Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Crain Mutiny

One of the movies the Fox Movie Channel has pulled out of its vault after not showing it for years is Dangerous Crossing, which is scheduled for 10:30 AM ET tomorrow.

Jeanne Crain stars as a woman who's gotten married after a whirlwind romance, and is about to go on her honeymoon -- a transatlantic voyage. However, just before the ship is set to leave port, her husband disappears. Not only that, but there's no evidence that he had booked passage on the ship, or that she was even married; apparently, nobody even saw the man (except for one maid who's lying). Naturally, everybody begins to think that Crain is perhaps going a bit off her rocker, something that's not helped by her having had psychological problems in the past.

Eventually, though, Crain does hear from her husband. He's on board the ship, but in hiding, claiming that he's in danger, and that she shouldn't tell anybody about the danger he's in. Of course, by now we're beginning to expect that Crain is the one who's really in danger....

Dangerous Crossing comes toward the end of the mystery and noir cycle of movies popular from the beginning of the 1940s through the early to mid-1950s. As such, it comes across as being a bit formulaic at times. This is a repeat of a 1932 movie, and just a few years earlier, the late Jean Simmons had made a similar movie in So Long at the Fair. Still, a boat is a good place to set one of these mysteries, as there surely can't be any place for the man to hide -- or can there? Also, by the early 1950s, Fox was making most of these mysteries and noirs as slightly shorter movies, clocking in at under 90 minutes (Dangerous Crossing is, in fact, a brief 75 minutes). So, there's not really time for them to run out of steam. Crain is fairly good, helped out somewhat by an eventually sympathetic doctor played by Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still).

Fox has been releasing a lot of their noirs to DVD, and Dangerous Crossing has already gotten the DVD treatment. So, you don't have to wait for it to show up on the Fox Movie Channel.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Charles Dickens

One of the movies TCM showed last night as part of its salute to Jean Simmons was a 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations. I read the book in one of my English classes back in junior high or high school many years ago, but had never seen the movie before.

I'm not certain if it's the best adaptation of a Dickens novel out there. I argued when I recommended Chariots of Fire that one thing latter-day moviemakers have an advantage in is location shooting being able to make pictures look more authentic. I mentioned the Merchant/Ivory movies and that period of British history in connection with Chariots of Fire, if only because most of those stories are set in the interwar period. But I think the point also holds with works from the Victorian era and earlier. TCM is showing the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights this evening at 8:00 PM ET and, while it's a well-made movie, there's something about it that seems wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but studio-bound or limited in some way compared to things like the more recent adaptations of Jane Austen's works (yes, I know Wuthering Heights wasn't written by Austen).

Getting back to Dickens, TCM is showing another adaptation of a Dickens work: the 1958 Dirk Bogarde version of A Tale of Two Cities, at 8:00 AM Sunday. Dickens has proved to be one of the more popular writers to adapt as well, with everything from short movies to TV miniseries. Which is your favorite film adaptation of a Dickens work?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Cotton anniversary!

Today is the second anniversary of this humble little blog. The traditional anniversary gift is cotton, although apparently there's a new list of modern anniversary gifts, put out by some industry group no doubt, that says china is the new anniversary gift for a second anniversary. If it weren't for the spelling difference, the cotton anniversary would be a good day to post about Joseph Cotten. I also haven't seen The Cotton Club, so I can't really talk about that movie either.

There have been any number of movies set against the backdrop of either slavery or sharecroppers, which naturally have scenes of people picking cotton. Gone With the Wind would be an obvious candidate, while the early all-black musical Hallelujah! is another. Later movies deal with the textile industry, such as In the Heat of the Night, or Norma Rae. All of them are available on DVD, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

TCM's Jean Simmons tribute

TCM has announced its programming changes to mark the death of Jean Simmons. They've selected a three-film salute in prime time Friday (January 29):

Great Expectations, one of her earliest movies, kicks off the night at 8:00 PM ET;
Elmer Gantry follows at 10:15 PM; and
The Happy Ending will air at 12:45 AM Saturday.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Donna Reed, 1921-1986

Today marks the birth anniversary of Donna Reed, who made quite a few movies in the 1940s and 1950s before pretty much leaving movies to do a long-running TV series. Reed won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Montgomery Clift's girlfriend in From Here to Eternity, but I notice that when I blogged about it I did not use a picture of Reed. So, at left is a photo of her in the movie, in one of the scenes at the New Congress Club where the soldiers go on their leave.

Despite having won the Oscar for From Here to Eternity, that might not be Reed's most famous role, simply because she had the great luck to show up as Jimmy Stewart's wife in the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

George Sanders, Nazi

The distinguished British actor George Sanders played quite a few elegant and respectable characters in his career. However, he also played a Nazi once. That movie is Man Hunt, which TCM is showing at 10:00 PM ET tonight.

The movie was made in 1941 but is set before the September 1939 start of World War II. Walter Pidgeon plays a gentleman hunter who has decided to "hunt" people instead of animals. Not that he kills them, of course; he just gets them in the sights of his unloaded gun to prove to himself that hitting the target could actually have been achieved. He's in the Berchtesgadener Land of southeast Bavaria, overlooking Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" vacation residence, trying to catch Hitler in his sights, which he eventually does. Satisfied with this, he then thinks about whether or not he should put a bullet in the gun and kill Hitler, whose menace to Britain must have been known by this time. Unfortunately for him, while pondering whether to kill Hitler, a Nazi guard spots him, and brings him in for questioning to Gestapo agent George Sanders. Sanders says he's willing to let Pidgeon go if only Pidgeon will sign a document saying that he had been in Germany under orders from the British Government to try to kill Hitler, orders that would presumably give Hitler the "legal" right under international law to declare war on the UK without having been seen as starting the war. Pidgeon decides that the Nazis are going to kill him regardless of whether he signs the document or not, so why sign it? Sure enough, Sanders throws Pidgeon over a cliff, making it look like Pidgeon was fleeing the Nazis after having committed the earlier crime.

