Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Thing From Another World

The Thing from Guiding Light would have been just as frigteningI don't think I've ever done a full-length blog post on The Thing From Another World. It's airing overnight at 2:00 AM, as part of the last night of TCM's "Drive-In Double Features" marathon.

The setting is an arctic research station in Alaska. They've discovered something under the ice that looks like it might be an alien spacecraft, and decide to try to dig it out. It turns out that there's something inside the craft. Unfortunately, that something gets thawed out, and proceeds to go on a rampage. What should the folks at the base do? The military commander of the base (Kenneth Tobey) naturally wants to kill the thing. But, this is one of those 1950s sci-fi movies that has the ubiquitous trope of the scientist who thinks everybody should try to study the menace rather than destroy it.

Ultimately, The Thing From Another World is limited by budget considerations, and a lack of special effects. But both of these limitations actually serve to help the film. The arctic research station should be cramped: in the high arctic, you don't want to have a bunch of extraneous space to have to heat, and everything should be spartan and functional. And the lack of special effects means the horror has to be hinted at and left in the minds of the viewers, a technique Val Lewton knew all to well. Eventually, we do briefly see the Thing, which is played by a young James Arness.

The Thing From Another World is squarely in the 1950s, and yet a pretty darn entertaning movie.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So many dead people

If you hang out on the TCM message boards, you'll know that about three times a year, we regulars take part in the TCM Programming Challenge, in which entrants have to come up with a hypothetical week's schedule for TCM, subject to restrictions (notably on the number of premieres; you can't just take the entire Universal library from the 1930s and program the movies of your choice, as TCM doesn't have the broadcast rights to them). It gives a good appreciation of the difficulties TCM's real programmers must go through in trying to program a schedule.

Anyhow, this time around I decided to take the "TCM Remembers" idea of the video with all the famous people who died over the past year, and expand on it by looking not only at dead people, but at some of the other events that made the news in 2011. In doing the research, I was surprised and saddened at the number of people whose deaths I haden't noticed when they first happened.

* William Campbell, who starred in the movie Man in the Vault, which I recommended back in the summer of 2008, died back at the end of April.
* I completely missed the death of Gunnar Fischer back in June at the age of 100, but then, that's not a very recognizable name. He was responsible for the cinematography of The Seventh Seal and a bunch of other Ingmar Bergman movies.
* Michael Sarrazin, the male lead in For Pete's Sake, died in mid-April at the relatively young age of 70.
* Michael Gough got his start in Britain, and would go on to appear in Joan Crawford's last movie, Trog, and then play Alfred the butler in the Batman movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He died March, aged 94.
* Oldest would be Miriam Seegar, who appeared in about a dozen movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, died at the beginning of January aged 103.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Elaine Stewart update

I knew that Stewart's Brigadoon was on the TCM schedule for June, but I thought it had just aired not too long ago. Instead, I see that it's actually airing at 10:00 PM on June 29, as part of a night of movies set in Scotland. Of tomorrow evening's movies, I would recommend I Know Where I'm Going!, which kicks off the night at 8:00 PM. In fact, I already have recommended it, back in June 2009. Of course, it doesn't star Elaine Stewart.

Tonight is the last night of Star of the Month Jean Simmons' movies on TCM. Elmer Gantry comes up at 10:30 PM, although I'll be watching the first of the night's movies, as it's one I haven't seen before, Home Before Dark. The night, which continues into Wednesday morning, includes one of my least favorite movies, Mister Buddwing at 5:00 AM.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Elaine Stewart, 1930-2011

The death has been announced of actress Elaine Stewart, at the age of 81. Stewart's career never became quite that big, but she had a memorable role in The Bad and the Beautiful, from which the production still above (with Gilbert Roland) is taken. In The Bad and the Beautiful, Stewart plays a young actress who winds up in the arms of Kirk Douglas, much to the dismay of Lana Turner, who thought that Douglas was her boyfriend. I've also recommended Stewart in A Slight Case of Larceny. I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but you can also see her in the MGM musical Brigadoon.

The reason why Stewart's movie career fizzled is in part due to her marriage to Merrill Heatter, who survives Stewart after a marriage of 46 years. Heatter was a game show producer, most famously of The Hollywood Squares, and when Heatter and his business partner came up with Gambit, a game show based on blackjack, Heatter used Stewart as one of the card dealers assisting host Alex Trebek.

Alfred Hitchcock at Warner Bros.

Alfred Hitchcock started working at Warner Brothers in the early 1950s. TCM is showing several of the movies he made at Warner Bros. tonight. I thought I had blogged about all of them, but apparently it's only three. For the record, all five movies, with the links to the three I've blogged about, are:

Jane Wyman trying to determine whether Marlene Dietrich committed murder in Stage Fright at 8:00 PM;
Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest having to keep a murderer's confession secret in I Confess at 10:00 PM;
Ray Milland trying to kill wife Grace Kelly in Dial M For Murder, at midnight
Henry Fonda as a man who is mistaken for a criminal in the docudrama The Wrong Man at 2:00 AM; and
Farley Granger being asked to commit the murder of the man Robert Walker wants dead in Strangers on a Train at 4:00 AM.

I could swear I'd blogged about The Wrong Man before; perhaps it's just the search problems Blogger seems to be having at the moment. A search of my blog for "Henry Fonda" yielded one result! Also, Strangers on a Train will be airing again on Friday afternoon as part of a tribute to Farley Granger.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peter Lorre, 1904-1964

A production still from Mad Love (1935)

Today marks the birth anniversary of Peter Lorre, whom you'll probably recall from Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon among a whole host of great movies. But I'd prefer to mark his birthday by posting a few photos from performances that aren't quite so well known. First above is Mad Love, in which Lorre plays a mad scientist doctor who give pianist Colin Clive a hand transplant, only for those hands, taken from a knife thrower, to go back to their own life.

