Thursday, March 31, 2011

More briefs

Today is the 76th birthday os Oscar-winning actress Shirley Jones, and I'm a bit surprised to see that I hadn't done a birthday post for her before. Jones won her Oscar for Elmer Gantry, from which the photo at left is taken. I'm also a bit surprised to see I haven't done a full-length post on that particular movie. One more surprise is that there aren't many good photos of Jones together with Glenn Ford in The Courtship of Eddie's Father floating around the Internet. If there are, I'm just not looking for them in the right place.

The more distressing brief is that the folks at TCM still haven't fixed a lot of the things that broke their site when they "upgraded" it a few weeks back. The big one is the monthly schedule, which is invaluable to me in jogging my memory as to which movies I'd like to post about. Before, each movie would have a helpful one-sentence synopsis to describe the movie, and the whole schedule was in a convenient text format:

6:30 PM Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944)
A henpecked husband surprises his family by coming back from World War II a hero. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Warrick, Ted Donaldson. Dir: Alfred E. Green BW-79 mins, TV-G

(In the original, there are actually tabs which separate the time and title of the movie, and indents the synopsis, which makes the thing easier to read.)

They've gotten rid of that synopsis, and put each movie in HTML paragraph tags, which makes copying the schedule take up more space and puts blank lines in the wrong places. Plus, having the synopsis is really handy, because there are times when I can't remember a movie's title, but will be able to recognize the movie from the synopsis. And there are movies I would never have watched if the synopsis didn't seem interesting. (At least the cast is still there.) "Helpfully", if you want the synopsis, TCM is driving eyeballs to its site by having each title in the monthly schedule be a link to the movie's page on the TCM database, which presumably brings in more ad revenue.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mr. Winkle Goes to War

Tonight at 6:30 PM ET, TCM is showing the little-seen Mr. Winkle Goes to War, a movie that's well worth watching, if only to see yet another example of how underrated an actor Edward G. Robinson was.

Robinson stars as Mr. Winkle, a meek man with a humdrum life. His boss as the bank doesn't offer him any opportunity for advancement, while at home, Mrs. Winkle (Ruth Warrick) henpecks the poor man. What Mr. Winkle really wants is to go into business for himself as a sort of a repairman fixing motors and such, aided by a young friend of his from the local orphanage. Needless to say, everybody around Mr. Winkle but the boy thinks this is crazy.

World War II intervenes, as it had a way of doing in the films of the day. Mr. Winkle, despite being in his mid-40s, gets drafted to serve. More surprisingly, he makes it through basic training, and sees this as an opportunity: he wants to go off and fight, while his CO wants to give him a desk job that might fit Winkle better. Winkle, of course, having had a desk job for the last 20 years doesn't want it, and winds up fighting -- and becoming a hero. Winkle's return home as a hero suddenly changes the attitudes of everybody around him....

Mr. Winkle Goes to War is a little movie that's very much of its time, coming out in World War II. It's subtle propaganda about the war effort, while being a movie with a warm little heart. Edward G. Robinson is, as I said at the beginning, good in almost everything he did, including the movies that have largely been forgotten, like this one. This is, needless to say, the sort of film that hasn't gotten a DVD release, and isn't likely to unless somebody comes up with a box set of Robinson's films.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Farley Granger, 1925-2011

Actor Farley Granger, whose relatively short but noteworthy film career included the Alfred Hitchcock movies Rope (from which the photo at left is taken) and Strangers on a Train, died over the weekend at the age of 85. A brief search of the blog claims that I haven't recommended Side Street (on DVD but not on TV any time soon) yet, so today would be a good day to do so.

Granger plays Joe, a postman in New York who's got a wife (Cathy O'Donnell) and kid on the way, which means that he needs money. One day, he spots a few bills that have fallen to the floor in the office of lawyer Edmon Ryan, who is on his route. The next day, he decides to take those bills from the filing cabinet, but discovers that he's stolen not a few bills, but $30,000! Joe leaves the money with a bartender friend, wrapped up as a gift, but the bartender and the money both go missing, and people start dying, including the bartender who had his package. Joe's got Ryan, who is clearly engaging in some sort of illegal activity (blackmail, as it turns out), on his tail, but also has the police. If noir teaches us anything, it's that honesty is probably the best policy.

To be truthful, Side Street has a plot that can be a bit difficult to follow at times, but one that's well worth watching. Granger is good as the poor average Joe who gets involved in circumstances that are way, way over his head. But just as good is the cinematography. The movie was filmed on location in New York, and there are a lot of great location shots, including of a cavernous lower Manhattan for the final chase scene on a Sunday morning. (I can't help but think it's a bit unrealistic that any part of New York could be that empty on a Sunday morning.) The supporting roles, which also include Jean Hagen playing something reminiscent of, but dissimilar to her role in the same year's The Asphalt Jungle, and Charles McGraw plays another policeman.

Side Street has gotten a couple of DVD releases; the one more worth mentioning today is as part of a double-bill with They Live By Night, which also stars Granger and Cathy O'Donnell.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Elevator to the Gallows

TCM's Employee Picks continue this evening with one of the employees selecting an all-too-rarely shown French film: Elevator to the Gallows, at 11:45 PM ET.

Julien is a French World War II veteran now working in a Parisian office building. In the great stereotypical French tradition, he's carrying on an affair, which just happens to be with his boss's wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau). The two come up with a plan to do away with his boss/her husband, so that they can go off together. However, as always seems to happen in the movies, the "perfect" murder plot has a way of going wrong. (There wouldn't be a movie otherwise, of course, but if you've seen enough movies, you still know to expect a screw-up somewhere.) In this case, the murder involves going around the outside of the building to get into the boss's locked office, and Julien has left a rope on the outside of the building. When he tries to get the rope, however, he gets locked in the elevator when the building's night watchman/custodian shuts off the elevator.

That's not the only problem. Julien left his car outside for a quick getaway, and while he's trying to get himself out of the elevator, two young hoods take the car, and go off for a joyride out into the French countryside. There, they wind up a a nice little motel where they meet a German couple, one of whom ends up dead. And that, combined with a camera left in the car, leads the police back to Julien and Florence who, while they're clearly not guilty of the motel killing, might have culpability in some other crime....

Elevator to the Gallows is a wonderful little piece directed by Louis Malle; in fact, it was Malle's first feature film. The story is well-constructed and as far as murder mysteries (or thrillers since we already know who's guilty) go, one of the more plausible ones out there. As I commented with Georgy Girl last week, it's always nice to see vintage looks at places like London or Paris, as the more realistic movies of the post-war and New Wave periods show us a side of the city the tourist guides don't mention. Then, there's the score; it's jazzy music by Miles Davis, which adds just the right atmosphere to late-1950s Paris.

As is often the case with case with foreign films, there's just enough interest among movie buffs for Elevator to the Gallows to have gotten an American DVD release. However, because that interest is "just enough", it also means that the DVD release is relegated to one of the specialty companies (the Criterion Collection), which means it comes at a higher price.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Flora Robson, 1902-1984

Today marks the birthday of Flora Robson, the very British actress who was born on this day in 1902. She worked actively her entire life, making enough movies that I'm not certain which one I'd pick as her best-known. It might be Wuthering Heights, but then, it might be as Queen Elizabeth I in Fire Over England. Indeed, Fire Over England was such a success that Hollywood would later ask Robson to reprise her role as Elizabeth in Errol Flynn's The Sea Hawk.

