Monday, October 31, 2011

Cleopatra: The Musical

I could go on singing the the asp bites me....I was looking through the blog's stats today, and discovered that somebody did a search on Caesar and Cleopatra musical. No, I didn't know when the Cleopatra story was ever made into a musical. An IMDb search reveals that Cleopatra has shown up as a character in dozens of movies, dating all the way back to the 1890s. Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra would probably be the most famous, followed perhaps by the Claudette Colbert version from the 1930s, or maybe the movie Caesar and Cleopatra, which I blogged about rather unfavorably last September. But I can't find much evidence that it's been turned into a movie musical. A quick Google search suggested the Steven Soderbergh was looking at doing a Cleopatra musical, but the stories are all three years old, list Hugh Jackman as having pulled out of the project, and Catherine Zeta-Jones starring. I think we all would have heard of that. On the other hand, Cleopatra has shown up in a number of operas, including a famous one by Samuel Barber based on Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra, which has been made into a movie a couple of times.

As for other searches, somebody did a search for Greek barber, which would have to be a reference to Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money, which I briefly mentioned back in February 2008. On the other hand, I have no idea what the person who searched on Man breaks leg DVD was looking for.

Night of the Living Dead

I mentioned yesterday how some movies show how having a good story can trump having a terribly limited budget. An outstanding example of this is the low-budget horror classic Night of the Living Dead, which is airing tonight at 9:30 PM on TCM.

Made with a cast of unknowns, Night of the Living Dead starts off with a brother and sister visiting a grave to pay their annual respects, and it's clear that neither of them really wants to be there. The brother makes it worse when he sees somebody else off in the distance and suggests the guy is a zombie, telling his sister, "They're coming to get you!" The only thing is, it turns out the guy actually is a zombie! And he wants to eat brains! The zombie eventually kills the brother and turns on the sister, who is able to escape in the car. She eventually makes her way to an isolated farmhouse and tries to take refuge there, figuring it's far away from any zombies.

She's not alone, of course. She finds a black man also trying to take refuge in the house. Neither is particularly certain what's going on, because news reports are sketchy, but it seems that due to nuclear tests or something, anybody who has died recently will quickly be "reincarnated" as a member of the undead, wanting to feast on regular people's brains. This is naturally going to be a problem if anybody else dies, but right now they got more pressing problems. The zombies have made their way to the farmhouse surprisingly quickly, considering how slowly they stagger. Worse, they outnumber the living inside the farmhouse, and are trying to get in. Then, our heroes hear a sound downstairs, and discover that there's another family with a sick kid that's barricaded themselves in the basement. This naturally begins a heated debate over the best course of action: try to make a break for it, barricade oneself in the basement, or try to have run of the whole house since it will be easier to see what's going on outside.

Night of the Living Dead, like any low-budget movie, has some problems, which here come mainly in the form of things that would seem like nagging plot holes if you actually tried to analyze this movie seriously. Key among these is the fact that the zombies only seem to stagger around; you'd think people could get away from the zombies by running. But if you overlook such plot holes -- and dammit, this is a zombie movie; why are you expecting utter coherence? -- you'll find that there's a great little movie here. It's truly unsettling, as the viewers, and the characters, have no idea what what's going to come next. Added to this is a fairly realistic characterization of pepole trying to survive, but in conflict with one another, as nobody really knows the correct course of action. In that regard, it's reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

If you haven't seen Night of the Living Dead before, it's a movie I can highly recommend.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who doesn't like Cat People?

I was surprised last night to see that Alec Baldwin didn't think Cat People should be an essential. To me, it's one of those example of movies that show how a good story is so important to a movie. Like Detour (coming up at 6:00 AM Tuesday on TCM) or Village of the Damned (8:00 PM tomorrow on TCM), Cat People is one of those low-budget movies that makes up for its lack of money by not only having a good story, but telling it well. I find it hard to believe people wouldn't be ill at ease during the swimming pool scene in Cat People, for example.

Then again, part of the introduction to Cat People as last night's TCM Essentials movie involved Alec and Robert Osborne having a disagreement over the Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty, with Baldwin thinking it's essential and Osborne not. I guess I'd have to agree with Osborne, unless the way you want a movie to be essential is to show how putting somebody like Marlon Brando in the cast can ruin your movie. I think I'd pick Sayonara for that, however.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween weekend

I'm stuck in a part of the Catskill Mountains that's about to get snowed under, so I hope my DirecTV stays up. Although TCM has been running horror movies every Monday in prime time, they're getting a jump on Halloween weekend by showing some other classics tonight into tomorrow. The only bad thing is that I've blogged about quite a few of them before:

Cat People is this week's TCM Essential, at 8:00 PM tonight, followed at 9:30 PM by a documentary on producer Val Lewton;
The Seventh Victim comes up overnight at 3:30 AM;
The Devil Doll (watch again for Lionel Barrymore in drag!) shows up at 8:45 AM tomorrow morning; and
The Uninvited concludes proceedings at 10:15 AM Sunday.

Perhaps I should have done a full-length post about the movie The Ghost Ship, which is airing at 5:00 AM. Richard Dix plays the captain of a ship whom the new third officer suspects of being mentally unstable and unfit for duty. For some reason, I thought I had already blogged about it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

They both have Bette Davis eyes

TCM is showing a night of movies tonight which have twins in which one twin is good and the other, well, not so good. The night kicks off with the fun Dead Ringer at 8:00 PM.

Bette Davis starts off the movie playing Edith Phillips, going to the funeral of her brother-in-law. After the funeral, Edith is invited to her sister Margaret's house, at which point we learn that Edith and Margaret are twins. (Margaret, unsurprisingly, is played by Bette Davis.) We also learn that the two became estranged many years ago, over Margaret's dead husband. Edith was the first in love with the husband, but Margaret eventually married him when she told him she was pregnant with his child. After the wedding, Margaret was able to live well off of the husband's money, while Edith had to scrape for everything she had. What Edith has is a nightclub, a lousy apartment over the club, a companion/boyfriend in policeman Karl Malden, and a ton of debt.

With Margaret's husband dead and Margaret alone in that big house with all that money, Edith gets an idea: she'll lure Margaret to the apartment over the nightculb, kill Margaret, dress Margaret as Edith to make it look as though Edith has committed suicide, and then take Margaret's place and live well for the rest of her natural life! Now, if you think this is a daft idea that would never work in real life, you'd be right. But we wouldn't have an entertaining movie if we didn't have such a crazy lady trying a hare-brained scheme.

Also, we know well that thanks the the Production Code, which was still weakly in force in 1964 when Dead Ringer was released, Edith is most likely not going to get away with it. The entertainment value of a movie like this is in seeing how everything goes wrong. Some of Edith's missteps are easy to predict. For example, she had no idea that Margaret stopped smoking years ago, so it's natrual for all the servants to act shocked when Edith lights up. There's the pesky combination to the safe, too. But that's all too mundane; for a movie like this, you really need something more dramatic. That's provided by Peter Lawford, playing Tony Collins. Tony is a playboy who was having an affair with Margaret, and who expects that now that the husband is dead, he'll be able to live on easy street. Except that Edith doesn't particularly care for Tony. But Tony suspsects that there's something going on, and he's got money problems of his own, too, and wants some of Margaret's money.

