Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Deer Hunter

Several months back one of the premium movie packages had a free preview weekend, and when I saw that the channel was running The Deer Hunter, I recorded it since it's one of those movies I had actually never seen before. I finally got round to watching it this weekend.

In the decidedly blue-collar steel town of Clairton, PA, it's around 1970, and Steve (John Savage) is about to get married to his girlfriend Angela, with his wedding party consisting of Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), Stan (John Cazale) and a few others. Michael, Nick, and Steve are also going to be going off to fight in Vietnam, having just enlisted, so it's going to be one last blowout for everybody. First there's the wedding, and then everybody but Steve is going to be going off to the mountains to engage in a little deer hunting. While Steve is leaving behind a new wife to go to Vietnam, Nick has a girlfriend in Linda (Meryl Streep), and Michael, ever the aloof one, has nobody.

In Vietnam, the three buddies serve together reasonably well, until their caught by some Vietnamese soldiers in an ambush. They're held POW in a prison right on the river by some brutal captors who entertain themselves by capturing people and forcing them to play Russian roulette, with the captors betting on the outcome. It's enough to unnerve anybody, but it particularly unnerves poor Nick, especially when he's forced into the game. He technically loses, although the gun slips and only grazes him in the head. Eventually Michael figues a way out of it for them when he's able to surprise the captors by turning the guns on them, but it comes at the cost of Steve getting shot in the legs and the three being forced to escape downriver. Nick gets rescued by an American helicopter, and Michael and Steve have a long slog ahead of them, eventually getting rescued by the Americans.

Michael and Steve finally get demobbed and sent back to the states, Steve to a VA hospital since he's wheelchair-bound, and Michael back to his hometown that he no longer wants to face. As for Nick, he went AWOL in Saigon when he saw that the whole betting on Russian roulette thing was going on there too, not just in the prison camp. Michael tries to put his life back together, but the war changed him, while the buddies who stayed behind don't seem to have matured one iota. He decides he has to find Steve and when he does, he discovers exactly what's happened to Nick, too, which necessitates his going back to Vietnam -- against the backdrop of South Vietnam falling in 1975, no less! -- to try to rescue Nick.

There's a fair bit to like about The Deer Hunter, but there was also quite a bit that left me shaking my head in disbelief. The hunting scenes were the first thing, since those mountains looked nothing like anything you'd see east of the Rockies. In fact, they were in the Cascades in Washington state, but that's only a minor quibble. I was rolling my eyes much worse at the idea that Michael was going to be able to get back into the South Vietnam of 1975 with no issue, and actually be able to go against the tide of humanity trying to flee.. I also found it hard to believe Nick's character transformation.

The Deer Hunter is also an extremely slow movie. It's supposedly about Vietnam, although really, it's more a story of what any war does to people, with Vietnam only being used because it was the most recent war. Normally, I'm not a fan of Vietnam War movies, but this one was done close enough to the end of the war that it doesn't have as much of a feel of trying to re-live the 60s all over again, and as I said, it's only about Vietnam on the surface. But it takes over an hour to get to Vietnam, and the movie runs a little over three hours. There's no way you can excise the entire wedding and hunting party scenes that open up the movie, but I couldn't help but think the movie could have been cut down quite a bit.

On the plus side, the performances are generally quite good, and the location shooting was generally excellent (even the Washington state photography was lovely despite being nothing like Pennsylvania). Director Michael Cimino used several mill towns along the Ohio River as stand-ins for Clairton (a real place south of Pittsburgh). Obviously they couldn't use Vietnam, but Thailand is a suitable substitute.

Overall, I'd recommend The Deer Hunter, even though it's quite a slog.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

St. Wenceslas

Friday was the feast day of St. Wenceslas (yes, the subject of the Christmas carol), the patron saint of the Czech Republic (the name is also spelled with a U and in Czech is known as Václav). It was a public holiday in the Czech Republic, but why am I mentioning it here?

Apparently, at the end of the silent era, a studio in the then Czechoslovakia produced an epic called St. Wenceslas that to be honest I'd never heard of. And apparently, the original score to the movie has recently been discovered, so the government of Prague has been organizing showings of the movie in advance of the national holiday, this also being the centenary of the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia after World War I.

Radio Prague had a story about the event; as always their site has a transcript of the article. But if you'd rather listen, there's streaming audio at the top, and a download here, a ~1.3 MB MP3 that runs a little under three minutes.

As far as I can tell, the movie itself is unavailable anywhere.

Andrei Rublev

I mentioned at the beginning of the month that I've had Andrei Rublev on my DVR for quite some time, and was going to be watching it this month because it was getting a new DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection. That DVD came out on Tuesday, so I finally watched the movie to post on it.

Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) was a painter of reigious icons in early 15th century Russia, a time before the tsars when Tatar hordes were still raiding the country and the country as a whole was in a state of flux. At the start of the movie in 1400, Rublev and his friends Daniil and Kirill, also icon painters, were at a monastery but they eventually leave to become itinerant painters, something that was in some ways necessary considering that a good portion of the work involves painting frescoes and you kind of have to go where the walls are.

Andrei Rublev the movie tells the story of Rublev's suffering -- indeed, the subtitle is "The Passion of Andrei" -- through seven fictionalized vignettes of events from about a dozen years in Rublev's life. In reality, very little is known of Rublev's personal life, so the film is not conceived as a biopic in the way that something like Lust for Life was. Each of the vignettes is given a title card and lasts somewhere between 20-30 minutes, so although the movie is long, you can easily break it in two. Finally, at the end, we get to see some of Rublev's actual icons, filmed in color to contrast from the black-and-white photography of the rest of the movie.

Director Andrei Tarkovsky shows himself to be a very competent filmmaker with Andrei Rublev, although I have to say that having watched this, I find it hard to understand why he gets so much mention on "greatest movies of all time" lists. Each of the vignettes was interesting as a standalone, but put together I found it a bit of a baffling whole, especially with the prologue that seemed totally unrelated to the rest of the story.

The movie also has a lot of stuff that may be difficult viewing for some people. One of the vignettes involves a Tatar sacking of the Russian city of Vladimir, and that scene involves a bunch of people getting killed, a cow being set on fire (although the cow was wearing an asbestos blanket), and a horse literlly being killed (Wikipedia says the horse was rented from a slaughterhouse and so destined to be killed anyway, but still). There's quite a bit of violence in some of the other segments too.

As for the DVD, it's a multi-disc set that apparently has both the original version of the movie that runs 206 minutes (that's the one TCM showed, although it was letterboxed and pillarboxed), as well as a ~185 minute version that Tarkovsky said was his favorite. Due to the violence in the movie and the fact that it's about Russia as a whole, Soviet censors ordered cuts and there were quite a few versions around. There's Tarkovsky's "director's cut", as well as the original, which was supposedly saved by an editor who kept her own copy without the Soviet authorities knowing about it.

I can certainly recommend Andrei Rublev, even though I don't think it's the masterpiece that a lot of people seem to think it is.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bright Victory

TCM is running a night of Arthur Kennedy movies tonight, starting at 8:00 PM with Bright Victory.

Kennedy plays Sgt. Larry Nevins, who at the opening of the film is seriving in the US Army's communications corps in North Africa in 1943. His current mission is to re-connect a forward outpost to the base well behind the lines. It's a dangerous mission, as shown by the fact that he and his two colleagues are stopped at a checkpoint and told there's no vehicles allowed forward of this point due to the road not being de-mined, which is a foreshadowing that the jeep is going to get mined. Still, Nevins bluffs his way through the checkpoint.

Amazingly, the jeep doesn't hit a mine. Instead, there are German snipers on the hills above, and they attack the three men in the jeep, wounding all of them and beating a hasty retreat. Sgt. Nevins has been hit in the head and his eyes have been covered, in preparation for transport back to the States where a better Army doctor can see what can be done to improve Nevins' condition.

As it turns out, when Nevins gets to the Army's Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania, the doctors diagnose a severed optic nerve, which means permanent blindness. Nevins doesn't want to face this future at first, and certainly doesn't want to tell his parents (Will Geer and Nana Bryant). He's also worried about the woman who's going to become his fiancée, Chris (Julie Adams), whose father is the wealthy owner of a barrel factory in Nevins' small Florida home town.

But since there's nothing else to be done, Nevins sets about on his rehabilitation, which means learning to cope with his blindness. There are enough blind people at the army hospital that the locals are used to dealing with blind people, and one of the people Larry meets at the bar is Judy (Peggy Dow). He's gruff with her at first since the first time he meets her he's still not ready to deal with his blindness, but eventually he warms up, and Judy begins to feel that this one might really be the man for her, even though he's blind. Another person Larry meets is fellow blinded soldier Joe Morgan (James Edwards), who we can all see is black. Now that Larry is blind, he can't see that. But he grew up in a southern town where it was just accepted that blacks were second-class humans and casual racism was the norm, so Larry unsurprisingly screws up his friendship with Joe through his use of a racial slur.