In looking for some pictures of Robson as Elizabeth, I came across the British site Move Muser, which had a helpful rundown on most of the most famous portrayals of the Virgin Queen. (A few smaller parts from early silents or from a bomb like The Story of Mankind, have been omitted.)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Liz Taylor update, part 3

I mentioned a few days back that TCM will be honoring Elizabeth Taylor on April 10 with 24 hours of her movies. The Fox Movie Channel is actually going to be honoring her too, with 24 hours of her movie airing tomorrow starting at 6:00 AM. If you noticed that I wrote "24 hours of movie", that was intentional. It's because the Fox Movie Channel is showing Cleopatra five times back-to-back, at 6:00 AM, 11:00 AM, 3:30 PM, 8:00 PM, and 1:00 AM; the last two airings will include the Fox Legacy introduction by Tom Rothman.

It's nice to see that the folks at the Fox Movie Channel are at least thinking, but really, Cleopatra five times? Granted, Taylor didn't make all that many movies at Fox, but at least they could have programmed The Only Game In Town, which showed up on their schedule last summer.

Joan Crawford tonight

Tonight's TCM Essential is Mildred Pierce, airing at 8:00 PM ET. Now, it's a movie that I've recommended before, and pointed out a number of times. But I note that I haven't posted a good photo of Mildred together with daughter from hell Veda (Ann Blyth), so here they are. (The one I've posted with the two of them together with the Eve Arden character isn't so good.) Now I suppose it's off to find a good photo of Crawford and Zachary Scott.

Mildred Pierce is a good reason for TCM to bring us a night of Crawford's post-MGM work. It's followed at 10:00 PM by Daisy Kenyon, a relatively dull picture that has Crawford choosing between the two men in her life, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda, neither of whom is worth picking if you ask me.
That's followed at midnight by the gangster movie This Woman Is Dangerous;
At 2:00 AM is a romance, Goodbye, My Fancy; and
The night concludes wiht another noir-type film, The Damned Don't Cry, at 4:00 AM.

I wish they were showing Flamingo Road. Oh well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Any resemblance to Nurse Ratched is purely coincidental

That's because the movie Shock Treatment, which is airing tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 PM ET on the Fox Movie Channel, came out a decade before One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The movie starts off with gardener Martin Ashley (Roddy McDowall) working for his elderly female boss, and then all of a sudden taking his shears to his boss and killing her! Cut to the trial, where the defense is claiming insanity, based on the fact that the victim had a million dollars in cash that was supposedly burned by Martin: who would do a thing like that? Dr. Manning (Judson Laire) thinks Martin isn't insane, while Dr. Beighley (Lauren Bacall) takes the other side and carries the day, getting Martin committed for 90 days to the state mental asylum which she runs. Dr. Manning things Dr. Beighley is lying, and has a nefarious plan to prove it. He hires Dale, an actor (played by Stuart Whitman), and offers Dale a cool $10,000 for the best acting job of his life: find out what happened to the money, which will involve playing insane and getting committed to the mental hospital. Dale takes up the challenge, and is soon trying to make nice to Martin.

Dr. Beighley will have none of this, however. She doesn't trust her new patient, thinking Dale is faking insanity. Meanwhile, we find that she could have used that million bucks that Martin apparently burned. Beighley is doing experiments that show how brilliant she is, but can't let on that she's doing them because mere normal people would find them cruel; the experiments can't be performed on humans, anyhow, since no sane human would agree to be a subject in her experiment. But if an anonymous donor could give her a million.... It's these experiments, and the mistrust of Dale, that begin to give one the impression that Dr. Beighley is not unlike Nurse Ratched.

Things take a sudden twist when our hero tries to eavesdrop on one of Dr. Beighley's hypnosis sessions with Martin. She's trying to get Martin to reveal the truth about the money, and when she discovers that Dale is listening in, she puts two and two together and figures that Dale has been sent by Manning. And here, the movie takes a rather sudden and sharp turn, leading to an ending you might be able to guess, but is still fun anyhow.

Lauren Bacall and Roddy McDowall both supposedly didn't particularly care much for Shock Treatment. And to be honest, the movie is more entertaining than good. The characters aren't all that believable, the way that mental hospitals are presented is ludicrous, and there are extraneous characters who serve no real purpose, particularly a patient played by Carol Lynley. But it certainly is entertaining; it's the sort of movie you can enjoy on a rainy day with a bowl of popcorn and some friends nearby.

Unfortunately, the movie hasn't been released to DVD, and when the Fox Movie Channel last showed it, it was a panned-and-scanned print, except for the credits, which were on the Cinemascope Diet: everything was simply squeezed to fit a 4x3 screen, making things seem much thinner than they actually are.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

More on Elizabeth Taylor

I mentioned today that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is airing overnight tonight as one of the TCM Employees' Picks. It's also airing again on April 10. TCM has announced their Elizabeth Taylor tribute, which will be 11 movies spanning the entire day on Sunday, April 10. I'm a bit surprised at how quickly they were able to announce this, but not too surprised that they were able to clear an entire day for her.

I also mentioned yesterday that I'm not too big a fan of Taylor's acting. If you think my thoughts were bad, you should read this scathing article from reason magazine's Nick Gillespie. (Warning: the reason commentators are a rather saucy bunch, to put it mildly.) Gillespie argues that Taylor more or less became a parody of herself, but took herself seriously, as opposed to William Shatner, who seems to be in on the joke. Harsh, but worth a read.

Employees' Picks continue

That hat would look interesting on Terry MalloyActually, this is just an excuse to go looking for a photo of that hat from the movie Ninotchka. It's airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM as the second of tonight's Employee Guest Programmer picks. The movie that kicks off the night at 8:00 PM is On the Waterfront, another movie I've recommended on numerous occasions. I'd posted a couple of photos from the movie, although the ones I have posted are of Karl Malden. I hadn't yet posted any photo of the taxicab scene in which Brando utters (to Rod Steiger) the famous line, "I coulda been a contender!"

Also tonight, at 2:00 AM, is the recently-deceased Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

For some reason, TCM doesn't play the prison drama 20,000 Years in Sing Sing very often. It's coming up at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow.

Spencer Tracy, on loan from Fox, plays Tommy, a big shot who's been convicted and sent to Sing Sing prison. He expects to have an easy spell, but he finds that the warden and the people running the prison aren't going to treat him any differently from the other prisoners. If he doesn't want to wear the prison uniform? Fine -- he can sit in solitary instead. The warden is relatively progressive as wardens go, however, thinking prisoners can be rehabilitated, and coming up with some unorthodox means of rehabilitating them. In Tommy's case, that has to do with his girl on the outside, Fay (played by Bette Davis). Tommy learns that Fay is ill, and the warden actually gives Tommy a furlough to go see Fay, on Tommy's word that he'll return. And he does intend to return, until he sees what's happened to Fay. While he's been away, his lawyer Joe Finn (Louis Calhern), has tried to make a move on Fay. And when Tommy protests, he and Joe get in a scuffle that results in Fay shooting Joe dead. Naturally, everybody is going to suspect Tommy, which is a problem not only for him, but for the warden as well....

