Saturday, May 31, 2014

TCM Shorts report, May 31, 2014

I'm either not all that interested in the features on today's schedule (My Fair Lady), or have already done a full-length post on them already (Laura and Leave Her to Heaven), or haven't seen them (amazingly enough, Princess Tam Tam). So it's off to looking at what shorts are airing, and goodness knows there are quite a few of them.

Operation Dirty Dozen will be on at 8:13 AM tomorrow morning, or just after The Honey Pot (6:00 AM, 132 minutes). This one, as you might be able to guess, deals with the movie The Dirty Dozen, or to be a bit more accurate, with its star Lee Marvin, and what he does behind the scenes and away from the camera. In that regard it's much like the short All Eyes on Sharon Tate, which will be showing up overnight between Monday and Tuesday. There are scenes from Marvin and the rest of the cast working, and then scenes of him enjoying the London nightlife of the 60s as it was for celebrities like him. Somehow, I don't think the wotking class had it like this.

I could always recommend the Traveltalks shorts, and there are two more coming up in the next 30 hours or so. Voices of Venice, at 11:50 AM tomorrow, following Madness of the Heart (10:15 AM, 90 minutes), is apparently different in that it's got people other than James FitzPatrick doing the narration. I don't think I've seen it before, so I can't comment. The one that I can recommend is The Capital City, Washington DC, at 2:17 AM, following Born Yesterday (12:30 AM, 102 minutes plus an intro/outro). This one has FitzPatrick going around Washington showing us the sites. One interesting thing here has to do with the famous cherry trees, which were donated by Japan. This was still a year and change before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, so FitzPatrick of course has complimentary things to say about the Japanese, who donated the trees to Washington in 1909.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Karlheinz Böhm, 1928-2014

Karlheinz Böhm (r.) with Anna Massey in Peeping Tom (1960)

The death has been announced of Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm at his home after a long illness. Böhm was 86.

Deutsche Welle, being a German media outlet, unsurprisingly focusses on Böhm's German-language films, suggesting the he was most famous for playing Austrian Emperor Franz Josef opposite Romy Schneiders Sissi (a nickname for Elisabeth) in a series of movies in the 1950s. But those of us in the English-speaking world may remember him better for Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom, which has Böhm playing a cameraman with a dark secret.

In 1981, Böhm appeared on a German celebrity game show called Wetten dass, which basically has people doing stunts and celebrities wagering over whether the people can successfully do the stunt. Böhm wagered over whether a certain percentage of the home viewing audience would donate to famine relief in Ethiopia and Sudan, and that ultimately led to his founding the organization Menschen für Menschen (there's now a drop-down at the bottom which gives some info in English).

Is there a doctor in the house

I wasn't following the Mexican Spitfire series that closely, so I didn't realize that TCM apparently reached the end of it. But apparently they did, as the movie in the 10:30 AM tim slot this Saturday is Doctor in the House. Dirk Bogarde stars as Simon Sparrow, a medical student trying to balance medical school with having a life, as the movie mixes comedy and drama. The movie must have been popular, as it yielded four sequels. However, a look throuh the TCM June schedule indicates that they'll only be showing two of the sequels. That is, Dirk Bogarde will be showing up the next three Saturdays at 10:30 AM before they switch to the Topper movies.

I should also make a brief mention of the Warner Bros. sword-and-sandal epic Helen of Troy, which will be on tomorrow at 2:15 PM, which still doesn't seem to be available on DVD. This is another of those movies that I thought I had done a full-length post on, but still haven't. And I even mentioned that two years ago.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The MGM Parade

I haven't been paying attention to whether TCM's airings of the MGM Parade have been running in the order in which they originally aired on TV back in the mid 1950s, but the TCM schedule says MGM Parade Show #1 will be airing again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. Having watched it when it aired the other evening, I can't help but think of the show as just another example of why MGM as a studio was ultimately doomed.

George Murphy shows up at the beginning to present a bunch of props from the studio's movies of the past, as well as a mock-up of an MGM photo album/scrapbook, implying that they're going to be looking at the stars of the past. Cut to the famous scene of Judy Garland singing "You Made Me Love You" to a photo of Clark Gable. (Garland had already left MGM by this point, of course.) Already, we see that the studio is stodgy, although that had in many ways been one of the hallmarks of the studio under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer. Dory Schary tried to make a bunch of socially conscious movies, but they were mostly programmers designed to help bring in profit to defray the cost of those bigger-budget Cinemascope musicals. I think many of those musicals were sub-par and old fashioned, such as Hit the Deck which ran last night. Granted, I'm not a big fan of musicals, but a lot the non-Gene Kelly stuff that MGM was putting out in the 1950s tends to come across as stale and overblown to me. (I'm not a fan of Gigi, either, although it does look better than a lot of the other 50s musicals.)

It doesn't help, either, that the MGM Parade looks cheaply produced. It's not just that it's a clip show; those have ridiculously low production costs which is one of the reasons America's Funniest Videos has been able to last as long as it has. But the office George Murphy (and later Walter Pidgeon) presents the shows from looks like it belongs with one of the shorts from the shorts department. For some reason it just doesn't look as good as the office set Walter Pidgeon was in in The Bad and the Beautiful.

The MGM Parade was also a promotional device for upcoming MGM releases, and that gives it another air of cheapness, although to be fair this is something it shares in my view with every "we're hyping our upcoming product!" show, such as the fall prime-time lineup previews that networks sometimes have at the end of the summer. None of the shows really look like watching. I get the impression that with the advent of television, MGM didn't know how to respond. Color and widescreen were two things the studios used, since those were things you couldn't get on TV, but something seems to be missing from MGM's movies even more than the other studios'.

Still, the MGM Parade shows are an interesting look back at the past, and nostalgia would become big business as MGM learned when they produced That's Entertainment! in 1974. Perhaps 1974 being less happy times, with the Watergate scandal and a pretty lousy economy, more people were willing to look back wistfully. By 1974, however, the writing was on the wall for MGM, since they were selling off their backlot.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Briefs for May 28, 2014

I enjoyed the sit-down Robert Osborne had with Mother Dolores Hart last night, or at least the ones I saw, since I didn't stay up all night. I particularly enjoyed her comments about working with Elvis Presley. The point about his being unfailingly polite and referring to her as "Miss Dolores" reminded me of the piece on Elvis that Kurt Russell did for TCM, especially the portion about the conversation Elvis had with Russell's father about the way he wore his cowboy hat in the movies.

It appeared as though Lisa ran in its Cinemascope aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. A lot of the Cinemascope-era movies that Fox runs on FXM/FMC start off with the opening credits in Cinemascope, since the credits are blocked that if you tried to pan-and-scan them you'd miss a good portion of the credits. But the main part of the movies themselves often get cropped after the credits, increasingly to 16:9, as I saw with Guns at Batasi the other day. Some of the lesser-known B movies get chopped down to 4:3 still, and a few do keep the original aspect ratio.

Tonight is June Allyson's final night as TCM's Star of the Month for May. It starts off with a pair of remakes. First up will be the 1957 remake of My Man Godfrey, starring Allyson in the Carole Lombard role and David Niven in the William Powell role. That's followed at 9:45 PM by The Opposite Sex, which is a remake of The Women. It was only four months ago that I blogged about Music For Millions; that's airing at midnight.

And it looks as though TCM's website changed its favicon, the little image that you'll see next to the name of the page if you've got a bunch of browser tabs open. The old one was the profile of the gangster; now it's changed to the TCM in a rectangle logo. Or, at least, that's presumably what it's supposed to be; it's tough to tell since favicons are something like 16 pixels on a side. TCM's branding seems increasingly to have gone toward the TCM in a rectangle logo and away from the old-timey gangster profile, so I shouldn't be surprised.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

We who are about to die salute you

Fans of the work of Marlon Brando may enjoy one of his lesser-known movies, Morituri. It's coming up tomorrow at on FXM/FMC.

Marlon Brando stars as Robert Crain, a Swiss man living in British India in 1942, which is of course the middle of World War II. The only thing is, he's not really Swiss; his passport is a fake and he is in fact German, although he's definitely not a Nazi sympathizer or spy, having taken the Swiss passport in order to escape the Nazis. The British know this, and if they wanted it would be perfectly within their rights to have him arrested, and if there weren't a war on, deported. However, because of the war, the British have a better use for him. Crain was an engineer, and Col. Statter (Trevor Howard) informs Crain of a German ship about to leave Tokyo. That ship is going to be loaded with a supply of raw rubber, which the Nazis desperately need. So you'd think that the British want Crain to sabotage the ship so that it blows up or something. Oh no; the British could use that rubber too. And the British know that the Nazis have their ships booby-trapped with explosive charges so that in the case of an Allied attack, they can just scuttle it and make certain the Allies don't get their hands on the cargo. It's up to Crain to defuse the scuttling charges and make certain that the ship gets taken at the point along its journey where the Allies have planned an ambush. To get on that ship, Crain is to impersonate an SS officer.

