Sunday, August 31, 2014

Russian Ark

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and TCM is doing its annual salute to the Telluride Film Festival, running movies that have either been featured at the festival, or movies with people who have been honored by the festival. Tomorrow's first selection is the intriguing Russian Ark, at 6:00 AM.

Russian Ark is a movie that doesn't really have a traditional plot. It starts just outside the Hermitage museum in Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, where an unseen man meets up with a Frenchman in 19th century garb. This Frenchman then takes our unseen man through the various parts of the building, giving him a brief lecture on the artworks now in the museum as well as the history of the museum and the country along the way. Those bits of history are accompanied by people in period costume, and there are thousands of such people populating the movie.

What makes the movie intriguing is that it was done in one long take, all 90-plus minutes of it, with a Steadicam. You have to admire the director's (Aleksandr Sokurov) audacity, as well as the attention to detail necessary to choreograph all those characters around our two main characters as they make their way through the building. This is especially noticeable in the grand ball finale. Some of the history might also be interesting, if not extensive enough. Brief mention is made of the siege of the city, back when it was known as Leningrad, by the Nazis during World War II. This is a subject that would deserve a full-length film in its own right, as the siege was extremely difficult for everybody in the city, with a million or so people dying from hunger and being buried in mass graves. As for the curators of the Hermitage, it's claimed that they ate the glue they used to attach canvases to the backings in order to survive. Yikes.

But the one long take filming presents problems along the way, notably every time our unseen man stops to look at one of the works of art. These would be natural places to have a cut, and it's the lack of cuts here that looks obvious -- the rest of the time, you barely notice it. But that's a minor problem. Overall, Russian Ark is a very well-made movie, and a very interesting one to boot.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Steel Trap

So The Steel Trap was on yesterday as part of the Summer Under the Stars salute to Joseph Cotten. Looking at the reviews on IMDb, I must be one of the few people who didn't care for it. But it's been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so you've got a chance to judge for yourself.

Cotten stars as Jim Osborne, a family man who talks about his family life almost the same way Dick Powell does at the beginning of Pitfall which I mentioned at the beginning of the week. Jim works as the assistant manager at a bank. In a voice-over narration, Osborne tells us about his work at the bank, and the security measures that greatly lessen the chance of a bank robbery: the tellers only know half the combination to their little safe inside the vault where they keep their money after the bank closes; the managers (including Osborne) know the other half. Unsurprisingly, Osborne has daydreamed about whether it would be possible to look over the tellers' shoulders to steal their combinations and then steal their money. Of course, there's a problem, which is the question of where you're going to go after you've stolen all that money. So Osborne actually starts doing research on the topic, discovering that Brazil is the one country with a flaw in the extradition treaty that would allow Osborne to make an escape -- and he could get from Los Angeles to Brazil over a weekend, from Friday afternoon when the bank closes to Monday morning when the bank reopens and the money will be discovered missing.

It's here that the film hits its big problem. Jim has to lie to his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) about what he's doing. Now, there are interesting liars on screen, such as Charles Boyer in Gaslight, whose lies are so chillingly smooth as to make him a compelling character. Unfortunately for The Steel Trap, however, Jim Osborne is just a whiny jerk of a liar. And his lies get compounded one upon the other the way they do in one of those bad early 1930s drawing room comedies. The other thing that makes the movie have a big problem is the plot holes of nobody catching any of these lies. Osborne notes that the bank is going to be going to its winter hours next week, which means the bank will be open on Saturday, so the plot to steal the money has to be done this Friday. No! Why not use the winter to perfect your plan? Also, going to Brazil requires a passport, which is something most Americans didn't have back in those days, since you didn't need one to go to Canada (or, I think, Mexico). So he has to get the passports in like two days when, if he bided his time over the winter, he'd have the passports ready for whenever. And the guy at the consulate doesn't catch his lie about needing the passport in an emergency.

The idea behind The Steel Trap is a good one. But somewhere along the way, the script goes wrong, leaving me at least with something rather unappealing. But everybody else seems to have high praise for the movie. So watch it for yourself and judge.

Friday, August 29, 2014

George Macready, 1899-1973

George Macready (r.) with Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946)

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor George Macready. Macready didn't start working in Hollywood until his early 40s, but once he did start working, he had a long string of supporting roles, some fairly big such as the man with the little friend concealing a knife in Gilda who takes Glenn Ford under his wing. It turns out that they're both in love with the same woman, the titular Gilda played by Rita Hayworth.

Another somewhat smaller role for Macready is as Dr. Karl Schneider in Detective Story, where he plays a doctor considered by Kirk Dougals' police detective to be a butcher. Douglas treats the doctor rather less than well, with serious consequences for all involved.

I couldn't find any good pictures of Macready in The Alligator People, one of those scifi movies that's a whole lot of fun even if it isn't all that good. Movies like My Name is Julia Ross and A Kiss Before Dying are rather better, and all of them together show Macready had a broad range.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Not the tattooed movie

Joseph Cotten will be TCM's star for Summer Under the Stars tomorrow, August 29. The first of his movies on the schedule is Lydia, at 6:00 AM.

Obviously, Joseph Cotten does not play the title character; that honor goes to Merle Oberon. At the beginning of the movie, Oberon's Lydia MacMillian is a wealthy spinster who is being honored for her charitable work. Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick (that's Cotten) hears the ceremony on the radio, and decides to pay a visit on Miss MacMillian, since the two knew each other decades ago, back in the dark ages of the 19th century. There was a professional relationship, but there was also a personal relationship, as Michael was one of several boyfriends Lydia had coming in and out of her life. You just know they're going to reminisce about the past....

That reminiscing comes a couple of days later at Michael's apartment. He's managed to bring together three of Lydia's four lovers: himself; the dashing (at least when he was young) Bob Willard (George Reeves); and the blind pianist Frank André (Hans Jaray). The only one missing is the man Lydia claims was the one true love of her life, sailor Richard Mason (Alan Marshal). Michael, however, assures Lydia that Mason is going to show up. With that, the four start discussing their collective past.

Michael knew Lydia first. His father was butler to Lydia and her grandmother Sarah (Edna May Oliver) when Lydia was young, and Sarah was an inveterate hypochondriac. Since young Michael has just become a doctor, Dad brings him in, which is how Michael meets Lydia, and they're taken with each other. But Bob, the Yale football hero, is also taken with Lydia, and he tries to steal Lydia out from under Michael. When Michael goes off to fight the Spanish-American War, Lydia meets a blind kid which is what introduces her to the charity work. That's how she meets Frank, the blind pianist. And then at a ball she meets that sailor, who isn't like the other guys. It goes on like this for another hour or so.

There's something not quite right about Lydia although I find it hard to put into words exactly what it is. It's more that, as the movie wore on, I found myself caring less and less about any of these characters. We know that Lydia isn't going to end up with any of her suitors, and the sailor just seems to come out of nowhere. Lydia probably ought to be a very good movie, but it winds up fizzling out into a mess.

I don't think Lydia is available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Most of the short series showing up

For a while, the shorts weren't showing up on TCM's schedule, or at least for quite a few days they only ran through yesterday. But TCM have put up a new batch of shorts, and most of our favorite short series are showing up over the next day and change:

For those of you who like the humor of Pete Smith, you've got a pair of shorts coming up in the form of Cash Stashers at 9:19 AM, or just after The Hitch-Hiker; followed by Things We Can Do Without, just following A Cry in the Night at 10:50 AM.

I mentioned the shorts that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences produced around 1950 back in October 2012, and a pair of those are coming up on the TCM schedule. First is The Art Director, a little after 5:50 PM today, or following Backfire. Then tomorrow morning, you can see The Cinematographer about 7:49 AM, after The Bride Goes Wild.

White Peril is a title that sounded familiar, and looking at the synopsis -- it's about a mountain snow patrol -- and release date of 1956, I figured that it had to be one of the RKO Screenliners. These are generally interesting time capsules since they're supposed to be more documentary than most of the other series save the Traveltalks shorts. White Peril is on overnight at 1:20 AM, after Seven Days in May.