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is, to be honest, more interesting than it is great: if you want a great early talkie prison movie, The Big House is the one to watch. But there are quite a few things that make 20,000 Years in Sing Sing interesting. First is the fact that it's loosely based on real experiences. Or, at least, it's based on a book written by the warden of Sing Sing prison, which carries the same title as the movie. Second is the the movie's impressive title sequence, which has a long line of prisoners marching, with their sentences superimposed over their heads. It's a sequence that does an effective job of showing the dehumanization the prison brings about in those who have been imprisoned. Third, it's the only time Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis made a movie together, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is part of the Warner Archive Collection, so you can watch it, although at a bit higher price than a lot of other movies.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

The death of actress Elizabeth Taylor has been announced. She was 79 and had been in declining health for a number of years. Her career started as a juvenile actress in the 1940s with National Velvet, continued into her adult years with two movies that won her Oscars, Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and on for another two decades before cooling off. Taylor was of course also well known for her multiple husbands, and, after the movies ended, raising money for AIDS research. Oh, and the perfume commercials.

I find that I really haven't blogged all that much about Taylor's movies. I think that's because she's another of those who wasn't among my favorite stars. Not that she wasn't good; it's more just a matter of personal taste. A Place in the Sun, in which she appeared with Montgomery Clift, is a great movie, although I would argue it's Shelley Winters' performance that makes it such a good movie, with Taylor's performance secondary. She's better in Suddenly, Last Summer, but I think it's really the whole ensemble put together, combined with the subject material, that makes Suddenly, Last Summer such an interesting movie. Taylor appears with Clift in both movies, and indeed narrated a piece on Clift that appears from time to time on TCM in between movies.

I'm sure TCM will preempt its regularly-scheduled programming at some point for a tribute to Taylor, but this quickly after her death, I don't know when that's going to be.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Well, he was in movies

Today is the 80th birthday of actor William Shatner. I get a laugh every time I think of him in the cast of Judgement at Nuremberg, alongside all of those great names. Shatner plays the military adjutant to the judge played by Spencer Tracy, so it's relatively easy to find photos of Shatner with Tracy. Not having seen the movie in some time, I don't know which of the other famous actors he shares screen time with. But it would be fun to see photos or screencaps of Shatner with Marlene Dietrich or Judy Garland.

Shatner actually made a fair number movies before playing Captain Kirk in Star Trek, including one of the brothers in The Brothers Karamazov, but he was much, much more active in television. One movie I have mentioned briefly is The Explosive Generation, but that's not available on DVD.

The original 60s

I've stated in the past that I was born in 1972, so I often don't care for the effect that Baby Boomers have has on our culture of trying to view everything through a prism of the events that occurred during their formative years, especially from the assassination of John Kennedy to the resignation of Richard Nixon. I tend to find later-day movies set back in the 1950s and 1960s tedious. But the stuff that was originally made back then can be a lot of fun, because the contemporary nature of the films makes them seem less self-conscious and less trying to make a point. That, and the set design of movies like The Quiller Memorandum (West Berlin), Bunny Lake is Missing (London), or Imitation of Life (Lana Turner's house in the suburbs) feature trippy sets that weren't trippy then because the people thought they were the height of modernity. Such is the case with the movie Georgy Girl, which is airing tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM ET on TCM.

Lynn Redgrave stars as Georgy, a wallflower who teaches music to young children in the great old house owned by her father. Her father's boss James (James Mason) looks on Georgy both as the child he never had, and as a lovely young woman he could have a relationship with if only he didn't have a wife; in fact, he offers Georgy a relationship as his mistress. Georgy, meanwhile, has a friend in Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) who is carrying on with the would-be playboy Jos (Alan Bates), who would be a playboy if he had the idle wealth to do it; as it is, he's just a ne'er-do-well. Georgy finds Jos exciting, and to be honest, she, Jos, and Meredith have an interesting dynamic together.

It gets even more interesting when Meredith gets pregnant by Jos. She doesn't want the child at all, but Meredith has motherly instincts and would be more than willing to take care of the children, to the point that she'll move in with Jos, even if he isn't the best father for the child. Things get much more complicated with the death of James' wife; this frees James from having to have Georgy as a mistress, and with Georgy looking after Jos' and Meredith's child, there's a ready-made child for him to take care of, too.

Georgy Girl is interesting, albeit a product of the 1960s. There's the famous theme song, and the street fronts that no longer exist. And the maternity ward in the hospital: the hospital scenes in this movie visually much different than those in an American movie of the same time like The Fortune Cookie. As for the story, it's good if one that I find unrealistic, but then, I'm not a woman. I don't have people like Jos or James chasing after me.

Georgy Girl has gotten a DVD release, so if you're in one of the more westerly time zones where this one is going to show up really early tomorrow, you don't have to worry about getting up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Competing programming strategies

TCM has been inviting its employees to select some of the prime time lineups this March, wiht each of 32 employees picking one film and sit down and present it with Robert Osborne. The Employees' Picks are showing up every Monday and Thursday in March in prime time, with four movies a night. Tonight sees two more movies that I've blogged about in the past.
Kings Row, which for some reason I put an apostrophe in, kicks off the night at 8:00 PM ET; and
at midnight you can see A Summer Place.

The Fox Movie Channel has actually been doing something interesting in prime time. For the past few weeeks on Monday nights, they've been picking and older movie instead of their usual more modern fare. Each film is presented twice back-to-back, presumably so that people out in the Pacific time zone can catch the second showing. This week's movie is another one I've recommended, Decision Before Dawn, at 8:00 PM and 10:00 PM. As with Fox Legacy, it's nice to see them do this.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hugh Herbert, meet F. Hugh Herbert

The other day, TCM showed the 1934 movie Smarty, an odd little film from the end of the pre-Code era about a woman (Joan Blondell) who irritates multiple husbands to the point that they smack her. I noticed in the opening credits that this was based on a play by F. Hugh Herbert, and I thought to myself that I didn't realize one of those great 1930s character actors was also a playwright.

The reason I didn't realize this is because they are in fact two different people. F. Hugh Herbert was a Vienna-born playwright who emigrated to the US and became a screenwriter on movies such as If You Could Only Cook. IMDb lists him as having precisely one acting credit. F. Hugh Herbert, that is to say, is quite a different person from Hugh Herbert, who showed up in over 100 talkies until his death in 1952. I've recommended quite a few of the films in which he appears, such as his appearance in James Cagney's acting troupe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Note that Hugh's IMDb biography gets a few things wrong, crediting him with writing Hit Parade of 1941, and a French adaptation of The Moon Is Blue, both of which were done by F. Hugh Herbert.

The two Herberts collaborated if you will on six movies, in that F. Hugh wrote the screenplays while just plain Hugh is in the cast.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Thunder Road

For some reason I thought I had already blogged about the movie Thunder Road. It's coming up this evening at 6:00 PM ET on TCM, and it's worth a watch.

