. (Seeing stockbrokers on window ledges is much more visually dramatic than watching legislators pass the Smoot-Hawley tariff.) So, every Thursday in prime time this month, TCM is showing Depresion-themed movies.

Tonight's line-up includes two movies that I've recommended previously: Our Daily Bread airs at 10:45 PM ET, and will be followed at 12:15 AM Friday (that's still Thursday evening in more westerly time zones) by Heroes for Sale. (The second link also references Wild Boys of the Road, which will be coming up later in October.)