Thursday, February 28, 2013

Five Weeks in a Balloon

Tomorrow is the first day of a new month, which means TCM is going to have some new programming salutes, at least once 31 Days of Oscar ends on Sunday: we'll finally get back to having a new Star of the Month and a new season of The Essentials. Before that, however,the Fox Movie Channel is taking a few movies out of its vault that they haven't shown in years. Two of them show up tomorrow, and immediately get repeated on Saturday. The first of these is Five Weeks in a Balloon, which you can see at 9:00 AM tomorrow on FMC, with a repeat at 6:00 AM Saturday.

Based on the novel by Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon stars Cedric Hardwicke as Ferguson, a Victorian-era balloonist who has invented a new type of balloon that allows for more lift and can stay in the air longer. He's about to take it out for a test flight in the British East African colonies, but Mother England is calling. Apparently there's slave trading in the interior of West Africa (which was mostly French, but don't let that plot hole stop you) that the British government needs to put down, and apparently Ferguson's balloon is the quickest way to get there unnoticed. So, could Ferguson take along a British agent Sir Henry (Richard Haydn)? Also along for the ride is an American journalist, Donald O'Shay (Red Buttons), Barbara Eden as a teacher, and Canadian Jacques (Fabian).

So they head west, and the crew meets with the sorts of adventures you'd expect from a Hollywood movie about Africa, which means stereotypes galore, along with establishing shots. That, and the standard squabbles among the various people in the balloon, and problems with the balloon. Along the way, they pick up slave trader Ahmed (Peter Lorre, looking corpulent and sickly), who's got a woman of his own in tow (Barbara Luna, clearly there as eye candy).

The result of all this is thoroughly mediocre, albeit not without its interesting points. Fabian was clearly cast because the producers thought he'd appeal to the teens, as he'd already been a teen idol a few short years earlier. Bu the same token, the two Barbaras, Eden and Luna, are clearly there to appeal to another segment of the demographic. And the whole plot, being taken from the Jules Verne novel, is something you'd have to think would appeal to kids, at least boys interested in adventure novels. Adults with a discerning eye will get to laugh at the bad parts of the movie, including some truly awful dialog. As Peter Lorre exclaims, "Kismet! We are doomed!" You might unfairly think the movie is doomed, too. At least, you might if you're looking for something more than dated escapist fare.

Five Weeks in a Balloon received a DVD release several years ago, but I'm not certain if it's still in print.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Fallen Idol

Another wonderful movie I've been meaning to blog about each time it shows up on TCM, but never got around to doing before, is The Fallen Idol. It's received a DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection several years ago, but it seems to be out of print and ridiculously overpriced. It's coming up again tonight at midnight (ET; that's late this evening for those of ou in North America's more westerly time zones), so this would be a good chance to get it.

Philippe (Bobby Henrey) is the son of an Ambassador to the UK, living in the embassy quarters on one of the upper floors in what looks like rather luxurious circumstances. But, it's really more of a gilded cage. Mother is ill; and father has all his duties to carry out while also returning home to see to his wife. So Philippe has been left, more or less, in the care of the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his wife (Sonia Dresdel). Mr. Baines is wonderful to Philippe, and Philippe in his turn idolizes Baines. Mrs. Baines, on the other hand, is the disciplinarian of the pair, not letting Philippe have any joy in life, or so he thinks.

The Bainses also have a complicated relationship. It's not a very happy marriage, and Mr. Baines has met and fallen for Julie (Michèle Morgan), who is one of the secretaries at the embassy. Mrs. Baines suspects that there's something untoward that her husband is doing, and dammit, she's going to prove it. She even goes so far as to stand on what is more or less an inside ledge to try to spy on her husband. Unfortunately for her, this results in an accident that results in her falling down the grand staircase to her death.

Mr. Baines and Julie don't know the truth of what happened, and fear that the police are going to conclude that he pushed his wife to her death. Philippe, meanwhile, saw Mrs. Baines' fall, but believes that perhaps Baines did it. The two adults try to come up with an alibi for themselves, and try to get Philippe in on their alibi as well. But this presents another problem in that Philippe is such a liar (reminiscent of Bobby Driscoll's character in The Window) that his lies to the police only serve to get Mr. Baines in deeper trouble. Will the real truth come out?

Ralph Richardson is quite good as always. Supposedly Bobby Henrey couldn't act well, to the point that director Carol Reed had to shot lots of footage of his character, until he got the reaction that he wanted, at which point he'd use the best reaction in the final edit. If that's the case, Reed and his editor did a fantastic job, as it never really intruded upon the movie the first time I saw it, leaving the story to develop naturally.

Early Color Shorts

TCM has a couple of shorts on today's lineup that ar OK, but more interesting for the fact that they're among the earliest live-action shorts in the three-strip Technicolor process.

The first of them is La Cucaracha at about 7:35 PM, just after That Hamilton Woman. You probably recognize the title as that of a Mexican-sounding children's song, and in fact the song features prominently in the short. The plot, which is a bit wanting, involves a female singer and her male dancer partner in a Mexican club who are visited by a producer from the big time who is looking to sign the dancer, and only the dancer, to a bigger gig. The singer obviously is afraid of losing her partner, so she tries to sabotage things. You can probably guess what happens next. The print I remember seeing on TCM some years back wasn't quite as good as prints of some other early three-strip shorts. The short has been included as an extra on an out-of-print DVD of the Wheeler and Woolsey movie Dixiana. It also appears to be on Youtube.

The second short is La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, at 5:35 AM after The Private Life of Henry VIII. This one has even less of a plot; it's a bunch of Hollywood players -- some stars and some not-yet-stars -- celebrating a fiesta in Santa Barbara with a bunch of novelty performance. Andy Devine is part of a bullfighting bit with, I believe, Buster Keaton; Warner Baxter, Robert Taylor, and Gary Cooper show up in the audience. Ida Lupino wasn't a star yet, but she shows up as a cowgirl. Really. The short is probably best known for Judy Garland and her sisters singing "La Cucaracha". Multiple people have posted this one to Youtube. There's a version split into two parts, and one that seems to be in its entirety, although a caveat is that I didn't watch the Youtube videos at any of the links.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What a Way to Go!

What a Way to Go! is airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM over on the Fox Movie Channel.

Shirley MacLaine stars as Louisa, a woman who at the start of the movie wants to donate all of her wealth to the US Government. The IRS thinks she's crazy, and send her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Stephenson (Bob Cummings) to have her head examined. (In real life, the government actually has an address for those who want to make donations to the Treasury. I don't think they would have turned her down. But then we wouldn't have much of a movie.) It turns out that she's a widow worth a good $200 million, left to her by a series of husbands who died. So, obviously, we're about to have a flashback to how Louisa became wife to all these men and how they left her that fortune....

Louisa spent her childhood in one of those typical for the movies Midwestern towns, with a mother (Margaret Dumont) who claimed to follow the Christian precepts about the love of money being the root of all evil and all that stuff. In fact, she was a hypocrite, berating her husband for not being financially successful and recommending that Louisa get married to the man pursuing her. That man is Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), who owns the local department store and making a fortune because none of the other stores in town can compete. Louisa doesn't like him, and instead falls for Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), who owns a not very successful store but is happy with the simple life. That is, until he marries Louisa. For a while they live happily together, like in one of those old silent movies, but when he gets humiliated by Crawley one time too many, Edgar gets the idea that he needs to provide better for Louisa, and proceeds to start working. He works and works and works, which makes Hopper's a successful business to the point of driving Crawley's out of business, but it takes all of his time away from him so that he's only at his job and never with Louisa. In fact, all of this work will be the death of him, as he drops dead on the job, leaving Louisa with a couple million dollars.

Louisa puts the money in a bank, living off a small allowance which she uses to take a trip to Paris. There, she meets Larry Flint (Paul Newman), who doesn't do porn but is instead a starving artist who, like Edgar initially was, is happy with his station in life. Louisa, seeing this as a change from Edgar, makes Larry Husband #2. You can probably guess what happens next. A series of coincidences leads to Flint's art being shown at a fine gallery and made the toast of Paris, which means that Larry gets rich too, just like Edgar. However, it also means that he has to spend more and more time with his art and not with Louisa, which, as with Edgar, eventually leads to his untimely death, but also leaves Louisa with more millions.