And so Crain is put aboard the ship in Tokyo, the question of how he got from India to Tokyo not really answered. There, he boards the Ingo, captained by one Captain Müller (Yul Brynner). Müller's last ship command had problems, which makes him less than popular amongst the Nazis and reduced to captaining this decreptit bucket of bolts. That feeling is mutual; although Müller has no shame in being German, he's not particularly happy with what the Nazis have done to his country and worries about his son in the Navy. He also has good reason to think, due to that last command, that the SS agent is there expressly to spy on him. With all that baggage, the ship sets off on its voyage across the Pacific, having to go that way because can't go past the Allied colonies of India and the ones in Africa.

Several things complicate the mission. One is that they repaint the ship as Swedish, thinking some approaching boats might catch them. Much more complicated, however, is that the Ingo is intercepted by a German U-boat along the way. That U-Boat deposits several passengers: a couple of Nazi officers, who can check up on Crain's SS credentials; as well as some prisoners, who are eventually going to be headed for concentration camps. These include a woman named Esther (Janet Margolin), who doesn't trust anybody. The final complication is that the Ingo has to change cource, meaning that they won't wind up where the Allies are going to be waiting to capture the ship. Crain has to come up with some other way to handle his problems....

I've said before that I'm not the biggest fan of war movies, and I'm really not a fan of the work of Marlon Brando. In Morituri, however, he's not too bad, perhaps because he's playing something so far out in left field for him. (Well, I know he was also in The Young Lions.) But for me, Brando here felt a lot different than in many of his other movies that I've seen. Yul Brynner is also quite good. The plot I found a bit problematic, in that it felt like there were a few too many twists, and it ran a bit too long, at just over two hours. Overall, though, it's certainly not a bad movie. It did get a DVD release several years ago, but I'm not certain if it's still in pring.

TCM Guest Programmer May 2014: Dolores Hart

I haven't seen much in the way of promos on TCM, but they're finally getting to this month's Guest Programmer tonight: Dolores Hart. Dolores is the actress who famously gave up her glamorous movie career to become a Catholic nun, serving at a convent somewhere in Connecticut to this day; as you can see she's wearing the habit when she sat down with Robert Osborne to discuss four of her favorite mvoies. (I didn't think they had to wear the habit at all times any more, but I guess it depends on the order. She's well past the age where she could choose to retire.) Anyhow, the night kicks off with what I think is a TCM premiere: Lisa at 8:00 PM. Hart is slightly miscast as a Holocaust survivor trying to get to Israel, but she does a pretty good job in a movie that's good but not great. I'm really glad to see it showing up on TCM.

Hart's other three selections don't star her:

Laura, at 10:00 PM, has Dana Andrews investigating who killed Gene Tierney until there's a twist in the plot;
The Song of Bernadette (11:45 PM) romanticizes the story of Bernadette (Jennifer Jones), an adolescent French girl who believes she had a vision of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes; and
The Rose Tattoo overnight at 2:30 AM, with Anna Magnani winning an Oscar for playing a widow who develops a new outlook on life.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The possibly somewhat true in a few points story of Jesse James

Tomorrow morning at 11:20 AM, FXM/FMC is airing The True Story of Jesse James. I don't know how much truth there is to the movie, but it's certainly worth one viewing at least.

The movie starts off with the aftermath of the robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, which was the end of Jesse and Frank James' involvement with their cousins the Youngers (Alan Hale Jr. plays Cole Younger; Biff Elliot plays Jim Younger) as the Youngers were captured. This was in 1876, a full five and a half years before Jesse was killed by Robert Ford, although the movie makes it seem as though it was only a couple of weeks. Anyhow, the Youngers are basically under siege by the police, while the James broters (Jesse is played by Robert Wagner, while Frank James is played by Jeffrey Hunter) are futher ahead, hiding out in the mountain caves until night falls and they can make an escape. Meanwhile, back in Missouri is Jesse's wife Zee (Hope Lange) and mother (Agnes Moorehead). Mom starts thinking back....

Much of The True Story of Jesse James is told in a series of flashbacks, starting with the one by Jesse James' mother. She recalls how the family were farmers in southwest Missouri when the Civil War came. Frank went off to fight with Quantrill's Radiers who supported the Confederacy, while Jesse was too young. One day, though, Union officers were looking for a suspect and, thinking the Jameses were hiding that suspect, treated them quite rudely. Rudely enough that it would be understandably why Jesse, about 16 at the time, would want to go off and join his brother Frank with Quantrill himself. (This, indeed, is more or less the part of Jesse's life covered in Young Jesse James a few years later.) The predations of the Union army, combined with a surrender gone wrong, are posited to be the reasons why Jesse turned to a life of crime.

Next up is cousin Zee, who first meets Jesse after that failed surrender, when Jesse's been badly wounded. Zee is living with relatives on their farm, and they eventually take Jesse in on the proviso that Frank is going to work off their expenses in taking care of Jesse by doing farm labor. Zee and Jesse fall in love and get married, which is supposed to lead to Jesse living happily ever after. The Jameses and Youngers had committed some raids, presumably in order to get back some of the wealth they felt the Union army had destroyed. And there was still anti-Confederate sentiment that led to individual acts against those who had been with the Confederates. Or at least, that's the way things are portrayed in the movie. It's one of these acts that leads Jesse to plan a train robbery on the very night of his marriage!

The last of the flashbacks is given to Frank, and covers the later raids up to and including the bank robbery in Northfield nd why it went wrong. Jesse is depicted as becoming further embittered by the Pinkerton's destroying the family farm looking for him when he wasn't there at all. The Northfield robbery for its part goes wrong in part because a drinker in the gang doesn't cut the telegraph wires on time, allowing a posse to be formed looking for them, and in part because a Swedish immigrant farmer pesters the lookouts. Anyhow, Jesse survives the raid, eventually to return home to Zee in Missouri where he would be shot by Robert Ford.

The True Story of Jesse James is in many ways a pedestrian picture, using an overworked plot structure and making the standard excuses for why Jesse James turned out the way he did. I'd guess that Jesse liked the adrenaline rush from the raids, and at some point after having committed enough of them reached a position where he couldn't just stop and settle down as he'd still be caught, so the only way to support himself was to keep up a life of crime. Everything I've read suggests that this film is filled with historical inaccuracies big and small. This is all somewhat surprising, coming from a maverick director like Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar and On Dangerous Ground among others). And that's another thing making The True Story of Jesse James worth watching: seeing how Nicholas Ray could have gone wrong.

Amazon lists The True Story of Jesse James as being available on DVD, although it looks to be out of print.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

See America First is new to me

As I said yesterday, war movies are not one of my favorite genres. So when it comes to a Memorial Day marathon, I'm more likely to look out for the shorts on the TCM schedule. Some of them are certainly war-themed, such as Winning Your Wings, which I mentioned on Memorial Day weekend back in 2012. That's on at about 7:10 AM, or just after The Red Badge of Courage (6:00 AM, 69 min).

Airing just before The Red Badge of Courage is a short I don't think I'd heard of before called The Blue and the Gray, which comes on around 5:45 AM, or following The Dawn Patrol (4:00 AM, 103 min). This 1935 short looks at various sites that were important during the Civil War. The IMDb page for it says that an alternate title for it is See America First No. 7: The Blue and the Gray, apparently being part of a series of shorts called "See America First". It's a series that I don't think I've heard of before, and I'd be interested in seeing more of the shorts in the series show up on TCM. The one bad thing is that IMDb says the short is in black and white. This sounds like the sort of series that, like the Traveltalks shorts, cries out for color photography of the vintage locations. Wikipedia has a bit more information.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Queen Victoria, 1819-1901

Today marks the birth anniversary of Britain's Queen Victoria, who sat on the throne from 1837 to 1901, the longest reign in British history unless Queen Elizabeth lives about another two and a half years; I'd have to look up the exact dates. But this isn't a post about Biriths history, what with it being a film blog. Instead, we're going to focus on Victoria and film.

1901 was just after movies started to be exhibited commercially, and one of the earliest uses of film was as documentary, making short subjects out of big events of the day. Queen Victoria appears in a couple dozen such shorts in the last five or so years of her life. Some of those shorts survive, such as the following from the British Film Archive:

There's a John Nesbitt Passing Parade short called The Film That Was Lost that deals with these earliest films documenting historical figures, and the attempts by preservationists at places like the Museum of Modern Art to keep such films from being lost forever which shows a snippet of Victoria as well as several other historical figures from the turn of the last century.