Dead Ringer is one of those movies with a plot that doesn't hold up if you're trying to analyze it seriously. It's very much the sort of movie you should sit back with a bowl of popcorn and have fun watching. In that regard, it's quite entertaining. Bette Davis was in her late-career period, two years after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, at a time where she was getting roles that were more or less a parody of an actress on the downside of her career. And yet Davis took parts like this and made it look as though she was having a blast playing the character. Lawford is suitably slimy as Tony. For some reason, I've always gotten a negative vibe from Lawford, but that's something that serves him well here. Malden, meanwhile, does a perfectly good job playing the cop with conflicting emotions. Dead Ringer is never going to be mistaken for one of the greatest movies ever made, but you'll certainly be entertained.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I remember back when I was a kid the TV series Hotel, based on a novel by Arthur Hailey. What I didn't know at the time was that many years earlier, the novel had been turned into the movie Hotel. That movie version is airing at 5:00 PM on October 28.

Hotel is one of those all-star movies, this time looking at the running of one of those grand old big-city hotels from the days before everything was part of a chain; in this case it's the St. Gregory in New Orleans. The hotel is losing money hand over fist, and owner Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas) has a quandary about what to do. He can either make concessions to the unions who would wind up effectively running the place; or, he could sell out to businessman Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy), who is visiting with his girlfriend Jeanne (Catherine Spaak) to close the deal.

Against the backdrop of this it's the job of hotel manager Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) to keep the St. Gregory running smoothly. And you know fully well with a movie like this that there's going to be a lot on his plate to handle. In addition to the takeover fight, you've got a robber (Karl Malden) making his way into people's hotel rooms and stealing their money. On top of that is the Duke and Duchess (Michael Rennie and Merle Oberon). Although they're nobility, they've gotten themselves involved in a hit and run which resulted in a pedestrian getting killed, and they'd really like to cover it up. Finally, there's also the fact that the old hotel is falling apart, with one of the elevators getting very balky....

There are a lot of stories going on here at the same time. Hotel pulls them off reasonably well, although the movie does move a bit slowly at times. Still, most of the storylines wind up fairly convincingly. The acting is as good as most of the people here put on film, with Spaak being the one obvoius weak link, who looks as though she's there just for the eye candy. There's one long scene of her in Taylor's apartment that seems to go on too long, except that it's quite necessary to the plot for Taylor to be out of the hotel.

Arthur Hailey certainly knew how to write a good story: in addition to Hotel, he also wrote the novel Airport, and the original material for the movies The Young Doctors and Zero Hour!. Hotel compares well to all of those movies, and is well worth a watch.

The joys of complex rights issues

So I watched the movie Casanova Brown, and noticed two things in the opening credits. First, there was a color screen of the MGM lion, complete with the MGM website URL at the bottom. That's a good indication that MGM got the rights to this film at some point after they sold off their library to Ted Turner in the late 1980s. Then in the actual opening credits of the film was a line saying that this had been produced by "International Pictures". This got me curious.

International Pictures was a minor production company that combined with the American arm of the J. Arthur Rank Organization in a merger with Universal Studios in about 1947. If you've watched any "Universal" picture from the late 1940s or the 1950s, you'll recognize the Universal International logo with the ridiculously long serifs on the T's. And yet, the rights to Casanova Brown apparently did not end up with Universal as part of that merger. (That having been said, a lot of Rank's movies, such as 49th Parallel, did wind up in the hands of MGM after the selling off of the library to Ted Turner.)

A further search at IMDb revealed two things. First, on its original theatrical release, Casanova Brown was distributed by RKO. Second, there were two other production companies listed. One is "Nunnally Johnson Productions", which was presumably a dummy corporation set up for tax purposes since it really only produced this film. (IMDb lists one other film four years later, in conjunction with some other production company.) And then there's the "Christie Corporation", which produced two films in 1944. So I have no idea who kept the distribution rights after the original release.

Of course, back in 1944, there wouldn't have been any broadcasting rights, let alone cable rights.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don Siegel, 1912-1991

Today marks the birth anniversary of director Don Siegel. Like many directors, he started off doing other things in Hollywood; in his case, that was editing movies at Warner Bros. in the early 1940s. His first big film was Night Unto Night, which was an ill-fated mess. I don't know how much he was responsible for it and how much of it was the casting, since Ronald Reagan and Broderick Crawford are both pretty seriously miscast here. I also don't know if it set his career back, but it seems he never really got to make the big movie: he was working fairly regularly, but his best remembered films from the 1950s would be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which certainly wasn't a big film at the time; and the post-noir classic The Lineup. It was only in the 1970s that Siegel started to get a few bigger jobs, such as John Wayne's final film, The Shootist.

TCM isn't showing any of Siegel's films today, since they're honoring William Hopper, but you can catch Count the Hours tomorrow afternoon at 1:00 PM.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nicholas Ray smokes pot!

I've argued before against the auteur theory, believing that just because somebody had complete control over a movie and tries something new and daring doesn't make the movie somehow better. An excellent example of this is We Can't Go Home Again, airing tonight at 11:00 PM on TCM followed by a documentary about the making of the movie at 12:45 AM.

Nicholas Ray was at a time in his life when he couldn't get a job in Hollywood making real movies, so he took a job teaching film studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton, a small city about a four-hour drive northwest of New York City. There, he made an experimental film with his students, and the experiment largely fails. There's not much of a plot, and you have to wonder whether the people are just playing themselves. Also, Ray never really finished editing the film: he was never satisfied with the various edits he made, and went back to re-edit it time and again up until the time he died. The one other thing the movie is notable for is the scenes of Ray smoking pot with his students.

Perhaps it's good that this movie is being shown as an example of how not to mkae a movie.

Another non-birthday salute

TCM is spending this morning and afternoon honoring Jack Lemmon by showing a bunch of his movies. I was pretty certain that today isn't Lemmon's birthday, and a search through the archives reveals that Lemmon was in fact my first birthday salute, back in February 2008.

To be fair to TCM, however, they can't really give a proper birthday salute to Jack Lemmon. Having been born in February, it means that his is one of the many birthdays that fall during the annual 31 Days of Oscar programming period. Then again, Lemmon himself was nominated eight times, and at least some of his other films received nominations for other work (Walter Matthau's Best Supporting Actor win in The Fortune Cookie springs to mind).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pardon the interruption

I was watching the football game on Fox yesterday, and noticed an advertisement mentioning that Fox is in a contract dispute with DirecTV. You probably know that most cable channels charge cable and satellite operators a carriage fee to show the various channels. From time to time we get content proiders (the cable channels) arguing with various transmission media over just how high or low those fees should be. The upshot is that the current contract between DirecTV and NewxCorp, Fox's parent company, apparently runs out at the end of October, with no agreement currently reached. If there is no agreement reached, then on November 1, DirecTV won't be carrying all those channels in the Fox family. (I don't think that the Fox broadcast network is affected.) For those of us who are fans of classic films and have DirecTV, the main thing is that it means the possible loss of the Fox Movie Channel.