At the airport on the way back to the States, Lousia meets the man who is about to become Husband #3, Rod Anderson (Robert Mitchum). Rod is already rich, which is obviously a turnoff to Louisa. But you know that they're going to get married anyway. In fact, once Rod and Louisa marry, Rod becomes less interested in his business and more in lavishing Louisa with whatever she wants. Of course all this backfires, and Rod eventually dies young too. Ditto Husband #4, Pinky (Gene Kelly) a failed nightclub actor who's only got a job because his act is a failure -- that is, until Louisa unwittingly does something to make it a success. Pinky then goes on to become a big success until he too dies, which takes Louisa to the present day, back to Dr. Stephenson's couch.

What a Way to Go! is advertised as a black comedy, and while there are certainly a lot of comic elements, both black comedy as well as parody, the movie is just as much a fantasy in that the lives with the four husbands are thoroughly unrealistic and presented that way. Louisa describes each of the four marriages as being idyllic, like a certain genre of movie. I mentioned the silent movie for Edgar; there's also a French movie for Larry, one of those lavish 1950s Technicolor dramas with Rod; and a musical (choreographed by Gene Kelly, of course) with Pinky. The movie-within-a-movie for her marriage with Rod is particularly fun, as Louisa is shown in dress after dress after dress, which are increasingly over the top in their frilliness and garish colors.

Does the movie work? For the most part yes, as long as you know what you're in for. There are times when the comedy is just a little too wacky. But if you know that there's parody coming in spades along with the homages to filmmaking of the past, the movie does a good job with those things. MacLaine and Van Dyke both do a good job acting in the silent movie style; Newman and Mitchum do well as a foil for all the comic stuff going on around him, while Kelly is more or less playing himself. There's nothing deep about the movie, but it's entertaining enough.

What a Way to Go! has receieved a DVD release, but I'm not sure if it's still in print.

Monday, February 25, 2013

I really need to start numbering these "briefs" posts

I noticed in the opening credits to In Cold Blood, which aired today, that one of the credits reads "Print by Technicolor". Of course, In Cold Blood was filmed in black and white, and a very good job of B&W cinematography it was. There's actually a reason for that, as mentioned in an article at Reel Classics. What w think of as the brilliant Technicolor movies from the late 1930s through the 1950s were produced using an "imbibition" process, roughly filtering the negatives through several sets of dyes. Less expensive printing processes care around in the 1950s, and apparently the Technicolor company made prints even for some black and white movies.

I never knew any of the Joe McDoakes shorts were nominated for an Oscar, but apparently one was, as TCM is showing So You Want to Be on the Radio overnight tonight at 12:19 AM, or just after Dead Poets Society.

Iran is complaining that the Academy selected Argo as this year's Best Picture, calling it politically motivated. If the Academy were that politically motivated, you'd think they would have nominated Ben Affleck for Best Director too. I suppose the Iranian government should be comforted by the thought that some of the Americans who dislike Iran the most were probably irritated by the fact that Michelle Obama was the person who announced the winner. Politics makes strange bedfellows, indeed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Divorce American Style

About a month ago, TCM ran Divorce American Style as part of a salute to actor Dick Van Dyke on getting the Screen Actors' Guild (I think) lifetime achievement award. The movie has received a DVD release, but it seems to be out of print based on the ridiculous price Amazon is asking, as well as TCM's on-line schedule not listing it as available for purchase from their online shop. It's receiving another airing on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM.

The movie starts off with a montage of couples bickering in their suburban tract housing, because, well, that's what American middle-class married couples do. Cut to one particular couple, Richard and Barbara Harmon, played by Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. They hold a dinner party for their friends one night, but things don't go well, because afterwards, the two wind up at each other's throats as they clean up and then get ready to go to bed. Their adolescent son Mark (Tim Matheson in his movie debut) has obviously heard this all before, as when he hears the argument through the ventilation ducts, he's got a checklist of the things Mom and Dad use against each other.

What's a bored housewife to do? Barbara goes to her therapist, who has gotten Richard to agree to come in to one of the appointments in an effort to patch up the relationship, but that doesn't work, at which point Barbara calls her lawyer cousin who suggests a separation. Separation turns into divorce, with Barbara getting the house and everything in alimony, leaving Richard with the princely sum of $87.50 a week. Trying to put together the pieces of his life, Richard meets divorcée Nancy Downes (Jean Simmons). She's on relatively good terms with her ex-husband Nelson (Jason Robards), and likes Richard. This is wonderful for Nelson, since he'd love to see Nancy get remarried: there go his alimony payments. Of course, there's a problem wih the fact that even if Richard gets remarried, he still has to pay alimony. The only way he can get out of alimony is if Barbara remarries.

So, Nelson and Nancy immediately proceed to try to find a suitable husband for Barbara. Eventually the see an advertisement from used-car dealer Al Yearling (Van Johnson), whom Nelson had tried to hook up with Nancy, except that Al had a mother he was looking after. Mom has since died, so that means Al would quite possibly be good for Barbara, if the two can hit it of together. So, it looks as though everybody is going to live happily ever after: Richard with Nancy; Barbara with Al; and Nelson with his fiancée. Or will something come about to prevent the various couples from hooking up this way?

Divorce American Style has some potential. Parts of it come across as reminiscent of The Awful Truth, as you -- and Barbara and Richard -- wonder whether it was such a good idea for the two of them to get divorced in the first place. But this is not meant to be a screwball comedy; instead, it's trying to be more like a Paddy Chayefsky dark comedy. And there are times where that works too, as in the opening montage. There's also a very well choreographed sequence in the bank, when both Richard and Barbara have been advised by friends to clean out the joint bank account and remove the contents of their safety deposit box. Both go to the bank at the same time, with one going to empty the safety deposit box and the other going for the bank account, neither ever noticing the other.

Ultimately, though, Divorce American Style comes across as a bit of a mess; not quite sure of what it really wants to be. There's also something about the movie that seems firmly dated in the 1960s as opposed to The Awful Truth or Chayefsky's The Hospital or Network, all of which come closer to timeless. Debbie Reynolds comes across as a bit unappealing; the relationship between Nelson and Nancy seems a bit hard to believe; and the movie resolves its problems in a way that seems decidedly like a deus ex machina. It's a bit odd that the movie winds up as a mess, considering how much talent there is in it. In addition to all the actors, the screenplay was written by Norman Lear, while the director is Bud Yorkin: two men who went on to achieve great success together with the TV show All in the Family.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Man Without a Country

I've mentioned on a couple of occasions that Warner Bros. made a number of two-reel shorts in Technicolor in the second half of the 1930s with themes from US history. Along the same lines is The Man Without a Country, airing tomorrow morning at 9:08 AM, right after The Guns of Navarone.

John Litel stars as Lt. Philip Nolan, the man who gets stationed on the US frontier and, believing it to be a backwater, takes up with Aaron Burr, who after having killed Alexander Hamilton in the duel, was part of a conspiracy that may or may not have plotted against the US. Lt. Nolan gets tried for desertion, and says he doesn't want to hear about he United States any more. So the authorities humor him by putting him aboard navy ships for the rest of his life, where the crews are forbidden from talking about the US to him.

What's more interesting is that John Litel shows up in several of these WB shorts. I believe TCM showed Give Me Liberty a week or two ago, in which Litel plays Patrick Henry. There's also 1938's The Declaration of Independence, in which Litel makes an appearance as Thomas Jefferson. Sadly, I haven't been able to find any of these on Youtube.

Another Old Movie Blog

Yesterday, when I was looking for photos of Nacio Herb Brown, one of the photos was on a blog that hasn't been updated since last August. The blogger, however, had as part of his blogroll a blog calling itself Another Old Movie Blog. As of this writing, her latest post is a very good one on Resisting Enemy Interrogation, a training film made by the First Motion Picture Unit to try to show the devious techniques Nazis would use in their attempts to glean vital information from American POWs. There are a lot of Hollywood actors to watch out for.