I haven't seen Goodbye, Miss Turlock (5:48 AM tomorrow) before. But looking at the title and the brief one-sentence synopsis, I immediately thought that this has to be an entry in the Passing Parade. Sure enough, it is, and an Oscar-winning entry at that.

Since I mentioned the Traveltalks shorts earlier, they'll be showing up in abundance starting tomorrow afternoon around 2:13 PM with Roaming Through Northern Ireland. Fans of the Crime Does Not Pay or Joe McDoakes shorts, I'm sorry to say I don't see any of them in the next several days.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Briefs for August 26, 2014

TCM is running the movie Arabesque tonight at midnight as part of the day-long salute to Sophia Loren. It's one of those movies that I first saw years ago. Presumably I saw it on TCM and not the Fox Movie Channel since it was released by Universal, but at any rate I know it's been years since I've seen it since this month's schedule is the only one of the monthly schedules I've got that it shows up on, and I've got all the monthly schedules going back to July, 2007. It's one of those movies of a genre, the glamorous spy movie, that was popular back in the 1960s. But it's been so long since I saw it that these movies begin to blur together and I can't really do a full-length post on the movie.

Arabasque, at least, is available from the TCM Shop. There are a couple of movies in tomorrow's Edmond O'Brien day that I've blogged about before that don't seem to be on DVD, so tomorrow would be a good chance to catch up with them. First is A Cry in the Night tomorrow at 9:30 AM, which has O'Brien as a police detective whose daughter (Natalie Wood) gets kidnapped by Raymond Burr.

The other one is The Last Voyage at 2:30 PM, an early disaster movie about the sinking of a ship and everybody trying to get off in difficult circumstances. O'Brien only has a smaller role as the ship's second officer; the star is Robert Stack. Both of these O'Brien movies are well worth a watch if you didn't get to see them when I blogged about them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I remember the video game

Dick Powell, who is being honored by TCM in Summer Under the Stars today, spent the first half of his career making light musicals, and much of the second half of his career making rather darker movies. One of those darker movies that I've never blogged about before is Pitfall, which comes on at 4:15 PM.

Powell plays John Forbes, who at the start of the movie is enjoying his solid middle-class life in a suburban house with his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and son Tommy, eating one of those typical middle-class breakfasts from the middle of the last century that show up on film and TV. Sue drives John to the insurance agency where he's been working the same job for years, and reminds John of that night's dinner date, which has been with the same people they've been having dinner with once a week every week for years. It's a solid, but boring life.

In fact, John makes such an obviously overloud complaint about his boring lot in life that you know his life is going to become much less boring in a reel or two. That excitement starts off when John gets to his office and finds private investigator MacDonald (Raymond Burr) in his office. This was in the stage of Burr's career whne he was playing the bad guys, and even just in that first scene in Forbes' office, we can see that his character is rather creepy. MacDonald had been hired by the insurance company to find out what a convicted embezzler named Smiley did with the money, since Forbes' firm is having ot pay out on the insurance claim to the company from which Smiley had embezzled. It turns out that Smiley had bought a bunch of gifts for his girlfriend Mona (Lizabeth Scott), so the insurance company is going to try to repossess those items. MacDonald has done his job; now it's time for Forbes to take over.

So Forbes heads over to Mona's place. Unsurprisingly, Mona doesn't like him at first -- would you like a guy whose job it was to repossess your stuff? Mona realizes, though, as the rest of us do, that Forbes' job is kind of boring, so she's determined to make it more exciting, fur by taking him out for a drink, and then the next day taking him for a ride on the boat that was one of the things Smiley had bought for her. Forbes is beginning to spend entirely too much time with Mona, and predictably, he's beginning to fall for her. He's about to get that excitement he wanted in life, but who says it's a good thing?

Obivously, Forbes' relationship with Mona is a problem because of the fact that he's already married. But there's another problem: the ever-creepy MacDonald. MacDonald had also fallen for Mona when he was investigated her, and he's not about to have anybody else muscle in on his relationship with Mona. Never mind what Mona wants, which is certainly not a relationship with MacDonald. Heck, she's even willing to break off the relationship with Forbes when she finds out that he's married. But MacDonald is still harassing her, and Forbes is the only person who can do anything about it....

Pitfall is quite enjoyable. Dick Powell is eminently capable as the basically good guy who screws up big time, drawing on his experience making all those musicals to play the good father, and then the experience from those darker movies when he's trying to cover up his mistakes. Lizabeth Scott is more than suitable as the femme fatale; it's easy to see why both Forbes and MacDonald would fall for her. Once again, though, it's Raymond Burr as the heavy who's the most entertaining to watch. He's a manipulative bastard here, and boy is Raymond Burr making his character look like a creepy jerk.

Pitfall did get a DVD release a couple of years ago, in that it's available at Amazon, but it seems to be out of print as it's not available at the TCM Shop.

Richard Attenborough, 1923-2014

Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh in Brighton Rock (1947)

The death was announced yesterday of actor-director Richard Attenborough, five days before his 91st birthday. Attenborough started his career in the early 1940s with a small part in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve, before moving up to starring roles in films like Brighton Rock. A long series of roles followed, with some of the better remembered movies being I'm All Right Jack and the Hollywood movies The Great Escape, The Flight of the Phoenix with James Stewart, and The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen. One of the smaller movies about which I've blogged is Guns at Batasi.

In the 1960s, Attenborough started directing, with the World War I movie Oh What a Lovely War. He also did the World War II movie A Bridge Too Far, but may be best remembered for Gandhi, which won him the Best Director Oscar.

I don't know if TCM are going to get around to doing a programming tribute to Attenborough in September.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gladys George is now a star

One of the unlikeliest people to get the star treatment in this month's Summer Under the Stars on TCM is Gladys George, for whom I can't think of any starring roles, just a bunch of supporting characters. And even thne, I'd have to stop and think: Oh, Gladys George was in that? Still, it's nice to see one of the supporting characters get a day on TCM, as it also gives TCM a slightly different way to program the vintage movies they've been showing for 20 years. After all, they're not making new old movies these days.

At 11:45 AM, George shows up in a maternity hospital in A Child Is Born, which might be most notable for being a remake of Life Begins, which could be a bit more shocking being a pre-Code film.

This week's Essentials Jr. selection is the 1941 Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon, another of those movies that I'd have to ask myself at first whether I would have chosen it to recommend to kids. I mean, it's got some actual violence, some implied violence, definite sexual overtones (although not quite as much as the Ricardo Cortez version), and a fairly complex plot. Ultimately I think it's less the violence and more the plot that might be the problem for the kids. As for Gladys George, she plays Miles Archer's wife Iva.

Finally, I'll mention He Ran All the Way, overnight at 1:15 AM, in which Gladys George plays John Garfield's mother, Garfield being a criminal on the run who takes Shelley Winters and her family hostage.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pay Or Die

Today's honoree in TCM's Summer Under the Stars is Ernest Borgnine. TCM is running the Private Screenings interview he did with Robert Osborne a couple of years before he died; that comes on at 7:00 PM and is well worth watching if you haven't seen it before. As for the movies, one of his films that doesn't get mentioned so often is the very good Pay or Die, which you can see at 10:00 PM.

Borgnine stars as Joseph Petrosino, a real-life Italian immigrant to the US who lived in New York at the turn of the 20th century, working in New York City's police department. This being Italian immigrants in New York City, and the time period being what it is, you know there's going to be a Mafia. Well, the Mafia as we think of it today hadn't quite fully developed. Instead, we have a criminal organization known as "The Black Hand" that's engaging in the protection racket which is one of the oldest rackets out there. They try to shake down one baker, and when he refuses, the Black Hand trashes the place. This is what finally gets the police involved, and it's Petrosino who takes the case.

Petrosino realizes that a special squad is needed for this, and wants such a squad to be formed, but that requires him to be of a rank that necessitates the civil service exampinations of the day, which is a problem. So the baker's daughter Adelina (Zohra Lampert) helps Joseph prepare for the exam, and unsurprisingly, the two fall in love.