The optimistic news, however, would be that this affects a bunch of channels. FMC is probably of fairly limited appeal other than to those of us who like old movies. But the contract dispute also involves the local Fox Sports Net channels, and sports fans are rabid enough that they'll probably force somebody's hand. To be honest, though, Comcast tried to shaft DirecTV a few years back over carriage of the Versus channel, and that dispute dragged on for quite some time -- I think close to half the hockey season.

The way that the cable channels, the cable operators (and to a lesser extent satellite operators), and local TV stations have tried to use the government's power to screw up people's lives to get them to use that power to screw up somebody else's life is an interesting one that author Virginia Postrel discussed for a 2000 piece in reason magazine. Parts of it are out of date, and it doesn't so much cover that some cable operators also own cable channels and use that power to shaft either other channels or other operators (Comcast/Versus). And who recalls that the cable companies tried to prevent satellite from carrying the local broadcast channels?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Buster Keaton's early talkies

Last week, I mentioned that TCM was showing a documentary about Buster Keaton's contract with MGM at the dawn of the talking pictures era that resulted in his career seriously going south. As part of tonight's Star of the Month salute to Keaton, you can see four of his lesser efforts from that era, so that you can judge for yourself how much the studio was at fault for ruining Keaton's career.

First, overnight at 2:15 AM is the military comedy Doughboys.
That's followed at 3:45 AM by Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath, in which Keaton is recruited as un unwilling playboy.
At 5:15 AM, you can watch The Passionate Plumber, in which Keaton is a plumber-turned-lover.
Finally, at 6:30 AM, there is What, No Beer? in which Keaton tries to get into the beer business after Prohitibion only to find the Mob has taken it over.

The last two at least co-star Jimmy Durante.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The latest adventure in box guide fun

Tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, TCM is showing the Jeannette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical Rose Marie. It's not exactly my cup of tea, especially since I don't particularly care for MacDonald's singing. But that's neither here nor there.

While I was looking through my satellite box guide to see what movies were going to be on the Fox Movie Channel tomorrow, I noticed that it listed TCM as showing a movie I'd never heard of before, called Marie. I didn't think TCM would be showing a 1985 movie at 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning, and it turns out of course that they're not. To be honest, though, the 1985 Marie actually sounds like a fairly interesting movie, especially because it's apparently based on the true story of the thoroughly corrupt political administration in Tennessee. And Fred Thompson, before he became an actor, is playing his politician self as one of the good guys. Marie is available through the Warner Archive.

Do You Know Who I Am??

A fun little thriller which I can really recommend is My Name Is Julia Ross, which is airing tonight at 11:45 PM on TCM.

Nina Foch stars as Julia Ross, a young lady in London in search of a job. She goes to an employment agency where she meets the elderly Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty), who has an offer for a personal secretary position. It's a match made in heaven, except that without conflict we wouldn't have a movie. Julia takes the job, heads off to the Hughes place, and.... The next morning, Ross wakes up to find things are completely unfamiliar to her. She's not in the house where she first went, and Mrs. Hughes and her son Ralph (George Macready) are telling her that she's actually Ralph's wife and not this "Julia Ross"!

Alfred Hitchock famously described the difference between horror and suspense: in horror, we don't know what's happening, and the bomb going off comes as a surprise; but in suspense, the director makes sure that the audiences knows fully well where the bomb is and when it's going to go off. My Name Is Julia Ross is definitely in the suspense camp, then. We know that Foch is really Julia Ross, and that the suggestion from the little old lady and her son are lies woven from whole cloth. Still, we have to find out why they're doing this, and what they intend to do with Julia.

Julia, on her part, naturally tries to escape, or let people around her know that she is really Julia Ross. And yet, every time she tries, things go wrong. The servants don't believe her, largely because they've been told that Ralph's wife has gone insane. So of course anything she tells them about actually being Julia Ross is going to be, if not a lie, then at least a paranoid delusion. How will Julia get anybody to believe her?

The only problem with a movie like My Name is Julia Ross -- and to be fair, even a great film like Gaslight or The Lady Vanishes has this problem -- is that you really have to suspend disbelief for the plot to work. If you can do that, however, the result is quite an entertaining little movie, and one that won't overtax you with its brief 65-minute running time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Barbara Kent, 1907-2011

I just read yesterday of the death of actress Barbara Kent several weeks shy of her 104th birthday. She's generally believed to have been the last living person to have become a star in Hollywood silent movies as an adult. (A few juveniles such as Mickey Rooney still survive.) That's probably true, but also a bit unfair. Kent was a supporting player in the Greta Garbo movie Flesh and the Devil. Amazingly enough, the screenwriter of the film Flesh and the Devil, Frederica Sagor Maas, is still alive at the age of 111.

If you watched last year's Moguls and Movie Stars documentary on TCM, you'll note that one of the interviewees for the silent era was an elderly Carla Laemmle, the niece of early Universal head Carl Laemmle. By sheer coincidence, yesterday was Carla Laemmle's 102d birthday.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Some odd TCM programming choices

It was great to see TCM put the spotlight on a cinematographer (John Alton) last night. That's the sort of thing TCM has always done well. Tonight, TCM is moving the spotlight back to an actor, that being Zachary Scott. You'd probably remember him best as Monte Beragon, the second husband to Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce. But that movie isn't airing tonight; TCM has (rightly, in my view) decided to focus on some of Scott's work that people aren't quite so likely to know. Flamingo Road, which I recommended back in August, is airing in the wee hours of the overnight.

But some of the programming decisions are a bit baffling. Yesterday morning and afternoon was spent showing 14 hours of... Elvis Presley. It's not his birthday (which comes in January), and he's been honored a couple of times in Summer Under the Stars on the anniversary of his death. So to honor Elvis again in October seems a bit strange.

Not that I'd come up with any better programming decisions if the fine people at TCM paid me to program their channel. Over at the TCM message boards they have a "programming challenge" three or four times a year (for fun only; the only "prize" is if the real TCM programmers like one of your ideas so much that they use it in a future schedule). Posters are given the challenge of coming up with a hypothetical one-week schedule for TCM, complete with Star of the Month, Essential, TCM Underground, and the rest of the regular programming. It would be easy enough just to come up with a bunch of birthday salutes, but that's boring. And even on top of that, there's the much bigger challenge of getting all of the movies to fit in the proper time slots such that prime time begins at 8:00 PM ET every evening. (Preferably, the mornings should begin at 6:00 AM, but TCM itself hasn't been following that requirement quite so rigorously of late.) I've entered a whole bunch of times, and it's a fun if difficult challenge. I think the only one of my programming ideas used by TCM was that I suggested Charles Laughton for Star of the Month and he eventually got used. That was probably coincidence, though.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Big Combo

I don't think TCM has shown The Big Combo in a good five years, but it's finally airing again, at 8:00 PM tonight. It's an entertaining little film from the end of the noir era that also has a really interesting twist.

