Friday, January 31, 2020

Minnesota, "Land of Plenty"

I'm a bit busy with overtime at work so my movie viewing has been a bit less. In trying to figure out what to blog about, I decided to dig out one of the Traveltalks box sets I've got and watch Minnesota "Land of Plenty, specifically picking that since it's one I don't think I've seen before and I've got a sister living out in Minnesota.

This is fairly typical for a Fitzpatrick Traveltalks short, especially those focused on the US while making shorts about Europe was out of the question during World War II (this one being released in 1942). It starts off with a panorama of farmland before telling us that Minnesota is supposedly known for its famous roads -- the only famous Minnesota road I can think of is the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi that collapsed a decade or so ago, long after Fitzpatrick died. Still, it's nice farmland.

The short having been released in 1942, there are a lot of references to things that were fairly new at the time but are now quite old, such as young governor Harold Stassen, who would become known for his quixotic presidential campaigns, or the recently completed Mayo Clinic in Rochester. There's mention of the iron mining in the northeastern part of the state, as well as the town of Hibbing, but obviously no mention of Bob Dylan who would have been but a baby at the time.

Still, Minnesota is probably best known for its lakes (there are over 11,000, not the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" the state is generally known as, Fitzpatrick politely informs us) and being the source of the Mississippi River, so we visit several lakes which gives the cinematographer the opportunity to photograph a nice sunset, as well as some human interest bits, here involving fishermen out on the lakes.

One other thing that showed up a lot in the Traveltalks shorts is the trope of the happy native. We see it a lot in the foreign shorts, with happy peasants dancing in traditional costume, or the parade of aboriginal peoples in the Latin American shorts. Interestingly, Fitzpatrick was able to find a reservation of Chippewa who were willing to be photographed for the short, and Fitzpatrick duly trots them out, including a cute moppet of a Chippewa, because God knows we have to have the native children too.

I love the Traveltalks shorts even though they engage in all sorts of tropes, and I'm glad that they're available on DVD now.

Schedule notes for January 31-February 1, 2020

Today is the final day of January, whicih means that tomorrow starts the annual 31 Days of Oscar on TCM, when every movie shown has been nominated for an Oscar (well, barring the odd error here and there). This year's overarching theme is "360 Degrees of Oscar", or a sort of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" type thing where each movie has at least one person in common with the movie before it. The month kicks off tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM with The Entertainer, an excellent if profoundly sad movie about Laurence Olivier playing a beach resort entertainer who isn't good enough to succeed, doesn't know any other life, and has a completely messed up life because of that.

Over on FXM, the first day of the month has often meant that some stuff that hasn't been on in a while is showing up. Tomorrow morning sees two movies that I don't think have been on in ages, with one I'm more certain about. First, at 7:45 AM is Murder, Inc., about the 1930s Mob, which earned Peter Falk an Oscar nomination. Later in the day, at 11:15 AM, is The Incident, in which Martin Sheen and Tony Musante terrorize a group of late-night el train passengers. It's highly worth watching if you haven't seen it before.

Both of these movies will also be on FXM on Sunday. I'm assuming they'll show up more later in the month, but I've been busy and haven't had time to check the schedule further than to the end of this week.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Harriet Frank Jr., 1923-2020

This being Thursday, it's usually time for another installment of the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon. This week being the last week of the month, it's time for a TV-themed edition, and the theme is "2019 Freshman TV series". Now, I've mentioned on quite a few occasions that I watch very little episodic TV any more; most of my viewing is sports and movies, with a smattering of local news and game shows thrown in for good measure. So I dont' think I watched an episode of any TV show that made its debut in 2019.

So instead, I'll mention the death of Harriet Frank Jr., a screenwriter who with her husband Irving Ravetch wrote screenplays to several promient movies, and was nominated twice. The two nominations were for Hud (which of course won Star of the Month Patricia Neal her Oscar) and Norma Rae.

They worked quite a bit with director Martin Ritt, starting with The Long Hot Summer and including the aforementioned Hud, as well as Conrack, based on the Pat Conroy novel about his year teaching black students on an island off the South Carolina coast.

One movie that doesn't get enough mention is The Carey Treatment, which Frank and Ravetch wrote but used a pseudonym.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Smilin' Through (1932)

One of the TCM Spotlights in December was remakes, and one of the movies I hadn't mentioned here before is Smilin' Through, which has been done multiple times, although the one I DVRed was the 1932 talkie. (The sub-theme that day was movies with musical remakes, allowing TCM to show the 1941 version with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.)

Leslie Howard plays Sir John Carteret, who at the start of the movie is mourning the love of his life, a young woman named Moonyeen (Norma Shearer) who died tragically young many years earlier, back in 1868. We then see that she's a ghost, so there's some unresolved issue in her life/afterlife/death, however you wish to put it.

Cut to about 1897. Relatives Sir John hasn't seen in ages have died, and they left behind a young orphaned girl Kathleen. John takes her in, although he's continuing to mourn for Moonyeen. Fast forward many more years, to 1915, and Kathleen has grown up to be played as an adult by Norma Shearer, so of course John notices the similarity in Kathleen's and Moonyeen's appearance.

One day Kathleen is riding around and ends up at an abandoned estate where two friends show up: Kenneth Wayne (Fredric March), and his friend Willie. There's a war on over on the continent, and both of these young men are going to be fighting in it. But Kathleen falls in love with Kenneth anyway.

Unfortunately, there's a problem with her choice of romantic partners. When Sir John meets Kenneth, he realizes Kenneth looks exactly like his father Jeremy (also played by Fredric March). Jeremy was Sir John's romantic rival for Moonyeen, and when Moonyeen decided to marry John, Jeremy responded by killing Moonyeen on her wedding day. (It's more ironic than rain.)

This explains why Sir John has been so bitter all his life, and why he decides to be such a jerk to Kenneth and Kathleen. If Kenneth's father was a jerk, then Kenneth needs to be made to suffer for it, just so Sir John can be happy that he's utterly screwed somebody's life over. And if he has to screw his foster daughter too, oh well. Thankfully for everybody Kenneth goes off to France and suffers a serious injury that makes him not want to see Kathleen ever again because he stupidly thinks Kathleen is going to suffer by seeing him injured.

Smilin' Through might be a good movie, but it's not the sort of movie geared to somebody like me. It probably belongs on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime Channel instead. The male characters had motivations that made me want to pull my hair out, while Shearer overacts shamelessly, going into ridiculous histrionics. People who want a romantic tear-jerker are going to love this one, as it does what it does quite well. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

So even more than some movies I don't like, Smilin' Through is definitely one that you need to watch for yourself and draw your own conclusions about.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Why do I feel like I'm watching a Bizarro World version of Mildred Pierce?

My most recent movie viewing was a short programmer from Warner Bros. called Danger Signal, which is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Zachary Scott plays Ronnie Mason, a man who at the beginning of the movie is seen fleeing the apartment of a Mr. and Mrs. Turner, with Mrs. Turner poisoned to death in her bed. He hurts his ankle jumping out the window, and on a bus to wherever, he steals another man's military insignia, this being a film released in 1945 with World War II coming to an end.

Meanwhile, in this wherever town, we meet Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson), who works as a "public stenographer", which means she does typing and transcribing other people's lousy handwriting, especially medical researcher Dr. Lang (Bruce Bennett), who wants to aske Hilda out but can't quite work up the courage and always gets interrupted by something else anyway.

Obviously, these two people's stories are going to intersect, which happens when Ronnie winds up outside the Fenchurch home because all the hotels are full up. Hilda's mom has put up a "Room to Let" sign as they need the money, and Hilda is trying to take it down when Ronnie shows up. Ronnie worms his way into the house, and charms Hilda's mom.

