Friday, April 30, 2010

Brittania Mews

Tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM ET, the Fox Movie Channel is showing The Forbidden Street.

Maureen O'Hara stars as Addie Culver, a young woman in Victorian London who lives in a middle-class family where the house overlooks the decidedly working-class street Brittania Mews, where good people like her just don't go. Addie falls in love with her art teacher, Mr. Lambert (Dana Andrews), and when her parents disapprove of this, they decide to sell the house to retire to the country. Addie doesn't go with them, instead marrying Lambert, and setting up house in Brittania Mews. Lambert has dreams of being a serious artist, but has to do teaching to pay the bills; bills which eventually begin to pile up, causing tension between the two. Ultimately, the result is a drunken argument in which Lambert falls down the stairs leading up to their apartment (or is he pushed?) and dies. The police rule that Lambert died as the result of an accidental fall, but one old lady, known as the Sow (Sybil Thorndike) claims to have seen Addie push her husband down the stairs and begins to blackmail Addie.

At the same time, one of the witnesses is a would-be solicitor named Gilbert Lauderdale (played by Dana Andrews in a dual role; at least he's not John Lund). He takes a shining to Addie, and discovers that one of the things Lambert bequeathed to Addie is a chest full of marionettes. Gilbert begins to learn how to manipulate the puppets, eventually turning Addie's place on Brittania Mews into a successful theater. Along the way, Gilbert falls in love with Addie, but can't marry her because he's already got a wife who won't grant him a divorce. After a time, Addie's sister visits the theater, and, believing that Addie and Gilbert are married, suggests that they come to the country and make up with her parents....

The Forbidden Street isn't a bad movie, but it's one that's not certain what it wants to do. Addie veers pretty wildly from one episode to the next, although the movie doesn't have the feel of a good episodic movie like I Remember Mama, or any of the anthology movies Fox was making around that time (such as O. Henry's Full House, which is on the FMC schedule for next Thursday at 10:00 AM). Still, O'Hara gives a good performance, and everybody else is at least competent.

The Forbidden Street was originally released under the title Brittania Mews, although it doesn't seem to be available on DVD under either title.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

It Should Happen To You!

It's been over two years since I mentioned the delightful comedy It Should Happen To You. I'm please to point out that it's going to be on TCM again, tomorrow (April 30) at 12:45 PM ET. I note that when I posted about it back in February, 2008, I commented that it's available on DVD. Amazon says that the DVD has been discontinued, while TCM says it's not available for purchase on DVD. Netflix, however, does claim to have it, should you have a Netflix subscription.


The news broke a few days ago that Hugh Hefner is among those who are going to pony up a bunch of money to buy land in the vicinity of the famous Hollywood sign that was slated for development. If the land had been developed, it would have ruined the view of the iconic sign. Not that I want to want to see such an iconic view destroyed, but I find a good deal of irony in all this. After all, the sign was originally erected back in the 1920s to promote... a housing development, called Hollywoodland. The sign originally had four letters more than it does today, and was never meant to be permanent. (By the same token, the Eiffel Tower wasn't intended to be permanent, either.)

I had known about the housing development and the fact that the sign originally had those four extra letters, but in doing a bit of research, I found out a few more things that surprised me, most notably that the sign was originally lighted by thousands of incandescent lights. There are two good pages detailing the history of the sign and the neighborhood here and here.

Or, I suppose, you could get the facts straight from the horse's mouth. Only in Hollywood. (Does the sign have its own agent, too?)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dorothy Provine, 1935-2010

Dorothy Provine, Ethel Merman, and Milton Berle in 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' (1963)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). From left to right: Dorothy Provine, Ethel Merman, and Milton Berle

The death has been announced of 1960s actress Dorothy Provine. Provine is probably best remembered for appearing in the comedy classic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as the wife of Milton Berle, daughter of Ethel Merman, and brother of Dick Shawn. Provine retired from Hollywood when she married, and when she died last weekend, she was survived by her husband of 43 years and her son. Dorothy Provine was 75.

Madame X, Take 3210542184375

I recommended one of the many versions of the movie Madame X back in February, 2009. While I mentioned that Helen Hayes would go on to win an Oscar for a very similar movie, I failed to mention another movie with much the same plot that also won its star an Oscar: To Each His Own, which is airing on TCM overnight tonight, at 1:30 AM ET.

Olivia de Havilland stars as Josephine "Jody" Norris, and at the beginning of the movie we see her in London during the air-raids of World War II. She's unmarried, and so has the time to serve in a civil defense capacity. Being unmarried also gives her the time to look back on life and see how she's gotten to this point. Cue the inevitable flashback... back to World War I. Jody is in a small town somewhere in Middle America. Local boy Alex Piersen (Philip Terry) is in love with her, but she claims she can't marry him, so he marries the wealthy Mary Anderson. Meawhile, the World War I equivalent of the flyboys come to town drumming up support for Liberty Bonds, and Jody falls in love with one of them, a captain played by John Lund. He goes off to France and gets killed in a plane crash, but not before knocking up Jody, leaving her with child -- not widowed.

What's a girl to do? Jody goes off to the big city to have the baby and then claim to adopt it, but the small town isn't having anything of that, so the Piersens wangle custody right from under Jody's nose, which forces Jody to leave town and go into other lines of work. Here is one of the big differences between To Each His Own and the all the Madame X clones: in Madame X, the woman usually winds up descending into a life of crime; after the imposition of strict Code enforcement, Jody ends up in control of a perfume business when she thinks she's going to work legitimately, but is actually working for a bootlegger. (The movie doesn't sufficiently explain how Jody avoids legal trouble.) Jody becomes wealthy, and tries to use her economic power to get custody of her son. Mrs. Piersen, who is insanely jealous, absolutely refuses, and eventually, Jody goes off to England to run the European branch of her business empire.

Fast forward to World War II, and who's in the US Army? Why young little Piersen, who by now has grown up to look remarkably like his biological father. (This is unsurprising, since the character is played by John Lund in a dual role.) Jody sees this as her opportunity to help her biologicial son in a way she couldn't back in America....

To Each His Own is terribly melodramatic, which may color your opinion of the movie: if you don't like this sort of story line, you'll probably be groaning throughout the movie. De Havilland, however, gives a performance that is probably the best of all the Madame X equivalents I've seen. It's too bad the same can't be said for John Lund, who is as wooden here as he was when I recommended The Mating Season. Thankfully, he doesn't take up too much screen time, as his father character dies close to the beginning of the movie, while his son character only appears toward the end.

To Each His Own deserves at least one viewing, but you're going to have to catch the TCM screenings, as it doesn't seem to have been released to DVD. Fortunately, in addition to tonight's showing, it's scheduled for Mothers' Day in a few weeks' time as well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Walter Lantz, 1899-1984

It was on this day in 1899 that animator Walter Lantz was born. Lantz is best known today for creating the famous character Woody Woodpecker back in 1940. However, Lantz had been making cartoons for quite a few years before this, including making a lot of shorts featuring the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald is probably most famous for being created by Walt Disney when Disney was working at Universal; Disney lost the rights to Oswald when he started his own studio. (The rights to Oswald were eventually obtained a few years back by Disney as part of a deal that allowed sportscaster Al Michaels to jump ship from ABC [owned by Disney] to NBC [owned by Universal]. Ain't media conglomerates grand?) Lantz also created such characters as Andy Panda, Chilly Willy the penguin, and several foils for Woody.