Eventually, Nevins has to go home on a furlough as part of his rehabilitation, and he finds that things have changed. Everybody looks at him differently, and he himself has changed thanks in part to his interactions with Morgan. Will Nevins be able to become a productive member of society, and will he be able to find true love and happiness?

Bright Victory is a really good movie with wonderful performances from both Kennedy (who got his one Best Actor Oscar nomination to go with several Supporting Actor nominations; he never won) and Peggy Dow. The resolution of the story seemed to me to be a little too Hollywood happy, as I'd think Nevins would still have a very difficult road ahead of him, but it doesn't detract from the movie overall.

Bright Victory is a movie that deserves better recognition than it has, and as far as I know it's not on DVD at all, which is a huge shame. Tonight's TCM showing, and another one scheduled in November, are your few chances to catch this worthy movie.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #220: Anthology TV Shows

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. Once again, we've reached the last Thursday of the month, which means it's time for another TV-themed edition. This time, the subject is anthologies. I suppose I could have used the shows that some of the classic stars did, like Loretta Young or Dick Powell, but not having seen any of those, I decided to go in a different direction, with three shows that discussed different stories from real life every week:

In Search Of... (1977-1982). Each week, host Leonard Nimoy engaged in conjecture about various scientific and natural phenomena, from more grounded in reality ideas like the earthquakes mentioned in the opening of the episode above, to nonsense like alien abductions. The show has been revived on multiple occasions, although obviously without the now-deceased Nimoy, whose presence on the original was my first exposure to Nimoy as a little kid even before Star Trek.

Unsolved Mysteries (1988-1999). Robert Stack hosted this show about mysteries, many of the unsolved legal type although some closer to the In Search Of... type, with re-enactments of the crimes positing what may have happened. It grew out of some TV specials hosted by Stack as well as Karl Malden and Raymond Burr, and got a revival hosted by Dennis Farina.

Rescue 911 (1989-1996). William Shatner hosted this show which consisted of re-enactments of emergencies in which people called 911 and were saved. It should probably be noted that 911 was not yet universal at the time the series began. We only got the sort of 911 that sent the caller's location to the dispatcher around the time the show premiered, as it necessitated a change in addresses from rural route addresses to street addresses.

I'll assume the reason shows like this got produced and lasted as long as they did is that they must have been dirt cheap to produce, even with name talent hosting. It can't possibly have been for their quality.

Court House Crooks

When I watched Way Down East, there was a good half hour left in the time slot TCM ran it in, so they included the early two-reeler Court House Crooks.

The idea is a good one. A District Attorney (Ford Sterling) is having an affair with the Judge's (Charles Arling) wife (Minta Durfee). The judge buys his wife a necklace but drops the case, with the DA finding it, pocketing the necklace, and throwing the case away. When a young man (a young Harold Lloyd) is found with the case, he's put on trial for the larceny.

Unfortunately, I found it a fairly weak effort, as it's varies between unfunny and going floridly over the top in an attempt to be humorous, in the way that silent actors tended to gesticulate since they couldn't use dialog to make their points. The trial is also absurd, since it would have been handed to a different judge who didn't have a stake in the case and with only an empty jewelry case, the defendant should never have been convicted. A key plot point also relies on there being a window where there shouldn't be one, since the courtroom is directly opposite the hall from the DA's office.

At any rate, since this is from 1915, it's in the public domain and there are several copies on Youtube. I didn't watch this one to see if it's got a music score, but watch for yourself if you want to judge:

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Don't ask about the first 79 stars

A movie that I was pleased to see show up on TCM during Summer Under the Stars was Star 80, which was on during a day saluting Carroll Baker. It's available on DVD from the Warner Archive, so I watched it to do a post on it here.

Mariel Hemingway plays Dorothy Stratten, a young Canadian woman who, if you don't know the story, was plucked from obscurity in Vancouver to become a Playboy centerfold and would-be actress before.... Well, you can click the Wikipedia biography if you don't already know about Stratten's life.

Stratten was 16 when she was working a part-time job at a Dairy Queen in the Vancouver area when she was discovered by Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), a man several years older who made a living doing all sorts of scheming business deals. Snider saw Stratten and felt that she could be a model, with himself as her manager. So he started taking erotic photographs of her and having a romantic relationship with her, which if you think about it is incredibly creepy given the age difference.

Eventually, Snider gets Stratten an in at the Playboy Mansion where she meets Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson) and the rest of the staff. She gets a job as a model, and as one of the bunnies at the Playboy Club to keep her financially solvent. Hefner and his advisers, meanwhile, see Snider for what he is, and strongly advise Dorothy that she should stay away from him.

But she stupidly gets married to him, as her success is rising. Paul, never being able to keep a stable job other htan his self-styled management of her career, is burning through Dorothy's money left and right. When Dorothy gets her first big acting job, in a movie directed by Aram Nicholas (a stand-in for Peter Bogdanovich, and played by Roger Rees), hte filming schedule requires her to go to New York, which she does without Snider. He becomes more insanely jealous, and hires a private investigator, leading to the eventual denouement....

Star 80 is a fascinating movie. It's told in an interesting style, with a mostly normal narrative and then some breaks in the action. Some of those jump forward to hint at the end of the story, while others are quasi-documentary, taking the actors who play the various characters and have them talk as though they're looking back at the events. That, and playing audio of clips from Stratten interviews (I think recreated, not Stratten's actual voice) as a sort of narration at certain points. It's a daring idea, and for the most part it works.

Star 80 is also not really the story of Dorothy Stratten, although she's the nominal subject. If anything, it's much more about Snider and his obsession with having Dorothy as his meal ticket and the lengths he is willing to go to to keep her, since all his other schemes have pretty much failed up ountil this point. To be honest, I found a lot of the scenes with Snider to be difficult to watch, mostly because he's such a smarmy schemer that he makes Jack Carson and Lee Tracy's characters look like pikers. He really needed to have somebody smack him upside the head. (Well, to be fair, he had some loan sharks dangle him outside a window, but that didn't change his character.) As for Carroll Baker, she plays Dorothy Stratten's mother, and does a creditable job in her small number of scenes.

I can recommend Star 80 for the grown-ups. Due to the subject nature, it's certainly not for kids, and since one of the main characters is a Playboy centerfold, there's a substantial amount of female nudity, although I didn't find the use of nudity particularly exploitative. As for the title, it refers to a vanity plate Snider was going to get for Dorothy's new car, a Mercedes that he bought with her money, and the idea that she was going to become a star in 1980.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

I should probably mention The Hunters

I see that for those of us with FXM, they're running The Hunters tomorrow morning (Sept. 26) at 9:45 AM and then again on Thursday at 7:50 AM. The movie doesn't seem to be on DVD, but for those of you who can do streaming, Amazon has it.

Robert Mitchum plays Maj. Saville, a fighter pilot who has been recalled to active duty during the Korean War. On his way to Korea through Tokyo, he meets Lt. Abbott (Lee Phillips), who is going to be serving under him in Korea. He also meets Mrs. Abbott (May Britt), and finds that their relationship is a bit strained because of his mousy personality. As you can probably guess, Maj. Saville and Mrs. Abbott start to develop feelings for each other which is going to cause a strain on the major's professional relationship with his subordinate.

When they get to Korea, they're going to find the third member of their squadron, hot-shot pilot Lt. Pell (Robert Wagner). All of the American pilots are worried about one particular pilot, a Chinese guy nicknamed Casey Jones (remember, Communist China took part in the Korean war on the North Koreans' side). This particular pilot is such an ace that the Americans all want o be the guy to take him down, but of course being a fighter pilot is risky business.

Sure enough, Lt. Abbott eventually gets shot down. And then Maj. Saville decides he's going to ditch his plane to rescue Abbott. Pell offers cover for the two to keep the Communists from strafing them to death, but Pell too gets shot down. The three men have to make a difficult overland journey south back to safety.

The Hunters is entertaining enough, although it's a fairly standard plot, and the trek back to safety really requires you to suspend disbelief. May Britt was just the latest in a long line of glamorous European actreesses brought over to Hollywood to try to be the next big thing. Britt didn't have a particularly noteworthy career, but she wasn't as bad as somelone like Bella Darvi. Airplane buffs will probably also enjoy The Hunters for the aerial footage, although once the planes get shot down there won't be as much to enjoy.

Fox, I think, would do well to put out a low-priced box set of either Mitchum at Fox movies, or Robert Wagner (since he did a lot more) and include this one. It's not going to be remembered as an all-time great, but it doesn't deserve to be forgotten, either.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Rare Breed

I mentioned a few months back getting a box set of James Stewart westerns. Over the weeked I watched The Rare Breed off that set.