Meanwhile, the Fenchurches have a daughter who's been away with some unmentioned illness, Anne (Mona Freeman) about to come home. Ronnie, passing himself off as a writer, has taken to charming Hilda, to the point of taking her out to the beach house of some friends and quasi-proposing to her. But then Ronnie meets Anne and starts putting the moves on Anne! Spare a thought for Hilda, as well as Anne's age-appropriate friend next door Bunkie (a very young Richard Erdman).

Ronnie's plan is to marry Anne for her inheritance, and kill Hilda and make it look like suicide. Hilda figures out that something is going on, and asks her psychiatrist friend Dr. Silla (Rosemary DeCamp) for help. It's enough to get Silla thinking about the case, but Hilda has something much worse planned for Ronnie....

Danger Signal made me think of Mildred Pierce for several reasons. Notably is the lead role played by Zachary Scott, who of course was Mildred's second husband in that movie; meanwhile, Bruce Bennett was Mildred's first husband. There's the conflict between Mildred and Veda, which is replaced here by a sisterly conflict, and the climax in a house which is not Mildred's primary residence (in Danger Signal it's Dr. Silla's house not far from the beach). But Danger Signal is strictly programmer material. This isn't to say that it's bad, just that it never rises above being a programmer and stuck with a Code-enforced ending.

Danger Signal is yet another of those movies that really ought to be on DVD as part of a box set, in which case it would be a nice addition to a bigger title or part of several films all being sold relatively inexpensively. As a standalone, it's a bit expensive. But if it comes up again on TCM any time soon, then it's definitely worth recording and saving for a rainy day. It's good for what it is, if not great.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Young Cassidy

Er, not that Cassidy....

One of TCM's daytime themes back in December was of "young" characters, that is some famous people earlier in their lives. The movies included Young Cassidy, which is on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection. Not having blogged about it here before, I decided to watch and do a post about it.

Rod Taylor plays the title role, a man named John Cassidy who ultimately becomes the Irish playwright Seán O'Casey, whom you may recall from Alfred Hitchcock's version of his play Juno and the Paycock. (He was born John Casey, and among his pen names was apparently Cassidy and a Gaelicized version of Cassidy.) He's a laborer in Dublin circa 1910, a time in Irish history which was about to get very turblent, something that you may again remember from another classic movie, Clark Gable's Parnell. A lot of the Irish are getting radicalized due to the grinding poverty and want home rule if not outright independence. As for Cassidy, he tries to add to the support of his family by writing revolutionary pamphlets and short stories.

Along the way, Cassidy meets the prostitute Daisy (Julie Christie) and has a brief affair with her; he also meets bookstore employee Nora (Maggie Smith) and has an affair with her to. A couple of the events in the run-up to the 1916 Uprising are depicted, but Cassidy rejects joining the military arm of the revolutionaries because he thinks their military tactics are stupid. Eventually Cassidy sells a short story but is apparently too stupid to know what a check is or how to open a bank account, and he needs that money to pay for the funeral of his dear beloved Irish mother (Flora Robson).

Cassidy continues to struggle and eventually writes a play Shadow of a Gunman, which the famous writier and Abbey Theatre proprietor W. B. Yeats (played by Michael Redgrave; the name rhymes with mates and not meats) accepts for staging. It's not much of a success, but Cassidy eventually writes another play, The Plough and the Stars that causes a literal riot at the Abbey Theater (this was based on a real incident), and Cassidy has to leave for England, eventually becoming Seán O'Casey.

There's probably enough material in O'Casey's life to make a good biopic, but we don't really get it in Young Cassidy. That's because it was produced by John Ford, who was supposed to direct as well before illness got in the way. Ford had a nauseatingly doe-eyed view of Ireland culminating in the ultra-treacly The Quiet Man. Irish politics of the era was incredibly complex, since there was all that difficulty with Britain followed by a Civil War (to this day, the two biggest parties in Irish politics don't fit into the standard left-right spectrum seen in most other countries). But with the large number of Irish-Americans, we only seem to get a view of the country that says "Britain Bad, anti-Britain good" and generally avoids the complexity. (Granted, I probably go too far in the opposite direction from growing up with a mother of Irish descent and seeing the inveterate whining of the sort of Irish-Americans still claiming to be fighting against bigotry that hadn't existed for generations.) John Ford is probably the worst of the lot when it comes to the subject.

Still, some of the acting is good, as should be expected when you've got people like Maggie Smith and Michael Redgrave in the cast, and the production values with Irish location shooting are good. And some of you will probably like this one more than I did. So as always, watch and judge for yourself.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Not the 11th sequel

I mentioned having purchased a six-movie set of sci-fi films distributed by Columbia some weeks back, and recently watched another movie off that set, 12 to the Moon.

Francis X. Bushman plays the head of the International Space Order, an organization that's planning the first manned trip to the moon in a spirit of international peace. (The movie implies that space exploration has been going on for some time which would put the setting of the movie several years at least past the 1960 release date, but doesn't actually mention when it's set.) He announces the twelve members of the crew, captained by American John Anderson (Ken Clark) but being thoroughly international, including a Soviet scientist Orloff (Tom Conway); a German with a past Heinrich (John Wengraf); two women, one each from Japan and Sweden; and a black geologist from Nigeria (Cory Devlin) who, while not given a big subplot of his own like some of the other characters and not a lead, is treated with more respect than pretty much any black character at the time not played by Sidney Poitier.

The crew launches in a spacecraft that seems way too big for what's pictured on the outside, and face some of the tropes that are common to other movies of the 1950s and early 1960s that featured space travel before humans actually went into space, such as a meteor shower with meteors that are much too big and probably would have been detected before launch in the real world. There's also the error of a dog that's not strapped in on launch; a pair of cats for a breeding experiment is kept in a cage. But eventually, the spacecraft does make a successful landing on the moon!

The 12 go out to explore, but things don't go all that well on the moon, mostly because it turns out that there's some sort of civilization, unseen, living in a sealed city underneath the lunar surface. They communicate with some form of glyphs that don't look like Chinese ideoglyphs or any alphabet I'd recognize, but our Kanji-literate (Kanji being a subset of the Chinese glyphs) scientist is still expected to be able to read the stuff. The humans are being warned not to come back to the moon, because this advanced civilization is worried about human passions leading to the destruction of space if unleashed off the earth's surface.

So after losing a couple of crew members, the survivors beat a hasty retreat back to Earth, before learning just how powerful this lunar civilization is. Apparently, they have the power to freeze the lower atmosphere and put people in suspended animation or something similar, since they're unable to communicate with mission control in the US and they pick up European broadcasts saying that the Europeans haven't heard from North America in several hours. (Humorously, for a disaster of such epic proportions, the bulletin says that they'll return the listener to the regularly scheduled programming.) The space crew has the power to solve the problem, but it involves crashing a shuttle craft into a volcano, which everybody recognizes is a suicide mission. And wouldn't you know, the short straws are drawn by the German who is the son of a Nazi, and an Israeli who was born in Poland and lost his family in the Holocaust.

12 to the Moon is a decided B movie, helped by the cinematography of prominent noir cameraman John Alton. Other production values are low -- have fun figuring out what was used as props, such as a darkroom camera or some even lower-budget items. The plot is threadbare, and the acting nothing worth mentioning. Note, however, that one of the crew is played by Robert Montgomery's son (and Elizabeth's brother) Bob Montgomery Jr., whose acting career didn't go anywhere.