Robert Mitchum stars (as if you can't tell from the poster) as Lucas Doolin, a man from the backwoods of Tennessee in the 1950s who's returned from the Korean War to the family business, which is running moonshine. However, the business has changed while Lucas was away. Before, just the revenuers were after the small-time runners like the Doolins. However, as is always the case with things when the government makes them illegal, it makes them more dangerous by bringing in the racketeers. In this case, that's Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), who's trying to get at the Doolins for taking away what is rightfully "his" business. As if things aren't bad enough, Luke's got a girlfriend Francie (Keely Smith) who wants him to get out of the business, and a younger brother, Robin (played by Mitchum's real-life son James). Robin looks up to Luke, but Luke doesn't really want Robin to follow in his footsteps.... The plot is actually a bit more complex than that, as the ATF sees Luke as a pawn to get at the big-time types like Kogan, which really puts Luke in danger. But at heart, Thunder Road is really a pretty simple film.

That's not to say that it's a bad movie. In fact, it's quite enjoyable. Car fans will like the vintage muscle cars of the day souped up for business. (NASCAR, in fact, has some of its origins in the bootlegging business.) Others will enjoy the relatively escapist entertainment and the exciting car chases. And for others, it might be interesting to see Robert Mitchum together with his son James. If you want fun and nothing that requires deep thought, you could do a lot worse than to watch Thunder Road.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Silent Film Still Archive

Today marks the birthday of actor George Sidney (1876-1945), who played a number of Jewish supporting characters in movies of the 1930s. I think I've blogged about two movies in which he shows up: Rafter Romance, in which he plays the landlord to Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster, and Manhattan Melodrama where he plays (very briefly) a man who takes in the young boys who grow up to be Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. He also played Mr. Cohen in a series of movies at Universal about "The Cohens and the Kellys", about a Jewish and an Irish couple, but I have yet to see any of these if they even have surviving prints.

Anyhow, I was looking for a nice photo of Sidney to illustrate a birthday post for him. It's not so easy to find any, largely because Sidney was mostly a character actor, or in the case of the Cohens, leading in movies that are quite obscure today. (The fact that Universal's early stuff rarely sees the light of day contributes to this too, I presume.) But some searching led me to this photo from the Silent Film Still Archive, from the 1928 movie The Latest From Paris. It has no comments or votes at IMDb, and the sketchy info at TCM makes me wonder whether it's a lost film.

That having been said, for those of you who are a bit more into silents than I am, I can certainly suggest giving a visit to the Silent Film Still Archive.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Trouble Along the Way

I briefly mentioned Trouble Along the Way when Donna Reed was Star of the Month last May. It's airing again on TCM, tonight at around 11:15 PM ET. (Note: TCM's schedule lists Rififi as starting at 9:15 PM, or at least after the employee Guest Programmer introduction; Rififi has a running time of 122 minutes. So the times are off somewhere.)

Charles Coburn plays Fr. Burke, the head of a Catholic school that's always done things in the old way, but as a result is struggling financially, to the point where the diocese has decided it's going to shut the college down unless a way can be found to raise revenues. He sees that Notre Dame is successful and has a money-making football program, so he figures that maybe he can start a football program of his own. Bring in coach Steve Williams (John Wayne). Williams has problems of his own. He's been out of college football for years due to his scandalous behavior, and that behavior has also led to his getting divorced by his ex-wife (Marie Windsor), who is trying to get custody of their daughter Carol by having a social worker Alice (Donna Reed) investigate the family situation.

Williams is reluctant to take the job, but dammit, he needs a job -- any job -- to try to keep custody of his daughter. He doesn't particularly care for the living conditions (a garret apartment in the belfry) or the fact that the college's facilities are woeful to put it mildly. And so Williams sets about improving things in the best way he knows how, which just happens to be the rules-bending way that got him kicked out of college football in the first place. That, of course, causes problems with Fr. Burke, who still has principles. Carol, meanwhile, wants Dad to succeed because she'd much rather stay with him than go and live with stuffy Mother (shades of Jackie Cooper in The Champ). Alice might be just the woman to pair Dad up with, too.

Trouble Along the Way is a charming picture that's only tangentially about college football; so, if you don't normally care about football, don't let that stop you from watching this one. John Wayne often comes in for criticism for his political views and for making robust military and western films that fit those views, but he was a better actor than that. Trouble Along the Way is a movie that shows Wayne's better side. He also gets to show that he could act with kids. Coburn is great, but he was good in almost everything he did. Reed is OK, but she doesn't have all that much to do here. In short, Trouble Along the Way is a warm, family-friendly movie that's well worth watching. It's available on DVD, too, so you won't have to stay up past 1:00 AM to see it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Those content ratings again

One of the movies shown for George Brent's birthday yesterday was They Call It Sin. The plot involves Loretta Young being in love with a man who loves her too, except that he's engaged to someone else (and eventually marries that someone); meanwhile, her boss is doing what nowadays would be called sexual harassment. As for Brent, he's the third man, who has an unrequited love for Young. There's all sorts of Prohibition-era drinking, and a character falling to his death.

The movie got a TV-G rating from TCM. And the Bowery Boys get a TV-14 rating. You can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How do you like your eggs?

I'm not a huge fan of early musicals, in part because musicals in general aren't my favorite genre, and in part because the production values of the earlier musicals left a lot to be desired. One of the better early musicals, Sunnyside Up, is coming up tomorrow at noon ET on TCM.

Janet Gaynor plays Molly, who lives with Bea (Marjorie White) and works with her in the store run by Swenson (El Brendel), in the lower-class part of Manhattan. It's the Fourth of July, so everybody on their block is taking part in an Independence Day block party. Cut to the "beautiful people" on Long Island. Jack (Charles Farrell) is engaged to Jane (Sharon Lynn), but he discovers that she's really in love with another man. So Jack decides to drown his sorrows in drink, and then drive off. Drunk driving was a problem even then, and Jack crashes his roadsterright into the block party where Molly and friends live. Jack escapes up to Molly's apartment, and it's love at first sight.

There's the class difference, however. What's a man to do? Jack convinces Molly and friends to come out to the Hamptons for the summer and will even pay them handsomely for it. Jack figures that if he can pass Molly off as a member of the high society that exists somewhere out in the Midwest, his finacée might conclude that maybe cavorting with other guys isn't such a good idea after all. But there's the question of whether Molly really can appear to be high class. And even if she does, she's not really of the correct social class for Jack to marry....

Sunnyside Up is a fairly pedestrian story, with 1920s music that you may or may not like. But there are some parts of the movie that are worth watching. El Brendel and Bea's beau (Frank Albertson) pose as hired help once everybody gets out to the Hamptons, and Brendel is quite good at the part. Marjorie White is a little dynamo as always, although her movies rare show up on TV because she worked at Fox, and because she died tragically young in a car accident. Perhaps the revelation is Janet Gaynor's singing. She's not exactly a great singer, but she gets one song toward the beginning in which she's playing a zither (or at least it looks like a zither). If you haven't seen Sunnyside Up before, it's well worth at least one viewing.

As far as I can tell, Sunnyside Up hasn't gotten a DVD release, so you're going to have to catch the rare TV showing.