I briefly mentioned Resisting Enemy Interrogation last Memorial Day weekend, and commented that it wasn't even available on Youtube. (Having been made by the government, it's in the public domain.) Jacqueline over at Another Old Movie Blog, however, kindly points out at the end of her post that it has now been posted to Youtube, something which only happened a few weeks after my post from last May.

At any rate, Jacqueline's blog is interesting, so I've added it to my blog roll.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Nacio Herb Brown, 1896-1964

MGM should have done a promo shoot with Brown and Freed singing in the rain
Nacio Herb Brown (center, seated at the piano) flanked by Marion Davies and Arthur Freed

Today marks the birth anniversary of composer Nacio Herb Brown, who was born on this day in 1896. He started his career on Broadway in the 1920s, but when sound came to moving pictures, the studios needed not only people who could talk well on screen, but people who could make music for the screen. So Brown wound up at MGM in 1928, where he promptly wrote music for songs that showed up in MGM's two big hits of 1929, The Broadway Melody and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (IMDb claims Brown shows up playing the piano in one number in this one); the lyrics, of course, were written by Arthur Freed. Probbaly the most famous song from The Broadway Melody might be "You Were Meant For Me", while from The Hollywood Revue of 1929 it's definitely "Singin' in the Rain".

Brown and Freed went on to write a whole bunch of songs together during the 1930s and 1940s. If I had to pick one song from this era that people might be most likely to remember, I think I'd pick "Good Morning", which premiered in 1939's Babes in Arms performed by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. "Good Morning", like "Singin' in the Rain" are remembered, of course, because of the Freed unit at MGM deciding to make the musical Singin' in the Rain, which was conceived as a way to reuse those great old songs by Brown and Freed.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seven Days in May

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Seven Days in May (1964)

Another movie that I have surprisingly never blogged about before is Seven Days in May. It's showing up overnight tonight at 2:15 AM on TCM, so now would be a good time to blog about it.

The movie starts off with scenes of people picketing outside the White House for and against President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March). It seems as though he's negotiated a controversial nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, and gotten it through the Senate, with the result that it's had a disastrous effect on his popularity. Apparently, the people who opposed the treaty believe that the Soviets won't honor it. To be honest, the premise may be a plot hole, in that there would have been a very low chance of ever getting a treaty like this through the Senate, since a lot of the Senators would rightly understand that it would get them voted out of office. They, after all, can see how unpopular this is making the President. But ignore that gaping plot hole, and you're in for a pretty entertaining movie.

Anyhow, after the establishing scene, we meet our two other main characters. Col. Casey (Kirk Douglas) is the adjutant to General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who is presumably on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Casey, in his job, sees some odd things cross his desk. First is a betting ring on the Preakness Stakes; there's talk of odd troop transfers and a base in Texas; and something called "Ecomcon", which is obviously an acronym for something, and whatever that something is, it's got to be nefarious. Col. Casey decides to do some discreet investigating, and he discovers enough to realize that there is indeed something serious, and that General Scott is trying to keep him in the dark. Eventually, Col. Casey suspects that the generals are planning a coup for the coming Sunday, and that the President is obviously in grave danger!

What's a colonel to do? Good loyal American that he is, he goes to a commanding officer. No, not his own commanding officer in the form of the General, since that would give the game away, but the Ultimate Commanding Officer, the Commander-in-Chief himself. The President and his advisers himself are obviously reluctant to believe that there could be a coup being plotted, since this means there are some serious consequences. But, they're not imprudent, and they decide to do some subtle investigation of their own, as well as taking steps to ensure that President Lyman won't be where the generals can keep him hostage. One presidential aide gets a confession from an admiral who is now stationed off Gibraltar, but unfortunately he's killed in a plane crash trying to return from Spain. Another Lyman supporter, Senator Clark (Edmond O'Brien) goes to Texas to investigate the new base, and gets held on a trespassing charge. It's becoming more and more clear that there is a coup being planned, but can the President and his advisors prevent it?

There's one other thing that could stop it, which is indiscretions on the part of General Scott. It turns out that he had had an affair with socialite Eleanor (Ava Gardner), and that she's got a bunch of love letters that, if they were ever made public, would doom the General. Col. Casey knows Eleanor, and tries to get the letters for her, even though it's going to mean possibly ruining the friendly relationship he has with her.

Seven Days in May is a movie that is immensely engrossing and entertaining, set against the unsettling unasked background question of whether any plot like this is possible in the real America. Just consider how many people believe in nonsense conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy, or the birth certificate stuff about Barack Obama, or the phony documents about George W. Bush's National Guard service. With the exception of hanging all the events on the hook of a treaty that I think would never have gotten passed by the Senate, the story is well-done, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Career supporting actor names I haven't mentioned are Martin Balsam as the aide who dies in Spain; John Houseman as the admiral from whom Balsoam extracts a confession; and Whit Bissell as a senator who seems in on the machinations of the generals.

Seven Days in May is part of a Burt Lancaster box set that the Warner Archive put out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Black Rose (1950)

Not to be confused with Fox's earlier The Black Swan, FMC is running the 1950 film The Black Rose tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Both movies star Tyrone Power and both are historical adventure movies, something with Power did quite a bit of during his career. The Black Rose sees Power in the 13th century as William of Guthrie, a Saxon Englishman who still doesn't like the Normans because his father married a Norman and left him a bastard child, even though it's been two centuries since the Battle of Hastings, and the Norman/Saxon conflicts we saw in The Adventures of Robin Hood had in real life been resolved generations earlier. When William's father dies, William leads an attack on what had been the family castle, an attack which unsurprisingly is rather against the law, and rightly so. Left an outlaw and without much funds, William and his liege Tristram (Jack Hawkins) decide to go east, not to grow up with the country, but to seek fame and fortune, having heard about the riches in Cathay.

The first place that William and Tristram end up is not Cathay, but the Near East, although to be fair, it's more or less on the way if you assume it's easier to do the first part of the journey by boat instead of overland through Europe. After some adventure, our two heroes wind up in a caravan that's heading for Cathay, one guarded by General Bayan (Orson Welles). Going in a caravan from the Holy Land to China would make for a boring movie, so to liven things up, the screenwriters included a young lady hostage named Maryam (played by Cécil Aubry). She doesn't want to be sent to China, and believes that somehow, she's destined to end up in England. So, unsurprisingly, when William and Tristram show up, she believes that they were sent by God to save her from Bayan and take her to England. Needless to say, that's not Bayan's plan, and wasn't exactly William's plan, but Tristram talks so glowingly of England that William eventually decides to help the two of them try to escape.

None of this was part of Bayan's plans. Bayan, for his part, wants riches of his own, and plans to gte them by conquest. Bayan sends Walter ahead to tell the Emperor of Bayan's superior strength and why it would be better for the Emperor to become a vassal instead of having to deal wiht all that nasty violence, but Walter, on meeting the Chinese and seeing such things as gunpower, decides that siding with the Chinese offers him the best chance of escaping the clutches of Bayan and getting back to England.

The Black Rose is silly escapist fare, and has little if any grounding in real history as far as I can tell. (I'll admit to not being an expert on this period of history, however.) But damn if it isn't an entertaining movie. Power had played in this sort of movie quite a bit, and to be honest looks too old for the part, but it's a part he could have played in his sleep and he does a professional job. Welles is also good, not going over the top when he easily could have (much as I like The Third Man, Welles' line about Italian Renaissance violence versus Swiss peace is probably my least favorite part of that film by a good ways). The Black Rose was made over at Fox's British unit, meaning that much of the supporting cast is British, which is no bad thing.

The Black Rose got a DVD release as part of a box set of Tyrone Power's historical dramas, but I'm not certain if the set is still in print.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Drunk Driving

Tomorrow morning at about 8:00 AM, TCM is showing the two-reeler Drunk Driving. You can probably guess what the subject of this short is. You might also be able to guess that this is another entry in MGM's Crime Does Not Pay series. This means that the short is a highly entertaining historical artifact of the way drunk driving was viewed back in 1939; however, as with most of the Crime Does Not Pay shorts it's a bit heavy-handed in the way it drives home its point (no pun intended).

