Monday, September 30, 2013

The Fox Movie Channel is still not quite dead

Not that many of you are paying close attention, but the Fox Movie Channel schedule page isn't being updated. I noticed this several weeks back, since I was looking at the printable monthly schedule, which abruptly ended at 6:00 AM today, after an airing of Do Not Disturb. Trying to find out what came on after that was at first difficult, since unlike TCM, most channels' schedules don't get released more than about two weeks in advance, so that the various listings services can update their websites, publications, or box guides, depending upon which medium you're talking about.

The higher-ups who program Fox's TV strategy in general have been planning a reform of the channel structure for quite some time, of which the FMC/FXM channel is a part. If you watch any cable besides TCM you'll probably have seen advertisements for the new Fos Sports 1 sports channel which debuted in mid-August, along with a Fox Sports 2. The old Fox Soccer Channel had a lot of its soccer programming shunted to the two new sports channels, in order to make room for a new channel, FXX, the second X standing for "extreme", which seems to be nothing more than trying to appeal to one of the demographics advertisers supposedly like, since the programming doesn't seem particularly extreme. As I've mentioned before, most recently just two months ago, it's not uncommon for one media conglomerate to buy a small channel, just to turn it into a zombie channel, holding the place on various cable and satellite systems until the conglomerate can launch the real channel they have in mind for that slot on your set-top box. Fox already has several such channels, so switching Fox Soccer over to FXX was a simple enough matter for the folks at Fox.

So it's unsurprising that when I saw no new movies listed on the FMC schedule, I concluded that this must be the ultimate end of the channel, which would be entirely subsumed by FXM. That has supposed to be the ultimate point of it all. As for having just one movie this morning, that would be because it's common for most channels to begin their broadcast day at 6:00 AM, which I think goes back to the days when over-the-air channels went off the air in the wee hours of the night: since they went off after midnight, it was more convenient for the broadcast logs to start whenever the station started broadcasting in the morning, and run until signoff, even if that wasn't entirely on one calendar day. I was mildly surprised when I more recently looked at online listings services as well as my set-top box guide, to see that following Do Not Disturb this morning would be more old films. I'd have guessed that if FXM were going to be a 24-hour thing, that they'd have mostly newer films.

So I turned the channel on this morning, to another airing of Murder Inc., which is just what the box guide said was supposed to be on. And an hour in, where even TCM runs a brief logo bug, there was the bug for the Fox Movie Channel, not FXM. There also weren't any commercials in the 10 minutes or so I had the channel on, although I have yet to watch between movies to see if there are going to be any real commercials.

When FXM launched on January 1, 2012, I wrote that I'd give it six months until it was a 24-hour thing, and the Fox Movie Channel was completely gone. I have to admit I'm very surprised that FMC has continued to run a full 21 months in its half-day format. Still, I have a feeling the ultimate end is going to be much sooner, rather than later. Even though TCM has been able to get more films from Fox, and even though FMC's lineup was heavily repetitive, it's still going to be a shame when the channel finally does go.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rainy days and Mondays

Myrna Loy, early in her career before playing Nora Charles in The Thin Man, played quite a few exotic characters who were often femmes fatales. She's not quite so exotic, but is certainly the temptress, in The Rains Came, which is airing tomorrow at noon on TCM.

We don't get to see Myrna Loy at the beginning of the movie. That honor goes to George Brent, who plays Tom Ransome, an American roué now living in Ranchipur, a prinicpality in British India. His reputation preceds him, as the polite society of Ranchipur want him to change his ways. On the other hand, Fern, the daughter of the head of the missionary school (Brenda Joyce) likes Tom, and in fact would like to run away with him, just to get away from the stultifying missionary life.

Enter Myrna. She was an old lover of Tom's, but they went their separate ways, at least until now. She's now the Lady Edwina Esketh, the wife of Lord Albert (Nigel Bruce), who is in Ranchipur to buy a bunch of horses. Edwina hasn't exactly been faithful to her husband, and he knows it, keeping a list of all hre conquests. So, when Edwina meets Tom again at a party given by the Maharajah and Maharani (HB Warner and Maris Ouspenskaya, respectively), you'd think that the two of them are going to get back together and live happily ever after, at least after the quickie divorce in Reno.

But if you were watching the opening credits, you'll have noticed that Tyrone Power's name is ahead of George Brent's in the credits, and we haven't gotten to him yet. He's Major Rama Safti, a doctor in the medical corps of Ranchipur. Edwina is immediately smitten with him, because he's just so damn handsome and exotic. Tom is friends with the doctor, and thinks this isn't a good idea, but you know that when love is in the air, there's no way anybody's going to break it up until the two lovers learn the futility of it themselves.

Edwina and Rama start seeing more of each other, until... the earthquake. The earthquake is just the first of a series of disasters. It's bad enough just to have an earthquake, but this one also damages the foundations of the dam, which eventually bursts and sends a flood of water towards all of the main characters! They survive the flood, more or less, so you'd think that, as in a movie like San Francisco, this is the point where all the survivors get to live ever after, if not necessarily happily. Oh, but The Rains Came has a long ways to go.

If you though an earthquake and flood were bad enough, wait a minute -- you ain't heard nothing yet. The stagnant flood waters bring... the plague! Rama, being a doctor, takes charge of the situation as best he can, setting up emergency hospital wards to care for the sick and dying, and asking for help anywhere he can get it. And wouldn't you know, Edwina wants to help. She's got no experience in nursing, but dammit, she's so in love with the doctor. And she needs to expiate her sins too, since her husband was one of the folks who didn't survive all the other disasters. Still, Edwina's got a lot of expiating to do.

The Rains Came is unrelentingly melodramatic, which at times isn't to the movie's benefit. Just when you think there's going to be a resolution to people's problems -- boom! comes another disaster. The cast all do a fairly good job with characters who range from the not-quite appealing to severe ethnic mismatches. Yes, Tyrone Power and Maria Ouspenskaya are playing high-cast Indians. Ouspenskaya, in particular, looks incredibly silly doing it. But she rises above it, as do the rest of the cast.

The Rains Came is the sort of movie that shouldn't quite be to my liking, what with the melodrama and general Lifetime Channel-worthy material. And yet, it's not a bad movie at all. I think I'd recommend other movies first to people who aren't necessarily fans of old movies, but for anybody who does enjoy old cinema, this is a worthy addition to your movie viewing.

The Rains Came has received multiple DVD releases.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

John Calvert, 1911-2013

The death has been announced of magician John Calvert, at the age of 102. Calvert's main career was as a magician, but as I mentioned back in April 2012, Calvert's interesting career led to him spending several years in Hollywood as an actor, where he played the Falcon in some of the lower-budget entries in the series.

Calvert knew Harry Houdini's widow Bess, who thought Calvert would be perfect to play the part of her late husband if Hollywood ever did a biopic on him. However, she died in 1943, and by the time the studios ever got around to making a movie about Harry Houdini, Bess wasn't there to have influence, so we got Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as the Houdinis. I haven't seen any of Calvert's movies, so I can't judge whether he had the acting chops to play the non-magic parts of Harry Houdini's life.

When I blogged about Calvert last year, it was in conjunction with a documentary about his life that is available on DVD, but you're going to have to search around for it. Calvert lived quite the life, as the documentary entertainingly tells.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Another evening of shorts not on DVD

I haven't seen a lot of the Joel McCrea westerns that are airing on TCM today, and the features on tonight's "Future Shock" lineup are all listed as being available to buy from the TCM shop, so it's off to another look at the shorts, with some stuff that looks interesting even if I haven't seen it before.

First is Polar Outpost at 7:44 PM, or after Fort Massacre (which starts at 6:15 PM and is listed as having an 81-minute runtime). Polar Outpost is another of those RKO-Pathé two-reelers that were being made in the final years of RKO. A lot of these shorts focussed on current affairs issues of importance to society, even if they are a bit strident in their presentation. This time, the theme is the bases in the high Arctic that were built as part of the Distant Early Warning system of detecting possible incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Actually, I suppose in 1957 it still would have been bombers equipped with nuclear bombs. It wouldn't be until after Sputnik was launched in October 1957 that there would be a threat of nuclear missiles. There's another short called Decade for Decision made at RKO after Sputnik that looks at the need to train more Americans in math and science, which would probably be an interesting companion piece.

Later, at 1:19 AM, there's a short called A Look at the World of "Soylent Green". You'd think this would have been more appropriate earlier in the month, before the Friday night spotlight ran Soylent Green. But, they're running it because the previous feature, The Omega Man, also stars Charlton Heston. The Omega Man is a remake of The Last Man on Earth

Finally, in the 5:00 AM hour tomorrow morning, is Lionpower from MGM. It's a hoot of a short breathlessly presenting the tremendous new releases coming up in the next season of "Lionpoer" (you have to use a different voice when you say "Lionpower" from when you're reading the rest of this post). Have fun seeing the great and not-so-great movies being flogged here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Legend of Lylah Clare

Tonight is the last night of Kim Novak's turn as TCM's Star of the Month. Among the movies is a bizarre mess that needs to be seen to be believed: The Legend of Lylah Clare, at midnight (ET; it's earlier Thursday evening in the rest of the US).