Bad Timing

Poor Clint Eastwood. From time time to time, I've used events in the news to make comments on otherwise unrelated movies. Once in a while it's silly; sometimes a bit more serious; sometimes I wouldn't be surprised if I offend people (although in defese I'd argue that spectacle was more offensive than my post). But I'm just a little blogger not making any money off of this thing.

Now, Clint Eastwood didn't intend to do anything wrong, and to be honest, he's quite blameless. It was just an incredible stroke of bad luck about scheduling his latest movie Hereafter in foreign markets:

A division of Warner Brothers said that it would pull the Clint Eastwood movie Hereafter from theaters in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami that have devastated the country, The Associated Press reported. Hereafter, which was released in Japanese theaters in February and was scheduled to be shown there through late March, follows several characters who are affected by death and near-death experiences, including a journalist played by Cécile de France who is caught in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

I haven't seen Hereafter, generally preferring classic movies, as well as not wanting to pay for the "privilege" of going to the local sixtyplex at the mall and watch a bunch of CGI which would be better off in classic black and white since they're only using color for the explosions anyway. It might be a quite good movie; it's just one that somebody who's lived through another earthquake and tsunami might not want to see right now.

Or, as the studio publicity flack said,

On Monday, Satoru Otani, an official at Warner Entertainment Japan Inc., told The A.P. that the tsunami sequences in the film were "not appropriate" at the present time and that the film would no longer be shown.

Really! What ever gave you that idea?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Week-End Marriage

TCM is going to honoring George Brent tomorrow morning and afternoon on his birthday. One of the fun pre-Codes he was in that I don't think I've recommended before is Week-End Marriage, airing at 10:45 AM ET tomorrow.

Loretta Young stars a working girl Lola Davis, who's got a sister-in-law Agnes (Aline MacMahon) and a sweetheart, Ken (Norman Foster). Lola and Ken have thought a bit about marriage, but this being the early 1930s, married women are generally not expected to work, with the husband supporting them. This is a problem in that Ken's boss has offered him a great career opportunity -- that would require he spend a couple of years working in South America. Agnes, who's got more experience, teaches Lola how to get the man to do the things she wants, which in this case more or less means tricking Ken into marrying her. This is a bit of a problem, in that the rest of Lola's family isn't certain they think Ken is suitable for her.

Ken does indeed marry Lola, but their marriage doesn't take the normal path that marriages in those days took. Instead, Ken loses his job and, this being the Depression, finds it difficult to hold down a good job. Lola, on the other hand, has moved up a bit and is now an executive secretary, a job which entails quite a bit of travel, and working with higher-class people like George Brent halfway across the country in St. Louis. It's humiliating to Ken, who faces the possibility of no job and no wife. What's a man to do?

Week-End Marriage presents an interesting situation which, once the Code started being enforced, would rarely see the screen again for decades. To wit, what's a man to do when, through no fault of his own, he's forced to become the househusband? (True, there are movies like A Star is Born where the husband's career pales before the wife's, but there the husband lost his career thanks to his own alcoholism.) Unfortunately, Week-End Marriage resolves the dilemma with a thoroughly unsatisfying ending, ruining an hour of interesting build-up. Still, the movie deserves to be seen for that build-up, for the historical curiosity, and for some of the pre-Code touches. One fun one involves a scene in which Foster is shopping, and you can clearly see that one of the things he's bought is toilet paper. Women may have gone to the "powder room" back in those days to gossip with their lady friends, and people may have tried to escape from buildings through the rest rooms, but Hollywood wouldn't normally let them have bodily functions once the Code got enforced.

Week-End Marriage hasn't even gotten a release through the Warner Archive Collection as far as I can tell. So, you're going to have to record it on TCM if you want to see it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Those wacky content ratings again

I watched the Bowery Boys movie Hot Shots that aired yesterday on TCM. The Bowery Boys films have been airing Saturday mornings for quite some time, not including February's 31 Days of Oscar and last August's Summer Under the Stars, of course, but I havean't been watching them, to be honest. Movies like Hot Shots may be passable entertainment for 62 mintues, especially for a child, but in reality, they aren't very good.

Having said that, there were a couple of things about the movie that surprised me. One was the Warner Bros. TV logo at the end; apparently Warner Bros. got the rights to eithe the Bowery Boys movies or the Allied Artists library along the way. More interestingly, though, is that TCM ran a content rating screen before the movie claiming that Hot Shots has a TV-14 rating. Now, there was a buxom secretary in a tight outfit with one of those pointy 1950s bras, but that's the full extent of adult content. The rest of the movie is thoroughly juvenile, and I can't believe that the movie would originally have been released designed for an older audience.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hugh Martin, 1914-2011

I just read that Hugh Martin has died at the age of 96. If you don't know who he is and didn't read the obituary, you can always look at the blog post I wrote on his 95t birthday.

Alternatively, you could watch the Youtube videos:

Gary Cooper, gangster?!

Yes, actually. It happens in the interesting pre-Code City Streets, which is aiirng at 1:15 AM ET tonight. (Note: Daylight Savings Time begins tonight, and the movie straddles the "skipped hour" in the Eastern time zone, but not in other time zones, where the skipped hour comes later.)

Cooper plays "Kid", who starts off the movie working the shooting gallery at Coney Island. He's got his eye on Nan (Sylvia Sidney), who loves him too and has a good source of money. Unfortunately, it's not a clean source: she's the daughter of a mob hitman (Guy Kibbee) who's working for the beer racket (this being Prohibition and all), and often assists her father in disposing of the weapon he uses to commit his murders. This is a source of tension between our two lovers, but with it being Prohibition and the Depression, people have to make a living somehow. One such hit goes wrong, and Nan winds up getting caught with a weapon on her person, which means big trouble for either her or Dad. The only way Cooper can help his girl is to get involved in the racket himself, so he goes in with Kibbee as one of the underlings of boss Paul Lukas.

Cooper shows himself to be an adept gangster, risking fairly quickly up the hierarchy, although this creates tension among the other racketeers, as well as even more with Nan, who decides that she really liked him better when he was just a poor carny at Coney Island. That, and the molls. Wynne Gibson plays a woman kept by Lukas, and when she gets fed up with it all, she comes up with a scheme that will get both Lukas and Cooper out of the way. Cooper is no dummy, however, and comes up with a plan of his own....

City Streets is a really interesting movie that unfortunately has a few plot holes. Cooper hadn't really hit his type yet, with the movie having been made in 1931. Today we know him for westerns and being the sturdy good guy, but he's really not bad here as the good-guy gangster. I don't know that he would have done so well as an anti-hero like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney, though. Sidney is good, and gets some interesting scenes in prison when her thoughts are revealed in voiceover, a technique which apparently hadn't been used before. Today it's a cliché, but then it was new. You'll probably remember Guy Kibbee for the roles he played in movies like 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933 where he was the dirty old man, but a likeable one. Here, he's quite good playing a character with few or no redeeming qualities. As good as the performances are, however, they come up a bit short in the end, as screenwriter Dashiell Hammett seems not to have had any idea how to resolve the plot conflicts. Still, City Streets is worth recording.

You're going to have to record it, since it doesn't seem to be avaiable on DVD.

Friday, March 11, 2011

You didn't really think it was clean, did you?