It's fairly well-known that Woody Woodpecker's voice was provided by Grace Stafford, who was also the wife of Lantz. At least, she provided the voice starting in 1950. An interesting fact here is that the first time Stafford voiced Woody was actually as part of a live-action movie, Destination Moon, in which a Woody Woodpecker short is used to explain certain aspects of science. Only having started in 1950, though, Stafford was by no means the first voice. That, surprisingly enough, was Mel Blanc, who voiced a small number of Woody Woodpecker cartoons (distributed by Universal) until he signed an exclusive contract with Warner Bros. to voice all those Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Have I never blogged about Gilda before?

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in a publicity still from Gilda

TCM is showing the classic noir Gilda tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET. Looking through the blog archives, it seems as though I've never posted on Gilda, which is a pretty big oversight.

Glenn Ford plays Johny Farrell, a gambler who has ended up in Buenos Aires and is down on his luck. ALthough he's just won some money in a dice game, using loaded dice means that the people he's gambling with are going to attack him -- if it's not for the serendipitous help of a man with a cane that conceals a bayonet. That man, Ballin Mundson (played by George Macready), runs the local underground casino, and figures that he can use a bright guy like Johnny to help manage the place. Things go well until Ballin brings home a trophy wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Ballin might not have realized it at the time, but Gilda and Johnny had had quite a fling back in the States. Joe Breen never met a threesome he didn't like, so you know this relationship can't possibly end well.

Indeed, it doesn't. Ballin isn't just running that casino; he's in the black market for metals as well, and that criminal enterprise results in Ballin killing other criminals partly in self defense, while Johnny and Gilda are all the time having a torrid love/hate relationship. With some dead bodies, however, the police are closing in on Ballin, who gets out of the situation by faking his own death (we viewers realize it's fake, but it's done in a way that not even Johnny and Gilda know it). Ballin has bequeathed the business operation to Johnny, who proceeds to run it ruthlessly. Johnny also marries Gilda, but she's about as faithful to him as she was to Ballin. Eventually, Ballin returns from the dead....

Gilda is quite the movie. Glenn Ford was good at playing characters who were the good guy on the surface, but who had a dark or deeply conflicted streak under the surface; think The Big Heat. Johnny Farrell, despite being the hero here, is by no means a saint, and when Johnny needs to be nasty, Ford has no difficulty portraying it whatsoever. Macready is suitably good as the older man who looks distinguished, but is just as ruthless as Johnny. But it's Rita Hayworth who really makes the movie move. She's as gorgeous as ever, and in fact, this might just be Rita as her most gorgeous. (The competition for that, however, is pretty tough.) It's easy to see why anybody would fall for Gilda, and fall hard. These three excellent performances work to enhance what is a pretty darn good story already.

Seeing how strongly I can recommend Gilda, I find it a surprise that I haven't done so before now. And you don't even have to worry missing the morning showing on TCM. It goes without saying that a movie as important as Gilda has already been released to DVD.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The first Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie?

Over a dozen years before the first incarnation of A Star is Born (at least, under that title, since the 1932 movie What Price Hollywood is pretty much the same story), the movie that is TCM's Silent Sunday Night picture for this week: Souls For Sale, at midnight ET tonight.

Eleanor Boardman (probably best known from The Crowd) plays Mem, a small-town girl who wants to see bigger and better things, and when Owen, a man from the big city, comes to town, she jumps at the chance to be with him, despite the fact that her parents think this is a Really Bad Idea. Mem marries Owen, and as they're taking a train west to get to their honeymoon, she discovers that her parents were right after all. So, when the train stops to pick up water, Mem jumps off, although there's not much place for her to go, since it's the desert. She wanders through the desert and walks into serendipity, in the form of a Hollywood "sheik" movie of the genre that was all the rage in the 1920s. After nursing her back to health, the director Frank (Richard Dix, later of Cimarron) gives her a chance to try her hand at acting.

Acting proves to be both a boon and a curse. Mem is pretty good at it, to the point where she's able to become a pretty big star. However, that fame means that her husband is able to find out what's happened to her, and come back into her life. Frank already knows about the marriage, but if word of it got out on a broader scale, it would be scandalous for Mem's career, so Owen blackmails Mem. That's not the only problem for Mem, as she learns that Owes is even worse than just being a blackmailer. All of this leads to the reasonably thrilling finale, on the set of a circus-themed movie....

Souls For Sale stands on its own as a fairly good silent movie. However, the Hollywood subject material also provided the director an opportunity to include quite a few cameos. The two most famous amongst them would be Erich von Stroheim, who here was filming Greed; and Charlie Chaplin, at work on A Woman of Paris. There are a lot more cameos, from the famous (Jean Hersholt) to the nearly forgotten (Marshall Neilan; I've seen his movie The Vagabond Lover which features the screen debut of Rudy Vallee, but would never have recognized the name).

Souls For Sale has made it to DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jeanne Crain vs. Susan Kohner

TCM is showing the movie Pinky tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM. Like both versions of Imitation of Life, the subject material is that of a light-skinned black person trying to "pass" as white, and the discrimination that comes about as a result.

In Pinky, that mixed-race person is played by the utterly white Jeanne Crain. She's a nurse, who has gone north to study and get her degree, and is only briefly returning south to see her beloved grandmother (Ethel Waters). Unfortunately, events soon begin to conspire against her. She's fallen in love with a white doctor up north (William Lundigan), and hasn't told him about the black part of her ancestry. Perhaps worse, though, is that the property-rich but cash-poor woman for whom Pinky's grandmother works (Ethel Barrymore) has suddenly taken ill.

Eventually, old Miss Barrymore finally kicks the bucket, but there's a twist: sometime after she fell ill and started to be taken care of by Pinky, she amended her will to bequeath the stately old house to Pinky, presumably with the idea that Pinky stay there and start up a school/clinic. Pinky didn't really want the place, but when the other white people start to conspire against her, including Barrymore's cousin, who expected to inherit the place herself. Cut to the probate court trial, with the typical Hollywood ending....

Pinky isn't a bad movie, but there's a lot about it that just seems not quite right. The ending is entirely too pat, for starters. Also, William Lundigan's character is thoroughly implausible. I mean, his fiancée has been lying to him, and when he finds out, he acts almost as though nothing has ever happened. It's a bizarre case of cognitive dissonance. As for the prejudice in general, one has to wonder how much it reflected reality. Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck was clearly interested in making movies with social messages -- he had already made Gentleman's Agreement two years earlier. Yet, the feeling of racial oppression suffered by the blacks in Pinky feels almost like a caricature. (Admittedly, I wouldn't know what things were really like from the perspective of either side, as a northerner born in the 1970s.) That might have something to do with the Production Code, of course. On the other hand, all three of the female leads give good performances. Nothing less is to be expected from the two Ethels, but even Jeanne Crain is good here. She comes across as restrained; entirely the opposite of Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life.