But, Pidgeon doesn't die: the straps of his rucksack get caught on a branch, breaking his fall. Pidgeon then proceeds to try to escape back to England, only for Sanders to be in hot pursuit, considering what failure to kill Pidgeon would do to his career. Pidgeon does eventually make it back to London, with the help of some people who may not really be helping him after all; if you saw Night Train to Munich, you'll recognize the type. Among the supporting characters are Joan Bennett as a London prostitute; Roddy McDowall as a cabin boy, and John Carradine as an Englishman on the ship where Sanders is a stowaway. The rest of the movie is the sort of chase movie reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock classics like The 39 Steps, but it's not directed by Hitchcock. Instead, that honor befalls Fritz Lang, who is almost every bit Hitchcock's equal when it comes to creating a taut thriller.

Man Hunt has been released to DVD.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Was he wearing a Diestrong bracelet?

The IFC has the rights to a few good foreign movies, which they show from time to time. One of those movies, the Spanish film Death of a Cyclist, is airing at 8:00 AM ET tomorrow.

Death of a Cyclist is the movie that answers the question of what a Franco-era version of Double Indemnity might look like. A college professor is having an affair with the wife of a prominent member of the Spanish upper class. This naturally involves meeting in out-of-the-way places, and one rainy day, on their way back to Madrid, they accidentally hit and kill a cyclist. Reporting it means possible criminal charges, but, much more importantly in their minds, discovery of the extramarital affair! Wanting to keep the affair a secret, and having determined that nobody could have seen the accident, the two lovers head back to Madrid.

Of course, that is by no means the end of the crime. In Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray realized that he and Barbara Stanwyck were now tied irrevocably together, and would have to go straight down the line, all the way to the end. It didn't help, either, that MacMurray had an insurance fraud investigator like Edward G. Robinson as his boss, a man with a funny little feeling in his stomach that something wan't quite right. Things are much the same in Death of a Cyclist. Any references to crime make the pair (especially the man) extremely nervous, and there's a man who's acting as though he knows something about the pair. Does he know only that they're a couple? Or does he know too about the hit-and-run? Or is he just bluffing? Either way, the strain is bound to become unbearable for the two lovers, but how it does is something I'll let you find out for yourself.

Death of a Cyclist was directed by Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of actor Javier Bardem), a noted opponent of the Franco regime. As such, the film inevitably has political overtones, both for the good and the bad. The discussion of class status, especially how the two lovers feel they need to hush up the accident in order to preserve their social standing -- even though they could probably beat the rap on the accident since there weren't any witnesses -- is fine. However, there's also a subplot involving the man's college students protesting the failing mark given to a female student who happened to run afoul of the professor when he was in a bad mood over seeing a newspaper story about the car accident. That subplot seems a bit tacked on and doesn't really fit with the rest of the movie. One other problem is for people who don't speak Spanish. Normally, I have no problem with foreign films, and having to read subtitles. However, in the case of Death of a Cyclist, two of the main male characters have pencil moustaches that make them look enough alike that it's a bit tough to keep track of which is which while reading the subtitles at the same time.

All in all, though, Death of a Cyclist is a pretty good movie, up there with most of Hollywood's noirs. It's available on DVD, but as is often the case with foreign films, it's also more expensive than DVDs of most Hollywood movies from the same period.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Somewhere in the Night

One of the movies in the current Fox Movie Channel rotation that I haven't recommended before is Somewhere in the Night, which is airing tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM ET.

John Hodiak stars as a World War II veteran who got injured pretty badly in the war, and is suffering a case of amnesia as a result. The only things he knows is that his girlfriend was going to leave him for some reason, and his friend Larry Cravat left him $5,000 in a bank in Los Angeles. So, he heads off to Los Angeles, only to find out that he's unable to see Mr. Cravat, despite the fact that a lot of people out there would like to see Larry. And being a friend of Larry Cravat's might not be such a good thing for him. The other people looking for Cravat send thugs after Hodiak, leading him to escape into the dressing room of nightclub singer Nancy Guild (an actress who never really made it to the big time). She might be willing to help him, and thinks that her boss, Richard Conte, can certainly help him. Even better for Hodiak is the fact that there's a kindly police detective (Lloyd Nolan) who also wants the goods on Cravat -- apparently, that $5,000 Cravat had promised is part of a cool million.

Thus begins our tale of mystery and murder. The bad news is, it's an extremely twisty tale, one that you have to pay close attention to if you don't want to get confused as to what's going on. Also, the cast is mostly people who are OK, but not great. That having been said, it's not notably bad, either. If you're willing to put in a little effort, it's more than entertaining enough. But if you're trying to interest somebody who isn't already a fan of 40s movies and noirs in either genre, there are a lot of better movies with which to start off.

Fox went through a phase of releasing a lot of their noirs to DVD, with the result that there are a lot of 40s films from them on DVD that you might not otherwise expect. Somewhere in the Night is one of them.

Jean Simmons, 1929-2010

By now, you've probably heard about the death of actress Jean Simmons at the age of 80. Her career started in the UK when she was a teenager, playing in an acclaimed adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Before coming to Hollywood, she also made the excellent So Long at the Fair, about a woman who goes to the Paris Exposition with her brother, only to find the next morning that he's disappeared, and nobody seems to have any trace of him. As for her best Hollywood role, it might well be as the lady evangelist who falls for Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, from which the picture at left is taken.

As of this writing, TCM hasn't announced a change in its programming to honor Simmons. The tribute is going to be a bit tough to do, since TCM would have to get the programming change done this week, before the annual 31 Days of Oscar salute starts next Monday. That, combined with having started in Britain and the fact that some of her better-known Hollywood movies were made at Fox, such as The Robe (the picture on the right is from The Robe and I used it last year on Simmons' 80th birthday), could also cause TCM to have a few problems getting rights to suitable Jean Simmons movies at short notice.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I Love You Again

If you enjoy the comedy of William Powell and Myrna Loy, you'll certainly like I Love You Again, which TCM is showing at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow.

William Powell stars wealthy businessman Larry Wilson, on a transatlantic ship back to his wife in New York. He got to be rich by being an inveterate penny pincher, to the point that his wife (Myrna Loy) is thinking about filing for divorce when he gets back, not that he knows. And not that he's going to find out, anyhow: things are about to change for him when Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh) falls overboard. Larry jumps in to save Doc, but suffers a concussion in saving Doc. This results in amnesia which has several effects....