The Black Hand extortion continues, and at one point they even try to extort the great opera singer Enrico Caruso. (This is apparently based on a real incident.) The extortion goes on to the point that Petrosino believes that it's connected to the Sicilian Mafia, and the only way to stop it is to go to Sicily. It turned out to be a fatal move for Petrosino, as he was lured into a trap and assassinated. I don't think I'm giving too much away since this is a biopic, although it is one about a lesser-known figure.

It's a shame that Pay or Die isn't so well-known, since it's really quite a good little movie. Borgnine does well with what is a bit of an atypical character for him: even though Borgnine was of Italian descent himself, I went into the movie thinking it a bit hard to imagine him playing a cop, or at least a serious cop. And yet he does a fine job here. I don't know exactly how much was real here and how much was embellished for dramatic effect, but in any case the story is interesting. If you haven't seen Pay or Die before, it's one you definitely should see.

Pay or Die has also been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Friday, August 22, 2014


For those of you who have the Encore package of premium channels, the 1981 movie Arthur is coming up twice tomorrow (August 23) on the Encore Classic (formerly Encore Love Stories) channel, at 11:00 AM and 7:20 PM.

Dudley Moore plays the title role, a man we first see being chauffeured in his Rolls Royce through New York City one evening, while he's drunk in the back seat. He stops the car in front of a couple of woman who are quite clearly hookers, and takes one of them with him to the finest restaurant in town, not caring what anybody thinks about him. And all of this is supposed to be funny -- Arthur is a lovable drunk, or at least the intention is that the audience likes him. Obviously, there are other people who don't like the fact that Arthur is a drunk with no ambition in life. Among these are Arthur's butler Hobson (John Gielgud), who is almost a second father to him; and the rest of Arthur's family, in cluding his father Stanford and grandmother Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald). They're to the point of issuing an ultimatum to Arther: stop the carousing and marry a respectable woman, or lose your $750 million inheritance. And they've got just the woman for Arthur, in the form of upper class Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry).

Arthur unsurprisingly decides that he'd like to keep that money, so he'll get engaged and married to Susan. But then a funny thing happens: Arthur is doing some shopping in Bergdorf Goodman, and sees a woman shoplifting neckties. To keep her from getting arrested, Arthur has the ties put on his account, and then offers the woman a ride home in his Rolls. That woman, Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli), is of a decidedly lower social class, living with her unemployed father Ralph (Barney Martin). Still, you can guess what happens next, which is that Arthur falls in love with Linda. So we get the old staple of the movies: is it better to marry for love, or for money?

If there's one bad thing about Arthur -- and this is an exceedingly minor quibble -- it's that the movie fairly quickly paints itself into a corner where wither you're going to have the predictable but happy ending that you can see coming from a mile away, or you're going to have the unpredictable, but uappealing ending. So instead, Arthur winds up being one of those movies about the journey to its destination, and the characterizations put on screen by the characters. In that regard, Arthur succeeds spectacularly. Sure, Arthur is a rich, spoiled playboy. But at the same time, he's somebody who would be willing to use his millions to party with us if our paths crossed, and he'd be able to put on a damn good party. I'm generally not the biggest fan of Liza Minnelli, but she's fine here. Jill Eikenberry has the thankless task of being even more of a drip than any of the characters Ralph Bellamy played, and that's saying something. She might even out-drip the thoroughly unromantic Wendell Corey. But the best of them all is John Gielgud as the butler. He doesn't like what Arthur does, but he still loves Arthur dearly, and gets to deliver one witticism after another in the attempt to get Arthur to do the right thing, even taking matters into his own hands at one point. Gielgud won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this and really deserved it.

Arthur is availalbe on a discount DVD if you don't have the premium Encore Channels. It's a movie that, if you haven't seen it before, is well worth watching, capturing a time and attitude and thoroughly entertaining us along the way.

Kingdom of the Saguenay

Back in 2012, I briefly mentioned the early 1960s short Kingdom of the Saguenay, and not having seen it before. It's on TCM again tomorow morning about 7:49 AM, just after Go Nkaed in the World (6:00 AM, 103 min)

Structurally, this is a lot like the old Traveltalks shorts from MGM, except that it was made at Warner Bros. and came about a decade after the Traveltalks series ended. The Saguenay, for those who don't know their geography, is a river in the northern edge of populated Quebec, a good ways north of the city of Québec and flowing eastward into the St. Lawrence well downstream from where the last of the bridges across the St. Lawrence are. The short itself starts in picturesque Québec City before getting on a boat and heading up the St. Lawrence to the Saguenay.

As with all the travel shorts, there's not much to it in some ways, but it turns out to be worth a watch. The color photography makes the fjord-like river look beautiful, making me at least wish I had the time and the money to go up there and take a cruise myself. So in that regard, the short is a success.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

More on those Lee Tracy movies

Yesterday I mentioned that several of the movies showing at the beginning of Lee Tracy's day in Summer Under the Stars weren't available on DVD. It's the later ones, that I've already seen, which you can get on DVD:

When I looked at the brief synopsis of Love Is a Racket, I thought that the plot looked really familiar, and that I must have seen it before. Unsurprisingly, I had, and I even blogged about it back in Jnauary of 2013. After a whlle, some of those pre-Codes start blending together, as do some of the later 1930s B movies. Still, Love Is a Racket, which is on at 5:15 PM today, is worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

Dinner At Eight shows up tonight at 11:30 PM. Since this one is a prestige movie, it's much more memorable. Besides, it's got so many good actors in such a wonderful script.

Dinner At Eight is followed at 1:30 AM by Doctor X. I haven't quite done a full-length blog post on this film before, but the one-paragraph synopsis I did back in October 2009 accurately sums up the movie:

Here, Fay Wray plays the daughter of the seemingly-mad scientist (Lionel Atwill, who was the madman in Mystery of the Wax Museum) Dr. Xavier. There's a serial killer on the loose, killing pretty young things (like Wray) every full moon. Xavier brings all the potential killers to his creepy mansion and locks them in a room together, using Wray as a pawn in a plot to uncover the real killer.

Lee Tracy, who is today's nominee, plays -- what else -- a journalist trying to figure out what's going on. Doctor X is also in two-strip Technicolor, which also makes the movie more worth at least one viewing.

Brian G. Hutton, 1935-2014

I have to admit to not recognizing the name Brian G. Hutton, but the actor-rurned-director died the other day at the age of 79.

Hutton started off as an actor in the mid-1950s, with small roles in movies like Fear Strikes Out, the story of baseball player Jimmy Piersall's struggle with mental illness; or the Elvis Presley film King Creole. Hutton moved into directing in the mid-1960s, and is probably best known for the two World War II action films Where Eagles Dare followed by Kelly's Heroes, which both show up from time to time on TCM. Hutton left the moviemaking business after the 1983 Tom Selleck film High Road to China, one of those movies that I remember being promoted back in the day, but don't think I ever saw and don't think ever shows up anywhere. It's amazing, and kind of sad, how many even relatively recent movies that were released by mainstream studios don't show up on TV anymore. High Road to China did get a DVD release at some point, as it's available at the TCM Shop for even more than the Warner Archive movies.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Out-of-print update for August 20, 2014

Thelma Ritter is the star getting the spotlight treatment on TCM today. I've blogged about the wonderful comedy The Mating Season before, which kicks off prime time at 8:00 PM. This one isn't avaialble from the TCM shop, and in fact I'm not certain if it's ever gotten a DVD release. IMDb doesn't have a link to Amazon to buy it. That's a shame since it's such a fun movie.