Pinky is one of those Fox movies that TCM has gotten the rights to show a limited number of times. However, you don't have to worry about TCM eventually losing those broadcast rights, as Pinky has been released to DVD.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Five Graves to Cairo

TCM finally got the broadcast rights to the little-sees Billy Wilder movie Five Graves to Cairo at the beginning of the year, and have run it once or twice already. It's airing again tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM ET, and, like anything else Wilder made, is well worth watching.

Franchot Tone stars as John Bramble, a corporal in the British Army in North Africa in World War II. His tank has been shot by the Nazis, killing everybody inside but him. Somehow, he manages to escape, and eventually follows a trail which leads him to a partially bombed-out hotel that still has a skeleton staff working. He's saved.

Or maybe not. Although the owner of the place (Akim Tamiroff) and the one other worker, a French maid named Mouche (played by a young Anne Baxter) look after John a bit, they suddenly have to deal with the return of those nasty Nazis, specifically a group led by Field Marshal Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) himself. If the Nazis find out there's a British soldier here, they're definitely going to kill him. And, they might just kill the hotel staff as well for harboring him. Fortunately, however, there was one other staff member at the hotel, a man with a limp named Paul Davos, and he died in the bombing attack. So, all Bramble has to do is play the part of Paul and serve the Nazis much the way any bellboy would do in a regular hotel. He's saved again.

Or again maybe not. What John fairly quickly learns about Paul is that Paul was a spy -- and Paul was working for the Nazis! Paul obviously knew information that John clearly doesn't, so keeping up the masquerade isn't going to be that easy. Things get even worse when John learns from Rommel that there's a plot about "five graves to Cairo", which has something to do with the Nazis' plan to overrun Egypt, and that Paul was supposed to be sent to Cairo as part of the plot. Can John keep his secret from Rommel, and learn enough about the "five graves to Cairo" to help the British foil Rommel's plans? Along the way, John falls in love with Mouche, despite the fact that she's not such a fan of the British. Then, the British start bombing again, which could threaten to reveal the original Paul's body....

Five Graves to Cairo is one of those films to watch for the great Billy Wilder's plot. The acting is capable, but it's the story here, and that story is quite a good one. It's tense when it needs to be, and also contains a good deal of dark humor on the part of Rommel. There's also some lighter humor, provided by an Italian general whom the Nazis really don't like (Fortunio Bonanova). The only possible negative is that, since historical events provide the backdrop, we know Rommel's plan ultimately won't succeed. But, as with The Day of the Jackal, that really doesn't take away from the movie.

Unfortunately, Five Graves to Cairo doesn't seem to have been released to DVD.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Too bad it's not Jean

Friday, April 23 is the 82d birthday of Shirley Temple, and TCM will be spending the day with several of her later movies. (The very young Temple was under contract to Fox, so TCM has trouble getting most of those movies.) One of the lesser-seen movies that TCM is showing is That Hagen Girl, at 1:00 PM ET.

Temple stars as the title character, a young woman who is the black sheep of the town because the townsfolk see her as the town's bastard child. (Why everybody would badmouth her so is never really explained. And, of course, they couldn't actually use the word bastard, as it would have given Joseph Breen a fit of apoplexy.) Into all this walks Ronald Reagan. He had lived in the town earlier, and is coming back because he's inherited the house and legal practice of one of the town's more prominent citizens. He's one of the very few people in town who has sympathy for Little Miss Hagen, and his closeness to her scandalizes the town, as they think he's the long-lost father -- and she's developing a crush on him! Eventually, Temple becomes suicidal, Reagan saves her, and reveals all in an ending that's really more of a deus ex machina than a satisfying plot conclusion.

That Hagen Girl is oh so wrong in so many ways. I argued a year ago when Reagan was TCM's Star of the Month that his optimistic nature suited him well to the B-movies he did in the 1930s, and that he also fit into westerns and military movies well. However, after World War II, Warner Bros. tried to put him into some more serious roles, such as this and Night Unto Night, neither of which really fit Reagan. Also, it's not Reagan's fault, but in both of those movies, he was saddled with decidedly subpar and muddled material. There are a lot of better actors who would have come up short with That Hagen Girl. Then there's Shirley Temple. She too is really badly miscast here. It's understandable that she would want to do more grown-up material after getting away from Fox, but this isn't really the right material. That, and I don't think she had the acting chops of a Judy Garland: Shirley Temple wouldn't have been able to pull off a version of The Clock, for example.

In short, That Hagen Girl is a mess, but one that has a lot of interesting reasons for watching it at least once. It's not on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

At least she doesn't show off her genitalia

Nowadays, it seems as if celebrities are ever more comfortable baring their sins and their souls in public. Back in the 1940s, things were quite different, and movies couldn't portray things like the Tiger Woods soap opera the way real life does now. A good example of this might be the 1947 movie Smash-Up, tThe Story of a Woman, airing tomorrow at 1:15 PM ET on TCM.

Susan Hayward stars as Angie Evans, a nightclub singer who's on the way up. That is, until she meets Ken Conway (played by Lee Bowman), a struggling songwriter. Things change for the two of them when they get married. Conway and his partner Steve Nelson (played by Eddie Albert) get a radio gig that makes Ken quite popular, and pushes Angie's career distinctly out of the spotlight. Angie responds by having an affair, so to speak, with the bottle, quickly becoming a raging alcoholic. She also bears Ken a child, but because of her penchant for the drink, she loses Ken, and custody of the child. What's a poor put-upon mother to do? Well, in this case, the answer is to get even more drunk, kidnap the child, and try to show she's a fit mother, something that results in Angie's nearly killing the baby....

Smash-Up is really melodramatic stuff, and that's one of the big problems the story has. In theory, a movie about alcoholic women could have been groundbreaking, just as The Lost Weekend had been two years earlier. However, where The Lost Weekend comes across as gritty and uncomfortably ugly, Smash-Up is only exploitative, and has much more of a Hollywood feel to it. At least they could have recorded one of Angie's drunken episodes and played it on Ken's radio show,à la the David Hasselhoff video which has been parodied over and over. Hayward isn't over the top the way she would later be in I Want to Live!, but there's something about Smash-Up that still makes me want to laugh at it all.

To be fair, though, Hayward did about as well as she could given the material, and got an Oscar nomination for it. She didn't win, possibly because some people compared Smash-Up to the real-life story of Bing Crosby and his wife, Dixie Lee.

Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman has been released to DVD.

Solomon Perel turns 85

You might not recognize the name Solomon Perel, probably because his connection to movies is an indirect one. Perel wrote the book that became the basis for the movie Europa, Europa, Perel's true story of his experience as a Jew trying to pass himself as Aryan during World War II. I blogged about Europa, Europa back in January 2009, but it's a movie that deserves more attention.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Plunder of the Sun in Africa

Back in June, 2008, I mentioned the Glenn Ford movie Plunder of the Sun. A similar movie shows up on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM ET as part of TCM's salute to Star of the Month Robert Taylor: Valley of the Kings.