First, Larry is no longer Larry, but George Carey, a man who was a con artist who would do almost anything to bilk a buck out of people. Of course, he's come into a bunch of money (Larry's), but George doesn't know that he's married, or that the marriage is on the rocks. George, however, isn't a penny pincher like Larry was, and when George gets back to the States and finds out about the wife, he begins to fall in love with her. And, his new spendthrift ways are something that the missus could begin to love. The only problem is that the missus might not like a conman....

I Love You Again is in some ways reminiscent of Random Harvest, in that the main character gets amnesia twice, falling in love with the same woman both times. But the idea works much better as a straight up comedy, instead of the dreadfully melodramatic love story that Random Harvest is. It also helps that you've got William Powell and Myrna Loy doing the material. They worked amazingly well together and fit the stuff like a hand in a good glove.

I Love You Again has made it to DVD, as part of a box set of Powell/Loy films. Sure, that makes it more expensive. But than, you can't really go wrong with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Katharine Hepburn vs. the New Wave

The passage of time leads to some movies losing their shock value, despite still being pretty darn good movies. Such is the case with the 1959 film Suddenly, Last Summer, which is airing at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow on TCM. The ending must have been shocking to viewers back in 1959, but today, it's more the main story that might surprise people.

Elizabeth Taylor stars as Catherine, a young woman who went to Europe for an extended vacation with her cousin. However, her cousin died on vacation, which has necessarily caused stress for poor Catherine. Enter Catherine's wealthy aunt Violet Venables (Katharine Hepburn), the mother of the deceased cousin. She has apparently learned the truth that Catherine knows about her son's death, and she doesn't want that truth to come out for whatever reason. So, she's put Catherine in a sanatarium to which she is a major donor, and is trying to pressure the doctors into giving Catherine a lobotomy, with the obvious intent to wipe the memories of the son's death out of Catherine's mind forever. This, frankly, is more shocking today than the ending.

Enter Dr. Cukrowicz, played by Montgomery Clift. He doesn't yet know the secret of the young man's death that's led to Mrs. Venables to want to lobotomize her niece, but he's determined to investigate to try to figure out whether or not Catherine really needs the lobotomy. Eventually, the truth will out, and if anybody, it might be the old aunt who belongs in an institution....

The two possible shortcomings that this movie might have are the fact that the subject material has become dated, and that there's a lot more dialogue than action. In fact, that shouldn't let you have a lesser opinion of the film. While I'm not a particularly big fan of any of the three leading stars, all of them do give good performances. Also, the flashback scenes in Europe are very stylistically done, reminiscent of something like the dream sequences in Spellbound. It's also made it to DVD, and the fine folks at Amazon only seem to be charging five bucks for it. Not a bad pickup if you ask me.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is Point Blank a comedy?

TCM is showing the thriller Point Blank at 8:00 PM ET tonight. Truth be told, I haven't actually seen the movie before. Actually, I think I might have seen the first few minutes once before when it aired on TCM, and knew before seeing it show up this week that it's a 60s thriller with Lee Marvin; in fact, I've kind of been waiting for it to show up again on the TCM schedule. At any rate, as TCM is wont to do with the movies airing in prime time, they promote the movie by showing the trailer. Unfortunately, the trailer gives a rather different impression to me than what the film likely really is.

The trailer seems delightfully over the top, to the point that it almost makes the movie look like a comedy, or at least an unintentional comedy. The trailer also looks as badly dated as The Thomas Crown Affair, with the shot above, of Lee Marvin walking through a long corridor with those ghastly 60s-style lights with the plastic covers showing up again and again. (To be honest, I think two shots were used, as the other sequence has the lights recessed in the ceiling, much the way the giant office at the beginning of The Apartment, or any other office building of the time, was.)

In all fairness, Point Blank the movie is probably better than Point Blank the trailer. I'm certainly looking forward to finding out!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

John Williams #38

According to IMDb, today is the birth anniversary of John Williams. Well, it's not the John Williams with which we're probably all most familiar, i.e. the one who composed the scores of such movies as Jaws and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Instead, this John Williams was a British TV producer who died several years back, and is listed at IMDb as John Williams (XXXVIII). Needless to say, there are only so many names to go around, and it's to be expected that some people are going to have the same name, especially with a common name like "John Williams".

Out of curiousity, I was curious to see how many John Williamses there are with IMDb pages, and a name search yielded 75 results. A few of them were Johnny Williamses, who are numbered separately from the John Williamses, and one was even a person who went under the pseudonym "John Williams" for a movie but has a link leading to his real name. Still, there's a John Williams (LXX) out there on IMDb. Interestingly, the Jaws composer, who gets the honor of being John Williams (I), is the only well-known one, as opposed to say the three James Stewarts.

Is John Williams the most common name on IMDb? By itself, perhaps. There are 70 John Williamses, but apparently only 67 John Smiths. On the other hand, there are just over a hundred partial matches for John Smith (eg. people who go by John G. Smith or somesuch), while there are only about 70 partial matches for John Williams. There are only 51 James Smiths, but a further 107 partial matches -- including rapper LL Cool J, whose birth name was apparently James Todd Smith. (You learn something new every day.)

As for the women, there are a lot fewer, largely because in the olden days of Hollywood, most of the behind the camera jobs were held by men.

Can anybody find a name more common than John Williams?

More box guide nonsense

TCM is showing Tiger Shark tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM ET. I've mentioned the movie briefly in the past; it's got Edward G. Robinson playing a Portuguese-American fisherman. However, my box guide lists the program in that time slot as a 2003 documentary! (IMDb doesn't list any 2003 documentaries about tiger sharks that I could find.)

As for Edward G. Robinson's many ethnic roles, one I didn't mention in my post two years ago was The Hatchet Man, in which Robinson plays -- a Chinese-American gangster! Not only that, but his wife is the equally Chinese Loretta Young. The Hatchet Man is airing at 9:00 AM tomorrow on TCM.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TCM Schedule problems

If you watched A Hatful of Rain last night and stayed tuned for the following movie, Baby Doll, you would have seen several promos and interstitials, two of which conflicted with each other.

