Friday, February 28, 2014

Another round of shorts: March 1, 2014

I've mentioned the short La Fiesta de Santa Barbara before; it's airing again on TCM tomorrow morning at about 9:23 AM, or just after Grand Hotel (7:30 AM, 113 min). There's not much more to be added to what I wrote a year ago, so for those who can't be bothered to click on the link let me just point out that it's got Judy Garland with her sisters, before she was a star. If you like Garland, that alone makes the short worth watching. If not, there are still a bunch of other stars and lovely color.

Before that, however, you can watch a couple of Crime Does Not Pay shorts. The first of these is A Gun in His Hand, at about 2:40 AM, or just after For Whom the Bell Tolls (midnight, 156 min plus an intro and conluding remarks from Robert Osborne). This one looks at how a gangster with a clean record joins the police force for the express purpose of getting the gun and badge, giving him the priviliege of being able to go around the city much more freely. This aids him and his gang in their scheme to rob all the booze distributors. Things go well until another patrolman is killed during one of the robberies. It's interesting, although of course it's got the heavy-handed touch that MGM tended to put in these Crime Does Not Pay shorts, which were intended to inform the public as much as entertain.

The other Crime Does Not Pay short, which I think falls further down the "inform" part of the inform vs. entertain spectrum, is Drunk Driving at 7:05 AM, or after Madame Curie (5:00 AM, 124 min). I said last year that it's a bit heavy-handed, although I might temper that a bit by saying the heavy-handedness in some of these Crime Does Not Pay shorts is enough to turn them intu unintentionally funny things. Drunk Driving is one of those shorts.

I didn't check to see whether any of these are extras on DVDs of other movies.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don't call me Chucky

Cliff Robertson and a rat in Charly

Among the more recent Best Actor Oscar winners showing up on TCM during the day on Friday is Cliff Robertson's award-winning role in the 1968 movie Charly, at 3:45 PM.

Robertson stars as Charly Gordon, a mentally retarded man who lives in a one-room apartment in Boston and supports himself by doing menial janitorial work at a bakery, where his coworkers consistently make fun of him for being mentally slow. Charly has been trying to improve himself through education, not realizing that some people are only born with a limited mental capacity and will never be able to advance beyond it. His tutor Alice (Claire Bloom) has been doing the best she can to help, but has of course been unsuccessful to this point. However, she's heard of two doctors, Strauss (Lila Skala) and Nemur (Leon Janney), who have been doing experimental research on rats and who believe they've been able to find a way to increase the mental capacity of laboratory rats. They're finally ready to begin experimenting on humans, which probably ought to raise a whole host of ethical questions in the real world, but thankfully doesn't here or else we probably wouldn't have a movie.

Alice brings Charly to see Strauss and Nemur, who run a battery of experiments tsting Charly against the lab rats, which frustrates Charly to no end because the lab rats do better than he does, especially the rat Algernon, to which he becomes attached. Eventually he undergoes the brain surgery that is part of the experimental treatment. That surgery seems like a success! At least, it seems to be succesful medically. Charly has an increased capacity for knowledge, and begins to study all sorts of things from the sciences to American history and government. Unfortunately, although his intellect is greatly increased, Charly still has a lot of learning to do emotionally. He fits in just as badly at the bakery as he did before, although in a different way. Worse, he's fallen in love with Alice, who isn't so certain whether she loves him, or whether it would even be right to try to pursue a romantic relationship. Charly, never having had to worry about such things, obviously has nothing more than a child's understanding.

Evetnually, Alice has a reconciliation with Charly, and all seems to be going well. That is, until Charly is asked to speak at a conference of distinguished neuroscientists, where Charly is intended to be the main exhibit, so to speak. On the eve of the conference, Charly finds Algernon dead, and discovers that while the treatment clearly increased the lab rats' brain capacity, that effect was only temporary. The implication of course is that the same effect is only going to be temporary on Charly too, something which he resents and wants to fight against for as long as he's able to.

Cliff Robertson has to play pretty much a dual role in Charly, and I think he pulls it off effectively. He's both sympathetic enough in his retarded state to be sympathetic, but also pathetic enough that the possibility of him reverting back to this state is tragic for the viewer. (The question of whether Charly is still going to be able to understand what happened to him if he does end up retarded again is left unanswered.) He also does well as the emotionally stunted genius, and is also quite good when faced with the dilemma of losing his genius, and doing everything he can to help the research along. For me, the movie had a bit of a weak spot when it came to the scenes involving a possible romance between Charlie and Alice, but they don't slow the movie down fatally. Everybody else is, I think, good enough but not memorable enough to stand out; again, that's not a bad thing since the story really should be focusing on Charly and not so much on the people around him.

Charly did get a DVD release years ago, but seems to have fallen out of print as there are only a few pricey copies available at Amazon. It really deserves another release.

For those who like early 1930s movies

TCM's prime time lineup tonight is the three actresses nominated for Best Actress of 1931/32. Tomorrow night it's going to be the five men nominated for Best Actor in 1943; in between we get a whole bunch of Best Actor winners from other years; one of those is going to be the subject of a full-length post later today. That parade of Best Actor Oscar winners kicks off overnight with some of the winners from the early 1930s, fitting in well with the start of the night. I've also pretty much blogged about every movie on tonight's lineup bar one, that being the Fredric March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at 12:30 AM.

The night kicks off with the woman who won the Oscar, Helen Hayes for playing the title role in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, at 8:00 PM. When I blogged about it I compared it to Madame X, a comparison I still stand by, although her performance is fairly good.

Next up comes Marie Dressler in Emma, at 9:30 PM. Dressler had just won the previous year for Min and Bill, and while she gives a good performance here, I don't think it's quite as memorable as her Oscar-winning performance.

The other nominee was Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman, at 11:00 PM. Fontanne certainly gives an Oscar-worthy performance in a fresh and funny role as the wife of a husband-and-wife acting team who playfully tests her husband (real-life husband Alfred Lunt) who thinks she's straying. This movie is the real treat of the three, and probably ought to be on earlier in the evening.

As for the Best Actor winners, in addition to Fredric March, there's Wallace Beery, who tied March resulting in two Oscars being given that year, in The Champ at 2:15 AM;

Lionel Barrymore picking up an Oscar for playing an alcoholic lawyer in A Free Soul at 3:45 AM. Norma Shearer, playing Barrymore's daughter, was nominated, but as she had won the previous year for The Divorcee, it's probably for the best that she lost to Marie Dressler in the aforementinoed Min and Bill

Last, but certainly not least, comes Charles Laughton's bravura performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII, completely overshadowing all of his wives.

As for the availability on DVD, the TCM Shop lists The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Emma available among the Best Actress nominees. I don't believe The Guardsman has ever gotten a DVD release at all. Since it was made at MGM, it probably deserves a Warner Archive release. I don't think that being based on a play should be a problem, since the play should be in the public domain. Among the Best Actor winners, A Free Soul and Henry VIII are both to be had at the TCM Shop. The Champ did get a DVD release several years ago, but it seems to be out of print.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I believe that I've never done a full-length post on the film Dangerous before. I probably shouldn't be surprised, since it's one that shows up astonishingly infrequently on TCM, despite the fact that it's a Warner Bros. movie and it won Bette Davis the first of her two Best Actress Oscars. It's getting one of its rare showings tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM on TCM, so now might be a good time to recommend it.

Franchot Tone is the male lead, playing Don Bellows, a prominent young well-to-do architect, engaged to lovely Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay). Several years earlier, Don had seen the actress Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) give a perfromance on Broadway that changed his life, convincing him that he ought to go into a field that would allow him to show off his creative side, which is why he became an architect. Time hasn't been kind to Joyce, who turned to the bottle and lost her prominent place on stage, now looking about as haggard as Davis' character from Of Human Bondage a year earlier. Don sees Joyce one day, and feels he just has to tell her what an influence she had on his life.

Well, actually he feels he has to do more than that. He has to try to rehabilitate her. Why go on such a fool's errand, I don't know, but we wouldn't have a movie if Don didn't do something so obviously stupid. At least Joyce has the good sense to warn Don not to do it. She insists that she's a bad influence on every man she touches, and he shouldn't waste his time or money trying to help her. For not only is Don wasting his time; he's decided it would be a good idea to use his wealth to help her too! He's willing to be the financial backer for a new play starring Joyce, allowing her to get back on her feet and return to a successful acting career.

Now, of course, it doesn't go as Don plans. He should have known this based on Joyce's warnings, be he wouldn't listen. It's much worse than that: he's fallen in love with her. As I'm writing this review, I'm finding myself laughing at the sheer ludicrousness of the plot developments, but bear with me. The movie handles eerything much better than my laughter is making it seem. Don wants Joyce to marry him. She refuses, but that shouldn't be a surprise. She's already warned Don that she's a jinx, and not only doesn't want to marry Don, but insists she can't marry him.