12 to the Moon is little more than Saturday matinee B fare, but in that genre it's no worse than all the other B science fiction movies of the era.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Squares at School

A movie that's been back on the FXM schedule for a little while is High Time. It's going to be on again tomorrow (Jan. 26) at 1:15 PM, and then again Monday at 11:35 AM.

Bing Crosby plays Harvey Howard, a widower with two adult children who made a fortune by opening up a chain of smokehouse restaurants selling hamburgers. That business precluded him from getting a college education, because he graduated in 1929 just before the Depression began and didn't have the money to go to school then, and once the business got started he had too much on his plate to get a liberal arts education and really didn't need it for the business anyway. But now that his wife's dead he's got the time to have the college experience he's always wanted, even though his children think it's a terrible idea.

Harvey, now 51, registers at Parkhurst University somewhere in North Carolina (based on some of the references, although other references imply a bunch of continuity problems) and, as an incoming freshman, gets put in a room with three other freshmen: Gil (Fabian, a teen idol singer of the day who got cast in several movies to try to lure in a teen audience); Bob (Richard Beymer, a year before West Side Story); and Sikh Indian T.J. (Patrick Adiarte, who is actually Filipino). The young ones are setting up a hi-fi system and dancing with the female companion Joy (Tuesday Weld), not realizing that this old guy is going to be one of their fellow classmates and roommates.

Of course, lots of people don't realize that Harvey is actually a non-traditional student at a time when apart from the GI Bill there weren't very many of them at residential colleges. This includes chemistry teacher and faculty advisor Prof. Thayer (Gavin MacLeod), the coach who runs the freshman requirement phys-ed class, the dean, and a French literature professor, Helene Gauthier (Nicole Maurey). She being older, like Harvey, you know that the two are going to wind up quasi-romantically involved, although it's a halting relationship that could get them in trouble since student/faculty romantic relations are a big no-no for good reasons.

Harvey tries to settle in and do all the things that other freshmen do, such as take part in the homecoming bonfire, or even join a fraternity, although he doesn't get to do the latter until sophomore year since the solons in the Greek organizations don't think a 51-year-old man really wants to be a member. It's not until his three roommates and friends join the same fraternity that they're able to get him in.

Overall, however, if you've seen any of the multitude of other college movies, you've seen the tropes that make up the bulk of High Time. That's not to say it's a bad movie per se so much as it is a product that's why out of its time. This seems to be Bing's idea of what college must have been like, ideas which seem stuck in the 1920 when Bing left college to make it big in entertainment in Los Angeles. Now, there's nothing wrong with being square; I've mentioned before how much I like Yours, Mine, and Ours for not really trying to fit in with the hip counterculture of the 1960s. But because High Time is treading familiar ground, it comes across as laughably wrong.

Still, High Time serves as an interesting time capsule. It's fun to compare with how different it is compared to college in more recent eras, as well as looking for the many continuity problems. There's swimming in a pond at October homecoming time while the same pond has a hard freeze in winter; Harvey's age is also way off -- as a member of the Class of 1960, he'd be 55 at the time of graduation, which means he would have been born in 1905 (in real life, Crosby was born in 1903), but as he says in the movie he graduated high school in 1929, which would have made him 24.

So maybe it's best not to think too much about High Time and just watch for the oddness of it all. It doesn't seem to be on DVD, so you'll have to catch the rare FXM showings.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Whoa, Nellie!

Paul Muni was the Star of the Month some months back, before my old DVR died. But TCM ran another day of Muni's movies last month, which gave me the chance to watch Hi, Nellie!, which is available on DVD courtesy of one of Warner Bros. "Forbidden Hollywood" box sets.

I knew the story of Hi, Nellie! already, mostly because this is the first version of a movie Warner Bros. made four times betwen 1934 and 1949, and I'd already seen two of the remakes. Muni stars as Brad, which you'd think isn't a name somebody who looks like Muni would have, until it's revealed that "Brad" is short for his surname Bradshaw. Brad is managing editor at a big city newspaper, who has a bit of a maverick way of doing things that's going to get in trouble.

One of the big stories going on involves the failure of the Labor Bank -- after all, there is a depression going on. Canfield, one of the bank managers, has disappeared, as has a large amount of the bank deposits. So everybody naturally puts two and two together and fiures that Canfield has absconded with the money. Well, everybody but Brad, who believes that Canfield is an honest guy and that something else must have gone wrong what with all the political corruption in the city. However, news eventually comes out that there were illicit withdrawals made with the money going to Canfield. Game, set, and match.

Brad's boss, the publisher, is pissed with Brad for making his newspaper a laughingstock, and wants to demote Brad. Brad would rather just quit, until he realizes that there's a clause in his contract that if he quits, he doesn't get to keep the nice big paycheck. So Brad comes back and reluctantly decides to keep his job, except that his position is no longer going to be as managing editor, but as... the writer of the "Heartthrobs" column, an advice to the lovelorn column whose writer has always gone under the nom de plume Nellie.

The current Nellie, Gerry Krale (Glenda Farrell) is thrilled to be off the beat and back to serious reporting, while Brad is pissed. He's got one ally in Shammy (Ned Sparks), who is feeding him information from other parts of the newsroom, but there's no real way for Brad to do real journalism.

Things perk up, however, when a young woman comes in looking for help in patching up a dispute between her fiancé and her father. Shammy has come up with an address where Canfield had supposedly been seen, while the address that this young woman gives Nellie is the same address. So now Brad can legitimately go there and do some poking around into the Canfield case, while pretending to try to patch up a love match. Brad discovers that there's some sort of money laundering going on for phony funerals, and that might just have something to do with the Canfield disappearance. The game is back on!

A lot of sources list Hi, Nellie! as a comedy, but I found it to be more of a programmer drama with some comic elements, with the two remakes I've seen being lighter. Not that this is a heavy drama, mind you, since its 75-minute programmer length doesn't allow for a prestige level of depth. Still, everybody comes off as quite professional. The story and performances both work, and the movie most definitely succeeds in entertaining as much as other Warner Bros. programmers of the era.

Hi, Nellie is definitely worth a watch.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #289: Unforgettable Movie Scores

This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is an easy one, "Unforgettable Movie Scores". There are a whole lot of movies with scores you'll remember. Some are the traditional instrumental scores; some are musicals; and others (roughly starting with The Graduate depending on how you want to classify the rock-and-roll movies of a decade earlier) use a bunch of popular songs although normally we refer to these as soundtracks and not scores. At any rate, I went with three traditional instrumental scores with memorable main themes:

Dr. No (1962). The first of the Saltzman/Broccoli James Bond movies, this one features a score by John Barry with the memorable James Bond theme over the opening credits. From Russia With Love had a title song with lyrics sung over the end of the movie, while Goldfinger and its memorable Shirley Bassey title song was the first with lyrics over the opening credits.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I don't care much for the movie itself, which I think is way too long, but the theme song, by composer Maurice Jarre, is certainly memorable.

Jaws (1975). I think I might have used this one a long time back in a week of summer blockbuster movies, but the score, by John Williams, is another memorable one. In fact, I avoided using it two weeks ago in the Steven Spielberg week because I knew the movie score week was coming up.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Where There's Life

One of my recent DVD purchases was this Bob Hope box set that's actually two box sets repackaged together and sold at a very low price. Recently I watched one of the movies on the set, Where There's Life.

Hubertus II is the King of Barovia, a country somewhere in Europe that's just come out of World War II and is about to have its first free elections following the war. However, there are people who don't want such a liberalization, notably a shady cabal calling itself Mordia. So one of their members shoots the King, who is severely wounded and likely to die.