Taylor stars as archaeologist Mark Brandon. He's called to circa-1900 Egypt by Ann Mercedes (Eleanor Parker), whose father was a renowned Egyptologist who had some theories about the biblical Joseph and the Egyptain Pharaohs who persecuted him and the other Jews. This sets off a race to find the tomb of that Pharaoh, involving Brandon, Mercedes' husband (Carlos Thompson) and many of the locals. Along the way, Brandon begins to find himself falling in love with Mrs. Mercedes, which may not be a bad thing since Mr. Mercedes isn't the best of characters....

Valley of the Kings is very predictable stuff. In terms of plotting, it's not all that great -- not that it's terrible; it's just that it's the same thing we've seen a dozen times before. There's the requisite sandstorm, the belly dancer, and the fight amongst all the monuments, in addition to the aforementioned love triangle. What makes it worth watching, however, is the same thing that the recently-mentioned Boy on a Dolphin has going for it; that of course being the scenery. A fair portion of Valley of the Kings was filmed on location in various parts of Egypt, and it was filmed in Technicolor. (This is one area where Valley of the Kings has a huge advantage over the black-and-white Plunder of the Sun.) If you want to see a movie that's either great or thought-provoking, this isn't it, but if you just want to be entertained, Valley of the Kings will do that for you quite adequately.

Unfortunately, it's tough to find good images of the visual quality of this movie. That's partly because the Valley of the Kings is a real place in Egypt, meaning that a lot of image searches are going to lead to the place as it is today, and not as it looks in the movie. Further, the movie hasn't been released to DVD, so there aren't any screencaps floating around.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fox's version of Jack Carson

I've mentioned how Jack Carson often played a charming schemer in movies such as The Strawberry Blonde and Mildred Pierce. The closest Fox got to this was in quite a few pictures starring Don Ameche. One such movie was Confirm or Deny, which the Fox Movie Channel is showing at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow morning.

Ameche plays Mitch Mitchell, who's in charge of an American news bureau in London during the days of the Blitz. Mitchell wants to get his reports on the bombings out, and he wants to get a scoop, which means getting a dedicated transatlantic telegraph wire of his own, something that's in very short supply. That's not the only problem he's got. There's a war on, and the British authorities are insistent on controlling what information gets out to the public, since they don't want to give the Nazis too much information on how much success they're having. This means that Mitchell also has to deal with the censors, in the form of Jennifer Carson (played by Joan Bennett). Along the way, Mitchell finds himself falling in love with his censor, and trying to charm her, as well as the owner of one of London's finest hotels, when he wants to use their basement for his news bureau after the old office gets bombed by the Nazis.

Confirm or Deny is a movie that tries to do a lot in a running time of about 75 minutes, and, to be honest, that's to the movie's detriment. There's not enough time to make Ameche's character truly sympathetic, or to give the audience a plausible reason for why the two should fall in love. It also leaves subplots either hanging a bit, or, in the case of the one involving Roddy McDowall as a boy who handles Ameche's newsgathering carrier pigeons, ends them abruptly (and with too much obviousness about where the story is going). Don Ameche and Joan Bennett deserved better than this. The thing that makes Confirm or Deny interesting, though, is its being a time capsule of how Hollywood looked at England in the months just before Pearl Harbor. The movie was made when the US was still neutral, although it didn't get released until just after Pearl Harbor. That is the one thing that makes Ameche's disdain for the censorship much more logical: he's officially neutral; why should he care about what the Brits are doing? Ameche and Bennett also give the best they can in a movie that's given short shrift. The whole thing left me wishing that Fox could have given everybody involved a little more time to flesh out the story.

Confirm or Deny hasn't been released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch the Fox Movie Channel showing.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Always with the repeats

I have to admit that, having done close to a thousand blog posts, it begins to get a bit tough to think of new things to write about, since there are only so many movies one can see, and any number of the movies I'd like to blog about aren't on DVD, and aren't currently on the TCM schedule. On the other hand, sometimes it's a good idea to mention a movie that I last mentioned a long time ago. The first of these is tonight's TCM Import, Cruel Story of Youth, which comes on overnight at 2:00 AM Et. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any good color photos of the Japan circa 1960 as portrayed in the movie; the garish neon and flashing lights are a sight to behold. The one I here is the best I could find, but doesn't do justice to the movie.

Second is Manpower at 8:15 AM Monday, about the lives of electric company line workers and how they fall in love with Marlene Dietrich. (Who wouldn't?) Eighteen months since the power company cut all those trees down along the right of way, and it's still clearly noticeable.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A love triangle only Hollywood could create

Sometimes, lovely settings are used to hide the fact that a movie has no energy in either its plot or its acting. In Niagara, for example, the fact that Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe aren't well cast as a married couple is overshadowed by gorgeous location shooting of Niagara Falls. Cinemascope made location shooting even more beautiful, as can be seen in the movie Boy on a Dolphin, which airs tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Sophia Loren, making her first movie for a Hollywood studio, plays Phaedra, a poor Greek skin diver living on one of the many beautiful Greek islands. One day, while looking for sponges, she comes upon what looks like a priceless ancient Greek statue, of a boy on a dolphin. It could be worth quite a bit of money, if only she could get it off the sea floor.

Enter two people who could help Phaedra and her family do just that. First is the American archaeologist Jim Calder, played by Alan Ladd. He's the sort of guy who would be campaigning today for the Elgin Marbles to be removed from the British Museum and returned to the Acropolis, where apparently they'd just erode in the elements. Calder is adamant that the statue remain in Greece, but can't help Phaedra very much financially. On the other hand, wealthy art collector Victor Parmalee (Clifton Webb) has the money that would be quite useful for Phaedra. But, he wants the statue for himself. The rest of the plot conflict is so predictable that it doesn't really need to be mentioned.

Why, then, is Boy on a Dolphin worth watching? There are a few reasons. Sophia Loren is one (or, if you have a dirty mind, two). She was in her early 20s at the time she made the movie, and was extremely good looking, especially in color and in the skimpy outfits she had to wear as a skin diver. Second is the equally good looking scenery. It's pretty darn hard to go wrong with cinematography in the Greek islands, or the Acropolis, although many of the indoor scenes that were filmed at Rome's famed Cinecittà Studios aren't quite as good.

As for the love affair? Oh dear, what were they thinking? Alan Ladd is probably best known for being short. As such, he literally was not up to playing opposite a Sophia Loren. Webb, on the other hand, was pushing 70, and while he could play elegant well, he wasn't nearly as good as putting over the romantic angle as was, say, the older Cary Grant. It doesn't help that his bad guy here doesn't have the elegance of what he had played in movies like Laura a decade earlier. Still, the visually good things in this movie merit its getting at least one look.

Boy on a Dolphin seems never to have been released to DVD, so you'll have to catch the rare showings on the Fox Movie Channel.