James Stewart plays Sam Burnett, who works as a cowboy leading cattle drives for racners. He's in St. Louis, where he's going to be attending a cattle auction. At that auction is Martha Price (Maureen O'Hara), togehter with her daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills). The made the journey from England along with their husband and a Hereford steer as they intend to introduce the Hereford to the land of the Longhorn. But the husband died on the boat, and now it's up to the two women to get the bull to Texas.

Burnett eventually winds up accompanying the two woman as the three of them take the bull to its final destination, but the journey is not going to be without some difficulty. The women overheard Sam having a conversation that led them to believe he's not going to take the bull to its intended destination, a Scottish-American rancher named Bowen (Brian Keith). The overland journey once they get off the train is also not going to be easy.

Things get further complicated when they actually get to the destination. Bowen's son Jamie (Don Galloway) has been on the journey to bring the new steer to his father, and he and Hilary wind up falling in love, which leads to the expectation that the widow Martha is going to marry Jamie's father. But she and Burnett have kind of taken a shine to each other. The other problem is actually getting that prize Hereford bull to breed with the Longhorn cows....

I had some problems with The Rare Breed, which came down mostly to the fact that it didn't seem ot know exactly what kind of material it wanted to be. The core of the subject (bringing a new type of cattle to breed) makes it sound like it should all be played for comic effect, but large portions of the movie seem overly dramatic and low on the comedy. The production values also looked to me as though the movie was more studio-bound than it should have been. Still, the movie is amiable enough that fans of westerns will probably enjoy it as a change of pace. At worst, it's just an inoffensive movie that doesn't quite do what it set out to do.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Way Down East (1920)

Another movie that's been sitting on my DVR for some time is D.W. Griffith's 1920 silent Way Down East. The movie should be in the public domain but is also available in multiple DVD editions.

Lillian Gish plays Anna Moore, a poor country girl who is sent to the big city by her mother (Mrs. David Landau) in the hopes that her wealthy cousins will take her in. Those cousins don't really care for the naïve country girl, but there is one crazy rich aunt who does, so Anna gets trotted out to the parties. It's at one of these parties that she's noticed by Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman).

Anna thinks he's nice, but that's because she doesn't know better r know anything about big-city ways. Lenox is, in fact, a ladies' man who goes through one woman after another reminiscent of Walter Matthau's character in Cactus Flower. To get the chaste Anna into bed, Lowell comes up with a scheme of making a phony wedding so that Anna will think they're married, and then he can have sex with her. But of course, Lowell dumps her, so she leaves for another small town.

The only problem is that that one night of sex left Anna knocked up, as always happens in Hollywood movies. SO here you have a woman who isn't really married, and doesn't really have any way to support the child she's about to give birth to. The one saving grace, if you can call it that, is that the baby is sickly and isn't going to live very long. Can the movie get more melodramatic? Why yes, it can! Poor Anna gets evicted, and has to find a job.

She's lucky that she's able to get a job with the Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). He's got a sun in David (Richard Barthelmess), and a niece (David's cousin), whom it is hoped David will marry. But David takes a fancy to nice Anna. Of course she has her past that she fears makes her unmarriageable. Worse, she has to deal with the Squire, who has fairly strict Christian values and would probably throw Anna out if he found out about her past. On top of that, Lowell shows up living across from the Bartletts, and clearly he knows a fair bit about Anna's past.

He's not the only one, as there are a bunch of gossips in town, and one of the old biddies who knew Anna back when she had the baby shows up, so you just know Squire Bartlett is going to find out. The end result is that Anna runs out of the Bartlett house at the height of a blizzard and tries to cross a river full of ice floes, an iconic scene from silent cinema.

There's a lot interesting about Way Down East, although it's not without its problems. The climax on the ice floes is certain exciting, and dangerous -- that was really Lillian Gish on the ice. But the movie is very slow developing with the result that at times it feels a bit of a slog. It's also pretty darn melodramatic, as I found myself wondering just how much more Griffith was going to dump on poor Anna. Even with those problems, I'd still highly recommend Way Down East.

Fox remade Way Down East (actually, it was based on an old stage play so technically even the Griffith version could be considered a remake) in 1935, but I haven't seen that one yet.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Mandingo's got my baby!

I mentioned in the comments on my recent post on Claudine that I've DVRed a bunch of the movies in the Blck Experience on Film series, and who knows when I'll get around to watching them all. Actually, it goes back further than that as I recorded some fo the movies in the two-night TCM look at slavery with Donald Bogle. It's only that that I've finally gotten around to watching Mandingo.

The Maxwells: widowed father Warren (James Mason) and unmarried son Hammond (Perry King) run the Falconhurst plantation in Louisiana in the 1840s, with a whole bunch of slaves. Dad treats them harshly, while the son seems to think more about having sex with the young women slaves. Dad is getting up there in years to the point that he's worried about having a grandson to conitnue running the plantation (obviously none of the characters would have known the upcoming Civil War would put the kibosh on that), so he'd like to get Hammond married off. The only slight problem is that Hammond has a limp from a childhood horse-riding accident, so he's worried about finding a suitable wife.

Thankfully, there's a cousin in a more distant part of Louisiana, Blanche (Susan George) and her much older brother Charles (Ben Masters). When Charles shows up at Falconhurst one day, that's what gives Warren the idea to marry Hammond to Blanche if she'll have him. The one thing that Perry is definitely going to have to do, however, is not have quite so much sex with the slaves. What Hammond doesn't realize, however, is that Blanche and Charles have a dark secret in their family, and if he finds out there would be hell to pay.

Of course, Hammond is going to find out something is wrong, on their honeymoon in New Orleans. After they consummate their marriage, Hammond concludes that Blanche was not a virgin; one would guess she had a ruptured hymen although the movie couldn't be quite so explicit even in spite of the copious amounts of nudity we've already seen in the movie. Hammond wants to know who the other man was. Also on their honeymoon, Hammond brings along a slave he'd bought recently, the "Mandingo" Mede (boxer Ken Norton), who is of much stronger stock; on the way home from the wedding, he buys the house slave Ellen (Brenda Sykes).

During the honeymoon, Mede gets in a fight with another slave because Mede has been ordered by Hammond to wait someplace where a slave shouldn't be loitering. The all-out fight attracts a large crowd, and one of the other slaveholders challenges Hammond to fight Mede against his slave for large stakes.

Meanwhile, back at Falconhurst, things are deteriorating between Hammond and Blanche. Hammond deals with it by striking up a sexual relationship with Ellen, while Blanche, when she puts two and two together, decides she's going to come up with a way to use Mede to get back at Hammond.

The comments I had read on Mandingo had led me to believe that it was going to be a bit campy. But "campy" isn't a word I'd use to describe it at all. "Lurid" certainly is, as there's a lot of sex as well as a lot of violence. Quite a few of the slave women are seen naked from the waist up when Hammond has sex with them, and there's even one brief full-frontal scene of Hammond. The violence is brutal, and that's puttin it mildly, so there's quite a bit here that might not be to everybody's taste.

And yet what we get here is a fairly interesting story in a technically well-made movie. I liked that Falconhurst looked suitably decaying as if to show that Warren and Hammond were decidedly among the lower class of slave owners The interior scenes looked underlit, with a purposefully shabby set design. This certainly isn't Tara, and it isn't even the phony, too-glossy poverty of studio era southern films like Cabin in the Cotton.

At times it felt like there was a bit too much going on, as there are a lot of plot lines going on: the fighting; Blanche and Hammond; Blanche's relationship to the slaves; and Hammond's relationship to the slaves. James Mason is the nominal star here as he gets top billing, but it seems as though he's often an afterthought in the proceedings.

Mandingo is an interesting movie that's definitely worth a watch, although with the amount of sex and violence surrounding a touchy subject, I can understand why some people would have a less positive opinion of the movie. It's available on DVD and Blu-ray, too.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Briefs for September 21-22, 2018

In thinking about what to post today, I decided to get out another DVD from the Warner Gangsters Vol. 3 collectin that I've mentioned before, with the intention of commenting on one of the shorts. This time, it was Lady Killer. There are three shorts on the DVD. The first is The Camera Speaks. I was all set to do a post on it, except that I looked up the blog and saw I did a brief post on it back in March 2010. I don't think I was aware at the time whether the short was available on DVD.

The second short was Kissing Time, a 1933 two-reeler described as an operetta (ugh) and starring... Jane Froman. I'm not a fan of operetta and I didn't really want to spend the time watching a full two-reeler before doing a post on it, but I did notice the actress. As you may recall, she would be the subject of a 1952 movie, With a Song in My Heart, about her recovery from serious injuries in a plane crash; in that movie Froman is played by Susan Hayward. (Thelma Ritter was nominated again for Best Supporting Actress.)