The problem is that the King has no heir. Well, actually, he does, but there's no legitimate heir, which really should be a problem too, but the royalists have to make do with the hand they've been dealt. When Humbertus was young, he spent some time in America and had a fling with a woman that resulted in an illegitimate son, Michael Valentine. He's now an adult, played by Bob Hope, and working as an overnight DJ in New York. All the Barovian government has to do is go to New York, and convince Michael to take the job as King.

Now, there's the obvious question of why Michael would take the job in the first place since he's probably never been out of the US, and doesn't speak whatever language they speak there (although to be fair, that didn't stop the Bernadottes from becoming the royal family of Sweden as we saw in Désirée). On top of that, Michael is engaged to be married to Hazel O'Brien (Vera Marshe), the sister of New York cop Victor (William Bendix).

The Barovian government sends over General Grimovitch (Signe Hasso) and her entourage to find Michael and bring him back to Barovia. Michael doesn't realize what's going on at first. But there are people who do, notably the Mordia. If they tried to kill Hubertus, it's fairly logical to expect them to try to kill any heir too, especially an American heir who wouldn't be predisposed to an anti-democratic government. So they try to kill Michael.

For Michael's part, he's unable to convince anybody of what's happening to him especially as more outrageous coincidences pile up one on top of the next. Hazel despairs that Michael will never marry her, and Victor is practically going to drag him to the altar. Worse is that the General and Michael seem to start falling in love with each other.

Where There's Life is a pleasant enough time-passer, a programmer that at it's minimal length (75 minutes) is chock full of plot holes if you think too much rather than try to be amused by Bob Hope. I liked it just enough to give an endorsement as long as you know you're not looking for a prestige picture. It's not as good as something like The Cat and the Canary or My Favorite Blonde, but fans of Bob Hope will probably like it.

As for the box set, it's well executed for the price, with each case having the hinged spindles with one spindle per disc. Each disc has multiple movies on it (21 movies on 9 discs), with the exception of one final disc that has a PBS American Masters special on Hope. Even if you don't care for Where There's Life, you'll probably find enough in the box set that makes it worth the price (especially because the second half of the box set has four of the Road movies with Bing Crosby).

Schedule update, January 22-23 2020

A movie that came back to FXM recently after a long absence -- in fact, I think the last time it had been in the lineup was when the channel was FMC 24/7 and hadn't gone to recent movies and commercials in the evenings -- is Phantom of the Paradise, a movie I first blogged about back in 2009 although I got a few things wrong in my post, inexplicably calling the main character Woodrow instead of Winslow, and misspelling The Picture of Dorian Gray. Anyhow, if you don't recall the movie, Paul Williams plays the record producer Swan who sells his soul for success, only to have a disgruntled composer (William Finley) return as "The Phantom" to extract revenge.

Speaking of Paul Williams, he got an Oscar nomination for writing the "song score" to the 1976 movie Bugsy Malone, which is running on TCM tonight at 10:00 PM as part of the channel's spotlight on the Roaring 20s. Williams would not win that Oscar, but did win a different one that year, for writing the lyrics to the dreadful song "Evergreen" from the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born. (They were two different categories; Williams was not up against himself.)

Kicking off tonight's lineup on TCM is a movie I've briefly mentioned once before but haven't done a full-length post on since I haven't seen it in ages, Incendiary Blonde at 8:00 PM. Betty Hutton plays entertainer Texas Guinan, who was a big thing back in the 1910s and 1920s before dying tragically young (although you wouldn't know the last bit from the movie), moving from the stage to screen to nightclubs. This one doesn't seem to be on DVD, so you'll have to catch the TCM showing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

I Shot Jesse James

Some time back I recorded I Shot Jesse James, and recently got around to watching it. It's available on DVD on an Eclipse Series set from Criterion along with the excellent The Baron of Arizona, should you wish to watch for yourself.

As you may recall from your history, or if you've watched enough westerns, the notorious outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed in 1882 by the coward Robert Ford.

Jesse James, in our movie, is played by Reed Hadley, the stentorian actor who provided narration for several of Fox's 1940s docudramas. By the time the movie starts, not long before he's killed, he's in hiding in St. Joseph, MO, together with his wife Zee (Barbara Woodell) and the Ford brothers, Charles (Tommy Noonan) and Robert (John Ireland, who is only third-billed which is a bit surprising considering he's the main character). Zee is worried about her husband, and Robert has worries of his own.

He's got a sweetheart in Cynthy (Barbara Britton), an actress for producer Harry Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), who has been traveling from town to town performing. She's back in St. Joseph, and Robert would like to marry her, but as an outlaw, so he'd never be free to settle down. And not that Cynthy would want to marry an outlaw anyway. There's another man, a failed silver prospector named John Kelley (Preston Foster), who likes Cynthy, but for the time being that may be just a platonic relationship.

And then Robert learns of an offer. The Governor of Missouri has offered an amnesty to the person who brings Jesse James in, alive or dead. That, and a $10,000 reward, which would be more than enough to buy some land and settle down with Cynthy. Now, there's no way Jesse is ever going to give himself up to the authorities to face trial, so Robert does something that seems logical to him: he shoots Jesse in the back.

However, the authorities renege on the reward, so while Robert gets his amnesty, he only gets $500. Worse, he gains notoriety for having killed Jesse James, and not in a good way. Everybody sees him, and more or less shuns him. So the only thing he can do is join Kane's theater troupe and do a special scene on how James was killed. You'd think Ford would embellish this to not make himself look like a coward, but one guesses everybody knew what happened.

Thankfully, there's a silver rush in Colorado, so Robert goes there to try to shake his past, as well as to make his fortune so that he can afford to marry Cynthy. While in Colorado he meets Kelley again, and helps a drunk prospector who actually has struck silver, so that drunk lets Robert co-work the claim in order to earn his money to be able to mary Cynthy. The problem is, Cynthy may not want to marry him....

This was the first feature film directed by Samuel Fuller, who did things his way and has a fairly distinctive style. That makes I Shot Jesse James interesting, and the sort of movie that people are going to praise a little more than it deserves. It's more than good enough, but I also found it not quite as good as some of Fuller's later work. Then again, I saw it after seeing something like Gregory Peck's The Gunfighter which explores many of the same themes and had a big studio behind it; and after a fair number of Fuller's other movies, so I may have had too high of an expectation for it.

It's unfortunate that the Eclipse set with I Shot Jesse James only has three movies on it and is a bit pricier (the three Eclipse sets I've picked up have more films and cost less), because all three of the movies on the set deserve to be better known.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

The 1980s produced a bunch of teen movies that, if you're of the right age, are fondly remembered. Even if you aren't the right age, they're still an interesting time capsule of the era. One of the earlier 1980s teen movies, and one of the better ones, is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is more of a slice of life movie than a traditionally narrative movie, taking a look at one school year for the students of a Ridgemont High School somewhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles. First among them is Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young sex-obsessed girl who's never actually done it, who works at the pizza joint in the mall with her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), who claims she has gone all the way.

Stacy has an older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) who, at the start of the movie, is working at one of the smaller hamburger franchises but winds up going from one retail job to the next. He's got a girlfriend who dumps him halfway through the movie, and thereafter spends time fantasizing about Linda.

As for Stacy, there is a classmate interested in her, movie theater usher Mark Ratner, nicknamed "Rat" (Brian Backer). The only thing is, he's painfully shy, and asks for help in dealing with girls from his no-goodnik "friend" Damone (Robert Romanus). Damone is always looking to make a quick buck, usually by scalping tickets.