Somehwat more surprising is that Birdman of Alcatraz (overnight at 3:30 AM) doesn't seem to be in print on DVD either. There's nothing available from the TCM Shop, while Amazon has a couple of DVDs with pricing information that makes it look like they'r remaining copies of a DVD that's no longer in print. Amazon prime also offers the movie in streaming video, but I don't have the bandwidth for that

Lee Tracy is your star for tomorrow, and it's not surprising that a lot of those lesser 1930s movies that he did and which are showing up in the early part of the day haven't gotten a DVD release. Prime time has some more prominent stuff like Dinner at Eight which has been released to DVD adn which you can get from the TCM Shop. I have to admit to not having seen quite a few of the Tracy movies which run tomorrow morning so I can't blog about them; I think the only ones I've seen are Millionaires in Prison and The Strange Love of Molly Louvain.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Falling Leaves

Somebody on another board yesterday who knows of my love for classic movies showed how little he wanted to do something by saying he'd rather watch a day of 100-year-old movies with me than do that other thing. Apparently he was trying to insult me, but I just despair for everybody else's horrible taste in movies.

Now, most of the movies I mention here are not quite a hundred years old, because that goes all the way back to 1914, and there aren't too many movies surviving from that era compared to the studio era. But my other thought was to think of a movie that was over a century old. My first thought was Falling Leaves, which I briefly mentioned last September when it showed up in the first night of programming around the Story of Film series. I guess I didn't think last September to see if the movie was on Youtube. Due to it's age, the movie is in the public domain. Unsurprisingly, more than one poster has put up Falling Leaves, so you can watch it for yourself and judge:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Repeats for August 18-19, 2014

Unfortunately, TCM decided to schedule The Smiling Lieutenant to kick off prime time at 8:00 PM as part of Claudette Colbert's day in Summer Under the Stars. I think I've mentioned it before, but I'm not a huge fan of Maurice Chevalier movies in general, especially those musical comedies that he was doing at Paramount in the early 1930s. But there are several other interesting movies coming up over the next day or so that I've already blogged about:

Poetess Colbert helps detective James Stewart prove the innocence of his client in It's a Wonderful World, this afternoon at 4:15 PM; meanwhile
American abroad Colbert is made a prisoner of war by the Japanese along with her hsuband (Patric Knowles) and child in Three Came Home, at midnight tonight (or during the evening in more westerly time zones).

Paul Newman is TCM's honoree tomorrow, and he shows up in the thoroughly entertaining The Prize, at 11:15 AM, as a Nobel prize winner who comes to suspect that one of his fellow winners (Edward G. Robinson) has been replaced by a doppelgänger. It's nothing you'll mistake for serious groundbreaking cinema, but it's good and a lot of fun.

Over on FXM, there are a couple of repeats too. First, at 6:00 AM tomorrow is I Wake Up Screaming, in which Victor Mature plays a publicity agent who makes Carole Landis a celebrity, but then is suspected by obsessive detective Laird Cregar when the young woman is found murdered.
Up against The Prize, at 12:20 PM tomorrow, is The Alligator People. I said about The Prize that you can't consider it a work of grave importance, but it succeeds in entertaining. The Alligator People is almost as entertaining, and definitely less serious.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Those inappropriate Essentials Jr. movies

Last week, I mentioned that TCM was running To Be or Not to Be as part of Essentials Jr., and wondered how much kids would get the World War II stuff and the sexual tension going on. This week is an even more interesting choice: Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, at 8:00 PM tonight.

Now, I happen to like Lifeboat, and think it's one of the underrated Hitchcock movies, in that it doesn't get mentioned with the supposedly great stuff like Vertigo (which I happen to think is terribly overrated, and wouldn't fit in Essentials Jr. either, but that's another story). The problem is, there's a lot of material in Lifeboat that I'd think would be difficult for children, especially the younger ones. The sexual tension between the John Hodiak and Tallulah Bankhead characters might give some parents pause, although I'd suggest that's the least of the problems. You've got, in rough order:

A woman who commits suicide because her baby has died;
A man who has to have his leg amputated in decidedly un-hospital-like conditions;
The amputee going delirious and being put out of his misery by a Nazi who may not have had the guy's best interests at heart;
Mob justice being meted out in rather uncomfortable fashion.

Lifeboat is certainly a great movie for adults. I'm just not certain how much the kids will enjoy it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Apparently I haven't blogged about Battleground before

Tomorrow's star for TCM's Summer Under the Stars is John Hodiak. I didn't realize until just this morning that I have yet to blog about his 1949 film Battleground, which is coming up tomorrow morning at 11:45 AM.

The titular battleground is the Battle of the Bulge, which occured in Belgium around Christmas 1944, when the Germans staged a counteroffensive in the Ardennes forest in the southeast of the country. Battleground the movie looks more or less at the members of one infantry division and how they try to survive the battle. This is particularly difficult as the soldiers get caught up in the Nazi siege of Bastogne.

Hodiak plays one of the American soldiers, who together form a cross-section of American society, excluding of course black soldiers since the military wouldn't be desegregated until 1947, after the war had ended. Hodiak is Jarvess, the small-town man; alongside him are the red-blooded all-American Holley (Van Johnson); the young kid Layton (Marshall Thompson); the older guy Stazak (George Murphy); and the Roderigues, Mexican-American who wants to show everybody that he too is fully American (Ricardo Montalbán).

There's not too much to say about the plot, other than the fact that it's pretty much only about the battle and the siege, with what little there is in the way of subplots being the characterizations of the soldiers and the things that happen to them in their day-to-day attempts to survive the battle, such as Holley's having an egg and trying to scramble it for breakfast, only for real life to intrude constantly. There's also the dealing with the Nazis who are trying to get the allies to surrender, in a scene that more or less happened in the actual battle, not only in the movie. When the Nazis tell the American general they expect him to surrender and ask him for his response, he simply says, "Nuts!" Understandably, the Germans are nonplussed by this use of colloquial American English. So the Nazi bigwig gets a translation from his interpreter, who translates the response as "Nüsse", which is a literal translation for nuts that you would eat, not giving any sense that the American general isn't just saying no, he's saying hell no. This humorously leaves the Germans even more nonplussed.

I was never in the military, and am certainly too young to have been in World War II, but several of the reviewers on IMDb claim that Battleground does a surprisingly good job of portraying the difficulties of war, up to a point. Being under siege wouldn't be pleasant in the first place, but having to suffer it in the dead of winter would have been doubly so. The movie displays this despite being done mostly at MGM's studios and backlot. Obviously, though, the movie couldn't show the true gore of dead people, so the ultimate effect is of a movie that's pretty darn good but still has some of the MGM sheen, as opposed to The Steel Helmet just a few years later. Still, Battleground is well worth watching.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A spate of remakes, and a sequel

Hollywood's been making remakes forerver and a day, something that I've mentioned in several posts over the years. The next two stars in TCM's Summer Under the Stars show this, as we've got a couple of more recent remakes, and some older remakes.

First up is today's honoree, Faye Dunaway. She's one of the stars of the 1979 version of The Champ, which is coming up at 11:15 AM. Jon Voight plays the alcoholic boxer who wants to fight one more bout in order to maintain custody of his son (Ricky Schroeder). If it sounds familiar, it's because the original version of this movie came out all the way back in 1931. As you can see from the link I've blogged about the Beery/Cooper version, but I'm not certain if I've seen the more Voight/Schroeder film in its entirety.

The next movie is technically not a remake: a 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, at 8:00 PM. I'm not certain you can call something a remake when it's an adaptation of a piece of literature that was already in the public domain when the original version was made, although it's a bit of a gray area. This is another movie that I have to admit to not having seen.

Tomorrow brings us 24 hours of Herbert Marshall. Back in June, 2013, I mentioned the 1941 film When Ladies Meet, which is airing tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM. It's a remake of a 1933 movie by the same title, which I blogged about in February 2013 and which is linked to in the above link on 1941's When Ladies Meet.

Marshall was also in both versions of Somerset Maugham's play The Letter, and those will be showing back to back on Saturday night into Sunday morning: the 1940 film with Marshall as the cuckolded husband at midnight, followed at 1:45 AM by the 1929 version with Marshall as the murdered boyfriend. The 1940 version, starring Bette Davis, is certainly well made, but I really like the 1929 version. The only problem is that the print is in poor shape.