The third short was the 1933 cartoon The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives, which is a nother Harman/Ising short. I figured I'd save that one until closer to Christmas.

In looking it up, it seems as if the standalone DVD of Lady Killer is out of print, as is the Warner Gangsters collection, which is a shame.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #219: Farm

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is the farm, which isn't necessarily all that difficult. Except, of course, that I've already used a couple of the movies that immediately came to mind, with a pair of them being in the "Small Towns" week last December: The Stranger's Return and Way Back Home. And then I used The Purchase Price a few weeks before that when the TMP theme was movies with strong female characters. I knew I had used it, although I thought I had used it in a theme of characters on the run. But I was still able to come up with three movies:

Our Daily Bread (1934). Tom Keene and Karen Morley play a couple who have basically failed in the big city thanks to the Great Depression. Her uncle offers them a plot of land out in the country and tells them they're welcome to try their hand at farming. So the couple eventually sets up a community farm with a bunch of people who have more ability (and more varied abilities) than our married couple, but less land. Barbara Pepper plays the woman who threatens to come between Keene and Morley.

The Southerner (1945). Zachary Scott plays the farmer in this one, and you can stop laughing at the thought of Scott as a farmer. He's a sharecropper who doesn't want to be a sharecropper any longer. So he, his wife (Betty Field), his children, and the children's granny (Beulah Bondi) start working a plot of land that his boss owns, with the possibility to buy it outright. Scott's new neighbor (J. Carroll Naish) and the neighbor's farmhand (Norman Lloyd) try to drive Scott off the land. Despite the bizarre cast of farmers (minus Beulah Bondi), the movie is surprisingly good. And if you want to see really bizarre casting of a farmer, you should see Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer in Violent Saturday.

The Egg and I (1947). Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert play a married couple who have (well, him, not her) bought a chicken farm. So they move out to the country and meet a wacky assortment of characters, most notably Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride). The Kettles turned out to be so popular that they got their own movie series.

A brief confession

I have to admit that I've only seen one of the four movies that's airing on TCM tonight s part of teh Black Experience on Film spotlight. Tonight's lineup is "Strong Women", and while I've seen Coffy and Foxy Brown, I never have seen Cleopatra Jones, which concludes the night at 1:45 AM.

The one I have seen and can recommend, is Claudine at 8:00 PM. Diahann Carroll plays the title character, a single mother in 1970s Harlem with six kids living off welfare and taking jobs under the table so as not to endanger those welfare benefits. At one of those jobs, she meets sanitation worker James Earl Jones, and the two start a relaltionship. Meanwhile, her kids are growing up, and the two oldest are beginning to cause big headaches.

Thankfully, it's available on DVD since it shows up on TV all too rarely. I think I saw it on TCM four or five years ago and don't know if it ever showed up on FXM/FMC.

The other thankful thing is that I've got room on my DVR for the first time in a while.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Robin and the 7 Hoods

For the third Wednesday of Dean Martin's turn as TCM's Star of the month, they're showing the films he made as part of the Rat Pack, or more precisely with Frank Sinatra. Among them is Robin and the 7 Hoods, which will be on at 10:15 PM tonight.

The opening scene reminded me of Some Like It Hot, when all the gangsters meet in Miami and kill one of their number after a rendition of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". This time, it's 1928 Chicago, and the gangster killed is Big Jim, played by Edward G. Robinson who notably turned down appearing in Some Like It Hot. After Big Jim's death, the gangsters need a new boss, and Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk) basically nominates himself, and then places rather exorbitant conditions on the rest of the gangsters in the city-wide "partnership".

Well, not all of the gangsters are there. Robbo (Frank Sinatra) leads the north side, together with his right-hand man Will (Sammy Davis Jr.). One day, into his speakeay comes John (Dean Martin), who challenges Robbo to a game of pool, and winning, gets his way into Robbo's partnership. The only problem is that at some point they're going to have to deal with Guy's mob, which also has the police on its payroll.

There's one saving grace for Robbo and friends, however, in the form of Jim's daughter Marian (Barbara Rush). She wants vengeance, and she's willing to go to great lengths to see that justice is done, even offering $50,000 (in 1928 dollars, remember) to get the killer of Big Jim. Robbo refuses. But when Marian sends him the cash anyway, what's a guy to do? So he donates the money to an orphanage.

Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby) is the secretary of that orphanage, and with the big contribution from Robbo, he decides to start a public relations campaign praising Robbo for the donation, which puts most of the town's citizens on Robbo's side against not just Guy, but law enforcement. Now Guy really wants to get back at Robbo.

As a parody of the Robin Hood story, there's a really great idea behind Robin and the Seven Hoods. Not just riffing on Robin Hood, but setting the story in gangland Chicago. And damn if the cast don't look like they're having the times of their lives. And yet there was still something about the movie that bugged me. With all the star power in the movie, and many of them known for their singing, Sinatra (who also served as producer) made this a musical comedy, not just a straight-up comedy. And every time one of the musical numbers comes, it drags the movie to a screeching halt. (Although, to be fair, Sinatra introduces "My Kind of Town" regarding Chicago.)

Still, there's a lot to like about the movie. There are a lot of small roles for older stars; in addition to Robinson there's Sig Ruman and Allen Jenkins. And the way Robbo handles making his new place raid-proof (with help from architect Hans Conried) is a stroke of genius. If only there weren't so much music.

Robin and the 7 Hoods is also available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Black musicals

I probably should have blogged this morning, but tonight's TCM lineup in the "Black Experience in Film" spotlight is Black musical. Three of the musicals have nearly all-black casts, while the fourth deserves brief mention for another reason: New Orleans, at midnight tonight.

Dorothy Patrick plays a young woman who moves down to New Orleans with her mother in the 1910s. She's been training to be a classical singer, but when she gets down to the Big Easy, she hears the new sound, the early days of jazz. Arturo de Cordova plays the man who runs the club where the proto-jazz musicians meet (including her maid, played by Billie Holiday) and perform. Patrick and de Cordova fall in love, but the professional paths separate them from each other as well as the black musicians.

The jazz musicians in this one include not just Holiday, but Louis Armstrong and his band. There's also Woody Herman, although Herman of course wasn't black. The plot is nothing new, but the music makes up for that. New Orleans doesn't seem to be available on DVD, which is a shame since the music is so good.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Baroness and the Butler

For those of you with FXM, you'll have a chance to catch The Baroness and the Butler, tomorrow morning at 7:10 AM.

Johann Porok (William Powell) is the butler, working in the castle of Count Sandor (Henry Stepehenson) and his wife the Countess (Helen Westley) some miles south of Budapest. The movie opens up on election day, and the Count is also the Prime Minister. Also spending an inordinate time at the castle is the Baroness Katrina (Annabella, Fox's attempt to bring another European star to Hollywood). She's the daughter of the Count and Countess, so in many ways it would make sense that she's at the castle. But she's also married to a Baron (Joseph Schildkraut), and they have a nice residence together in Budapest. The Baron is also a member of Parliament in the PM's coalition, hoping to snag a Cabinet post.

Anyhow, the election brings some surprises, as the opposition makes gains, even electing six members in the PM's region, with the sixth member being... Johann Porok. Now, to me it's the height of absurdity that the PM wouldn't realize that his own butler was one of of the names on the ballot, but apparently, the butler kept it a secret from his boss, and nobody ever noticed. Even nuttier is the idea that Johann wants to continue being the Count's butler, despite having all those duties in parliament and never mind the fact that he's part of the opposition.

Then, in parliament, Johann starts zinging one-liners and trite platitudes, and everybody starts eating them up, making Johann the de facto leader of the opposition. It further complicates Johann's relationship with his boss, as well as putting a wrench in the Baron's political aspirations. And if that's not bad enough, Johann has always been in love with the Baroness who is as taken with Johann's slogans as everybody else.

The only saving grace in all of this is that the Baron sees a chance to get what he wants by catching Johann in a compromising situation with the Baroness. And yet throughout it all the Baron is seen as the bad guy in all of this!

As you can tell, I had a lot of problems with The Baroness and the Butler, mostly down to script that expects us to believe a whole bunch of idiotic things. The actors do the best they can with the material, which is sort of a bottom-shelf comedy of the sort that they could have done in their sleep. (None of my objections have anything to do with any political views expressed in the movie, since both Porok and the Count are portrayed as good people despite their political opposition.) This sort of material has been written much better in any number of other movies of the era.

The Baroness and the Butler is available on DVD courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme, but I wouldn't pay those prices for it.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Why don't I see Paul Newman?

Another recent movie watch was the 1946 movie The Verdict which, having been made at Warner Bros., has unsurprisingly made its way to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive scheme.

