Monday, November 30, 2009

A Hitchcock original

TCM is showing the 1934 British version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM ET. It's a movie that doesn't get seen as much as the more well-known remake, but it's just as interesting in its own right.

The basic story is largely the same, in that a married couple and their kid are on vacation, only for the husband to be given secret information by a murder victim, and for the kid to be kidnapped and taken to London, with the father told that the kid will be harmed if he tries to do anything with the information he's learned. However, there are also differences; the family's being British is a cosmetic difference, but the final shootout at the end is a big one.

That shootout is foreshadowed at the very beginning when the mother (Edna Best) is in a shooting competition at the Swiss ski resort where the family (father Leslie Banks and daughter Nova Pilbeam) are vacationing. As in the remake, the mother's skills might just come in handy later on. The murder takes place at a dinner dance involving a very cleverly photographed set piece that includes the unraveling of a garment and everybody getting tangled up in string, before the action switches back to London. Just as in the remake, there's another set piece at a church of some unnamed minority Christian sect. But where the remake also includes a red herring at a taxidermist's, the original has Banks and his friend going to a 1930s era dentist's office which shows that dentistry hadn't advanced too much from the days of The Strawberry Blonde. Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, is that the bad guy is played by Peter Lorre, in his first English-language role.

Which version is better? Well, that's for you to decide. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. As for the original, it's very fast paced, which is both a strength and a weakness, in that there's not much time to develop the characters, and at times the movie feels less like a coherent plot and more like a series of set pieces. On the other hand, Edna Best's mother character is much more appealing than the one plays by Doris Day, who goes hysterical when she learns her son's been kidnapped, and is deservedly slapped around by James Stewart.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It still sinks

TCM is showing the 1943 Nazi version of Titanic overnight tonight at 2:00 AM as part of the weekly TCM Imports series. I've recommended this version of the Titanic story before. It's followed, at 3:45 AM, by what might be the best movie about the ship disaster: A Night to Remember.

The thing that makes A Night to Remember so much better than the other versions is that it's much more of a docudrama. Backstories involving other characters, as in the Barbara Stanwyck/Clifton Webb movie from Fox in the early 1950s, or the overblown James Cameron movie of a decade ago, are given much less weight here. That's a good thing, as this is a story that doesn't need such window dressing. What happened in real life is more than enough to make a gripping movie. And I'm personally not even a fan of all the lore that's sprung up over the Titanic tragedy.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Robert Stack the Nazi

I actually recommended The Mortal Storm just over a year ago. (It's easy to forget which movies I've blogged about, and which I haven't.) It's airing again at 4:15 PM ET this afternoon on TCM. As I pointed out last November, The Mortal Storm wasn't available on DVD, and it seems as though it's still not available, not even at the Warner Archive. This despite the fact that it's apparently one of the most asked-for movies by the folks who visit the TCM site. So, you'll have to catch today's airing on TCM.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday

Today being the day after Thanksgiving, it's traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. Lazy bones that I am, I figure it's a good opportunity to think about some of the better classic movies that involve department stores and selling things.

I've recommended The Devil and Miss Jones several times before. Charles Coburn infiltrates his department store in order to find out who's leading a labor dispute, only to discover he likes the workers.

That's probably not as well known as The Shop Around the Corner, however. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play shop assistants who don't get along, but are also unkowing pen pals, having answered anonymous personals ads. It's actually showing this Sunday at 9:45 PM ET on TCM if you want to watch it.

Ginger Rogers plays a shop girl who's mistaken for the mother of a foundling in Bachelor Mother

Moving on to grocery shopping, Sidney Poitier takes blind Elizabeth Hartmann grocery shopping in A Patch of Blue. She, being blind and having been sheltered, doesn't realize that you're supposed to take the oranges from the top of the pile.

And, Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda meet in the PX each dragging cart after cart of groceries, in Yours, Mine, and Ours, which is airing today at 2:00 PM ET on TCM. Despite carrying that many groceries, they pay what seems like a decidedly small amount of money for it all. (Well, it was probably a lot in 1968 dollars.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The artist now to be known as Princess

Tonight is the final night of TCM's Star of the Month salute to Grace Kelly, as well as the American Thanksgiving holiday. So, to make my post suitably brief for the holiday, I'll mention a short that concludes TCM's look at Kelly: The Wedding in Monaco, airing overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET.

When Kelly left Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier, MGM got the rights to go places in Monaco where the other media couldn't, with the result being this half-hour color look at Kelly's move to Monaco in the run-up to her wedding, and the city-state as it was in the mid-1950s. There's no coverage of the actual wedding ceremony -- the Monegasque authorities wouldn't allow that -- and little if any comment from either the Prince or Princess themselves. Most, if not all, of the events are described by an off-screen narrator, in the best tradition of James A. FitzPatrick and his Traveltalks shorts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

TCM on Thanksgiving

Tomorrow being Thanksgiving, TCM has a more prominent than normal theme planned: a bunch of movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Normally, TCM begins its programming day at 6:00 AM ET. But in the case of the Astaire-Rogers movies, TCM has for whatever reason decided to start earlier. (One benefit, I suppose, is that we get more of Fred and Ginger.) The first of the movies TCM is showing is the one which first teamed up Fred and Ginger: Flying Down to Rio, at 4:30 AM ET tomorrow. Fred and Ginger weren't supposed to be the stars of this movie, although their dancing the Carioca made them stars. (But then, I've blogged about this before.)