One of the IMDb reviewers comments that it's interesting to see a Hollywood short take such an attitude toward drunk driving all the way back in 1939, as it wasn't considered quite the social taboo or something we had to have a legal crusade against until decades later. To be sure, there are a lot of movies where being drunk is portrayed as funny. Think the Thin Man movies, where it's "the sixth martini" that gets Nora Charles. THere are also movies where a character has a couple of drinks and then just gets into hsi car as though the alcohol had no effect.

On the other hand, the dangers of drink driving were known and there were characters who got into trouble for driving drunk and killing somebody. Just one year later, a young doctor goes to jail for DWI-related vehicu lar manslaughter in Millionaires in Prison. I believe Robert Montgomery's character in The Big House was also in prison for killing a person while driving drunk.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Adolphe Menjou, 1890-1963

Adolphe Menjou talks to Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in A Star is Born (1937)

I would have thought I'd done a birthday post on Adolphe Menjou before, but apparently not. Menjou had a long career, starting in silents in the teens and continuing to act up until 1960 and his final film, Disney's Pollyanna. If I had to pick just one movie to represent Menjou's body of work, I'm not certain which one I'd pick, just because he turned in so many good performances. He plays the newspaper editor in the 1931 non-comic The Front Page, a deeply cynical movie which is probably overshadowed by the comic 1940 remake His Girl Friday. Another good guy role is in 1952's The Sniper, in which Menjou plays a San Francisco police detective trying to determine who's the serial killer murering people with a sniper's rifle.

Menjou's moustache, I think, makes him always look elegant, as in the 1937 version of A Star is Born, or even 100 Men and a Girl, where as an unemployed musician he probably shouldn't look quite so elegant. Only in Hollywood can poverty look so good.

Left-aligned photo As for bad-guy roles, Menjou plays the Czechoslovak Communist functionary hovering over Fredric March's shoulder in Man on a Tightrope. He's also quite good as a French World War I general who court-martials a trio of soldiers for not carrying out a suicidal mission in Paths of Glory. The photo at left, in fact, is a scene from Paths of Glory with Menjou alongside Kirk Douglas, who has the thankless job of trying to defend the three soldiers in the court-martial. For a somewhat bad guy earlier in his career, albeit one who fits the elegant persona that imbues a lot of Menjou's performances, you could try The Easiest Way.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ah, those Oscar-nominated shorts

At the beginning of this year's 31 Days of Oscar, I mentioned that TCM runs shorts that are Oscar-nominated. Now, as far as I know, this morning's Jungle Safari wasn't Oscar-nominated. At least, looking through the Oscar website's list of films nominated in the short subjects back in 1950 doesn't show anything that looks like Jungle Safari. And coming up in future days are a lot of shorts that are just promo featurettes for various movies coming up in the TCM lineup, so those shorts wouldn't have been nominated either.

The big problem TCM has in trying to run only Oscar-nominated shorts is the relatively small number of them, and even more so the number to which they have the rights. TCM, as I understand it, doesn't have the rights to any of the animated stuff that was part of the library of films Ted Turner bought when Turner wound up with the packages from MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO. Those, I think, are over on Cartoon Network now, where the Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes shorts show up from time to time. I could swear I commented not too awful long ago that it's not that big a deal that the one-reel shorts wind up on a commercial channel; after all, between the shorts is a logical place to put commercials. When I was growing up, at least Universal's Woody Woodpecker shorts were packaged in a three shorts in a half-hour package, which came out just about to the maximum amount of commercials allowed. The upshot, of course, is that TCM can't show them in any case, so that cuts out an entire category of Oscar-nominated movies from which they can choose.

I was going to ask whether RKO did any animated shorts, but IMDb's search function isn't working. They don't have an option for RKO as one of the studios, and when I tried to select MGM as the studio, figuring I'd look at the URL in the search result and substitute in RKO where MGM was mentioned as the studio, the search yielded as the top result The Three Little Pigs, which is a famous Disney animated short. MGM wasn't even listed as a distribution company. Disney does its own videos and DVDs, while the original theatrical release was distributed by United Artists.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jungle Safari

I mentioned at the end of January that TCM ran a short in conjunction with King Solomon's Mines about the Dodge trucks that helped carry the cast, crew, and equipment to the shooting locations. I don't think that short had a title.

TCM's on-line schedule, however, lists something called Jungle Safari for tomorrow at 8:59 AM, which is just after King Solomon's Mines, which starts at 7:15 AM and runs 103 minutes. This is one of the shorts that does have a synopsis on the on-line schedule, which reads: "A short, promotional documentary about the challenges of on-location filming in the African wilderness for the adventure film King Solomon's Mines (1950)."
That sounded like the short I had seen a few weeks back, and IMDb doesn't have a listing for any short from 1950 called Jungle Safari, so I opened up the TCM page for Jungle Safari, which doesn't even have that synopsis. (My understanding is that most of the information on TCM's individual pages for movies comes from the AFI database.)

There is a link for user reviews, however, and that seems to confirm that Jungle Safari is the same short I mentioned back in January. There's one review titled "Dodge trucks in the bush". So, if you want to watch the short in better quality then you'll get on Youtube, it looks as though tomorrow morning is your chance.

To be honest, though, this is the sort of thing that really ought to be included as an extra on a DVD of King Solomon's Mines.

Motion Picture Gems

Back in January, I briefly mentioned the movie The Nasty Girl. I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to receive an email from Tom over at the Motion Picture Gems blog, who informed me that he watched it due to my recommendation and blogged about it.

So let me take this opportunity to thank TOm fo rhis kind words and to let everybody else know that I've added his blog to my blogroll.

And since I'm on the subject of German movies: if only Schtonk!, a 1992 comedy about the Hitler diaries fraud, could get a DVD release here in North America. Not that such a movie is one with particularly broad appeal, however.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Another round of briefs

All of the feature films in the TCM lineup for tonight and tomorrow are available from the TCM shop on DVD, with the surprising exception of The Champ, which I would have guessed had gotten a DVD release from the Warner Archive collection, or as part of a two-film set along with the 1979 remake. In fact, The Champ did get a DVD release, back in 2006 according to Amazon, which implies that that particular DVD release is now out of print.

So instead perhaps I should talk a bit about shorts. TCM ran The Broadway Melody at 6:00 AM this morning, which of course leads me to think of The Dogway Melody, which pretty much tells the story in two reels, and with dogs. I was going to embed a Youtube video of the short, but either my search skills are not up to snuff today, or the short is not available in its entirety. Oh, there are a lot of clips available, which will give you an idea of what the Dogville shorts were about if you've never seen any of them. And there are a lot of videos that look to be mash-ups of some sort. (I didn't watch them.) But it doesn't seem to be out there in its entirety.

An interesting short that is airing on TCM is Double or Nothing, which comes on just after Grand Hotel, at about 11:40 PM. I ran across this one about halfway through some months back when it aired on TCM, and it's an interesting two-reeler worth watching because the actor playing the lead has an extended dream sequence in which he plays alongside a bunch of famous Hollywood stars -- except that all of those famous stars are played by doubles, some of whom are quite good. Viewers of today who don't recognize the people probably will find it about as funny as a George Raft pun, but for those who watch lots of old movies, you'll recognize the actors being portrayed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

When Ladies Meet (1933)

I believe I have never blogged about When Ladies Meet before. It's airing tomorrow morning at 9:15 AM tomorrow on TCM, and I think is the only movie in tomorrow morning's lineup not to be on DVD.

Robert Montgomery plays Jimmie, a playboy/newspaperman who's part of high-class New York society, whom we first see crashing a party on a private yacht in the Hudson River. He's there to woo Mary (Myrna Loy), a similarly high-class woman, who writes novels for women about women. Mary, however, spurns Jimmie, because she's interested in her publisher, Rogers Woodruff (Frank Morgan). Rogers, however, is married to another woman. But Mary isn't about to let that stop her. She's a modern woman, and she believes that if a modern mistress meets a modern wife and lets the wife know the husband prefers the mistress, the modern wife will give up her husband of her own free will. Indeed, that's the whole point of Mary's latest novel! Jimmie unsurprisingly has the bright idea that art is imitating life, and decides to do something about it.