At this point, we learn that the reason she can't marry Don is because she's already got a husband, whom she ruined financially. She wants to give him his freedom, but he refuses, apparently being happy with Joyce. At this point, the film really takes a melodramatic turn, but I can't really say what Joyce does next without giving away key plot points.

As I implied earlier, Dangerous is the sort of melodrama that sounds as though it ought to be a complete mess. In fact, though, it turns out to be a pretty good movie, largely down to the performance from Davis. She won the Oscar, even though she supposedly felt she shouldn't have and that the Academy was making up for not nominating her the previous year for Of Human Bondage. Davis felt that Katharine Hepburn gave a better performance in Alice Adams. In defense of the idea that Davis deserved this Oscar, I'd have to say that Hepburn had wonderful material to work with. She certainly shines above and beyond everybody else, but it's easy to shine with a script like Alice Adams. Bette Davis takes material that probably should be sub-par, and makes you forget that it's sub-par. Compare this to The Star, in which Davis fails to raise the level of the script, turning it into unintential comedy. Perhaps part of the credit ought to be in the casting of Franchot Tone; he's much more convincing of the man wasting his life for Bette Davis' benefit than Sterling Hayden was. The script also give him more realistic motivations; I'm probably being a bit harsh if I'm suggesting that the script of Dangerous is as much of a mess as that of The Star.

In any case, Dangerous is well worth a viewing. It's also gotten a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Robert Osborne's new digs

Those chairs aren't there any more
Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the now former TCM set

So I was watching the introduction to The Adventures of Robin Hood on Sunday night. Oh, I've seen the movie before, but I was intending to watch the premiere of The Amazing Race which was supposed to come on at 8:00 PM. Some sporting event must have gone long, though, as The Amazing Race began about 15 minutes late, leaving me time to watch Robert Osborne's intro and listen to the stirring Erich Korngold music.

I didn't notice, but apparently the folks down at TCM headquarters in Atlanta have made some changes to the set from which Osborne does his introductions. Some eagle-eyed TCM watcher who's also a member of the TCM bulletin boards noticed it and posted there about it. So, I made it a point to watch the introduction to Ship of Fools last night to take another look for myself. Gone apparently are those familiar red chairs from which Osborne conducted so many interviews, replaced with something cream-colored. Other than that, I didn't pay particularly close attention to the rest of the set to note the other changes. I also couldn't find any articles on the Internet about it, or photos.

To be fair, the set probably did need some sort of touching up. High definition can be harsh on blemishes, and after al those years you'd think the set pieces would suffer wear and tear that would become noticeable on TV -- and that's something you definitely don't want. (If you've read this blog often enough, you'll know I also like game shows, and people who follow The Price is Right a lot more closely than I do would point out that several of their pricing games had to be refurbished for the change to high-definition.) The bigger surprise is that the change seems to have come in the middle of a month. I would have thought that Robert Osborne did all of his introductions for 31 Days of Oscar over one set of taping sessions, over about a week. This also would have given the set designers much more time to construct and install the new set, even if it's something they have to do every month -- surely TCM's sister channels use that space for something else during the rest of the month.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Harold Ramis, 1944-2014

Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters (1984)

The death was announced of writer/actor/director Harold Ramis, who died overnight at the age of 69. I think I would list Ramis first as a writer, because his writing credits seem to outclass his acting credits by a bit, with the directing credits being a bit further behind. But any way you look at it, Ramis was a multitalented contributor to some of the best-remembered comedies of the 1980s.

Actually, Ramis started in the 1970s, on stage and TV as part of the Second City troupe in Chicago. He met John Belushi in Chicago, which led to their collaboration in Animal House, which starred Belushi and which Ramis co-wrote. Ramis then went on to co-write the Bill Murray vehicle Caddyshack, followed by Stripes, in which he also acted. Perhaps he'll be best remembered for Ghostbusters, which he co-wrote, and in which he had a bigger role.

Further writing credits include the Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School, while he would go on to direct Groundhog Day which once again starred Bill Murray. That, and sequels to several of his well-known movies which weren't quite as well received as the originals, although he's not the first person that happened to.

I have to admit to not having watched any of those movies in years, which is part of the reason I'm not very well-placed to write a suitable tribut post, which probably ought to have consisted of a full-length post about one of his movies.

In Cold Blood

Robert Blake (l.) and Scott Wilson in In Cold Blood

TCM is looking at late-era black-and-white movies this evening, with the nominees for Best Art Design of 1965 for black-and-white movies of 1965. There's another one coming up tomorrow at 10:15 AM: In Cold Blood.

Robert Blake stars as Perry Smith, a petty criminal who at the start of the movie has just been released from prison and is supposed to make the difficult transition back to regular life. He's at a bus station in Kansas City, MO, where he's going to meet up with his old friend Dick Hickok (Scott Wilson). Even in this opening we see that something isn't quite right with Perry, as he falls into some sorr of reverie when he looks at himself in the mirror; something for which Dick teases Perry. But Perry is meeting dick for a more important reason. When Dick was in prison, he heard from his cellmate about a farm family over in the town of Holcomb, in the western part of Kansas, that had a wall safe with some $10,000 in it, a fairly substantial sum for the late 1950s. Dick has figured out how he and Perry can get that money.

So the two set off on a road trip to Holcomb. Meanwhile, we get to see a day in the life of the Clutter family. They're the ones who live in the farmhouse, the one with the wall safe. They, of course, have no idea that there are two guys who are going to come and take that ten grand from the wall safe. Of course, they couldn't know: there is no wall safe and no $10,000, something that Dick and Perry aren't going to learn until later that evening, when they come for the apocryphal money. The Clutters go to bed, safe in the knowledge that they live a nice peaceful life in a nice peaceful place.

The next morning, the help comes in, and finds four dead bodies in the house: the Clutter family has been murdered. We know that Perry and Dick did it, but of course the authorities have no way of knowing this, so they're meticulously gathering clues, trying to find a killer. Dick and Perry, meanwhile, have made their escape, with a few items they stole from the house and a whopping $40 or so in cash -- as I said, there was no wall safe. The two killers go first to Mexico, since Perry swears up and down that he's got a map leading to ancient treasure. Really. It's more that Perry is trying to do something big to impress his estranged father, with whom he's always had a love/hate relationship.

But the Mexico scenes are the slow part of the movie, and thankfully our two killers head back for the US since they're out of money. They'd been passing bad checks the last time they were in the States; it should come as no surprise that they have to resort to crime to make it once they're back in the States. This leads to the two of them getting caught in Las Vegas on charges of having stolen a car. The police in Las Vegas have no idea who the two young men are that they've captured; eventually, the detectives back in Kansas get news of them and have good reason to believe these are the two guys who murdered the Clutter family.

Dick finally cracks, and reveals that he was one of the two guys who killed the Clutters, so it off to Kansas for the two young men, who are tried, found guilty, and executed after a long series of appeals is denied. In the meantime, Perry get to make a fuller confession.

I hope I'm not giving too much away, but to be fair, In Cold Blood is based on true events. Author Truman Capote investigated the case after it made the headlines, and wrote a painstaking book on the subject, from which the movie was made. So, viewers may already know a bit about the subject coming in to the movie, even if it's just the existence of the book and that it's based on real murders. In Cold Blood isn't so much a story about the murder of a family as it is about the two men who killed that family. In fact, we don't actually see the murder until near the end of the film with Dick and Perry make their confessions and relate how the murder happened. When the family is first killed, we only see the two men approaching the house at night, with a cut to the dead bodies being discovered the next day. The parts of the movie that could be a police procedural are good, with John Forsythe as the detective heading up the case; the character study of Dick and Perry is even better. Scott Wilson is good as Dick, the glib con artist who looks relatively close to the boy next door. Robert Blake, meanwhile, is excellent as the more disturbed Perry. The movie is helped out immensely by its adherence to realism (there are some anachronisms such as a Las Vegas marquee advertising a Chita Rivera show, but these aren't germane to the actual story), and wonderful black and white cinematography.

In Cold Blood is in a few places a difficult movie to watch, such as when it gets to the dramatization of the murders, or taking its sweet time to get to the inevitable execution. But it's an outstanding movie.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

German expressionism meets mid-century modern

I sat down this morning and turned on the Fox Movie Channel/FXM to watch the 1962 film The Cabinet of Caligari. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 7:10 AM, and also got a DVD release at some point (although it seems to be out of print).