Road House again

Two months ago, I recommended the Richard Widmark movie Road House. TCM is airing it tonight at 8:00 PM ET, as part of the month-long salute to Johnny Mercer. Ida Lupino plays a singer here and sings "One for My Baby", which has lyrics by Johnny Mercer. I admit to not being very expert about songwriters, but IMDb claims that's the only Mercer song in the movie. Still, any excuse to show Road House is a good one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't miss this if you can

TCM is showing one of the odder movies about Hollywood to have been made: Hollywood Party, tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM ET.

Jimmy Durante stars as movie star Schnarzan, a name which you can probably guess is derived in part from Durante's bulbous nose, and partly from the fact that he's playing an actor who does Tarzan-like jungle movies. The only problem is that his movies have lost their freshness, and with that, their audience appeal. There's just the solution for him in that a famous explorer is coming back from Africa with new lions. But, Schnarzan's cinematic rival also wants those lions. What's an actor to do? Throw a wild Hollywood party with every star known to man, and impress the explorer into signing a contract for the use of the lions.

That "every star" (or in this case every B star, although there were apparently plans to film scenes with a bunch of the A-listers, too) is little more than an excuse for a series of comedic sketches, interspersed with Busby Berkeley-like musical numbers, wrapped around not much of a plot. Laurel and Hardy get top billing in the movie, but don't show up until the end to do a scene with Lupe Velez, who also plays Schnarzan's equivalent of Jane. In their defense, though, the scene is quite funny. The Three Stooges also make a brief appearance, together with their then-manager Ted Healy. There's also a forgettable subplot about an oilman, and their daughter who's being chased by a suitably photogenic young man. Perhaps the highlight, however, is Mickey Mouse. He shows up to lampoon Jimmy Durante, and then shows off a Disney cartoon in three-strip Technicolor. (At the time, Disney had an exclusive contract for the use of three-strip in animation.) How MGM convinced Disney to lend out the little mouse is a mystery to me.

Is Hollywood Party movie good? Well, it's one of those movies that's more interesting than objectively good, although it's also so warped that you can't help butch watch in fascination to see what will come next. As the tag-line for the Schnarzan movie-within-a-movie goes, "Don't miss this if you can!" Besides, if you do miss it, you won't be able to find it on DVD.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jacqueline White, still alive at 87!

Jacqueline White, who was born on this day in 1922, is another of those Hollywood names that might sound familiar to you. It's with good reason. Although she retired from acting after she got married in 1950, she had important roles in a couple of very underrated movies. First, she played the wife of the suspect in Crossfire. It's a character that doesn't show up until a good ways into the movie, but she still has a meaningful part to play.

More important, though, is her role in her final movie, The Narrow Margin. She plays the woman in the compartment next to Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, a woman whose son thinks -- rightly so, as it turns out -- that McGraw is up to something. (He's just wrong about the nature of that something.)

TCM, however, has decided to spend this evening honoring another birthday girl, that being 1930s child star Sybil Jason, who is still alive at the age of 82. Truth be told, I don't think I've seen any of tonight's Sybil Jason movies yet, which is why I'm not blogging about them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Day They Robbed the Bank of Peyton Place

Tonight's prime time lineup on TCM starts with Violent Saturday, at 8:00 PM ET. Lee Marvin, Stephen McNally, and J. Carrol Naish play three men who come into the lives of a small California town when they decide they're going to rob it one Saturday afternoon at closing time. What they don't realize, however, is that the town hsa a lot of secrets, just like Peyton Place, New Hampshire, and the movie combines the various backstories of the townsfolk with the robbery plot. It's also an excuse to give the viewer an all-star (or all semi-star) cast.

Unfortunately, it doesn't completely work, although it's always interesting seeing just how many different stories and actors they can cram into this sort of thing. In the case of Violent Saturday, that means Victor Mature as the town coward, who didn't serve in World War II and is ashamed of that fact; Sylvia Sidney as the town's kleptomaniac librarian; Tommy Noonan as the bank manager, who also happens to be a peeping Tom; and a nurse who could make everybody a peeping Tom. Perhaps the most fascinating story, however, is that of Ernest Borgnine. Here, he's cast as an Amish farmer who for whatever reason has decided to try to make a go of it in California (how many Amish are there in California, anyhow?). The Amish are, of course, non-violent by their religious teaching, but the bank robbers have decided that Borgnine's secluded Amish farm would be a great place to hide out after the heist. They do return, bringing violence with them, which might just make Borgnine rethink his pacifist stance....

Violent Saturday is, as I said, a movie that has problems. Lots of problems. But it's also quite fun and well worth seeing. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have made it to DVD yet.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

If you like Al Jolson

Al Jolson does a good job in The Jazz Singer, but he didn't seem to keep his singing style up to date, making his later movies a bit more difficult to watch. If you enjoy him, however, you can watch one of his rarer movies, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!, tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM ET on TCM.

Jolson plays Bumper, the nominal head of New York's bums, who goes south every winter and surprisingly is on speaking terms with the Mayor (Frank Morgan). Back in New York, Bumper lives in Central Park with the rest of the bums, while the Mayor is carrying on a relationship with June (Madge Evans) that seems to be on-again, off-again. During one of the off-again periods, the Mayor gives June $1,000 (a pretty nice sum for 1933), although she loses the purse in which she put it. Meanwhile, she's despondent about his breaking off the relatoinship with her, so she tries to jump in the river. However, instead of killing herself, she gets saved by Bumper while also developing a case of amnesia during the attempt. You can probably guess what happens next: Bumper falls in love with June, tries to make good, only to find that she's the Mayor's girlfriend, and he's decided he wants the relationship to be on again.