Mary has gone off to the country house of her friend Bridget (Alice Brady), one of the few people who knows about Mary's relationship. Indeed, the point of this weekend in the country is so that Mary can have some alone time with Rogers. Jimmie, for his part, still wants Mary, and has no intention of letting Mary wind up with Rogers. So Jimmie finds Rogers' wife Claire (Ann Harding), and asks her if she'd be willing to play a joke on the girl he loves: pretend to be interested in Jimmie so that Mary will get jealous. Of course, we know Jimmie's real plan, which is to get Mary to meet the wife whose husband she's trying to steal. The two women meet each other, each having no idea of the other's true identity. Naturally, they become friends at first, at least as much as two people who have just met can become friends -- but it's necessary to increase the tension for when the two finally find out the truth about each other, which you know is going to come soon enough.

Watching When Ladies Meet almost has a feel of watching kabuki theater. The plot seems artificial and strains credulity. Does anybody act in real life the way these characters do? Probably not, but all of the characters need to act the way they do in order to advance the plot to its inevitable climax when Mary and Claire discover each other's true identities. If you think about it, you'll probably get a headache from all the plot holes. When does Jimmie work, and more importantly, when the hell does he sleep? What kind of person would actually believe the drivel Mary writes about marriage? Has Claire ever suspected her husband of infidelity before?

I suppose I could go on. Try to avoid thinking to hard about the plot, and watch the movie for the performances, which are all pretty good. Robert Montgomery was always good at playing the charming playboy. Myrna Loy was still a year away from playing Nora Charles, and at this point in her career she was still playing quite a few "other" women and even villanious temptresses. Frank Morgan is probaby best remembered for playing the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, which is a bit of a shame since he was a pretty darn good supporting actor in a whole bunch of other movies including this one.

I'm surprised that When Ladies Meet has never gotten a DVD release, since it would be a good candidate for the Warner Archive Collection.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kim Novak turns 80

Kim Novak being held by James Stewart in Vertigo

Today marks the 80th birthday of actress Kim Novak, who is probably best remembered for playing the blonde who drives James Stewart nuts in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. I've stated in the past that Vertigo isn't one of my favorites, in part because I don't care for the Stewart character; in part because I really don't care about Novak's character; and lastly, because Hitchcock pretty much bludgeons the viewer with the idea that Stewart's character is obsessed with Novak's character. We get the point, Alfred!

A more fun movie with Novak might be Pushover. Sure, it's stuff that's been done before, but it's entertaining stuff.

I briefly mentioned The Legend of Lylah Clare back when Ernest Borgnine died, since he's got a small role in the movie. Novak plays Clare, a 1930s actress who died tragically, as well as a latter-day (at least, late 1960s) actress who can't act but looks amazingly like Clare, enough that the director who wants to make a movie about Clare (Peter Finch). It's terrible, but it's a fun terrible, for the most part.

Apparently, I've never done a full-length post about another of her films with James Stewart, Bell, Book and Candle, in which she plays a witch who falls for Stewart when she casts a spell for him to fall in love with her, as she's trying to spite her fellow witches and warlocks. I personally don't find it to the greatest, but it's another one that's reasonably entertaining.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A High Wind in Jamaica

One more movie to recommend over on the Fox Movie Channel is A High Wind in Jamaica, which is coming up tomorrow at 11:00 AM.

The movie opens up at a small outpost on the island of Jamaica sometime in the first half of the 19th century, at a time when all of the Caribbean islands were still colonies, with Jamaica of course being a British colony. A hurricane blows through what is clearly a fairly undeveloped settlement, although there are a bunch of families in the settlement. The bad experience of the hurricane convinces quite a few of the mothers that Something Must Be Done. Jamaica is no place for a kid to have a "proper" upbringing. So, the decision is made to send the kids back to Mother England to go to good boarding schools. Of course, this entails a long sea voyage more or less unaccompanied, unless you count one Spanish-speaking governess and the ship's crew as accompaniment. This is also the tail end of the era of high seas piracy, at least in the Atlantic Ocean. And so, sure enough, the ship gets raided, by a pirate ship captained by Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and with Zac (James Cobrun) as first mate.

But, a funny thing happens. In all the confusion of the hijacking, the kids make their way over to the pirate ship. But, they hide down below to stay stafe away from all the action, and they don't realize that the two ships have parted until it's much too late to do anything about it, and obviously none of the pirate crew notices them either, or they would have sent the children back to their rightful ship. I said at the beginning of the paragraph that "a funny thing happens", although that doesn't mean the movie is a comedy. Indeed, it's serious business. The pirates understandably don't want the children around; it's more mouths to feed and people to get in the way, even if the kids wanted to be perfectly behaved. The kids, for their part, still want to be children. They don't necessarily want to be mean to the pirates, but they're still kids and have a way of getting into trouble without understanding why. What's a crew to do?

The crew would probably be happy to do anything it takes to get rid of the children, but Captain Chavez has a conscience. And again, to be fair, none of what happened is really the kids' fault. Chavez decides that he's going to leave the children with some responsible adults in Mexican Tampico to either raise the kids or send them back to their parents in Jamaica: it's not as if the pirates can go to Jamaica themselves, of course. The only thing is, the "responsible" women Chavez knows are prostitutes, led by brothel owner Rosa (Lila Kedrova). In an incident at the brothel, one of the boys falls from a balcony and dies, which forces the pirates to take the children back to sea....

Despite the presence of a bunch of children, A High Wind in Jamaica is, for the most part, not really a movie for younger children. The violence feels grittier than in, say, the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, and there's none of the sugar-coating you might have seen had the movie been made by Disney. That's actually a good thing, however, as it's a story that should be treated seriously. Quinn, unsurprisingly, gives a good performance, and the kids are good too, never being cloying and irritating. Unfortunately, the last time FMC showed the movie, there was a technical glitch that led to the first 15 minutes or so of the film constantly switching back and forth between the letterboxed print and a pan-and-scan, something that was almost irritating enough to make me want to switch the TV off. That stopped, however, with the broadcast sticking with the letterbox print. At any rate, A High Wind in Jamaica has received a DVD release, although I think it's out of print.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Finally, a full post on "The Magnificent Dope"

I've twice briefly mentinoed the 1941 Fox comedy The Magnificent Dope, and both times lamented that it's not available on DVD. It would be a good candidate for Fox's MOD scheme, and for some reason I thought it was supposed to receive a DVD release from the Fox Cinema Archive. As far as I can tell, however, that still isn't the case. It's getting one more airing on the Fox Movie Channel tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, so that's when you're going to have to catch it.

Don Ameche plays Dwight Dawson, who runs a "school for success" (think Dale Carnegie), aided by his fiancée Claire (Lynn Bari) and assistant Horace (Edward Everett Horton). Unfortunately, the school for success isn't very successful itself. What to do? Why, have a contest to promote the school! Have failures from all around the country send in their stories, and the school will give the best essay a big fat cash prize, as well as a free success course, which will show off how good the school is. If it can turn this failure into a success, why, it can turn you into a success too! After going through all the essays, they pick Tad Page (Henry Fonda), and bring him in from his small New England hometown to make him a success.

There's a big catch, however. Tad doesn't really consider himself a failure. Sure, he's not particularly well off, since he doesn't work all that hard, but Tad likes it that way. Indeed, he only entered the contest because he wanted to use the prize money to buy his town a new fire truck that it really needs. So Tad shows no desire to take the success course, or at least no desire to take the course seriously. When he does sit in the classes with the other students, he's more of a malignant presence, at least in the mind of Dwight: Tad is giving all of the other students dangers ideas about how the rat race isn't all that, and it's OK to stop, sit back, and smell the roses. Such ideas will be the death of Dwight's school!

Complicating matters is that Tad has fallen in love with Claire, although he doesn't realize she's in a relationship with Dwight. Dwight wants to use this relationship to manipulate Tad, and Claire is torn over what exactly she should do. She kind of likes Tad herself.