Much of the plot isn't particularly novel, in that a good portion of the basic structure seems to be right in line with The Big Heat. Cornel Wilde stars as Lt. Diamond, a police detective who has taken on the investigation of the head of the local mob, one Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Diamond isn't really getting anywhere, and the overtaxing of resources is bothering his superiors, who press on him to stop the investigation, as it would be so much easier for everybody. Well, not the honest people of the city, but it's not as though the police care about them. There's also a second-in-command (Brian Donlevy) who, like Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, is a bit of a loose cannon who poses problems for the mob, as well as a moll, Susan (Jean Wallace) who could really help Diamond out if only he could get to her. She's inaccessible because she's got two bodyguards (Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef) assigned by Brown to make certain nobody gets to her. As with Gloria Grahame, something dramatic happens to Susan (although not quite as dramatic) that sends her to the hospital and gives Diamond a chance to blow the case wide open....

Even though a big portion of The Big Combo isn't terribly original, it's still quite entertaining. But there is one thing in the movie that you wouldn't see in the rest of noir. Susan's bodyguards are seen sharing living quarters, and have a scene together with dialog that fairly strongly suggests that they're a gay couple in addition to being Susan's bodyguards. Obviously, of course, this couldn't be made explicit, but this is one of those relationships like in Rope where it's probably better for the sake of the movie that the relationship only be implied. (It's only a minor, if noticeable, detail in the film.) Richard Barrios picked The Big Combo as one of the films when TCM had the Gay Images in Film series back in 2006, and it's certainly a good choice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stage Door Canteen: Korea

If you've watched enough TCM, especially on Memorial Day weekend, you'll recall movies like Stage Door Canteen. They were made during World War II in part as a morale boost for the boys fighting abroad; all-star casts would perform, usually around some wisp-thin plot. Five years after the end of World War II, the US got involved in Korea, a war which was much less politically popular. However, Hollywood did make one movie in the Stage Door Canteen mold: Starlift, which is airing today at 4:45 PM on TCM.

The plot involves two soldiers from Youngstown, Ohio who are about to go off to Korea to fight. In Hollywood, they discover that a young woman who grew up in their town and who was a patient of the dentist who is a father of one of them, is being groomed to be Hollywood's next starlet. So they make up a cock and bull story about this. The studio sees the publicity potential, and eventually, we get a big revue featuring all the stars that Warner Bros. could muster at the time.

Which, to be honest, is not nearly as many as they could have gotten seven years earlier when they made Hollywood Canteen. Doris Day heads the proceedings. James Cagney gets a small cameo, and Gary Cooper gets to be in the background of a musical number. Future Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall was at this time a part of the comedy duo Noonan and Marshall; they show up as well. But the whole thing has the feeling of a pale imitation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Diane Cilento, 1933-2011

I only noticed over the weekend that actress Diane Cilento died about a week ago at the age of 78. Born in Australia, she'd probably be remembered by American audiences for one role, that of the schoolteacher in the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man.

Edward Woodward stars as Sgt. Howie, a British police detective sent to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to investigate the disappearance of an adolescent girl. When he gets to the island, he finds that everybody claims they know nothing about the girl. Not only that, but they all tell him he should just leave the island and leave them alone. Because of that, it's quite obvious that everybody is lying and part of some conspiracy. The lie is only more obvious when at the local pub, he sees photos from the harvest festival -- except that the space for the previous year's festival is conspicuously empty. But why? Obviously, Howie has to investigate, and what he finds quickly disturbs him.

Howie is a devout Christian, and the people here are part of some bizarre-to-him pagan belief. Not only that, but they believe in some sort of strange fertility ritual that includes penis worship and lots of female nudity. (This female nudity is quite clearly shown in the movie, which in one of the many things making this a movie that's not suitable for children.) Needless to say, Howie is not particularly happy with what he sees, and he approaches the Summerisle, the lord of the manor (Christopher Lee), who is just about as evasive as the locals who are his tenant farmres. If anything, he and his ancestors are the ones responsible for the islanders' taking up paganism. This only fills Howie with a sense that there's something sinister going on. That sense is made more complete when he finds the missing photo from the harvest festival, which includes a picture of the missing girl -- but no produce. The implications of that eventually dawn on Howie as the movie winds its way to its stunning climax.

The Wicker Man is one of the more disturbing movies you'll ever see, even though it has rather less violence than a lot of other movies out there. But it's also one of the better horror movies you can watch, at least if you can call it horror. It sort of straddles genres, as it's part mystery and part thriller too. It's a movie I'd highly recommend in this Halloween season.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buster Keaton's downfall

The introduction of talking pictures brought a premature end to a lot of careers. Some of those were foreign-born actors who hadn't mastered English well enough to make the transition to talkies; some were people who were deemed by the studio bosses to have the "wrong" sort of voice for the movies. And then there's Buster Keaton, whose career nosedived for an entirely different reason. The reason why Keaton's career ground to a halt is examined in the short documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM, which was a TCM Original back in 2004 and which is showing again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Basically, Keaton's problems began when he signed a contract to work at MGM. Before that, he had been more or less independent, which meant that he had a lot of control over his movies. MGM didn't really want that. They had high standards, to be sure, but those were different standards from what somebody like Buster Keaton had. The had to churn movies out quickly in order to satisfy the demand from the movie going public, which meant that the production facitilies really were like a sort of assembly line. Also, with the advent of talking in pictures, it meant that you didn't just have to have physical comedy; you could do jokes based on language or funny dialogue. The writers in the employ of MGM tried to write such witty dialogue for Keaton's films, but he was really still wedded to a greater emphasis on visual comedy.

It didn't really help that Keaton's marriage to Natalie Talmadge was falling apart at this time. Part of this was his own fault in that he liked to see other women; part of it was Natalie's fault in that she was a profligate spender. Also, Keaton was becoming a raging alcoholic, which interefered with MGM's production schedule. Ironically, Keaton's talkies for MGM were generally quite successful financially.

All in all, it's a sad story, although at least Keaton was able to have a comeback by the end of his life.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Bicycle Thief

Tonight, TCM is looking at Italian cinema, including several movies that fit firmly in the neo-realist camp. The night starts off with this week's Essential, The Bicycle Thief, at 8:00 PM.

Neo-realist movies, for those who don't know, were movies made with largely non-professional actors, telling stories that could have been almost ripped from the headlines and filmed largely on location. In The Bicycle Thief, that setting is Rome in the years just after World War II and the people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Antonio and Maria are a married couple who have a son Bruno. Antonio hasn't been able to get much work, because there isn't much available. One day, however, the government employment officer (the people don't even meet at an office, but outside) offers Anotnio a job putting up movie posters. However, to do the job, it's necessary to bring one's own bicycle to transport the posters and other equipment. Antonio has a bike, or more accurately had a bike: it's in hock now, as the family needed the money to eat. So it's off to hock something else to get the bicycle out of the pawn shop. And so Antonio starts to work, only for the bicycle to be stolen at the first place he stops to put up a poster. No bike means no job, which leads Antonio on an ever more desperate search for the bicycle, with Bruno in tow. Will they find the bike? If they do, will they be able to prove it's his?