Peter Lorre had a smaller role in Arsenic and Old Lace. It's a movie you're more likely to remember for Cary Grant's manic antics, or for the two aunts who poison lonely old men to take them out of their misery. Lorre plays another doctor, this time performing plastic surgery on Grant's brother (Raymond Massey, in the center of the photo) who is also a fugitive from the law.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Peter Falk, 1927-2011

Actor Peter Falk, who is probably best known for playing the detective Columbo on the TV series of the same name in the 1970s, died yesterday at the age of 83. Falk made some movies as well, although I don't think he was ever the lead in any big movies. That having been said, his first film, Murder Inc., in which he plays a cold-blooded killer for the mob's killing syndicate of the same name, actually earned him an Academy Award nomination. Murder Inc. is available on DVD, but it's one of those movies I haven't seen recently enough to do a full-length post about. It's also a Fox film, and it'll probably be a while until it shows up again in the Fox Movie Channel's rotation.

One of the movie roles I best remember Falk in is as one of the taxi drivers who takes the greedy treasure hunters to the "Big W" in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. TCM has a piece on that movie they show whenever the movie is on the schedule, and that piece includes a shot of Falk, along with fellow cabbie Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, framing the "Big W". Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a still of that particular shot on the web, so I've had to use a more generic shot of Falk in his cab.

Friday, June 24, 2011

It'll just lead to a series of lousy romantic comedies

TCM asks, and I suppose the movie itself answers, the question you've all been wondering about: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, tonight at 8:00 PM.

Rock Hunter refers not to your favorite closeted actor, but to an advertising executive named Rockwell Hunter, played by Tony Randall (who, interestingly enough, would go on to do the same sort of romantic comedies with Doris Day that Rock Hunter the actor did). Rockwell is in a bad way, as he needs a successful ad campaign to perk up his career. Help may be on the way, however, as he's found out where the blond bombshell Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) is staying in New York; with any luck, Rockwell can get Rita to endorse the lipstick for which Rockwell has the advertising contract. Rita agrees, although with a big condition. She's got a boyfriend Bobo (Mickey Hargitay) who's a TV Tarzan-type, there for his muscles and not his brains. Rita will endorse the lipstick if Rockwell agrees to pretend to be her new boyfriend, as she wants to make Bobo jealous.

Rockwell agrees, and when Rita refers to him as her "Lover Doll", it quickly makes world headlines. This revives Rockwell's flagging career, but produces a whole bunch of other problems. He's got a niece (Lili Gentile) for whom he's trying to be a good influence, and a fiancée (Betsy Drake) who obviously has her own problems with the phony relationship-for-the-media. For a while, none of this matters, however, as Rockwell gets the one thing he thinks he's been looking for: the key to the executive washroom. (Yes, the ad firm really does have a separate executive washroom, and makes as big a deal over the key as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World does over the the palm trees that form the Big W.) But life at the top is never quite what it seems.

The title of the post might give you the impression that I don't like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but that wouldn't be the case. It's just those Doris Day romantic comedies that I find irritating. As for tonight's movie, it's certainly a product of its time. The folks making movies often didn't like television, as they considered it a threat, and there's quite a bit of pointed satire on the subject here. That, and on the business world -- there's that whole key to the executive washroom thing that I mentioned above. But at times, it seems as though the movie is trying to do a bit too much, what with Tony Randall having to deal with three women, a boss, and Mansfield's boyfriend. This is the sort of material Randall was good at, though; and Mansfield is not as bad as she's often portrayed as being.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marlene Dietrich makes an adventure movie

It might be difficult to imagine somebody as glamorous as Marlene Dietrich making a movie that's best categorized in the adventure genre, but such a film is coming up tomorrow at noon on TCM: Knight Without Armour.

Dietrich plays Countess Alexandra, a countess in Tsarist Russia in the days just before World War I. But more on her later. The beginning of the film belongs more to the male lead, Robert Donat. He plays a British man who's fluent in Russian, which brings him to the attention of the British Foreign Office. They know that there's a lot of intrigue going on in Russia, and they'd like to know exactly what is going to happen there. So, they recruit Donat to by a spy; specifically, they want him to play the part of a would-be revolutionary so that they can determine what the revolutionaries really want. It's dangerous work, because the British would have to deny all knowledge of his existence.

Anyhow, fast forward several years to 1917. If you know your history, you'll know that the autumn of 1917 brought about the October Revolution, which nominally brought the Communists to power. I say "nominally" because while they deposed the Provisional Government, there was a significant anti-Communist movement in Russia, with the result that there was a civil war which lasted several years. Countess Alexandra unsurprisingly gets caught up in all this, as her servants leave and the Reds take her hostage. Alexandra, having been part of the old nobility, is clearly an enemy of the New Communist Man.

Donat has been caught up in the Civil War as well, which is similarly unsurprising since he's been playing at a revolutionary. However, for perfectly understandable reasons he wants out (and besides, the Foreign Office probably doesn't need him any longer). Meeting the good Countess gives him another reason to get out, hopefully with her following close behind. And so, the two begin to try to make their way to the border. But with a civil war going on, there are a lot of obstactles as well as a lot of danger facing them.

Knight Without Armour was made by the Korda brothers at London Film in the mid-1930s, which means it's one of those movies that hasn't become very well known in the US. Indeed, I had never heard of it before it had its TCM premiere some time back. However, it's a pretty darn good movie. The Korda brothers tried their hardest to come up with exquisite production values, and the look is better than other British movies of the same time, and even a lot of Hollywood movies not made at MGM. The story, to be fair, is not particularly special; if you've seen one escape movie you might not have seen them all, but you'll recognize similar elements. Still, Knight Without Armour is suitably suspenseful, and has the right amount of dark humor. This is especially true in one scene where the two leads meet a railway station master who is insistent that the trains at his station are going to run on time, even if there aren't any trains.