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! is a movie that wanders around a bit, going between high society and the bums, although not doing it nearly as well as My Man Godfrey. It doesn't help that these bums seem to be proud of the "freedom" they have, having dropped out of society like members of a 60s hippie commune. Bumper splits the $1,000 evenly with them, but when he tries to make good by getting a real job so he can support June, they don't seem to like it. The worst thing about the bum scenes, though, is the fact that the screenwriters decided to experiment by having most of their dialogue being in rhyming couplets, which very quickly becomes irritating.

Ultimately, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! is interesting as an experiment, and for its songs by Rodgers and Hart. Unless you're a fan of Al Jolson, though, it's not so well-executed as an actual story.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Capture the Flag

The movie that shows up much less frequently than How Green Was My Valley that I'd like to recommend is No Greater Glory, airing tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM on TCM.

Based on a novel by Ferenc Moln√°r (who also wrote the play Carousel, and the play on which One, Two, Three was based), it's set in the world of Berlin's children in the period between the wars. There are two rival "gangs", the Paul Street Boys (led by Boka, played by Jimmy Butler), and a gang led by Feri Ats (played by Frankie Darro). Feri Ats' gang is more powerful than Boka's, but this is really more kids' stuff than real hooliganism and organized crime. Feri Ats and his gang have decided to take over the lumber yard where the Paul Street Boys have their "headquarters", but this being kids' stuff, they have rules about this stuff, and it's really more a game of capture the flag than anything else.

In the middle of all this is little Nemecsek (George Breakston). He's the sort of kid who would generally get picked last for all the kids' games and, being that kind of young boy, wants desperately to fit in with the bigger boys. However, he's also a sickly boy, and he really shouldn't be out playing war with the others, because he's suffering another attack of ill health. But, he's so set on fitting in that he goes out anyway, even if it means he could get seriously ill.

No Greater Glory wasn't one of Columbia's "prestige" movies when it was released, but it's surprisingly good. The child actors aren't cloying at all, although it helps that one of the male leads was Darro, who had already appeared in dozens of movies despite being all of 16 when this was made. As for the other two leads, they had much differing futures. Breakston had previously appeared as the bus passenger with the sick mother in It Happened One Night, but after this would go on to play "Beezy" in the Andy Hardy movies, and, as an adult, become a director. Jimmy Butler didn't have it so good, though. He kept working in the movies until World War II came, but left Hollywood to serve. He died in France in February 1945 at the age of 23.

No Greater Glory, being one of those rarer Columbia Pictures films, has not made it to DVD, and probably won't any time soon. You'll have to catch the TCM airing.

How Green Was My Valley

I can't believe I haven't blogged about How Green Was My Valley yet. I did mention about a year ago that it would be a good movie to show as part of the Fox Movie Channel's Fox Legacy series. Not that the folks at FMC read my blog, but How Green Was My Valley is part of the current season's Fox Legacy lineup. In fact, it's airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET, with the repeats at 10:30 PM and 1:00 AM.

Unfortunately, the full-length blog post about the movie is going to have to wait a little longer, as there's something much rarer that's coming up next.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ted Turner, 1938-

Today marks the 71st birthday of Ted Turner. He wasn't much of an actor. He would have been about the right age to appear in those Frankie Avalon beach movies of the early 60s, and probably would have been no more wooden than a lot of the cast members of those movies. He wasn't much of a writer either; IMDb lists only two writing credits, which includes the dreadful propaganda of the Captain Planet animated series. He was also Mr. Jane Fonda for a while. But for those of us who are classic film fans, his enduring legacy will be the cable movie channel which bears his name, TCM. So, happy birthday greetings to Mr. Turner, and here's to many more years of great movies on TCM!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Autumn Leaves

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of lyricist Johnny Mercer, and TCM is spending the entire 24 hours showing movies with Mercer songs. Mercer wrote the lyrics to the title song in Autumn Leaves, which is airing today at 2:00 PM ET.

Joan Crawford stars as a spinster who makes her living as a typist. One day, however, she goes to the local diner and meets Cliff Robertson, who seems to be getting away from it all. It's obvious they're going to fall in love, and they do, eventually getting married. However, there seems to be something not quite right about Mr. Right. He seems to be a compulsive liar, which obviously means that he's hiding something. Or, in this case, multiple somethings. One, he was married before! Two, it seems as though he's got a mental instability he failed to tell her about. And three, he's in line to inherit a piece of property that his mother owned, but his father (played by Lorne Green) doesn't consider him mentally fit to run it, so father wants son to transfer the property to him and the ex-wife (played by Vera Miles). Of course, the father has some secrets, too....

Autumn Leaves is one of those movies that was right up Joan Crawford's alley in the mid-1950s. It's got all of the melodrama of a Douglas Sirk movie (although, like Peyton Place, Sirk did not direct it; that honor goes to Robert Aldrich), giving Crawford ample opportunity to show off her strident acting style. Is it a great movie? Oh, God, no. It's got some laughable moments, including one with Joan's typewriter, although these scenes are intended to be serious. There's another scene of Joan and Cliff making out on the beach, in the From Here to Eternity style. And Crawford flinging the word "slut".... In short, Autumn Leaves is overblown fun.