Peter Finch plays Lewis Zarken, a formerly-successful Hollywood director whose claim to fame was the discovery of the 1930s actress Lylah Clare (Kim Novak). However, Clare died in mysterious circumstances in the late 1930s, and has been a legend ever since; much, I suppose, in the way that a Marilyn Monroe is a real-life legend because of her early death. Since Lylah's death, Lewis hasn't had a particularly stellar career. So what's a director to do? How about making a biopic of the woman he made a star? There's a great idea!

There's the problem of finding an actress suitable to play Lylah, but that's solved when the filmmakers meet Elsa Brinkmann, a struggling Vicki Lester-type actress. The thing is, she looks amazingly like the deceased Lylah Clare. To be honest, it's really not that amazing, when you consider that Elsa, like Lylah, is being played by Kim Novak. Elsa agrees to do the movie, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Oh, heavens no. You wouldn't have a real-life movie here if the movie-within-a-movie went off without a hitch, and this one has a whole bunch of hitches. Lewis begins to fall in love with Elsa, except that one has to wonder whether Lewis is falling in love with Elsa, or the fact that she's another Lylah Clare: part of the old Lylah Clare mystique is that she had been engaged to Lewis before her tragic death. Elsa, for her part, is really getting into the Lylah Clare role, enough so it's to the point that you begin to wonder whether she's being taken over by Lylah the way Norman Bates is taken over by his mother in Psycho.

As I said, The Legend of Lylah Clare is one strange movie. Making things even stranger, or perhaps just messier, is the fact that part of Lylah Clare's story is told in a series of flashbacks, with the movie switching back and forth from the flashbacks and Elsa, to the present day. Meanwhile, back in the present day, they're having trouble getting the movie made: Elsa has figured out that it's Lylah that Lewis still loves, and not her, so she makes life difficult for him, and everybody else in Hollywood who remembers the old Lylah Clare.

The Legend of Lylah Clare is one of those movies that leave you thinking, "What were the movie makers thinking of when they made this?" The plot is baffling at times; the acting uneven, ranging from wooden to over the top; and the sets and costumes are thoroughly overblown. At times, though, the movie has the feel of watching a train wreck: fascinating for what a disaster it is. The only problem is that there are other movies which are even more entertaining disasters than this one. The Oscar. Skidoo. Some of those bad horror or sci-fi B-movies from the 1960s. But as regarding disasters, The Legend of Lylah Clare is still miles ahead of something like Dondi.

The Legend of Lylah Clare has received a release to DVD from the Warner Archive collection, and is apparently part of a Novak box set too.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Street Scene

TCM is honoring director King Vidor tonight with a night of his movies. One of these is Street Scene, which is airing at 10:45 PM.

I briefly mentioned Street Scene back in June 2012 as one of several movies in which she was helping look after young siblings. That's only partly the case here in Street Scene where she isn't the guardian, although she's Rose Maurrant, the eldest (and adult working-girl) daughter of Anna (Estelle Taylor) and Frank (David Landau). The Maurrants live in a New York City tenement together with several other families of various ethnicities, and Street Scene is the story of a day or so in the lives of these families. A very dramatic day, to be sure.

Rose, as I said, is a working girl, a secretary to Mr. Easter (Walter Miller), who is well enough off, and unhappily married enough, that he wants to set up Rose in a nice apartment somewhere, which of course also implies that he wants Rose as his mistress. Rose isn't having any of that, and besides, she's got other problems with her family. Dad's harsh, and always has been harsh. Worse, he wonders what his wife is doing while he's away at work. He's got good reason to wonder, as the building's gossip-in-chief, Emma (Beulah Bondi), passes on rumors about Anna to tenants in the building not named Frank Maurrant.

The other protagonist in the building for Rose to interact with is Sam Kaplan (William Collier). He's studying to be a lawyer, which means a way out of the slums. He's also in love with Rose, although she's always considered herself more of a best friend than somebody to love Sam. Besides, there are some problems for Sam loving Rose. First is that Sam needs to work on getting that law degree and his license to practice, and having Rose in tow would only make that more difficult. The other thing is that Sam is Jewish, which is just as big a problem for Sam's family as it might be for Rose's.

Street Scene goes on in this vein, playing itself almost as a slice-of-life piece in the Ah, Wilderness! mode. That is, until Frank comes home from work early one day and finds that those rumors we heard from Emma about Anna are in fact true, which drives Frank to bring about the dramatic climax of the story, which I won't mention here because it would give away the story.

Street Scene was originally a stage play, and that should be fairly obvious from the fact that the movie is largely shot that way. The front steps of the building, and the street around it, are the key parts of the setting, as well as characters talking out the windows. However, a well-conceived story goes a long way to cover up stage origins, and in Street Scene we have that in spades. I have no idea how much Street Scene resembles the reality of tenement life in the early stages of the Depression, and parts of it seem a bit too romanticized -- grinding poverty doesn't even look as good a movies from Poverty Row. But that doesn't detract from the movie either, since movies are generally not supposed to be 100% realistic anyway.

Amazon claims that there has been a DVD release, and other sites suggest that there are public-domain DVDs out there that have lousy prints. TCM says that you can't buy the DVD from the TCM shop, and to be honest, I don't remember the quality of the print that was shown last summer.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang?!?

On Sunday morning, TCM ran I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, which I blogged about back in May 2009. Immediately following was the Vitaphone two-reeler 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, which has been released to DVD as an extra on one of the releases of the Muni film.

20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang is part parody, with a title obviously being taken in part from the Muni film, but with the 20,000 number presumably having been cribbed from 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which was also made at Warner Bros. not long before this short. The short begins with a scene taken straight out of the Muni film, with a bunch of men working on the chain gang and having the shackles around their ankles broken so they can try to escape. Sure enough, four of the convicts do try to escape, surprising a bunch of pretty young things frolicking at a picnic, and stealing the picnicers' soda straws so that they can do the old "hide underwater in the reeds" and use the straw for breathing so that the authorities won't find us. Really, you'd think the searchers would find any escapee trying this, but it's the movies, so they almost never do. One of the jokes here involves an escapee dipping his toe into the water and finding it too cold for his liking. Really. There's also the non-bloodhounds the police are using in their search.

Anyhow, back at the prison, the warden is facing the prospect of a visit from the oversight commission; think the sort of thing the James Cagney sits on in The Mayor of Hell. Invariably in those 1930s movies, such a commission means there's a problem with the treatment of the prisoners, and dammit, we don't want anybody to find out. So what's a warden to do? Why, turn the prison into something that looks like it came out of one of those Hollywood musicals in the days just before Busby Berkeley started influencing musicals. The short turns from parody into... well, I'm not quite certain how to describe it.

20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang is an interesting curio. I don't know that I'd call it good, because some of the humor is pretty dumb, and I'm not a fan of the early-1930s style of singing and musical number presentation that we get in a short like this. It would be easy to find the material offensive: I mean, making light humor out of brutal chain gang conditions? Yet, comedy worked with something like the TV series Hogan's Heroes in a POW camp, so there's no reason why it couldn't work here if the material were slightly more intelligent. Unfortunately, it's a bit too much of a one-note joke.

Monday, September 23, 2013

I thought I had blogged about Twist of Fate before

The TCM schedule for Tuesday (September 24) brings a bunch of movies starring Ginger Rogers after she made all those great musicals with Fred Astaire. The day kicks off at 6:45 AM with Twist of Fate. For some reason, I thought I had blogged about it before, but apparently not. And it doesn't seem to be on DVD, either. I hope that some of you who haven't seen it before will be able to catch this post before the movie airs tomorrow morning.

Ginger Rogers plays "Johnnie" Victor, an actress who is now living on the French Riviera, and the mistress of wealthy businessman Louis Galt (Stanley Baker). The plan is that Louis is going to divorce his wife, so that he can marry Johnnie. Or, at least, that's what Louis has been telling Johnnie, although it's a pack of lies. Indeed, Louis' business is more than just the legitimate shipping business; he's the head of a criminal ring that's counterfeiting gold coins! Johnnie, of course, doesn't know any of this.

At the casino, Johnnie meets Emil (Herbert Lom). Johnnie has a passing relationship with Emil, based on the fact that Emil's wife had done some acting with Johnnie, but the wife is now in a sanatarium, or at least that's what Emil is telling Johnnie. Emil needs some money to pay for his wife's expenses, or possibly for something else, as we're going to find out later.

Things get more complicated when Johnnie meets the fourth major character in our film, ceramic artist Pierre (Jacques Bergerac). She meets him in when she's facing a bit of a crisis: Johnnie eventually learns that perhaps Louis is not only going to be unable to get that divorce, but has never really intended to get that divorce at all. Johnnie goes off driving like, say, Lana Turner's character in The Bad and the Beautiful did after finding Kirk Douglas with Elaine Stewart, and gets in an accident on one of those twisty hillside roads on the French Riviera coast like the one where Grace Kelly lost her life. Pierre's house is the nearest one, and Johnnie meets him while looking for help. She winds up falling for him, so now she's got three men in her life.