Amazon lists Knight Without Armour as having gotten a DVD release in Australia, while TCM's database doesn't seem to have it available on DVD.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Naunton Wayne, 1901-1970

Today marks the birth anniversary of British actor Naunton Wayne. He's probably best known in America for playing Caldicott opposite Basil Radford's Chalmers. They were first paired together in The Lady Vanishes to provide some of Alfred Hitchcock's black humor: they were trying to get back to England to get the result of the cricket Test match, which is far more important to them than any disappearing woman who might be in danger. (The punchline of the story is that the match gets rained out.) The two characters proved to be so popular that they were brought back together to play Caldicott and Chalmers again in Night Train to Munich, as I mentioned back in July 2009. They were paired together as Caldicott and Chalmers in two more movies, and then worked together again in the British horror classic Dead of Night, although the two actors play differently-named characters there.

The photo above is taken from the defunct In Character blog about character actors, which doesn't seem to have been updated in two years.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bette Davis plays Elizabeth again

The movie The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is one I've recommended before. (It aired yet again on Errol Flynn's birthday yesterday.) Bette Davis played England's Queen Elizabeth I in that movie, and would go on to play Elizabeth a second time. That later movie, The Virgin Queen, airs tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

This one is set a good two decades before Elizabeth and Essex, and the main love of Elizabeth in this film is Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd). Raleigh was a military hero of sorts, but really wanted to get into the court of Elizabeth for a different reason: he wanted to lead an expedition to the New World, and is looking for financial backing for a ship and men. Of course, there's the usual palace intrigue, in that Raleigh has to deal with two other of Elizabeth's lovers: the Earl of Leicester (Herbert Marshall) and Christopher Hatton (Robert Douglas). Also, Raleigh falls in love with one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting (played by a young Joan Collins), which threatens to bring forth the queen's ire.

Well, we know Raleigh is going to survive; at least, he outlives the Queen but gets beaded by James I in 1618. But that's not a reason to downgrade the movie. After all, we know what's going to happen to Esses in Elizabeth and Essex, and that's quite a good movie. Unfortunately, the story in The Virgin Queen isn't quite as interesting as the one in Elizabeth and Essex. And with the exception of Davis, the characters aren't quite as good either. The one advantage The Virgin Queen does have, though, is technical superiority born largely of the wide-screen cinematography. None of this is to say The Virgin Queen is a bad movie, however; it's just not quite as good as Elizabeth and Essex.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jane Russell tribute

TCM didn't do any special programming for Jane Russell when she died earlier this year. Tomorrow would have been her 90th birthday, so TCM is marking the day with a morning and afternoon of her movies. I've recommended a couple of them before; one that I haven't mentioned is Macao, which you can see at 9:15 AM.

Jane Russell is one of several passengers taking the slow boat from Hong Kong to Macao inthe days when both were still owned by colonial powers. Russell filches the wallet of drifter Robert Mitchum, who as a result can't make it through customs. Rather than getting deported forthwith, he gets set to the police, in the form of local police chief Thomas Gomez. Gomez, being a stuck in a backwater, is a corrupt SOB, being in the pay of the head of the local gambling racket Brad Dexter. Dexter knows the American police are after him, but as long as he stays in Macao, he can avoid being extradited. Dexter thinks that Mitchum is the new guy the police have sent to lure him away from the island; he having just had his henchmen bumped off the previous police officer. Apparently, Dexter believes in that old adage of keeping one's enemies closer than one's friends. In fact, it's not Mitchum Dexter should be worrying about. It's William Bendix, who is in Macao under the guise of being a businessman. Bendix sees Dexter's misjudgment as a blessing, in that he can use Mitchum as the bait to lure Dexter outside territorial waters....

And so it goes for eighty-some minutes. To be honest, Macao is nothing groundbreaking. Mitchum had played similar roles in His Kind of Woman (airing tomorrow at 12:15 PM) and Where Danger Lives. The drifter without money is something you'd see in Gilda. Jane Russell was just another in a long line of femmes fatales, although she's quite lovely to look at, as she was in most of her movies. Using a lure to catch a criminal is something done earlier with a knowing lure (think Lucille Ball in Lured) and would be done later with an unknowing lure (Cary Grant in North by Northwest). Still, it's more than entertaining enough.

More schedule problems

Back at the end of March, I posted that TCM had made changes to the website that included screwing up the monthly schedule. Notably, they got rid of the one-sentence synopses, but also revamped them in a way that included a whole bunch of HTML that left extraneous lines if you copy the HTML page to a text file. They eventually got rid of the former problem, but never did solve the latter one. Now, there's a new problem, in that the monthly schedule for July can't be accessed; only for the current month. It would be a pretty big shame if you couldn't get the monthly schedule until the first day of the month.

On an unrelated note, I'm wondering if anybody else has been having problems with Blogger's search function. A week or so ago I tried to search on Jackie Cooper. Since I knew I'd written an obituary thread on him, a search would be bound to yield something. But no: see this photo for the results.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stagecoach for kids

I recommended the movie Stagecoach back in February 2010. It's also tonight's Essentials, Jr. selection, at 8:00 PM.

Part of me wonders whether any parnets will have problems with it. After all, you've got Claire Trevor's brothel worker, and an alcoholic among the characters. There's also the violence and the anti-Apache sentiments, which would nowadays be called racist even though this would have been perfectly normal at the time. And yet, I can't help but think a lot of these fine points would go over the heads of a lot of the little ones. There's a fairly powerful story about good versus evil, and individuals against the crowd, in the story, and that's certainly something kids should have no problem grasping.

Also, I always wonder whether the children of a previous generation weren't quite as innocent as we want to think, romanticizing the past. It was perfectly normal for kids to do cooking and even mind store, as we saw in the Little Rascals shorts that aired on TCM back in January. And there's nothing abnormal about Mickey Rooney's expecting to be the man of the house in The Human Comedy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cary Grant again?