I don't think I've ever done a full-length blog post on Humphrey Bogart's last movie, The Harder They Fall. It's airing tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 PM ET, so now is a good time to post on it.

Bogart plays Eddie Willis, a sportswriter whose career has definitely hit the skids. Things might be beginning to look up for him, though, with the possibility of a good paying job. That job is to help boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) make a name for Benko's latest find, the Argentine boxer Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Moreno's plus is that at 6'8" and 270 lbs. or so, it's theoretically hard to bring him down. In reality, however, Toro can't punch, and has a glass jaw. It should be easy for any competent boxer to knock him out. Benko knows this of course, and Willis figures this out pretty quickly. But there's still money to be made, and Benko intends to do this dishonestly, by setting up a series of patsies for Toro to beat, before Toro can get the big-money bout. All Willis has to do is go along with the ruse.

Now, I'm not much of a fan of boxing, not even amateur boxing. So in general, I should dislike movies about boxing, especially those that romanticize it, and like a movie such as The Harder They Fall that exposes the seamy underside of the sport. That isn't quite reality, in that there are quite a few boxing-themed movies that I find quite enjoyable. As for The Harder They Fall, what I personally find good about the movie isn't about the message it says about boxing, but how it's really more a parable about journalistic integrity (not that there's much of that either these days) that just happens to be set against the backdrop of the boxing world. One could argue that Bogart's character in One Fatal Hour faces much the same dilemma as his Eddie Willis character.

The Harder They Fall seems not to be in print on DVD in North America.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

More fun with site stats

I finally got around to taking another look at the site statistics that Blogger provides again yesterday. As always, a lot of the referrals are from Google, and one popular referral was when I link to the post I did on The Fountainhead in the comments of another blog that mentioned the trailer to a possible version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. But the most popular referral from the last week was some spam site offering oblique muscle exercises to get rid of love handles. I surfed over to that particular URL and couldn't find any link to my blog. I wish I knew how these spam linking things make any money for anybody.

In Saudi Arabia, this *is* eroticAs for the Google referrals, a lot of them are from, but various of Google's country-specific sites tend to show up as well. This time, however, I was surprised to see three hits from, which is the domain-specific site for Saudi Arabia. Perhaps somebody was searching for the recent post I did on Two Arabian Knights, but that was two weeks ago. Or perhaps it was a search for the ever-popular Gus Visser. At any rate, it couldn't be as odd as the one search keyword that showed up a month or so ago, not long after the Joan Leslie birthday post I wrote. Somebody searched for "erotic photos of Joan Leslie". Seriously.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dancing Co-Ed

I did a full review of Dancing Co-Ed back in July 2008. It's airing again, overnight tonight at 3:00 AM ET. Beyond that, it's worth mentioning again for a couple of reasons.

TCM probably coincidentally programmed this to fall on what for them is the birthday of its director, S. Sylvain Simon. Simon was born March 9, 1910, and while the film is technically airing in the wee hours of March 10, TCM starts its programming day at 6:00 AM and would list this as airing on Wednesday March 9. (Indeed, it's listed on "today's" schedule.)

Next, they still haven't changed the synopsis that I mentioned in the July 2008 post. That's not surprising, since there's probably a lot in the database that would need to be changed, and there's no way any one person can go through and fix all the errors that creep in over time. My opinion, that it's fun if not particularly great, hasn't changed either.

Finally, the movie is now availabe on DVD, having been released by the Warner Archive that TCM promotes. So you no longer have to catch the infrequent TCM showings, which might be a good thing seeing as the coming airing is in the middle of the night. That having been said, if you didn't catch it when I recommended it back in 2008, it's well worth recording.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

So Lent begins tomorrow

At least it does, if you're one of those Christian denominations that takes Lent more than moderately seriously. The Fox Movie Channel has scheduled for the day by having a morning of religious-themed movies, including the Biblical mess David and Bathsheba, tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM ET.

I'll admit that I don't know the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba very well, so I don't know quite how faithful this movie adaptation is to the 3000-year-old story. Gregory Peck stars as David, the King of the Israelites, currently making war against some other tribe, with the help of his military commander Uriah (Kieron Moore). David can't always be at the front, and returns to Jerusalem to do the people's business, as well deal with his wife Michal (Jayne Meadows). She unfortunately is a harpie, constantly hen-pecking David for being born a shepherd, for constantly having an eye for other women, and all sorts of other things. (I guess wives have always been nags.) David, unsurprisingly, turns his attention to other things, most notably the woman he can see bathing when he looks down from his terrace. That woman is Bathsheba (Susan Heyward), and when he invites her to the palace for dinner, they immediately hit it off.

To say that David and Bathsheba hit it off is a bit of an understatement. They almost immediately begin a passionate love affair, even though Bathsheba tells David that she's also Mrs. Uriah. You know that things aren't going to end well from all this, and we get a foreshadowing of this in a scene in which David shows he's lost his mojo with the slingshot. (Viewers may recall that David smote Goliath, something which is shown near the end of the movie.) Things go from bad to worse when Bathsheba informs David that she's gotten knocked up, and that he has to be the father because she hasn't slept with Uriah in months, he being off fighting David's war. David calls Uriah back to Jerusalem and devises a devious plan to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, and -- miracle of miracles -- the one time that Uriah has sex with Bathsheba will be the time that Bathseba gets pregnant. But Uriah is so filled with zeal that he doesn't go home to Bathsheba, which means that David will have to get Uriah killed so that he can marry Bathsheba and the child will be legitimate, having been conceived just in time.

It's at this point that things really go from worse to worst, with the Israelites suffering drought and, presumably, other plagues that don't get shown on screen. David suffers too, as the new kid dies. The prophet Nathan (Raymond Massey) leads a bunch of disgruntled Israelites who are going to force Bathsheba to stand trial for adultery, the penalty for which is stoning (with David being forced to cast the first stone), but David repents just in time and everything turns about reasonably well for the Israelites.

Or so the movie's story goes. As I said at the beginning, there are probably liberties taken here, but since I don't know the Biblical story, I can lok at this more as a straight-up movie. In that way, it's problematic. Every plot turn is just oh-so-convenient, to the point of being laughable. And if the plot turns are laughable, the dialog is even more so. You really have to feel for poor Gregory Peck having to spout these lines. Still, David and Bathsheba is at least entertaining enough for a laugh, and might even be better than that. It's gotten a DVD release too, so you don't have to get up at 6:00 AM to watch it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How did they get away with it

The little-seen movie I Was An Adventuress is coming up tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel. It's interesting in a whole bunch of ways, and deserves to be seen.

First is the two men who are paired together: Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre. They're only billed third and fourth, but they (especially von Stroheim) make the movie run. They play a pair of confidence men (Andre and Polo) plying their trade across Europe bilking people out of substantial sums of money. They do this with the help of their partner in crime, the phony countess Vronsky (played by Vera Zorina, who gets top billing in this movie under the name "Zorina"). She's got a costume necklace, but the con game involves getting the mark to believe that the necklace is real, and then bilking the mark out of a substantial sum of money by selling the phony necklace for good money.