Queen Victoria also unsurprisingly shows up as a character in a lot of movies. There have been several movies specifically about Victoria, going back at least to the British Victoria the Great, a completely unknown film to me starring Anna Neagle as the Queen and Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert. Perhaps the most famous of these films might be Mrs. Brown from the late 1990s, which earned Judi Dench an Oscar nomination for playing Victoria.

I think it might be more common to have movies with Queen Victoria as a smaller part, mostly to set part of the movie in a certain time and social status: if you get to meet the Queen, you must have done something big. One very curious example of this is Evelyn Beresford playing the Queen in both Buffalo Bill, made at Fox in 1944, and Annie Get Your Gun, made six years later at MGM and focusing more on the second half of Bill Cody's life (the entertainer part) than the first picture does. Beryl Mercer also played Queen Victoria twice, although both of those were at Fox in 1939, in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and The Little Princess.

What's your favorite Queen Victoria movie?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Steel Helmet

Memorial Day weekend is almost here, and with that means TCM's annual marathon of war movies. One that I've never recommended before is Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet, which you can catch Saturday afternoon at 1:45 PM.

Gene Evans plays Sgt. Zack, whom we see at the beginning of the movie among a bunch of dead bodies, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Korea. All these dead people had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans and summarily shot, but Zack didn't die because his helmet miraculously deflected the bullet in just the right way. Zack is discovered by a young boy scavenging the bodies for whatever he can find, until the boy realizes that Zack is in fact still alive. Zack calls the boy "Short Round", and Short Round, having lost his parents, wants to go with Zack, something Zack doesn't want. Short Round, however, knows the territory better than any of the Americans, so it might not be such a bad thing to have a guide, even if it is a juvenile guide.

Eventually, Sgt. Zack and Short Round run into a larger group of straggler American troops, led by one Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Driscoll's ragtag band includes black corporal Thompson (James Edwards), who is also the medic; Japanese-American Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), and conscientious objector Bronte, among others. Driscoll doesn't really get along well with Zack, but since Driscoll outranks Zack, Driscoll insists that they complete their mission, which is to find a local Buddhist temple where they're supposed to set up an observation post.

The group gets to the temple eventually, and makes certain that there's no North Koreans hiding out at the temple. Having done a thorough search and not finding any enemy soldiers, the Americans set up camp. But apparently, they weren't thorough enough, as there is one North Korean officer in the temple, who manages to kill one of the Americans and destroy the radio equipment before they capture him. They'd like to keep him alive, since he would prove a valuable intelligence tool, but he proceeds to sow dissension among the ranks, much like Eric Portman's Hirth tries to do in 49th Parallel. The fact that there's a black man here, and a Japanese man who saw his parents sent off to internment camps just a decade earlier, gives our North Korean quite a bit of ammunition. But that's the half of the Americans' problems. What they don't realize is that they're about to be set upon by a ridiculously large North Korean force....

The Steel Helmet is a low-budget film, with a story line that's not complex at all, and relatively few sets. I tend not to be a big fan of war movies, but The Steel Helmet is a very well-made movie. It's grim, as war really is, although not unrelentingly; there's some comic relief involving a character who wishes he weren't bald. It also presents the Americans as less than heroic, or more accurately, having human failures and doing terrible things in the face of extreme emotion. It's human nature, but suggesting American soldiers could be anything less than heroic is still controversial in a segment of our society. I can only imagine what it would have been like back in 1951. Ultimately, it gives The Steel Helmet the effet of being a more honest movie, although I have no idea how truly accurate any war movie can really be.

My first blogathon, part 2

N: The Nasty Girl. The girl, of course, doesn't turn out to be as nasty as you might guess from the title. Instead, this German film is based on the true story of a young woman who, for a school project, did a report on her town's history during the Third Reich, and found out things that the town fathers would rather have left undisturbed.

O: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mom's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. Another movie I haven't seen. I think I first came across this title when I was looking up the films of Rosalind Russell. The plot synopsis of the movie makes it sound lousy, but the title sure is interesting.

P: Putting Pants on Philip. Go ahead and say I cheated a bit by using a short. This is a silent Laurel and Hardy short in which Ollie tries to put pants on his Scottish nephew Stan. Not much else happens.

Q: Queen of Outer Space. Zsa Zsa Gabor saves the men of Earth from the evil women of Venus! I'll admit I picked this one in part because it a more fun (if not very good) movie than the title implies.

R: Romance of Radium. Yes, I used another short. Boy meets isotope, boy falls in love with isotope in this Pete Smith short that's decidedly non-comedic, instead dealing with the possibility of using radioactive isotopes in medicine, something that would have been a new phenomenon in 1937 when the film was made.

S: Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise. Greta Garbo in the only movie she made with Clark Gable. It's typical pre-Code nonsense in the sense that the plot defies belief and the motives of some of the characters may make you scratch your head, but it's still enjoyable enough just because when the pre-Codes did this stuff, it was fun.

T: Throw Momma From the Train. Another of the great titles of all time, regardless of letter. This comic homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train has Billy Crystal having problems with his girlfriend, and Danny DeVito having problems with his overbearing mother (Anne Ramsey). And when you meet her, you too just might want to throw her from the train!

U: Under the Yum Yum Tree. Jack Lemmon is mildly creepy as he pursues a couple of college girls in what is supposed to be a comedy. It's one I could never really get into.

V: Violent Saturday. This is a title that sounds like it should deliver a powerful punch. It doesn't quite live up to the title, although Lee Marvin is fun again as a sociopath. What it does deliver is a guilty pleasure full of mediocre material delivered with panache. And Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer.

W: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter. W starts a bunch of question words in English, so there should be any number of interesting titles that begin with a questoin word. Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe would be another, but I haven't seen that one and could link to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, which also has the benefit of having a real person's name in the title, although it's not about him. Although, to be honest, I'm not quite a fan of the movies Rock Hunter did with Doris Day.

X: Xanadu. There aren't too many movies whose titles begin with the letter X, but the thought of Gene Kelly on roller skates trumps everything else.

Y: You Can't Win. The title might make you guess that this is a Crime Does Not Pay short about rigged games of chance. It is a short, but it's another Pete Smith short, with Dave O'Brien, who showed up later in the series, having everything go wrong to him on his day off work.

Z: Zombies on Broadway. The title of this movie might be mildly misleading in that you might think it's about a zombie attack on Broadway. Instead, the plot involves a couple of men who are sent down to the Caribbean to get some of those zombies for a Broadway producer's show. It's a dopey comedy; not terrible, but decidedly B mateiral.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What makes a movie memorable?

There are movies that I haven't seen for years, but because of their quality or originality are highly memorable. Then there are B movies that all run together, with the feeling that you've seen one before when you haven't, or the realization only halfway through that this is one you've already seen. And then there are the movies that probably ought to be relatively fresh from having seen not too long ago, but aren't. An example for me of this last category is The Crooked Way, which is showing up tomorrow afternoon at 3:45 PM on TCM.

TCM is running The Crooked Way as part of a several film salute to John Payne, whose birthday is coming up next week. Here, he plays Eddie Rice, whom we first see at an Army hospital up in San Francisco. He's healed enough from his physical wounds that he can go back to living life, except for one problem. He got amnesia in the service, and doesn't know what he did in his life before the service. Still, the Army sends him back to Los Angeles, presumably because that's where he enlisted -- certainly the Army has a service record on him. Besides, if he goes back there there's a better chance that people from his pre-war life will see him and know who he is. They're right, of course, but not in the way they intended.

Rice goes back to Los Angeles, and when he gets out at the train station, he's met by a pair of men looking to take him for a ride. They take him to the police station, as they're cops, and apparently believe they've got an Eddie Riccardi, who before the war was part of a criminal gang. Perhaps he can lead them to the other people in that gang. Not that Eddie as he now is would recognize them. He quickly gets picked up by a woman who seems to know him, but all she does is call up some guy named Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts), and tells him that she knows where Riccardi is. Sonny has some guys pay Eddie a visit, and they beat him up. Nice welcome.

The reason why Vince wanted to see Eddie, and why he had Eddie beaten up, is that the two were involved in a deal gone bad before the war. Eddie was culpable in that deal, but left town by joining the Army, which left Vince in the lurch. Vince wants Eddie out of Los Angeles. At least now Eddie has some leads. But it's going to get worse for him. When he goes to meet the woman who turned him in to Vince, now a nightclub singer named Nina (Ellen Drew), he finds that she used to be his wife! But she divorced him, and is working for Vince, who has turned into one of the meaner gangsters in the area.