Tonight's TCM Essential, at 8:00 PM ET, is Bringing Up Baby, a movie that I've mentioned quite a few times, but never done a full-length post on. However, since I've done two straight posts on Cary Grant movies, I'm not particularly in the mood to do another. Bringing Up Baby is an excuse if you will, to schedule a night of screwball comedies, several of which I've recommended in the past:

Twentieth Century follows Bringing Up Baby at 10:00 PM;
Nothing Sacred, a movie which really does deserve a post of its own, comes on at midnight. Fredric March plays a newsman who helps Carole Lombard, a small-town girl who thinks she's dying of radiation poisoning, only to find out the tests were wrong. And now they have to keep up the charade.
Merrily We Live is next at 1:30 AM, and is one I haven't actually seen before.
I blogged about Theodora Goes Wild back in December 2009; it's airing at 3:15 AM.
The Awful Truth is another of those movies I've mentioned a number of times without doing a full-length post about. But, like Bringing Up Baby, it stars Cary Grant (and yesterday's birthday boy Ralph Bellamy). It's on at 5:00 AM.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The most boring birthday since Ralph Bellamy

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Ralph Bellamy, who was born on this day in 1904. TCM honored him last year in prime time on his birthday, but I'm surprised to see that I didn't mention last year that the day was Bellamy's birthday. I don't think I've ever blogged fully on the sparkling comedy His Girl Friday either, so this would be a good time to rectify that.

Bellamy, as always, plays the third wheel. The star is Cary Grant, playing newspaper editor Walter Burns. He's got a big story he wants written, that of death row inmate Earl Williams (John Qualen). There's only one person who can get that story the right way: Burns' star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). There are only two problems: first, Hildy is about to retire from the journalism racket to get married to insurance salesman Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). Second, Hildy used to be the former Mrs. Walter Burns! So, it's up to Walter to come up with some ruse to get Hildy to stay just one more day to do this one last story.

If that were all there is to the movie, it would be a pretty good movie. But there's a lot more going on beneath that. It turns out that Williams' case is controversial. The governor is ordering clemency for the prisoner, but there's an election coming up soon, and the mayor doesn't want to be seen as soft on crime, so he's trying to keep anybody from finding out about the stay before Williams can be executed. Most of the press doesn't care about Williams' possible innocence, seemingly content to let him fry.

The commentary, however, is buried beneath a whole bunch of comedy, thanks to the writing of Ben Hecht and the direction of Howard Hawks. Hawks' style is well-known for being extremely rapid fire, and His Girl Friday might be Hawks at his most rapid pacing; there are constantly characters talking in orthogonal conversations, most often on telephones from the prison news room. All this is certainly helped by having leads who were both quite adept at comedy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Dairy Executive's Wife

If I said I was going to recommend a movie starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young, your reaction might be, "Oh, good! They're going to show The Bishop's Wife again!" You'd be wrong. The movie I'm thinking of is Born to Be Bad, airing at 10:30 AM tomorrow on the Fox Movie Channel.

Loretta Young, who was about 21 at the time she made this, plays Letty, a single mom with a kid Mickey who seems much too old to be Young's kid, although it is mentioned at one point in the movie that Letty became a mother at 15. Letty makes her way in the world by being an escort, which is a high-class way of saying that she spends her evenings with men and walks away with their money. This means she isn't able to look after Mickey too well, who as a result becomes a truant and a mischief maker. At least, until he tries to hitch a ride on the back of a truck and gets hit by a milk truck. The milk truck is being driven by dairy company executive Malcolm Trevor (Cary Grant), who believes that he should spend at least a little time doing each of the various jobs in his business, and it was just his rotten luck to be driving the milk truck that day. He offers to help out with Mickey's medical expenses, but Letty and her crooked lawyer friend see dollar signs. They file a bogus lawsuit against Malcolm, which gets thrown out because Malcolm was smart enough to hire detectives to film Mickey perfectly healthy after the accident.

So, Mickey gets sent to reform school since Letty is clearly an unfit mother. Malcolm feels bad for the kid, and offers to become a foster parent, since he's also got a wife to look after the kid. He's even generous enough to let Letty see Mickey whenever she wants. Letty, having gotten one bad idea with the lawsuit, goes from one bad idea to another and figures she can use Mickey as a way to Malcolm's heart, which should lead directly to his wallet. But Mickey has begun to appreciate what good parenting can do for him....

Born to Be Bad is another great example of the pre-Code movie, having been released about two months before Joe Breen and company really decided to clamp down on enforcing the Production Code. Loretta Young might be at the most brazen I've ever seen her. Cary Grant had already made She Done Him Wrong, which really thrust him into the spotlight, but he hadn't quite reached the level he would by the end of the decade. As for the supporting roles, Henry Travers plays the owner of a bookshop where Letty worked when she first gave birth to Mickey (and the cradle is still in the back of the bookstore). He's the one guy who keeps a sane head about him throughout the proceedings. Born to Be Bad only runs a little more than an hour, which means the the story changes and end a bit abruptly. But it's still an interesting little movie.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some like it with voiceovers

I've recommended quite a few of the docudramas made at 20th Century-Fox in the second half of the 1940s. A later docudrama, in color and wide-screen, is showing up tonight at 6:00 PM on the Fox Movie Channel: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

If you're conversant in history, you should know that the St. Valentine's Day Massacre refers to the February 14, 1929 gangland shooting by Al Capone's (played by Jason Robards) gang of seven members of the rival Chicago gang led by Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). The actual shootings don't come until the end of the movie, however. At least, not in detail; the aftermath is shown and then what we get is the run-up to the event, and how it was planned in great detail.

I shouldn't bore you with stuff on Prohibition and how this led to gangs taking over the booze racket, as that's all well-known stuff. When watching a movie based on history like The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, what's important is the presentation. Most sources who know more about Chicago gangland than I do claim that the filmmakers tried to get this as historically accurate as they could. It certainly plays as though the filmmakers are trying to do that. One of the techniques used in docudramas is the voiceover, and here it's used a bit differently than in other docudramas. Every time a new character is introduced, we hear narrator Paul Frees tell us who the character is, and a bit of biographical data about the person: date of birth, rap sheet, date and manner of death, and so on. It has the effect of making it easier to keep all the characters separate, but more importantly, it makes them seem more like the real people they were and not just movie characters. As good as James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson were at playing gangsters, you never really know just how real their characters were.