The Magnificent Dope has themes seen in several other movies. The "avoiding the rat race" theme definitely pops up 15 years later in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, as well as a bunch of Depression-era movies, most notably Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Henry Fonda's Tad Page is of a type he played in a few other movies from that period: the "aw, shucks" man who gets conned at first, but shows himself to be just as smart as the "sophisticates". Rings on Her Fingers comes to mind, as does The Lady Eve. Henry Fonda is said to have disliked his time as a contract player at Fox, as he got a lot of unserious movies that he felt weren't up to his acting chops. Personally, I think Fonda was being a bit unfair if he felt that way. Sure, The Magnificent Dope will never be looked at in the same light as The Grapes of Wrath, but it's just as entertaining as the programmers the other studios were using their stars in.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The President's Lady

I briefly mentioned The President's Lady a week or so ago, and pointed out that it's airing tomorrow, February 11, at 8:45 AM on the Fox Movie Channel, so now's your chance to watch it.

The movie is based on a novel by Irving Stone, the same man who gave us Lust For Life about Vincent Van Gogh. This time, the subjects are future US President Andrew Jackson (played by Charlton Heston), and his titular Lady, Rachel Donelson Robards (played by Susan Hayward). The movie begins around 1790, with Heston showing up at the inn in what is now Nashville, Tennessee run by the Donelson family, the matriarch being played by Fay Bainter. Jackseon falls in love with the daughter Rachel, although there's a catch: she's married. Well, she's separated from her husband, Captain Robards (Whitfield Connor), but they haven't been able to get a divorce. The not-so-good Captain is about to return, and Mrs. Donelson suggests Rachel go down to the new territory of Mississippi to get away from him, and that Andrew accompany her for her safety. When Andrew saves Rachel from an Indian attack, she discovers that the feeling he has for her is mutual. Still, there's that pesky marriage. Eventually, however, Rachel is informed that Captain Robards has gotten a divorce from her, so she's free to become Mrs. Andrew Jackson.

But wait, there's more! Captain Robards is such a jerk that he never really finalized the divorce, which means that the marriage between Rachel and Andrew is legally invalid. Now, in real life, Rachel was then able to file for divorce, and heaven knows she would have had grounds for it. She finally got the divorce decree in 1794 and remarried Andrew in a valid ceremony leading to a marriage that lasted 'til death them did part, as the language in wedding ceremonies more or less goes. But that invalid marriage was going to be a problem, because it means that even though they thought they were being perfectly upstanding, there are going to be people who believe the two were living in sin. (As if sin were a bad thing.) This is a problem considering that Andrew gets involved in politics, eventually running for President against John Quincy Adams. Adams' supporters are certain to use the "invalid marriage" canard against Jackson, and since there was an invalid marriage, even though that invalidity was rectified, it's going to be difficult to set the record straight in the days of the 1820s when there wasn't the vast and easy access to information that we have today.

The President's Lady is a perfectly competent movie. Heston and Hayward both do a capable job with their roles, and the story is certainly quite interesting. With a running time of about 95 minutes, however, there's even more interesting stuff from Jackson's real life that had to be cut out. Unfortunately, The President's Lady was filmed in black and white. Historical dramas are a genre of movie that always benefited from the use of color photography, which one can clearly see if one looks at the gorgeous sets and location photography of Stone's later film adaptation Lust for Life. By comparison, The President's Lady looks like the studio movie it is, and that's a shame. An entertaining and pretty darn good shame, to be sure, but a shame nonetheless. This isn't to suggest that The President's Lady isn't worth watching, however; there are other very good historical dramas that clearly look studio-bound, such as Rembrandt.

I don't believe The President's Lady has received a DVD release.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Newsreel footage

So I was watching Wilson last night during the blizzard since I didn't feel like going up on the roof in the dark to clear off the internet satellite dish. It was humorous to see the scene where he's serving coffee to the soldiers going off to World War I and hearing him make the comment, because of the presence of a German-American and an Italian-American, that the military brought together soldiers of every race. It was painfully obvious from the scene that there weren't any black soldiers there. Indeed, the military was still segregated at the time the movie was made; it wasn't until a few years later that Harry Truman ordered its desegregation.

More interestingly was the scene in which a movie theater shows a "Fox News" newsreel of footage of soldiers training for war and then going off to France. I was always under the impression that Fox's newsreel division was called "Fox Movietone News". Indeed, a bit of research on the Internet shows that Fox Movietone News didn't come along 1928. I don't think they had a newsreel divison under another name. Wikipedia suggests two major newsreel producers around in 1917, Pathé and Hearst Metrotone. The latter, I believe was distributed by Universal, while I couldn't figure out who distributed Pathé.

As for the newsreel footage, the intertitles certainly looked as though they didn't date back to 1917, while the images themselves seemed tough to date. I don't know if Fox would have gone ot the expense of making a bunch of stuff designed to look like newsreels for something that's not an important part of the plot. Indeed, my understanding is that real newsreel footage was used years later for the opening of Wild River, although that wasn't the sepia-toned stuff you'd see in silent movies. I'm trying to think of what World War I-themed silent movies Fox made. Offhand, I can think of the silent version of What Price Glory, as well as Seventh Heaven, but it's been too long since I've seen either of those to remember what sort of war footage is in them. TCM showed Lucky Star several months back, but I don't recall the sort of footage that showed up in the newsreel being in Lucky Star. IMDb's "Movie Connections" page for Wilson doesn't say anything about footage from other films showing up, either.

For your viewing enjoyment

If I haven't shoveled out from the blizzard yet, enjoy a Traveltalks short: 1942's Glimpses of Ontario:

Unfortunately, not all of the Traveltalks shorts have made it to Youtube, although to be fair, they are under copyright. I wouldn't have minded posting Around the World in California or Valiant Venezuela, although I couldn't seem to find either of them on Youtube.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A blizzard of Fox movies

There's a big snowstorm headed toward the northeast, and since snowstorms always require me to go up on the roof and clear the snow away from the satellite receiver for my Internet, there's a pretty good chance I'm not going to be online until sometime Saturday. It's a bit difficult to figure out what to blog about anyhow, since there are a lot of movies that I've already blogged about.

TCM's 31 Days of Oscar is up to a programming block of movies from 20th Century-Fox, and a surprisingly long block at that. In fact it's a full three days, until RKO's Cimarron comes up at 6:15 AM Monday. I suppose that's not such a bad thing, since it means that TCM is having more luck at getting the rights to run movies from the Fox library. This block of programming brings a couple of movies that I believe are TCM premieres, such as Wilson at 8:00 PM tonight, a 1944 biopic in which Alexander Knox plays Woodrow Wilson. Knox does quite a good job, although I find the movie overlong at 154 minutes, and like most biopics back then, utterly uncritical in its view of the subject. Another nice Technicolor movie that I believe is a TCM premiere is Captain From Castile overnight at 3:45 AM, starring Tyrone Power as a man who goes to Mexico with the conquistadores to escape the Spanish Inquisition.

The other pleasant surprise is that FMC is going to be running some old classics on Saturday. Granted, I've done posts on all of them, but still, it's good to see them back:

Moontide with Jean Gabin at 6:00 AM;
Fallen Angel follows at 8:00 AM;
Gene Tierney stars as Laura at 10:00 AM; and
Vicki, the remake of I Wake Up Screaming, is on at 11:30 AM

Moontide has only the one showing; the other three are going to be back on at various times in March. I thought I'd blogged about Vicki before, but apparently not; perhaps I'll get around to doing so when it shows up again in March.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Berkeley Square

Last July when Leslie Howard was TCM Star of the Month, I briefly mentioned the movie Berkeley Square, which I had not seen before. It's not available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch it whenever it shows up on TV, which is quite infrequently. Indeed, I can't remember ever seeing it in the Fox Movie Channel schedule, and I think last July's TCM showing was a premiere for TCM. It's getting another airing on TCM tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, and is well worth a viewing if you didn't catch it back in July.

Leslie Howard stars as Peter Standish, who at the beginning of the film is an American just arrived in the UK in 1784, which of course is just after the Americans finished winning the war for independence against the UK. Peter's survived the war well and come out of it fairly wealthy, but he's got family in the UK who haven't. They, however, have something Peter doesn't have, which is high social standing, which is why he's come to London to see them and perhaps find himself a high-class wife. In fact, Lady Kate (Valerie Taylor) is being persuaded by the rest of her family that Peter would be a good man to marry if he should propose to her. Kate's got a sister Helen (Heather Angel) who's also being pursued by a wealthy man, Mr. Throstle (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Throstle isn't exactly the man any woman would want to marry, but he's got money, and that would solve the family's financial problems.