This routine goes well until the Countess meets French businessman Paul Vernay (Richard Green) on the Riviera. He's supposed to be their next mark, but she finds herself falling in love with him, and unable to go through with the con. Andre, who is really the brains of the operation, insists that she do just this last one, but it winds up a failure. The Countess runs off with Paul, unbeknownst to Andre and Polo, who go to Budapest awaiting the Countess.

Fast foward several months. Vronsky is now Mrs. Vernay, a ballet dancer who is trying to forget her past. She'd be able to do it, too, except that Andre and Polo are going around Europe looking for her, and eventually find her. Andre will stop at nothing to get her to return to the con game, and has a bit of an advantage in that he can blackmail her.

There's something odd about I Was An Adventuress, and yet something still quite enjoyable about it. First, the title is misleading, in that it really implies exotic locations that just aren't a part of the story. But that's minor. The putative "adventuress", Vera Zorina, was one of those European actresses who was imported to the US in the hopes of making her the next big European thing. We saw this back in the mid-1930s when people like Anna Sten were brought over after the success of Marlene Dietrich; by 1940 hiring people like Zorina was an attempt to emulate the success of the new big European actress, Ingrid Bergman. Zorina is good enough here, although she didn't become a big actress, going back to the stage.

Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre make a really interesting pair, and I can't help but wonder if the relationship between Andre and Polo was supposed to be a homosexual one that couldn't get past the Production Code. The two aren't quite as out there as the leads in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, but they have a dynamic that is interesting, to say the least. Speaking of the Production Code, I really wonder how the ending got past the enforcers. In theory, crime should never pay. The writers do come with an ending in which you can argue it hasn't paid for Andre and Polo, but then again maybe it still will. For Vronsky, she winds up happily married to Vernay at the end, seemingly never to face any charges. It really surprises me that the Code office let all three main characters get off so easily.

I Was An Adventuress isn't available on DVD, so you're going to have to watch the Fox Movie Channel showing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Maybe you haven't seen this story before

TCM is airing a pair of movies in the next 24 hours that are interesting because you know the story, but might not have seen the movie version. First, at midnight ET tonight, is this week's Silent Sunday Night feature (back now that 31 Days of Oscar is over: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of course, you know the story, and I'm sure I've at least briefly pointed out the Fredric March version (which won March an Oscar) as well as the MGM remake starring Spencer Tracy. Tonight's showing, however, is a 1920 silent starring John Barrymore, which doesn't show up all that often. IMDb claims that six movies based on the same material were made before the Barrymore version, and dozens since.

Tomorrow morning at 6:45 AM ET, you can watch The Mark of Zorro. Again, you probably know the story. Again, however, this is a movie version you might not have seen before, as it too is a 1920 silent, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the screen's original swashbuckler. I had thought (correctly) that all the Zorro movies were based on an earlier literary character, but a little more research surprised me. This particular Zorro movie is based on Johnston McCulley's story "The Curse of Capistrano", which was only published in 1919, making this the first Zorro movie. I haven't read the original story, but Wikipedia claims that Fairbanks' making Zorro a masked man wasn't in the original. Also, Zorro was supposed to be a one-time character, but the popularity of this film led McCulley to write more Zorro stories. And, of course, character became popular in film and later TV.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Social commentary to compare and contrast

TCM's Essentials returns now that 31 Days of Oscar is over. Tonight's selection is Cool Hand Luke, which is an excuse for TCM to show a night of movies dealing with chain gangs. One that I haven't recommended before is Hell's Highway, which airs overnight at 1:45 AM ET.

Richard Dix stars as "Duke" Ellis, a career criminal who has just been convicted again, for the last time: the early 1930s version of the "three strikes" legislations means that this latest conviction gets him declared a habitual criminal, which brings about a life sentence. Imprisoned, Duke is sent to work on the chain gang, which is typically brutal; watch especially for a sequence involving a "sweat box". Duke has plans to escape, but those plans are cut short by news from the outside. Duke has a kid brother Johnny (Tom Brown), who has always looked up to Duke. Despite Duke's exhortations that Johnny not follow in Duke's footsteps, Johnny too has taken to crime, in no small part because Ma needs the bills paid, and with a depression going on, what else is there to do? So, Johnny gets convicted and, this being Hollywood, gets sent to the same work gang that Duke is on. (You'd think that with crime gangs being bad enough as it is, the prison service wouldn't put brothers in the same prison together, but again, we have to have a movie plot here.)

Johnny is young and hot-headed, while Duke is much more hardened and has seen it all. As such, Duke tries to protect Johnny as best he can, but unfortunately, this leads to problems with the other convicts who think that Duke is trying to work with the wardens to keep Johnny safe. The combination of tension between various groups of convicts and the tension between the convicts and their keepers is a volatile one, and one that you know is going to explode. Predictably, it does, in a fairly spectacular (for early 1930s standards) sequence in which the prison camp goes up in flames. That leads to the climax of the prisoners escaping and being pursued by a large posse and the posse's dogs, and the ending, which you'll probably be able to guess.

Hell's Highway was released the same year as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (which airs at midnight); indeed, Hell's Highway was released two months earlier. And yet, the later movie is much better remembered today. Why? To be honest, i think the Paul Muni movie deserves its higher reputation. First, it's much more hard-hitting than Hell's Highway. Muni's character is a relatively innocent man, and one who between his two stints on the chain gang really redeems himself. It's easier to get invested in what happens to him than what happens to Dix's character. Second, the ending of Hell's Highway is a bit predictable and just too easy. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, however, has an ending that's more shocking and not forumlaic. Also, you can't tell it from the production values, but Chain Gang is told on a more grand scale, covering a substantial section of the man's life outside of prison, whereas Hell's Highway is more confined to prison in a way that puts it at a slight disadvantage.

Make no mistake, though; Hell's Highway is actually quite an enjoyable movie and shocking in its own way. Even if it isn't as good as some of the other chain gang movies, it's still good. And if you haven't seen it before, you probably should see it. Sadly, you'll have to watch the TCM airings, as rare as they are, as the movie hasn't been released to DVD.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ernst Lubitsch's dud

I've commented before that I think even the best people in classic Hollywood had at least one dud movie in them. Ernst Lubitsch made some glittering comedies, but then came one that falls rather short: Cluny Brown, which is airing tomorrow afternoon at 1:00 PM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Jennifer Jones stars as Cluny Brown. She's the niece of a plumber, and has dreams of being a plumber herself. One day somebody calls needing help, but uncle is away, so she goes over to the house to fix the man's backed up pipes. It turns out that he's well to do with an estate in the country, and takes a liking to her. So he plies her with drinks while hosting his society party. When the uncle finds discovers where Cluny is, he's none too pleased. He figures she needs a real job for a woman, such as a maid, and gets her one at the estate of Peter Lawford.

Peter Lawford is looking after Charles Boyer. That's because Boyer is a Czechoslovak refugee, having been forced out when the Nazis took over. At least, that's what Lawford thinks, and even if it weren't true, Boyer would be happy to let Lawford continue to believe it. Cluny's presence, however, has an effect on everybody around her, even though she's not much as a maid. Cluny has two guys going after her; both Boyer, and the local pharmacist (played by Richard Haydn), who has the mother from hell (Una O'Connor). Lawford, meanwhile, has a woman he's got an eye on, and Cluny gets involved in that relationship. And so it goes for an hour and a half.