Finally, I didn't realize that Herbert Marshall had done an Andy Hardy movie, but apparetnly he did. That film, Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble, shows up tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM, and has Marshall playing one of Mickey Rooney's college professors.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Charlie Chaplin heads-ups

Back in March, I reported that when TCM would run Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, they would have a distressing tendency to run not the original 1925 version, but a re-editing Chaplin did in the the early 1940s complete with added narration. I didn't watch last time since I thought it was going to be the 1940s version that I don't care for. The silent buffs at the TCM borads, however, reported that it was in fact the 1925 original. Today being Charlie Chaplin's day in Summer Under the Stars, it's only natural for TCM to select The Gold Rush again; that's coming up at 11:45 AM. I don't know which version is going to run.

TCM is also showing a documentary at 8:00 PM called The Birth of the Tramp that I haven't seen before. However, it's listed as having a 60-minute running time and has been scheduled in a 60-minute slot. If Ben Mankiewicz is doing an intro, then the documentary is liable to run over. This isn't too much of a problem in the scheduling of the next movie, which is the 34-minute short A Dog's Life in a 45-minute time slot. However, as often happens with new-to-TCM documentaries, when they show up in prime time there's a repeat for the benefit of the folks on the west coast. That repeat comes up at 11:30 AM and is also in a one-hour time slot. The movie following that repeat, at 12:30 AM, is the 87-minute City Lights put into a 90-minute time slot. This is where the presence of intros from Ben Mankiewicz would cause a bigger problem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Briefs for August 13, 2014

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago regarding the short Capriccio Italien that I didn't quite understand the point of classical orchestra shorts by the 1950s. A similar type of short whose popularity I also don't understand -- and there were a lot more of these -- are the big band shorts. A lot of these showed up in the 1930s and 1940s, and two more of them are showing up on TCM today: one with bandleader Henry Busse a little after 11:00 AM, or just after His Girl Friday which starts at 9:30; the other being called Yacht Party and set on a set designed to look like a yacht, a little aftre 9:15 PM, following Hot Saturday. In the pre-TV days I can kind of understand showing classical music, since it had ben more the province of the wealthy. All those gazebos and bandstands you see in the park in old movies are because band music with loud brasses that carried were the music for the middle and lower classes. So the studios were bringing culture to the masses, I'd think, by making classical music shorts. And classical music is about the dead guy who wrote the music, not the performers. This is a contrast with the big band stuff, which is about the bandleader and the singer if there is one. And heaven knows the studios brought us enough obscure bandleaders like Jan Savitt. And with the bands that showed up in musical numbers in lots of Hollywood movies of the day, I can't help but wonder how popular those big band shorts would have been. Of course, they were probably sheaper to produce; there's a lot less blocking necessary.

Tuesday, September 16 would have been Lauren Bacall's 90th birthday. TCM already had a morning and afternoon of movies scheduled for that day, although not prime time because Tuesdays in September are devoted to a showcase of cinematic looks at Judaism. The Israeli movies that night are something I can't imagine TCM wanting to preempt. So even though Bacall would merit a 24-hour programming salute, she might not get one. The night before, though, is a night of Bob's picks, so preempting those and having an 8:00 PM to 8:00 PM salute wouldn't be bad.

Tomorrow's star for Summer Under the Stars is Charlie Chaplin. His day is kicking off with what is generally considered the first feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, at 6:00 AM. It also stars Marie Dressler a decade and a half before talking pictures made Dressler a big star. Having been made in 1914, it's in the public domain and the quality of the surviving prints isn't the greatest. But it is available on Youtube. I didn't watch any of the Youtube prints, so I can't vouch for the quality of them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lauren Bacall, 1924-2014

Lauren Bacall with Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep

The death has been announced of actress Lauren Bacall, at the age of 89. Bacall played a variety of roles in her seven decade career, and is well remembered for her marriage to actor Humphrey Bogart, whom she met while making one of her first movies, To Have and Have Not. Bacall would make three more films with Bogart, those being The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Somewhat surprisingly, I don't think I've done a full-length post on any of those films

I say "somewhat", because as I mentioned back in November, 2008, I never got why the Bogart/Bacall romance was supposed to be so much more of a fairy-taly romance than any other of the Hollywood romances, even those that ended in tragedy such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. The other reason for saying "somewhat" is that I'm not a huge fan of To Have and Have Not, not being a big fan of Ernest Hemingway; or of The Big Sleep, which is a complete mess.

Lauren Bacall singing to the accompaniment of Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not

That having been said, I enjoyed Bacall in Written on the Wind. But then, over-the-top Douglas Sirk, when done well, is a joy to sit back and laugh at.

I'm sure that TCM is going to have a programming tribute to Bacall, but with Summer Under the Stars and Bacall not having a day in it, I don't know if they're going to honor Bacall before September. (There doesn't seem to be anything sbout it on the TCM site yet.)

Lauren Bacall teaches Humphrey Bogart how to whistle in To Have and Have Not

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Robin Williams (r.) with Pam Dawber from the TV series Mork and Mindy

By now, you've probably heard of the death of actor Robin Williams, who was found dead in an apparent suicide yesterday at the age of 63. Most people my age and above would probably first remember him (if no longer best remember him) from the TV show Mork and Mindy, which had Robin Williams playing an alien from the planet Ork who comes to Earth to study humand and winds up falling in love with earthling Mindy (Pam Dawber). In what must have been a move to bolster sagging ratings, they even ended up having an offspring together, that being a reverse-aging Jonathan Winters. (Thedy did the reverse-aging thing decades before The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, although they didn't get anywhere near as far thanks to the cancellation of the series.)

Mork and Mindy was entertaining, nonsensical fluff for a six-year-old, but I have to admit that as I became an adult, I started to find that sort of manic humor to be tedious and a bit grating. It's not just Robin Williams; I find Peter Sellers' Strangelove character (bot not the other two characters he plays in Dr. Strangelove) to be like fingernails on a chalkboard, for example. So I never tended to be as much of a fan of his movies as other people would be, even though he did a reasonably wide range of movies. (Well, Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting are both mawkish, although the latter one is Matt Damon's fault; the movie won Williams an Oscar.)

That, and I also became less and less of a Disney animated feature fan as I grew up, especially of the contemporary, so things like Aladdin weren't quite my thing either. Not that this lessens anybody's talent. I did radio in college reading the news, and I know from experience doing live reading and sounding good is difficult; much more so than you'd think. Oh sure, anybody can read words off the page, but doing it while sounding the right way (serious but not grave for news; the whole range of emotions for animation)? That's where it gets difficult.

And then there are the movies that I ought to reacquaint myself, such as Moscow on the Hudson, or the entertaining if completely implausible Dead Again.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Split Second (1953)

Returning to TCM's Summer Under the Stars, the star for romottow, August 12, is Alexis Smith, who I suppose was a bigger star back in the 1940s and 1950s than she is today. Still, it's nice to catch up with some not so well-known people, especially when they've got some interesting movies worth watching. In the case of Alexis Smith, that interesting movie is Split Second, which you can see tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM.

We don't see Alexis Smith at first; the first of the main chaaracters to show up is Larry Fleming, played by Keith Andes. He's a newspaper reporter from Las Vegas, in the hinterlands of Nevada to cover tomorrow morning's atomic bomb test that the US government is carrying out, complete with a great deal of preparation to make certain that nobody winds up in the blast zone. While Fleming is covering all that preparation, he gets a call from his boss. There's been a prison break in Carson City, and one of the most notorious criminals, Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) ha busted out of jail! That's a more interseting story than the atomic test, anyhow, although you can probably guess that the script wouldn't have gone into substantial detail about the bob test if it weren't going to be part of the plot later in the movie.

But we'll get to that in a bit. We still haven't even gotten to Alexis Smith. She winds up as a player in our story completely unexpectedly. Playing a woman named Kay Garven, she's in Nevada with her lover, Arthur (Robert Paige), presumably on the way to get a divorce from her husband in Los Angeles, Dr. Neal Garven (Richard Egan). Along the road, they stop at the sort of service station that was common in the days before the interstate highway system. The only thing is, Sam and his partner Bart (Paul Kelly) have just been there, and got in a gunfight with the owner, killing him. In fact, Sam and Bart haven't quite left, so when they find Kay and Arthur, they carjack the couple since the cops won't be looking for that car.