As for the performances, there's nothing much in them to distract from the story. The cast has quite a few recognizable names, such as George Segal as one of Moran's underlings, who kicks off the action by intimidating a speakeasy owner. Reed Hadley, whose name you might recall from narrating all the old Fox docudramas, shows up here in the flesh and not just the voice, as rubbed gangster Hymie Weiss.

If you're comfortable with the voiceovers, you'll probably quite enjoy The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

British anthology movies

I've recommended a couple of anthology movies made at 20th Century-Fox in the past, and even at least one made by MGM. Anthologies were made all over the place, however, as you can see from the British movie Trio, which is airing tonight at 8:00 PM

The popularity of the anthology genre can be shown by the fact that Trio was a follow-up. In 1949, the movie Quartet was released, which was based on four short stories by the British writer W. Somerset Maugham, with Maugham himself narrating the pieces introducing each of the stories. The movie proved popular enough that Trio, which as you can probably guess from the title tells three more of Maugham's stories, went into production. (Another movie, Encore, was made after this.) As for the stories themselves:

First up is "The Verger", which tells the story of a church sexton (James Hayter) who has been doing his job well for close to 20 years despite being functionally illiterate. A new vicar comes along, however, and fires the sexton, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as our hero goes on to start his own business and wind up much more financially successful than he ever could have been as a sexton.

Next is "The Know-It-All", about a bunch of passengers on a sea voyage who have to suffer through an obnoxious self-styled know-it-all. Some of the passengers decide to extract a measure of revenge on him by embarrassing him over a piece of costume jewelry. The plot could backfire, though, as the costume necklace might be authentic, in which case the woman wearing it didn't get it from her husband.

Finally is "Sanatorium", a story about the various patients at a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Scotland. Star of the Month Jean Simmons shows up here, as a young female patient who falls in love with fellow patient Michael Rennie although everybody around them knows it's destined to be a doomed affair. This is the longest of the three stories, and also the best, at it has a whole bunch of vignettes in it dealing with all of the patients. It's not just the story of Simmons and Rennie.

To be honest, Trio isn't without its flaws. The first two segments ended rather quickly, which quite surprised me, as I didn't expect "Sanatorium" to run so long. Also, "The Know-It-All" is a relatively weak story, not helped by the fact that the main character is so irritating, and unctuous enough to make Jack Carson's Wally Fay look tame by comparison. It's a worthy enough movie, however, and the sort of movie that doesn't get made today.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Enchanted Cottage

Back in September 2008, I commented about blind characters in the movies, and one of the stereotypes being that they can "see" more deeply into people than sighted people can. A good example of this might be the movie The Enchanted Cottage, which is airing tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM ET.

The blind character, Major John Hillgrove, is played by Herbert Marshall, and is really a supporting character, in that he helps bring together the two main characters, Laura (Dorothy McGuire) and Oliver (Robert Young). Laura is a homely wallflower living in an isolated cottage in a seaside town, who has pretty much given up all hope of finding love: everybody tells her she'll never find it, and when she does go out, people don't take notice of her. Into her life comes Oliver. He's a veteran of World War II who has been sent to the cottage to recover from injuries he suffered; specifically, injuries that have scarred his face.

You can probably guess what happens next. Laura and Oliver fall in love. And they learn to see the inner beauty in each other. But they think that it's the cottage causing them to see each other as beatuiful, especially since everybody else thinks of their actual physical appearance.

On the face of it, this is pretty hokey stuff, and one i should probably not like all that much. And yet, The Enchanted Cottage is really not a bad movie. It is the sort of thing that women will probably like more than men, but it isn't as obnoxiously into the "chick flick" category as, say, Dark Victory or Random Harvest (and it's definitely more to my male liking than either of those two); instead, it's somewhat more of a fantasy. The emphasis should be on somewhat as it's more rooted in reality than something like Portrait of Jenny (which I also find a better film overall).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

More Essentials, Jr. repeats

Tonight at 8:00 PM sees the second installment of this year's Essentials, Jr. series of kid-friendly movies that won't drive adults nuts. There's a feature and a short this week. First is the feature, Buster Keaton's The General. I'm not quite certain whether it's been part of Essentials, Jr. before; I'd probably be mixing it up with other Buster Keaton selections to say that it did. I know Sherlock Jr. did, and I think Steamboat Bill, Jr. did. But Keaton's silent comedies are all good enough that any of them are worth watching.

The General is followed at 9:30 PM by The Music Box, the Laurel and Hardy short about two men trying to move a piano up a flight of stairs. I know that one has been part of Essentials, Jr. before.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I wish I had seen The Conquerors before

TCM showed The Conquerors on Thursday as part of a salute to its director William Wellman. I could have sworn I was watching a remake of Cimarron.

Richard Dix plays Roger Standish, a young bank clerk in New York City circa 1873. He's in love with the boss' daughter (Ann Harding), but Dad won't let such a man of low upbriging marry his daughter. Fortunately there's an economic crash which gives Dad a fatal heart attack. It leaves the daughter and Roger penniless, but they've got love, and decide to go west and grow up with the country. West they do, until they get ambushed in Nebraska, and Roger gets shot. His forced recovery gives them time to settle.

You can guess most of the rest, at least if you've seen Cimarron. (Roger Standish doesn't go a-wandering, but that's the one big difference.) RKO made this one in 1932, not long after the Oscar-winner, and Richard Dix plays the lead role. I couldn't help but think of Cimarron as I was watching, although one IMDb reviewer also made the astute observation that this plays out a lot like Cavalcade as well.

The cast is good enough, especially Edna Mae Oliver as the proprietress of the hotel where the Standishes wind up after Roger gets shot, and Guy Kibbee as her alcoholic husband. They're two of the great character actors, and take control of a lot of the scenes in which they appear. Oliver looks a bit too old at the start of the movie to be still alive at the end, 55 years later, but that's Hollywood. The only real problem with the movie is that the story seems stale, as though it was old even by 1932 standards. There's something about it that doesn't have the sparkle that Cimarron does. Perhaps it's the land rush scene in Cimarron. There are some interesting visual effects showing the stock market rises and ultimately crashes, but they don't hold a candle to the land rush.