It hasn't been released to DVD yet, though, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More dark humor from the rescue services

At 8:00 PM ET tonight, the Fox Movie Channel is showing Mother, Jugs, and Speed. Like The Firemen's Ball, it's a black comedy involving the emergency services. But that's about where the similarity ends.

Bill Cosby stars (even though he only gets second billing) as "Mother", an ambulance driver working in a less affluent part of Los Angeles in the mid-1970s for a struggling private firm. The company isn't getting paid enough by the county for its services, and they have to compete with another ambulance company. This leads Mother and his colleagues to do everything they can to get patients -- by hook or by crook -- as well as to become very cynical. Mother, for example, likes to drink on the job, keeping a cooler next to the driver's seat; he also likes to frighten the local nuns by stopping while they cross the street, and then turn the siren on in the middle of their crossing the street, frightening the bejeezus out of them.

In the midst of all this is "Jugs", played by Raquel Welch. She's the dispatcher for the company, and the object of most of the EMTs' affections. Jugs, however, has been fairly assiduous about refusing their advances, to the point that they all wonder what she's doing in her spare time. (It turns out she's taking courses learning how to become an EMT herself.) Finally, there's "Speed", played by Harvey Keitel; Speed is a cop who has been put on suspension for allegedly selling drugs to minors. He was an ambulance driver in the Vietnam War, and figures that this is the only way he can make a living while his legal issues are resolved.

Together and separately, the three principals, and an interesting cast of crazies, through the tough world that was the lower-class Los Angeles of the 1970s. It's at times funny, such as when an overweight older lady fractures a hip falling off a chair, and the EMTs have to get her on the gurney and haul her down several flights of stairs. You can imagine what happens next. However, there are also calls such as the drug-addled woman who comes out of her bungalow carrying a shotgun, and seemingly prepared to use it.

Among the crazies are Larry Hagman as a sex-starved blowhard colleague of the EMTs; Dick Butkus as another EMT; and singer Toni Basil as one of the patients. Mother, Jugs, and Speed has been released to DVD, and is apparently even available as part of a box set of Welch's work which includes One Million Years B.C..

Monday, November 16, 2009

How alike small towns are

IFC is showing the MiloŇ° Forman movie The Fireman's Ball tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM, with a few more repeatis later in the day. Although it's set in the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s, a lot of what happens is reminiscent of small-town politics in America.

The story deals with the local fire department. Their old chief, who served for over 50 years, is turning 86 and dying of cancer, although nobody wants to tell the poor old man he's dying. The fire department decides to hold a ball in his honor, and provide him with a ceremonial fire axe at the end. However, everything that can go wrong does, starting in the very opening scene when one of the firefighters, trying to give the banner a "cool" burn effect, gets stuck hanging from the banner when the ladder falls out from under him. You can tell this is going to be a funny movie.

Funny it most certainly is, although a lot of it is also dark humor. As part of the ball, the fire department is holding a raffle of donated goods -- but one by one, the items off the raffle table keep disappearing, and it seems as though anybody, or everybody, could be in on the petty larceny. The firemen want a nice young lady to present the fire axe to the old man, so they decide to hold a beauty contest and have the winner perform that pleasant duty. So they dragoon all the young ladies at the ball into trying to take part, even though none of them wants to be involved, and they're all average-looking at best, anyway.

Just when you think things couldn't get worse, the party is interrupted -- by an actual fire. The fire department isn't entirely competent, and when they finally get to the fire, they find an old man's farmhouse burning down, with him outside next to his few remaining possessions. There's not much they can do for him, so they turn his chair around in order that he won't have to look at the fire! It's also winter, and the man is cold, so the firemen decide that the only thing they can do about it is to move the chair closer to the fire. The poor old farmer.

The Fireman's Ball got Forman in a lot of hot water with the communist authorities because they quite rightly saw it as a biting satire on the communist system and how it forces people into petty corruption in order to make their way through life. What Forman probably couldn't have realized is that a lot of this happens to a greater or lesser extent in small towns everywhere. Having grown up in a small town myself where everybody knew everybody else and the volunteer fire department and the ladies' auxiliary were two of the main social clubs, with the attendant penny socials and pancake breakfasts, I know how easy it is for such small town institutions to attract people who seem to want to be petty tyrants, or at least have their own little fiefdom to have control over. It's funny because it's true, as they say.

The Fireman's Ball is available on DVD, but as with a lot of foreign films, it's a more pricey DVD than Hollywood studio movies.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stairway to Heaven

After Piccadilly and tonight's TCM Import, you can tune in for another excellent movie at 4:00 AM ET: A Matter of Life and Death.

Left-aligned photo David Niven stars as British pilot Peter Carter, returning from a bombing mission in the final days of World War II. Unfortunately, his plane has been stricken and is on fire, with everybody else in the crew either already dead or having bailed. That option isn't available for Carter, as his parachute has been ripped to shreds. He calls for help on the radio, getting June, a young American WAAC operating the radio on the other end (played by Kim Hunter), eventually telling her that he's going to jump out anyway, because he'd rather die in the fall than be burned to death.

Fast forward to morning. Peter is shocked to discover that he's woken up, and is apparently not in heaven, but still on terra firma. In heaven, we discover that there's a problem: the Mr. Jordan-like character (played by Marius Goring) who was supposed to accompany Peter to heaven was unable to do so: it seems as though that blasted English fog caused him to lose track of Peter and let him get away. Peter, having seemingly cheated death, heads for town, where he finds June, and falls in love with her.