Sydney Greenstreet plays Grodman, Superintendent of Scotland Yard in the late Victorian era. His involvement in a recent case has sent yet another man to the gallows. But, it turns out that the man was innocent, as a witness proving the man's innocence returns from Australia. Oops. Poor Grodman has to resign, and his job is taken over by his great rival Buckley (George Coulouris).

Of course, crime goes on, and soon enough it looks like there might be more crime. Kendall (Morton Lowry) has a girlfriend on the side in the form of music hall singer Lottie (Joan Lorring), and a rival in an MP, Russell (Cavanagh). One morning, nothing is heard from Russell's room, and when his landlady Benson (Rosalind Ivan) tries to get him up, she gets worried enough to call Grodman, who lives across the street. Grodman breaks down the door, and the Benson recoils in horror as she sees a man dead!

He's obviously been murdered, since he was stabbed and there's no weapon nearby. But in a locked room with no way out? OK, obviously there had to be a way out, but there are no secret passages or anything. The new superintendent Buckley is brought in, and he's as perplexed by the case as everybody else.

Grodman, for his part, has an artist friend who lives in the same building as the murder victom, Emmric (Peter Lorre). The two see a way to conspire to embarrass Buckley publicly, since after all Buckley had embarrassed Grodman and cost him his job.

There should be a lot to like about The Verdict, but I think the reason this one is less well-known than some of the other Lorre-Greenstreet movies is deserved. The whole thing seems overly complex and like nobody truly had their heart in it. It's competent, and not exactly bad, considering the help from first-time feature director Don Siegel who would go on to much bigger things. It's worth a watch, but not the sort of movie I'd spend Warner Archive prices on.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Town Like Alice

A new-to-me movie that aired during Summer Under the Stars was A Town Like Alice, which aired as part of Peter Finch's day. The movie is available on DVD, so I can do a full-length post on it.

Peter Finch isn't really the star; that honor goes to Virginia McKenna. She plays Jean Paget, a British woman who at the start of the movie wants to go to British Malaya (now Malaysia) to help install a community well for a village. While there, she remembers her past that eventually led her back here....

Flash back to about 1941. That's during World War II, and as you may recall from history or movies like Bridge on the River Kwai or Sea Wife, the Japanese overran quite a bit of Southeast Asia. As the flashback begins, that takeover hasn't happened, but it's about to. Jean works as a secretary in the typing pool, and the pool's boss informs the secretaries that they're about to need to use the emergency preparedness skills they've been told about which were to be used in case they need to flee from the Japanese onslaught right now.

Unfortunately, Jean, her friend, and the friend's family get held up by a few minutes, but those few minutes are enough to make them miss the boat, so they have to drive the 50 or so miles to Singapore in a car that's not going to hold up. They get rescued by the British, but unfortunately the British have to stop when they hear Japanese ahead. Sure enough, the Japanese sho up at the compound where the British hole up, and take everybody prisoner, separating the men and the women.

The women are put under the command of a Japanese sergeant (Kenji Takaki, credited as "Takagi"), who tells the women to march, presumably to Singapore where they'll be interred with all the other women until the end of the war. But things happen, and the women can't get to Singapore. Meanwhile, at one village after another, the Japanese commanders tell them there's not enough supplies to inter women in that particular village, so they'll have to march somewhere else. This goes on for months and months.

Along the way, Jean meets Joe Harman (Peter Finch), an Australian soldier who is a POW but doing some work as a mechanic because it's presumably a valuable service that's keeping him safe. Joe ran a station (a giant cattle ranch) in Australia's Northern Territory, and Joe tells Jean about the nice town of Alice Springs (hence the movie's title) in the middle of the territory.

The women march on, with members of their group dying of exhaustion and tropical illnesses one by one along the way, but cross paths with Joe and the other Aussies on multiple occasions. Will the two be able to survive the war? Joe steals a Japanese commander's chicken to try to feed the women, but that could mean the death of him....

I very much enjoyed A Town Like Alice, as it's the sort of unassuming little movie that generally fits my tastes. McKenna is excellent in an unglamorous role while Finch is good enough in a smaller role. I did find myself questioning why the Japanese wouldn't transport all the women to a prison camp right away, as in Three Came Home, but was able to suspend that disbelief and get involved with the story which is quite good.

Those who think of war movies as action movies may not like A Town Like Alice, but I think everybody else will, and I can highly recommend it.

Friday, September 14, 2018

TCM's Neil Simon tribute

Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon died last month at the age of 91, and with August being the time for Summer Under the Stars, TCM was never going to get around to a tribute until September. That tribute is tonight, and consists of three movies so that the TCM Underground block will still be there:

The Odd Couple at 8:00 PM, probably Simon's best known work;
The Goodbye Girl at 10:00 PM, earning its star Richard Dreyfuss a Best Actor Oscar; and
Lost in Yonkers at midnight.

The movie I would like ot have seen was Barefoot in the Park, but TCM apparently don't have the rights to that one right now. For some reason, I thought I saw it on one of the Starz/Encore channels, but when I did a schedule search for it, it's nowhere to be seen. And apparently it's out of print on DVD, since the TCM Shop only has it on backorder.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #218: Good Remakes

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week, the theme is good remakes. Now, Hollywood has lots and lots and lots of remakes, and it's not difficult to think of a whole bunch offhand. The problem is, the theme is good remakes, and many of the remakes aren't nearly as good as the original. On the other hand, there are some classics that are remakes and better remembered than the original, and I decided to pick three such movies this week:

His Girl Friday (1940), a remake of The Front Page (1931). Howard Hawks flipped genders from the original story about an editor (here played by Cary Grant) who tries to get his star reporter (here played by Rosalind Russell) to stay on the job by getting her to report on the story of a man who is going to be wrongly executed (John Qualen). She's planning to marry Ralph Bellamy, so you know she doesn't have a chance. Billy Wilder would make another version of this in the 1970s.

The Maltese Falcon (1941), a remake of The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936). Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is engaged by a mysterious lady (Mary Astor) to help her find the stuff that dreams are made of, while a cast of weirdos (Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet chief among them) are trying to find that statue themselves. Ricardo Cortez played Spade in the original, while Bette Davis was the lady in the second version. For anybody who complains too much about Hollywood remakes, I like to joke that Ricardo Cortez was the original Sam Spade -- not that he's better than Bogart; it's just that the point needs to be made.

Gaslight (1944), a remake of Gaslight (1940). Charles Boyer marries Ingrid Bergman so that he can get into her fashionable Victorian-era London house. He then plans to drive her crazy so that he can rummage through the attic to find some jewels that her late aunt supposedly had. Angela Lansbury made a spectacular debut as the saucy maid in on the plot, Joseph Cotton is a Scotland Yard detective, and Dame May Whitty provides her usual solid support. The original is a British movie and despite being relatively rarely shown, is quite good in its own right.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Boom Town

When Clark Gable was honored in Summer Under the Stars last month, one of the movies TCM ran was 1940's Boom Town. It's going to be on TCM again tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, and is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive anyway.

Spencer Tracy plays "Square" John Sand, an independent oil driller in a town in the Texas oil boom of the 1920s. Unfortunately, he doesn't have enough money to buy the equipment to drill deep enough to extract the oil. He's in luck though, as he runs into, quite literally, Big John McMasters (Clark Gable). McMasters has more money than Sand, whom Big John calls "Shorty", and Square John misunderstands as thinking that he's got enough money to buy the equipment from local outfitter Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan). So the two go into business together.

Square John was hoping to earn enough money to bring his girlfriend out to Texas so he could marry her, but therein lies a tale. Big John goes into town and runs into a beautiful new stranger, Betsy (Claudette Colbert). He falls in love with her immediately, and the feeling is close enough to mutual that the two actually get married that night. There's just one problem: Betsy was Square John's girlfriend. As you can imagine, this is going to drive a big wedge into their relationship. Eventually splitting up their partnership.

Each man goes his merry way, with Square John eventually working for an American extractor in one of the Latin American dictatorships where the fear of nationalization is omnipresent. Big John winds up in New York after first going through Square John's South American field, and then becoming an oil magnate in Oklahoma. Big John wants to go to New York and get involved in the refining (and later stages) part of the oil industry because he's always looking for new fields to conquer. In fact, it's because he wants to take on new rival Compton (Lionell Atwill), having met Compton's beautiful factotum Karen (Hedy Lamarr, who gets billed above the title even though she doesn't appear until more than halfway through the movie).

Anyhow, Square John's job gets nationalized out of existence, so he winds up in New York City too, and goes back into partnership with Big John, and Luther surprisingly in tow. It's a short-lived partnership, however, as Square John sees Karen for what she really is....