I was mildly surprised to see at the end of the movie that TCM was hawking the DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection. Not so much to see them hawking DVDs; they have to make money after all. More that this one has gotten a DVD release. If I had seen it before, I would have mentioned the TCM showing, and not make you look into getting a DVD. I had really wanted to see the following film, the fun pre-Code Love is a Racket, but it hasn't gotten a DVD release yet.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I could go on repeating posts, too

Today happens to be the birth anniversary of Judy Garland. TCM is unsurprisingly spending the entire morning and afternoon honoring her, concluding with her final film, I Could Go On Singing, at 6:15 PM. Now, I new I had blogged about that movie before, and as luck would have it, my searching the blog for posts on Dirk Bogarde (since he's starring overnight in Victim) brought it up. The post was made on Judy Garland's birthday last year. Amd, coincidentally enough, when TCM scheduled I Could Go On Singing last year, they scheduled it for 6:15 PM as well. How convenient.

So, I got to wondering how many of the movies from last year's tribute to Garland were repeated for this year's. The Clock and The Pirate were shown back-to-back both years, although this year they came a bit earlier in the day. Summer Stock showed up mid-afternoon both days, and Girl Crazy showed up in the morning. No Meet Me In St. Louis (not that I care for the movie, of course); no Babes on Broadway with Mickey Rooney; no Harvey Girls.

Now, I can understand that for people who have a relatively limited filmography, or people for whom TCM would have difficulty getting the rights to broadcast some of the movies, that the same movies would get repeated. You'd think TCM could show two completely different lineups for Judy Garland, though.

A night of movies I've blogged about

Having been at this for over three years and 1,400 posts of varying quality, I should suppose it's not surprising that quite a few of the movies on the schedule are ones I've already blogged about in the past. So it is with tonight's lineup of movies on TCM about people hiding homosexual relationships.

The night kicks off at 8:00 PM with The Best Man, a February 2009 mention starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, in which Fonda is hiding his nervous breakdown while Robertson had the gay fling in the army.
Don Murray plays the man who had his gay fling in the army in the next film, Advise and Consent, at 10:00 PM. I recommended it previously in August 2010.
The last of the three movies before TCM Underground is a British take on the subject: Victim, in which Dirk Bogarde plays a British lawyer being blackmailed for his homosexual relationship. It airs at 12:30 AM, and I recommended it back in February 2009.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Panic in Needle Park

When James Arness died over the weekend, I mentioned that TCM had already scheduled Them! for tonight at 8:00 PM. I've already blogged about it before, so the movie I'd recommend for tonight is The Panic in Needle Park, also at 8:00 PM over on the Fox Movie Channel.

Kitty Winn plays Helen, a girl from the Midwest who's new to the New York City of the early 1970s. She meets Bobby (Al Pacino), who's a bit of a crook, to put it mildly, stealing a TV off the back of a truck. It turns out he's got a much bigger problem than that: he's a heroin addict, and the reason he's stealing is so that he can support his habit. Helen falls in love with Bobby, who introduces her to his true love: as we'll see, each of them seems to care about getting that next hit more than anything else. Predictably enough for anybody who's seen The Lost Weekend or The Man With the Golden Arm, heroin does nothing good for Kitty, and her life begins to take the same turns as Bobby's.

In some ways, The Panic in Needle Park trawls through much of the same waters as earlier addiction movies like the two I mentioned above or The Days of Wine and Roses. And yet, there's something about The Panic in Needle Park that's even rawer than any of the others. Perhaps it's the location shooting of New York as it was back in 1971. Sure, The Lost Weekend did some location shooting, but New York by 1971 looked much less vital than it had a quarter century earlier: remember that this was just a few years away from President Ford's telling the city to "drop dead". There's something about the dingy apartment interiors and the diner scenes that feels so much more right than The Lost Weekend.

The acting is also quite good, as far as I can tell (I don't think I've ever known any heroin addicts, so I can't quite judge how realistic this is). In addition to Bobby and Kitty, there's his brother Hank (Richard Bright), who's a bit higher up in the thieving racket, planning and running the jobs. It gives him more money than Bobby and Helen could hope for, but more importantly, Hank doesn't spend his money on heroin, which leads him to needle Bobby over his much more screwed-up life.

The Panic in Needle Park is a movie that at times is quite uncomfortable to watch, but is still a very good movie.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Safe in Hell

TCM is honoring director William Wellman tomorrow morning and afternoon by showing several of his movies. One that I've never recommended before is the interesting Safe in Hell, at 8:30 AM.

Dorothy Mackaill stars as Gilda, a woman in New Orleans who's got a sailor boyfriend named Carl (Donald Cook), but needs money because he's away all the time. So she's turned to prostitution, which presents its own problems since she doens't have any legal protection. Matters come to a head when she gets in a strugle with one of her clients, and accidentally kills him and burns the place down. She was spotted leaving the building, too, so what's a woman to do? Carl has returned, and has a bright idea. Smuggle her aboard his boat, which is going to the one island in the Caribbean that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US.

Needless to say, things don't quite go as planned. Carl marries Gilda but, being a sailor, has to leave to do his job, and Gilda quickly learns that she's been stranded on a sort of island of lost souls. All of the men are lechers and want her. This is particularly true of the local police chief, who's busy looking for a way to frame her on some dubious charge or another so that he can have her to himself in his island prison. And then who shows up again? No, not Carl, but the man Gilda thought she killed in New Orleans. It turned out that he was only knocked out, but regained consciousness in time to escape the fire, and committed insurance fraud by having his wife claim the life insurance money. So the only place for this man is the same island Gilda is on.