Having three men in her life is bad enough, but what she doesn't know is that Emil is an underling in Louis' counterfeiting ring, and part of the reason Emil borrowed money from Johnnie is to pay off Louis. Oh, and that's not all. Emil needs more money, so he steals one of Johnnie's necklaces, having the brilliant idea that Louis can fence it and that will help to pay the debt. There's a catch that Emil didn't know about: Louis had given the necklace to Johnnie. Emil, in fact, doesn't know that Louis is her boyfriend, and now Louis thinks Johnnie is cheating on him with Emil, when in fact she's cheating on him with Pierre.

Twist of Fate isn't a bad movie, although it's not particularly great either. Ginger Rogers made it for one of the British studios at a time in her career when she was getting to the point where women of her age couldn't get good roles like this in Hollywood. The British studios didn't quite have the budget that Hollywood did, and would bank on a big Hollywood star like Rogers to try to pump up interest for the film in the US. Still, the British knew how to make movies competently on a lower budget, and as I've suggested a lot in the past, having a good story is at least as important as having a big budget. If there's any problem with the story, it's that you have to expect it's going to have an ending that will satisfy the Hollywood Production Code. Still, Twist of Fate does a good job getting to that ending and on balance this post should be taken as a positive review of a nice little movie..

As I said at the beginning, Twist of Fate has, as far as I know, not received a DVD release, at least not in the States, and Amazon doesn't seem to list any imports either. That's a shame, because it's really a pretty good flick.

Luciano Vincenzoni, 1926-2013

I've mentioned befor that I scan the Wikipedia page of notable deaths on a daily basis to see if anybody worth writing a post about died. I noticed yesterday evening that Wikipedia was reporting the death of screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni at the age of 87.

Now, I have to admit that the name of Luciano Vincenoni was one I did not recognize. Helpfully, however, Wikipedia's notable deaths often include some very brief information about why a person was famous. In Vincenzoni's case, that included writing the screenplays to For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. That certainly deserves a mention.

Interestingly and somewhat sadly, the news doesn't seem to have reached any of the English-language news outlets. A Google news search reveals several Italian obituaries, but nothing in English. IMDb hasn't edited Vincenzoni's page to include his date of death, but I've found they're usually a bit slow on that, even with lesser-known Hollywood types. Meanwhile, a general English-langauge Google search reveals obituaries from a bunch of movie-bloggers.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dick Cavett interviews Alfred Hitchcock

I don't know how many years ago now it was that TCM first ran several of the old episodes of The Dick Cavett Show in which Cavett spent the entire time interviewing one guest. One of the things I like about it is that you can get a lot more in depth than the more humorous Carson on TCM vignettes that ran earlier this summer. Or, to put it another way, they're a lot like the Private Screenings interviews that Robert Osborne has done on an irregular basis for TCM, only with people who were long since dead by the time TCM came around.

Anyhow, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show back in June 1972, and TCM is running that interview tonight at 11:00 PM, as part of the month-long TCM salute to the director. I've already blogged about the other films in prime time:

The 39 Steps at 8:00 PM, in which Robert Donat has to expose a spy conspiracy, with both the spies and the police trying to capture him; and
Sabotage at 9:30 PM, in which Sylvia Sidney discovers that her husband (Oskar Homolka) is using the cinema they own as a front for a ring of saboteurs.

Both movies are well worth watching if you've never seen them before; heck they're good enough for another viewing even if you have seen them already.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Torn Curtain

Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain

As far as I am aware, I have never done a full-length blog post on Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. It's airing tomorrow (September 22) at 5:45 PM on TCM as part of this month's salute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, so now would be a good time finally to post about this film.

Paul Newman plays Michael Armstrong, a professor of nuclear physics who is on his way to a conference in Scandinavia, along with his secretary/girlfriend Sarah (Julie Andrews). Except that there's something else going on. The good professor gets a message that leads him to a book with the Greek letter π circled, which obviously means something. So the professor holds a press conference saying that he's defecting to East Germany to use nuclear science for peaceful means! Unfortunately, his dippy girlfriend buys a ticket on the plane in order to follow him!

Sarah's showing up in East Germany is a big problem for Michael, because his plan isn't defection. No, he has a plan to steal some vital information. He's been working on some particular problem in nuclear physics, but he's reached a roadblock as the mathematics behind a particular portion of the problem has stumped him. Michael's plan was to get the information he seeks from a prominent East German scientist, Prof. Lindt (Ludwig Donath), and then defect back to the West. It's a daft plan, but it was a plan. It would have been only moderately difficult for him to escape East Germany alone, but with a girlfriend in tow? If she's stupid enough to follow a man to a Communist dictatorship for lvoe, perhaps she's stupid enough to ditch.

Anyhow, Michael finally gets to meet Prof. Lindt, who is a brilliant man. Not only does he know a lot about nuclear physics, he knows from Michael's discussing the problem that Michael knows nothing of the problem, and is only trying to get the vital information! Spy! Traitor! Kill him, kill him! Immediately, every single student in the university seems to try to chase after Prof. Anderson, if only they know which one was really him. (In real life, the students would probably have acted more like the townsfolk in The Firemen's Ball.) Michael and Sarah have to escape the country, with the Communists one step behind.

Torn Curtain is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. It might be in part down to the direction of Alfred Hitchcock. He had had a bad experience on his previous film, Marnie, which is generally considered the end of the truly great part of his career. The plot of Torn Curtain is even more full of coincidences and lucky escapes than Hitchcock's earlier work, and with Julie Andrews in tow in a foreign country, you'd think there's no way they can realistcially escape. And yet, there are some interesting set pieces, such as a shop in Copenhagen, and a museum in East Berlin. There's also an effectively brutal murder scene. All in all, Torn Curtain isn't great, but it succeeds at entertaining.

Torn Curtain (and in fact, all of tomorrow's Hitchcock films on TCM) is available on DVD.

They're back!

It was only yesterday that I made a comment about TCM's daily schedule page having dropped the icons next to individual movies on the schedule for buying those movies on DVD from the TCM shop. Well wouldn't you know it, but they're back. Not that I had anything to do with it; I'm sure it was just a temporary glitch. TCM seems to be changing its website slighty all the time, and this is simply something that got dropped. For me, as I said yesterday, I only use those icons to see whether or not a DVD is currently in print, but for people who actually buy a lot of DVDs, I'd presume its useful.

Also, I notice that another comment I made yesterday is not quite correct. When I first blogged about La Jetée back in 2008, the Blogger posting system removed the é from the title of the post completely when creating the URL for the individual post. When I posted yesterday, it simply changed the French é into an ASCII e without the accent. Not that it has any real bearing on posts here, and probably nobody else cares about it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

La Jetée again, and some unrelated comments/rants

TCM is running La Jetée again, toniht at 8:00 PM as part of the Friday Night Spotlight "Future Shock" theme. I blogged about it back in November of 2008, and it's one of those films that it would be tough to do a longer post about without giving away key plot points, what with it only running about a half hour.

I couldn't remember whether I had blogged about it before, and I'm fortunate that Blogger searches correctly on characters outside the ASCII range for the English alphabet. When I did a search on "jetee", it returned no results, but a search on "jetée", with the accent on the middle E, did correctly return the November 2008 post. Blogger, however, drops such characters in the URL for posts if you use them in the title. For the most part, however, that would only be an inconvenience for anybody stupid enough to try to remember the links to posts by the actual title of the thread and enter the URLs by hand. (Blogger also removes "a" and "the", as well as punctuation, including the hyphen.) I do wonder, though, what would happen if I tried doing a post on a Russian film and title the post using the Cyrillic alphabet.

The rant, if you can call it that, involves the TCM schedule. I notice that some sort of glitch in the daily schedule has called tonight's 8:00 PM program, "Jetee, La (to be deleted) (1962)". One wonders what's up with the "(to be deleted)" part. But of more import is that none of today's movies, and none of yesterday's either, when I was looking up Bell, Book, and Candle and Phffft!, are listed as being on DVD, when in fact some of them are on DVD. That is, if you click the individual links to each movie to get the whole synopsis page, it'll still tell you if you can buy the movie from the TCM Shop. But the main schedule page used to have a price tag icon and some text as a link to the TCM Shop page for the DVD. That is what's gone. For me, it's only mildly irritating, as I generally only use that information to determine whether a certain DVD is still in print. But you'd think that TCM would want to monetize their schedule page -- and making users go through more clicks to buy a DVD seems to go against that idea.

(For the record, La Jetée is available on DVD.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Merle Oberon goes wild!

By the early 1960s, Merle Oberon was pushing 50. Being 50-plus in the Hollywood of that era meant that an actress wasn't going to get such meaty leading roles any longer, unless you wanted something that made you look your age. So what was an actress like Merle Oberon to do? Well, she went to Mexico and co-funded a production company that could then star her in a movie. The result is Of Love and Desire, which is airing on what's left of the Fox Movie Channel tomorrow afternoon (September 20) at 1:00 PM.

The movie starts off with Steve Corey (Steve Cochran) landing his private plane at an airport in Mexico. He's a mining engineer who is supposed to see Paul Beckmann (Curt Jürgens) about an engineering job at one of Beckermann's mines. But a mixup means that Corey can't get to business right away, instead getting taken to Beckermann's estate where he's holding a party. At that party, he meets Katherine (Oberon), Paul's half-sister, who immediately starts flirting with Steve. Another guy a the party who was working for Beckermann and is about to return home from Mexico, Bill Maxton (Steve Brody) tells Steve that he was Katherine's last boyfriend, and that Steve should watch out because she'll seduce any man at the drop of a hat.