But, this isn't a happy ending for the two hunters. Heaven isn't about to allow an administrative error to keep Peter from his appointed date in heaven, as this would cause chaos in the cosmic order, and the heavenly guide eventually finds Peter, informing him that he's going to have to go to heaven as he's supposed to be dead. Peter is unwilling to accept this, as it wasn't his fault that the afterlife screwed up, but he's also not able to make anybody believe his predicament. Eventually, though, he's able to get June and Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey) to -- possibly -- believe him, and make a deal with the folks in heaven: there will be a trial to decide whether or not Peter should get a reprieve because of Heaven's error.

A Matter of Life and Death is an outstanding romantic fantasy, even better than Here Comes Mr. Jordan. All the main leads turn in excellent performances, and the cinematography is wonderful. The movie has the conceit of being partly in color and partly in black-and-white, like The Wizard of Oz; unlike Oz, however, the use of color is reversed, with Heaven getting the black-and-white scenes and the real world getting color. It's an interesting idea, and one that, combined with the cinematography and excellent set design, makes the afterlife look timeless. All this excellence, however, shouldn't be a surprise considering that the movie was directed by Michael Powell and has a screenplay by him and his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger.

A Matter of Life and death has been released to DVD.

Piccadilly again

This week's TCM Silent Sunday Nights selection is the 1929 British movie Piccadilly, which airs just after midnight ET tonight. I've briefly mentioned the movie before for Anna May Wong's sensuous portrayal of a Chinese dancer who becomes the main attraction at a popular London nightclub. Wong, despite not getting top billing, really is the star. However, also worthy of mention is a small scene involving a patron complaining about the lousy food and service. If the man in that scene looks familiar, he should: that's a young Charles Laughton. Even at this early stage of his film career you can see that he's got the charisma to capture the screen, and it's easy to understand why, even though he wasn't endowed with the best looks, he went on to become a star.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Love that Bob Cummings

TCM is showing a night of movies starring Bob Cummings tonight. The night kicks off with one of his best, Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, at 8:00 PM, as part of TCM's Essentials. I've also recommended his movie The Devil and Miss Jones, which is airing in the wee hours of the night at 3:30 AM ET. A Cummings movie that I've never actually made it all the way through is the 1960s teen flick Beach Party, which has Cummings playing a college professor studying the habits of the typical American teen; that's showing at midnight ET.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Santa Claus on suicide watch

Edmund Gwenn played a surprisingly broad range of characters in his career: a murderer-for-hire in Foreign Correspondent; a scientist in Them!; and, of course, Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Just as enjoyable is his role in Apartment for Peggy, which the Fox Movie Channel is showing tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM ET.

Gwenn plays a retired philosophy professor at a college somewhere in the Midwest. Having been forced into retirement, he's spent the last few years working on a book cataloging everything he knows about philosophy. Once he finishes it, he feels as though he's got nothing left to contribute to society, and it would be better if he chose for himself the time his life would end, rather than becoming old and decrepit.

Meanwhile, this is the period just after World War II, and there's a housing shortage on. Jeanne Crain and Wiliam Holden are a struggling married couple, living in a trailer, while he tries to finish his degree. (You'd think this would have given Holden some sympathy in Miss Grant Takes Richmond.) You can guess what happens next. Gwenn meets Crain, and the meeting will change their lives. Crain worms her way into renting Gwenn's garret apartment. Crain and Holden learn quite a bit about life from the old professor, and he learns that he's still got a lot to offer. Not that it's going to be easy for any of them, of course.

Apartment For Peggy is one of those movies that, on the face of it, shouldn't be very good. It's formulaic and predictable, and somewhat sappy to boot. However, it's one of those old movies that is pleasant in large part because it's predictable. Gwenn plays the curmudgeon well and is easy to like, while Crain's pushiness is more humorous than obnoxious. Holden wasn't a star yet, and isn't given a particularly difficult role, but he's fine with what he does. Apartment For Peggy is the sort of movie that probably ought to show up every year around Christmas, even though it's not set at the holidays: like a good Christmas movie, you know what's going to happen, yet it's still heart-warming.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Alfred Hitchcock's oversized props

TCM is showing Dial M For Murder tonight at 8:00 PM ET as part of the salute to Star of the Month Grace Kelly. Most of the movie is set in the London apartment of Kelly and her husband (Ray Milland), who's trying to have her killed. However, there's one scene set at a club, in which Milland tries to phone home. The most interesting thing about this scene is that Hitchcock had to use a mockup of a hand and a telephone because apparently he couldn't get the right close-up of a real hand dialing a telephone with the sort of movie cameras in use back in the 1950s. It wasn't by any means the first such prop Hitchcock had to resort to.

In Spellbound, the scene at the end in which Leo G. Carroll is holding the gun is a prop set against rear-projection. Some of the prints also have a small number of frames that have been tinted red to show the blood.

There's a coffee cup in Notorious that's oversized. The famous key, however, was apparently not an oversized prop. The legend goes that Ingrid Bergman kept the key from the shooting, and gave it to Hitchcock when he was honored by the AFI in the 1970s.

As for the shower head in Psycho, how exactly did Hitchcock do that? The side shots are trivial, but filming the head when Janet Leigh turns the shower on, with the water coming out and the camera looking up at the shower head, seems much more problematic.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hooray for Hollywood!