First was a Word of Mouth piece on Peter Sellers, which was used as a promo for the movie A Shot in the Dark, which the promo said would be airing at 10:15 PM ET tonight. Later, there was a promo for this month's TCM Guest Programmer, Bob Newhart, who has selected three movies:
Inherit the Wind at 8:00 PM;
Block-Heads at 10:15 PM; and
Sunset Blvd. at 11:15 PM.

You'll note the conflict. A look at TCM's online schedule reveals that A Shot in the Dark will not be airing, with the movie Hot Millions having been added to get everything to time out correctly. This would fit in with what's on my satellite box guide. Whatever rights problems TCM had, however, must have come fairly late. I generally don't download the next month's TCM schedule until late in the last full week of the previous month (with the "full week" starting on a Monday). This means that I haven't downloaded February's schedule yet, and probably won't for another nine or ten days. By the same token, I only downloaded the January schedule early on Christmas morning. Even at that late date, though, A Shot in the Dark was still listed in the schedule.

Apologies to those who were looking forward to Bob Newhart's comments on A Shot in the Dark.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gratuitous Cary Grant photo post

Today marks the birth anniversary of Cary Grant, who was born on this day in 1904. I've posted about quite a few of his movies, and, since I also haven't included any photos with my posts in a while, today would be a good day to repost some old photos:

Would you drink this glass of milk served to you by Cary Grant?

Do you prefer Cary Grant as a secret agent...

or Cary Grant as an angel?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

To Ma'am with love

Tomorrow being Martin Luther King Day, TCM is marking the occasion by showing a number of movies with predominantly black casts. One of the lesser-known movies showing up is Bright Road, at 10:30 AM.

There isn't much to Bright Road on the face of it. Dorothy Dandridge stars as Jane Richards, a new teacher at a school in a small black town. Among the students is the troubled C.T. Young (played by Philip Hepburn, in his only screen appearance), who habitually rebels against authority. However, Miss Richards believes -- perhaps naïvely -- that she can reach all of the children, including C.T., and sets out to make a difference in his life. It's not easy of course, since various misfortunes befall C.T. and the rest of the school, including a serious illness striking one of the students.

Although the movie has a fairly simple plot, it's quite well-made. It's the sort of little movie that MGM started making in the early 1950s, after Louis B. Mayer was pushed out and new head man Dore Schary (who was responsible for bringing last Saturday night's Essential, Battleground, to MGM) began to authorize movies that were less glamorous in storyline, but had the slick production values of MGM behind them. Bright Road says a lot without saying much, offering a subtle lesson in human dignity.

As for the cast, most of them were relative unknowns since this was an almost all-black movie. Dandridge is pretty darn good in the lead, although the best of the cast is Hepburn. Also appearing is Harry Belafonte, in his screen debut, playing the school principal. Frankly, he's not very good in most of his movies, and Bright Road is no different. However, he was a capable singer, and MGM used this to effect, shoehorning a Belafonte song into the movie despite it really having no bearing to the plot. Dandridge gets to sing, too, although at least in her case, she's singing in church where it fits with the plot.

Bright Road might also be reminiscent of To Sir, With Love, which is also airing on TCM on Monday 6:00 PM, in that both are episodic movies looking at a year in the life of a teacher who tries to influence his/her charges. But To Sir, With Love deals with much older students, and more grown-up themes. Bright Road is a more innocent movie -- but an endearing one, at that. Sadly, Bright Road has yet to be released to DVD.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Killer that stalked New Orleans

There's another movie back in the Fox Movie Channel lineup that had gone missing for a few years: Panic In the Streets which is airing at 1:30 PM ET on Sunday, January 17.

The movie opens with a card game involving a bunch of crooks somewhere in New Orleans. Something goes wrong, with the result being that two of the guys start chasing a third one, eventually killing him. That in and of itself would be no big deal. Until, that is, the coroner performs an autopsy. Yes, the guy died of bullet wounds -- but it looks as though he was carrying pneumonic plague! Enter Richard Widmark, playing Public Health Service doctor Clint Reed. It's his job to deal with contagious diseases, and he's got a dilemma here. Nobody knows who the dead guy is, which means he was obviously smuggled into New Orleans aboard one of the many ships coming from foreign lands. And, despite the fact that pneumonic plague is highly contagious, and the dead guy could have spread it all over town, the authorities really can't warn the regular people: if there were a public announcement, the other criminals involved in the killing, who would be the likeliest carriers of the disease, would be sure to leave town immediately, carrying the disease across the country.

So, it's a job for the police, in the form of Capt. Warren (Paul Douglas) to find out who this guy was and who he came in contact with. Warren and the good doctor have to work together, despite the fact that in typical Hollywood fashion, each has a healthy distrust for the other. The result is a pretty darn good suspense movie. We know a bit about who the killers are, as the authorities' investigation is punctuated by scenes of the bad guys, getting at each others' throats while at the same time unwittingly spreading the plague.

As for the cast, it's pretty darn good. Widmark is fine as always, and Douglas winds up becoming as sympathetic as he is in a lot of his films, such as the fellow policeman he played in Fourteen Hours. When it comes to the criminals, who better to have as a leader than menacing Jack Palance, making his big screen debut. (Jack was his middle name; in fact, Palance gets screen credit here as "Walter Jack Palance".) Assisting Palance is the sweaty Zero Mostel; sweaty in part due to his corpulence and in part because he's coming down with the plague. Barbara Bel Geddes plays Widmark's long-suffering, but understanding, wife; hers isn't that big of a part but she does a good job anyhow. Direction, up to the climactic chase sequence, is more than ably handled by the great Elia Kazan.

An interesting thing about Panic in the Streets is that it came out the same year (1950) as a movie with a very similar theme: The Killer That Stalked New York. Panic in the Streets is the better-remembered movie today, although each one is quite good in its own way. While Panic in the Streets has the benefit of the much better cast and director, The Killer That Stalked New York has the advantage of being told in a docudrama format. It's something that you might have expected Fox to do, having done so many other docudramas.