Bill was right: after the party ends, Katherine takes Steve home to her private residence and immediately induces him into sleeping with her. Really, it's that quick. Paul is mildly irritated because he had gone to the trouble of putting Steve's stuff in the guest house on his estate, and also because Steve had said he wanted to get an early start assessing the mines early that morning, and sleeping with Katherine unsurprisingly dealyed that. Well, there's more to Paul's disapproval, but that comes up later in the movie.

Later that day, Katherine shows up at the mine where Steve is, bringing him lunch. Since the mine needs another week or two to be ready for Steve's portion of the job, Katherine convinces him to run off with her and see Mexico. She proves to be quite the high maintenance woman, though, needing a whole lot of emotional support. Apparently, her first love died in the war, and Steve reminds her of that first love. Or, more appropriately, Steve and all of the other 4821398574328584317859 men she's slept with reminded her in one way or another of that first love. There's quite the emotional hole here. And if you hear Paul talk about it, he'll tell you that there's a lot more that Katherine isn't letting on. Of course, Paul doesn't just have Katherine's best interests, or those of the men in her life, at heart in trying to keep them from getting too close to her.

Eventually, we reach a climax that has Steve convincing Katherine to elope with him to the United States. But, after packing and a confrontatoin with Paul, Katherine instead runs away, in a scene reminiscent of Polly Bergen at the beginning of The Caretakers that winds up with Katherine going nuts in a hotel with Steve running behind her, while she keeps running into man after man after man. By this time, I was laughing instead of really caring what happened to poor Katherine.

Of Love and Desire is a mess. In some ways, that's a shame. The movie was filmed in Mexico, where Oberon was living at the time, and if there were a wide-screen print of the movie available, it would probably be lovely to look at: the characters go around Mexico and there's some beautiful scenery to be had. But you don't really care about any of the characters, and even wonder whether any of them is telling the truth about their back stories. And as I said earlier, that climax with Oberon running through the hotel is one of those unintentionally funny scenes. It's just too bad that it takes the film too long to get to the unintentionally funny stuff.

As far as I know, Of Love and Desire has never been released to DVD.

Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak

Tonight is TCM's third night of Kim Novak movies in her turn as Star of the Month. They'll be showing three of the movies she did with Jack Lemmon, as well as another showing of the interview she did with Robert Osborne at the TCM Film Festival at 10:00 PM. The night begins with Bell, Book, and Candle at 8:00 PM, a movie that I've briefly mentioned in passing a few times and one that I've said doesn't quite tickle my fancy the way I'm sure it will tickle other people's fancies. Another film with Lemmon and Novak about which I feel the same way is Phffft!, which is airing at 3:30 AM.

The title Phffft! comes from an onomatopoetic word used by gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Sounding somewhat lie the sound of all the air rushing out of a deflating balloon, the word was used to signify a celebrity marriage that was about to break up. In this case, that marriage involves Lemmon, but not Novak: the wife is played by Judy Holliday, who had recently starred alongside Lemmon in It Should Happen to You. Holliday plays Nina Tracey, who writes a soap opera in the days when soap opera were only making their move from radio to television. Lemmon plays her husband Robert, who served in the Navy in World War II and after the war became a successful tax attorney. Well, they've been married eight years, and things have hit one of those lulls. On an impulse, both parties think that the marriage isn't working, and decide to get a divorce.

Nina goes off to Reno to get the divorce, and when she returns, it's back to the dating game for both of them. Especially Robert. He moves in with his friend Charles (Jack Carson), who immediately starts setting up Robert on blind dates. One of those blind dates is with Janis (Kim Novak), and they begin to start a relatoinship. Meanwhile, Charles decides to try to put the moves on Nina, which would certainly create an awkward situation for all three of them. As for Nina, her mother Edith (Luella Gear) is also around, trying to help out Nina in the romance department.

You can probably guess where all of this is leading. Something is going to happen to make Nina and Robert meet not only by coincidence, but in a way that makes both of them wonder whether or not the two would have been better off not getting that divorce in the first place. It's a them that Hollywood visited earlier in The Awful Truth, which is coming on after Phffft! at 5:00 AM, ans which was only remade as Let's Do It Again a few years before Phffft! There's also Divorce, American Style, which came out in the 1960s and explored similar themes. Of the various movies, I think I like The Awful Truth the best, because Cary Grant (especially), Ralph Bellamy, and Irene Dunne simply glitter in this sort of romantic comedy. Divorce, American Style has the interesting angle of being able to explore things as far as comedies go from a more grown-up attitude thanks to the loosening strictures of the Production Code by the late 60s. (I suppose drama could have done a good job of being intelligent about the issue back in the 1950s, suddenly being reminded of Judy Holliday's own The Marrying Kind.) As for Phffft!, it's OK, but there's something about it that I find a bit bland. It's not a bad movie, mind you, but it's not one of my particular favorites.

Phffft! got a DVD release a couple of years back, although I don't know if it's still in print, since the TCM shop claims it's not available.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

So when did I see The Man From Laramie

I see that The Man From Laramie is back on the TCM schedule, tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM. It's a movie that I've only mentioned a couple of times in passing, with one of the mentions having me saying that it's a movie that really deserves a full-length blog post.

So I went to the TCM schedule, where their links to movies generally have a more complete synopsis than anything you can find on IMDb, to read their synopsis in order to do this post. It was reading the synopsis that I realized that The Man From Laramie is one of those movies that I would group in with Brighton Rock: I've seen the movie before, since parts of the synopsis are very memorable. (To be honest, I knew I'd seen it before.) But reading on, it's also one of those 1950s Technicolor westerns that for me blend in with a whole bunch of others. What was that movie in which future game show host Bert Convy plays a half-Indian who gets bumped off? [heads over to IMDb to look it up] Ahh, that's Gunman's Walk. Didn't I just see a Budd Boetticher Technicolor western over the summer? I know it wasn't Seven Men From Now; looking up his filmography clearly jars my memory into seeing it was The Tall T that I watched -- and wasn't that just a day or two before the writer of the background story, Elmore Leonard, died?

In all fairness, part of the reason westerns tend to blend together for me is that the western has never been my favorite genre. I think it goes back to when I was a kid, and my movie projectionist uncle invited us over to watch Doris Day in a print of Calamity Jane that he had. I didn't particularly want to be their, and I don't think that Calamity Jane is really the sort of film that would appeal to the average young boy, either. It's put me right off westerns, musicals, and Doris Day. I've come around on some good westerns, but as you can see they still have a tendency to get lumped together.

Anyhow, the basic plot of The Man From Laramie involves James Stewart, playing a man from someplace up North who shows up in an isolated area of New Mexico following clues in the murder of his brother. Stewart walks right into a war between an elderly rancher (Donald Crisp), the rancher's biological son (Alex Nicol) and his surrogate son (Arthur Kennedy); further complicating things are Crisp's niece (Cathy O'Donnell) and a spinster rancher (Aline MacMahon) opposing Crisp. Oh, and somebody's running guns to the Apaches.

So when did I see The Man From Laramie last? The previous TCM airing was in July 2012, but looking through a search of old TCM schedules, I suppose there's something interesting to say about TCM programming. Or, more accurately, what they're able to license from various studios. I've got the TCM monthly schedules going back to July 2007, and a search shows that The Man From Laramie showed up on TCM a whopping six times in 2010, and only three times since. (That is, tomorrow's airing is the third time since the end of 2010.) I know that the general practice here in the US is to get the rights to a movie or block of TV shows for a set length of time, which is why it's so common to see stuff show up a bunch of times within a short period even on TCM. TCM, though, also licenses a lot of the stuff for a limited number of showings, which would explain the difference between The Man From Laramie showing up so much a few years back, and then suddenly almost disappearing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Anne Bancroft, 1931-2005

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the birth of actress Anne Bancroft. Bancroft started off in TV before making her first film, Don't Bother to Knock. Bancroft continued to work at Fox, making movies such as The Raid, and some others that I've seen but have never gotten around to blogging, and I don't think they'll ever air on the Fox Movie Channel again. Gorilla at Large, which has Bancroft, Lee Marvin, and a gorilla terrorizing an amusement park, is fun if not great. Ricardo Montalbán does a fairly good job opposite Bancroft in 1955's A Life in the Balance, which, it turns out, I did blog about. (It's still not on DVD, though.) Anyhow, getting back to Bancroft's films from the 1950s I've blogged about before, Nightfall is enjoyable because it's actually pretty good, while there's also The Girl in Black Stockings, which is enjoyable precisely because it's not very good.

Bancroft made more serious (in the sense of prestige movies where she had leading roles) work in the 1960s, starting with The Miracle Worker, which won her the Academy Award, through The Graduate, which famously had her trying to seduce Dustin Hoffman, who in real life was only about six years her junior. The magic of Hollywood casting. I'm happy to say that one of the movies in that time frame that I recommended several years ago, The Slender Thread, has since been released to DVD.