Boom Town is an interesting, sprawling movie that generally does well despite having some flaws. Claudette Colbert is one of those actress for whom it seems tough to wipe all teh glamor off. She does as well as she can, and it's not her fault, but at times she seems like a fish out of water in the oil towns. The movie also careens from one part of the plot to the next; unlike something like Cimarron the material here either calls for a more intimate story or fcusing only on the McMasters character's lifespan. And the ending came across to me as a bit unrealistic.

Still, with all that, Boom Town is an excellent example of the sort of quality work a studio like MGM could put out with its stable of actors and people behind the camera. Its pluses outweigh its minuses and the film ultimately works as a whole, and is thoroughly worth a watch.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


This past weekend's Noir Alley selection was one I hadn't seen before: Desperate. It's on one of the Warner Film Noir box sets, so I watched it on Sunday.

Steve Brodie plays Steve Randall, a trucker who is recently married to Anne (Audrey Long); it's recent enough, in fact, the the two are planning to ceelbrate their four-month wedding anniversary. Just before they can begin to celebrate, however, Steve gets a phone call from a man who says that he needs a trucker pronto that night and that there's pretty good money in it. (Well, $50 was a lot more in 1947 than it is today.) Steve isn't so certain, but Anne says go ahead.

Steve shouldn't have. The caller was representing Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), who is looking to transport a bunch of stolen furs. Steve wants no part in this, but the truck is already at the warehouse; there are more of Radak's gang than just the one poor Steve; and Radak's men have guns anyway. When a cop approaches, Steve tries to get the cop's attention by flashing his headlights, which is another mistake because it only serves to enrage Walt's men. Worse for Steve, Walt's kid brother shoots the cop and gets arrested in the incident, which means the chair for the brother.

Walt gives Steve an ultimatum: take the fall for the whole thing, or else. Steve doesn't like either option, but Walt is planning to send a man to pick up Anne and hold her hostage, which would give Steve even less of an option. So he takes his first chance to escape and tells Anne to get to the train station and they'll head west together.

Thankfully, Anne has an aunt an uncle who own a farm up in Minnesota, and that would be a good place for the young couple on the run to hide out for a while. Or, it would have been if it weren't for the fact that Walt has hired a private detective to find Steve and Anne. Where the detective goes, Walt can't be far behind....

Eddie Muller introduced Desperate saying that it has plot holes you can drive a truck through, and although I'd tend to agree with that assessment, it's still an entertaining movie. You can't help but think Steve should have told Anne to go to the police instead of the train station, and he could have tried to plead his case right then and there with Walt not able to get at Anne. The resolution of the plot also strains credulity.

Still, the movie is an enjoyable watch, and looks nice thanks to good black-and-white cinematography and direction by Anthony Mann early in his career. I'm not certain I'd want to spend the money for a standalone Warner Archive disk, but I'm glad to see the movie is part of a box set.

Monday, September 10, 2018

TCM Guest Programmer September 2018: Keith Carradine

Continuing with the theme of getting back to regular programming on TCM after the end of Summer Under the Stars, we have the chance to see another Guest Programmer on TCM. This month, it's Keith Carradine, star of movies such as Robert Altman's Nashville. He selected four of his favorites and sat down with Ben Mankiewicz to discuss them. Those movies will be on tonight in prime time:

Captains Courageous at 8:00 PM, starring Spencer Tracy as the Portuguese-American fisherman who teaches spoiled rich boy Freddie Bartholomew a thing or two about maturity;
Random Harvest at 10:15 PM, a romance I hate hate hate, starring Greer Garson as a woman who falls in love with amnesiac World War I vet Ronald Colman, only to lose him when he gets a second head injury that sends him back to his pre-war life;
Performance at 12:30 AM, a new-to-me movie starring a younger Mick Jagger as a rock star who winds up sheltering gangster James Fox in his mansion; and
Thieves Like Us at 2:30 AM, one of Carradine's own movies about one of a gang of thieves in the Depression-era South who falls in love and wants to go straight.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

In which yours truly takes a decidedly minority opinion

I've never taken part in the "Blind Spot" blogathon where people take up the challenge of seeing a bunch of well-known and highly-rated movie that they've never seen before. If I did, one of the movies I could have used this year would have been Sam Peckinpah's 1969 western The Wild Bunch. However, I have to say I was decidedly underwhelmed by it.

There's really nothing wrong with the story. William Holden plays Pike Bishop, an outlaw at the end of the old west era who's looking to score one last haul with his gang so he can go into retirement. The gang includes Dutch (Ernest Borgnine); bothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson); and Mexican Angel (Jaime Sanchez). Pike and the gang are planning to rob a railroad payroll in south Texas.

Waiting for Pike's gang is bounty hunter Deke (Robert Ryan). He's able to disrupt the robbery enough to kill a couple of minor members of Pike's gang, but Pike and the big names escape with at least some of the loot. Except that when they get to Mexico they find that it's not loot at all, but steel washers instead of silver coins. They're going to have to do yet another robbery if they want to retire.

Meanwhile, the gang has temporary sanctuary in Angel's home village where a brutal revolutionary officer has taken over. Pike offers to steal a bunch of guns from a US military transport in exchange for a substantial sum that will allow everybody to retire. But he's worried that the general is going to try to fleece him, and he still has to worry about Deke and his gang, who probably don't have any qualms about crossing the border to get him.

In addition to a reasonably conceived story, I also have no issue with the actors. I enjoy all of them, and nobody here is noticeably obnoxious. The Mexican general is a clear bad guy, but that's the way the character is written and not a problem with the actor (Emilio Fernandez).

So what did I dislike about The Wild Bunch? I think it all comes down to Sam Peckinpah's direction. The movie is known for its violence, which was fairly extreme at the time. Now, I don't have any particular problem with gratuitous violence -- I happen to love Bonnie and Clyde, for example, which to me seemed just as violent as The Wild Bunch. And frankly I'd much rather watch gratuitous violence than gratuitous sex. The problem I had was the way Peckinpah filmed it. People get shot and fall off rooftops. No big deal there. But almost invariably, Peckinpah has them fall off in slow motion. Other people who get shot standing (or sitting) on solid ground also die in rather florid mannerisms.

Peckinpah also drew the story out with some flashback scenes that reminded me of one of the problems I had with Marathon Man. Also, the movie is quite languid for much of the running time, telling what is probably a 100-minute story or so in an excruciating 144 minutes. Finally, this being the late 1960s, there are a bunch of those pointless zooms that I like to rail about in movies of the late 60s and early 70s. Here they were really noticeable and served no discernible artistic purpose.

Still, almost everybody else loves The Wild Bunch, so this even more than most other movies is one I'd suggest you watch and make your own decisions about. It's available on Blu-ray at a fairly moderate price.

Dawson City

Tonight's prime time lineup starts with a new-to-me documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time, at 8:00 PM.

Many years back, a dump of several hundred reels of nitrate was discovered in Dawson City, Yukon. They ended up there because Dawson City was pretty much the end of the line for film distribution. In the old days, there wouldn't be mass releases of movies the way we've had since summer blockbusters like Jaws came on the scene. Insteda, a limited number of prints were made, and after one theater was done with a movie, it would go down the line to another town. Dawson City was at the end of the line. (New Zealand was the end of the line in a different direction.) Considering the cost and risk of transporting nitrate, places didn't necessarily send the films back to the original studio or distributor, but dumped them. Dawson City, with its permafrost and cold, dry climate, turned out to be just the right sort of climate to preserve dumped nitrate, at least unintentionally. Apparently, the movie looks at both the find and restoration of those film reels, as well as a history of Dawson City as it was at the time the movies were making their way there.

Dawson City: Frozen Time will be followed at 10:15 PM by Fragments, a documentary I've mentioned before about how some films only survive in fragmentary form. One of the things I remember which I'm pretty certain came from Fragments is that studios would technically only copyright part of a work, especially when it was a one- or two-reeler, by converting a small section of the movie into positive images and copyrighting that collection. The movie as a whole would be incoherent without that section. Those photos could be played flipbook style to show motion, and the brief movie snippets have been reconstructed.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Another movie aired during Summer Under the Stars that I just got around to watching is The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which is available on DVD courtesy of Universal's MOD scheme.

Gary Cooper plays Lt. McGregor, a Canadian servince with the British 41st Lancers on the Northwest Frontier in British India, an area which today would be the still-volatile border region between Pakistand and Afghanistan. McGregor goes out on a mission where he's expressly told not to shoot, except that two of his superior officers get shot to death right off their horses, leaving h im more or less in command and feeling he has to shoot back. Part of the reason for this introductory scene is to show McGregor's character and difficulties in dealing with the command structure, and the other part is to have a reason to bring in two greenhorn officers.

Those two are Lt. Forsythe (Franchot Tone), and, fresh out of Sandhurst, Lt. Stone (Richard Cromwell). Lt. Stone, in addition to having no clue about the way things work out in the real world on the frontier, is also the son of the base's commanding officer Col. Stone (Guy Standing). Col. Stone is insistent about doing everything by the book and making certain his son is shown no favoritism, but everybody else thinks that Lt. Stone is going to get different treatment. As you can imagine, young Lt. Stone has a difficult time having a father for a CO.