You probably recognize the song Hooray for Hollywood. But it was first used in a movie that doesn't get much attention: Hollywood Hotel, which TCM is showing tonight at 8:00 PM ET, as part of the TCM salute to lyricist Johnny Mercer.

Hollywood Hotel is one of those movies that's more about the musical numbers, so the plot is rather scattershot and convoluted. Dick Powell plays a saxophone player in Benny Goodman's band (Goodman is played here by himself) who wins a contest to get a short-term contract in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the female star of the studio Powell will be working at (played by Lola Lane) is currently in a dispute with the studio bosses and doesn't want to do the PR work on her latest movie. With the premiere coming up, the bosses get the idea of hiring a body double to take her place (conveniently played by Lola's real-life sister Rosemary; no wonder they looked similar!), and have Powell be her date to the premiere. Needless to say, Lola finds out about this, and gets Powell fired, leading to him and Rosemary, who by now have fallen in love, to work at a drive-in restaurant. However, you just know that Powell's vocal talents will be discovered, which happens when the studio's male star (Alan Mowbray) is supposed to sing in his next movie, but can't carry a tune.

Does a lot of this sound like Singin' in the Rain? Unfortunately, Hollywood Hotel is inferior in every aspect. Dick Powell is talented, but he's no Gene Kelly. Likewise, Lola Lane is no Jean Hagen, whose character was only an airhead on the surface. But, it's mostly the material. Hollywood Hotel feels like one of those all-star movies, except with the problem of not being able to come up with a good way of tying all the stars together. Still, there are some interesting cameos to watch for, such as the aforementioned Goodman and the rest of his band (which included Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, among others); 1930s gossip columnist Louella Parsons; make-up man Perc Westmore; and Ronald Reagan as a radio announcer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An in-between all-star movie

In the early days of the talking picture, Hollywood tried to bring people into the theaters by puting all of their stars into the same movie, in the case of films such as Dinner at Eight. It's a formula that became much more common in the 1970s, with the advent of the disaster movie, in films such as The Cassandra Crossing or The Poseidon Adventure. In between? Well, we got movies like The VIPs, which TCM is showing tonight at 10:15 PM ET.

The scene is the VIP lounge at London's Heathrow airport, back in the swingin' 60s, when air travel was much more glamorous than it is today. Several well-heeled passengers are on their way across the Atlantic for various reasons. But, the famous London fog rolls in, socking in the airport and making any flights out absolutely impossible. This, needless to say, causes problems for all of the people stuck at Heathrow.

First among these is Elizabeth Taylor. She's playing a woman married to Richard Burton, but is about to leave him in order to live in the Caribbean with suave Louis Jourdan. She's left Burton a "Dear John" letter that she expects him to find only after her plane is in the air, well over the Atlantic. But the fog scuttles those plans, and when Burton finds the breakup letter, he naturally drives back to Heathrow to try to convince his wife to change her plans. His presence, however, happens to be a godsend for another man, Rod Taylor. Taylor is playing an Australian businessman who has to get to an important board meeting in New York or else face the possibility of losing his business. He needs to be able to borrow some money to pay off some debts, and despite not being able to make it to New York, perhaps Burton's money can help him. Meanwhile, Taylor is also beginning to discover that his executive assistant (Maggie Smith) has a crush on him.

Two other stories involve Margaret Rutherford as a formerly wealthy old lady who has one of those great English manors that is really a white elephant because of all the upkeep, and Orson Welles as a movie director who would like to flee England and its confiscatory tax regime, but discovers that Rutherford's manor house might just be the perfect setting for his new film.

As far as movies with ensemble casts go, The VIPs is probably a better movie than Grand Hotel, in that the stories are more interesting, and rarely seen overplayed. And with these all-star movies, if you don't like one of the stories, they'll always switch back to another of them soon. (This is one of the advantages that the later disaster movies of the 1970s don't really have. The characters have backstories, but there's really only one main plot.) That having been said, The VIPs isn't quite as good as Dinner at Eight; nor does it have the slightly irreverent sense of fun that The Poseidon Adventure does. Not many movies do, though, so this is only a minor criticism. The VIPs is a nice look at a slice of the uppercrust as it was in the early 1960s, and entertaining, to boot.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Myrna Loy, ingrateful you-know-what

Today marks the 141st anniversary of the birth of actress Marie Dressler, and TCM is marking the occasion by showing a bunch of her movies all morning and afternoon. Dressler won an Oscar for her role in the movie Min and Bill, and TCM is showing that today at 3:00 PM ET. A Dressler movie I haven't recommended before is Emma, which TCM is showing at 6:45 PM this evening.

Not based on the Jane Austen story of the same name, the Emma has Dressler playing the title character, a nanny to a wealthy inventor (Jean Hersholt) and his wife. She ends up becoming mother to all four children when the mother dies during childbirth of the fourth kid. Despite Emma's best intentions, the three older kids grow up to be spoiled, ingrateful brats, including a relatively young Loy, a few years before she became a star. The youngest loves Emma to no end, and decides to become a bush pilot when he grows up.