Glynis Johns plays Jane Lindstrom. At the beginning of the movie, we see her driving a convertible down a lonely, little-traveled road. Suddenly, one of the tires blows out, so it's out of the car looking for the nearest house for help. She obviously walks a long time, as by the time she gets to a house it's dusk outside, and it was broad daylight when she suffered the tire blowour. This house is a mansion, complete with a gated driveway. She opens the gate, and knocks on the door to find one lone figure opening the door: a bearded man who goes by the name Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy). He offers to help Jane, sending one of his assistants to look at the car, because a creepy gated mansion like this always has a retinue of staff for the one lone person living there. Oh, and it's not the stereotypically creepy mansion of horror films but a wonder of circa-1960 design with a very open floor plan and one of those staircases without the vertical risers, among other modern design features.

Jane accepts the help gratefully. The only thing is, this Caligari only seems to be helping her. Jane wakes up the next morning, talks to Caligari in his study (which has a regular door and a revolving door!) and has some coffee, which she discovers has been drugged! Caligari is keeping her in his mansion against his will! Worse, every time she goes to talk to him, he starts asking her insultingly probing questions about her sex life! So Jane tries to find out more about Caligari from the people he's got working for him, and more importantly, whether there's any way out of this Kafkaesque world she's fallen into. It turns out that some of the people are working for Caligari, such as the well-coiffed Christine (Constance Ford), and the apparent mad doctor David (Lawrence Dobkin). Other of the people, however, seem to be prisoners in the mansion, too, like Ruth (Estelle Winwood) and her sometimes companion Martin (Pat O'Malley). Somwhere in the middle are young Mark, who seems to be falling in love with Jane, and Paul, who knows a surprising amount about Caligari, and claims to be working on Jane's behalf. But not everybody is as they seem....

It's a bit difficult to go into any more detail about the movie without giving away key plot points in the ending, when everything finally comes together. This is a film that requires patience, however, because there's a lot in it that seems almost laughable: although it's supposed to be in the horror genre, I suppose, I was laughing at some of the awful dialogue and seemingly overworked plot devices. In fact, I found myself thinking of various other movies from which The Cabinet of Caligari seemed to be borrowing liberally. Jane sees Caligari and David abusing Ruth, and this is portrayed in a series of photos reminiscent of La jetée. Jane feels as though she's going mad, which is portrayed by a long line of oddly-shaped door jambs that recall the original Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with which this only shares a title and no plot points; it also zooms here a bit reminding me of Alfred Hitchcock's camera trick in Vertigo. There's also an extended scene at the end which we see through Jane's eyes, until we finally see her looking at herself in the mirror. Can anybody say Lady in the Lake?

If you stick with this movie until the end, it's really not bad, despite the mess you might think you're watching for the first hour and a half or so. And this movie really is worth at least one viewing.

Lesser-seen Best Picture nominees

One of the things about having ten nominees for Best Picture is that it's easy to forget about some of them having been nominated for Best Picture. It's not that they're not good movies; it's that, because there are so many other good movies, some of them at the bottom of the list fade into obscurity through the years. Three Smart Girls, which aired a couple of weeks back on TCM when they were showing all of the nominees for Best Picture of 1936, is a good example of this. If it weren't for the presence of Deanna Durbin in one of her first roles, the movie would be even less remembered than it is today.

I mention this because TCM's prime time theme for tonight is the Best Picture nominees from 1938. The winner that year was You Can't Take It With You (on at 10:00 PM tongiht), a wonderful little comedy that deserves more attention even though it actually won the Oscar. I'm not certain which of the ten movies I would have selected, although You Can't Take it With You is certainly a worthy choice. The Adventures of Robin Hood, which kicks off the evening at 8:00 PM, looks like the sort of movie that the Academy would love, a grand spectacle, and in Technicolor to boot. As for the sort of "message" movie the Academy would like, there's also the fine Grand Illusion (10:00 AM Monday), which also makes the Academy look erudite as they nominated a foreign-language film.

A couple of the lesser-remembered movies are ones I've blogged about before. Coming up overnight at 2:00 AM is Alexander's Ragtime Band. The story is a fairly standard love triangle involving the lives of three members of a band as they go their own ways over two decades, splitting and eventually reuniting. What makes it special is all that Irving Berlin music, especially the title song and "Blue Skies".

Another fine movie that probably wasn't quite worthy of being named Best Picture and would likely have been overlooked if there were only five nominees is The Citadel, at 8:00 AM Monday. Robert Donat's portrayal of a doctor with a conscience was made over at MGM's British unit, so there's another chance for the Academy to show how broad-minded it is.

As for the not in print on DVD update, TCM's schedule page lists Alexander's Ragtime Band and The Citadel as both being available from the TCM Shop, the latter having been put out by the Warner Archive. You Can't Take it With You seems to be out of print, although there are copies available at Amazon. The one that the TCM schedule page is getting wrong is Boys Town (overnight at 4:00 AM), as a search of the TCM shop lists three different ways to get it on DVD. All three of them are listed at the TCM Shop as being in stock, too.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A few shorts for February 22/23

I have to admith that Give Us the Earth, airing overnight at about 1:08 AM, or just after Hamlet (which starts at 10:00 PM tonight and runs 154 minutes plus the intro and outro from Robert Osborne), is a new one to me. Apparently, Hollywood was still engaging in the "Good Neighbor" policy towards Latin America that had been the de facto policy of the Roosevelt administration; but, with the Cold War beginning and Roosevelt dead, US policy toward the region was about to change. This 20-minute short has a couple of Americans going down to Mexico to teach the locals about using their farmland more efficiently to achieve higher yields. It seems to be available on a DVD of The Sea of Grass, at least according to the TCM SHop. (Ooh, I see that DVD also has the classic Tom and Jerry short The Cat Concerto, in which Tom tries to play the piano arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, except that it interferes with Jerry's nest on the piano strings.) I would have guessed that a short like this might be more appropriate on a DVD of Border Incident

Tomorrow afternoon at about 1:13 PM, or just after King Solomon's Mines (11:30 AM, 103 min), is a short listed on the TCM daily schedule as "King Solomon's Mines Featurette". However, actually clicking on that title for more information sends one to a page saying the short is called Jungle Safari. I would have guessed that's what this was, and it's mildly interesting, even if it is pretty much just an ad for the Dodge trucks that MGM used to schlep everybody across the parts of Africa where the movie was filmed. It's in color and probably ought to be on a DVD of King Solomon's Mines, although the DVD that the TCM shop is selling doesn't mention it. Nor does Amazon, which seems to be selling the same DVD.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Judge for yourself: 1944 Best Actor

Tonight's lineup on TCM is the Best Actor nominees of 1944. There are only four movies shown, because two actors -- Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald -- were both nominated for Going My Way, which kicks off the night at 8:00 PM. It's a movie I intensely dislike, but I've already blogged about that before.

Following Going My Way, at 10:15 PM, is the actor I htink probably ought to have won the Best Actor: Alexander Knox in Wilson. Knox plays the 28th President of the United States, starting from when he wsa president of Princeton University, through to when he leaves the White House broken from a stroke but unbowed. The big problem with the film is that is not just Hollywood-style uncritical; it's almost hagiographic. If westerns, or at least the ones before Anthony Mann came along around 1950, are a genre in which there's a very clear delineation between right and wrong, Wilson goes two steps further. As I wrote last February, there's a silly scene of Wilson talking about racial diversity. Not only was the real life military still segregated in 1944 when the movie was made, Wilson's real record on race relations was rather more checkered. It should be unsurprising for a politician in the 1910s, and the Republicans of the day wouldn't have been that much better on average, but when you're trying to make an icon out of somebody, this is the sort of stuff you have to whitewash.

None of the above is Alexander Knox's fault, of course, and he makes the movie completely his, helped in part that unlike many other actors, he wasn't a big enough star to have a well-established persona. This is in contrast to Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart, which rounds out the night at 3:00 AM. Grant does well, but unfortunately already had a screen persona that was quite different from the not very virtuous character he plays here. After all, Grant's persona had already caused producers to go nuts over the original ending of Suspicion back in 1941. None But the Lonely Heart isn't a bad movie, but it's one that the first time I watched it gave me the feeling that there was something not quite right with the whole production. (Strangely, I don't really get that vibe from Mr. Lucky.)

The final nominee was Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1:00 AM), playing a man trying to drive new wife Ingrid Bergman insane so he can find her aunt's jewels. Boyer does quite well, but as with Cary Grant, I sometimes wonder how much of the suave charm wsa what he was putting into his acting, and how much he might have had in real life.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Notes on Of Human Bondage

I recommended the 1934 Bette Davis version of Of Human Bondage back in July 2012. It's airing again tonight at 8:00 PM as part of a look at the Best Actress Nominees of 1934.