The three lieutenants get into some mild misadventures that serve as character development for the ultimate climax of the film; among these scenes are a particularly humorous one involving a cobra Lt. Forsythe is inadvertently charming, and a scene on a wild boar hunt. But eventually, more real life is going to intrude, in the form of Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), who is trying to get his hands on a large stash of ammunition so that the various tribal groups can join together and take on the British.

This results in Lt. Stone being captured by the Khan's men and McGregor and Forsythe having to go rescue Stone, a mission which is going to put themselves in danger. Can the British cavalry rescue them in time?

A lot of the reviewers that I've read heap extremely high praise on Lives of a Bengal Lancer. I found it a good movie, but I was kind of surprised by the relative lack of action in the movie. Much of the movie before the climactic battle at the Khan's fortress was more of a character study than an adventure film. I suppose that had I known this coming in, I'd probably have an even higher opinion of the movie. Not that it's not good; I just thought it a bit understated. I'm sure most of the rest of you will like it even more than I did.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Major and the Widow

A movie that ran duing Summer Under the Stars that I hadn't seen before is My Reputation. It's available from the Warner Archive scheme, so I DVRed it and watched it.

Barbara Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a woman in World War II Chicagoland living with two sons who has recently become a widow. Thankfully her husband was exceedingly wealthy before the illness that killed him, because he was able to leave her and the kids financially secure. The kids can still go to boarding school, and Jessica can do Red Cross work for the war effort. But there are other issues.

One is that the boys are growing up (after all, they're old enough to go to boarding school in New England) and developing interests of their own that are leaving Mom increasingly alone, despite the fact that she had a large social circle. More distressing for Jessica is her frankly nasty mother Mary (Lucile Watson). Jessica's mother insists that, like all upper-class people in proper society, Jessica needs to mourn in the right way, which means wearing black and a veil in perpetuity and apparently liking it. Mary's been wearing the veil for 25 years.

Jessica has a couple of nice friends in the Abbotts (John Ridgely and Eve Arden). They have to go to California for business and then plan to rent a cabin near Lake Tahoe for a time, so they invite Jessica alone. She thinks the change in scenery would do her good, although her mom insists Jessica go south with her. (I told you she was a piece of work.)

Jessica is supposed to enjoy the early winter weather in Lake Tahoe, but she's a lousy skier who breaks one of her skis so she has to trudge back to the cabin. Thankfully, she meets a nice man who is willing to help her back to the cabin. Scott Landis (George Brent) is a Major in the US Army, doing some sort of service stateside for the time being. He takes Jessica back to the cabin, and they spend an evening together with the Abbotts. As you can guess, they develop a friendship.

But for Jessica, it seems a bit more than a friendship. When she learns that Maj. Landis has been transferred to Chicago, she jumps at the chance to see him. He warns her that he's not the marrying kind, and that he's liable to be transferred overseas any minute now, but she continues to carry on. Her mom is of course pissed off by it, and even all of her friends other than the Abbotts start a vicious gossiping campaign. Can Jessica and the Major live happily ever after?

My Reputation is the sort of movie I had all sorts of problems with, mostly because I don't think I was the target audience for it. The movie was made in 1943 at the height of the war, but held back for release until 1946, so I'd presume the original intended audience was women whose husbands were away. But the bigger problem I had with the movie is that Jessica could have solved her problems with a little honesty. She could have just had a friendship with Landis and told everybody she was shoing him a bit of Chicago while he was stationed here alone. And with the patriotic war fervor, why would anybody have a problem with a widow being kind to a soldier?

I can't really fault the acting, although it was odd to see a script leave Eve Arden strangely subdued. But the plot and the character motivations it gave its characters just drove me bonkers. Still, you may be the sort of person this movie was designed for, and especially if you like Barbara Stanwyck you might like it.

Burt Reynolds, 1936-2018

Burt Reynolds, the star of a string of easygoing movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s such as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, has died at the age of 82.

Reynolds started off in TV, and there's a piece that airs from time to time on TCM that Reynolds did when Spencer Tracy was Star of the Month. Apparently, Reynolds' TV show at the time Riverboat was filmed very close to where Tracy was making Inherit the Wind, so the two wound up seeing each other most days and talking.

Reynolds did a series of westerns in the 60s, with a particularly fun, if undemanding one being 100 Rifles, which I blogged about a little over a year ago. Reynolds plays a bank robber who is helping Mexican revolutionary Raquel Welch get her hands on the titular rifles.

Deliverance in 1972 and Boogie Nights a quarter century later are probably his two most famous roles, with the latter garnering him an Oscar nomination. But the 70s films will always be fondly remembered. I've seen a lot of people who aren't movie blogger types reference Smokey and the Bandit. One that I really like, although it's sadly not readily available, is W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #217: The New Kid at School

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. Since we went back to college on TV last week, I suppose it's not a bad idea to have a back-to-school theme this week:

Technically, the theme for this week isn't back to school, but the new kid in school:

Wait, not those new kids. At any rate, I realized there were a couple of films that would fit well here, but that I already used, such as Running on Empty, or The Mayor of Hell. So I had to think and come up with three other movies:

Tomorrow the World! (1944). Fredric March is a widower who is somehow able to get his orphaned nephew (Skippy Homeier) out of Germany to raise the kid in America. The only thing is, the kid is a dedicated Nazi, and dammit, he's going to try to make everybody else Nazis if he could! It's one of those movies I just can't help but laugh at how ludicrous the premise is.

Au revoir les enfants (1987). A new student comes to a Catholic boarding school in World War II France. Of course, the new student is really a Jew, being hidden in plain sight by the headmaster and the priests. Of course, ultimately too many people learn about the secret, which means soon enough the Gestapo will learn too, which would be fatal for the boy. Louis Malle directed, basing it on some of his own childhood experiences.

The Little Princess (1939). Shirley Temple plays a girl who has been raised by her British Army officer father in India, but gets sent back to England to boarding school. Dad is eventually called to fight in the Boer War, where he's declared killed in action, resulting in the wealth that he'd been using to send Shirley to school being liquidated and poor Shirley suffering a host of indignities now that she's an orphan who can't afford school.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

TCM Star of the Month September 2018: Dean Martin

Dean Martin and Deborah Kerr in Marriage on the Rocks (Sept. 20, 2:45 AM)

With Summer Under the Stars over for another year, we're back to the usual schedule of Stars of the Month on TCM, and this month we get the films of Dean Martin, who went for the easy paycheck in a series of light comedies even if he did have the talent to do things like Some Came Running (Sept. 12, 11:00 PM). Martin's movies are going to be run every Wednesday in prime time this month.

Martin started his career in a nightclub act with Jerry Lewis and eventually Hollywood would come calling looking for another comedy team. TCM is showing a whopping three out of those 16 movies they made together, all of them tonight as part of a night of comedies from the early part of his career. Next week it's dramas, then the Rat Pack-era comedies with Frank Sinatra, and finally his later career. So over the course of the month there's a little something for everybody.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A couple more obituaries from the end of August

Two actresses worth noting died last Friday, although I believe one of the deaths was only announced yesterday:

First up is Carole Shelley, who probably did more on the stage than on screen. She originated the role of Gwendolyn Pigeon in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, one of the two sisters who are friends and then some to Oscar and Felix, and was one of the people brought over to to the screen version of it. The movie version is going to air on TCM next Friday when they have their salute to Neil Simon; I'll post that again when the salute is about to run. Shelley also provided voices for some of Disney's 1970s animated movies, such as The Aristocats and Robin Hood.

Gloria Jean died on Friday aged 92. A juvenile star at Universal, she made a bunch of teen-oriented movied during World War II and would probably be best remembered for appearing in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break opposite W.C. Fields. I think that one's on the Fields box set I recently purchased. I saw the movie quite a few years ago, but I'd have to watch it again to do a full-length review on it. Unfortunately, most of the Universal B movies don't show up anywhere.

The latest incarnation of the "Black Experience in Film" spotlight

Quite a few years ago -- I think it was about 2006, TCM had a spotlight looking at Hollywood's view of Black Americans, with Donald Bogle sitting down with Robert Osborne to discuss the movies. Bogle was on again back in July for the presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin and several other movies on slavery; also, that 2006 spotlight was the first of several looking at the cinematic presentation of various minority groups.

TCM pretty much cycled through all the minorities you can think of, so it's time to go through them again for a new generation. This month, every Tuesday and Thursday night in prime time, members of the African-American Film Critics Association will be presenting (I'm guessing interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz although the article doesn't make that clear) movies on the Black Experience in Film.