Friday, January 15, 2010

More orphans

In writing about Journey For Margaret yesterday, I realized that there are quite a few movies about orphans. I've recommended several of them already, with a few others deserving mention as well.

Orphans on film go back at least to the silent days, with the Gish sisters playing a pair of orphans in Orphans of the Storm. There are also foundlings (and children kidnapped from their parents, although that's a completely different matter) in the excellent Mary Pickford silent Sparrows

Outlaws get into the orphan racket in the multiple versions of Three Godfathers, a Christmas-themed movie in which three outlaws on the run in the old west gain custoday of an orphan baby, and then decide to do the right thing. Tugging at the viewers' heartstrings is a common theme with Christmas movies, and orphans are a good way to tug at people's heartstrings. The two are combined in All Mine to Give, in which six pioneer kids become orphans in the Christmas season, with the eldest wanting to make certain the younger kids all get good homes. Since it's a Christmas movie, it's not currently on the TCM schedule, but it is available on DVD.

Foundlings may or may not be orphans, but glossing over the parents' deaths is a better idea if you want a comedy movie. Tom Jones was a foundling, as the title of the original Henry Fielding book says. There's also Bachelor Mother, in which Ginger Rogers plays a shop-girl who winds up with a foundling through no fault of her own. (The movie was remade in the 1950s as Bundle of Joy).

Finally, one of the most famous orphans is Little Orphan Annie, who came to the screen in the early 1980s.

Who's your favorite movie orphan?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Prepare to be cloyed

TCM is honoring 1940s child star Margaret O'Brien on her birthday tomorrow. I'd wait until then to mention it, except that I'd like to point out the first movie, Journey For Margaret, which is airing at 6:15 AM ET.

The setting is the start of World War II. Robert Young plays an American journalist working in France and living there with his wife (Laraine Day). With the Nazis coming, the two escape to London, only to be caught up in the Blitz. This is a big problem for them, because the missus is pregnant, and one of the bombs causes her to lose the baby she's carrying. Meanwhile, the husband is doing a story on war orphans, and visits an orphanage, which is where he meets Margaret O'Brien, who is conveniently playing a young girl named Margaret (actually, little miss O'Brien changed her name to Margaret as a result of this movie). Young falls in love with Margaret and one of the young boy orphans, and would like to take both of them to America with him. But, there's a lot of paperwork involved, and then there's getting them room on the transport out of England....

Journey For Margaret was clearly intended to be a sort of propaganda when it was made (it was released in late 1942), probably with the intention of keeping Americans on Britain's side, as well as pointing out to us in the States that we could have had it so much worse. As such, it works fairly well, although you know everything is going to turn out well in the end. The adults are all competent, but not particularly memorable in that most of them had done much better work in the past. As for O'Brien, this was her first movie, and she shows that she's already a pro, knowing how to turn on the treacly sentiment to a level so high you might worry about getting diabetes from all the sweetness. With performances like this, it probably shouldn't be too much of a surprise that she didn't remain a successful actress once she grew up. Still, I know there are a lot of fans of hers out there, so I'm sure they'll love all the O'Brien movies. And to be fair, there are movies in which she's better, such as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, although that one isn't airing tomorrow.

Journey For Margaret has apparently not been released to DVD yet, so you'll have to catch the TCM airings.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jimmy Stewart and who??

A James Stewart western that I have not blogged about before is Bandolero!, which shows up tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

The movie opens with Dean Martin leading a gang of bank robbers somewhere in the ranchlands of Texas in the years not long after the Civil War. Unfortunately for them, the bank heist doesn't go well, and the gang gets caught, put in jail, and sentenced to be hanged. Cut to James Stewart. He's in another part of Texas, and hears about this gang. The next morning, he meets a man with a whole bunch of rope who informs Stewart that he is a hangman, and is on his way to hang the Dean Martin Gang. Cut again, this time to the town where the gang has been held, and is going to be hanged. Enter the hangman -- well, actually, enter James Stewart. Obviously, he's dispatched the real hangman, and has the intention of freeing Martin and his friends, for reasons that are revealed not long afterwards. Martin and Stewart, it turns out, are brothers, and Stewart, the "good" brother, wants to convince the bad one to give up his life of crime and move someplace in the northern plains and become a peaceful, law-abiding rancher. Of course, there's the small matter of a price on Martin's head. So, he and his gang set off to escape across the Rio Grande, far enough south of the border that the sheriff (George Kennedy) won't follow them.

The sheriff has his own ideas, however. The gang has taken a rancher's widow (Raquel Welch) hostage. He's been after her to do something with the ranch -- namely, to do something to let him have it, either by selling to him or by marrying him. He's also in love with Welch (and who wouldn't be?), so it's clear that he'd follow her to the ends of the earth, matters of legal jurisdiction be damned. That's not the only thing to be damned, though. Welch's character is originally from the south side of the Rio Grande, and she knows that the more northerly parts of Mexico are filled with bandits (the bandoleros of the title), and that these bandits have no compunction about killing gringos. Everybody, possibly even her, is in danger if they continue going into Mexico. Of course, with the law coming after them, there's not much choice....

Bandolero! is entertaining enough, if nothing great. You get the impression that Stewart had done so many great westers before that he could have sleepwalked his way through this one, although he's the consummate pro and actually puts in an effort. Martin wasn't a bad actor, but he's a bit ill-suited here. Welch is lovely even if somewhat miscast, too, while Kennedy comes across as just enough of a creepy character with an almost perverted obsession for Welch. For some reason, his character here reminded me of his character in Strait-Jacket.

One other reason to watch the movie is for the anachronisms. The movie is set in the late 1860s or early 1870s, but there is a surprisingly high number of things in the movie that are of a much later time. Bandolero! is available both by itself, and as part of a box set that includes Welch's Mother, Jugs, and Speed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Luise Rainer centenary

Today marks the 100th birthday of two-time Oscar winner Luise Rainer. She quit the movie business in the late 1930s, so there aren't too many of her movies to show, but TCM is showing quite a few of them this afternoon and evening, starting with her first Oscar performance, in The Great Ziegfeld, at 4:50 PM ET. The second Oscar came for The Good Earth, which is on at 10:00 PM. In between, at 8:00 PM, is The Great Waltz.