It goes on like this, unfortunately not too memorably. Eddie eventually gets the chance to redeem himself, and perhaps Nina, who when we first see her hates Eddie, might have a change of heart towards him. I think part of the problem with The Crooked Way might be that it reminds me of Somewhere in the Night, which came out a few years earlier. It wasn't terrible, but obviously it wasn't great or I'd have a better memory of it. Still, noir fans will probably enjoy it, especially since John Payne would go on to make some really entertaining noirs, notably Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. As far as I can tell, The Crooked Way doesn't seem to be available on DVD.

My first blogathon, part 1

A couple of weeks back, one of the blogs in my blogroll had a post with her entry in the blogathon Favorite Movie Titles Blogathon. Normally, I end up not taking part in blogathons, not because of any antisocial tendencies, but because I find out about them too late, or don't have anything new to blog about that would fit the theme of the blogathon. I could revisit an old movie, but I get the impression that kind of misses the point of a blogathon. But this one was different. The theme is, for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, come up with the best movie title you can think of beginning with that letter. Not the best movie, but the best title. That sounded like a lot of fun, but it was also kind of difficult. A couple of letters offered so many possibilities, while others stumped me. Due to the length of the post, I'm breaking it up into two parts, with letters A-M today, and letters N-Z tomorrow.

A: Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men. A fun little pre-Code, with a title that sounds part mysterious, and part racy.

B: Bop Girl Goes Calypso. Terrible, on oh so many levels. But it's the sort of terrible that's so terrible you'll wind up laughing at just how awful it it. A college professor uses a device that looks like an applause meter to determine that the latest music craze, bop, os on the way out, and that it will be replaced by the new craze, calypso. Yeah, calypso really was a thing back in the late 1950s for a year or so. Add bad musical numbers and some mildly creepy characters, and you've got yourself a disaster.

C: Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?. This is one that I'll admit I've never seen before. I don't remember when I first came across the title, but it's a title that's always stuck in my mind for being so bizarre. Another one of these will be coming up later. If I had to limit it to movies I've seen, I think The Creature With the Atom Brain might be my choice.

D: Die! Die! My Darling!. Perhaps I shouldn't have included this one, since the original title was, I believe, Fanatic, having been changed for US audiences. But the US title is great, and this is one of the movies that I really like. Tallulah Bankhead as a Jesus freak, punishing one-time daughter-in-law to be because.... Well, that part would give a key plot point away.

E: >Elevator to the Gallows. E was a letter I had some difficulty coming up with a good selection for. There are probably better choices, but Elevator to the Gallows is an intriguing title, and a pretty darn good movie to boot.

F: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. Exclamation points seem to have something to do with good titles, although I think this is the last of the two that have multiple exclamation points. It's not the world's greatest movie, but boy is it a lot of fun.

G: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. There are probably a bunch of movies whose titles start with "The Girl...", making G another difficult letter. The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing probably isn't the best title by far, but it was the best I could think of offand, being intriguing like Elevator to the Gallows.

H: Hips, Hips, Hooray. Sounds like a racy title, doesn't it? But it'w a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy. That's not to say anything bad about Wheeler and Woolsey, although I know there are going to be people who don't always go for that brand of humor. It's just to say you're not getting anything as racy as the title.

I: I Married a Monster From Outer Space. I was an extremely difficult letter to pick a movie for, mostly because there are so many good choices from movies beginning with the pronoun I. One could probably go a month doing only posts on movies beginning with the pronoun I, and not run out of fun titles. If I had been forced to pick something beginning with a word other than I, I think I might have gone for It's Trad, Dad.

J: Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President. This is another movie that I have to admit to not having seen before. I first came across the title when I was looking up the movies of Marsha Hunt (still alive at 96 according to IMDb) after seeing Kid Glove Killer. This title quite obviously stuck out, and I've been waiting for TCM to show this MGM B-movie ever since. I think that's coming up on eight or nine years now.

K: Knife in the Water. Another letter I had difficulty coming up with a title for. There's not much to say.

L: Ladies They Talk About. As with Hips, Hips, Hooray, this is a title that sounds vaguely scandalous or racy. Ladies They Talk About does turn out to be more interesting in that sense than Hips, Hips, Hooray.

M: Mississippi Mermaid. M was another letter I had trouble coming up with a good title for, and after quite a bit of thought settled on Mississippi Mermaid, since it sounds intriguing. There's no actual mermaid here, unlike Miranda, and "Mississippi" refers to a ship. The basic story of this François Truffaut movie is a man on Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean that's an Overseas Department of France, gets a mail-order bride, only to find out she's not all he thought he was getting. In fact, she's quite the femme fatale.

Coming up tomorrow, letters N-Z.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Little Murders

A few weeks ago on FXM/FMC, I had the chance to see Little Murders for the first time. It's showing up again twice: this afternoon at 1:00 PM, and early tomorrow morning (or overnight tonight, depending on your time zone and point of view) at 3:00 AM.

Marcia Rudd plays Patsy Newquist, a woman basically trying to survive life in the New York City of 1971, the era just before Gerald Ford told the city to "drop dead" and the city was, well, a mess. Crime was high and the quality of life not so high, and that certainly holds true for Patsy. She lives in an apartment where she's repeatedly robbed; she's got somebody making prank phone calls of a sexual nature; and she can't sleep because in the courtyard below the bedroom window she can hear a mugging going on. And when she tries to do something about the mugging, she winds up getting pushed around herself, all with the guy who was originally being mugged not seeming to give a damn about what's happening to her, or what just happened to himself.

So Patsy goes running after the original mugging victim to complain to him -- I tried to help you, she reasons; the least you could have done is tried to help me once the muggers started to attack me. The man, Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould), is having none of it. After all, he didn't ask for Patsy to help, and besides, he's come to the conclusion that the least bad way to deal with the crime and other problems in New York is simply to have no feelings. It's certainly a different way of dealing with things, and this being a movie, Patsy is so intrigued by who no longer has any feelings that she falls in love with him.

Patsy's family, on the other hand, isn't so certain that Alfred is right for her, a view colored in part by the fact that she has apparently brought a series of men over to meet them and they've all wound up duds. Dad (Vincent Gardenia) is all bluster and trying to "fix" things by bribing people; Mom (Elizabeth Wilson) bickers with Dad while mourning the murder of her eldest son; and younger son Kenny (Jon Korkes) is a basket case. Still, Patsy is determined to make the relationship work, and she and Alfred get married in an irreligious service officiated by Donald Sutherland, a scene that is the highlight of the movie. Let's just say it's not the sort of wedding Elizabeth Taylor's character in Father of the Bride planned on having.

The plot synopsis on the bos guide reads, "A pushy woman marries a listless man in a grim New York that gets grimmer." Yes, there's something gimmer to come, which kicks off the third act, just as Patsy is about to get Alfred to have a feeling. It works, although not in the way Patsy intended. It also brings Alfred closer to the rest of the Norquists, although not in the way any of them intended, either.

Little Murders is an interesting idea, although one that I find a bit marred by its tone. As I was watching the movie, I felt myself a bit turned off by a sense that everybody was shrill and grating, with the possible exception of Elliott Gould, since his character is supposed to be a listless almost slacker type. He was good, and Donald Sutherland was a hoot as the preacher, but when it came to the Norquists, I wanted to reach through the screen and shake some sense into them. Perhaps it's that I was expecting something along the lines of a Paddy Chayefsky dark comedy such as The Hospital, or something different with a softer tone like Hal Ashby's The Landlord. That's not what you're going to get with Little Murders.

Amazon lists a DVD of Little Murders being available, but it's clearly out of print, since the prices are outrageous.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Technicolour Veteran -- Bernard Coombs

I've stated several times before that I listen to various international broadcasters. This morning, the following story came up in my RSS feed from Radio New Zealand:

The Technicolour Veteran -- Bernard Coombs

It's hard to articulate just what an impact technicolour had on cinema audiences when it was first introduced in the 1930s and 40s. Technicolour was the process of colouring motion picture negative from black and white into colour and it was celebrated for its saturated levels of colour - giving films such as 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone with the Wind' their characteristic style. One man who knows all too well about the magic of technicolour is Bernard Coombs of Wanganui, the 96-year-old started work at the Technicolour Motion Picture Company when he left school and apart from a six-year hiatus during the Second World War - he worked with the company all his life.

One thing that's mildly humorous is Radio New Zealand's repeated misspelling of Technicolor, by putting the British English U in it. Technicolor was (and still is) a company name, so the ending showld be "-color", without the U. Indeed, if you watch British movies from the late 1930s and the 1940s that were filmed in color, they'll have a credit somewhere in the opening credits that says "Colour [with the British U] by Technicolor [without the British U]". There's also a credit for Natalie Kalmus as consultant; this is something she got on every Technicolor movie, regardless of how much consulting she did. I can't believe she did much consulting in the UK during World War II. It's nice to be married to the founder of the company, though.