Bancroft eventually married Mel Brooks, appearing in a couple of his films, such as Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, and the remake of To Be or Not to Be. She also tried her hand at directing with Fatso in 1980, an interesting if flawed film about a fat man (Dom DeLuise) who loves food but has to lose weight when a cousin dies way too young and he meets somebody he loves. In between all of those was the Oscar-losing ballet film The Turning Point.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Service With a Smile

I see that TCM has scheduled the short Service With a Smile for a little aftre 7:40 PM this evening, following An Ideal Husband, which begins at 6:00 PM and has a listed running time of 93 minutes.

Leon Errol, who made a whole bunch of two-reelers in the 1930s, is the star of this one, released by Warner Bros./Vitaphone in 1934. Errol plays Walter Webb, who runs a service station, back in the days when they weren't just gas stations attached to a convenience store, but offered mechanics and more for all your motoring needs. Webb is woken up one night by his assistant, who tells him that the service station has burned to the ground. That would be a bad thing, except that Webb has insurance! And the insurance money will enable him to build the service station of his dreams.

Not only does Webb have insurance; Leon Errol has three-strip Technicolor: Service With a Smile is one of the earliest live-action movies in three-strip Technicolor, which had first been used by Disney for its animation a few years earlier. Anyhow, Webb uses the insurance money, and the studio uses its Technicolor, to come up with a service station that looks like it could have come out of a Busby Berkeley dance number. The workers entertain the patrons with elaborate song and dance numbers, while wearing greens and purples that clearly must have been selected with the intention of showing off the new three-strip Technicolor process. There's no realistic way a service station like this could be a going concern, as it would never turn a profit. But this is Hollywood.

Service With a Smile is reasonably entertaining, and an above average effort for a Vitaphone short. To be honest, though, the main reason to watch it is for the Technicolor. The last tiem I saw this on TCM, they had what looked like a pretty good print for a 1934 short. The color is much better than what you see in any of the Traveltalks shorts that TCM airs, for example. The music and dancing is more dated than anything else, but there's nothing particularly wrong with it by 1930s standards. People who don't care so much for old movies might only find the Technicolor interesting; those of us who are fans of 1930s films will probably enjoy the movie as a whole.

I don't know if TCM marks any of its shorts as being available on DVD, as they'd only be extras accompanying some other feature. IMDb, however, does a somewhat better job of linking to Amazon when there is a DVD out there that has some short as an extra. In the case of Service With a Smile, there's no such link, so I'm guessing it's not available on DVD at all. That's surprising, since you'd think its early Technicolor would make it a more likely candidate to get included on some other DVD.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Night the World Exploded

Yesterday morning, TCM showed one of those 1950s B-level scifi movies that was new to me: The Night The World Exploded. It's available on DVD courtesy of Columbia's MOD scheme, and would be worth watching if the MOD DVD releases aren't rather more expensive than a lot of regular-produced DVDs.

Kathryn Grant plays Hutch, a nickname for Laura Hutchinson. She's an assistant to a pair of seismologists, but she's got a boyfriend she's planning to marry. That boyfriend is not Dr. Conway (William Leslie), although it's obvious from the time the two are introduced and Hutch makes her comments about marriage to the elder seismologist Dr. Morton (Tris Coffin) that Hutch really ought to be paired with Conway, if he weren't too wrapped up in his work to see that Hutch would like him. But the three of them, and the rest of the world, are about to have some rather more important things on their mind. The new pressure meter the seismologists have been working on is detecting an unusally high amount of pressure building up in the earth's crust, and that can only mean that a massive earthquake is about to hit someplace not to far away!

The scientists warn the governor (Raymond Greenleaf), who unsurprisinly can't order an evacuation on unproven guesswork. Soon enough the earthquake hits, causing quite a bit of damage. It's enough to convince the governor and scientists that this new pressure meter and its predictions are worth listening to. And dammit, the meter is sensing that some force is causing the earth's crust to bulge outward, creating pressure all over the place and earthquakes in quite a few parts of the planet. But what's causing that pressure buildup? The only way to find out is to get closer to the source of the pressure, which means getting as deep under the earth's surface as possible -- conveniently, there's a nearby access point in the form of Carlsbad Caverns.

Our scientists can't figure out what's causing the pressure buildup, but they do find some strange black rocks in the water at the cave floor the likes of which they've never seen before. In a B-level scifi movie, this is Obvious Telegraphing. We know that these stones are going to have something to with the problems the characters on screen are facing, but they're not going to put two and two together and get four for another reel or two. A park ranger who collects rocks takes one of these stones home with him. His home explodes that night. Nobody can figure out that it had to do something with that rock (we're shown the rock spontaneously bursting into flame) until the scientists down in the caverns nearly have another one explode on them, only to be saved when they get the rock back in the water it came from.

Apparently this rock is made of "Element 112", which surprisingly doesn't kill them all with radioactivity and also has a remarkable half-life, in that it doesn't necessarily seem to decay at all. It does remain inert in water, but when it dries out, it reacts with the nitrogen in the air to become a super explosive. And mining and other activities have been coming close enough to the sources of 112 that some of it is now getting dry and exploding, causing the earthquakes. The world's scientists have to flood it, and quick, or else the world is going to explode!

Bad science aside, The Night the World Exploded isn't too bad for a B science fiction movie. It runs a brief 64 minutes, and even that running time is heavily padded through the use of stock footage showing "earthquake" damage, much of which looks more like war bombing than earthquakes: the buildings falling down are already heavily damaged. Some of the sets are also obviously low budget, such as the styrofoam-like stalactties that we're supposed to believe threaten the folks in Carlsbad Caverns when they fall from the ceiling, or the interior of the military airplane. People who prefer the movies of today might have a problem with the low budgets of the 50s scifi movies and the constraints this imposed upon them, but for those of us who like older movies, The Night the World Exploded is sufficiently entertaining.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


I am pleased to see that TCM is finally premiering Lifeboat, which I think is the last of the movies Alfred Hitchcock made after coming to Hollywood to get a showing on TCM. It's this week's Essential at 8:00 PM, and will be getting a repeat on September 22.

The movie starts off with Tallulah Bankhead sitting alone in a small boat, with a bunch of debris around her and sounds of the sea. It's fairly obvious that she's in a lifeboat, even though she's looking far too fabulous to be in a lifeboat. Bankhead is playing Connie Porter, a society reporter who thinks that all of this is going to make a wonderful story for her to write about. Indeed, she's trying to write the story on her typewriter as we speak. Soon enough, however, another survivor shows up: Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the ship's boiler room. Other survivors from the doomed ship eventually wind up in the lifeboat. It turns out that the ship was bombed by a Nazi U-boat, which puts the survivors in some danger. It doesn't help, either, that they don't exactly get along. Connie is really a spoiled brat, consistently irritated when she doesn't get her way, while Kovac is one of those old working-class New Deal socialists, who hates the wealthy. Here, this means not only Connie, but also the businessman Rittenhouse (Henry Hull). The other survivors include radio operator Sparks (Hume Cronyn), nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), ship's servant Joe (Canada Lee), wounded soldier Gus (William Bendix), and a woman with shell shock and a dead baby.

These castaways have enough problems on their own, when one more passenger shows up to complicate matters: this survivor responds to being pulled on board with a "Danke". Obviously, he's German. And there's that pesky little war on. He must have come from the U-boat, which was destroyed by one of the Allied ships in the convoy. Since there is a war, the passengers of the lifeboat might have been right in not picking up Willy (Walter Slezak) in the first place, but they didn't know then that he was German. And the passengers have enough bickering among them that they wouldn't have been able to come to an agreement on that matter anyway. They can't figure out what to do with him, but they calso can't figure out how to get the lifeboat anywhere where they might get help from an Allied vessel. It seems the only person who has any good knowledge on how to captain a vessel and get them anywhere without dying is Willy -- but certainly, he's going to lead them to their doom, or at least a very upleasant time as prisoners of war.

Willy proceeds to manipulate the passengers, using his knowledge of English, which the passengers for the longest time don't realize he has, to figure out what's going on between them. Oh, there are other things Willy's hiding, too, but those will come out in due time. The Allied survivors know that Willy means business, but they're still faced with the problem that there doesn't seem to be any way they can survive without him. That having been said, food and water are running low, so they may not survive even with Willy at the helm. This galvanizes the survivors into finally facing their dilemma head-on leading to a stunning climax.

Lifeboat is a very well-made movie which shows Alfred Hitchcock's mastery of the suspense genre, as well as his ability to create a gripping story in a small space. But in addition to that, it's also a fascinating character study, both on the individual characters as well as how the characters act as a group. There are the strong-willed, but diametrically opposed Connie and Kovac, there's the class elements, and there are also relatively weak or submissive characters in the form of the nurse and Sparks. The issues of manipulation, and how the group reacts when they finally react as one, are also quite discomfiting. As with The Incident 20 years later, we'd all like to think that we'd act nobly in the face of a crisis like the ones the passengers are facing, but the reality is that most of us wouldn't. Nobody on the Lifeboat should come away proud of the way they acted.