Safe in Hell is interesting and highly atmospheric. The island is one of the more creepy places you'll see on screen, at least in an understated way. The subject matter is stuff that would have no chance of reaching the screen a few short years later after the folks behind the Production Code started enforcing it more closely. The result is a bunch of lesser-known actors making a story that's still somewhat shocking 80 years after it was first released. Safe in Hell doesn't seem to have gotten a DVD release, not even to the Warner Archive collection. So you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Star of the Month Jean Simmons

TCM finally gets to its new star of the month for June, Jean Simmons. Simmons was born in the UK and started her flim career there, and it is with some of those early British movies that TCM is starting its salute to Jeam Simmons tonight.

The first of those movies is David Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations, in which Simmons plays the young Estella. Estella, of course, is the young girl our protagonist Pip (John Mills playing Pip as an adult) falls in love with, although she's being raised by the spinster Miss Havisham to do everything she can to break men's hearts. This is a very well-made production, although it seems as if the British were always good at adapting Dickens to the big screen.

It's followed at 10:15 PM by Black Narcissus, a movie about a bunch of Anglican nuns (led by Deborah Kerr) who are on a mission in British India and occupy an old place in the Himalayas that has more of an effect on them than they realize. Simmons actually plays one of the locals here, not a nun. This movie was made in goregous color, directed by the other great British director of the 1940s, Michael Powell.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The old(ster) college try

I've blogged about a couple of movies in which I point out that Loretta Young either chose or got put into some not very good stuff toward the end of her career. If you want another example of this, you could watch Mother Is a Freshman, which is airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Young plays Abigail Fortitude Abbott, a widow who's got a daughter Susan (Betty Lynn) in college. Unfortunately, Susan spends like a fish to mix metaphors, to the point that Abigail is out of money from the current installment of the trust fund that was set up for the two women and Susan might have to drop out of college. Abigail's attorney and the executor of the will, Mr. Heaslip (Rudy Vallee), is in love with Abigail and wants her to marry him because that will make everybody's financial situation so much easier. Abigail doesn't love Heaslip, and comes up with an idea. Several generations back, her family set up a scholarship that could go to anybody named Fortitude. Obviously Susan can't use it, but Abigail can! So she'll get into college and use the scholarship to support Susan for one semester until the next installment of the trust fund.

If you've seen one unrealistic college movie, you've seen plot themes that show up over and over in the genre. The boys seem more interested in the co-eds than in their studies, to the point that some of them are actually interested in Susan, who would have to have been in her late 30s according to the plot. Susan, on the other hand, is interested in her English professor, Prof. Michaels (played by Van Johnson). He's not that interested in her, of course. Things go from bad to worse when Abigail enrolls in Prof. Michaels' class, and he takes an interest in Abigail! You'd think this would violate all sorts of norms of propriety, but it's Hollywood. The Production Code frowned on a lot of things, but not this.

You can probably guess where things are going to go. At first it will look like Abigail will end up with the right man, and then romantic complications will ensue, but all of them ought to be sorted out by the end, and everybody will live happily ever after. Frankly, I think the professor and the lawyer ought to end up together; that would be a much more interesting plot twist. But the Production Code wouldn't allow that. Mother Is a Freshman is mildly diverting, but nothing special. But if you want to see it, you'll have to watch it on the Fox Movie Channel, as it's not on DVD.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A new season of Essentials Jr.

Now that we've gotten past Memorial Day, it's time for another season of TCM's summer series the Essentials Jr., which shows movies that are good for the whole family, and especially the younger viewers. The one thing I notice about this season's selections is that there are a lot of movies that were picked in previous years, starting with the very first selection, The Adventures of Robin Hood, tonight at 8:00 PM.

To be honest, the number of repeats doesn't particularly surprise or bother me when it comes to the Essentials Jr.. I think that in selecting movies for a series like this, you really have to program it more for people who aren't such big fans of film, which means you have to come up with films that the parents are likely to recognize. (In fact, I made the same point back in June 2008.) There are only so many classic films out there that are well-suited to kids as well as grownups, and which the casual fan is likely to recognize. So, after a while, you're going to have to start running through them all again. But there's also another reason why repeats in the Essentials Jr. selections is perfectly normal. The kids who are part of the target audience for this year's showing of The Adventures of Robin Hood would have been too young for the showing three or four summers ago.

Frankly, I'm more surprised at the lack of repeats in the films selected for the regular Saturday night Essentials series for us grownups. How many truly essential movies are there, anyway?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Witness to Murder

It doesn't get shown very often: the fun if flawed Witness to Murder is getting an airing tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM ET on TCM.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as the title character, an older unmarried woman who looks through the window of her apartment, and in the window of the apartment across the courtyard, she sees a murder! And she knows who did it, too: George Sanders, who came to the US after World War II as a refugee but has an interesting past. Shades of Orsown Welles in The Stranger. Sanders knows that he's in danger when the police come to question him, but he's got some things going for him. First, there's no body, and second, he's got the intellect of John Dall and Farley Granger in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. So, Sanders convinces the police that Stanwyck must be seeing things, or had a dream, or any of the standard excuses. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, nobody will believe Stanwyck.

Or, you could compare Stanwyck to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. This is especially so because Sanders starts going after her in such a way as to get the police to think that she might be going insane. However, Stanwyck is fortunate in that she's got at least one person from the police on her side, a detective played not by Joseph Cotten, but by Gary Merrill. Eventually Sanders decides to get rid of Stanwyck in a way that will make it look like she jumped off a building because nobody believed her....

Witness to Murder is entertaining enough, but a huge problem it has is that it seems like so many other other movies you've seen before. I've named four movies above, but could probably name half a dozen others: Dangerous Crossing comes to mind, as does The Lady Vanishes or yet another Hitchcock film, Suspicion. Also, the movie looks more like a B movie beneath what all three of the stars were used to. It's worth a watch, though, as it's the sort of "popcorn" movie that's more about enjoying a good ride than a serious message picture. The movie isn't on DVD either, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

James Arness, 1923-2011

James Arness died yesterday at the age of 88. He's best remembered for playing Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running television series Gunsmoke, with one of the effects of that being that Arness had a rather brief movie career. Arness started out in the 1940s with his first movie role being one of the brothers in Loretta Young's The Farmer's Daughter, but once Arness took the Dillon role in 1955, he pretty much stopped making movies, although he did have a cameo in Alias Jesse James.