I have to admit that I haven't listened to the interview yet, so I can't commment on the interview itself. There's also no transcript available, so you'll have to download the audio file. The MP3 file is about 4.5 MB and 12:30 in length; the direct link is here.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Gordon Willis, 1931-2014

The death has been announced of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose career included groundbreaking work on the Godfather movies. He was a week and a half shy of his 83d birthday. Willis also handled the cinematography on several Woody Allen films, including Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Zelig, as well as the 1974 conspiracy film The Parallax View.

I have to admit that cinematography isn't an area I'd consider myself particularly knowledgeable in, only really noticing whether a movie is nice to look at or not. Some of that may have to do with the scenery -- especially in location shots -- naturally making some movies look good; other times set design can make a movie naturally look good. How much a cinematographer should get credit when a shot comes out right, or how much of the blame he should get when the shots look bad, is something I don't know that I'm competent to judge. But the people who do know say that Willis was a master. I'll admit that I never noticed anything special about the cinematography in The Parallax View or the Woody Allen movies, although certainly The Godfather does have a distinctive look. Perhaps some of Willis' non-Godfather work deserves another viewing, even if they're not particular favorite films of mine.


Robert Osborne has been sitting down with several Hollywood veterans over the past month or so: we've had Shirley Jones presenting a night of her movies, as well as Robert Wagner and Mitzi Gaynor. Next up is director/producer Mel Brooks, who will be on TCM for the next two nights to discuss six of the movies produced by Brooksfilms, the production company he created.

Brooksfilms was created in part to make The Elephant Man, which Brooks was producing, but was not involved with directing or acting. Since Brooks was primarily known for comedy, and especially the parodies he did, he didn't want his name that prominently displayed for a serious drama such as The Elephant Man, or everybody might think it was a comedy. The next two nights will show a relatively broad range of the movies Brooksfilims produced, which includes a comedy in which he stars.

Tonight kicks off at 8:00 PM with Fatso, directed by his wife Anne Bancroft. Dom Deluise plays a fat man who loves food. But when a cousin of his and sister Anne Bancroft dies, she begins to fear her brother is going to eat himself into an early grave, too. But it's only the possibility of love that gets Deluise to think about finally trying to drop those pounds.

At 10:00 PM is 84 Charing Cross Road in which Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins become pen-friends across the Atlantic Ocean.

Then at midnight is the body-snatching horror film The Doctor and the Devils.

Prime time tomorrow kicks off at 8:00 PM with the aforementioned The Elephant Man, based on the story of the disfigured Victorian-era man Joseph Merrick (named changed to John for the movie), who wound up as a freak show exhibit.

Second on Tuesday is My Favorite Year at 10:15 PM, in which Peter O'Toole plays an actor known for his drinking and escapades, who has to be kept sober for a TV appearance.

Finally at midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday is the Mel Brooks version of To Be or Not to Be, which I don't like nearly as much as the Carole Lombard/Jack Benny version.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Briefs for May 18, 2014

So I wrote just two days ago how the first half of the final in the Jeopardy! 30th anniversary tournament has a movie category followed by an Oscars category for Final Jeopardy. Who knew that in the second day of the final, they were going to have a category on Oscar-winning songs? And no, I didn't know all five -- I'm not as good on recent movies as I probably should be.

TCM is showing Gentleman's Agreement tonight at 8:00 PM as part of a two-film salute to Elia Kazan's socially conscious pictures at Fox under the production of Darryl F. Zanuck; the other one is Pinky at 10:15 PM. I've mentioned Gentleman's Agreement a couple of times, although it looks as though none of them are actually full-length posts on the movie. Celeste Holm won an Oscar in an OK part; John Garfield is excellent as always; Gregory Peck is pretty good. I think this is a TCM premiere for Gentleman's Agreement.

For those who like the Crime Does Not Pay shorts that MGM did in the 1930s and 1940s, TCM is showing another one overnight: Money to Loan, a little after 3:50 AM, or just after My Life As a Dog (2:00 AM, 101 minutes). I don't know that I've seen this short before, although as you can guess the short deals shady loan providers.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jean Gabin, 1904-1976

Today marks the birth anniversary of French actor Jean Gabin. I've recommended a couple of his movies before, the more notable one being 1942's Moontide, which he made at Fox in 1942. Actually, his most memorable movie might be Grand Illusion, but I haven't done a full-length post on it before. There's also The Sicilian Clan, which is an enjoyable movie if not quite as good as Moontide.

Of course, Gabin spent much of his career in France, so I don't know a lot of his films. Gabin did, however, make any number of films that are recognizable for having been remade in English, or because they're just so good. Gabin was part of Summer Under the Stars in 2011, and I mentioned a couple of those movies then, such as one of the earliest noirs, Le jour se lève and Pépé le Moko. One that I didn't mention then since I hadn't seen the English-langauge remake was La bête humaine, which Fritz Lang did in the 1950s as Human Desire.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Really smart people and the movies

I've mentioned several times in the past that I'm a fan of the quiz show Jeopardy!. For the past two weeks, they've been running the "Battle of the Decades", in honor of 30 years of the synidcated version which began in September 1984. They're down to the final three people, with the first half of the final airing yesterday, and the second half tonight (or afternoon in many parts of the midwest; check local listings).

Anyhow, I mention this because there were two interesting movie categories on last night's episode, with material that's a bit more difficult than normal. In the "Jeopardy!" round, there was a category on "Documentaries", with the following five clues:

$200: 2013's "20 Feet from Stardom" is about women in this musical profession
$400: "Religulous", featuring this atheistic host of HBO's "Real Time", has just a bit of an agenda
$600: Emily Stagg, S-T-A-G-G, is one of the stars of this 2002 film
$800: He directed "The Thin Blue Line" & the 2013 Donald Rumsfeld portrait "The Unknown Known"
$1000: "Harlan County, USA" from 1976 marched with striking coal miners in this state

I've actually blogged about the movie in the $600 clue before.

And then there was this "Final Jeopardy!" clue, in the category "The Academy Awards":

1 of the 2 movies in the last 30 years, one a drama & one a comedy, to win Oscars for Best Actor & Best Actress

If you want the correct responses, yesterday's game is here. Hover over the dollar amounts in the "Jeopardy!" and "Double Jeopardy!" rounds to see the correct responses; hover it over the category title in "Final Jeopardy!" to see the correct response and who got it right.

And before you brag about knowing all those documentaries and the "Final Jeopardy!" clue, how many of the clues in the other categories would you have gotten? ;-)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Count Three and Pray

I probably should have done a full-length post about Count Three and Pray yesterday, since it's coming on fairly early this afternoon at 2:00 PM on TCM, and it doesn't seem to be available on DVD. That, and TCM doesn't list it as coming up on the schedule after tomorrow at any time through August. But with any luck you can catch this afternoon's airing.

Ven Heflin stars as Luke Fargo, whom we see at the beginning of the film returning to his southern hometown fresh from having fought the Civil War. However, he fought on the Northern side, which is going to be a problem with any number of the townsfolk, especially shop owner Yancey Huggins (Raymond Burr). Before the War, Luke led a dissolute life, romancing the girls such as young Georgina Derais (Allison Hayes), and carousing. But something happened in the war: he was at the battle of Vicksburg, where he saw a chaplain die. He kept the man's bible and, disturbed by the horrors he saw at Vickburg, vowed that he was going to become a man of peace, spreading God's word. In fact, he's returned to his hometown to rebuild the church, which was burned down during the war.

However, there are several problems. First among these is that somebody else hs already take up residence in the parsonage, an orphan girl named Lissy (Joanne Woodward), who was obviously driven out of her own home -- wherever that was -- and took up residence here because nobody else was. It just wouldn't do for an unmarried preacher to be sharing the parsonage with an underage woman who isn't a maid or anything like that. Why, they're practically living in sin! And Lissy has absolutely no intentions of moving out.

There's also the problem of actually building the church. Luke just doesn't have the funds to do it, and doesn't have a flock who can help donate the funds or the labor. So in a scene you'd be able to see coming a mile away, Luke winds up betting on his horse against the owner of the local lumber mill -- something that Luke would have done back in his former high-living life, but just shouldn't be done by a preacher. It's the sort of trope we already saw in Friendly Persuasion when I blogged about it back in February 2012, but in fact Count Three and Pray came out a year before Friendly Persuasion.

The next complication is that although Luke believes he's gotten the calling, in fact he doesn't have much ability to be a preacher, being a lousy public speaker and not really knowing what to talk about even if he did have the gift of delivering a speech well. The other preacher thing he doesn't have is the ordination. Nowadays this theoretically wouldn't be a problem, what with all those independent megachurches out there. But back in the 19th century actually having been ordained would have been a pretty big deal for a lot of townsfolk.