That's really all there is to the plot. But sometimes the simplest stories can be the best. The Bicycle Thief is one of those cases. Although the actors are not professionals, they do an excellent job at expressing the widespread poverty that had engulfed large sections of Italy after the country's defeat in World War II. They're helped out quite a bit by the locations: a bunch of cramped apartments and long narrow hallways. I can't imagine any of the Hollywood studios from the 1930s making poverty look like this. Not even the lower-budget more independent movies like Out Daily Bread.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Goodbye Girl

TCM showed The Goodbye Girl this afternoon. It's one of those movies that's technically competent and well-acted, bur for some reason I just can't warm up to it.

Marsha Mason stars as Paula McFadden, a divorcée raising a 10-year-old daughter while trying to make it as a dancer on Brodway, a career for which she's getting entirely too old. She's been living with her boyfriend, but he dumps her and sublets the apartment to a friend of his, struggling actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). Having just been dumped and not wanting to take up with another actor, Paula tries to refuse Elliot when he comes to the aparment to take up his lease. But she's not legally in the right, so Elliot gets to live in the apartment. He's even generous enough to let Paula and her daughter stay, but under his odd rules.

You know what's going to happen next, since we've seen this sort of movie a dozen times already. Although Paula and Elliot start off hating each other, they're clearly going to fall in love along the way. And I think that's one of the things that makes this movie a bit tough for me: the fact that it's so predictable.

Second are some of the supporting characters. Mason and Dreyfuss both do quite well with their roles. But Paula's daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) is just obnoxious. She's in the mold of Virginia Weidler's Dinah from The Philadelphia Story, but Dinah has a lot more adults to stand in opposition too. And Lucy is quite vulgar at times, which doesn't really fit in with a 10-year-old girl. There's also the conflict between Elliott and the director of the off-Broadway version of Richard III in which Elliot is starring (the director is played by Paul Benedict, whom you might recall as Bentley on the TV series The Jeffersons). The director wants Elliot to play Richard III as a flaming homosexual, and is exceedingly overbearing about it. Sure, having to play a badly-drawn character offers some opportunities for comedy, which Dreyfuss pulls off about as well as one can do, but Benedict's character seems too much a stereotype.

Still, I don't think it would be at all correct to call The Goodbye Girl a bad movie. If you want a good romantic comedy and don't mind some foul language, you might well enjoy The Goodbye Girl.

Remake post #704357432

Those who watch current movies have been going gaga over a movie coming out today called The Thing, which has its national release today. The reviewers I've read talk about it in comparison to John Carpenter's 1982 film, also called The Thing. It often gets called a remake, although technically, like the recent Star Trek movie from a few years back, it's more of a prequel in that it purports to tell events that happened before the action in Carpenter's movie. All of this is just another version of the classic sci-fi/horror film The Thing From Another World, of course. But even that movie wasn't an original, in that it was taken from a 1938 short story. (People who have read the short story and seen the first two films inform me that Carpenter's is much closer to the original story than the 1950s film. Obviously there couldn't have been any Cold War paranoia in a 1938 short story.)

I'm not certain if it was deliberate on the part of TCM, but if it was, it's brilliant. Tonight's schedule doesn't have The Thing From Another World, but instead looks at remakes by showing three different versions of The Three Musketeers, starting at 8:00 PM with a 1974 version starring Michael York. That's followed at 10:00 PM by Gene Kelly's 1948 version, and at 12:15 AM with the 1935 version. The Fox version from 1939 with the Ritz Brothers is thankfully not included.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

IMDb Advanced Search question

The Internet Movie Database has a page where you can do a search for movies using a whole bunch of different criteria at the same time, from part of the title to cast members to genre to runtime. However, one criterion that is missing is searching by a name of the character in the cast. So if, for example, you want a list of movies to feature both Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, you seem to be out of luck. Is there a way to add character search to IMDb's advanced searching?

If you look at the URLs returned when you do a search, you'll get something like this:,1940&title=movie

You can probably guess that this searches for movies that have the word "movie" in the title, and which were released between 1930 and 1940 (including 1940). I tried setting up a search such as the following:,1940&character=raleigh

This in theory ought to be something that would search for 1930s movies that have a character named Raleigh; I was thinking something along the lines of Vincent Price's portrayal of Sir Walter Raleigh in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Instead, that URL produces a list of 27470 titles.

You can seach from the drop-down box near the top of any IMDb page for one criterion; a search for "Elizabeth and Essex" will give the following URL:

(If you search for something that only yields one result, you will probably get redirected to that one movie, although there might be an option not to do automatic redirection.)

Similarly, you can search for a character:

But there doesn't seem to be a way to combine these search terms with the ones in the advanced search.

Does anybody have any good ideas?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gotta love those French-Canadian accents!

The Fox Movie Channel showed the entertaining biopic Hudson's Bay this morning. But don't worry if you missed it. Thanks to FMC's policy of repeating the movies they take out of their vault a bunch of times in a fairly short period, you can catch it tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, as well as a couple of times in November.

Paul Muni stars as Pierre Esprit Radisson, a real-life person who was born in France around 1640 and raised in French Canada (the name for Québec at the time). That part of his life isn't covered; the movie starts off with Radisson having been driven out of French Canada for reasons that aren't really made quite clear. But being persona non grata with the French, Radisson decides to throw in his lot with the English. Radisson was captured by the Algonquins in real life and raised to an extent, such that he had fairly good relations with them (this is only mentioned in passing in the movie). It also made him familiar with the parts of interior Canada unseen by any other European, so he knew all about the riches of furs available. Anyhow, in the movie, he tries to convince the English governor in Albany to fun an expedition to the Hudson Bay area, but the governor says no, and throws Radisson and his companion Gooseberry (Laird Cregar) in jail. There, they meet Lord Edward Crewe (John Sutton), who was dispossed in England and banished to the American colonies. John needs money to get to France, from where he'll try to get to his fiancée Barbara (Gene Tierney, getting second billing from a relatively small role). But Pierre impresses upon John that getting the money by engaging in fur trapping is probably the best way to go about things.

They escape from the jail in Albany, go to Canada and with the help of the Aboriginals get a lot of furs, at which point they go to England: Pierre tells John that perhaps King Charles (Vincent Price early in his career) can be convinced by the promise of money, and more territory in Canada, to grant John his freedom. From there it's on to getting a charter for the Hudson's Bay Company, and back to Canada. But Barbara's brother Gerald screws things up by getting the natives all liquored up, leading to tribal warfare. You know, though, that a movie like this is eventually going to have a happy ending....

I have no idea how historically accurate any of this is. Large portions are probably made out of whole cloth, but Radisson was a real historical figure who did escape to Albany fairly early in his life. Apparently Radisson and his business partner (a fellow Frenchman in real life) did lose a lot of their first furs to the French governor of Quebec, a scene which is shown in the film. But the partner was French (and Radisson's brother-in-law); there doesn't seem to have been any Edward Crewe in real life. Still, the movie is fast and entertaining, even if Muni and Cregar have terrible accents. It's also interesting for its highly sympathetic portrayal of the native peoples. Considering Radisson's real life experiences, however, this is probably closer to accurate than one might otherwise think. Muni's performance is about as over-the-top as you might expect, but Cregar looks like he's having a blast playing a role something like Alan Hale would have played in The Adventures of Robin Hood. All of the actors playing characters in England (I haven't mentioned Nigel Bruce playing Sutton's benefactor) are competent and take nothing away from the proceedings. The one big disadvantage that Hudson's Bay has is that it cries out for brilliant Technicolor.