The Great Waltz is a highly fictionalized account of the life of the famous Viennese "Waltz King" Johann Strauss Jr., played here by Ferdinand Gravet. Birthday girl Rainer plays the wife, a woman who is suffering because her husband is cheating on her with opera singer Miliza Korjus. Korjus was an opera singer in real life, which meant that she had to have some acting ability, since opera isn't just about the singing. So, Louis B. Mayer brought her to Hollywood to star in this movie since they needed somebody who could sing, and she does a pretty good job with both the singing and the acting.

And that singing -- or the music in general -- is the real reason to watch this movie. The Great Waltz is a pretty formulaic Hollywood story, of the sort that we've seen a dozen times before in slightly different variations. Johann Strauss Jr., however, didn't get as much attention from Hollywood, despite the fact that his music is memorable and melodious enough that we can all hum along, just like the popular songs that were dotting the regular movie musicals of the day.

Unfortunately, The Great Waltz seems not to have made its way to DVD yet.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What if Woody Allen were a 12-year-old girl?

If you enjoy the neurotic shtick of Woody Allen, you might enjoy this next movie: Member of the Wedding, airing overnight at 2:30 AM ET.

The movie doesn't have Woody Allen, but instead what Allen might be like if he were a 12-year-old Southern girl. Frances, that girl, is played by a 26-year-old Julie Harris (stop laughing!). She's living in a small town somewhere in the South with her father, the family maid (Ethel Waters), and next door to her cousin (Brandon de Wilde), who is her closest friend in the movie. Frances frankly doesn't like life as it is, and is obnoxious in her "woe is me" attitude. And it's not a good obnoxious, either. Virginia Weidler may have been a fun obnoxious in The Philadelphia Story, but Frances is just irritating. She may not like her lot in life, but does she have to bellyache so much? It gets worse when her older brother returns home to get married. He's going to be able to go off and see the world, and she'd like to do the same, so at first she tries to run off with the married couple on their honeymoon and, when that doesn't work out, she runs away from home to get kissed by former child star Dickie Moore.

Ethel Waters and Brandon de Wilde both give pretty darn good performances in Member of the Wedding, but Julie Harris, in my opinion is almost unwatchable. It might be the fault of the script, but Harris' Frances is a character wholly undeserving of sympathy; in watching the movie, I consistently find myself wanting to smack the girl silly. Frances tries to put on airs of sophistication, and while this is something adolescents generally do, it comes across as phony here, as opposed to a movie like Wild Boys of the Road.

All that said, a lot of other critics think Member of the Wedding is an outstanding film. So watch for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Insert your own political joke about health care

Hollywood has been making medical movies for decades, going back to at least One Man's Journey in 1933. Health care has always been a problem, not just in 2009; a good movie about how it can go wrong is The Hospital, airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM.

George C. Scott stars as Dr. Bock, the administrator in charge of a New York City hospital where it seems as though everything that can go wrong does go wrong. He's got the locals demanding his head because the hospital wants some of their land for an extension; he's estranged from his wife; there have been botched surgeries; and there are patients and doctors dying at his hospital. Now, people die at hospitals all the time, but these are unnatural deaths, making it seem as though somebody is on the loose in the hospital causing harm.

We'll start with the young doctor's death, since that's about where the movie starts. The resident was a randy young thing, and used empty beds in two-bed hospital rooms for sexual encounters with the nurses. He wound up dead from insulin shock after one of them, in a room next to the man who suffered the botched operation and now needs a kidney transplant as a result. That man's daughter Barbara (played by Diana Rigg) has come demanding to find out what's going wrong, and causing some chaos of her own -- she and her father have been doing missionary medical work with the natives of northwest Mexico, and she's bringing some of those religious ideas to try to help her father. Not only that, but once she meets Dr. Bock, she seduces him, convinced she can cure him of his impotence.

Did I mention that there's still at least one incompetent doctor on the loose? Dr. Bock has discovered that there's a guy who probably should have lost his license for malpractice and insurance fraud years ago who is still performing surgeries on hospital grounds, despite not being a member of the staff, and there are more people dying; the two may be related. Eventually, all of the loose threads get tied together, although I won't say how, as that would ruin the story.

The Hospital was written by Paddy Chayefsky, the same man responsible for Network. As such, it's a very dark comedy, but also a pretty darn good one for the most part. The sexuality, language, and other adult situations make it clearly unsuitable for the kids, but for us grown ups, it's quite enjoyable. The Hospital was released to DVD, although it's apparently out of print now.

Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows

I meant to mention the doozy of a movie Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows last night. In fact, I've blogged about it before, but it's airing this afternoon at 2:00 PM ET on TCM, and I wanted to give you all more of a heads-up on it than just a few hours.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The latest Fox movie to return

I mentioned late last month when Cavalcade showed up on the Fox Movie Channel that there would be some movies showing up on the Fox Movie Channel starting in January that haven't been seen on the channel in quite a long time. Another example of this is Don't Bother to Knock, the Richard Widmark/Marilyn Monroe movie. FMC is airing it tomorrow just after noon ET. (Their web-site lists the start time as 12:04 PM, although most of their movies begin at an hour or half-hour.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

I remember it not so well

Sometimes, there are movies that I don't realize I've seen before, only to find out 10 minutes in that this looks strangely familiar. I've already posted about my experiences with a movie like Evelyn Prentice. Then there are the movies that are remakes, and it takes a few frames (Twist Around the Clock vs. Rock Around the Clock) to realize that I'm watching a version of a movie I've already seen, or maybe a good 10 minutes again (One Fatal Hour vs. Five Star Final). Then, there are the movies that I know I've seen before, but because it's been quite some time, the plot details get a bit hazy. Such is the case with Brighton Rock, which TCM is showing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET.