And therein lies the first tale. Bette Davis wasn't nominated by the Academy for this movie. Back then, they only nominated three people in hte acting categories, and this is still a couple of years before the supporting acting categories. Somebody must have liked her performance enough to start a write-in campaign, and it was at least successful enough for her to beat out Grace Moore in One Night of Love (11:30 PM tonight). The Academy mentioned who finished second and third back then, and lists Davis third, with a note that it was an unofficial nomination. Technically, then, Of Human Bondage didn't receive any Oscar nominations, as it was overlooked in all the other categories, too. The movie was produced at RKO, and they apparently promoted The Gay Divorcee for a Best Picture nomination. I suppose you can't really blame RKO.

TCM's schedule page claims that you can't get Of Human Bondage from the TCM shop, but a search of the TCM shop itself says that yes you can; in fact there are two versions available and in stock. One is a pricey 2013 release from Kino, while the other is a cheapie 2002 release from Alpha Video, which leads me to believe that the movie must have fallen into the public domain at some point. Interestingly, the TCM shop has a "Recommended for you" sidebar listing a couple of products that you supposedly might like if you like the one that's the main focus of the page. Amazon does too, and Amazon's recommendations are usually stuff with the same actor or director; their page for the Kino Blu-ray of Of Human Bondage also suggests Hell's House starring Bette Davis, and a bit surprisingly, Things to Come. The two TCM Shop pages, however, recommend things completely unrelated to Of Human Bondage -- and completely different from each other! Each recommends a noir box set, but they recommend different sets, for example. Because everybody knows Of Human Bondage is a stellar example of film noir.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter

Back in October 2012, I mentioned that TCM was going to be showing the 1929 version of The Letter, a movie I had not seen before. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM on TCM, and it's well worth watching.

Eagels stars as Leslie Crosbie (the role taken by Bette Davis in the famous 1940 version), the wife of Robert, who works as a manager at a rubber plantation in British Malaya. It's a boring life for her, and she's decided to pass the time by taking up a lover, Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall). Things go wrong, however, and she shoots the boyfriend dead, claiming self defense.

That something wrong is a letter that Leslie wrote to Geoffrey discussing her love for him, but that letter has wound up in the hands of one of the locals. It's going to come out at the murder trial, and there goes any chance of a self-defense claim. Although, to be honest, we already know that Leslie's claim is bogus, at least in the Jeanne Eagels version. The 1940 version starts with that famous scene of Bette Davis shooting the gun again and again as she's retreating frmo her bungalow. In this version, we get to see some of the relationhsip Leslie and Geoffrey had, especially their meeting at the Crosbie bungalow on the night where she shoots him.

That's one big difference between the two versions. The other is in the ending. By 1940, movies had to conform to the Porduction Code, so Leslie Crosbie had to be either found guilty and sentenced to hang, or get caught in some other way along the lines of what happens to Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. 1929 was before all of that stuff, so we can see movies like Night Nurse in which the protagonist's boyfriend gets away with murder, even if it is in a good cause. Here, the result is somewhat different, as Leslie suffers what may be a proverbial fate worse than death (sorry if the writing looks so bad, but I'm trying to couch this post in a way that doesn't give the ending away).

Jeanne Eagels is fascinating to watch in this movie. She was a raging heroin addict and had been for years by the time she made this movie, and it shows. That whole "heroin chic" thing of it keeping you thin has left Eagels gaunt, almost to the point of being called skeletal. It almost gives the impression that life in this backwater part of the British Empire has reduced her to this, even if that's not an impreesion the filmmakers intended. Eagels is particularly convincing in her final scene.

The bad news is the physical state of the movie. The print TCM showed last time didn't look terrible, but it did look at times as though it was the only surviving print of the film, wiht points where I was wondering whether there was something missing. I don't know whether the film was originally planned as a silent and then converted to sound during production, or whether the producers just found it easier to have a lot of establishing shots be done in such a way that any background sound could be added in post-production, but it's something quite noticeable in several places. Those problems aside, this version of The Letter is still quite a compelling movie.

Although the 1929 version of The Letter was made at Paramount, it was sold to Warner Bros. when they were going to make the 1940 version. As such, it's Warner Home Video that's been able to release this movie to DVD as part of the Warner Archive.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

George Kennedy turns 89

George Kennedy won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cool Hand Luke

Today is the 89th birthday of actor George Kennedy, who made a career out of playing supporting roles, including the one in Cool Hand Luke that won him an Oscar. His career seems to have included all sorts of genres, from a straight-up drama like Cool Hand Luke, to comedy, as Leslie Nielsen's boss in the Naked Gun movies. (To be fair, I think more of the humor comes from Nielsen, with everybody else reacting to him.)

I haven't mentioned Kennedy too often, although when I have, it's been for a broad range of genres. Bandolero! for example has Kennedy as a sheriff chasing James Stewart and Dean Martin into Mexico. Kennedy was also a police detective in The Boston Strangler, but this one was a docudrama instead of a western or comedy.

And then there's the horror. There's Kennedy above in Strait-Jacket, about to chop the head of a chicken, much to the horror of Joan Crawford, whose character had a thing about axes. A more gothic horror that I think was trying to be more serious than Strait-Jacket is Hush, Hush... Sweet Charlotte.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Every February when TCM brings 31 Days of Oscar back to the channel, it seems to mean a few more foreign films than are normally in the lineup. Sure, there's no Imports film in the early Monday morning slot but TCM more than makes up for it in the rest of the schedule. There was already a morning and afternoon of foreign films early in the month, and tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, TCM is showing the gorgeous French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

A young Catherine Deneuve, pictured above, plays Geneviève, who works as a shop assistant in the shop owned by her mother (Anne Vernon, whom you might recall from Terror on a Train), called "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg". The family's finances are in a parlous state, which is frankly understandable when you consider that the shop seems to sell umbrellas and only umbrellas. Into the shop one day comes a gem dealer named Roland (Marc Michel). He could be just what Mom is looking for. She can sell off some of her unused jewelry to help get the family out of debt, and Roland would be a perfect partner for Geneviève.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Geneviève is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). He's an auto mechanic, living with his elderly aunt Élise, who is also looked after by Madeleine. Guy and Geneviève seem right for each other, but being a mechanic isn't very well-paid work, which is why Geneviève's mother would like her to find a more suitable partner. There's also the fact that Guy seems to be a bit of a dreamer, wanting to open his own service station. At heart, though, he's a good guy who means well.

Guy's bigger problem, though, has nothing to do with Geneviève or money, but the draft. The movie starts off in the late 1950s, a time when Algeria was still a part of France, but was fighting for its independence. France needed soldiers to try to put down the rebellion, and unfortunately Guy gets called up to fight. He promises Geneviève he'll write her all the time, but eventually, the letters stop.

Geneviève, and especially her mother, fears that Guy is dead, although you'd think they would have heard about it from some mutual acquaintance. Broken-hearted, she decides that the best thing to do is marry Roland and leave Cherbourg aftre closing up the umbrella shop, since this will get her away from the sadness and provide her with some financial security.

And then Guy returns home. It turns out that he wasn't killed in action, just injured with a bum leg. Of course, once he's back in Cherbourg he wants to meet up with Geneviève, but she's gone off with Roland, and nobody really seems to know exactly where she is. So now Guy is broken-hearted too, and he's soon going to have to deal with the death of his beloved aunt Élise. Will our two star-crossed lovers ever find true happiness?

One of the interesting things about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it's a bit more realistic in its storyline than a lot of Hollywood love stories from the era. Life isn't necessarily going to be a bed of roses for Geneviève and Guy once they get married, adn sometimes you have to settle for having a reasonably comfortable existence, even if it's not the one you really hoped for. So, the story has a lot to recommend it.

The cinematography is also gorgeous, with vibrant colors, although as I mentioned with The Young Girls of Rochefort, I wonder how realistic they are. Cherbourg in the late 1950s certainly wouldn't have looked this clean and beautiful. The wallpapers like the one in the photo above might have been just as ghastly in their garish color schemes when they were first put up, but most of them would probably have been quite faded and a bit dirty. Still, the visuals also have a lot to recommend them.

The real problem with the movie is the dialog. Director Jacques Demy, who also directed The Young Girls of Rochefort, had the "brilliant" idea of having all of the characters sing their dialog. That decision has certainly made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a distinctive movie which stands out amongst the other foreign films because it's not just plain old talky dialog. However, it also serves to distract at times, which is a shame because the story really is a pretty good one. I often found myself wanting these people simply to stop singing and start talking like normal people.

Very surprisingly, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg seems to be out of print on DVD. It's a movie that, because of its distinctive hook and its high quality really deserves another DVD release.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I think I've mentioned quite a few times that the heist films of the 1960s are entertaining, if not quite as good as some of the 1950s movies like The Asphalt Jungle. I think that's because a lot of the 1960s films were going for some light comic relief in addition to the thriller bits. An excellent example of this is Gambit, which is airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM on TCM.