Alfred Hitchcock received his second Oscar nomination for Best Director for Lifeboat, and this is the one time I think he clearly should have won, as he made a much better movie with more interesting portrayals from his actors than Leo McCarey did with Going My Way. Lifeboat has received a DVD release. (The Incident, which I referenced above, is still not available on DVD.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Two more movie related obituaries

I regularly visit Wikipedia's death announcement page to see if anybody has died who it would be worth mentioning here for their contributions to the cinema. Two more names showed up in the past day or so; one not so well known, the other a man who made contributions to more than movies.

I don't recall the name Louise Currie at all; she died at the beginning of the week at the age of 100. Wikipedia lists her as the last surviving adult cast member of Citizen Kane, although IMDb only lists her as a "Reporter at Xanadu", which I'd assume is in the closing scenes. (Alan Ladd supposedly played a reporter in the Xanadu scene as well.) In fact, a lot of Currie's work is listed at IMDb as "uncredited", with the titles being movies I don't particularly remember

And then there's Ray Dolby, who died yesterday at the age of 80. He deafened us with science -- or, at least, technology. Ray was the Dolby behind the "Dolby Sound" that you often see in the fine print of the posters or credits for movies, going back to at least the 1977 blockbusters Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's a long cry from the Westrex (actually part of Western Electric, an adjunct to AT&T) "high-fidelity"(!), "low-noise"(!) technology that dominated the early talkies that weren't using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc technology.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sir Ian Holm turns 82

Sir Ian Holm in Chariots of Fire (1981)

Today marks the 82 birthday of actor Ian Holm. Recently, Holm has been playing Bilbo Baggins, first in the Lord of the Rings movies, and now in the Hobbit , where he plays old Bilbo. But there's so much more to Holm's career. Holm started off on the stage doing many Shakespearean roles, as well as winning a Tony award for the play The Homecoming, before starting to make movies in the late 1960s. Holm would in fact later do a movie version of his Tony award-winning role in The Homecoming.

Of Holm's movies, I've recommended Juggernaut before, although I have to admit I don't particularly remember his contribution to the movie. A more substantial role is in 1981's Chariots of Fire, in which Holm plays Sam Mussabini, the trainer hired by Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross); it's that role which is pictured above. Holm was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, although he didn't win.

Another relatively prominent film to which Holm provided his talents is Nicholas and Alexandra, about the last Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their family as they're exiled beyond the Urals before their eventual execution. It's one of those movies where I saw the second half on Cinémoi while it was briefly on the air, and always wanted to get around to watching the whole thing but never did.

Holm is the star of The Sweet Hereafter, a 1997 movie about a school bus crash in a small rural Canadian town. Here, Holm plays a lawyer bent on suing somebody, since there has to be somebody at fault. Also, this way he can atone for how badly he screwed up his relationship with his daughter. The Sweet Hereafter is a movie I first saw on IFC, back when it had no commercials and when it actually aired independent films. Time marches on, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Not on DVD repeats for September 12

I notice that tomorrow morning's TCM schedule has The Star Witness on at 7:30 AM. It's a movie that I blogged about back in April 2010 and one that I kind of like. It's also nice to see Grant Mitchell getting a bigger role than he normally does. It wasn't on DVD back in April 2010, and it still hasn't received a DVD release from the Warner Archive.

The same holds true for The Story of Louis Pasteur, which will be coming up later in the day at 11:45 AM. I'm really surprised that the Warner Archive haven't put this one out on DVD yet, considering that it won an Academy Award. Apparently it has been released abroad. The Amazon page doesn't say, but I'd have to guess Brazil, since the subtitles are only available in Portuguese. I'd think if it had been a Europen release, there would be subtitles available in more languages.

TCM Guest Programmer September 2013: Madeleine Stowe

After a month off for Summer Under the Stars, TCM's monthly Guest Programmer series returns. This month, it's actress Madeleine Stowe presenting four of her favorite movies alongside Robert Osborne. Stowe is currently a cast member of the TV series Revenge, although I have to admit I've never seen that show at all, since I don't watch much prime time episodic TV. Stowe also starred in the early 1990s version of Last of the Mohicans alongside Daniel Day-Lewis. Stowe's selections are airing tonight, and I've blogged about three of the four selections before.

First, at 8:00 PM is the wonderful romantic comedy The More the Merrier, in which Jean Arthur rents out half of her apartment to Charles Coburn, only to see him rent out half of his half to Joel McCrea.

Then, at 10:00 PM is Splendor in the Grass, which I don't think I've seen in its entirety before. Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood play a pair of 1920s teens struggling with the question of how far is too far when it comes to sex, which leads to tragic consequences for all.

This is followed at 12:15 AM by The Bicycle Thief, an excellent example of Italy's post-war neo-realist movement, about a man who needs his bicycle for his job, only for that bike to be stolen.

Finally, at 2:00 AM, is I Confess, which I think just showed up this past weekend as part of the month-long salute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Montgomery Clift stars as a Catholic priest in Quebec who hears the confession of a murderer -- a confession he cannot reveal -- only to find that the murder investigation could also be implicating him.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Anderson Tapes

I probably should have blogged about The Anderson Tapes yesterday. I thought it was airing a little later in the week, but it's actually on today at 2:00 PM on TCM. The TCM shop says you can't get it on DVD from them, but Amazon does offer a couple of different DVD releases. At any rate, it's also going to be airing again at the end of November on TCM.

The Anderson of the title is played by Sean Connery. He's a career thief who, at the beginning of the movie is just being released from prison after serving a long stint for one of his heists. After getting out of prison, he goes to see his old girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon). She's now a sort of kept woman, having done like Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face and slept her way to that deee-luxe apartment. Although, in Ingrid's case, it's not quite in the sky, but in a posh building on New York's Central Park East. Anderson moves in with Ingrid, but as we see, somebody's bugging her phone.

Surveillance is one of the major themes of The Anderson Tapes. Anderson himself notices that security has become rather more sophisticated since he went to prison, what with the massive increase in closed-circuit TVs that would have been prohibitively expensive in the early 1960s when Anderson went off to jail, but by 1971 when the movie was made had become more affordable. Anderson knows, however (even if it's not directly stated), that surveillance equipment can be defeated: after all, the cameras are watched by people, and if you can get your own people doing the watching you've rather defeated the cameras. (Heck, even the ancient Romans understood this basic fact of human nature.) And so, Anderson gets the idea to rob every unit in Ingrid's apartment building and fence the valuables for a tidy sum. But to do this, Anderson is going to need to assemble an entire team. First up is the interior decorator Haskins, a campy gay stereotype humorously played by Martin Balsam. What Anderson doesn't realize is that, completely separately from the surveillance of Ingrid's building, the FBI has wired Haskins' shop because they think he's a fence. Anderson continues to assemble his team, completely unaware that everybody he's hiring is being watched by some outside entity for some reason or other.

Having assembled the team, it's on to the heist itself. Several of the building's residents are in their apartments, so Anderson and his gang have to threaten some force to carry out their heist. It's something that two of the residents, little old ladies played by Margaret Hamilton and Judith Lowry, find immensely exciting. There's also a bedridden kid, and a couple of heavy sleepers, who slow down the heist. In most heist films, something causes the heist to go wrong and not succeed; part of the fun of the movie is seeing just what trips the thieves up. The heavy sleepers are part of it, but the other part isn't the surveillance of all of Anderson's other conspirators.

There's a lot good going for The Anderson Tapes: entertaining performances for one. I haven't mentioned Christopher Walken, here in one of his earliest performances as "The Kid" whose part in the heist is disabling surveillance equipment. There's also the vintage location shooting that gives an atmosphere of authenticity. On top of all that is the narrative structure. Especially when it comes to the heist, it's told in part by flashing forward to the aftermath of the heist, and the witnesses talking about what happened to them at the point in the heist where they're involved. It's a device that works well, and imbues some more dark comic relief.

All in all, The Anderson Tapes is well made, and incredibly entertaining. It's a movie that deserves to be much better known than it is.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Buster Keaton builds his dream house

This second week of The Story of Film on TCM looks more or less at the second half of the silent era. Tonight is going to look at some of the great silent comic filmmakers, while tomorrow sees some of the achievements in dramatic silent films. It all kicks off at 8:00 PM with Buster Keaton's One Week.

Keaton plays The Groom, a newly-married man, having just married The Bride (Sybil Seely). The Groom (otherwise unnamed) has received a present from his uncle: a pre-fabricated house kit. Just insert tab A into slot B, follow the rest of the numbered instructions like a paint-by-number painting, and at the end of the process, you've got a nice little house for a newlywed couple to live in.

Yeah, right. There's no way it could ever be this easy in real life, and of course we wouldn't even have a two-reel comic short if it were easy in the movie, too. Let's disregard the fact that the kit looks way, way too small to wind up as a pre-fab house; there are other problems with the kit, such as the various numbered directions having been mixed-up. But The Groom tries to build the house anyway.

Told in the form of vignettes over the course of one week, with pages of a calendar charting the progress of the week, One Week looks at The Groom's attempt to build that house, and everything that goes wrong. And even for a two-reel short, we can say that Cary Grant's Mr. Blandings would have been aghast at all the problems that this poor Groom has to face. It doesn't seem to help him that his Bride seems to want to live in the house as it's being built around her. Eventually, though, the house does get built, although let's say that it doesn't look like what the kit suggests it ought to look like.