As for Larry, he's going to show up too. Kay's car runs out of gas, and when the crooks flag down another car to carjack, it just happens to be Larry's car. And by this time, he's pickued up a stranded passenger, dancer Dottie (Jan Sterling). So our crooks carjack them and with four hostagens in tow, force Larry to drive to the ghost town of Lost Hope City. The only thing is, that's in the blast zone! Fear not, the criminals say. They've got a plan and it's going to go to clockwork, and as long as the hostages don't do anything to screw up the plan, everybody will get out of town by the time the blast is detonated at 6:00 AM.

But of course there's already a complication, which is that Bart got shot in the escape attempt. He needs a doctor, and he knows that Kay's husband is a doctor, because he saw a letter from the good doctor. Dammit, Rr. Garven, you're going to come out to Nevada and fix up my buddy, or you're never going to see your wife alive again. Not that Sam knows Kay and Neal are on the outs, although he's about to get an inkling along those lines, since Kay tells him this, and then reveals that she's finding herself falling in love with Sam. At this point we'd begin to get a standard-issue hostage movie with the suspense of whether everybody's going to get out in time. Except that the script turns things up another notch by having the government move the bomb test up an hour from 6:00 AM to 5:00 AM. (I can't think this would never happen in real life because of the risk involved. But damn if it isn't a good plot device.)

Split Second is very much a B movie, but one that's very well done thanks to a script that never lets up in its tension. Sure, we've seen all these tropes a dozen times before, but the way they're put together in Split Second is just so darn entertaining. The actors are good enough even if none of them became truly big stars, while then tension is helped out a bit by having much of the second half take place in a fairly confined space. And then there's the ending, which certainly satisfies after the rest of the movie. I've blogged about a lot of movies that would never be considered great, but which succeed spectacularly in their objective of entertaining the viewer. Split Second fits that description in spades.

Split Second has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, but not that there have been several movies with the title Split Second, so make certain you're getting the right one.

Lloyd Nolan, 1902-1985

Lloyd Nolan (center) with Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint in A Hatful of Rain (1957)

Today marks the birth anniversary of the underrated actor Lloyd Nolan. Nolan was never really a star, but for decades, he made so many movies that he was in better. He started in the mid-1930s, with an appearance in James Cagney's G-Men, but it wasn't until he went to Fox a few years later that he started to get the roles for which he's best remembered. In Johnny Apollo, Nolan plays the leader of the gang, which is a bit of a departure for Nolan, who generally played good guys. Among those are an FBI man in The House on 92nd Street, a police detective in Somewhere in the Night, and another detective in another docudrama, The Street With No Name.

With the coming of television, Nolan started doing work on the small screen as well as the big screen, and remained in steady demand until his death at the age of 83. Still there were several movies worth mentioning from this later period, such as playing the town doctor in Peyton Place; the aforementioned A Hatful of Rain, or an admiral who gives Rock Hudson his orders at the beginning of Ice Station Zebra. IMDb also lists him in Airport, although with so many stars in that movie it's easy to forget him.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Essentials Jr. Choices

It seems as though every summer during Essentials Jr., three's at least one movie selected that makes me scratch my head and wonder what they were doing picking this one. The series skirts toward that border this week, although it's really next week when they unabashedly cross it. This week's movie is the Carole Lombard/Jack Benny versoin of To Be or Not to Be.

Oh, there's a lot of great comedy here, and especially the visual stuff Jack Benny does is material that the younger viewers can enjoy. But there's also quite a bit of dark humor, as when Jack Benny's character realizes he has to deal quickly with a dead doppelgänger, or when the acting troupe literally orders a pair of Nazis to jump to their deaths. Some of the fast-paced dialog-based humor might go over the younger viewers' heads, as well as some of the historical context. Not so much World War II itself, but the who Polish airmen escaping to the west and fighting the Nazis from Britain thing.

Overall, though, I don't think To Be Or Not to Be winds up being a head-scratching choice for children. It's just too good a movie. And as for some of the historical context, I'd like to think that maybe a bit of explanation in the intro might have to be given, but that should handle it. After all, I don't think children have any problem with the sound-era Our Gang or Laurel and Hardy shorts despite the severely outdated technology.

Note that TCM's daily schedule doesn't have a "buy the DVD" icon next to To Be Or Not to Be, although it is, in fact, available.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Menahem Golan, 1929-2014

The death was announced yesterday of Israeli director-producer Menahem Golan, who died at the age of 85.

As a director, Golan may not be so memorable, although Operation Thunderbolt, about the Israeli raid on the Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue a hijacked El Al airplane, did get a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie was produced by Golan-Globus, which was named for himself and his cousin, Yoran Globus, and that's where Golan would eventually make his name.

In the late 1970s, the two cousins took over the Cannon Group, and proceeded to produce a bunch of schlocky low-budget stuff such as some of the Death Wish sequels; Breakin' and its sequel Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo; Bo Derek's Bolero; or Sylvester Stallone's arm-wrestling movie Over the Top. They also tried to make what in a previous era would have been called "prestige" movies, such as getting Jean-Luc Godard to direct a version of King Lear. Sadly, though, they overspent (sounds like a lot of Hollywood studios) which led to Cannon's eventual bankruptcy and Golan's return to working in Israel.

Friday, August 8, 2014

King of the Duplicators

An interesting behind the scenes short that's showing up on TCM again this evening is The King of the Duplicators, at about 7:45 PM, or following Great Catherine (6:00 PM, 98 min).

This short is a look into the MGM make-up department as it was back in 1968 and, more specifically, the man who ran that department, William Tuttle. Tuttle had by the time this short was made been the head of MGM's make-up department for close to 20 years, although he had been in Hollywood a decade longer than that. The short looks at the way make-up was done back in the day, which of course means not just mascara and rouge and the stuff women get at the cosmetics department, but things like making people age for a biopic or making them look deformed or whatnot.

Apparently a good portion of that process involved making a plaster cast of the actor's face, which is shown in part here and which looks decidedly uncomfortable. After the plaster cast was made, then Tuttle could do his magic with latex and stuff. We get to see quite a few of the casts that had been made over the years, with the most obviously recognizable of them being Jimmy Durante -- you can't miss the nose.

The short is actually quite interesting, although the production values are terrible. It's basically the announcer walking through the MGM make-up department and droning on. Tuttle isn't exactly charismatic, although that's really not his fault. He does his work professionally and well, as is evidenced by all the MGM movies he worked on in the 1950s and 1960s. If you haven't seen this one before, it's well worth the 12 minutes it runs.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

He likes it! Hey Mikey!

In my travels around the web yesterday morning, I came across the blog Mike's Take on the Movies. I'm always up for a new (to me) blog on old movies that's got something interesting to say. Right now Mike is in the middle of a week-long series on the films of Carole Lombard, including a post on Supernatural, a Lombard movie I had never even heard of.

Since the blog is about old movies, interesting, and not moribund, I've added it to the blogroll over on the right of the screen. Check it out!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Carbine Williams

TCM's Summer Under the Stars honoree for tomorrow, August 7, is James Stewart. One of his movies that I don't think I've ever mentioned before is Carbine Williams, which is on at 4:15 PM.

Stewart, unsurprisingly, gets the title role, as David Marshall Williams, who lived in a rural area of North Carolina, as we learn from an establishing scene that eventually has the movie told in flashback. It's the early 1920s, which means the Prohibition era, and the economic prospects aren't all that great in places like that part of North Carolina. So naturally, a lot of the people turn to building stills and distilling alcohol in defiance of a law they consider immoral. Of course, the authorities don't like these stills, so they send agents in to destroy the stills. In one of those skirmishes involving Williams and a bunch of his associates, a federal agent gets shot dead. Williams is by far the best shot, so he's assumed to be the murderer even though it's not quite certain who did the deed.