And some of those townsfolk, especially the aforementioned Yancy, would like nothing better than to see Luke fail in his attempt to become a preacher and bring goodness and love to this town. Finding out that he hasn't been ordained could just get his growing flock to abandon him, but worse is that relationship with Lissy, who is still living with him.

You can probably guess where everything winds up going, just as you could see the horse racing scene coming. Count Three and Pray is nothing earth-shatteringly original, instead being an amiable little picture that meanders its way to a conclusion that satisfies the strictures of the Production Code, as well as being reasonable if unspectacular for the viewers. Instead, Count Three and Pray should be judged on the basis of the performances in it, which are all more than good enough, if not the best work that any of the principals put on screen. Van Heflin, who was never glamorous, is however always good as a conflicted man like he is here. Joanne Woodward is too old for her role, but does well enough with it. Raymond Burr was still about a year away from starting Perry Mason, and was still playing a lot of bad guys. This one isn't quite as bad as some of his others, but he's still entertainingly hissable.

All in all, Count Three and Pray is a nice, well-made little movie. It's unprepossessing and, while it will never wind up in any list of the greatest films made, it's solid enough and succeeds at what it sets out to do. It's more than worth a watch.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Malik Bendjelloul, 1977-2014

The death has been announced of Swedish documentary film director Malik Bendjelloul. He was 36

Bendjelloul is known for one movie, but it won him the Oscar: Searching for Sugar Man. The Radio Sweden obituary above links to an interview their English service did with Bendjelloul back in August 2012, before Searching for Sugar Man became a big hit. But if anybody doesn't know the story, it's a good one: Sixto Rodriguez was an R&B singer in Detroit who made an album or two decades ago. The albums were commercially unsuccessful, so there was the end of his music career. But, in South Africa, which was a society shut off from the world in many ways due to the apartheid-era white rule, the album was a big hit among a certain portion of the white population who felt it spoke to what they were going through -- not all whites, after all, supported the apartheid system, and the system of state repression that kept the other races down also had to deal with this. Since Rodriguez never produced another album, his South African fans wondered what ever happened to him, leading to wild rumors. Eventually, with the fall of the apartheid system and the internet making things easier if you wanted to search for people, a couple of fans decide to try to figure out what happened to Rodriguez.

I don't know how long the linked interview will be available; Radio Sweden's weekdaily English-langauge programs (the audio files, at least) remain up for a month, so this may be gone by mid-June.

Star of the Month June Allyson, night 2

I'm not a huge fan of any of the film versions of Little Women, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact it's more of a story for young girls than for a man my age. Well, I'm not a huge Peter Lawford fan either, and that definitely clouds my view of the June Allyson version of the movie, which kicks off tnoight's salute to her as TCM's Star of the Month, at 8:00 PM.

That's followeb at 10:15 PM by The McConnell Story, which has Allyson as the wife of a Korean War-era fighter pilot.

Then there's a smaller role in Meet the People at 12:15 AM, starring Dick Powell and Lucille Ball.

Allyson plays the redhead in The Reformer and the Redhead at 2:00 AM; it's an underwhelming comedy about Allyson trying to enlist the help of mayoral candidate Dick Powell to keep her father's (Cecil Kellaway) zoo open. Along the way, Allyson and Powell fall in love.

The Girl in White at 3:45 AM has Allyson playing a pioneering lady doctor;

Her Highness and the Bellboy, which comes on at 5:30 AM, sees June Allyson as an invalid whose boyfriend the titular bellboy (Robert Walker) gets mixed up with princess Hedy Lamarr.

Finally, Allyson shows up in Till the Clouds Roll By at 7:30 AM tomorrow; that's a musical biopic of composer Jerome Kern.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Chile, Land of Charm

Yesterday, TCM ran the Traveltalks short Chile: Land of Charm. Thankfully, it's one of the shorts that's made it's way to Youtube. There's a good deal in the short to make it interesting for film buffs.

The short starts off a bid differently from a lot of the Traveltalks shorts, as it has an extended sequence on the cruise ship taking Fitzpatrick and his crew down to Chile. It's yet another example of how Fitzpatrick, a travel agent before becoming film narrator, caters to the upper-middle class and above demographic who would have been the only people able to afford the sort of traveling that we see in these shorts. Average people would never have been able to afford the trip financially, and wouldn't have had the time to take it, either. Fitzpatrick also makes a point to show us the various resorts and fashionable outdoor cafés, which is where we also see the awful fruity consuela cocktail. (No, I don't like snagria either.)

Watch for the scenes in which Fitzpatrick discusses the non-Hispanic ethnic groups, which are referred to as "Indians" because back in the 1930s, nobody was suggesting the use of any of the hyphenated terms. There's a shot of a bunch of them in an animal-drawn cart, all trying to look gamely happy. One wonders, however, just how happy they were in real life.

There's also a self-referential shot that I can't help but wonder was staged. We get to a movie theater, and the side of the marquee advertises One in a Million. This Sonja Henie film for Fox was released in the States in 1936, the year before the Traveltalks short was released. That's reasonable, considering that it would have taken some time to distribute Hollywood films to the rest of the world, with Chile probably coming well after Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Besides, the short would have been filmed some time before it reached theaters; I'd guess early 1937 because it looks like summer. The front of the marquee, however, is the interesting part, as it announces the time of the feature, and then adds, "Y un viaje de Fitzpatrick". Somehow I really doubt that's the way theaters were advertising their showings back then. It also surprises me that Fitzpatrick couldn't do this at a theater showing an MGM film.

All that having been said, there's also quite a bit of scenery that's visually beautiful, and would make me think about planning a trip to Chile if I had the time and money. I always enjoy James Fitzpatrick's trips abroad.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Off the Record

Joan Blondell could be energetic and entertaining to watch even when she was stuck with sub-par material. A good example of this is the 1939 movie Off the Record, which is on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Blondell doesn't show up in the first few scenes. That honor goes to juvenile actor Bobby Jordan, playing teenaged Mickey Fallon. Mickey has a mother who is dying without him at her bedside, because he's out playing in the streets as kids did in movies of that era, telling everybody that his brother is going to be coming back and doing big things for him. Mom dies, and it would be off to the orphange for Mickey, except for the fact that he really does have an adult brother Joe (Alan Baxter), who looks after Mickey, more or less....

It's at this point that Joan Blondell comes in. She plays one of those 30s tropes, the lady report who's going to show she can be a crusading reporter and just as good as the guys, dammit! She goes to do a story on relief (ie. welfare), one that takes her into a drugstore where several kids are playing the pinball machine. One of the kids tries to cheat the machine, which is where Mickey comes in. He's an eforcer, paid by the racket supplying the pinball machines to make certain nobody gyps them. Jane sees this, and decides that this would make a better story than writing about relief. She's right, of course, as the story brings heat on the racket. Joe is a bit of the ways up the ladder, but not so high up that he can't be sacrificed by the big bosses. It's three years in the slammer for Joe.

With nobody to take care of Mickey, it would mean the orphanage, except that he was kind of committing a crime himself. So he gets sent someplace worse than an orphanage, that being a reform school. And this is where things really beging to strain credulity. Jane has pangs of guilt, thinking she's the one responsible for Mickey having to go to reform school. So she and her superior, Breezy Elliot (Pat O'Brien) get married, in part because he's been pursuing her, and in part because she sees this as a way to take guardianship of Mickey and get him out of reform school! As if the authorities in real life would sanction this. But, this is Hollywood, so the authorities agree. Mickey goes home with Jane and Breezy, although Breezy isn't so happy with the arrangement and it seems obvious that Mickey is going to try to escape at the first opporutnity.

But back in the first reel, when Mickey was first mentioning his big brother, he said that Joe was going to bring him a camera. Apparently knowing Mickey's interest in photography, Breezy and Jane get him a camera, and have him made a cub photographer on the newspaper. As with James Cagney in Picture Snatcher becomes fairly good using some slightly shady methods, but his new job gets him accused of a diamond robbery. And then he hears that his brother is planning to break out of prison, setting up the finale....

Off the Record is a film that's mildly entertaining, thanks to the presence of Joan Blondell and, to a lesser extent, Pat O'Brien. But, the script is a bit of a mess. It takes rather sharp turns from one plot point to the next, with some of them (getting custody of Mickey, and Mickey's becoming a photographer) seeming quite unrealistic. There are also times when you wonder whether the movie is trying to be a comedy, or the sort of serious social drama that Warner Bros. made so well in the 1930s. But being one of those B-movies the studios were churning out back in those days, its brief running time (TCMDb lists 71 minutes, IMDb 62; I don't recall which of the two lengths it was when I watched on TCM a few months back) keeps it from getting too boring. Off the Record is nowhere near great, but it's OK for the breakfast hour or a rainy day.