After finally getting the house built, our poor Groom faces one more problem: apparently a 6 got turned upside-down for a 9, and Keaton has built the house on the wrong lot! It's enough to drive a man to the breaking point, but this allegedly being a "portable" house from a kit, Keaton simply tries to drive it to the correct lot attached to the back of his jalopy.

One Week, like a lot of Keaton comedies, is filled with inventive sight gags that will keep everybody laughing. Even children should have no difficulties getting the sight gags, and it's all as clean as the classic cartoons. A few of the stunts are a thing to behold too, since stuntwork wasn't as advanced in 1920 as it is today. As with the front of the house falling around Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., or Lillian Gish on an ice floe in Way Down East which TCM aired last week, what looks like it has no safety mechanism around sometimes really doesn't.

TCM's online shop doesn't list One Week as being on DVD, but Amazon does, as in this disc of four two-reel silent comedies. At any rate, having been released in 1920, One Week is in the public domain, and you can see it on Youtube too.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Murder, Inc.

I've been meaning to do a post on the movie Murder, Inc. since it's been running on what's left of the Fox Movie Channel quite a bit recently. It's got two more airings soon, tomorrow (September 9) at 11:00 AM, followed by another at 9:15 AM on Tuesday, September 10.

Burton Turkus (played by Henry Morgan, not the one who would go on to become Harry Morgan of MASH fame) was a prosecutor in the 1940s who helped prosecute the trials of several contract killers for the Mob; this contract syndicate was known as Murder, Inc.. Turkus eventually wrote a book about the subject, and the material in the book combined with press reports would be fictionalized -- in some cases quite heavily due to the fact that there were people involved in all of this who were still alive and, as this had proved a problem with the filming of Compulsion.

In this fictionalization, Abe Reles (a real person, played here by Peter Falk in one of his first roles) is a hitman hired by Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (David J. Stewart) to deal with a Catskills hotel owner who hasn't been paying the protection racket (Morey Amsterdam). To get at the hotelier, Abe leans on heavily indebted singer Joey (Stewart Whitman) to introduce Abe to the hotel owner. Joey thinks Abe is only going to rough they guy up, much the way Abe has been threatening to rough him up, but in fact, Abe kills the guy. Joey is unsurprisingly shocked, but also has a problem. There's no way he can tell anybody what happened, because Abe will come after him.

Meanwhile, the police, and more importantly the prosecutors, are trying to deal with the crime wave. They too face the problem of witnesses who refuse to testify against the Mob, because witnesses who do so have a distressing way of disappearing. Eventually, however, Joey's wife Eadie (May Britt), having been forced to keep Lepke in their apartment as a sort of safe house, decides to go to the prosecutors and tells about the time that Lepke had spent in their apartment, testimony that links several of the contract killers in Murder Inc. to various killings, and sets off a chain of dominoes.

It's all a bit more complicated than that, simply because you had multiple killers kiling a total of several hundred people in contract killings over the course of a decade, and the movie has to try to distill all of this down to something that can be understood more easily and be presented in under two hours. For the most part the film succeeds, in no small part due to Falk's performance, which earned him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. There are quite a few twists, although some of them you can see coming: since you know the Mob killed people to keep them from testifying, you know they're going to try to bump off several of the characters here. I don't know quite how accurate this is, but it's certainly interesting.

Murder, Inc. has also received a DVD release.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Under Capricorn

Back in May, I made brief mention of the Alfred Hitchcock film Under Capricorn. Four months ago, I said it was airing in July and I might do a full-legnth post about it then. I didn't, with one of the big reasons being that it's not one of my favorite Hitchcock films, and that's putting it politely. But, at any rate, it's getting another airing tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM as part of TCM's month-long salute to Alfred Hitchcock. So now might be a good time to blog about it.

Michael Wilding plays Charles Adare, an Irishman of good breeding who is going to the Australia of the 1830s to make a better life for himself. On the boat he travels with the new colonial governor (Cecil Parker, whom we saw last week in Storm in a Teacup), who cautions him about life in Australia. So we know fairly early that things are going to take a turn for Charles. Not long after arriving in Australia, he meets Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a former prisoner who has been granted his emancipation, and is now a wealthy landowner. However, Flusky is also, if not persona non grata, the sort of person that the rest of "polite" society wishes they didn't have to deal with. Flusky, however, is willing to get involved in a land deal with Charles, and Charles not knowing any better, and sensing that Flusky is familiar, decides to take the deal.

It turns out there's a good reason Flusky seemed familiar to Charles. He had been the groomsman in the stables of his childhood friend Henrietta. In fact, the two ould eventually get married despite her parents' insistence that this would be a bad idea. And know Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), or "Hattie", is living here with Sam, close to Charles! But Hattie is also the reason why the rest of the society people don't like Flusky. She's either an alcoholic, or mentally deranged, or both. Milly, Hattie's servant (Margaret Leighton) will swear to it. She has an episode at a party at the Flusky house where all the society men show up but refuse to bring their wives, and Charles turns out to be the only one who can calm her down.

Charles winds up getting rather closer to Hattie, which ultimately bothers Sam because he fears Hattie is in love with Charles. Charles, for his part, are trying to figure out what if anything is really up with Sam and Hattie. It all goes on like this for nearly two hours....

And there's the problem. Under Capricorn drags, and drags, and drags. The problem isn't that Hitchcock couldn't do a period piece, considering that he did a fine job with Jamaica Inn. I think the biggest problem is the characters, whom I find difficult to care about. Ingrid Bergman is given a thankless task playing the woman of an uncertain mental state caused by, well what, really? Hitchcock, for his part, did make a mistake in trying to repeat some of the success of Rope. He uses several longer shots that limit what he can do technically and distract from what is already a not very good story. Under Capricorn has echoes of other stuff set in the mid-19th century like Dragonwyck or Jane Eyre, but the story is inferior to both.

Under Capricorn has been released to DVD, but not in a version available from the TCM Shop.

Friday, September 6, 2013


Having finished Summer Under the Stars, TCM is once again giving us a Friday Night Spotlight on Friday nights. This month, the theme is "Future Shock!", at least as the TCM online schedule calls it. In other words, movies that take dystopic looks at the future. Movie critic Michael Phillips -- whom I admit I've never heard of, but then, I don't really pay attention to the modern professional movie critics -- presents 16 movies about the future. Several of them are of a more recent vintage than the average TCM fare, a fact that I'm sure is going to irritate some people to no end. "Oh my goodness! TCM is going down the tubes! Don't they know we want 'classic' movies?"

Well, tonight starts off with one of the old movies, Metropolis at 8:00 PM. It probably is the best choice to start with, since it's one of the first movies about the future, and it's a seminal movie for fans of science fiction as well as fans of its director, Fritz Lang. It's one of those movies I saw many years ago, back before the lost footage was found. Metropolis now runs around two and a half hours, and I have to admit that I haven't seen this version in full. I watched part of it the first time this cut aired on TCM, and the thing about it that struck me was how obvious it was what was the previously existing footage and what was the newly-found stuff. There are movies like Two Arabian Knights that were badly degraded before they were re-discovered and restored to the best ability of the restoration people, but there, the degradation looks "natural", by which I mean that the contrast between the problem footage and the rest of the movie is a bit more gradual, all seemingly having come from one source. With the restoration print Metropolis having been taken from several sources, I found it not only obvious, but jarring and somewhat distracting when the recently-discovered footage showed up. It's a bit of a shame, but if the alternative is not to have this footage at all, what are we going to do?

Metropolis is available on DVD, and I'd assume that the DVD that TCM is hawking at the TCM Shop is in fact the restoration version. The night's other three dystopia movies are available from the TCM Shop as well:

Things to Come, HG Wells' heavy-handed look at the future, at 10:45 PM;
Kurt Russell trying to Escape From New York at 12:30 AM; and
Former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam goes decidedly non-comic in Brazil, at 2:15 AM.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Man With the Golden Arm

Another movie I thought I had done a blog post about before, but apparently haven't, is The Man With the Golden Arm. It airing tonight at 12:15 AM as part of the first night in the salute to Star of the Month Kim Novak.

The star of the movie isn't Novak, but Frank Sinatra. He plays Frankie Machine, a man who has just gotten out from a six-month stint in a federal prison/hospital. Frankie was a dealer for an illegal card game that was raided, but got only the punishment that he did because of his heroin addiction. His time at the federal facility was supposed to detox him, as well as giving him a new skill so that he could start a new life and leave the old, drug-filled lifestyle behind. That skill is playing the drums, and Frankie is hoping he can get his card from the musicians' guild so that he can join a band. (As if there were no drugs in the world of jazz, but that's another story.)

Anyhow, we quickly see why Frankie was a user in the first place: he's got a lot of problems, and that's putting it mildly. Perhaps chief among these is his wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker). She's confined to a wheelchair, thanks to a car accident suffered when Frankie was driving drunk. And dammit, Zosh isn't about to let Frankie forget what happened, although to be fair, being crippled by your spouse probably would change your outlook on life and that spouse rather significantly. There's also Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), the man who organizes the card game for which Frankie deals. Finally, perhaps as important as Zosh is Loiue (Darren McGavin). He's the man who sold Frankie his heroin, and he would love to get a good customer back.