As for Arness' earlier movies, TCM already had Them! on the schedule for Thursday, June 9 at 8:00 PM as part of the "Drive-In Double Features" series running this month. Arness also played the Thing in The Thing From Another World.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Edward G. Robinson dons an apron!

The odd sight of one of Hollywood's great gangsters wearing an apron and washing dishes for his nagging wife comes in the noir Scarlet Street, which is airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM ET on TCM.

Admit it: you know you'd paint her nailsRobinson plays Christopher Cross (no relation to the guy who did the Arthur theme), a cashier for a small company, who has been working the same job for 25 years, and look where it's gotten him. He's got a cramped apartment and a wife who henpecks him. (She really does make him do the dishes and wear an apron while doing it!) After a banquet in his honor for the 25 years of service, he stops off at a local dive bar, where he meets Kitty (Joan Bennett), a pretty young thing. He likes to paint but is strictly an amateur, and when he tells her he likes to paint, she mistakes it for his being a famous artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars apiece. She's got ambitions of getting to Hollywood, so she immediately sees dollar signs in his eyes, and wants some of that money, which she things she can get with the help of her shifty boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea).

Christopher doesn't like Johnny as he sees what a jerk Johnny is, so Kitty passes Johnny off as her sister's (Margaret Lindsay) boyfriend. That's all the more convenient in that it will allow Kitty to lead Christopher on and think she loves him; something all the easier for getting the money out of him. Now, if Christopher were smart, he would have told the truth at the beginning; namely that he's just an amateur and doesn't have the money. But he saw a dame! And with the wife he's got he'd be more than willing to spend some time away from her. So he has to embezzle the money from work.

Of course, in a movie like this, you know things are going to go from bad to worse. Christopher never signs his lousy artworks, so Kitty does on a lark, and Johnny takes it to a street vendor, who sells the painting to a critic who puts it in a gallery. This causes all sorts of problems. First, the Missus thinks Christopher is just copying a great artist; second, there's no way he can ever get money for selling his paitings. The story ends up a bit more complicated, but let's just point out that one character ends up dead and surprisingly, unlike what you'd think the Production Code would dictate, the person responsible for the death doesn't wind up in prison. However, the way the movie ends obviously must have pleased the Code enforcers or else the movie wouldn't have gotten released. I think it will please you too.

Edward G. Robinson never received an Oscar nomination, implying that somebody in Hollywood didn't appreciate him enough. In fact, Robinson is a really good actor who had a surprisingly broad range, handling gangster films, comedies (although to be fair he did play gangsters in several comedies like A Slight Case of Murder), straight drama like Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, and both sides of noir: the perfectly clean guy in Double Indemnity, and the good guy with the dark side here.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

China Girl

The Fox Movie Channel has brought the movie China Girl back to its lineup after a long time in the vaults. For some resaon I thought I had blogged about it before, but apparently not. It's airing at 7:30 AM ET tomorrow morning.

George Montgomery plays Johnny Williams (don't call him Johnny Jones), an American news service photographer working in Burma in late 1941 when it's taken over by the Japanese. He and two fellow ex-pats Bull and Fifi (Victor McLaglen and Lynn Bari respectively) escape from detention and just oh-so-conveniently happen to find a plane with which they can make a getaway to the northern part of the country where they'll find the Free Chinese. At this point the story begins to take two turns. First, it turns out that Johnny's friends aren't really friends, or even well-meaning amateurs; they're spies working for Japan. And Johnny manages to get some information off of them. Second, in Mandalay, Johnny meets the lovely Miss Young (Gene Tierney), whose father runs a school for orphans in Kunming, which is in that part of China that's in a war zone. Johnny falls in love with Young, and tries to help the poor Chinese orphans, while also trying to get back to the US with the vital information he has (I think it's about the upcoimng attack on Pearl Harbor, but it's really a Macguffin).

To be honest, China Girl is a bit weak as a movie, largely because looking back on it, I can't help but see a pale imitation to Foreign Correspondent. Alfred Hitchcock's movie was set just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe and came out shortly afterwards; China Girl follows the same pattern surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor. There's spies who aren't what they seem to be, a dashing American newsman, and a love interest for him. But Alfred Hitchcock was a master storyteller, and knew how to put the story first; only the scenes at the end are really propagandistic. In China Girl, it feels more as if the movie was rushed into production precisely to make propaganda and boost the morale of Americans on the home front.

I don't think China Girl has gotten a release to DVD, so you're going to have to catch this one on the Fox Movie Channel.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

New month

We've finally gotten through May, and with a new month come new features to TCM. The Star of the Month is going to be Jean Simmons, although her movies show up on Tuesdays, which means we don't get them until June 7. TCM is also running a series they're calling "Drive-In Double Features"; you've probably seen the promos for this on if you've been watching enough TCM. I'm looking forward to the schlocky horror movies, kicking off with Japanese monsters this Thursday. This weekend also sees the final two chapters of the Buck Rogers serial, in which Buck presumably saves Earth for all that is right and good. (I don't think the Production Code people would let the bad guys win.) That's going to be replaced on the 12th by another serial. Right now the schedule says it's Ace Drummond from 1936, although that may be subject to change.

As for programming today, it's littered with repeats. TCM has gotten the rights to a couple of Fox movies about Nazi spies, and are airing them tonight as part of a line-up of movies about spying on the Nazis. First, at 8:00 PM is May 2010 recommendation The House on 92nd Street.
That's followed at 9:45 PM by Night Train to Munich, which I posted about in July 2009.
Third, at 11:30 is one that's not from Fox, but MGM: Above Suspicion, a selection back in July 2010.

You can find more Nazis today over on the Fox Movie Channel. At 10:30 AM, they're showing Man Hunt (hmmm, yet another movie I've recommended), followed at 12:30 PM by The Desert Fox.