Rounding out the main cast of students is top-billed Sean Penn is Spicoli, who is more concerned with surfing and scoring a hit of marijuana back when it was much more illegal. He consistently makes life difficult for uptight American History teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), one of the few teachers we see since much of the action takes place outside the school. The other teacher is biology teacher Vargas (Vincent Schiavelli).

The teachers are depicted as uniformly out of touch, while the teens are trying to navigate many of the usual issues that teens had, only it's mostly handled with a lot of humor, with the exception of when Damone steals Stacy out from under Rat's nose and gets Stacy pregnant.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is in many ways very much a product of the early 1980s and southern California, what with the after-school jobs at the mall, and many people not even yet having cable. Adolescents, I think, don't have anywhere near so much independence these days and their lives are much more structured as the perceived need to have a lot of accomplishments in order to get into a good college has taken precedence.

I'm several years younger than the original target demographic for the movie, having graduated high school in 1990. And while my high school wasn't nearly like Ridgemont, I still really enjoyed the movie. It's a fun little ride and just entertains without trying to pass too much moral judgment on the characters and their actions. The soundtrack, at least for someone of my age, is also filled with songs that bring back memories. And if you're a good deal younger than me, and up for some very R-rated humor, give it a try and see what the 80s were all about.

Martin Luther King Day schedules

Today being Martin Luther King Day here in the US, it's not surprising that TCM is running a whole bunch of movies with prominent black characters. Unfortunately, since black actors didn't get that much of a chance to play prominent characters before Sidney Poitier came along, there's a limited selection to choose from, and we get a lot of the same movies every year. I should have posted last night, because one I don't think TCM has run for a while is Carmen Jones at 10:00 AM, part of a morning of Harry Belafonte movies.

The afternoon is given over to the previously-mentioned Sidney Poitier, and of the three movies TCM is showing, my favorite is A Patch of Blue at 2:00 PM. There's one more Poitier movie overnight, A Raisin in the Sun, which is slightly oddly scheduled in the overnight....

The reason I say that scheduling is odd is that TCM is running a two-night spotlight in prime time called Overlooked African-American Performances, and I don't really know that anything with Poitier as the star is really overlooked. Donald Bogle is presenting, and I'm guessing he'll be pointing out the other performances are the ones that are overlooked. Tonight's lineup starts at 8:00 PM with one that's new to me, Nothing But a Man, which for some bizarre reason isn't listed on TCM's online weekly schedule. (It is on the monthly schedule, and with no synopsis, I'm assuming it's a TCM premiere.)

The second night of the spotlight is on Thursday night, since Tuesdays were scheduled for Star of the Month Patricia Neal and Wednesday's for TCM's spotlight on the Roaring 20s. The interesting part of the Thursday schedule comes following the four movies he's picked. Rounding out the night will be a pair of Oscar Micheaux silents, Within Our Gates and Symbol of the Unconquered.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fall Up

Another movie that I watched off of my DVR recently was All Fall Down, which is yet another movie available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Brandon De Wilde plays Clinton Willart, a young man who's gone from his family home in Cleveland down to Key West, FL to see his beloved brother Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty, and yes, that's the character's bizarre name) with $200 that Berry-Berry wants in order to get going in the shrimp fishing industry. However, when Clinton gets to the hotel where his brother is supposedly staying, he's told that Berry-Berry is in jail! Apparently, Berry-Berry tried to beat the crap out of a hooker. That $200 would do fine for "bail", however, and oh, please get the hell out of Key West.

Clinton wants his brother to go back to Cleveland with him, but the two meet women while hitchhiking, and one of the women offers Berry-Berry a "job" of some sort on her yacht, so Berry-Berry departs and Clinton heads back to Cleveland. When he gets back, we find that his parents (Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury) came straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, except that All Fall Down is based on a novel by some guy whose name I didn't recognize at first (James Leo Herlihy, who also wrote the book behind Midnight Cowboy) and the screenplay was adapted by William Inge of Picnic fame. Clinton is the closest to sane that the family has, although even he keeps copious notebooks of other people's conversations.

Into this wacky family comes the daughter of a family friend, Echo (Eva Marie Saint). She's a working girl who is also into being a bit of a car mechanic to work on her own car, and for the first time in his live Clinton finds a woman he thinks he can love, even though she's much older than he is. Echo really likes Clinton, although how much of it is friendship and how much love is an open question.

Berry-Berry gets off that yacht at some point, as he's working as a service station attendant at the sort of service station the guy from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg dreamt of opening, thankfully minus the singing since I don't think anybody wants to hear him sing. He hits on a woman going north, eventually becoming her driver although she's stopping in Lousiville. He gets in a fight with her in a bar on Christmas Eve and winds up back in jail.

Dad wires Berry-Berry the money to get out of jail, and eventually Berry-Berry shows up in Cleveland. He meets Echo, and immediately starts putting the moves on her, despite the fact that Clinton feels way too much love for Echo. Berry-Berry being a jerk, however, he causes a whole bunch of problems leading to the film's denouement.

For fairly obvious reasons, while watching All Fall Down I couldn't help but think of Brandon De Wilde a year later in Hud. De Wilde is quite good here, but he's the only one of the four Willarts who is any good. I don't know if the problem is with the script, or with the actors playing things to be way overheated (hence my mention of Tennessee Williams earlier). Malden, Lansbury, and Beatty are all irritating, so I think I'd have to lay the fault for that at the hands of the director, the normally talented John Frankenheimer.

One other thing I didn't like was that the first act of the movie set down in Florida was nicely evoactive with all the location shooting. But when they got back to Cleveland, the house was so obviously on the MGM backlot that it was jarring. Maybe they blew the budget on the location shooting, but whatever they did, the contrast is not to the movie's benefit.

I've read any number of reviews that praise the acting in All Fall Down, however, so this is another one where perhaps you may want to watch for yourself in order to judge it.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Let slip the dogs of war

One of the movies that I recorded during Joan Blondell's turn as TCM's Star of the Month was Cry "Havoc". It's another of those movies that's been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, bringing the US into World War II on a de jure basis. The US still held the Philippines as a colony at that time, so unsurprisingly the Japanese turned to trying to conquer the Philippines. The Bataan peninsula was the main avenue of escape by land from Manila, and a battle raged there for a good three months. Multiple movies were rushed into production and released in 1943, with Cry "Havoc" being one of them.

This movie focuses on the nurses who tended to the American soldiers fighting the battle. Capt. Marsh (Fay Bainter) runs a field hospital with Lt. "Smitty" Smith (Margaret Sullavan) serving under her. They're severely understaffed, so Marsh sends another nurse, Flo Norris (Marsha Hunt) out to see if any of the fleeing women would be willing to volunteer for nursing duty. Flo runs into a group of women pushing a truck, and amazingly, all of them are willing to volunteer.

Among the women are former burlesque dancer Grace (Joan Blondell); rebellious Pat (Ann Sothern); southerner Nydia (Diana Lewis); and a pair of sisters, Sue (Dorothy Morris) and Andra (Heather Angel). One of the first problems the civilians have is when Sue steps outside the bunker dormitory and goes missing when the Japanese stage an air raid; Andra unsurprisingly thinks that she's died. The bigger problem is the day-to-day life with a severe lack of food and medicine, especially quinine for malaria.

Malaria, it turns out, has already struck Smitty, who we only find out later is terminally ill with it. Marsh wants her to evacuate to Australia via Corregidor, but there's a second problem in the form of the unseen Lt. Holt. Smitty has a relationship with him, and when the civilians arrive, Pat sees Lt. Holt and immediately falls in love with him, not knowing the exact nature of his relationship with Smitty.