Trying to help Frankie are two people. First is his good friend Sparrow (Arnold Stang). Sparrow, however, lives on the fringes of the law, and this presents a problem straight off when Sparrow tries to help out Frankie by getting a suit for Frankie to wear to auditions. That suit is shoplifted, and getting Frankie in trouble with the law again is what enables Schwiefka and Louie to sink their claws back into Frankie. The other good person is Frankie's old flame, Molly (Star of the Month Novak). Frankie would be with her if it weren't for what he did to Zosh, and Molly would be willing to be with him if she could be sure that Frankie has really kicked his drug habit. At the same time, Zosh is worried that Frankie is going to leave her for Molly -- not without reason.

The Man With the Golden Arm is about as gritty as you could get for a movie in the mid-1950s, and as far as I can tell is well-acted. I have no idea what heroin addiction is really like, not even second-hand, so I can't really speak to how accurate everything is. But Sinatra's scenes of the effects of the herois use, and especially the withdrawal symptoms, are disquieting. I have a feeling Molly is a bit too perfect, while Sparrow is also a bit too clean-cut for a man in his position. He looks more like the romanticized characters in Damon Runyon stories than a gritty petty criminal, who would probably look old before his time. Those criticisms aside, the story is quite good, although the ending is a bit convenient.

The Man With the Golden Arm is another of those movies that got a DVD release in the past, but seems to be out of print, as it's only available from Amazon, and not the TCM Shop.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sniper's Ridge

One of the movies that's been in heavy rotation on the Fox Movie Channel is Sniper's Ridge. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 4:55 AM, with a further airing at the end of the month.

Sniper's Ridge has an interesting premise. Jack Ging plays Corporal Sharack, stationed with a unit on the front line with the rest of his unit during the Korean War. Everybody knows the armistice is coming in a couple of days, but that means there's still time for the two sides to gain a last little bit of territory. Sharack just wants to sit out the last few days, but he's not in command, so it's not his choice. And even if he were in his command, it wouldn't be his choice if the Communists attack them -- which is precisely what happens. It's at this point that we see Cpl. Sharack's immediate superior, Sergeant Sweatish (Douglas Henderson) has lost it. Sweatish was decorated in World War II, but is now suffereing from shell shock or something, because when the Communists attack, Sweatish retreats into his bunker, forcing Sharack to save the day for his unit.

In fact, Sharack seems to be the only competent solder in his entire unit. And the rot goes up further, at least to Sweatish's superior, Captain Tombolo (John Goddard). Tombolo knows that his little corner of the Army has earned the reputation as the worst outfit in Korea, and also knows that Sharack is taking up the slack for Sweatish. But there's still a war on. Replacements are going to have to wait until the armistice. Now, if Capt. Tombolo were smart, he too would simply wait until the armistice. But he has to send the unit on night patrol, and makes certain that Sharack is going to be on it. This is too much for Sharack, who feels he was supposed to be rotated out already, and he goes AWOL, at least to a MASH unit trying to get himself declared unfit for duty. The doctors are having none of it.

Into all of this walks Cpl. Pumphrey (Stanley Clements). He's an old friend of Sweatish's from World War II who has been knocked down in rank and requests a transfer into his old friend's unit, apparently not knowing what's happened to Sweatish, or anything about the dynamic involving Sharack. It all leads up to a climax in which Sweatish winds up facing being blown up by a land mine, with Sharack being the only one who can save him.

Sniper's Ridge is a B-movie from the end of the Hollywood era of B-movies. In other words, it's the sort of movie that has material that was just as likely to be handled by television, either as a TV movie or an episode of one of those war dramas like Combat. No big stars here, and a Korea that looks more like the Fox ranch, someplace in the mountains of Southern California. The mountains could just as easily have been portraying Minnesota in Little House on the Prairie. The story isn't quite developed enough, but everybody tries professionally with their characters. We're supposed to have sympathy for Sharack, but he acts like such a jerk at times that it's hard to sympathize with him. I don't know whether that's the fault of script, the director, or Jack Ging. Tombolo and Sweatish aren't fully fleshed out, and Pumphrey doesn't get enough time to be be much of a character, either. There's some interesting stuff going on at Sniper's Ridge, but it doesn't quite add up.

As far as I know, Sniper's Ridge isn't available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

When good anti-censorship movies go wrong

A search of the blog suggests that I have not done a post on Storm Center. It's airing tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM on TCM, and is certainly worth a viewing, even if it does wind up going off the rails.

Bette Davis plays Alicia Hull, a spinster who is the librarian in one of those small-to-medium sized cities that could be Anytown, USA. She's an institution in the town, with her work being largely responsible for the success of the library and the children liking her, especially one child in particular (we'll get to him a little later). Currently, Hull is trying to get the funding for an addition to the library. However, there's a problem. The town fathers, led by politically ambitious councillor Paul Duncan (Brian Keith) has learned that one of the books in the library is a book titled "The Communist Dream". Oh my, how dare she have a book that might actually defend a totalitarian ideology! Alicia points out in her defense that she also had "Mein Kampf" on the shelves, and that allowing people to read it let them discover what a vile ideology Hitler believed in; why not do the same for Communism? That's not good enough for the town politicians. Nowadays, it's Nazism that's uniquely evil, but back in the 1950s, it was Communism that was a menace, what with an expansionist Soviet Union around.

Anyhow, Duncan has an ace up his sleeve. He discovers that, during World War II, Alicia was one of those dupes that Communists tried to recruit, at least as documented by a movie like The Iron Curtain. Alicia says that once she realized these organizations she joined were actually Communist front organizations, and not progressive peace organizations, she quite them. But that's not good enough for the poliitcians, who think that once you're a Communist, you're always a Communist. It's off to being shunned for Alicia.

And this is where the kid really comes in. Oh, we see the kids from the beginning of the movie. And the particular kid in question who's important to the plot is no exception. Freddie Slater (played by Kevin Coughlin) is a bookish kid who reads as many books as he can and really admires Alicia. Mom (Sally Brophy) is OK with this, but Dad (Joe Mantell) is put off, thinking that this isn't manly enough behavior for Freddie. When Dad learns that the librarian was a dirty Commie, he finally has a way to get through to his son. Dad's behavior is unrealistic, I think. It's part of the American mythos, and certainly would have been in the 1950s, that you can get ahead through education. You'd think Dad would be proud to have such a bright son. But what's even more unrealistic is the way Freddie reacts when he learns his librarian hero might have been a Communist. He does a complete 180, becoming the psycho kid from hell, almost as bad as Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed.

It's never a bad time to warn people about the dangers of censorship, regardless of which half of the political spectrum is holding the levers of political power. Some of the issues surrounding censorship are well handled; others, not so much. (The suggestion that government involvment inevitably leads to government control and therefore you shouldn't get the government involved in the first place is, needless to say, fully ignored.) But Storm Center eventually enters the land of the unintentionally funny as it becomes increasingly heavy-handed, and that's even before the Freddie character goes laughably nuts. Storm Center is a half-good, half-hilarious movie.

Storm Center has been released to DVD, courtesy of Sony/Columbia's MOD program.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Story of Film

I mentioned earlier that TCM's traditional Labor Day salute to Telluride is only running until 8:00 PM tonight. The reason for that is that TCM is running a series called The Story of Film, which of course you'll know about if you've seen the promos on TCM, which seem to be running frequently enough -- I don't watch TCM religiously, but I've seen it quite a few times. It's a 15-part series that's going to be running on Mondays and Tuesdays, including a documentary series and a whole bunch of films from all over the world, not just Hollywood.

The only problem is, the documentary is running at odd hours. Normally, when TCM has a new documntary, they run it at 8:00, follow it with one feature, and then, depending on the length of the documentary and the feature, rerun the documentary at around 11:00 PM or 11:30 PM for the benefit of those on the west coast. For The Story of Film, however, the documentary is showing up at 10:00 PM on Monday, with a repeat at some time in the wee hours between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Recording is probably going to be a necessity.

Tonight's first part begins with an hour and a half listed as "An Edison Album (1893-1912), followed at 9:30 PM by "Lumière's First Picture Shows (1895-1897)". I'm not certain exactly what shorts show up in each of these programming blocks. I distinctly seem to recall a block of Edison shorts airing in conjunction with Moguls and Movie Stars a few years back, but I didn't sit through that entire block. As for the Lumière shorts, I don't recall whether they aired as part of the Moguls and Movie Stars series.

Something that did air once on TCM ages ago -- I want to say late 2004 when TCM was running a series of early stuff recovered by the Library of Congress -- is Falling Leaves. It's one of three shorts airing between 11:30 PM and 12:30 AM as part of a salute to pioneering female director Alice Guy-Blaché. The TCM monthly schedule I downloaded lists Falling Leaves as being the second of the three on, while the online schedule lists it as the last of the three. So, I'm not certain exactly what time it'll be on. Best to record the entire hour. The plot involves a family with two daughters, the older of which has consumption. The younger overhears that her sister doesn't have long to live, and may die "before the last leaf falls". So, like in that old O. Henry story, the kid sister tries to keel the leaves from falling off the tree. One interesting thing about it is that it's one of the first movies to face being banned, because of the relationship between the two sisters, which shows very bad public health habits for dealing with a tuberculosis patient, considering how contagious the disease can be.