Michael Caine plays Harry Dean, a British man visiting Hong Kong for a purpose we're quickly going to discover. He stops off at a particular nightclub, where he meets an associate of his, Émile Fournier (John Abbott). Harry is really looking to get in touch with Nicole (Shirley MacLaine), one of the dancers in the club's floor show, however. Harry eventually sits down with Nicole, and tells him what the purpose of his visit is, and why he's talking to her about it.

Shahbandar (Herbert Lom) is one of the world's wealthiest men, but living as a recluse in a penthouse at the top of one of the hotels in his city-state of Dammuz. He's a businessman and art collector, being in possession of some of the most priceless ancient sculptures out there, which he keeps in his penthouse apartment. He's also a widower, having lost hsi young wife after only a year or so of marriage. And that's where Nicole comes in. Nicole, half Chinese and half French-Canadian (yeah, there's an odd ethnic makeup), looks amazingly like Shahbandar's late wife. The minute that Harry and Nicole land in Dammuz, Shahbandar's men are going to see her, and invite the couple to Shahbandar's penthouse for dinner, where Harry is going to get the lay of the land, so to speak. And Shahbandar is going to be so taken by Nicole that he's going to want to take her out for a night on the town, leaving Harry free to get back into the penthouse, steal a particular sculpture and replace it with a copy, and get away. And they'll be able to make their escape, all with spending less than 24 hours in Dammuz. It's a brilliant, foolproof plan!

Yeah right. The movie presents this plan almost as though it's the actual action of the movie, suddenly ending about 35 minutes in. Nicole, for the very good reason that she needs the money, decides to take up Harry on his offer. The two, fake passports in hand, fly to Dammuz -- and find that there's nobody there to meet them, forcing them to face the traffic all by themselves. Shahbandar's men have spotted Nicole though, and eventually he invites Harry and Nicole to lunch -- on their yacht, not in the penthouse. And Shahbandar is peppering the couple with questions, which makes it sound suspicously as though he knows there's something not quite right.

Harry and Nicole eventually do get an invite to the penthouse, where he discovers that stealing the sculpture is going to be no easy feat, as it's guarded by a bunch of electric eyes which summon men with guns. And Nicole isn't excatly thrilled with her part in this whole hare-brained scheme, since it's been going on rather longer than Harry had originally planned for. But Harry, dammit, is going to go through with the plan anyway. Nicole ultimately has a change of heart, and shows up at the penthouse while Harry is trying to get the sculpture out of its cage, so to speak, and decides to help him do it! The two eventually steal the sculpture and escape the penthouse, getting away with it all. Or do they? There's still a whole series of complications to befall all of the main characters.

There really isn't all that much of a plot here: boy meets girl, boy uses girl to try to steal something from another boy. It's all in the presentation. Caine is suitably charming, which is about the only real characterization the script asks any of the cast members to do. Gambit is a movie more about the heist than about the characters carrying it out. In that sense, the movie succeeds quite well, at least when it comes to entertaining the viewer. Yes, the plan is hare-brained, and thoroughly utterly daft. Who in his right mind could thing a plan like this could possibly work? And yet, watching the movie, you really don't care that these people have to be nuts to even try to carry it out. There's nothing deep going on in Gambit; just a couple of pretty people violating every bit of common sense. But boy is it entertaining.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

One more set of briefs: February 15, 2014

Calgary Stampede is one of those shorts that got nominated for an Oscar and so shows up seemingly every year during 31 Days of Oscar. This year's showing is at about 3:39 PM, or just after another airing of the documentary And the Oscar Goes To..., which comes on at 2:00 PM and runs 97 min, plus presumably an intro and outro from Ben Mankiewicz.

TCM's online schedule is acting up: everything is listed as being in the genre "TCM Presents". It's no big deal to me, since I don't normally use the genre information as to what I might want to watch. But it always surprises me when TCM's schedule goes awry like this. I'd think the connection to the database would make it easy to get the genre information and plug that in to the appropriate part of the table.

The prime time lineup is movies nominated for Best Picture of 1929/30, starting with the winner, All Quiet on the Western Front. That one is listed as available at the TCM Shop. The next one, The Big House at 10:30, isn't, for whatever reason. It was released via the Warner Archive back in the summer of 2009, and as you can see, you can get it at Amazon.

Disraeli, on the other hand, still isn't on DVD. It rounds out the night at 4:00 AM, and if you haven't seen it before, is well worth watching. It also really ought to get a DVD release.

Interestingly enough, TCM ran all five of the Best Picture nominees back in February 2011, albeit in a different order. After all, there are only so many ways in which you can group Oscar-nominated movies.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Marty apparently out of print

Marty is airing again at 10:15 PM tonight as part of TCM's look at the five men nominated for an Oscar as the Best Actor of 1955. The TCM schedule lists the other four movies nominated as being available on DVD at the TCM shop, but not Marty. You can get it at Amazon, but the listings there made it look suspiciously like a movie that's out of print.

The first listing was to a 2001 release, that looks like it was put out by MGM as part of a "Vintage Classics" line. This was well after Ted Turner bought the MGM studio films that would become part of the "Turner Library" that made up the backbone of TCM's programming, although that has since been folded into the Warner coporate entity. DVDs put out by MGM would be stuff that they got later, which I believe pretty much means stuff originally distributed by United Artists, although not everything UA distributed.

Looking it up on IMDb, sure enough Marty was produced by the Hecht-Lancaster independent production group, and originally distributed by United Artists. IMDb has an often helpful page for each movie listing the production companies, which is often useful for seeing who originally distributed a film, although there's a lot of almost trivial information about foreign distributors and the producers of video versions. But for Marty, IMDb lists a 2001 DVD put out by MGM, and a 2007 DVD, but I couldn't find any evidence of the 2007 DVD on Amazon. Any way you slice it, though, Marty is the sort of film that needs another DVD release.

(Unrelated, but normal posting should resume soon after I dig out from all the snow.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Seeing Hands

Some of you may be interested in the short Seeing Hands, which is running tonight at about 9:40 PM, or just after My Sister Eileen. It's one that I know I've seen before, but one for which the brief synopses given by the few reviewers on IMDb leave me wondering whether I'm conflating a couple of shorts, or whether I've thought of two separate halves of one short as actually being two completely different shorts.

Narrated by Pete Smith, this one was released in the middle of World War II, and deals with the idea that everybody can make an impact on the war effort. One evening, a couple of men are walking down a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood of some city, that really could be Anytown, USA. They hear strange sounds coming out of a darkened garage, and wonder what's going on. When they turn the lights on, they find a man doing woodworking in the dark! The thing is, he doesn't need the lights on, since he's blind. Yet he can still do complex operations on a lathe. The man even has a seeing-eye dog to pick up things with wooden handles, and guide the guy's hand to things that are entirely metal and not good for the dog's teeth to pick up.

Now, I remember all of that as one short. What for some reason I was thinking was a completely different short may just be a flashback to how the guy went blind as a kid, and something involving an initiation at the hospital where he's recovering from the injuries that blinded him. If memory serves, the initiation involves a mock car and the victim getting squirted in the face. According to the IMDb page, that's George "Spanky" MacFarland from the Our Gang shorts leading the initiation. Unfortunately, there's no detailed synopsis on IMDb or in the TCM Database. It also doesn't seem to be on DVD or on Youtube.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar, 1922-2014

Sid Caesar (obscured by the biplane support) and Edie Adams in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Sid Caesar, who worked mostly in television in the early years of the medium, but appeared in a few important movies such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, has died at the age of 91. Caesar is probably best remembered for the pioneering TV sketch comedy show Your Show of Shows which ran in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, ten of the classic sketches from the show were put together in an anthology and released in movie theaters as Ten from Your Show of Shows. In It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World he plays the husband of Edie Adams; together, the two of them get stuck in the basement of a hardware store trying to find a shovel to dig up the $350,000 buried under the "Big W".

Unlike Shirley Temple, who's already gotten a standalone "TCM Remembers" piece (although I haven't seen it yet) and will be receiving a several-film salute in March after 31 Days of Oscar, Caesar didn't make enough movies to get a programming tribute; I presume a scene from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World will show up in the "TCM Remembers" piece at the end of the year.

Three of a kind, in a way

TCM's prime time conceit during 31 Days of Oscar this year is to take a particular Academy Awards category from a particular year, and show the nominees from that particular competition, presumably letting the viewer judge for himself which nominee is the best. Tonight's lineup is the Best Supporting Actress of 1963. I was quite surprised to see that TCM is showing only three 1963 films in conjunction with the category. Who were the other two nominees, and were they from films TCM couldn't get the rights to?