Hudson's Bay doesn't seem to have gotten a DVD release in North America, so you'll have to watch the FMC showings before they put it back in the vault.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

One, but not two, birthdays

TCM is spending this morning and afternoon showing a bunch of Robert Ryan movies. Interestingly enough, it's not his birthday today; all the sources I've seen have his birthday not on October 11, but November 11. Then again, that is a holiday here in the US, so it's just as well that TCM marks the occasion in October. TCM is also marking the centenary of director Nicholas Ray this month, and two movies that Ray made with Ryan are on tonight's prime time schedule. On Dangerous Ground, from which the photo at left is taken, is the second of these movies, overnight at 2:00 AM. That's preceded at midnight by Flying Leathernecks, a movie reminiscent of Twelve O'Clock High, in that Ryan plays an ineffectual commander who is replaced by martinet John Wayne, who drives the Marines into Guadalcanal about as hard as Gregory Peck drives his charges.

As for somebody whose birth anniversary is today, try Nancy Guild. It's one of those names that looked familiar when I saw it in the list of birthdays, but I couldn't quite remember where. That's probably because she only made about half a dozen movies in the 1940s and early 1950s. But I'd blogged about one of those before: Somewhere in the Night.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Judging those evil Commies

Tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM TCM is showing the seriously flawed movie The Woman on Pier 13. This is a re-release title, as the original was I Married a Communist.

The original title sounds like a fun slightly exploitative title, along the same lines as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang or I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Robert Ryan stars as the Communist, or in fact the ex-Communist. His character, Brad Collins, is the head of the local branch of the dockworker's union. At the start of the movie, we see him getting married to Nan (Laraine Day), and then having his past catch up to him. That past is in the form of the lovely Christine (Janis Carter), who reminds Brad that he used to be a Communist. More importanly, once you're a Communist, you can never really leave. And the Party wants Brad to do something for them. That something is to start a strike against the shipping companies. Brad doesn't want to, because it's not in his workers' interest to do so. But if he doesn't, the Communists will reveal his past, which will certainly wind up in his getting blacklisted....

The Woman on Pier 13 is, as I said, a movie that has serious flaws. That largely comes down to the portrayal of the Communists. It's almost cartoonish, and it's terribly heavy-handed. The funny thing is that even though the movie is depicting stuff which has a fair bit of truth to it -- remember, the Communists were trying to get their own unions into Hollywood, which caused serious labor problems during the shooting of Night Unto Night. But the way the Communists are portrayed here is almost laughable. That having been said, The Woman on Pier 13 is the sort of movie it's fun to laugh at as you're watching it.

It was only after reading some of the user reviews on IMDb that I got a better idea of how to review a movie like The Woman on Pier 13. One of the commenters writes that the Communists are portrayed here as a sort of waterfront Mob, which is in some ways true. But it also leads to a good question one can ask whenever dealing with a movie portraying the Communists as beyond evil. Ask yourself if the movie would be any better or worse if it were about not the Communists, but about either the Mafia or the Nazis, depending upon which one would be more appropriate to the plot. In the case of The Woman on Pier 13, the movie would come across as a pale version of On the Waterfront (although to be fair, On the Waterfront came out several years later). It would have nothing to do with the fact that the former movie is about Communists. In fact, a movie like Man on a Tightrope holds up just as well as an escape-from-the-Nazis movie like The Mortal Storm. For domestic Communists, I Was a Communist for the FBI is pretty good, and right up there with The House on 92nd Street.

British horror

TCM is continuing its look at the horror genre this evening with a bunch of films from the 1940s. This includes one of the great horror films to come out of Britain: Dead of Night, at 11:00 PM.

Mervyn Johns (father of Glynis) plays Walter Craig, an architect who at the start of the movie wakes up from a nightmare. He's got an appointment to meet somebody at an old country house for a consultation, and despite being unsettled by the nightmare, goes out to the country. He's quickly going to be more unsettled by what he finds out in the country. He sees the people at the country house and realizes he's got a sense of déjà vu: I know I've seen all of you somewhere, he tells them. This is more or less the framing story to hang around the various characters, who respond to our architect with their own tales which range from slightly disconcerting déjà vu to out-and-out horror of the 1940s type. There's nothing too gory here

As for the other characters' stories, there are five of them:

First up is a story about a children's party, where one of the children sees another child whom nobody else sees, and who isn't like the rest of the children;
Next is a tale about an odd mirror that enables one man to see things other people can't;
That's followed by a story of a hearse from which a voice emanates telling a man, "There's room for one more";
Two golfers fight over the same woman in the fourth story; and
in the last episode, a ventriloquist gets more than he bargained for from his dummy.

The fourth story stars the same two actors who played Caldicott and Chalmers in The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, although they're playing characters with other names here. The last piece has Michael Redgrave as a man who makes the ventriloquist's dummy talk. That having been said, there's something more to Dead of Night than just the five anthology stories, as the framing story turns out to be a real story in its own right too. The architect finds as each of the other characters tells their stories that things that he saw in his nightmare are actually coming to pass. Or is he only imagining things?

Dead of Night works extremely well both because of the stories in the anthology, and the excellent framing story. Of the five anthology stories, most people will probably enjoy the ventriloquist story the best; it's one that looks as though it could have been reused for a Twilight Zone episode. A lot of other reviewers don't care for the Caldicott and Chalmers portion, but I didn't have any of the problems with it that other people seem to have. As for the framing story, it pays off well in the end. Dead of Night fits in quite well with the Val Lewton movies of the 1940s in that there's little gory here, and a good deal of the horror is more in the mind. But Dead of Night might be even better than a movie like Cat People.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Let's all go to the lobby and have ourselves a snake

I had to bring the plants into the sun room the other day because the first frost was about to come. This morning, I'm out in the sun room, and what do I see? A nice little garter snake! Thankfully, I'm not particularly afraid of snakes, so I was able to pick this one up with my bare hands nd throw it outside so that it can go off to wherever it is snakes go to hibernate. For some reason, I couldn't help but think of the circus freaks in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur. As you'll recall, they take in Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane as the train of circus trucks passes in the middle of nowhere. When the police inspect their truck, they spot Lane and ask what she's doing, since she doesn't look like one of the freaks. The bearded lady responds, "She's our snake charmer! She's sitting on a box of snakes so they don't get lonesome!" The joke, of course, is that we've already learned that Lane's character is frightened of snakes. It's just one more example of Alfred Hitchcock's wonderful black humor.

It's one of the more whimsical uses of snakes in a movie plot, with one of the only others I can think of being the animated snake in the opening credits of The Lady Eve. Snakes show up in all sorts of other places, largely because they're frightening to a lot of people and good for shock or horror. Probably the best known example of this would be Snakes on a Plane, which isn't exactly a classic, although it may become a cult classic a half century from now. Frankly, I prefer to think of it as a loose remake of The Narrow Margin.