The biggest problem is the impending, unrelenting Japanese advance. The US Army says that the Army nurses have to help the soldiers hold off the Japanese for as long as possible, but that the civilians are free to leave. However, they decide to stay on and help as best they can, even though it's probably going to doom them to a terrible fate.

Of course, we know how the Battle of Bataan ended, and even at the time Cry "Havoc" was released the battle had already been long since lost. Still, the courage of the civilian nurses as depicted in the movie was decided morale-boosting for the female audiences back home, women who in many cases had their own male relatives fighting in Europe or the Pacific.

The acting is surprisingly good, considering that I normally think of Sothern and Blondell as more comedic actresses. (Watch also for a very brief appearance from a young Robert Mitchum.) The movie is based on a stage play, and with the bunker dormitory being one of the main sets, the stage origins are at times obvious. A bit more worrying is that the print TCM ran looked almost like one that would have been produced for TV syndication back in the pre-HD days. I'm not certain what the print on the DVD is like.

In any case, Cry "Havoc" is certainly worth a watch.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Follow Me Quietly

Some weeks back I mentioned the movie Follow Me Quietly and commented that I had this sneaking suspicion that I'd already seen it. I watched it, and as it turns out, I hadn't. It's on DVD from the Warner Archive, so I'm doing a review of it for you now.

Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick) shows up outside a bar one rainy night; she's looking for the detective Lt. Grant (William Lundigan). It turns out that Ann is a writer for one of those pulp magazines that were a thing back in the 1940s, specifically a crime magazine. She's doing a story on a serial killer known as "The Judge", and Grant is heading the police investigation. However, he doesn't really like reporters, and especially hates the pulp magazines which he thinks aren't real journalism, so he gives Ann the brush-off.

Part of the Judge's modus operandi is that he strikes on rainy nights, as though he's got some pathological urge to kill brought out by the rain. And since our story opens on a rainy night, sure enough there's another murder (well, the victim conveniently survives long enough for the cops to listen to his story) committed. Lt. Grant goes off to the crime scene, and...

Ann follows. In fact, she keeps following Grant around trying to get the story, eventually winding up inside his apartment (Ann keeps claiming to have "connections" that are never explained) to pester the poor guy. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of cops, but you have to feel bad for Lt. Grant since Ann is no prize herself. And yet, Grant for some bizarre reason decides to relent and let her get a story!

The investigation of the Judge is going nowhere, so Grant comes up with a bizarre angle to attack. Since they know everything about the Judge but what his face looks like, Grant has a life-sized mannequin constructed for use in showing the cops on the beat what they're looking for. And that dummy actually plays a part in several key sequences later in the movie.

But Follow Me Quietly is only a 59-minute movie, so it's going to get resolved relatively quickly. And since Ann has been following Lt. Grant around, you know she's actually going to be of some use in cracking the case. This happens when an issue of the magazine for which she works is found at a murder scene. She knows enough about publishing to surmise that the Judge got his copy at a used book store, which is a big clue.

Follow Me Quietly is a nice little B crime procedural with noirish elements, although at 59 minutes it leaves any number of things unresolved. In addition to Ann's "connections" I mentioned before, there's also the question of the Judge's motivation and why he thinks he should be in judgment of humanity. More annoyingly is the question of why Lt. Grant fell for Ann in the first place especially considering her dishonesty in getting into his apartment. Still, it's certainly worth a watch.

Follow Me Quietly only seems to be on a standalone DVD as far as I could find, which is a bit of a shame, because it's the sort of thing that would really be better suited for a box set.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

No Thursday Movie Picks this week

This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. And indeed, there is a theme this week. But it's "2019 releases". I had thought it was movies with memorable scores, but that's next week. And to be honest, I can't in good faith do an entry for this theme, because I realize I've only seen one 2019 release. This isn't just because I write a classic movie blog and watch a boatload of old movies on DVDs and my DVR.

I finally went back to the movie theater for the first time in about 3-1/2 years recently, in order to watch 1917, and at some point I'll get around to doing a full review of it, probably in conjunction with the Oscars since the movie was nominated for a boatload of the more technical awards. Part of the reason I didn't go for a while is that the movie theater in our dead mall closed down for several months starting in the summer of 2018, and part because actually going to the theater isn't really conducive with my schedule. I work the early shift, so seeing a movie in prime time isn't my favorite thing with my normally relatively early bed time. That and I don't want to pay prime time prices. And it's the rare occasion that I don't have other stuff planned for my days off that I'd go see a matinee (which is still $9).

Having pointed that out, I will make one other comment, which was about the coming attraction trailers. Apparently Harrison Ford is starring in a version of Call of the Wild that looked like it was way to influenced by CGI. The more interesting trailer, however, was for a movie called The Invisible Man which is coming out at the end of February.

This movie is unrelated to the Claude Rains classic which was based on the H.G. Wells story. Instead, as I watched the trailer, my immediate thought was of Sleeping With the Enemy, combined with.... Well, my first thought was Topper, but then I figured that Blithe Spirit might be more appropriate, which is probably being a bit mean to the movie.

The basic plot is that a woman (Elisabeth Moss) has an abusive, controlling husband (hence the obvious similarity to Sleeping With the Enemy) who kills himself, and sets a clause in his will that she inherits only if she's not declared mentally ill. Of course, it turns out that the husband didn't kill himself, but figured out some way to make himself invisible (standard disclaimer about the physics violations necessary to make the plot of any "invisible person" movie work) so that he can harass her unseen and get her committed, thus losing the inheritance.

Now, Gaslight isn't appropriate here because the wife seems to realize fairly early on that the husband is behind everything that's going on and he must still be alive despite the evidence to the contrary. Further, I really needed to think of a comedy for the mash-up, because the premise is one that, while interesting, also has the potential to go hilariously wrong, something which happens at times with Sleeping With the Enemy.

I don't know that I'll be dropping the nine bucks on The Invisible Man, however.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Barkleys of Broadway

Back in December, TCM ran a night of movies starring Oscar Levant (or at least co-starring since he wasn't usually the male lead). Among the movies I had not blogged about here before was The Barkleys of Broadway.

Levant plays Ezra Millar, a pianist (there's a stretch) and good friends to the Barkleys, Josh (Fred Astaire) and Dinah (Ginger Rogers). The Barkleys are a successful Broadway couple, doing light musical comedy together. Their latest show has just opened up, and it's a big success, with the couple getting a large amount of applause when the curtain comes down. When they do their curtain call, they flatter each other to the point that you wonder whether or not something is going on in the background.

Unsurprisingly, we soon learn that there is in fact something between the two. In one of the post-premiere parties, Dinah meets director Jacques Barredout (Jacques François), who is going to be doing a play based on the early life of renowned French actress. Barredout admires Dinah, and thinks that she'd be perfect for the lead role. But this is a drama, and Dinah has never done real drama before. Still, Barredout praises Dinah's interpretation in the one point of her current show with Josh where Josh had criticized it, so Dinah decides she's going to try drama.

Josh doesn't like this, thinking Dinah isn't a good fit for drama, and not wanting to lose her from his show. They eventually get in an argument about it, and Dinah decides she's going to leave Josh entirely to do the show, which frankly makes no sense, as they could easily have remained married.

Josh still loves Dinah, and he decides he's going to try to win Dinah back through an elaborate scheme that's going to have him imitate Barredout and giving her advice on how to handle certain scenes in the play. It's a scheme that you'd think would get caught out straight away, but somehow it doesn't. Ezra, for his part, also tries to bring the couple back together at a benefit, but it's too much emotionally for Dinah.

Of course, this being a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie (their final one together a decade after The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle), you know that after all the misunderstandings they're going to wind up together in the final reel, and that does indeed happen with Josh realizing Dinah has the chops for Dinah and Dinah realizing Josh actually had well-intentioned advice for her and is happy doing light comedy.