Richard Attenborough stars as Pinkie, a small-time hoodlum leading a protection racket in the British seaside resort of Brighton. He's a fairly vicious and cynical thug, but his gang is getting squeezed by a bigger and more powerful gang. There's also a journalist covering Brighton who suspects Pinkie of not being a good guy. The combination results in murder. Along the way, Pinkie, an inveterate cynic and user, meets and seemingly falls in love with Rose, a good Catholic girl, and marries her mostly so that she can't testify against him should he ever be brought to trial. The twist is that, at the seaside carnival, Pinkie made one of those old "record your voice" things popular in the days before tape recorders, where you could have a record made of your singing or talking. On that record, Pinkie reveals his real motivation, content in the knowledge that he and Rose don't have a phonograph.

Unfortunately, Brighton Rock is one of those movies that I only have a foggy memory of, having seen it several years ago. (If my memory is correct, it was aired on TCM in the summer of 2007, which would have been when I saw it.) So, a lot of my plot synopsis is incomplete at best and slightly wrong at worst. Still, it's one of those British post-War movies that I generally enjoy, and do remember enjoying this one in particular. You'll have to catch the TCM showing, though, since it doesn't seem to be available on DVD in the US.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Voices Carry

Today marks the birth anniversary of Butterfly McQueen, who is probably best known for playing Prissy in Gone With the Wind. That, and her voice: "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies!" and the like. I never realized that she didn't appear in all that many movies, but one of those roles shows up tonight, Duel in the Sun.

McQueen is by far not the only person in Hollywood with a very distinctivly odd voice. I've recommended quite a few such people before. Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain comes to mind. There are also the "high talkers", men with high-pitched voices like Sterling Holloway or Andy Devine. And who could forget the wonderfully gravelly voice of Eugene Pallette?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

TCM's Jennifer Jones tribute

You will recall that Jennifer Jones died last month at the age of 90. As she died during the holiday season, TCM didn't have the chance to do a proper tribute for a while, and had to wait until after the New Year for it. That tribute is in prime time on Thursday, January 7, and consists of four movies:

Duel in the Sun at 8:00 PM ET;
Beat the Devil at 10:30 PM;
Madame Bovary at 12:15 AM; and
Indiscretions of an American Wife at 2:15 AM (as well as just before prime time, at 6:45 PM Thursday; presumably it's the fact that this movie was already scheduled that made TCM decide to put the tribute on the 7th).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Loretta Young's birthday again

Wednesday marks the birth anniversary of Oscar-winning (for The Farmer's Daughter) actress Loretta Young. The photo at left is from The Bishop's Wife, which isn't airing tomorrow as part of TCM's tribute. TCM is airing quite a few of her movies, nine in total, and I think I've recommended five of them already:

Laugh, Clown, Laugh, made when Young was just 14, kicks off the morning at 6:45 AM ET.
At 9:15 AM, you can watch the excellent pre-code Life Begins, in which I've mentioned Glenda Farrell's excellent performance, which is even better than Young's, even though Young is the star here.
Heroes for Sale follows at 10:30 AM. (Note that at the time I first wrote about Heroes for Sale, it was not yet available on DVD, although it has since been released as part of the Warner's Pre-Code box set of William Wellman films.)
Orson Welles tries to kill Young in The Stranger, which is on at 1:15 PM.
The final Young film of the day is Cause for Alarm, at 6:30 PM.

The British cranes are flying

One of tonight's TCM offerings is In Which We Serve, at 9:45 PM ET.

Written and directed by Noël Coward, In Which We Serve is a British war-time movie that looks at the crew of a Royal Navy destroyer that's been bombed by the Nazis and, in a series of flashbacks, looks at how the various men serving on the ship got there. The movie looks not only at the various naval engagements the ship had, but at the times they had shore leave and the effects of the crew's absence on the relatives back on the home front. As a result, it has a lot of resonance with a movie like the Soviet The Cranes Are Flying, which also combines the frontline war experience with the suffering felt by the people back in the homeland. However, while The Cranes Are Flying was made a dozen years after the end of the war, and thus could have a plot that included the Allied victory, In Which We Serve was released in 1942, when the war was still going on, with no end in sight. As such, it's much more raw and personal than most of the movies that came after the war.

It's also more personal than anything that Hollywood could come up with. Hollywood studios made some movies like Mrs. Miniver and Since You Went Away, dealing with the war's effect on the British and American homefronts respectively, but the US never had anything happen to them like the Blitz, or the Battle of Britain, and the destruction those wrought on the people at home. Since You Went Away, despite being an excellent movie, is just too happy, even though it has death visited upon it. In Which We Serve is also helped enormously by a cast of underrated British actors who showed up in a lot of the great post-war British movies: Michael Wilding, John Mills, and the like, headed by Coward himself.

This movie has been released to DVD as well.

Monday, January 4, 2010

And it doesn't even have the Olsen twins!

I've mentioned before that Fox has made several anthology movies, and there's another one coming up tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET: O. Henry's Full House.

As the title implies, this movie is based upon the work of O. Henry (real name William Sidney Porter), a short story writer active in New York City around the turn of the last century whose prolific output most famously includes the Christmas story The Gift of the Magi. That short story shows up in Full House, as the last of five segments, and stars Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain as the struggling, but in love, couple who sacrifice a lot to buy Christmas presents for each other. This rendition of The Gift of the Magi is good, although it's not the best thing about the movie.

First, we get author John Steinbeck. He introduces each of the stories and, while he's no actor, he's not being paid to act here. He's simply being himself, and does a more than adequate job of introducing each story. Besides, it's nice to have this film footage of Steinbeck, whose own work has been so memorably made into movies.

The first story is The Cop and the Anthem. Charles Laughton is the star here, as a homeless man in New York City late in one autum who's looking to get arrested, so that he can get a 90-day prison sentence that will effectively give him a warm roof over his head and three square meals a day. However, he finds out that it can be tough to get arrested if that's what you really want.... Marilyn Monroe and David Wayne, who were also in a segment of We're Not Married! together, also show up in The Cop and the Anthem.

Second is The Clarion Call, in which Richard Widmark seems to reprise his role from Kiss of Death as a giggling gangster, this time chased by New York City cop and former friend Dale Robertson.