All of a sudden, the movie fast forwards to 1933, which is the present day in that Berkeley Square was released in 1933. Another Peter Standish, again played by Leslie Howard, is in the same house as the one the Standish of 1784 was on his way to to see his British relatives. In the meantime, modern-day Peter Standish has inherited the house. Having inherited it, he's interested in the history of he place, specifically what happened with all those relatives back in the 1780s. His fiancée Marjorie (Betty Lawford) is concerned with Standish's interest in the past, in that it seems as though he's more interested in the past than the present day. It turns out that she has good reason for her concern. Modern day Peter believes he might actually be able to travel back in time to those days in the 1780s.

Sure enough, he does. The scene flashes back to 1784. Everything looks much as we left it when the film jumped from 1784 to 1933, with one big exception, which is Peter. The Peter Standish now in 1784 isn't the original Peter Standish of 1784, but the Standish of 1933, who has all of the knowledge of the 150 years between those two dates. This is a big problem, because of course modern-day Peter doesn't belong in 1784. He doesn't talk like a man of the 18th century, and having read the diaries that his 1780s relatives left, he can see the future, which unsurprisingly frightens them. Worst of all is the fact that 1933 Peter falls in love not with Kate, but with Helen.

Berkeley Square is a film with an interesting premise. Howard does quite a good job with what is for all intents and purposes a dual role. Everybody else is OK, but they're all on screen in service of Howard. The one real problem Berkeley Square has is that, based on a stage play (and adapted for the screen by the playwright himself), it sometimes comes across as stagey and hidebound, much like Howard's earlier Outward Bound. But at least Outward Bound had the excuse of having been made back in 1930, which in many ways was still the infancy of the sound film era, when filmmakers were still figuring out how to use the medium to best advantage, and there were still technival problems. Berkeley Square, on the other hand, was released in the same year as Dinner at Eight, which I believe doesn't have a single exterior scene but still doesn't feel very much like a stage play. But that's a minor flaw. Berkeley Square is very much a worthy movie.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Imitation of Life (1934)

Back in September 2008, I blogged about the 1959 Lana Turner movie Imitation of Life. I mentioned that it was a remake of a 1934 movie also called Imitation of Life, and that both versions were based on a novel. The original is airing tonight at 10:30 PM on TCM and, if you've never had the chance to see it before, is well worth watching.

The basic plot isn't too much different from the 1959 version. Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a white widow with a child who's having difficulty making ends meet, meets Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) when Johnson accidentally shows up at the wrong house to apply for a housekeeper's job. It's clear that they both need each other, so they wind up living together. Delilah, like Bea, also has a fatherless daughter. The only thing is, the daughter is mixed race. Bea discovers that Delilah makes fabulous pancakes, so to make ends meet, the two go into business together first with a short-order diner selling the pancakes, and then boxing the pancake mix, a move which pays off handsomely.

Would that all this money also make everybody happy. Fast forward quite a few years until the children are both around 18. Bea is living in a big house in the city with Delilah still serving as her housekeeper, even though she ought to be wealthy enough to do whatever she wants. Bea's fallen in love with Steve Archer, a renowned ichthyologist. (Look it up in the dictionary; a comic scene in the movie involves Bea's daughter pretending to know what an ichthyologist is but running off to look it up when nobody's around.) Bea doesn't know, however, that her daughter (Rochelle Hudson) has also fallen for Archer, although the daughter doesn't realize it's an unrequited love. For Delilah, the problems are much bigger. Her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington), despite being mixed race, is light-skinned enough to pass as a white woman. And dammit, that's what Peola's going to try to do, to the point of not wanting her mother around at all since that would make people realize Peola is mixed-race, which in the 1930s meant she was black and subject to all the discrimination that non-whites faced.

One of the joys of self-editing is that you can make typos and never notice them. When I wrote about the 1959 version, I had a concluding paragraph discussing the 1934 version in which I stated I thought the remake was better. In fact, I prefer the 1934 version, something that probably should have been obvious when I wrote about the Rochelle Hudson character, played by Sandra Dee in the remake, "Susie, played by Sandra Dee, Gidgets her way through the movie being a self-centered you-know-what who doesn't understand the rest of the world". The character is necessary to the plot because her existence makes her mother think she understands what the black woman is going through with her daughter, but the character is much too big in the 1959 version. Claudette Colbert also comes across as more genuine than Lana Turner in her concern for her housekeeper.

The TCM shop has a special edition DVD with both versions of the movie.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Just Imagine on Youtube

I don't like recommending movies that either aren't coming up on TV, or aren't available on DVD. But as I mentioned at the end of December, quite a few old films seem to be showing up in their entirety on Youtube; films that probably don't have much commercial value to the studios and would at best be a candidate for a MOD release. I don't want to get into a discussion of how long copyright should run for, but it does need pointing out that the copyright length has been repeatedly extended, such that a lot of the old movies whose posting to Youtube is technically a copyright violation wouldn't be a copyright violation if it hadn't been for the last round of copyright extension changing the term from 75 years to 95 years. (Cynics will say this term will get extended again just before Steamboat Willie is about to enter the public domain.) One of these old movies that's so bizarre I get a huge kick out of it is Just Imagine.

Just Imagine was made in 1930, and begins with a brief exposition telling the audience to "just imagine" the world of their grandparents, 50 years earlier, in 1880. We then get a few scenes that must have looked as curiously old-fashioned to the audience of 1930 as something from the early 1960s would look to a lot of young people today. Fast forward to 1930, and a scene showing how modern the people of today are, or fancy themselves to be. Not so fast. The film quickly asks people to "just imagine" how the world will look in the distant future, 50 years hence, in... 1980! (OK, you can all stop laughing now.)

As you can just imagine, Hollywood's view from 1930 as to what life would look like in 1980 is thoroughly inaccurate, but that's part of what makes Just Imagine so much fun to watch. People no longer have normal names as they did back in 1930, but instead are named by letter-number combinations. (How this happened is never mentioned.) John Garrick plays J-21, an airline pilot who flies the transatlantic route and, when he's not flying lives with his roommate RT-42 (Frank Albertson). J-21 has a girlfriend, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan, two years before she'd go on to play opposite Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan). J-21 would like to marry LN-18, but there's a catch. There's another man, MT-3, who would like to marry LN-18. Whatever authoritarian changes mandated that people no longer had real names but these license plate-style appellations also stated that women couldn't choose for themselves whom they wanted to marry, and so the two lovers have gone before a tribunal to decide who gets to marry LN-18, with the judge choosing MT-3 on the grounds that he's more prestigious. The only thing is, the transatlantic flights have gone as far as they can. What's a man to do?

There's a parallel story line. J-21's roommate RT-42 is in love with LN-18's friend D-6 (Marjorie White), who plays a laboratory assistant to a scientist who's got a big experiment: he's working on reviving a man who was hit by lightning and killed back in 1930 while playing golf. The revival is a success, at least to the extent that the man (El Brendel) actually comes back to life. But now we've got a man from 1930 who has no idea how to survive in the society of 1980, and a scientist who thinks nothing of ethics, but that his only job was to revive the guy. So J-21 and RT-42 take the man in, and name him Single O. There are quite a few opportunities for humor in the "fish out of water" not fitting in with a time 50 years in the future, and unsurprisingly Just Imagine takes the opportunity to make those jokes, some of which may be lost on viewers of today.

But when J-21 is resigned to losing LN-18, there's an opportunity presented to him. A different prominent scientist from the guy who brought Single O back to life, Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth), has been working on a rocket ship that could take people to Mars. Flying the first manned mission to Mars would certainly be prestigious, and if J-21 could do it, he'd be certain to come back famous enough to convince the tribunal to let him, and not MT-3, marry LN-18. J-21 and RT-42 decide to take the mission, and they find that Single O has stowed away after the rocket takes off. When they get to Mars, the three find a strange world where everybody seems to be a bipolar twin. That is, everybody's a twin, with one twin being the diametric opposite in terms of character from the other twin. There's also the dancing (a number which has to be seen to be believed) and the skimpy outfits. The Bad Martians hold the three Earthlings hostage, but Single O and some of the good Martians are able to save the day. Can J-21 get back to earth before MT-3 marries LN-18?