Even though Astaire and Rogers hadn't done a movie together for ten years, The Barkleys of Broadway follows the tried and true formula of their other comedies, although this one isn't nearly as madcap as the 30s movies. In addition to the dance numbers, with Levant in the cast we get a couple of longer piano scenes as well, notably Khachaturian's "Sabre Dances" and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Frankly, I found that these slowed the movie down a bit.

Still, I think anybody who likes the Rogers/Astaire movies from the 30s will enjoy The Barkleys of Broadway. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Travels With My Aunt

Another of my recent movie watches was the early 1970s comedy Travels With My Aunt, which is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Henry (Alec McCowen) is a conservative bank manager attending the relatively sparsely-attended funeral of his mother in London. Showing up at the funeral chapel is his Aunt Augusta (Maggie Smith), who hadn't seen her sister of Henry in ages, to the point that he's not going to recognize her. So after the funeral, she approaches him.

She's got a crazy story for him claiming that the woman Henry knew as his mother was not in fact his biological mother. Stunned by this, Henry accompanies Augusta back to her apartment where she lives with some oddball black guy Wordsworth (Louis Gossett Jr.) and tries to learn more.

But it turns out that Augusta has more plans in mind for Henry. We've already seen that she called up somebody from the funeral chapel talking about ransom money, and once Henry gets home, the police show up at his house and demand to search his mother's ashes without a warrant. My immediate thought was that this was a ruse by Aunt Augusta, although I don't think this is actually mentioned.

What does transpire is that Augusta's lover Visconti (Robert Stephens) has supposedly been kidnapped, and the kidnappers are holding him for a $100,000 ransom, which was quite a sum back in the early 1970s. One of the ways Augusta is going to raise some of the funds for it is to smuggle some cash from England into France, this being the era of capital controls. But she needs somebody staid like a banker to help her, somebody the authorities wouldn't expect.

The two get to Paris, and it turns out that's not enough for Augusta. The increasingly shaggy dog story means she's going to have to hop on the Orient Express, and Harry with her, to get to Istanbul to exchange that money, or something. Along the way, Wadsworth is generally obnoxious, while Henry meets a hippie named Tooley (a young Cindy Williams before she played Shirley Feeney).

They get to Istanbul, and then they have to go back to France because reasons, and eventually to North Africa via Spain where Visconti apparently is. All the while, Henry is learning a bit more about his aunt through flashbacks.

Frankly, I found this movie terrible, largely because I found the Augusta character to be a selfish jerk who upends Henry's life for no good reason other than her own happiness. Wadsworth was, I'm guessing, supposed to be comic relief, but is as obnoxious as Augusta and terribly unfunny. The flashback sequences also go on way too long, screwing up the pacing (even though the movie as a whole is only 109 minutes, so a fair bit under two hours).

Still, other people are probably going to like this one, so you may want to get a hold of the DVD and judge for yourself.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Смерть Сталина

When I had the free preview of the various movie channels over the Thanksgiving weekend, one of the movies I recorded was The Death of Stalin.

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, of a cerebral hemmorhage. His brutality is, of course, well known, as is his being an absolute dictator. The movie starts off with what seems like an example unrelated to the rest of the movie. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is listening to a orchestra program on Radio Moscow and on hearing it, decides he wants a recording of the orchestra, calling up the studio to inform them of this. The only problem is that the broadcast was going out live, and the radio engineers didn't record the broadcast! So the chief engineer decides he has to reassemble the orchestra, soloist, and audience, and recreate the broadcast, not that everybody there wants to do it. The vignette is also a good way of showing how the movie is going to be a dark comedy.

At any rate, Stalin does get his recording, and as he's listening to it, he suffers that hemorrhage. This was a few days before he died, so there was a lot going on with Stalin's subordinates in that interim period. In the movie, Stalin's condition isn't noticed to the next morning. Although Stalin was a dictator with near absolute power, he did have the equivalent of a Cabinet (known as the Central Committee) to carry out his orders, and these members assemble.

Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the one everybody fears. He had been head of the secret police (still called the NKVD here since that's what people in English-speaking audiences would recognize; in reality there were a few incarnations between the NKVD and the KGB and it was one of those that existed at the time). Since people fear Beria, he knows they're not going to let him take power, and he tries to get a pliant puppet installed to allow himself to be the power behind the throne. His choice is Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), whose name you may recall from the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire".

Also in the Central Committee are Foreign Minister Molotov (Michael Palin), who only shows up later because of his shaky political position; head of the Moscow branch of the Communist party Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); and eventually Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a World War II hero who is portrayed here as still the head of the army's forces around Moscow. Beria has ordered the army back to barracks, and Zhukov's attempt to get the army back out in public, with help from Khrushchev, is part of the main dramatic thrust of the film.

But as I said, the film is also a dark comedy, and that shows up in spades with Stalin's funeral, which is a huge public event as befits an absolute dictator. As with something like The Fireman's Ball, all of the various members of the Central Committee want to make themselves look better in the eyes of the public, as though this will enhance their own standing in trying to take power over the entire Committee. Stalin's two children also show up, and want their own part in the funeral, which is understandable considering they were his children. If you know your Soviet history, you'll recall that Khrushchev ultimately gained power, with Beria being the last victim of the purges.

The Death of Stalin is an interesting movie, and I admire the director's daring attempt to turn the Central Committee into a bunch of bumblers worthy of black satire. However, I also felt it didn't always work. Part of the problem is that there are any number of errors in history as well as what felt like serious continuity errors. Even though Stalin died in March, the Moscow here seemed to have no snow and deciduous trees with leaves on them. And although Beria was purged, it wasn't in the way depicted in the movie. But I can understand telescoping events for dramatic effect. For me, the bigger problem was with the dialogue, which felt thoroughly unnatural, and took me out of the era.

The acting, however, I felt was quite good as everybody seemed adept at handling the dark comedy. And the comic parts are very darkly humorous. Overall, I'd definitely recommend The Death of Stalin, which you can find on DVD if you wish to watch it yourself.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

My Brilliant Career

Another of my recent movie viewings was the Australian movie My Brilliant Career.

Judy Davis plays Sybylla Melvyn, a young woman living on a struggling ranch with her parents and younger siblings in Australia just before the turn of the 20th century. Sybylla is a dreamer, writing the great Australian novel in her journal and playing the piano when she's got chores to do around the house. Indeed, the family needs her to be doing those chores because of the monetary problems her parents are having. Not only that, but Sybylla is getting to the age where she really should be working a real job of her own to pay her own way, such as a maid's job which was the sort of thing for young women of her position at the time.

Unsurprisingly, Sybylla rebels at this notion, and a lifeline is thrown her way in the form of her grandmother (Aileen Britton) and aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) living with Grandma, as well as another sibling, Uncle Julius (Peter Whitford). This seems like a respite, although it's really a way for Grandma and Helen to teach Sybylla how to be a women who can fit into her place in society. Sybylla continues to rebel, when it's suggested she marry nice Englishman Hawdon (Robert Grubb) and move to England with him.

Then a neighboring property owner, Harry (Sam Neill), comes for a visit to conduct some business. He first Sybylla in one of her rebellious phases sitting in a tree writing poetry, and neither of them knows who the other is. Eventually they meet each other more formally, and the light goes on over their heads, as it were. Each of them has strong emotional feelings for the other, but there are any number of problems.