The Alligator People again

It's been a good 16 months since I blogged about the fun, if not very good, horror/sci-fi flick The Alligator People. It's a Fox film, which means that it either won't show up on the Fox Movie Channel for a long time, or else show up a lot within a short span. That "a lot" is here now, as it's back on the schedule. It's airing this afternoon at 1:00 PM ET. That's not much lead time, but if you miss today's showing, fear not: it's also on the schedule for Monday at 2:30 PM. (That, and it gets two airings in May.) As I said back in December 2008, it's one of those movies that should just be watched for the pure entertainment value, and not for any technical or acting achievement.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Doris Day (not Kappelhoff) again

It was one year ago today that I mentioned the birthday of the original Doris Day, who was born on this day in 1910. She was only a bit actress, of course, but her name gave me a cheap excuse to write a post about actors' names.

Looking through today's birth anniversaries gave me cause to notice another interesting tidbit, again involving names. It seems that Robert Ryan was born on this day in 1896. Now, you probably recognize the name Robert Ryan; I've recommended a few of his movies, although it seems that it's been over a year since I recommended Crossfire. However, that's not the Robert Ryan whose birthday is today. Instead, this Robert Ryan is another supporting actor, who played quite a few policemen and boxing referees. What's interesting is that the obscure Robert Ryan and the obscure Doris Day appeared in one movie together, that being a 1942 murder mystery called Mr. and Mrs. North.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gary Cooper, Soap Star

Anybody can be hobbled by bad material, even a great like Gary Cooper. For evidence of this, just watch Ten North Frederick, which shows up at noon ET tomorrow on the Fox Movie Channel.

The movie starts off with the funeral of Gary Cooper's character, Joseph Chapin. Apparently, there was a good deal of conflict within the family, as when daughter Ann (Diane Varsi) arrives home, she finds she has to go upstairs to deal with her brother Joby (Ray Stricklyn), who has decided to deal with his problems by getting rip-roaring drunk. Seeing Joby drunk reminds Ann of the bad times, specifically everything that happened over the last five years, and we get our cheap flashback here....

Flash back five years. Joseph Chapin is a prominent lawyer from a prominent family in Anytown USA. He seems happy with his life, but his wife Edith (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is a domineering woman, who wants Joseph to go on to bigger and better things. This means trying to get Joseph the nomination for Lieutenant Governor, although why this is apparently such a Big Deal is never really explained. Unfortunately, politics is quite the dirty thing, and if Joseph has any skeletons in his closet, they're sure to be found out. This includes son Joby, who would really rather be a jazz musician, but gets pushed into the military where he's supposed to become a hero, apparently. All this proves to be a bit too much for Joseph, who just has to get away for a while.

To do this, he goes to New York, to visit Ann, who's run off to live there. When he shows up at Ann's apartment, he finds that she's not there. Ann's roommate, Kate (Suzy Parker), is, however, and the old man and the young woman strike up a conversation when he realizes that she's the friend of one of his old college buddies. It turns into more than just a conversation, though, and that could have seriously negative consequences for Joseph. Ann, meanwhile, realizes that her roommate is having an affair with somebody, although she doesn't realize that somebody is her own father.

It's the sort of stuff you could imagine Douglas Sirk directing, in lavish color and with a bigger budget. Gary Cooper, and everybody else in the movie, tries hard. As such, it's not really the fault of any of the actors that the movie doesn't really succeed. It's more that the characters are written such that there's no real reason for us to care about any of them, even poor put upon Joseph. That, and the plot is more worthy of a daytime soap opera than a serious movie. Still, if you're a fan of Gary Cooper, Ten North Frederick is worth a look-see.

Ten North Frederick doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, and the Fox Movie Channel's website lists tomorrow as the movie's last showing for a while, so you're going to have to catch it then.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spaghetti Sci-Fi

You've probably heard of the "spaghetti western", that peculiar genre of movie in the 1960s in which Italian directors made westerns in Europe, albeit often with American stars. The Italian cinema also produced some bizarre science fiction movies, and two of those are coming up on TCM tomorrow, including War of the Planets at 12:45 PM ET.

The plot, such as it is, involves a futuristic earth where some of the human beings are taken over by green globs of glowing light that turn into hazy smoke-like substances when they envelop the earthlings' heads and invade their minds. These people are then taken to Mars for some nefarious purpose. It's a bit tough to figure out exactly what that purpose is, largely because the movie is screwed up in so many ways.

That having been said, it's the screwed-up nature of this movie that makes it so much fun. The plot is muddled. The acting is wooden at best. The effects almost make the original Star Trek TV series look grounbreaking. And the set design is vintage 1960s, with bad spacecraft and a "futuristic" earth that doesn't look anything like what we've really developed into. All of these problems make War of the Planets something that should be criticized as a terrible movie.

And yet, I'm here recommeding it. Yes, it's bad. But, it turns out to be one of those movies that's so horrible that it winds up being funny. And there's always a place for such movies.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

MGM's Gangsters

Tonight continues Robert Taylor's turn as TCM's Star of the Month. One of his more interesting movies shows up at 11:45 PM ET: Johnny Eager. It's MGM's idea of a gangster movie, made after all of the great gangster movies had already been made over at Warner Bros., and that alone makes it interesting.

Taylor plays the title role, a paroled gangster who is operating a taxicab by day, and a crime syndicate by night. This is, of course, quite illegal, and DA John Farrell (Edward Arnold) is sure to put him back in jail if he were to find out what Johnny is doing. Still, Johnny has a palatial hide-out at the dog track he's running (gotta love those MGM sets!). There's a bit of a problem though: Farrell's daughter Liz (young and lovely Lana Turner) is a college student doing a project on the workings of the parole system, and she's out to cover Eager as part of that assignment. What happens next should be painfully obvious: she falls head over heels for him even though it's a Really Dumb Idea, and he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that he's got another woman (Patricia Dane, the one in the picture above). The other problem is that Johnny does have a conscience, too, although it's a disembodied conscience, in the form of Johnny's friend, the now-alcoholic cynic Jeff, played by Van Heflin.

The big problem with Johnny Eager is that almost everything seems slightly wrong. Warner Bros. did a great job on its gangster movies, uing their back lot effectively, and being able to cast stars like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart was a big help. At MGM, on the other hand, everything looks too darn glitzy. MGM was able to make a lot of great movies, but that glitz -- at least the early 1940s version of it -- doesn't work. Perhaps if it had been the Prohibition era with some ridiculous art deco sets, it might have looked right. Also, Robert Taylor is unconvincing as a gangster. Lana Turner is OK as the young woman who falls for him, and it's obvious why anybody would fall for her. Edward Arnold is fine, although his is a fairly easy role. It's Van Heflin who steals the show from everybody; he's brilliant in playing the man who's had too much, both figuratively and literally. He's so much better than everybody else here that it isn't funny, and is frankly to the detriment of the movie: we want to see him, and don't care so much for the rest of the characters. It's no surprise that this movie won Heflin his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Watch also for Glenda Farrell in a small role as a policeman's wife.

Johnny Eager got a release to DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection, so you can get a copy of it, although not as cheaply as many other classic movies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Penny Serenade

As part of TCM's salute to director George Stevens, they're showing Penny Serenade overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET. It's one of the moies that shows just how good an actor Cary Grant was, and is not to be missed. Cary Grant and Irene star as a married couple who, at the start of the movie, are on the verge of getting a divorce. Flash back to when they first met to find out why....