This one is a bit different from the old on in that the one Bogle presented was specifically about looking at Hollywood's portrayal of Blacks, which means that things like the old "race movies" were specifically not part of the discussion. And indeed, this month's spotlight kicks off with one of those race movies, Oscar Micheaux's Within our Gates at 8:00 PM. And at the end of the month, there's going to be a night of "Black Stories from Around the World".

That having been said, considering how few movies studio-era Hollywood made looking at the Black experience, it shouldn't be surprising that a lot of the movies in this spotlight are those you might expect. Tonight's lineup, for example, also includes the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, which got a good intro from Bogle in the previous spotlight. A Raisin in the Sun, Sounder, and Carmen Jones also show up, but thankfully, I don't see Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in the spotlight.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Angel of Color

Another movie I watched off my DVR this weekend is the 1930 German version of The Blue Angel.

The movie is probably best remembered for making a star out of Marlene Dietrich, but the movie is really about a different character. Prof. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a teacher of English at the local Gymnasium, which in the old German system was the most advanced and academic type of secondary education, so even though the subtitles refer to the institution as a college, it's probably more accurate that the students are about 16 or 17 and not fully legal adults. Anyhow, Prof. Rath is very stuffy and old-fashioned, with his one real joy in life being a songbird that unfortunately dies in the opening scene. As his maid says, it stopped singing long ago.

When Rath gets to the Gymnasium, he finds that his students seem more interested in Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), who is one of the acts at the local nightclub, except that this is one of those lower-class nightclubs. Rath thinks that somebody like Lola Lola is corrupting to the morals of German youth, and he's horrified that they would even buy postcards with her image! (For heaven's sake, these are pubescent men. Of course they're going to have sex on the brain.) Not only that, but Rath thinks it's his place to do something about it, making one wonder where the hell the parents are.

So Rath gets the brilliant idea to go off to the nightclub, Der blaue Engel (the titular "Blue Angel"), to see Lola Lola and what it is about her that make the students spend so much time there. But Rath is so strait-laced that at first, he doesn't get it at first. It isn't until the second visit, when another patron tries to enter Lola's dressing room and take advantage of her in a way that Rath doesn't approve of. What Rath doesn't realize is that he's actually been falling in love with Lola, so after the fight with the other patron, Rath, marries Lola!

This costs Rath his job at the Gymnasium, but gets Rath a new job as a clown in the nightclub act, which starts going around Germany. However, it eventually comes back to Rath's home town to perform at Der blaue Engel, only for everybody in town to mock him....

The Blue Angel is rightly known for Dietrich's performance, and it's certainly noteworthy even though Dietrich isn't as good a singer as her reputation might lead you to believe. Jannings is good, although I failed to develop much sympathy for his character. Couldn't he understand simple human biology would lead his students to tak an interest in Lola?

For me, it didn't help that the print TCM ran wasn't the best. My German is generally good enough that I could more or less get by with cpationing in German. Here, I found the German soundtrack very difficult to follow. The visuals also didn't look particularly crisp to me.

The Blue Angel is available on DVD and Blu-ray, with a two-disc set from Kino Lorber, which includes both the German version and an English version that was made simultaneously (Hollywood also made multiple language versions of movies in the early sound days, most notably Anna Christie).

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Too Much, Too Soon

During Dorothy Malone's day in Summer Under the Stars, TCM ran Too Much, Too Soon, which is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection. So I DVRed it and got around to watching it do do a full-length review on it.

At the start of the movie, Diana Barrymore (Dorothy Malone) is returning home from boarding school to her mother, authoress Michael Strange (real name Blanche Oehrichs; played by Neva Patterson). Diana is the daughter of the famous actor John Barrymore (Errol Flynn), but apparently Mom and Dad had a stormy marriage due to Dad's drinking because they got divorced quite a few years ago and Mom got custody with Diana not having seen her dad for ages. But she wants to see Dad, which is understandable even if Dad is a raging drunk.

Diana goes out west and winds up on Dad's boat, which is approached by another boat. Dad gives a drunken reading of Shakespeare, winding in his falling off his boat and being fished out of the water. Except that he wants to join his drunk friends as they sail off to parts unknown. This should have been a massive red flag to Diana, except that she's decided she wants to take up acting, just like her dear old Dad. Not that she's anything more than mediocre as an actress, but she gets parts she otherwise wouldn't due to her family name.

After a stint on Broadway, she goes back to Hollywood, and despite Mom's advice, she decides to live with Dad! She signs a contract and meets another actor just starting out, Vincent Bryant (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.). He's a nice guy, and if Diana had any sense she would have stayed with him, but she's going to turn out not to have much sense. Oh, they do get married, but any number of things are going to put that marriage on the rocks. First is that Diana's presence keeps Dad on the wagon for a while, but once she goes off on her own, he hits the bottle, a move which ultimately kills him. Then, there are the disastrous movie reviews, which makes Diana not want to keep acting. It's all enough to drive her to drink, something she probably should have learned not to do what with her experiences with her father.

And then there are the other men in her life. Vincent has to do some location shooting for the movie he's on, leaving Diana alone in Hollywood, where she immediately starts partying, eventually getting seduced by a nasty tennis player John Howard (Ray Danton), this being the era when tennis players were amateurs. John wants to mooch off anybody and everybody, and is more than willing to try to take her right out from under Vincent's nose. Diana finally gets enough sense to dump him, but marries a third guy, who is a recovering alcoholic she drags back down.

The real-life Diana Barrymore wrote the book about this, and the book Too Much, Too Soon got turned into the movie of the same name. I haven't read the book, but according to what I've read, the movie takes liberties with Diana's real life much like most Hollywood biopics do. Both of her parents had subesquent marriages, and none of that is mentioned in the movie. The movie puts the bad reviews for a movie the real-life Diana was never in, although to be fair, they probably had to use a Warner Bros. property for that scene.

As for the movie, there is stuff to like about it even if it does have some big flaws. Errol Flynn is quite good as John, although you wonder how much he's playing himself -- he'd die about a year and a half after the movie was released. Ray Danton is also quite good. But the film loses a lot of steam once John Barrymore dies, and descends into melodrama on par with Valley of the Dolls. And the ending seemed to me to be nonsense.

The print TCM ran was panned-and-scanned down to 4:3, which was a big surprise to me, since the Warner Archive DVD is supposedly in wide-screen (IMDb says the aspect ratio is 1.85:1, not Cinemascope or another wider-screen process) and was released back in 2010.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Half-Nakd Truth

Last night's DVR watch was The Half-Naked Truth, a vintage RKO movie available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

Lee Tracy plays Jimmy Bates, a carnival barker in a traveling show that's not doing very well. Bates' attraction is Teresita (Lupe Velez), a hoochie-koochie dancer. With things going badly for everybody in the carnival, and not just Jimmy and Teresita, Jimmy gets the bright idea to spice things up with a thoroughly fraudulent story. He claims that Teresita has tried to shoot herself over her shame at being the illegitimate child of a citizen (long-since deceased) of the small town where the carnival is performing, and that she'll name the name at that night's show. The cops figure out it's a fraud, and try to arrest Jimmy and Teresita.

But the two are able to stay one step ahead of the cops, and along with the attraction Achilles (Eugene Pallette), they make their way to New York City. Here, Jimmy comes up with another bizarre plan, this time to try to pass Teresita off as the Turkish Princess Exotica, with Achilles being a harem eunuch. The hope is that they can attract the attention of Broadway producer Merle Farrell (Frank Morgan), who will then cast Teresita/Exotica in his new revue. It takes a lot of shenanigans for Jimmy to pull this one off.

But just when it seems that Teresita is going to hit it big, things hit a snag. Teresita's Turkish gag is a flop, although the song "Mr. Carpenter" is a big hit. And Farrell begins to take a personal shine to Teresita. This last thing is the really big problem, since Jimmy loves Teresita and was planning to propose to her. Farrell's unintentional interference threatens to split Jimmy and Teresita up professionally, not just personally....

I've mentioned in several other movie reviews that Lee Tracy was really good at playing cynical in the pre-Codes that he made. Here, he's playing something somewhat related, the dishonest but lovable con man. It reminded me of some of the things Jack Carson would do in the 1940s, but here, I found Tracy's character so dishonest that it turned me off. Also, the schemes came across to me almost as unrelated sketch comedy. There are movies where this works; I generally enjoyed International Hotel for example. But this one fell flat. It's a bit of a shame, since everybody around Tracy does well in their roles. Lupe Velez is a force of nature, and Pallette gets some bizarre scenes, perhaps most notably having to run a phony nudist colony. Franklin Pangborn shows up for a few scenes as the put-upon hotel manager, a role he could have played in his sleep.

The Half-Naked Truth is another of those movies that really could benefit from being on one of those four-movie box sets that TCM used to put out.