So I made my way over to the Academy's own awards database, and discovered, to my surprise, that three of the nominees were from the same movie! Diane Cilento, Dame Edith Evans, and Joyce Redman were all nominated for Tom Jones, which kicks off tonight's lineup at 8:00 PM. For the record, the other two nominees were Margaret Rutherford (who won) trying to get to the USA in The VIPs at 10:30 PM, and Lilia Skala getting Sidney Poitier to build her nuns a church in Lilies of the Field at 1:00 AM.

This of course wasn't the first time that three people were nominated in the same category from the same movie. It most famously happened in 1935 when Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone were nominated against each other in Mutiny on the Bounty. I don't think Tone was really one of the leads in that film, but back in 1935, there was no Supporting Actor category. It was instituted the next year, and I tend to believe that it was having three actors go up against each other for the same movie that led to the creation of the Supporting Actor and Actress categories.

Of course, there have been people nominated against others from the same movie since then, and not just with Tom Jones. One of the more interesting examples might be All About Eve, since there were two women (Bette Davis and Anne Baxter) nominated in the Best Actress category and two women (Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter) nominated in the Supporting Actress category. To be honest, I don't think any of the four should have won; as good as their performances may be, I think they were up against better performances. George Sanders, however, deservedly won his Supporting Actor Oscar in my opinion.

The other really interesting example would be in 1944, when Bing Crosby won the Best Actor Oscar for Going My Way, even though he was nominated against co-star Barry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, for his part, was also nominated in the Supporting Actor category, which he won. The Academy closed that loophole the next year. I don't think either of them deserved their awards, although that might just be part of my personal prejudices against Going My Way, a movie I intensely dislike. Based on the five nominees, I think I would have voted for Alexander Knox in Wilson, who gives an excellent performance regardless of the extent to which I think the script whitewashes Woodrow Wilson's flaws.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple, 1928-2014

Shirley Temple in the trailer of The Little Princess (1939)

The death has been announced of child actress Shirley Temple, at the age of 85. Temple was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, singing and emoting her way through a series of films at 20th Century-Fox that seemed designed to lift the spirits of an entire nation during the Great Depression. Temple would grow up and not find success as an adult actress, but had a second career as a diplomat, serving as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Temple was 85.

Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan in a promotional photo for That Hagen Girl

I have to admit that Shirley Temple movies aren't quite my thing, but then I have the feeling that I'm not in the target demographic, which I'd guess was first families, especially those with young daughters, before everybody else. That might have something to do with why I haven't blogged about too many of her films, with That Hagen Girl being one of the few. And it's also not a particularly good movie, alhtough I think that's more down to the script than Temple or Reagan, even if neither of them was the world's greatest actor. But damn if she wasn't an energetic little charmer, which you can see in all those musical numbers she did in her Fox movies.

I mean, who couldn't help but be charmed by a face like that, singing such nonsense as "On the Good Ship Lollipop", or dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson down a flight of stairs? Musicals aren't my thing, especially not singing children, but I don't think anybody could deny her power to entertain in that genre. Audiences of the day certainly wouldn't have denied it, since she was one of the biggest box office draws of the 1930s.

Although Temple would retire from making movies in the early 1950s, what with the public not finding her having the same appeal as an adult that she did as a kid, she had an active later life, being named Ambassador to Ghana by President Ford, and Ambassador to Czechoslovakia by her old friend Ronald Reagan. In the 2000s she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild.

TCM is currently in the middle of 31 Days of Oscar, so I don't know when they're going to get around to having a programming salute to her. Her birthday late in April wouldn't be a bad idea, but that month is the 20th anniversary of TCM and also sees the TCM Film Festival, so the TCM schedule is already jam-packed. There's also the question of how many films from Fox they'd be able to get, which are really the ones more worth showing since I think they're more representative of her career than things like Since You Went Away.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

I'd been suggesting for some time that Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet isn't avaialble on DVD, but the TCM schedule must have been acting up, as it's now claiming that you can get it courtesy of the TCM shop. At any rate, it's coming up on TCM early tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM (or overnight tonight if you're out on the west coast), and is certainly worth a full-length blog post.

Edward G. Robinson plays Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who was a doctor and a medical researcher. The opening scene has Ehrlich being controversial from a young age, which may not be quite true; Wikipedia (not the best source, I know) doesn't mention anything analogous to the opening controversy. But Ehrlich in real life had a cousin who worked with staining bacteria to study them more closely, which is what led to Ehrlich's interest in medical research. (That cousin doesn't seem to be a character in the movie, either.) This is wher Ehrlich did come into some difficulties in dealing with the other doctors, as his research was so new that many of the other doctors apparently couldn't understnad it. Unfortunately, doing medical research also left Ehrlich with a case of tuberculosis, so he left for Egypt where the drier climate would presumably be good for his health, and to do further medical research.

It was in Egypt that Ehrlich, according to the movie, got the idea for serums, which would have been a completely new class of medicine at the time. The movie portrays it in the form of Ehrlich helping a snakebite victim, and realizing that if antitoxins can be specific to one snake venom, perhaps you could have toxins that were more specific to certain diseases. This insight was also developed in large part because of the study of immunity inherited from the mother, a field in which Ehrlich worked with one Dr. Emil von Behring (played by Otto Kruger; this is a real person). Togethr the two developed a serum for diphtheria, but the two also had a dispute over who should receive how much credit and how much of a share of the profits from the serum, which led to a professional falling out that would have consequences later in the movie.

Much of the second half of the movie deals with Ehrlich's attempts to find that "magic bullet" which would be a more effective treatment for an individual disease by more selectively targeting the organism that causes the disease. In the movie, this manifests itself in n attempt to discover an effective treatment for syphilis, which is controversial since it implies that people are actually having lots of sex. (Well, they are, aren't they?) It's a long, arduous task, and experiment after experiment fails, until finally, on the 606th attempt, it looks like there is success! The treatment is called 606 at first in honor of the 606 attempts, and then Salvarsan (again, a real name), but for a whole bunch of reasons it's controversial, which once again seems fairly true to Ehrlich's actual life story.

Biochemistry is not one of my strong points, so I have to admit that I don't know quite how much of what Warner Bros. portrayed when they made this movie is technically accurate, above and beyond whether it's faithfully re-telling the story of Ehrlich's life. All I've gathered is from doing some cursory reading on Wikipedia, and it seems as though there's some reasonable accuracy, and some stuff played up for dramatic effect, especially Ehrlich's death at the end. Edward G. Robinson is, like Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur, quite entertaining and carries the movie singlehandedly in the title role. Everybody else is good enough, but not quite memorable, in supporting Robinson. In part because of the topic, and in part because this was an era when there were so many good Hollywood movies being made, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet doesn't get the attention it deserves, and that's a shame. It's really quite a good movie, even if parts are bound by the constraints of what the studios were doing at the time.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Story of Louis Pasteur

I've briefly mentioned the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur several times, and last month pointed out that it would be airing again at 6:30 AM on February 10. That's tomorrow, so now would be a good time to do that full-length post on the movie.

The movie opens up with what was a very vexing problem in the middle of the 19th century: deaths of mothers in childbirth. Doctors weren't certain what was going on, but Pasteur, a chemist and biologist (but notably not a physician) speculated that there must be some sort of organism already existing on the doctors' medical instruments causing the women to get sick -- they didn't know enough back then to sterilize the instruments to the extent that is done today. Pasteur's experiments more or less proved what is now known as the germ theory. However, as Pasteur wasn't a physician, there were a lot of people who felt that it wouldn't be safe for Pasteur to do anything perceived as practicing medicine, so these old doctors, represented by Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber) get him to stop making his work on the topic public.

Fast forward several years. In real life, Pasteur was working on figuring out how micro-organisms caused various agricultural diseases, as well as working on vaccines. All of this work is telescoped into a sequence involving an anthrax outbreak, with Pasteur being at the center of the one region of France where anthrax doesn't seem to be endemic. Of course, it's because of the vaccines he and his team of researchers has been working on. These assistants are headed up by Dr. Martel (Donald Woods), who by this point has fallen in love with Pasteur's adult daughter Annette (Anita Louise). Ultimately, the scientists and doctors do an experiment involving a control group that more or less proves that it's Pasteur's vaccine keeping the livestock of the region safe. Another victory for Pasteur, but again he's practicing medicine without a license.

The next topic discussed in the movie is rabies. Pasteur and his assistants were trying to develop a vaccine for the disease, and were conducting trials on dogs. They reached a point where they thought they might be having some success, at which point the movie conveniently has a young boy (Dickie Moore) get bitten by a rabid dog. Pasteur takes the daring step of giving the boy the rabies vaccine that he's been testing on the dogs. To be fair, it's not as if there's anything else the normal doctors could have done to help the boy. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, the incident of a boy getting bitten really did happen while Pasteur and his team still hadn't tested the vaccine on that many dogs. Of course, the boy recovers (as he did in real life). Pasteur eventually lives long enough to be honored by the establishment.