Grant plays newspaper reporter Roger Adams, who one day meets Julie Gardiner (Dunne) at a record store. They fairly quickly fall in love and get married, and all seems to be going well. Then, Roger gets an assignment in Japan, which presents a bit of a hardship on Julie, since being a housewife in a foreign country is tough enough as it is, but worse, she's now pregnant with the couple's first child. Still, the two are in love so naturally love can conquer all. Except, that is, for an earthquake. The earthquake injures Julie far worse than Roger, as she loses the baby she's carrying, as well as the ability ever to bear a child of her own. The only possibility to raise a family is adoption. And that's not going to be easy, either, since, upon returning to the States, Roger has decided to try to start publishing his own newspaper. The adoption authorities don't see that as a particularly promising profession for a would-be adoptive father, as they're not sure where the money is going to come from.

Roger pleads with the adoption worker (Beulah Bondi) to let them have a child, and she eventually gives in, but because of the couple's financial difficulties, Roger is going to have to plead again, this itme in court, to be allowed to keep the child. It's only the first of several difficulties that strain Roger and Julie's marriage to the breaking point that we see at the beginning of the movie....

Penny Serenade is a terribly melodramatic movie, but Grant delivers an outstanding performance. It's particularly true when Roger has to fight to keep the baby he's grown to love. Nowadays, Grant is generally more remembered for all his more comic work, but a movie like Penny Serenade shows how capable he was of doing drama too. The result is that he got the first of his two Oscar nominations, although in both cases he lost. Penny Serenade is at times heartbreaking, but also a warm and touching movie about characters who for the most part seem like real people.

Apparently, at some point along the way Penny Serenade fell into the public domain. It's been released to DVD more than a few times, but a lot of the transfers have been horrible. (I can't remember the quality of the transfer the last time TCM showed it.) So, you can watch it any time you want, but it might not be so visually pleasing to watch.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lloyd's of London

I don't mention Tyrone Power all that often, largely because he made the mojority of his pictures at Fox, and the Fox Movie Channel aren't very good about using their library in any coherent way. That having been said, one of Power's earliest movies, Lloyd's of London, shows up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM ET.

The title of course refers to the famous insurance company, and the movie tells a fictitious story about the behind-the-scenes machinations at the company and how it all affected British history, with a love triangle to boot. Tyrone Power plays Jonathan Blake, although we first see Blake when he's a kid (played by Freddie Bartholomew). Blake has a friend who is conveniently Horatio Nelson. They learn of an insurance fraud plot, but only Blake is able to get to London to warn the underwriters. Once in London, Blake becomes an apprentice at Lloyds, eventually growing up to become Power in more ways than one: not only is it Tyrone Power, but Blake has quite a bit of economic power within the organization.

Opposed to Blake is Lord Stacy, played by a young George Sanders. Stacy's wife is played by Madeline Carroll, and boy does Blake have a thing for her. Fast forward to the first decade of the 19th century. Napoleon is ruling France, and his designs on empire are putting a hurt on British shipping, with the result that the underwriters who own Lloyd's are suffering huge financial losses. Blake wants to continue underwriting the shippers, but Stacy and the other underwriters are opposed to this, and plot to destroy Blake. Of course, we know that Blake's old friend Horatio Nelson is going to win the Battle of Trafalgar eventually, and this is going to solve all of Blake's problems, which is one of the problems with setting films against the backdrop of real events. But that's a minor problem.

Lloyd's of London is a fun costume drama that doesn't really do anything to distinguish itself, but also doesn't do anything to diminish itself, either. Note that this doesn't mean the picture is just average; it's really quite good, but misses greatness by being very much by-the-book. All the actors put in good performances, especially George Sanders as the bad guy, but he was always good at playing bad guys.

Lloyd's of London seems never to have been released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch the Fox Movie Channel showings.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Meinhardt Raabe, 1915-2010

Meinhardt Raabe (r.) receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 2007

You might not recognize the name Meinhardt Raabe, but you'll certainly recognize the one role he played in his brief Hollywood career, that of the coroner of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. It was he who informed the Munchkins that the Wicked Witch of the East was dead -- really, most sincerely dead. Raabe died yesterday morning at a retirement home in Florida at the age of 94.

Raabe, it turns out, had quite the life. Away from Hollywood, he was the first "Little Oscar" for the Oscar Meyer wiener company, touring the country with the Wienermobile and promoting the goodness of Oscar Meyer's products. Raabe also served in World War II, at least with the Civil Air Patrol, where he was the shortest of all the pilots.

Raabe's death leaves just four of the Munchkins from the movie still alive. At the time the Munchkins received their collective star back in 2007, there were nine alive, of whom seven were able to attend.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Allen Jenkins, 1900-1974

If you stayed up late last night, you would have seen A Slight Case of Murder on TCM. Nothing remarkable about that, including the presence of Allen Jenkins. The only coincidence is that April 9 just happens to be the anniversary of his birth.

Jenkins was a stalwart of the movies in the 1930s and 1940s, showing up over and over in supporting roles, often as a light humor gangster (see also The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse or Brother Orchid), or some sort of supporting sidekick. Even if I haven't mentioned him, there are quite a few films I've recommended in the past where you're sure to have seen him. I don't actually remember his being one of the many convicts in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but IMDb says yes, he was there. He's one of the people working for director Warner Baxter in 42nd Street; Perry Mason's helper Spudsy in some of the Perry Mason movies; or, recently, as a put-upon diner owner in the TCM premiere of Fun on a Week-End, which showed up on TCM for the first time last Friday night.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thank you, Warner Archive Collection

You may or may not have heard about about the political turmoil going on in the landlocked former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. The basic gist of it is that one post-Soviet leader grew corrupt, so a few years back, the opposition staged a revolution and deposed him. That opposition, once in power, grew corrupt itself, with the result that it, too, has apparently been toppled.

Why am I posting about Kyrgyzstan? Well, when I saw the news about it, one of the things that sprang to mind is the seriously underrated Cary Grant movie Crisis, which I blogged about last August as part of Cary Grant's day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars. At the time, I mentioned that Crisis hadn't been released to DVD. It turns out that's not the case. The Warner Archive Collection, which you can reach from the TCM website, and which TCM mentions in its on-air promos quite a bit, had put Crisis on DVD. However, the information on the IMDb for whether a movie is on DVD (or VHS) goes directly to Amazon. Now, Amazon have gotten some copies of movies from the Warner Archives, and are selling those on their site, although presumably at higher cost than what you'd pay direct from the source. Last August, though, Crisis hadn't yet gotten to Amazon, which would be why I thought it wasn't on DVD at all.

I gave Crisis a pretty favorable rating when I blogged about it last August, and I still stand by that opinion.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I briefly mentioned Coquette almost two years ago. It still doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, so you're going to have to catch one of its relatviely rare showings on TCM. In fact, one of those showings is coming up tomorrow morning at 6:45 AM ET. (Do you think I'd mention it otherwise?)