I don't believe Off the Record has received a DVD release, even from the Warner Archive, so you'll have to catch the TCM airing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mothers' Day with Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman (r.) with Liv Ullmann in Autumn Sonata

Not everybody can have a perfect relationship with their parents. In honor of those who had a difficult relationship with Mom, one could do far worse than to watch Autumn Sonata. It's not on TCM's Mothers' Day schedule, unsurprisingly, but it has been released to DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion collection.

The movie starts off at a parsonage somewhere in rural Norway. Viktor (Halvar Björk) is watching his wife Eva (Liv Ullmann) writing a letter to her mother, and giving us some expository opening voiceover about what Eva is like: a tender, sensitive woman who, it seems, has made some sacrifices to take on the role of a pastor's wife. The purpose of the letter that Eva is writing is to invite Mom Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) to visit them at the parsonage for a little while. Mom is a concert pianist who has travelled the world, but has recently lost her long-time partner after an extended illness. (It's implied that Dad died some time in the past; it's perfectly normal to fall in love again and this relationship isn't supposed to be scandalous.) At any rate, Mom needs a break, and a little time at the parsonage might do her some good.

The only thing is, Viktor is asking Eva whether she's sure she wants to do this. Obviously, that means there must be some good reason why she wouldn't want to do it. And we begin to get hints of why. Charlotte can be a bit demanding, although some of it isn't out of place for an artist; besides, she's getting up there in years and some of the initial complaints could just be those of old age. That is, until Eva springs an unwelcome surprise on Mom: Eva's got her sister and Charlotte's other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman) with them. Helena is suffering from some neurological condition that's never specified, although I'd guess the late stages of multiple sclerosis, as it's left Helena unable to walk and her speech very difficult to understand. Charlotte hasn't seen Helena in years, as though she basically abandoned her own daughter when the daughter got sick.

Charlotte tries to be polite, but things continue to deteriorate in ways big and small. In one of the best scenes, Eva tells her mother that she plays the organ at the church, even giving a concert at one point, and has been working on the Chopin preludes. So Mom asks her to play one of them for her, which Eva does. Charlotte, sitting alongside Eva on the piano bench then proceeds to pick up the sheet music, put it aside, and put the piano music stand down. It's a small sign that Mom is an expert: like all good concert pianists, she doesn't need the sheet music. Daughter, however, does, and Mom's emphasizing this is a subtle but unmistakeable humiliation. Let's just say that after this, things are going to get far worse between them.

Autumn Sonata is a difficult movie. It's absolutely not the sort of movie that you'd just want to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch. I wouldn't even call it a date movie, as it's too heavy for that. But it's an outstanding movie that contains excellent performances from both Bergman and Ullmann; Ingrid Bergman received an Oscar nomination for their work here and Ullmann really should have. Director Ingmar Bergman does a wonderful job as well, deftly navigating between flashbacks and the present day, while making a film that's visually lovely to look at, even if it is about a relationship that's gone really ugly. (This has nothing to do with the Norwegian countryside which does show up a bit and is of course beautiful; the interiors that make up much of the movie are quite good.) Despite the heavy nature of the subject matter here, Autumn Sonata is one you absolutely should see.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ah, yes, Mothers' Day is coming up tomorrow

Sunday, May 11, is the second Sunday in May, which of course means Mothers' Day, a day on which those of us who have mothers still living should call them up or make dinner for them or something. I distinctly recall as "Have you written your mother"-type placard showing up in A Place in the Sun in the scene when Montgomery Clift is calling his own mother, who runs the mission for the down-and-out in whatever town it is that he came from and is trying to escape. But that's not the focus of my post today. I'm bringing up Mothers' Day a day early because TCM's schedulind really deamnds talking about the Mothers' Day films before the day itself.

Indeed, you could say there's a film worthy of Mothers' Day kicking things off tonight with Stella Dallas, which is this week's TCM Essential at 8:00 PM. Barbara Stanwyck plays Stell, who comes from decidedly working-class background and eventually has to make the difficult decision to back out of her daughter's own life because unrefined people such as her will be a problem with the daughter's attempts to rise in society. TCM is running this tonight as part of half a night of Anne Shirley movies; it's Shirley who plays the daughter.

Mothers' Day itself kicks off tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM with Lady For a Day, which I blogged about back in April, 2008. In this excellent film, May Robson plays the mother who, like Stella Dallas, feels she's going to be a drag on her daughter, but for a different reason: she's lied about her situtation to her daughter, who somehow wound up in Spain and is set to marry a nobleman; in fact, she's a destitute old lady, reduced to selling apples. It's up to gangster Warren William to make the illusion of wealth a reality, at least for a day.

I wasn't certain if I had blogged about The Catered Affair before; in fact, I did back in January 2013. It follows Lady For a Day at 7:45 AM tomorrow morning. Bette Davis plays the mother to Debbie Reynolds, who is engaged to be married. Daughter wants a simple wedding and not put anybody out; Mom wants a big deal even if it's going to take all the money Dad (Ernest Borgnine) has saved up for the taxicab he's wanted to buy.

Now, Voyager isn't really a movie I would have thought of for Mothers' Day, since the mother is a mean old thing who won't let youngest daughter Bette Davis live the life she wanted. But, you can catch it at 9:30 AM tomorrow, following The Catered Affair. It's the sort of movie I watch for Davis' nervous breakdown scene early in the movie; after that, it descends into chick flick territory. But Bette Davis was always good for a blow-up.

Friday, May 9, 2014

No, not the Madonna song

Some months back, or maybe it was a year or two or more, I had the chance to watch a TCM airing of Borderline. The fact that I don't even have a vague idea of how far ago it was probably says something not so good about the quality of the movie (and it will certainly say something bout the quality of this post). But, the movie is on again tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM, so you've got a chance to see it and judge for yourself.

Claire Trevor plays Madeleine, a lady police officer in the LAPD. She's been tapped for special duty, which is to go undercover to help bring down a drug smuggler. However, that smuggler's operations go into Mexico, which is why this is special duty. Madeleine is being asked to play a nightclub girl in one of those little Mexican joints to try to get better acquainted with Richie (Raymond Burr), who runs the whole shebang. So she heads to Mexico and, while she can't quite get close to Richie at first, she gets to one of his underlings, which is a good place to start. At least until Richie breaks in on her snooping around the underling's room. That might look bad for her, but suddenly, there's a complication: in barges Johnny (Fred MacMurray). He's working for another drug smuggling operation, and gets Madeleine away from Richie.

This is where the story really begins to get complicated. Johnny is actually not working for that other smuggler. He, too, has gone undercover, but he's a federal narcotics officer. And the wonderfully competent government has totally failed to co-ordinate operations among various police departments, to the point that when Johnny takes Madeleine away from Richie's place, he has no idea that she's really working with the police. Madeleine, for her part, understandably has no idea that Johnny is working for the feds, not having been told by her superior officers. And it's also completely understandable that neither of them should tell each other of their true identities, since each of them has perfectly good reason to believe the other one is part of the criminal organization.

It's a good premise, but one that never lives up to its promise. I'm not quite certain why. There are some dark elements to the movie as well as some opportunity for humor, and Fred MacMurray was good at playing in both genres. Claire Trevor could also certainly play hard-boiled dames, which is something she's good at doing, too. Raymond Burr was also in his element here, as he played a whole bunch of heavies before taking on the role of Perry Mason on TV. And yet, the whole movie comes across as not quite sure what it's trying to do, being a bit of a slog at times, rather than a simply entertaining ride. Borderline isn't terrible, mind you; it's just not nearly as good as it could be. See it once, and then probably forget it.

Borderline has apparently received several releases to DVD, at least according to Amazon. I'm not certain whether any of them are still in print, though.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lex Barker, 1919-1973

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Lex Barker, who was born on this day in 1919. Barker might be best known for playing Tarzan in several movies in the early 1950s, but Barker was more of an actor than that. After serving in World War II, Barker had small roles in several movies in the second half of the late 1940s, such as one of Loretta Young's brothers in The Farmer's Daughter, or as a construction foreman in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. If memory serves, he's the character who asks Cary Grant whether he wants the lentils in the lally columns rabbeted.