Freed of having to take care of the children, Emma finally gets the chance to go on vacation, and her boss accompanies her. Having worked together for 20 years, he's fallen in love with her, and decides to propose to her. It's a happy, but brief, marriage: husband dies on the honeymoon because he's had a bad heart for years. And the unhappiness is really only just beginning, as he left Emma to be the executrix of the estate, realizing that the kids would just squander the money. They, being insanely jealous, want the will broken, but when they discover that this is impossible, they decide it's easier to have Emma put on trial for murdering their father! The only one who can save her is the youngest kid, but will he be able to get home from the wilds of Canada in time...?

Emma is one of the many melodramatic movies that were common in the early 1930s, designed to appeal to the female demographic. It might feel dated and creaky today (and the ending is something that has to be seen to be believed), but was apparently quite popular back in the day. Dressler gives a good performance, and was nominated for an Oscar for the second year running, this being a year after Min and Bill. However, she lost to a similar "women's movie", that being Helen Hayes' performance in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (which is reminiscent to any of the dozen or so versions of Madame X).

Emma is available as part of TCM's Warner Archives Collection on DVD, which means that it's more expensive, and you won't find it at Amazon.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Young Glenn Ford

The Fox Movie Channel is showing one of Glenn Ford's first feature films tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM ET: Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence.

Ford plays Joe Riley, a New York City department store worker who is dissatisfied with his life in New York. He's decided he wants to live for himself, and to that end has bought a plot of land out in Arizona and is going to own his own farm. Now, he just has to get out to Arizona and, this being the Depression, going cross country isn't that easy. Ford quickly runs out of money and has to live like the hobos. Along the way, he meets an illegal Spanish immigrant (Jean Rogers); a man with a bit of a dark side (Richard Conte, in his feature film debut); and an older man affectionately called "The Professor" (character actor Raymond Walburn).

Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence is pretty sqaurely in the B-movie genre. It's not without it's problems, but with a running time of just over an hour, it's over too quickly to get too disappointed with its flaws. Everything is a bit too pat; this isn't a Warner Bros. style social commentary movie like Wild Boys of the Road. Walburn comes across as a sort of imitation Guy Kibbee substitute: he's not bad, but you wish you could have the real thing. Jean Rogers' character seems rather unrealistic, too. Ford is fine, and although he only got billed fourth here, you can see that he had the magnetism necessary to make him a leading man after World War II.

Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence is the sort of B movie that probably deserves to be released on DVD as part of a box set. By itself, it's only worth watching because of the appearance of Ford (and maybe Conte). Because of it's B-movie nature, it hasn't been released to DVD, though, so you're going to have to catch one of the Fox Movie Channel showings.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Norman Krasna, 1909-1984

Today marks 100 years since the birth of Norman Krasna. You might not recognize the name, since most of his work in Hollywood was as a screenwriter. The movie with which I immediately identify him is The Devil and Miss Jones, which Krasna also co-produced. However, he had a pretty substantial list of movie credits, many of which I didn't know about, from the holiday classic White Christmas, to Spencer Tracy's Fury. Coming up this coming week on TCM will also be one of Krasna's last movies, Sunday in New York.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I hope it's better than the movie!

I was recently looking around on the internet and made the interesting discovery that a winery in Chile produced a wine called... Zardoz. For those who don't recognize the name, it's the same as a bizarre 1974 Sean Connery movie in which Connery plays a Stone Age-like savage who ends up in an "enlightened", technologically community that is however impotent. Oh, there's more to it than this: the advanced civilization is amazed by Connery's sexual virility (and the fact that he, like a lot of the actors in the movie, goes around wearing next to nothing) and try to figure out what makes it tick. There's a giant floating head that spews guns, and an interesting explanation of how they got the title. It's the sort of movie that would best be seen on TCM Underground: if you're up for a good laugh, Zardoz is a howler.

And perhaps after you drink your Zardoz with dinner, you'll be up for some Idaho champagne for dessert?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remember, remember, the fifth of November

November 5 marks Guy Fawkes Night in the UK. Since this is a British holiday, there aren't very many Hollywood movies that have references to the day. The best I can think of is Hangover Square, in which Laird Cregar takes the body of a woman he murdered and throws it on top of a bonfire of Guy Fawkes effigies. The assembled crowd, thinking that the body is just another effigy, does nothing, enabling Cregar to destroy the evidence and get away with the murder for at least one more reel.

Surprisingly, a search on IMDb doesn't reveal too many British movies with Guy Fawkes references, either, although that probably has to do more with a lot of the items related to keyword searching not being fully indexed. That having been said, there is also one modern movie with references to Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot: V For Vendetta.

A new Star of the Month

You've probably seen the promos on TCM, but Thursdays in November are given over to TCM's latest Star of the Month, Grace Kelly. Her first movie was Fourteen Hours, which is kicking off the month at 8:00 PM tonight. I've already posted about that movie. Kelly only has a small part in it, which means that pictures of her in the movie aren't so easy to come by. That would probably explain why I used a photo of Kelly from High Noon instead. That follows Fourteen Hours on TCM tonight, at 10:00 PM ET.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Blues in the Night

I've twice mentioned the movie Blues in the Night before. It's airing overnight tonight at 3:45 AM ET on TCM as part of their month-long tribute to lyricist Johnny Mercer (who wrote the lyrics to the title song). However, I haven't said much about the plot, so now would be a good time to do so.

Richard Whorf stars as the leader and pianist for a struggling blues/jazz band, which makes its way around the country, taking gigs where it can. They're only eking out a living, until they run into somebody who can help them while they're stowing away on a train. Tha man is gangster Lloyd Nolan, who has a road house just across the river from Manhattan, and makes them the house band. Whorf meets Betty Field, the seeming business partner and former lover of Nolan, and falls in love with her, although it's an unrequited love that drives him mad, and threatens to derail his musical career.