Reading up on Pasteur's life story on Wikipedia, which I presume is going to be reasonably accurate since it should be a fairly uncontroversial topic, the movie gets the broad themes more or less correct. Pasteur was keenly interested in microbiology and did do work on both anthrax and rabies. The movie, however, apparently plays up the controversy for dramatic effect; also, the romantic subplot involving Pasteur's daughter and research assistant seems to be made up. Compared to many other biopics, however, this is fairly mild. It also doesn't mention the work that led to Pasteur's name becoming an eponym for treating milk to remove micro-organisms. But Paul Muni is just so darn entertaining as the daring scientist that he makes the movie more than worth watching.

The Story of Louis Pasteur seems to be out-of-print on DVD, since it's not available from the TCM shop.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

All the King's Men

TCM is running All the King's Men tonight at 10:00 PM. Apparently I haven't blogged about it before, and apparently the DVD is out of print. So now would probably be a good time to blog about it.

All the King's Men is one of those movies whose stories is probably already reasonably well-known, in part becasue of the movie's critical acclaim having won all those Oscars, and in part because it's loosely based on real events. Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a small-town man running a quixotic campaign for Country Treasurer in one of his state's more out of the way regions. His campaign theme is that everybody else is corrupt, and that if only you'll elect a man like him who's never held power before, he can help fight that corruption. It's such a novel idea that the state's big-city newspaper sends out reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) to do a story on the campaign. Needless to say, the campaign is ultimately unsuccessful, but it gives Stark a taste for civic-mindedness.

That taste is stoked when there's an accident at the local school. A fire escape collapses, killing several children, and it's discovered that the escape was built shoddily, on a contract given out through nepotism. Now perhaps the people are going to stand up and take notice about a guy going on about corruption, even though the folks in power have a strong, well-oiled machine to keep them in power. In fact, they want Stark to run for Governor: there's another reform candidate besides Stark on the ballot, and having two reform-minded candidates will dilute their strength in a first-past-the-post system and allow the machine to maintain its stranglehold. But the political machine is only as strong as its weakest link, which here is Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge), a political operative the machine sent to keep an eye on Stark. She tells him the truth, and that enrages Stark.

Stark may have lost this round, but he decides that he's going to do whatever it takes to get elected the next time around. He's succesful, at least in the sense that he wins election. But he's got people who backed him and now has to repay, which ultimately means that he too is going to succumb to the lust for power. Stark's is just a different form of corruption than what the machine was inflicting upon the people of the state. Worse, Stark has become a prick in his personal life too. Although Stark is married, he takes up with Sadie, and then with Jack's wife Anne (Joanne Dru). Anne's father, meanwhile, is a prominent judge, and when the judge won't do Stark's bidding, Willie is perfectly willing to have dirt dug up on him. Obviously, the Production Code can't let Willie Stark get away with all this....

All the King's Men is inspired by, if not quite based on, the career of Louisiana politician Huey Long, who ran a populist campaign, won election to the governor's mansion, and then became too corrupt for his own good. Broderick Crawford is a good choice to play Willie Stark. As in a lot of his movies, he's blustery, but the sort of person you feel you could prick with a pin and deflate. It's the sort of bravado that I think a neophyte would have to have to take on a poliitcal machine: if you look weak, nobody's going to vote for you, sad to say. Crawford is ably assisted by the cast of supporting actors; McCambridge won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role.

The atmosphere portrayed here is also excellent. When I blogged about The Firemen's Ball, I commented that even though it's set in Communist Czechoslovakia, the stuff being shown on screen could be pretty much any small town. The same holds in All the King's Men, I think. The scenes, and the fact that the story was inspired by Huey Long, suggest that the movie is set somewhere in the south, but it could just as easily have been the northeast (The Last Hurrah) or out west (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

If the movie has any weakness it's that this is another one of those movies where the story is a bit obvious. Willie Stark goes almost from one extreme to the other; there's no middle ground here. But this is a minor weakness, as it's one I didn't really think about the first time I watched the movie, but only afterwards.

Friday, February 7, 2014

That sporting event in Russia

I first started bloging in 2008, which was a year in which the Summer Olympics were held, so I did a couple of movies on the them back then. The Winter Olympics being held two years apart from the summer games wouldn't be held until 2010, and looking at the list of posts from February 2010, it looks as though I never wrote any posts using the Winter Olympics as a hook.

Thinking about it, though, I don't think there are quite as many movies out there dealing with the Winter Olympics as there are with the Summer Olympics. The Summer Olympics are bigger in terms of the number of athletes and number of sports, and because there's a good portion of the country that doesn't have much of a winter, that part of the country probably wouldn't have cared about the Winter Olympics, especially back in an era when there wasn't anywhere near as much artificial refrigeration to have ice rinks all over the country.

From the "based on real events" files, there's certainly Cool Runnings, the story of the Jamaican bobsled team. I would have guessed that they started with Jamaicans living abroad in more northerly climes, but the official story is that the team actually was founded in Jamaica. One of their members was succesful enough that he eventually took Canadian citizenship (having fallen in love with a Canadian) and won a silver medal representing Canada.

Even more recently is Miracle, the movie that lets us Americans bask in one of our moments of glory at the Winter Olympics, beating the mighty Soviets at ice hockey at Lake Placid in 1980, in the days before professional athletes were offically allowed to compete. Of course, the actual gold medal game still had to be played against Finland, but everybody remembers beating the Soviets -- or at least everybody claims to. The game was only shown tape-delayed on TV since wall-to-wall live coverage of the Olympics woulnd't come until later, and even now here in the US, events that bring in the women advertisers crave are being held for prime time airing on broadcast TV. That's one of the reasons I don't care too much about the Olympics.

Another reason is that I don't care too much about figure skating, the event that gets the big prime-time coverage. When it comes to figure skating and Hollywood, though, one need only say "Sonja Henie". Henie won three Olympic gold medals in figure skating. Her first Hollywood film, One in a Million, actually has her training for the Olympics as a plot point, although she's in Switzerland and not her native Norway. Unfortunately, the movie also has the Ritz Brothers, whom I find terribly unfunny.

Robert Redford trains for the Winter Olympics as a Downhill Racer, with Gene Hackman as his coach, but I don't think I've actually seen this movie before. I'm sure Redford, the scenery, and female lead Camilla Sparv all look lovely doing what they do on screen. This as opposed to the East German biathlete who chases a wheezy fifty-something Roger Moore through the Italian Alps in For Your Eyes Only. That one's even got a young figure skater with the hots for Bond. Even though the movie is probably the best of the Moore Bonds, there's something creepy about that.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Did anybody catch Jeopardy! last night?

No, not the Barbara Stanwyck movie, but the quiz show. They've been running the first week of a Battle of the Decades tournament which will ultimately see five contestants from each of the show's first three decades going for a cool million in May. This week has been the preliminaries with a bunch of contestants from the first ten years, and the show has been having a lot of "vintage" categories, as opposed to more current populat culture.

Anyhow, last night's Double Jeopardy! round included a "Cinema of My Youth" category, which was apparently referring to Alex's youth, since the movies were all from the 1940s and 1950s. The contestants got the first three clues with no problem, but understandably had some difficulty with the last two. I'm paraphrasing since I didn't copy the clues, but they were roughly:

$400: Elia Kazan got the idea for this 1954 movie after reading an article on corruptino among dockworkers
$800: When William Holden accepted the Best Actor Oscar for this POW movie, all he said was a terse "Thank You"
$1200: Steve McQueen's first starring role was in this movie about a gelatinous invader from outer space
$1600: [This was a video clue, with a letterboxed clip of a woman with long red hair in an old-timey house, wearing an apron and frosting a cake] The woman seen here was used by John Ford in several of his movies
$2000: [This was a Daily Double] Leopoldine Konstantin says, "We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity" to Claude Rains in this Hitchcock classic

I can't blame the contestants for not remembering Maureen O'Hara on the $1600 clue; after all, I blog about old movies and it took me an extra second or two to get it. And as for the Daily Double, when there's only one person who can guess on a clue, sometimes they just don't know it. There's nothing particularly plot-related about that clue that can allow anybody to figure out which Hitchcock movie is being discussed; it's more a question of whether or not you know which Hitchcock movie had Claude Rains in the cast. It's like asking which one had Kim Novak in the cast, although perhaps not quite as easy. Or Henry Fonda, or Shirley MacLaine.