Next comes The Last Leaf. Anne Baxter gets the lead here as a woman suffering from a severe case of pneumonia. Her sister (Jean Peters) is caring for her, with a little bit of help from artist Gregory Ratoff, who lives in the upstairs apartment, but Baxter is convinced that she's going to die when the last leaf falls off the bush outside their window. A severe storm comes, but amazingly, the leaf is still there the next morning, and Baxter recovers -- but not without some tragedy....

In between this and The Gift of the Magi is a story called The Ransom of Red Chief, which has Fred Allen and Oscar Levant playing a pair of swindlers who have made their way down south and, in need of money, have decided to kidnap a local hid and hold him for ransom. Unfortunatetly, the kid turns out to be quite good at foiling crime, making life a nightmare for the two crooks.

The Cop and the Anthem is probably the best of the stories, only because Charles Laughton is such a good actor. He's his usual brilliant self here, and makes the story even more poignant that it would be on paper. However, all five of the stories have the O. Henry "twist" in which people get what they want, but not in the way they expected. As with all anthology movies, the segments aren't all of equal quality, but if you don't like one, you only have to wait ten or fifteen minutes for the next.

O. Henry's Full House has made its way to DVD, so you don't have to wait for the Fox Movie Channel to show it again.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Harold Lloyd vs. Buster Keaton

I've recommended Harold Lloyd's movie The Freshman before; the picture at left is from the movie and has Lloyd with costar Jobyna Ralston. It's airing again as part of TCM's Silent Sunday Nights feature, tonight at midnight ET. However, there's another silent movie that's surprisingly similar to The Freshman: Buster Keaton's College, which is the second movie in tonight's silent double feature, airing at 1:30 AM ET. It has the same theme, that of an academic college student (in this case, Keaton), trying to win the heart of a girl by becoming a jock, only to be utterly incompetent at sports. I personally prefer The Freshman to College, and think that Keaton made several much superior movies in his silent film career (notably Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The General). However, College is entertaining enough in its own right, and perfectly clean, so suitable for the family as long as the young ones won't be bored by silent movies.

Both The Freshman and College have made their way to DVD.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

James Garner can act!

One of the movies that proves that James Garner was a reasonably capable actor is The Americanization of Emily, which TCM is airing at 10:00 AM ET tomorrow. Garner plays a procurement officer to an admiral (Melvyn Douglas) stationed in London in the run-up to the D-Day invasion. It's a cushy job, and one that Garner is glad to have, as it keeps him out of combat. His duties bring him into contact with Emily (Julie Andrews), a British woman who's part of the support staff. She's not too fond of Garner at first, in part because she doesn't really like the Americans (during World War II, one of the British saying about the American military was "Overpaid, oversexed, over here"), and because she's already lost one man in the war. Still, you know that the two are going to fall in love, which they do in due course.

Their relationship is about to take a sharp turn, however. Garner's admiral is going mad, and has the crazy idea that there should be a "Tomb of the Unknown Sailor" to match the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington. That sailor, he decides, ought to be the first navy man who dies during the upcoming D-Day invasion. And, he wants his adjutant to get footage of the first sailor dying in order to grease the political wheels back in Washington, making the politicians more likely to support Douglas' idea. Garner is naturally aghast at the idea, not simply because it's daft on the face of it, but because of his inveterate cynicism about combat. That having been said, though, his cynicism also places him at odds with Emily, who considers him a coward and is willing to break off the relationship over this.

The Americanization of Emily is a movie with a lot of anti-war views, albeit one that puts those views forward with a good deal of black humor. That's in large part down to the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, the same man who gave us Network. Chayefsky's screenplay is one of the things that makes thsi a good movie, but you also need good actors delivering the lines, and everybody here does a good job at that, including Garner, who is traditionally thought of as having done "lighter" fare. In addition to Garner, Andrews and the always underrated Douglas, there's also a young James Coburn playing one of Garner's fellow procurement officers, one who seems to be in it to get as much sex as possible.

The Americanization of Emily has been released to DVD.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Jesus freaks just want to have fun

Now that the new year is here, TCM is getting back to normal, which on the overnights between Friday and Saturday means TCM Underground. One of tonight's cult movies is the wonderfully-titled (at least for Americans) Die! Die! My Darling!, airing overnight at 4:15 AM ET.

Stefanie Powers plays American girl Pat Carroll, who is living in England with her second fiancé. Her first fiancé Stephen has been dead some time, having died in a car crash, but Pat believes she ought to go see the dead fiancé's mother, Mrs. Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead, in her final film role), and give her the joyous news that she's going to be married after all. Pat's current fiancé doesn't see the reason for this, and it turns out that he's right, although not for the reasons he might have imagined.

Mrs. Trefoile, you see, hsa become a Jesus freak, with some pretty bizarre religious views. She's gotten rid of all the mirrors in the house and doesn't want anybody to wear any make-up, as these are signs of vanity, which is an apparently wicked sin. There's all sorts of bible readings going on at the suitably creepy old house, in part because Trefoile has rejected the Church of England. They believe that a marriage is terminated once one of the spouses dies, but Trefoile says that a marriage is a marriage for all eternity -- and that Pat, having been betrothed to Stephen, is in effect married to him still, and thus can't marry her current fiancé. It goes without saying that Pat rejects this, and when she claims that the accident that killed Stephen was in fact not an accident, the good Jesus freak decides that Pat has to atone for her sins, and Trefoile is going to be there to make certain she does.

It's here that the fun really begins, as Pat is held hostage against her will, trying to escape from the gothic mansion and having to deal with some equally nutty servants (including Donald Sutherland), who have their own secrets. Die! Die! My Darling! was one of a slew of movies made in the mid-1960s after the surprise success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane revealed a demand for over-the-top horror/suspense movies starring aging actresses with dark secrets. This one isn't anything particularly groundbreaking, but it is quite a bit of fun, in part due to the garish 1960s color and design, and the British locations. It helps that Bankhead looks like she's having a lot of fun hamming it up.

Die! Die! My Darling! was released to DVD several years ago, but the DVD is apparently out of print, so you're going to have to pay a pretty penny, or else catch TCM's occasional showings.