And then there are the rattlesnakes that show up to threaten characters in westerns. I distinctly recall Robert Ryan having to kill one in Inferno, while rattlesnakes also show up in the John Wayne version of True Grit, as well as the non-western Capricorn One. Thankfully, there aren't any rattle snakes in this portion of the US.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Desire in the Dust

If you want to see a very overboiled potboiler, you could do far worse than to watch the southern family melodrama Desire in the Dust, which is airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel. (Even the title sounds fun.)

The movie starts off with a bunch of people waiting for the next train into town, which we know means that Somebody Important to the Plot is about to get off. That's followed by a cut to a shot of the town's doyenne, Mrs. Marquand (Joan Bennett), celebrating her son's birthday, only for the camera to pull out and reveal the birthday is at his grave: the kid has been dead for six years and that death has pushed Mrs. Marquand off her rocker. These two items are going to come together, and thankfully, the movie does this for us fairly quickly. The man getting off the train is Lonnie (Ken Scott), who has just spent six years in the state penitentiary for the vehicular homicide conviction of the little boy.

But there's so much more going on. Lonnie is the son of a sharecropper, and it turns out that the sharecropper family has many more connections to the noble Marquands. Lonnie, before going to prison, had a thing of Melinda (Martha Hyer), the daugher of the Marquand family. And Peter, the other Marquand brother, has fallen in love with one of the sharecropper girls, a fact that irritates the father, Col. Ben, to no end. The Colonel is played by Perry Mason. Er, make that Raymond Burr; watching Burr ham it up as he tries to play a southern patriarch is part of the fun of this movie. Our Colonel is a domineering man, to put it mildly. He's got ambitions to hold higher elective office, and when his son died six years earlier, he realized the circumstances behind it could be problematic for him. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We're not supposed to know the details of this; all we know at first is that the editor of the local newspaper suspects something.

Anyhow, Lonnie had been in love with Melinda, and when he gets out, he still wants her all for himself. The only problem is that in the meantime, she got married to Dr. Ned (Brett Halsey), the doctor looking after Mrs. Marquand. It's good for the Colonel, who wants Melinda married to somebody respectable, but bad for Lonnie, who is determined to get Melinda back all for himself. She'll go with anybody she can, it seems, tempting Lonnie by wearing a series of dresses that do things to her breasts that should violate all of the laws of physics, and then not paying off. And then there's Daddy's relationship with her, which at times seems to imply that there's been some incest going on!

As I said at the beginning, Desire in the Dust is a potboiler that includes a little of everything as it goes way over the top. I haven't even include The Corrupt Sheriff or the shootings, the trope of The Reporter Willing to Break the Law to Prove the Truth, or the Colonel's treatment of his wife and his son Peter. Poor Joan Bennett has fairly little to do other than to provide seeming comic relief by breaking all of the breakable set pieces every time somebody has the nerve to tell her her younger son is actually dead. Until the finale when we know she's finally going to accept the truth, much like Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer The Colonel is also still treating Peter like a little boy.

All in all, Desire in the Dust is one of those films that isn't all that good, but is a hell of a lot of fun.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Summer Holiday

For some reason, I've never mentioned the movie Summer Holiday. The reason it should have gotten a mention is that it's a remake of Ah, Wilderness!, a movie that I blogged about when Mickey Rooney was TCM's Star of the Month last December. Mickey Rooney plays the lead in Summer Holiday after playing the kid brother in Ah, Wilderness!. Summer Holiday aired when Mickey Rooney was Star of the Month, and has aired a number of times since then, so I would have thought that I'd mention the relationship at least one of the times that Summer Holiday was on the schedule.

I thought it was on the schedule tonight at 8:00 PM, but no, I was wrong. If you look carefully, it's a completely different movie also titled Summer Holiday, from 1963 and starring Cliff Richard, who is probably best known for his singing. He's been singing since the 1950s and is an icon in the UK. I'm not certain which song he'd be best known for here in the US, but there's "Devil Woman" from the 1970s and "Suddenly" from the movie Xanadu, a duet with Olivia Newton-John, from 1980.

Not everybody is like us

A lot of times when it comes to the programming of the TCM schedule, I'll see people complaining that the prime time schedule doesn't have sufficiently obscure movies. And yet, there are a lot of people out there who don't know the "well-known" classics very well. Last night on Jeopardy!, the Final Jeopardy category was "Oscar Nominations", and the clue was something like, "The only time three actors received Best Actor nominations for the same movie was for this high-seas adventure." Now, those of us who are fans of old movies should know this one right away. And, to be fair, since it's only about nominations and not very directly about the plot of a film (as with, say Casablanca, it's not as easy a clue as us film buffs might be.

So it wasn't that much of a surprise that only one of the contestants came up with the correct response. That having been said, I was surprised to see somebody guess Down Periscope. No Titanic? Still, it should be a reminder to us classic movie fans that not everybody shares our interests. The more interesting question of course for people like the programmers at TCM is how to keep the TCM brand growing in the longer term. After all, they do need to reach out to new fans, or else us current fans are going to die off. I obviously don't know how to do it, or I'd be in charge of programming cable channels.

In case you didn't know, the correct response to the Final Jeopardy clue was "What is Mutiny on the Bounty?" I wonder, though, what the Jeopardy! contestants were thinking when Alex Trebek mentioned Franchot Tone.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The slightly seamy side of sports

Ah, for the "good old days" when the Olympics were played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. If you miss those days, you can have fun reliving them by watching the movie The Games this afternoon at 3:30 PM on the Fox Movie Channel.

The movie, released in 1970 tells the story of four men who are in training to compete in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (This means that we should know who wins, but as far as I know none of the characters are named after real people who actually ran.) Representing the US is Ryan O'Neal, playing Scott Reynolds, an upper-class college graduate who a generation earlier would have fit in perfectly with the Brits who competed in 1924 and were presented in Chariots of Fire. In fact, though, Reynolds is closer to the stereotype of today's high-profile college athlete of a drinker who sleeps with as many groupies as he can. Reynolds doesn't need to run through the tidal flats.

Two of the four profiled men would be more likely to train in such a manner. One is in fact British; that's Harry Hayes (played by Michael Crawford, who would go on to fame in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway). He's a dairyman and clearly a working-class person. He shows a flair for running and can beat all the public school boys, but he seems to run for his own reasons, which constantly puts him at odds with his coach (Bill Oliver), who is clearly living vicariously through his prodigy. Not too dissimilar is the Australian runner Sunny (Athol Compton), an Aboriginal who is discovered at a beach race by two White Australians who figure they can make a bundle of money wagering on Sunny, and take that all the way to the Olympics, which were still theoretically an amateur event at the time.

Last but not least is the Czechoslovak runner Pavel (Charles Aznavour). He's clearly based on Emil Zátopek, the Czechoslovak winner of the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, who has been prodded by his superiors to run the marathon for the glory of Communism. (In fact, Zátopek ran the marathon in Helsinki signing up at the last minute.)