And did anybody record last night's episode? I'm sure the closing credits mention which movie the clip was from, but it's driving me nuts. I'd guess Spencer's Mountain, but I'd also think they would have looked for a John Ford movie for the clue since it referenced him.

Amusingly, watching too much TCM helped with a non-movie question on Tuesday. There was a category in whcih they gave an event and wanted the decade in which that even occured. The last one was, "Leonardo Da Vinci" painted the 'Last Supper'". I immediately thought of the TCM piece on letterboxing, which has a shot of the "Last Supper" captioned with the year, the name of the paining, and the artist's name. Do you really care whether you get all twelve disciples, or just six? Either way, you still get Jesus.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The women of "The Best Years of Our Lives"

There's a big snowstorm heading for the Catskills which will probably disrupt my Internet access all day today, so I've had to come up with a post early. With yet another airing of The Best Years of Our Lives on tonight at 8:00 PM as TCM honors all of the Best Supporting Actor nominees from 1946, I figured I'd look at the movie again from another angle, this being a movie that stands up to so many repeated viewings. When I blogged about the movie for it airing exactly six years ago, I did a piece contrasting Fredric March's character, Al Stephenson, and the struggles his character faces, with the much greater struggles faced by Dana Andrews' character, Fred Derry. This time I'll spend some time looking at the women in the movie.

Virginia Mayo as Marie Derry I think the easiest of the major female characters. Marie Derry, played by Virigina Mayo, is ultimately a good-time girl who married Fred because he was just so handsome in his uniform, a theme which shows up quite a bit in World War II era movies without really exploring the consequences of what's going to happen to these people after the war. (Judy Garland and Robert Walker in The Clock, I'm talking to you.) Marie Derry probably would have been living it up more or less on the combined payment from her work at the nightclub, and the allotment check she would have received from the military department. After all, it's made quite clear at the beginning of the film that she's earning more than enough to move from the wrong side of the tracks where Fred grew up and where his parents still live, to what looks like a reasonably nice apartment in the center of town. Her character wants to keep living the high life, and when Fred can't or won't provide it, she's perfectly willing to divorce him in favor of somebody who can. And to be fair, since theirs was a quick marriage, it's really for the best for both of them that the two divorce. No offense to Virginia Mayo, but her character is written a bit too one-dimensionally. We're supposed to have sympathy for all Fred went through, and one of the ways to engender that sympathy is to make the wife he comes home to seem like even more of a jerk.

Myrna Loy (second from left) at Milly Stephenson Milly Stephenson was married for years to banker husband Al before World War II came and he went off to fight -- married long enough that by the time he comes home, he's got an elder daughter who's at least in her early 20s even if her exact age isn't given. I stated when I blogged six years ago that I thought Fredric March had the easier character to play than Dana Andrews, something by which I'll still stand. Milly might be tougher to play than Marie Derry, but only because the character isn't as one-dimensional. If the screenplay of The Best Years of Our Lives had wanted to focus on Fred and Marie wanting to make their marriage work, the Marie character would probably be much more complex, on the level of Judy Holliday's character in The Marrying Kind. Still, Milly is a character that has two roles. First and foremost is as the wife to Al. They've been through most of it all, falling in love, having times where they would have thought the marriage was on the rocks, and coming out on the other side with a deep abiding friendship and love. Even though the war changed Al Stephenson, it looks as though he's going to have less of an adjustment than Fred Derry, and a long-term wife to make it all the easier. Milly, though, has a second role, as housewife (which we see at the beginning when she points out that it's been the maid's night out since 1943), and mother, especially to a daughter Peggy (more on her later) with her own problems. This gives Milly a lot more to do, and it's unsurprising that her character is more of a glue to the movie than Marie Derry.

Teresa Wright as Peggy Stephenson Peggy, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is the adult daughter of the fairly well-to-do Al and Milly, and did her part for the war effort by becoming a nurse and ministering to sick soldiers. This again is something we see fairly early on. After the Stephensons have to take a drunken Fred Derry home with them, Fred has a nightmare obviously brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, although back then they didn't know what it was called. Peggy, however, knows the basics of how to deal with it, as she's obviously seen it before, as she tells Fred the next morning. She begins to fall in love with Fred, even though this is a serious problem since he's already married. Peggy is a bit naïve, as she thinks she's just going to be able to go in and save Fred from Marie, a notion of which her parents disabuse her. This even though Peggy is quite right about the state of Fred's marriage, and we viewers can quite clearly see that it would be in Fred's best interests to be with Peggy and not Marie. I can't really imagine the emotional difficulty this must mean for Peggy. After she and Fred see each other again in the movie's finale, viewers are left with a hopeful note, which is helped by the fact that having helped soldiers in the past as a nurse, Peggy might be able to deal with the setbacks that are going to come when they get married.

Cathy O'Donnell as Wilma Cameron Cathy O'Donnell isn't given the biggest role in The Best Years of Our Lives, and the challenges her character Wilma is going to face are presented in the movie as possibly not as big as those faced by any of the men, or even Peggy Stephenson when Dad forces Fred Derry to break off all contact with her. Wilma Cameron is the quintessential girl next door, who grew up with boy next door Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who is realistic because he was a real World War II veteran with no acting experience who lost both his hands in the war. Wilma's role is to serve as a rock for Homer; that is, somebody who will stand by him and constantly tell him that she loved him for something more than his hands, and so even though he no longer has any hands, she can still love him just as much. She doesn't get all that many scenes, although she gets one of the most important, when Homer invites her up to his bedroom at night to show her what his nightly routine is, how it leaves him completely dependent upon others, and asks whether she'd be willing to spend her whole life like this. Wilma of course says yes, and the movie implies that Wilma and Homer are going to live as a happy couple just like Al and Milly and even Fred and Peggy. But I can't help but think that in real life, Wilma would have had it the most difficult. Homer Parrish probably would have had some difficulty getting a truly good job. Fred's problems were mental, and you could see him advancing rapidly if he got into a field he liked. The disabled, however, have always had it tough, and being married to a man with no hands would have likely brought with it a whole range of practical problems. The movie shows to an extent what it's like for Homer; it doesn't really show what it's going to be like for the woman he marries.

One other woman who deserves mention is Gladys George, playing Fred Derry's mother Hortense. She's only in a couple of scenes, but one of them is a vitally important scene in which her husband Pat (Roman Bohnen) finds one of the letters of citation for all those ribbons Fred has on his chest. Hortense doesn't have much to say, but reacting is acting just as much as delivering lines.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

February 4, 2014 briefs

Tonight's prime time lineup on TCM looks at the movies nominated for Best Director in 1932-33. If you look at lists of Oscar winners in any standard reference source, you'll note that the first couple of years through 1932-33 are listed this way. A factoid that I'm 98% certain I gleaned from watching Robert Osborne on TCM somewhere along the way is that back then, the studios put out their movies in "seasons" that are roughly analogous to TV seasons today or a season on Broadway. The season crossed the calendar year boundary, so it apparetnly would have been logical for the Academy to award the statuettes based on the best films of the season rather than a calendar year. I'd guess it was 1934 that got the year and a half or so of movies crammed into one year of awards.

The other thing you'll notice is that tonight's prime time lineup only has three movies from 1933. That's because through 1934, there were only three nominees in some of the categories like directing and acting. Five nominees wouldn't happen until 1935, which I'd guess had something to do with the Academy's failure to nominate Bete Davis for Of Human Bondage and the write-in campaign for Davis. Apparently, the Acadmey also publicized who finished second and third in those years, at least from the information in the Academy's own awards database.

The half of the day that's still the Fox Movie Channel surprisingly still hasn't been given over to FX Movies, a change I've expected for at least a year and a half. Tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM is another airing of Hangover Square. They still don't have commercials, either, as I was flipping back and forth on Sunday between the lackluster Freckles and one of the sports channels, and Freckles was never interrupted for commercials. It was badly panned-and-scanned, however.

Late last week I was in a discussion someplace else about musicals and how Hollywood by the 60s was mostly bringing Broadway musicals to the big screen rather than having original musicals of its own. I was trying ot find the earliest such example, since this is a practice that I knew went back to the early days of the sound era in Hollywood. (It stands to reason that there were no musicals before the introduction of sound.) In doing a bit of research to try to find out whether 1929's Tanned Legs was originally a Broadway show, I found this article from October 1932 in Hobart Australia (the capital of Tasmania, the island just south of Australia proper) -- it took a good couple of years for some movies to make their way to Australia. Tanned Legs was apparently playing on a double bill at one of Hobart's picture palaces with RKO's Lovin' the Ladies. When I blogged about Lovin' the Ladies, I mentioned there was stuff worth seeing just for the dated kicks; I'd say the same thing about that vintage Australian newspaper.