There's a trial, and eventually Williams gets convicted and sentenced to thirty years in the penitentiary. This being the 1920s, he's put on the chain gang, but he's not suited for such labor at all and rebels. Not that it's going to do him any good, but eventually he does get sent to the machine shop, where he shows that he's got a great mechanical aptitude. In fact, his aptitude is with guns, which should be a problem for a prisoner in that you have to ask yourself what sort of prison is going to let the prisoners get anywhere close to guns? But the warden, HT Peoples (Wendell Corey) notices Williams' aptitude and takes a risk on him.

Williams then starts working on his designs for better guns, which ultimately results in the invention of several design advancements for semi-automatic guns, which would eventually be used by the US military in the M1 carbine, a standard-issue rifle that was used from World War II to the Vietnam War. Williams tests his advancements at a public exhibition at the prison (as amazing as this seems), and ultimately gets paroled after serving eight years of his sentence, going back to live with his faithful wife Maggie (Jean Hagen).

Carbine Williams is a biopic, so I don't think I'm giving too much away with the plot summary above. From what I've read on Wikipedia, the story is not terribly inaccurate, although the details of the murder that gets Williams sent to prison are quite a bit different. The victim was a local deputy sheriff, not a federal agent, and Williams' men may have ambushed the authorities raiding the stills. Hollywood probably felt they needed to make Williams a bit more sympathetic, although I personally think the true story seems interesting enough on its own. That having been said, the script was apparently based on Williams' own relating of events to the folks in Hollywood. James Stewart, after World War II, became excellent at playing characters who have a dark edge to them. He does fine here, even though he's about 20 years too old for the part. Corey and Hagen are good too, although this is Stewart's movie all the way. The final result is a very solid movie about an interesting and relatively lesser-known figure from American history.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I'd Climb the Highest Mountain

Getting away from TCM for a bit, over on FXM Retro you have a chance to catch the period movie I'd Climb the Highest Mountain, tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM.

Susan Hayward plays Mary, a woman in the first decade of the 20th century who has just become the new Mrs. William Thompson. William Thompson is actually Reverend William Thompson (William Lundigan), a Methondist minister. Rev. Thompson has been assigned by the church to a congregation in the isolated hill towns of northeast Georgia. Nowadays it would only be a couple of hours by car to Atlanta, but back then almost nobody had cars, and certainly not the lifelong residents of that part of Georgia, so the area feels like it belongs to another time completely. Mrs. Thompson, for her part, belongs to another place: she was born and bred in the big city, and she's not exactly a devout Christian. Still, she married the reverend, so she's off to follow him wherever the Church tells him to go.

It's not going ot be an easy life for her, though, not least because she being a city girl isn't the handiest around the house. In fact, the very day the new couple arrives and has a party thrown in their honor, who should show up but one Jack Stark (Rory Calhoun). He has his eyes on the lovely Jenny Brock (Barbara Bates), and the feeling is definitely mutual. But he's apparetnly the black sheep of the community, because Jenny's father (Gene Lockhart) don't like him, and everybody in town but the Thompsons seems to understand that his presence outside the Thompsons' house is going to lead to trouble. The on-again, off-again romance between Jack and Jenny is one of the themes that runs throughout the movie.

Something that affects the Rev. Thompson more than Mrs. Thompson in making his job difficult is the presence of one Tom Salter (Alexander Knox). He's a Harvard man, which makes one wonder how he ended up in the back woods of anywhere. This especially because he's a free thinker, which is a wuphemism for somebody who doesn't believe in God and dammit, he's going to raise his kids to make certain they don't believe in God either. In a time when belief in God was much stronger and whole communities seemed to attend the same church, Salter's presence is clearly a thorn in the side of Rev. Thompson.

Along the way, there is a series of other events that eventually show how the Rev. Thompson becomes loved by his community before he's reassigned to another congregation because those are the rules, and how Mrs. Thompson learns to be a good wife. One particularly humorous scene involves a woman from the city (Lynn Bari) who claims to be taking an interest in Rev. Thompson's sermons and the Bible, but may just be taking a bigger interst in the reverend himself.

All in all, I'd Climb the Highest Mountain is a nicely done movie, another of the many many movies from the studio era that feel like they were churned out on an assembly line: it succeeds in entertaining, but it never feels as though it's going to be an all-time memorable movie. The color cinematography, however, is quite good and location shooting makes the movie worth watching. Susan Hayward is good as always; William Lundigan was bland as always. Alexander Knox doesn't have a particularly big role and it feels as though he could have played his part in his sleep. As for Jack and Jenny, you want them to end up together, even if it's never really made clear why everybody seems to have a problem with Jack.

I'd Climb the Highest Mountain is available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme.

There's Always Tomorrow

Another of the Barbara Stanwyck movies in today's lineup that I haven't recommended before is There's Always Tomorrow. It's on tonight at 11:30 PM.

Barbara Stanwyck doesn't show up right at the beginning of the movie; that honor goes to the male lead, Fred MacMurray. He plays Clifford Groves, who runs a toy company out in the Los Angeles area and has done a good job for himself. At the end of the day, he goes home to a lovely wife Marion (Joan Bennett) and three wonderful kids. But of course, all of that is about to change, or else we wouldn't have a movie. That change, in fact, starts on the Mrs. Groves' birthday. Clifford comes home all ready to surprise Marion, taking her out to dinner and a show. It is quite the surprise, as Marion had all sorts of other plans doing things with the children since she's been busy raising them while Clifford has been out earning the money to keep them in that lovely house. Dad offers to take each of the kids, but they've got things to do, too, especially eldest son Vinnie, who's got a date with his girlfriend Ann.

Into all of this walks Barbara Stanwyck. She plays Norma Miller Vale, a woman who used to work for the Groves business before Clifford became a husband and father, and who went off to New York in the intervening years and became successful in fashion design. She's in town on business, and on a lark decided to see what happened to the man she worked with and had a good friendship with. Clifford, having theater tickets and reservations to dinner, decides to ask her to spend the evening with him. Purely innocently, of course.

Fast forward a few days, when Dad has planned to make up for Mom not being able to do anything on her birthday, by taking Mom out to one of the desert resorts for the weekend. However, youngest daughter Frankie sprains her ankle, and Mom thinks it would be better to stay at home with Frankie. But why not go off to the resort yourself, Cliff, Marion suggests. Schedule one of your business meetings there. So he does, and Norma just happens to be there, again purely coincidentally. Except that this time, Vinnie and some of his high school friends show up at the same resort where Dad has met Norma. Vinnie, of course, suspects the worst.

At this point, Vinnie has a complete change, much like Ann Blyth's character in Our Very Own, and the film descends into unintentional hilarity. Vinnie, being the oldest of the kids, gets his two younger sisters to take his side and they're utter jerks, too, especially when Dad invites Norma over to dinner with the whole family. Dad, beginning to feel unloved, decides that perhaps he should go off with Norma.

Douglas Sirk directed There's Always Tomorrow, and while it's not as over the top as some of his lush Technicolor movies, his fingers are all over the movie, partly in the sene that there's not really a happily ever after, but more in the laying it on thick once the kids see what Dad's up to. A lot of reviewers will give you some mumob-jumbo about this being a blistering indictment of the staid 1950s view of family happiness and the suburbs and all that, but I've always tended to think that's a bit more revisionist history than Sirk thinking how he can put agitprop into all of his movies. To be fair, much of the material he got was already on the border of overcooked.

As for There's Always Tomorrow, it's not terrible, but the way the kids turn on a dime makes the movie never rise to anythying close to greatness. And it's doesn't go as far around the bend as Imitation of Life or Written on the Wind, so it's not quite as fun to sit and laugh at. MacMurray and Stanwyck both do about as well as can be expected with their roles, making the movie ultimately worth one watch, although you may want to reach through the screen and smack those kids.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Cry Wolf

TCM wil be spending its Summer Under the Stars day tomorrow with Barbara Stanwyck, including one of her lesser movies, Cry Wolf, at 4:15 PM.