Mary Pickford plays southern belle Norma, who flirts with a lot of different guys. Some of those guys, her father doesn't like. This causes a problem when one of those young men, Michael (played by Johnny Mack Brown) gets in a heated dispute with Norma's father, with the result that Dad shoots the young suitor dead.

Fast forward to the trial. Dad can probably get off thanks in part to his station in life, and thanks in part that his daughter is the only other person who really knows what happened. Will she save her father's honor, or will she tell the truth...?

Coquette is quite the melodrama, and a movie that gets remembered today largely because Pickford won the Best Actress Oscar for it. That fact is largely down to talking pictures being in their infancy, with a large part of Hollywood not knowing how to adapt their techniques to making movies that could talk. To be fair to Pickford, she does an adequate job, in a role that's really more of a museum piece than anything else. The rest of the actors try as well, but Coquette really shows the work-in-progress state of Hollywood at the time: there just weren't that many good talkies out there until about the beginning of 1930. If you do want to see an outstanding performance in a very early talking picture, you might want to track down a copy of Disraeli (also not on DVD); if you want to see Mary Pickford at her finest, you might want to try the movie that I really blogged about when I first mentioned Coquette, that being her silent movie Sparrows.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Piña Colada Movie

Robert Taylor is TCM's new Star of the Month for April 2010. His movies are airing in 24-hour blocks starting in prime time on Tuesdays. One of this week's lesser-known selections that's worth a look is Escape, airing tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM ET.

Taylor plays Mark Preysing, an American man whose mother had grown up in Germany and emigrated to America. However, some time before the movie opens, she returned to Germany to sell the old family house. However, Mark stopped hearing from Ma, and he's worried about what happened to her. You see, this is Nazi Germany, where people just disappear (well, a bit more on that later). So, Mark shows up in Germany looking for anybody who might have any information on his mother.

This being Nazi Germany, everybody is reluctant to help him, because they don't want to wind up disappeared themselves. That is, until he meets Countess von Treck (played by Norma Shearer, who gets top billing). She's an American who had come to Germany before the Nazi takeover out of love, having married one of the old Counts. He's since died, and she's a widow, running a school for girls. Mark doesn't understand why she stayed behind when all of these nasty Nazis are running the place, but it turns out that she's fallen in love with one of them, General von Kolb (perennial Nazi Conrad Veidt). Mark has already dealt with this singularly unhelpful Nazi, who clearly knows more than he's letting on.

And that more is that Mark's mother (played by former silent screen star Alla Nazimova) is in one of the concentration camps, awaiting execution. Once we viewers learn this fact, it's fairly predictable where the plot is going to go: Mark is eventually going to fall in love with the Countess, and try to convince her to double-cross the General in order to help Mark's mother escape. Meanwhile, one of the Countess' girl students is going to try to double-cross her, by snitching and telling the Nazis what's going on. All this will be followed by the escape, where our heroes will narrowly miss getting captured by the Nazis.

Predictable, except for the fact that the movie even got made in the first place. Escape was released in 1940, well over a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pushed the US into World War II, and a time when isolationist sentiment still ran quite strong in the US. Escape was based on a book, but while freedom of the press ensured that people could write novels about whatever, the freedom of Hollywood was nowhere near as guaranteed. As I mentioned back in May, 2008, there were people in Congress concerned that Hollywood was trying to push America into the war, enough so to the point that they eventually opened an investigation. The other surprising thing is that Escape was made at MGM. Yes, they also made The Mortal Storm, but this sort of socially conscious movie had generally been the province of Warner Bros.

Escape isn't on DVD, so if you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, you'll have to watch TCM's showing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Walter Huston's birthday upcoming

Tomorrow, April 6, marks the birth anniversary of Walter Huston. TCM is marking the day with a morning and afternoon of his films. Normally, I'd mention somebody's birthday on the actual day, but there's a movie coming up fairly early in the morning that I'd like to recommend: The Star Witness, at 9:00 AM.

Huston gets top billing as a district attorney, but the movie isn't really about him. Instead, it's about Grant Mitchell and his family. They're your typical middle class family living in a typical big city in early 1930s America. It's the Prohibition era, which means that the big cities are full of gangsters (at least, they are in Hollywood's view). The gangsters and Grant Mitchell's family come together, although not of his own free choosing, when they witness a gangland shooting. The family is understandably frightened, and doesn't want to say anything to the police about what they saw, lest the gangsters harm them.

Huston isn't having any of it, though. As the DA, it's his job to get convictions, the constitution be damned. He'll subpoena the family if need be, charge them with perjury if they don't tell the court what he wants to hear, and not give a damn if the gangsters bump them off for spilling the beaans. The gangsters, of course, mean business. To prove it, they kidnap Mitchell's youngest kid (played by a five-year-old Dickie Moore). What's a family to do? Well, they're in a bit of luck in the form of Grandpa (Chic Sale), a veteran of the Civil War. He's now living in the veterans' home, and is old enough that he doesn't care if his life is ended by the gangsters. Besides, he doesn't want his grandkids to have to grow up in a world run by the gangsters. So he might just be willing to testify....

The Star Witness is one of the earlier films directed by William Wellman. It's a zippy little movie, packing quite a bit into its roughly 70-minute running time. And I do mean quite a bit. Yes, it's a pre-Code, but it's still surprising just how violent the gangsters are allowed to be here. That having been said, it's not perfect by any means: the "typical" family is, if anything, stereotypical, and it has the feel of a bunch of character actors reaching above their normal place in Hollywood to make something entertaining if not quite so enduring. The Star Witness, like a lot of Wellman's early talkies, was made at Warner Bros., which had a taste for the social commentary movie. And while this one is clearly trying to make social commentary, it's not quite as biting as, say, Little Caesar or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, or even Wellman's own Wild Boys of the Road. But I might be a bit to harsh here; it should be stressed that The Star Witness is quite the entertaining movie.

It doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, though, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showings, which are all too rare: the last time this showed up was when TCM honored Wellman with a month of his movies back in December 2007.

A new TCM director salute

If you watch as much TCM as I do, then by now you've certainly seen the spots promoting April's TCM salute to director George Stevens. TCM is going to be showing his movies every Monday in prime time this month. Tonight kicks off the salute with the overblown 200-minute soap opera Giant at 8:00 PM. Also showing up are the classic morality play Shane at 1:30 AM ET overnight, and his early Annie Oakley at 3:45 AM.

The most interesting thing about this first night of the salute, however, is probably the lesser-seen documentary about Stevens' life and work, George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, which airs at 11:30 PM in between Giant and Shane. It's a fairly good introduction to the director, and covers pretty much his entire career, although as is the case with a lot of biographical documentaries, it treats its subject a bit too favorably. (In defense, however, the film was was produced by George Stevens, Jr.)