The first two-thirds or so of the movie present the four men's preparation for the Games, and in the final third we get the actual race, which is a bit of a laugh riot. The race is presented with commentary by Rafer Johnson, the real-life winner of the decathlon in Rome who here is playing a TV sportscaster in a role that's probably technically inaccurate. The TV presentation implies that it's live to tape with Johnson in the back of a car, but with no satellite broadcasting technology and relatively little interest in sports broadcasting back in 1960, I'd think the marathon would have been heavily edited for broadcast. But that's not exactly what I'd complain about. First off, Harry takes off at an impossibly fast pace, completing the half-marathon in just under an hour. Considering that 50 years on, the record for the full marathon is about 2:06, running a half-marathon in under an hour would have been impossible back then. You can't help but think he's going to hit the wall. In fact, two of the profiled athletes hit the wall, presented in very different ways, each hilarious in its own right.

The Games is a movie with a fairly interesting premise that doesn't quite live up to that premise; it's nowhere near as good as Chariots of Fire. Still, there are parts that are well worth watching. It doesn't seem to be on DVD, however, and the last time the Fox Movie Channel showed it, it was a pan-and-scan print.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jean Louis Berthault, 1907-1997

Today marks the birth anniversary of Jean Louis Berthault. You probably wouldn't recognize the last name, largely because today's birthday boy didn't use his last name when working professionally. Under the name "Jean Louis", however, you probably do recognize him, as he showed up in the credits of dozens and dozens of movies from the 1940s through to about 1970, mostly as a gown designer Jean Louis was nominated about a dozen times, from Born Yesterday in 1950 to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. But of all the famous movies he did, it's interesting that Jean Louis won his only Oscar for a movie that's not as well known today: Solid Gold Cadillac. (Readers here will of course remember it as it's a movie I find delightful.)

One of the most famous non-nominated movies for which Jean Louis designed gowns is Gilda, with that black dress Rita Hayworth wore; in the Academy's defense, however, Costume Design was not yet a category at the time, only becoming a category in 1948. It's somewhat surprising that costume design wasn't honored before that since it really is an important part of the movies. Jean Louis also designed the dresses for Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, and famously designed the dress Monroe wore when she sang "Happy Birthday" to John Kennedy in an event that we get crammed down our throats to this day because of the media's love for all things Kennedy.

Jean Louis was married three times, becoming a widower after the first two marriages and then marrying actress Loretta Young, for whose 1950s TV show he had designed dresses, in 1993. That marriage lasted until his death in 1997.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nicholas Ray "centenary"

TCM is honoring director Nicholas Ray on the 100th anniversary of his birth with a retrospective. Every Tuesday night in October, TCM will be showing the films of Ray. In fact, Ray was born in August 1911, but since August is Summer Under the Stars on TCM, they had to delay the tribute. Among the films showing up on the first night of the salute, there are two that I would recommend, although it's been quite a few years since I've seen either of them.

At 10:00 PM is In a Lonely Place, in which Humphrey Bogart stars as a screenwriter with a violent temper who gets accused of murder. Gloria Grahame, a woman who lives in the same apartment complex, can provide an alibi, and this leads to her falling in love with Bogart. Until she learns of his violent temper, which leads her to wonder whether of not he's innocent after all....

In a Lonely Place is followed at 11:45 PM by They Live By Night, a movie I think I very briefly mentioned by title only back when Farley Granger died earlier this year. Granger stars as a man who got sent to prison for a relatively minor crime, which results in his becoming hardened by the fellow inmates he meets who really do deserve to be in prison. They more violent prisoners break out and help Granger to do so, but it's a price that's rather high for him to pay. They Live By Night is one that has a lot of people who were B-actors at the time and one that I remember as being quite good.

I have not actually seen Knock on Any Door, the movie that kicks off the night at 8:00 PM, before.

Monday, October 3, 2011

October is for horror

We're into October, which means that Halloween is exactly four weeks from today. Halloween always means classic and not so classic horror film shows up all over the place. TCM is unsurprisingly no exception; every Monday in prime time TCM is showing films from the genre. This week starts with a look at the genre from the silent era through to about the mid-1930s; future weeks will get us up to about the late 1960s. There's also a TCM documentary called The Horrors of Steven King which will be premiering tonight at 8:00 PM, followed by several airings throughout the month. According to the TCM article, this isn't about King's own horror output, but about the films that influenced King.

As for tonight's actual movies, you could do far worse than to watch Frankenstein at 9:00 PM; Boris Karloff gets the role that made him a star and a fixture in the horror genre for the rest of his life. Bela Lugosi shows up in a supporting role in Mark of the Vampire overnight at 2:15 AM, and Lon Chaney appears in The Phantom of the Opera, tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Star of the Month: Buster Keaton

It's quite rare that TCM honors a Star of the Month on the weekend, but this month, we have a star who did a lot of his work during the silent era. So, I suppose TCM decided to combine Silent Sunday Nights with the Star of the Month and bring us a bunch of Buster Keaton movies on all five Sunday nights in October. The salute kicks off with The General at 8:00 PM, which will be followed by a bunch of two-reelers. Back in the late teens and early 20s, actors made a lot of two-reelers.

There's one other feature which I've already blogged about, that being The Navigator at midnight. I don't think I've seen Our Hospitality (10:00 PM) before. And to be honest, I'm rather more looking forward to the shorts tonight.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Vivacious Lady

TCM is showing the movie Vivacious Lady this evening at 10:00 PM, and I don't believe that I have ever blogged about it before. Despite the fact that it has two fairly substantial stars in James Stewart and Ginger Rogers, it's one that's relatively little-seen. To be fair, Stewart wasn't quite yet the big star he was to become; Vivacious Lady was released in 1938 and it was movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a year later that made him a much bigger star. But Rogers was already quite big.

But enough of that, and on to the plot. Stewart plays Peter Morgan, Jr., a professor at a college in some unnamed middle American city where his father (Charles Coburn) is the president. The good professor starts off the film in the big city on a trip with his cousin Keith (James Ellison), who is rather the playboy, and obviously not the family member of which the rest of the family would be proud. In fact, we first meet Keith in a nightclub, where he's enjoying the singer (Ginger Rogers) despite the fact that staying at the club is going to make him miss his train home. It's Peter Jr.'s job to fetch Keith and bring him home, but Peter himself gets waylaid... by that singer. That singer, of course, is Ginger Rogers, playing a character named Francey. When Peter sees Francey, it's love at first sight, and the two get a quickie marriage before taking the train home.

This, unsurprisingly, causes serious problems. First, Dad is bound not to approve of the marriage. Could you imagine a college professor getting married to a nightclub singer? (Sure, in a Hollywood movie.) The trustees are certain not to like the idea either. So at first Peter Jr. keeps the marriage a secret, putting Francey up in a women-only apartment house while he works up the courage to tell Dad the truth. Dad isn't the only person who needs to learn the uncomfortable truth: Peter Jr. was engaged to Helen (Frances Mercer) before going off to pick up his cousin. Mom (Beulah Bondi) would be more accepting, but unfortunately she, like her son, has been too cowed by Dad to stand up to him.

Now, Vivacious Lady is a comedy, so all of this is handled very lightly. And it's quite an enjoyable little comedy, too. It doesn't seem to be trying to anything too big; we just have a bunch of professional actors going about their jobs and doing a darn good job of it.