Just Imagine is a movie that will probably sharply divide opinion. It's an early talkie, which as always presents technical problems that can make films look stagey and dated. The movie also has some plot problems. It's not so much plot holes as with a lot of other movies, but instead a movie where the filmmakers seemed to have the idea of trying anything they could think of to throw at the viewer, with the result that the movie looks at times like a mishmash. There's one big musical production number thrown in for no good reason, for example. And combining science fiction with romantic comedy is a daring move that would probably be looked at as odd even today. On the other hand, there's a lot about the movie that's charming, and the mishmash is just so bizarre that I can't help but love it. Marjorie White is great, stealing the show at the end and getting some wonderful pre-Code lines. The Mars scenes are so screwed up, but still a lot of fun. And it's nice to see a movie looking at the future that doesn't suffer from the post-1970 cynicism that's given us a bunch of dystopic conspiracy-theory looks at society, both those of the present (The Parallax View) or those of the future (Soylent Green).

Since I mentioned at the beginning of the post that Just Imagine has made it to Youtube, I would be remiss in not including the Youtube link. Note that whoever put the movie up on Youtube claims that Just Imagine has made it into the public domain, but I don't believe that's the case.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Searching the Fox Movie Channel

Every now and then, the Fox Movie Channel still has a movie that's worth watching and worth blogging about. Unfortunately, finding those movies can be a bit of a pain. A few weeks back, FMC ran The President's Lady. Now, it is possible to find out all the times FMC will be running a movie. On FMC's schedule page, there's a little clock next to each movie in the listings. If you click on that, you'll get a pop-up showing all of the airdates for the movie in question. I had seen that The President's Lady would be running once in January and once in February, but I didn't note down which day in February the second airing would be. So this morning I decided to look it up. I typed the term "President's Lady" in the search box, which duly yielded no matches. Thankfully, I knew that the movie stars Charlton Heston, so I did a search on him, which gave me the desired result. It's airing February 11, so I don't have to write the blog post for several days yet.

Another example is A High Wind in Jamaica. This is another one they showed on FMC last month, and when I first went to the FMC schedule, I saw it too was getting an airing in January and an airing in February. It stars Anthony Quinn, so I typed "Quinn" in the search box -- and got Viva Zapata! Now, there's nothing wrong with getting Viva Zapata! as a hit on an Anthony Quinn search, since he did play a supporting role in the movie. But that was the only hit. I had to do a search on "Jamaica" to get the desired hit. I haven't missed blogging about this one eiter; it's running on February 13 and has two airings in March.

Ah, but things get even more interesting. I tried running a few more searches. Searching on "president" hoping to get The President's Lady brought up Viva Zapata!, which is about the Mexican president, so again a valid hit. But a second search on "Quinn" yielded A High Wind in Jamaica, and not Viva Zapata!. I can only wonder what other movies I'm missing on FMC.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Not everything is Warner Bros.

TCM is scheduling 31 Days of Oscar by studio, with large blocks of programming dedicated to each studio. Well, not quite. They've got the shorts to schedule. Now, the shorts that show up during 31 Days of Oscar are all Oscar-nominated. And Calgary Stampede, which aired this morning, was in fact made at Warner Bros. Coming up, however, are a couple of shorts made over at MGM, and this is really just an excuse to mention those shorts.

I blogged about Stop, Look, and Listen three years ago; it's airing at approximately 10:45 PM tonight after The Music Man. If you haven't seen this one before, it's thoroughly recommended.

The Pete Smith short Wrong Way Butch is airing just after 6:15 AM tomorrow, or just after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Dave O'Brien, who frequently showed up in Smith's shorts, plays Butch, a man who shows no regard for safety in a short that's part comedy, and almost a public service announcement in that it shows you this is not the way to be safe.

I believe both shorts have stil not made it to DVD, although they'd both be good as extras.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Calgary Stampede again

Back in February 2010, I briefly mentioned the short Calgary Stampede, since the schedule was not quite clear about when it was going to air. Calgary Stampede is on the schedule again, at about 6:07 AM tomorrow. That's after Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which starts at 4:00 AM and has a running time of 126 minutes. So, 6:07 AM would be just about right. The following feature, A Streetcar Named Desire, begins at 6:30 AM. One thing I didn't mention back in 2010 is that Calgary Stampede is in Technicolor, which, like the Traveltalks shorts, makes it worth a viewing just for the historical curiosity.

Tales from the Warner Bros. Lot

Depending on your calculations, 2013 is the 90th anniversary of Warner Bros. studios. (Remember, Warner Bros. themsleves put out a 25th anniversary short in 1930.) As part of that celebration, a documentary called Tales from the Warner Bros. lot was made, and that is running twice on TCM, at 7:00 PM tonight, and again at 9:00 AM tomorrow.

The thing is, I'm not certain exactly what we're getting. TCM is fitting this documentary into a one-hour time slot, with the schedule page showing a running time of 53 minutes, but the page you get when you click on the link giving almost no information whatosever. IMDb, on the other hand, lists a documentary under the same title that runs 106 minutes, albeit with no user reviews.

I'm always up for a Hollywood history documentary, however, as long as it's good.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Clark Gable, 1901-1960

Clark Gable in A Free Soul (1931), which won't be airing during 31 Days of Oscar

Those actors who were born in February never get a day devoted to them on TCM, now that TCM spends the entire month of February doing 31 Days of Oscar (the 31 days coming from the days when the Oscars were awarded in March). Clark Gable would be a good one to kick off a month of February birthdays. Unfortunately, since Gable worked at MGM during much of the 1930s and TCM is running Warner Bros. films for the beginning of 31 Days of Oscar, they're not showing any of Gable's films. I was going to do a lazy photo post of pictures I've used in previous posts of his movies, until I noticed that the 1931 version of Possessed has gotten a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Gable is the male lead, but the actual star is Joan Crawford, who in 1931 was bigger than Gable. Crawford plays Marian, a young woman in one of those factory towns in otherwise rural Pennsylvania. There's a stable place for her here, since her childhood friend Al (Wallace Ford) is more than willing to marry her. But Crawford doesn't want the small town; she wants excitement out of life! One day, while the train to the big city stops in town, she sees the big city people in one of the train cars through the window, and one of the men on the train suggests she join him. That little bit is enough to put the kibosh on the relationship between Al and Marian, which as far as Marian is concerned is fine by her. So she heads off to New York, and looks up the guy on that railroad car.

In Baby Face, which came out two years after Possessed, Barbara Stanwyck gets told by Alphonse Ethier to "use men to get the things you want". Joan Crawford's Marian is given a similar but milder form of advice, in that it's suggested she could do well by herself if she became a mistress to one of those wealthy men that populate the polite side of New York City. Marian eventually gets Mark Whitney (birthday boy Gable), who can provide her all of the things she wants in life, except for one: a wedding ring. It seems Mark has an ex-wife, and he doesn't want to be hurt by Marian the way he was by his ex-wife. Complicating matters is the fact that Mark wants to run for governor, and a relationship with Marian might be a problem. That, and the fact that Al has made good back in the small town and when he sees Marian in the big city, wants her, now that he can provide all of the things he wouldn't have been able to give her just working at the factory. What's a girl to do?

Possessed is a product of its times, with an interesting and surprisingly frank story that is unfortunately saddled with a resolution that strains credulity. Still, Joan Crawford gives a great performance, and for people who only know her from her Mildred Pierce and beyond days, this should be a revelation. Clark Gable is quite good too, you can see why all the men wanted to be like him and all the women wanted to be with him. Also of note is a small scene with Marjorie White as another mistress, but one who doesn't have the discretion that Crawford's Marian has. Hers is an important scene as it shows why men like Mark are reluctant to marry women like Marian, and White plays it well.

As I said at the beginning of the post, Possessed is available on DVD, but be careful it you want to pick up a copy. Joan Crawford made another movie called Possessed with a completely different story line 16 years later, and there are several other movies named Possessed.