The cast also includes Priscilla Lane as the band's singer. She's married to the band's trumpeter, played by Jack Carson, and is going to have his baby, despite the fact that this is going to be a severe financial strain on everybody. (Just don't say she's pregnant -- there's that darn Production Code.) As I mentioned the first time I brought up the movie, there's also Elia Kazan, playing one of the band members, who also wants to be a lawyer. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie, though, is a dream-like montage sequence when, after being jilted by Field, Whorf has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric hospital.

Blues in the Night goes all over the place, and is fun, if not without its flaws. It's also available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

John Barry

Today marks the 76th birthday of composer John Barry. We've probably all seen the name before, as he wrote the score for the first of the James Bond movies, Doctor No, as well as some of the more recognizable theme songs to later entries in the series (notably Goldfinger, and Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World from the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

What I never knew, however, is that Barry has had a very rich and fruitful career outside of the Bond movies. I do recall seeing his name show up as the composer of the jazz music in The L-Shaped Room, which TCM showed last month as part of the salute to Star of the Month Leslie Caron. But, that jazzy music at least fits in with the same style as the original theme from Doctor No. On the other hand, Barry has won five Oscars, for a diverse group of movies, from the MOR retch-inducing title song of Born Free, to 1990's Dances With Wolves, and that even his scores not recognized by the Academy are diverse, with 60s spy movies like The Quiller Memorandum and 80s thrillers like Jagged Edge.

Then again, this isn't that much different from what compsers of the Studio Era did.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jimmy Stewart's Panties!

Well, not Stewart's; they're actually Lee Remick's, as we eventually learn in the Otto Preminger classic Anatomy of a Murder, airing overnight tonight at 12:45 AM ET on TCM.

Stewart plays a small-town lawyer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who is down on his luck, but soon gets a chance to turn that luck around. This comes in the form of Army man Ben Gazzara, who's got a young wife in Lee Remick, and gets charged for murder. However, he's got a novel alibi: he killed in a fit of honorable temporary insanity after learning that his wife was raped. It's a big case, and in order to get a conviction, the local authorities bring in a bigwig prosecutor from downstate (George C. Scott), leading to the second half of the movie being a courtroom drama. As for the panties? Well, they're an important piece of evidence but, needless to say, everybody in the courtroom titters when Stewart mentions the word "panties".

Anatomy of a Murder is filled with the standard plot devices you'll see in a courtroom drama: Stewart's aw-shucks, small town attorney in need gets matched up against a bombastic, politically-motivated prosecutor. The defendant is of questionable sympatheticness (and indeed, there's a question of whether or not Remick was even raped, or whether she willingly had sex with the murder victim), and a lot of people in town have secrets they'd like kept secret. You'll recognize many of these tropes from a movie like Trial.

That, however, does not mean that Anatomy of a Murder isn't a good movie. Everybody, including Stewart, is a character of ambiguous or dual moralities, especially the defendant and his wife. But even with Stewart, we begin to wonder how much he believes in his client, and how much he just wants to win a case. There are also excellent portrayals amongst the supporting actors, notably Eve Arden as Stewart's secretary. The movie is also helped tremendously by its atmosphere. It was filmed on location in the Upper Peninsula, and really looks like a place prosperity pased by.

Anatomy of a Murder has made its way to DVD, but according to Amazon only in a panned and scanned version. That's a huge shame, and means you'll have to watch the TCM showing to get the movie in all its glory.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Too many repeats?

The Fox Movie Channel has been running a Halloween-weekend marathon of the various movies in the Planet of the Apes series. There weren't all that many movies in the series, so it means that all of them are being rerun over, and over, and over....

It poses the question of just how much material should (or shouldn't) be repeated. There is certainly a place for repeats: for a lot of the cable channels, it's important to be able to capture the eyeballs of the channel-surfer, who doesn't plan his schedule carefully, and doesn't record a lot of stuff for later viewing. If you look at many of the cable channels' schedules, they'll have one of their popular shows kicking off prime time at 8:00 PM ET, a prime time schedule that runs three or four hours -- and then a repeat of that full prime-time schedule. The reasoning behind this is that the stuff that kicks off prime time in the east will get a repeat at what are the prime time hours out in the Pacific Time Zone. (Bigger cable channels have a dedicated feed for the west coast that's all the same stuff as the east coast feed, only run three hours later. If you have DirecTV, for example, you'll see that there's a separate channel for Showtime's west coast feed.) And TCM isn't averse to this sort of repeat. It's very common for them, when they have a new documentary, to show it at 8:00 PM ET, run one movie, and then repeat the documentary around 11:00 PM ET. As a matter of fact, they'll be doing just that later this week with a new documentary on Johnny Mercer.

I think this is also the same reasoning why Fox runs its Fox Legacy movies three times in succession on Fridays, and has the Triple Play feature on Saturdays. Of course, Fox has other problems with the way it uses its library, as I've discussed before. That having been said, I can't help but think the Planet of the Apes marathon is a bit too much over three days, especially when you consider they did the same thing over four days last Thanksgiving. Still you have at least one more chance to catch the original Planet of the Apes at 8:00 PM ET tonight, with the Fox Legacy introduction, which, for the record, is worth watching -- if you haven't seen any of the other 43287321 airings of it.