One of Barker's more entertaining non-Tarzan starring roles comes in the late 150s movie The Girl in Black Stockings, but by this time Hollywood stardom wasn't beckoning. So Barker left for Europe, since he apparently spoke several languages well enough to act in films in a second language. The role of Anita Ekberg's fiancé in La Dolce Vita would probably be the highest-quality movie out of all his European stuff, but he gained a following in Germany for playing Old Shatterhand, a character from a series of late 19th century German juvenile western books, albeit from an author who had been nowhere near the US West at the time he wrote the books.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

TCM Star of the Month May 2014: June Allyson

The Stratton Story (1949), on tonight's lineup at 10:15 PM

TCM is finally back to having a tradition Star of the Month, with one night a week every week for a month, aftre the John Wayne marathon in April, and as late as you can start a Star of the Month salute. TCM has selected June Allyson, and will be showing her movies during prime time on Wednesdays, continuing into the early hours of Thursday. Tonight's schedule is as follows:

The Glenn Miller Story at 8:00 PM, in which Allyson plays the wife of the famed swing bandleader (played by James Stewart);
The Stratton Story at 10:15 PM, in which ALlyson plays the wife of one-legged baseball player Monty Stratton (James Stewart again);
The Secret Heart at midnight, which has Allyson as a young woman trying to deal with the loss of her mother;
The Gene Kelly version of The Three Musketeers at 2:00 AM;
Boxing/love triangle movie Right Cross at 4:15 AM;
The Sailor Takes a Wife at 5:45 AM, with Allyson as wife to sailor Robert Walker;
Girl Crazy at 7:30 AM Thursday, which has Allyson in a bit part dancing with Mickey Rooney early in the movie; and
Words and Music at 9:15 AM Thursday, a biopic of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart which overlooks some key facts (Hart's homosexuality).

Little Women (1948) shows up next week, in case you're wondering, but here's a gratuitous photo from that movie

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

May 6, 2014 briefs

One Sunday Afternoon is airing again, tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM as part of a birthday salute to star Gary Cooper. I've already mentioned it briefly, back in August 2012 when I pointed out that it was the first film version of what was remade as The Strawberry Blonde. I still don't think I've gotten around to seeing the 1933 One Sunday Afternoon in its entirety; I know I haven't seen the late 1940s musical version.

I've mentioned before how TCM's daily schedule pages have an in-house advertising sidebar down the right side. First up is the movie The 300 Spartans, which I blogged about back in May 2011. It was already on DVD at the time, but now it's getting a Blu-Ray release. What I didn't note back in 2011 is that the romantic subplot involves characters played by Barry Coe and Diane Baker; if that pair sounds familiar it's because I just mentioned them a week and change ago in The Wizard of Baghdad.

The other movie that's getting a DVD release is Dante's Inderno, which I blogged about back in February 2009. The reviewer at the TCM site isn't quite as positive about the film as I am, but also certainly isn't negative about it.

Finally, we note the death of Jackie Lynn Taylor Fries, who appeared in five Our Gang shorts in 1934/5, and then went on to have a fairly interesting adult life. She was 88, and is survived by her husband of 48 years.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Silent drama for beginners

Turner Classic Movies is spending tomorrow showing a bunch of movies that have the word "Scarlet" in the title, and one could do far worse than to start off with the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter, at 6:00 AM.

The story is one that should probably be fairly well-known, since it's based on a classic of American litarature. Lillian Gish plays Hester Prynne, a young woman in Puritan colonial Massachusetts who's married to Roger, a physician who goes missing for several years. Alone, Hester tries to do whatever to bring some joy into her life, but simple things like singing on the Sabbath and wearing clothes that aren't austere enough cause many of the other Puritans to go nuts and think Hester is a horrible sinner. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) is a bit more forgiving, and when he goes to visit her they fall in love. That love obviously includes sex, because Hester winds up pregnant. Obviously, she must be guilty of adultery! So the evil townsfolk banish her and the daughter to the outskirts of town, and force her to wear a big scarlet A for adultery on her chest. The townsfolk want her to reveal who the father is so they can punish him too, but Hester has no intentions of seeing Rev. Dimmesdale be hurt by this. Of course, being forced to keep this secret is, for Dimmesdale, a punishment in itself....

The reviews on IMDb are overwhelmingly positive, although I have to admit the first time I saw it I was not nearly so overwhelmed, as I found that it didn't hold my attention as well as some other silent movies. With it being in the TCM schedule again, it got me to thinking about introducing people who aren't huge movie fans to sllent cinema. For me, if I wanted to people to learn about what can make silent movies so enjoyable, I'd start off with the comedies, of course. Since they had to resort to physical humor, the stuff holds up relatively well today. It's also a lot easier to have a comic plot in two reels than a drama, so there are a lot of short comedies available for those who don't know if they'd want to spend 90 minutes or more on a silent.

But what to do when the time comes to go from comedy to drama? I don't think that The Scarlet Letter is that bad a place to start off. My judgment of the movie is probably a bit harsh, and with it being based on well-known source material, it's something that's probably easier for a lot of people to get into than other well-known silent dramas. It's also a good 50 minutes shorter than something like Ben-Hur, another silent drama I'd think about recommending. Any other good suggestions for introducing people to silent drama?

I don't think The Scarlet Letter is available on DVD, though, so you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Tatiana Samoilova, 1934-2014

Tatiana Samoilova, who can be seen at left in a still from The Cranes Are Flying in which she played the starring role, has died one day after her 80th birthday. I have to admit that I don't know much about Samoilova's other movies, which apparently include another movie with Mikhail Kalotozov, who directed The Cranes Are Flying, and a Soviet version of Anna Karenina. There's also one called Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, a title that makes the movie sound more interesting than it probably is. I also have to apologize for not having a bigger version of that photo to illustrate this post.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Two excellent repeats for May 4

By now, you've probably heard of the death of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who died on Friday at the age of 95. Zimbalist will probably be best remembered for the two hit TV shows of which he was the star, 77 Sunset Strip in the early 1960s, and The FBI in the late 1960s. However, Zimbalist also made several movies, and one of the best of those movies, Wait Until Dark, just happens to be on the TCM schedule this evening at 6:00 PM.

This week's Silent Sunday Nights selection, coming up at midnight, is Sparrows, a movie I recommended over six years ago. 34-year-old Mary plays 18 one last time, this time being the eldest of a bunch of kids trapped on a "baby farm" with a tyrannical owner (Gustav von Seyffertitz); Mary eventually leads the other kids through an alligator-infested swamp to safety in a thrilling climax.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Back when Shirley Temple died and TCM had their day-long tribute to her, I mentioned that Bright Eyes was one of the first movies to follow what would become a successful formula. Another good example of this would be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, airing tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on FXM/FMC.

Shirley Temple is once again an orphan; Rebecca (naturally, she gets the title role) is a little girl whose biological parents have died and who is going around the country with her actor stepfather Henry (William Demarest). Henry and Rebecca show up at a radio station just in time for the auditions for a cereal magnate's auditions to find the next "Little Miss America". Obvoiusly, Rebecca has the same charm and talent that Shirley Temple does, so she'd be a natural for the part. But a mix-up happens, and Henry thinks that the programming director's (Randolph Scott) decision to stop the audition is because they've failed. With no job prospects, Henry decides to send Rebecca to her aunt's farm.

Aunt Miranda (Helen Westley) is a bit of a tough character. She doesn't like those acting people, and she certainly doesn't want Rebecca hanging out with them. She also doesn't like the farmer who lives on the other side of the fence, and orders Rebecca to stay away, even though they're OK with her. Also with Rebecca and Aunt Miranda is Gwen (Gloria Stuart), another of Miranda's nieces and one of Rebecca's cousins.

But back to that other farm. It's owned by Tony Kent, who just happens to be... a programming director. And he's the same one who was looking for "Little Miss America", and had intended to sign Rebecca to a contract for it, before she and her stepfather left thinking he audition had failed. He's come up for a visit; being a city folk, he doesn't actually run the place. It's the manager Homer (Slim Summerville) who is the subjected of Miranda's aforementioned dislike of everybody on that side of the boundary fence. Anyhow, Tony hears Rebecca singing, and realizes -- here's the girl I've been looking for!

Complications, of course, ensue. Miranda only took in Rebecca on the agreement that it would be for good, and none of those acting people. (Never mind what Rebecca wants.) Henry learns that Rebecca is going to be successful, and wants her back. And there are also the romantic complications. There's no reason for Gwen to be in the story, other than to serve as the eventual romantic interest for Tony, and that it's going to be Rebecca who brings them together. And you can probably guess that Rebecca's presence will ultimately convince Miranda that perhaps she was wrong about Homer.

It's all a tried-and-true formula, having worked for a good three years already. Once again, Shirley Temple is the stick that stirs the drink, making everything work. She's paired up with all the comic character actors and other supporting talent Fox could find, including getting a dance with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Nobody really outshines Shirley Temple, of course; instead, many of these actors make good pairings with her to entertain the viewer. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is, after all, entertainment first and foremost, with an unchallenging plot and a predictably happy ending. This should, however, not be construed as a negative. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm succeeds in spades at what it's trying to do.

There are several DVD releases of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but some of the cheaper ones seem to have been colorized.