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that Ernst Lubitsch made some wonderful comedies, such as Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be. For whatever reason, Cluny Brown doesn't really compare to those. I'm not quite certain why. A large part of it, though, probably has to do with the "drawing room" comedy nature of the movie. Back at the beginning of the sound era, there were quite a few movies made that were little more than filmed stage plays about higher-class people getting involved in a comedy of errors and romantic involvements behind everybody else's backs. In part because of the production values and in part because of the subject material, I've always found such movies to be a bit of a slog to get through; they wouldn't be the movies I'd recommend if I were trying to recommend an early talkie. Cluny Brown reminds me of those early "drawing room" comedies. It also doesn't help that the plot is all over the place, jumping from point A to point B much like Sylvia Scarlett, with no real logic in how the plot gets there. That's especially true of the ending. One of the few movies I can think of that has such an ending but works is The Palm Beach Story, which is also a bit of a "drawing room" comedy. But that works (in both regards) because the plot as a whole is coherent and well-presented. (Even the ending is hinted at.) Finally, I'm not a huge fan of either Jennifer Jones or Peter Lawford.

Still, Cluny Brown really tries, and Charles Boyer is reasonably well-used. Fans of Ernst Lubitsch will probably enjoy watching the movie. However, they'll have to watch it on the Fox Movie Channel. It's been released to DVD in Europe, but not in the US.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bloggers come, bloggers go, nothing's ever posted

No, I'm not quitting the blogging game; I'm just recommending Grand Hotel tonight at 8:00 PM ET on TCM

Grand Hotel is one of the earliest of the all-star movies, with MGM using a bunch of its stars against the backdrop of Berlin's "Grand Hotel"; each star with his or her own story. Greta Garbo, who got top billing, is the dancer who would rather just take a break from work. Her story collides with that of John Barrymore, playing a "Baron" who is in fact a scammer trying to get not at Garbo, but at her jewels -- he needs the money. In the hallways of the hotel the Baron meets "Flaemmchen" (Joan Crawford), a secretary to a renowned industrialist (Wallace Beery). The Baron falls in love with her, but she's not so certain she's in love with him. The problem is that she also has to deal with the unwanted advances of her boss. Flaemmchen isn't the only one of Beery's employees at the Grand Hotel, either. Unbeknownst to him, one of his clerks (Lionel Barrymore) has taken an unexcused absence because he wants to enjoy life for a bit, believing that he's terminally ill. Oblivious to all this is the hotel's doctor (Lewis Stone), who famously quips, "People come, people go; nothing ever happens".

And yet, quite a bit happens. Despite the fact that there are a lot of stories going on, it's not too difficult to keep them all straight: Grand Hotel interweaves its stories like Dinner At Eight and unlike those anthology movies which present one story at a time. To be honest, some of the stories aren't as good as others. I personally am not the biggest fan of either Greta Garbo or John Barrymore, so care less about their stories. But all the stories do more or less work together, and are helped by good acting.

That and the production values. The hotel in Grand Hotel is as grand as is implied by the title, with large and opulent art deco sets. Even when the story isn't so interesting, Grand Hotel is a beautiful movie to look at. It's probably the combination of all this that helped Grand Hotel win the Best Picture Oscar. (Being up against relatively weak competition wouldn't have hurt, either.) Grand Hotel has unsurprisingly made it to DVD, and is well worth watching.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Felix Bressart, 1892-1949

Felix Bressart and James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Today marks the birth anniversary of character actor Felix Bressart, who was born March 2, 1892. Bressart was born in the East Prussian exclave of Germany, and started his movie career in the Weimar Repbulic, before emigrating to the US in the late 1930s. In the decade between coming to Hollywood and his untimely death, Bressart made appearances in some 30 films, in which he played a variety of ethnic parts. The photo above is from The Shop Around the Corner, in which he plays a Hungarian. In one of his first Hollywood movies, Ninotchka, Bressart plays one of the three Soviet envoys to Paris whom Greta Garbo comes looking for. There were German speakers in movies like Escape and Above Suspicion; a Pole in To Be Or Not to Be; and even an Icelander when he played Sonja Henie's father in Iceland.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sophia Loren times three!

For those who like anthology movies, TCM is airing an Italian film from the genre tomorrow morning at 4:45 AM: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

THe movie is billed as telling three stories of the ways in which women use their bodies to get the things they want, and that's more or less accurate. All three stories star Sophia Loren as the woman, and Marcelo Mastroianni as the man in her life. First is a story called "Adelina", in which Loren plays a woman in the slums of Naples. She's incurred a debt for the furniture in the house she and her husband live in, and it's gotten to the point where she can go to jail for fraud. However, there's an exemption in Italian law (or so the movie claims) that a mother who is pregnant or nursing can't be put in prison. So Adelina gets the brilliant idea that she can avoid going to jail as long as she's either pregnant, or nursing her latest child. And boy does she get pregnant! You'd think she'd hit menopause eventually, but what happens first is that her husband (Mastroianni, of course) is unable to put out with the racket from all those kids.

In the second segment, Loren plays Anna, the wife of a wealthy industrialist. Her husband is always away on business, so she spends her days driving around not so much aimlessly, but with the intention of picking up her man on the side (Mastroianni) somewhere where they won't be noticed. This will let them enjoy a romantic tryst and, they hope, not get caught. All goes to plan until the two get in an argument over who can drive better, and they end up crashing the car. Oops.

The final story has Loren as a prostitute who uses her own apartment to entertain her guests. She also likes to exit her apartment out onto the terrace rather scantily clad, which means she entertaining the people in the apartment across the way. The problem with this is that the grandson of that apartment's owner is a young man who's studying for the seminary, and Loren's beauty is getting him entierly too excited....

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is more about Loren than Mastroianni, and she shines. The stories are pretty good, but more in service of Loren's beauty and acting ability. That, and the beauty of Naples, and in the second segment some of the countryside around Naples. This is a movie that in more ways than one is lovely to look at. Don't let that make you think the stories are inferior; they should entertain you too. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow has been released to DVD, so you don't have to worry that it's on at such an ungodly hour.

Jane Russell, 1921-2011

The death has been announced of actress Jane Russell, an actress who became known just as much for her bust as for her acting abilities. She was 89.

Russell came to prominence in the 1943 film The Outlaw, which thanks to producer Howard Hughes infamously showed alluring shots of Russell, to the point that Joe Breen and the folks administering the Production Code refused to give it their approval, which meant it couldn't be shown in "respectable" movie theaters. When the film got a broad release in 1946, it was a huge hit. Surprise surprise

Russell is perhaps best known for playing Marilyn Monroe's sidekick in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and even appeared in 3-D (with her ample assets popping out of the screen!) in The French Line. (As far as I'm aware, there's no 3-D print available for home viewing.)

I haven't seen yet if TCM is going to preempt any of their programming for a tribute. With the end of 31 Days of Oscar still to go and three nights a week in prime time in March being taken up by special features, there's a bit less room to preempt anything. Apparently the tentative June 2011 schedule has been released, and Russell was going to get a tribute on what would have been her 90th birthday in June.