What really makes the documentary worth watching, though, is the coverage of Stevens' World War II years. Stevens, like many people in Hollywood, eventually became part of the war effort, in his case being given movie cameras to document the experiences of the soldiers during the war. The result is that Stevens ended up with some of the rare surviving color footage of the D-Day invasion and other parts of the march to Berlin, including footage from liberating concentration camps. That alone makes the documentary worth watching.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Before the ball

I recommended Miloš Forman's wonderfully subversive The Firemen's Ball back in November. A movie that Forman made in his native Czechoslovakia before that, which is almost as good, is Loves of a Blonde, which is airing tomorrow morning at 9:15 AM ET on IFC.

The setting is Zruc, a small, grimy industrial town somewhere in the northern part of Bohemia. The main employer is the state-run shoe factory, which employs young women exclusively. As a result, there's a severe gender imbalance, which the Communist authorities try to alleviate by stationing a bunch of soldiers near the town. Then, the plan is to hold a dance for the soldiers and the factory workers, in the hopes that they'll fraternize. What really happens is something quite different: the men are a bit too randy for the women's liking, as they try to ply the women with drinks and get more than just a dance or two out of them. For the women, it's more an experience to be dreaded than a nice night out.

Young Andula, however, has a different time of it. She runs off to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the dance, and winds up upstairs, with Milda, the pianist from the jazz combo hired to perform the music for the dance. The two have a one night stand, before he has to go back home with the band to Prague. Milda tells Andula he'll write, and that she should come see him sometime, although he's probably saying this more out of politeness than any real conviction. After the dance, life returns to its depressing normality for the girls of the shoe factory.

Worse, Andula doesn't hear from Milda again. So, she sets off for Prague in an attempt to find him. She eventually finds what should be his apartment late one evening, but when she knocks on the door, opening it is... Milda's parents! It's clear that Milda never told them one word about Andula, and this is an unexpected surprise for them. Milda isn't there, as he's working another dance; it's late; and Andula has no place else to go, so what are Milda's parents to do? Eventually, they decide to let Andula spend the night in Milda's bed, and they'll deal with Milda when he gets back. Suffice it to say that it's not going to be a pleasant experience for poor Milda.

Loves of a Blonde is an excellent example of bleak comedy. I never lived in a Communist country, although I did study in the former Leningrad in 1992 just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Still, I grew up in a small town, and as I mentioned when recommending The Firemen's Ball, there's a striking similarity between the small-town atmosphere I grew up in, and that presented in both The Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blonde. By the same token, the dingy public university spaces I experienced at St. Petersburg State University were remarkably like what Forman shows us at the two dances. Also, I had the opportunity to take the train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, and a bus trip from St. Petersburg to Novgorod, both of which afforded me the opportunity to travel through less well-off smaller cities, of the sort that Zruc is. Zruc reminded me a lot of those places. The only thing I can't vouch for is the interior of the apartment where Milda and his parents live.

But, it's not just the sets that are good; it's the characterizations. Forman didn't use professional actors, and got realistic performances out of the people he used. Milda is acting unsurprisingly as a young man without real prospects, but energy and a desire for more out of life. Andula, on the other hand, is a bit naïve, and plays that well. You can see how she would fall for Milda in the first place, and then think that simply going to the big city to find him would solve all her problems. And as for Milda's parents, they're bewildered, because Andula's entry has obviously turned their world upside down. Loves of a Blonde doesn't have quite as much obvious humor as The Firemen's Ball. Instead, it's a subtler humor, but it still works, and still presents a pretty biting comedy on the state of Communist Czechoslovakia as it was in the mid-1960s.

Loves of a Blonde has been released to DVD, but like The Firemen's Ball, it's a bit pricier than normal movies.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Point Blank again

I blogged back in January that I had never seen Point Blank before. It's coming up again tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM, and since that's just a few hours away, it's a bit to late for me to do a full post on it. But now that I've seen it, I can say that it might well be worth watching. That is, if you enjoy the 1960s style heist movie. As I mentioned back then, I thought from the trailer that Point Blank looked about as dated as The Thomas Crown Affair, and that did indeed turn out to be the case. However, it's dated more in the sense that it's a trip back in time. The amount of concrete architecture and bad fashion in this movie is something to behold. That, and the zooms. What on earth were directors thinking in those days?

John Forsythe, 1918-2010

The death has been announced of actor John Forsythe. Forsythe is probably best known for his work on television: in the 1950s, he appeared on the sitcom Bachelor Father; in the 1980s, he played patriarch Blake Carrington in the trashy prime time soap opera Dynasty. In between, he played the unseen voice of Charlie in the sexily popular Charlie's Angels. However, Forsythe made his fair share of movies. I've even recommended him before in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Trouble With Harry. Forsythe would work again with Hitchcock a decade later, this time on the spy thriller Topaz Forsythe was 92.

Friday, April 2, 2010

At least it's got Carmen Miranda

One of the lesser musicals of the 1940s is showing up tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel: Greenwich Village.

Don Ameche stars as Ken Harvey, a composer of "serious" music who comes to early 1920s New York City in an attempt to sell his music and get it performed by a real orchestra. However, he finds this isn't as easy as he thought, and winds up meeting Dan O'Mara, who runs the local snightclub in Grenwich Village. It's fortuitous in a way for both of them: Harvey meets the club's singer, Bonnie Watson (played by Vivian Blaine), while O'Mara finds a rich new source of music for his singer, and for the more elaborate stage show he'd like to put on. Of course, Harvey doesn't know what O'Mara plans to do with his music....

I've admitted in the past that I'm not a huge fan of musicals, and it's movies like Greenwich Village that are a good example of why. The plot seems like it's been done a hundred times before (compare, for example, Ken Harvey to Dick Powell's character in Gold Diggers of 1933); there's not enough realistic romantic tension; and Vivian Blaine shows why she never really became a big star. I suppose there are some nice things, such as the use of the vintage music, and an appearance from Carmen Miranda, who here plays a character born in Buffalo, New York, of all places!

Still, if you like classic studio musicals, especially if they're in Technicolor, you might like Greenwich Village. That, and Carmen Miranda. It doesn't seem to have made it to DVD yet, though, so you're going to have to catch the Fox Movie Channel showing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Speaking of Raquel Welch

I briefly mentioned Raquel Welch's One Million Years BC several days ago. She actually shows up on TCM tonight. Not any of the movies in which she's either scantily clad or wearing tight outfits, but as the TCM Guest Programmer. The four movies she has selected are:

Adam's Rib, the battle of the sexes between competing lawyers Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, at 8:00 PM ET;
Jimmy Stewart filibustering Congress in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, at 10:00 PM;
Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's, at 12:15 AM; and
the movie that gave us one of the most overrated love stories ever, that of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not, at 2:15 AM.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the program coming up after To Have and Have Not. It's one of the The Men Who Made the Movies episodes, this time about director Howard Hawks, the man who directed To Have and Have Not. It's part of a series of specials made for PBS back in the early 1970s, with vintage interviews from the directors, who have of course all since died, but left behind these valuable archives on their life and work. Back in the 1970s, of course, all TV was in 4:3 and standard definition, so any of the film clips they showed back then would have been panned and scanned (although, to be fair, a lot of the directors' work was before the introduction of Cinemascope in 1953). However, with the rebroadcast of them on TCM, the movie clips were remastered and, where appropriate, put back into the original letterboxed form.