Stanwyck plays Sandra Marshall, a widow who was married to one James Demarest. It was a bit of a hush-hush marriage of convenience for both parties, and James' family had never seen her. So one she heard that he died while away, she goes to his family to deal with the usual matters of the will and all that fun stuff. It's about to get even less fun: when Sandra arrives at the isolated estate where James' uncle Mark (Errol Flynn) lives, Mark and the rest of the family claim to have no knowledge of James' ever having been married! There's a nice Hollywood trope for you.

Ah, but if you like tropes, you're about to get another one. The family doesn't just dislike her; Mark and his son are pretty much making it obvious to the viewer and to Sandra that they've got a secret that they're going to keep from her at all costs, just because. Well, OK, since it's a movie you have to assume that the secret is a bit darker than that, but the point is that the plot and staging pretty much beat it into our heads: what are they keeping from Sandra? Trope #2.

If it were just Mark acting suspsiciously, that would be one thing. But we're about to get another trope: the possibly crazy relative who hears things and claims that the rest of the family is against her. This relative is James' sister Julie (Geraldine Brooks). The first night Sandra is there, Julie hears moaning going on in another part of the house. Mark of course tries to pass Julie off as imagining things, except that this ties in with Trope #2: Sandra heard the moaning too, so now she knows that Mark is lying to her. Trope #3.

Trope #4 involves the outsider (Sandra) who knows that there's something fishy going on here deciding that she's going to do a bit of investigating in order to find out the secret. So we get a scene of Barbara Stanwyck using a dumbwaiter to get into a part of the house where she's not going to be, and where she unsurprisingly hears more secrets, which lead her to try to get a horse and ride out fo some mysterious cabin out in the woods. In among all this, Julie either falls, jumps, or is pushed out of a window, and dies. There goes Sandra's only ally.

It all leads up to the twist of an ending which wraps up all the secrets and leaves Sandra and Mark to live ever after, if not blissfully the way they would have if they had been paired in a screwball comedy. Cue the closing music.

There's something about Cry Wolf that's not right at all. We've seen all these plot devices ten times before, with the result that the plot turns out to be a thick mess that doesn't quite satisfy. Stanwyck is professional yet again in her acting, playing a woman who has to become tough in the face of resistance, something she had done many times before in her career. Flynn isn't terrible, although his role of the lying, charmless jerk is a thankless one to have to play. Still, fans of Flynn may want to watch this just to see him doing something rather different in his career.

Cry Wolf has received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

William K.L. Dickson, 1860-1935

Today marks the birth anniversary of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, who directed something like 150 movies in a period of about a decade. Of course, Dickson probably shouldn't be remembered as a director, but as an inventor, the man who came up with the practical design for Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, probably the first movie camera in the United States. Dickson's first film for Edison, in 1890, is called Monkeyshines No. 1, and would be nothing to write home about if it weren't for the fact that it was made back in 1890:

Moviemaking advanced quite a lot in a few short years, and Dickson shows up in 1894 in what is sometimes considered the first sound movie. Edison, having inveted the gramphone, wanted to use it to record sound to be synchronized with film. The experiment wasn't a success, but the Library of Congress eventually found the sound reel and synchronized it to the action around 15 years ago. I think that's Dickson on the violin:

One other Dickson short you're likely to have seen is of the butterfly dancer Annabelle. Dickson and Edison had filmed her in 1894 after they had seen her at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and after Dickson left Edison's employ around 1895 to go into public exhibition of moving pictures, Dickson went back and filmed Annabelle again, this time having the images hand-tinted. The tinted film shows up in the 100 Years at the Movies piece that TCM runs once in a rare while:

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Hot Heiress

Tomorrow, August 3, TCM's Summer Under the Stars is bringing us a full 24 hours of the films of Walter Pidgeon. The day spans over 30 years of his career, starting with very early Pidgeon movies such as The Hot Heiress, at 7:30 AM.

You can probably guess that Pidgeon is not playing the heiress, although that would make for an interesting movie. In fact, Pidgeon isn't even the male lead. That honor goes to Ben Lyon. He plays "Hap" (short for "Happy") Harrigan, a construction worker in New York who, at the start of the movie, is working on the latest high rise, riveting girders together. The workers basically throw hot rivets to each other as needed, and Hap is one of the best at catching them and doing his riveting. But something goes wrong with one of the rivets, which whizzes past Hap and into the window of the high-rise apartment building next to where Hap is working. So Hap just goes into the window to retrieve the rivet. In that room is... a woman! That woman is Juliette Hunter (Ona Munson), the titular heiress, daughter of well-to-do Holmes Herbert and Nella Walker. Juliette is immediately taken with Hap's raw masculinity, which to be fair a woman of Juliette's class in the early 1930s wouldn't have come close to. So she and hap eventually meet for lunch, where Hap sensibly tells Juliette that you can't really expect a relationship involving such big class differences to work out. Juliette is oblivious to all this, and eventually winds up going on a double date with Hap and his friend Bill (Tom Dugan) and Bill's girlfriend Margie (Inez Courtney).

Juliette had a nice night out slumming it, but there are dark clouds on the horizon. In the meantime, Juliette was proposed to by Clay (that's Walter Pidgeon). Clay is the sort of respectable man who is supposed to be right for Juliette, but since they cast somebody like Walter Pidgeon in the role, it's supposed to be obvious that she sees something that's missing in Clay but not in Hap. Not that Walter Pidgeon is a bad actor; it's just that his presence screams "safe", "predictable", and "boring" in a way that casting somebody else wouldn't have done. (If the movie had been made at MGM, casting Robert Montgomery as Clay would have made for an interesting conflict.) Further clouds come up when Juliette invites Hap out to the country to meet all her family and friends. She realizes that hey won't accept somebody from Hap's blue-collar background, so she lies to everybody and says he's an architect. Clay learns the truth and, to try to break up the relationship, tells the truth to Juliette's parents. Hap knew he was right all along and leaves Juliette for lying, but she still has a yen for him....

The Hot Heiress is very typical for a movie of its time. It's relatively short, it strongly highlights the class differences, and it expects the viewer to believe things that really strain credulity. Still, The Hot Heiress more or less succeeds in entertaining for its 80 minutes. There are a lot of pre-Codes out there that are much more sizzling, but there are also a lot of early talkies that are quite creaky. The Hot Heiress is in between, competent but not spectacular. And it's fun to see Walter Pidgeon at the beginning of his long career.

As far as I know, The Hot Heiress has never been released to DVD.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Briefs for August 1, 2014

So we've finally reached this year's Summer Under the Stars, in which each day is given over to 24 hours of movies starring a certain person.Well, not quite starring; for example, tomorrow's salute to David Niven starts off with him billed a good way down the cast in Dodsworth at 6:00 AM, followed by again being well down the cast in The Charge of the Light Brigade at 8:00 AM.

And then there's Jane Fonda today, who even gets some non-movie programming thrown in. To be fair, however, that non-movie programming is the AFI Lifetime Achievement award she received earlier this year. That show, running a little over an hour, kicks off prime time at 8:00 PM and, like many new-to-TCM programs of this type, get a repeat later in the evening at 11:00 PM for the benefit of TCM's viewers on the west coast. In between is one movie, in this case, Cat Ballou at 9:15 PM.

As for the shorts, I've mentioned Mighty Manhattan, New York's Wonder City before; that's on this afternoon at about 3:25 PM, or following The Chapman Report (1:15 PM, 125 min). It technically doesn't call itself a Traveltalks short, but for all intents and purposes it is on, with the main difference being that it's a two-reeler. Watch for the scenes of where the UN building is being built, and the uter lack of traffic.

One other short that looks interesting but that I haven't seen before, is The Story of "The Jonker Diamond", a little aftre 7:45 AM tomorrow, following the previously-mentioned Dodsworth. This one is a Pete Smith short about the finding of an exceedingly large diamond in South Africa in the early years of the last century, and how it was turned from a rough diamond into the state we know today. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, early in his career.