Harry invites Sybylla to spend some time at his estate together with his aunt, and we beging to learn more about the two characters' problems that might prevent a relationship with each other. Sybylla is such a rebel that she's not certain she wants to marry anybody. And both of them have their own financial problems. Harry may lose his estate, while Sybylla's dad has gotten into really bad debt, and the only way he and Mom can think of to pay it off is to have Sybylla be a governess to some low-rent farmers.

Through all of this, Sybylla keeps writing, and the end of the movie suggests that it's all an autobiographical but fictionalized story of the author, Miles Franklin's, own life. Will our characters be able to find true happiness?

My Brilliant Career is a very well-made movie, with lovely cinematography of the Australian hinterlands, production design, and performances from the various actors. But I couldn't help but have some problems with the movies, largely because Sybylla comes across as a very unappealing character at times. Not that Davis does a bad job; it's more that the character as written is tough to sympathize with. Apparently Davis herself shared some of that assessment.

Still, My Brilliant Career is a movie that's definitely worth seeking out and watching. It only seems to be on DVD (at least here in the US) in a pricey release from the Criterion Collection, which is a bit of a shame.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Badlanders

TCM ran a spotlight on remakes back in December, and one of the pairs that they ran was The Asphalt Jungle together with its western remake of sorts, The Badlanders. The movie is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so I recorded it and sat down to watch.

The setting is the Arizona Territory in 1898. We start off at the federal prison there, and meet a pair of prisoners who are about to be released: Peter Van Hoek, known as the "Dutchman" (Alan Ladd), and John McBain (Ernest Borgnine). The two prisoners have no particular friendship for each other, as we see when the hotheaded McCain nearly comes to blows with one of the prison guards over the guard's brutal treatment of a third prisoner -- the Dutchman stops McBain from hitting the guard, but doing so with violence.

The Dutchman, after being released, heads for his old stomping grounds in Prescott, where he had worked as a metallurgist at a gold mine. He was cheated out of his share of gold and framed for arrest when a gold bar was put in his hotel room, so he wants revenge. The marshal knows about the Dutchman's past, and is only going to let him stay in town long enough to catch the next stage out.

The Dutchman's revenge plan involves the fact that he knows where an untapped and very good gold deposit is in the mine. It's down a shaft that's been closed off because it's too dangerous to exploit. So he plans to exploit it and make a big killing. The only problem is that he's going to need somebody to smelt the gold, so he's going to have to go in with somebody else on this deal. That somebody is smelter owner Lounsberry (Kent Smith), who has a mistress in the form of lovely Ada (Claire Kelly).

But the Dutchman isn't the only one with a connection to Prescott, and a desire for revenge. McBain was a rancher who owned the land under which the gold deposits were located, and he had the land stolen right out from under him; his first attempt at revenge is what landed him in jail. So he'd like revenge too, as well as getting back together with his wife of sorts Anita (Katy Jurado). The Dutchman approaches Mac for help in the revenge plot, and is kind of appalled at robbing what he thinks is technically his own property. But there's not much else he can do, and he can use the money, so he joins in.

Also joining in is explosives expert Vincente (Nehemiah Persoff), a Mexican who's been subject to some bigotry as have most of the Mexicans in town. The three are going to have to work according to a strict schedule, since they've only got one day on which they can pull off the heist, and there are the legitimate miners working a section of the mine that's not too far from where the passageways in the abandoned shaft are located.

If you know that The Badlanders is a remake of The Asphalt Jungle (both are actually based on a story by W.R. Burnett), it's easy to spot some of the similarities. But there's also a lot different. The plot has been pared down, since this one runs almost a half hour shorter than the original. In some ways that's to the detriment of our film, since parts of the movie feel rather rushed. There are also some differences in the ultimate fates of certain characters that I found quite interesting but that I'm not going to give away.

On the whole, if you didn't know about the relationship between The Badlanders and The Asphalt Jungle, you'd probably find The Badlanders to be a nice way to spend 80 minutes on a rainy day. The story, with its differences, still works, and the performances are more than adequate. But of the two movies, you'd definitely want to see The Asphalt Jungle first, since it's a great movie while The Badlanders is merely good.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Count of the Old Town

One of the DVD box sets I mentioned getting was Criterion's Eclipse Series set of Ingrid Bergman's early Swedish movies. Recently, I watched another movie off the set, The Count of the Old Town.

The "Old Town" here refers to one particular district of Stockholm, which is portrayed as being a rather working-class part of Stockholm based on who inhabits the movie. The "Count" (Valdemar Dalquist) is a former count who lost his fortune and now aimlessly hopes to increase his hard liquor ration, Sweden maintaining a system of alcohol rationing until 1955. (I went down the Wikipedia hole and learned that Sweden actually had a national referendum on alcohol prohibition in 1922 that failed by a 51-49 margin.) The Count would like to marry the owner of the local boarding house called the "City Hotell", Klara (Julia Cæsar), but she wants him to get steady work.

Meanwhile, there's an unknown jewel thief, called "Diamond-Lasse", who pulled off a heist of a local jeweler. There's an obvious candidate for the thief, an obliging young man named Åka (Edvin Adolphson, who co-directed) who shows up at the City Hotell looking for a place to stay and not having much luggage on him. Åke, for his part, meets and falls in love with Klara's niece and chambermaid, Elsa (Ingrid Bergman in her movie debut).

Various other Runyonesque characters populate this area of the Old Town, including a blind man and a fellow drunkard companion of the Count, known as the Cucumber. Eventually the bad guy is caught, and all the good guys live happily ever after, although I won't mention who the bad guy is.

The Count of the Old Town plays much like it could have been a Hollywood programmer of the era, at least in terms of plot. The cinematography, however, includes a lot of location work in Stockholm which is really nice to see. The movie probably wouldn't be remembered at all today, and certainly wouldn't be available on DVD here in the US, if it weren't for the presence of Ingrid Bergman, who unsurprisingly does quite well. Having said that, it doesn't mean that The Count of the Old Town is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, more that it's the sort of thing we've all seen before.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #287: Steven Spielberg favorites

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 a fairly simple one, favorite Steven Spielberg movies.

Steven Spielberg has made a slew of memorable movies for close to 50 years now, so pretty much anybody should be able to think of three. The only question is which three to pick. I unsurprisingly went earlier:

The Sugarland Express (1974). Spielberg's first real feature film (Duel was a TV movie although as I understand it there were some places where it got a theatrical release). Goldie Hawn plays a woman who, along with her husband (William Atherton), was sentenced to prison. Since they were both in jail, their child was put in foster care. Hawn's gotten out of jail but finds that the foster parents are going to be allowed to adopt the kid. So she breaks her husband out of jail and kidnaps her child with the plan to escape to Mexico.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Richard Dreyfuss is a man who sees a UFO and suddenly gets the urge to go to someplace he doesn't know yet but turns out to be Devils Tower, WY. The US military is leading an international group of researchers (including François Truffaut) investigating what turns out to be the same UFO heading for Devils Tower, and tries to keep civilians away. Why does the UFO want to go there anyway?

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). An alien gets stuck on Earth and is found by siblings (Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore) who protect it until they can figure out a way to get it back to the spacecraft that brought it to Earth. Meanwhile, the authorities know something is going on and want to find the extraterrestrial being for their own nefarious purposes. This one was a huge hit at the box office making Reese's Pieces popular and spawning a bunch of ancillary merchandise including a disastrous video game.

National Film Registry night

Every year, the Library of Congress picks 25 films that are considered artistically or historically important to include in the National Film Registry for preservation, something I've mentioned quite a few times. The selections are announced in December, and in the previous two years, TCM's Ben Mankiewicz sat down with the Librarian of Congress to present a night of that year's selections. This year, TCM moved the night to January, namely tonight; I don't know whether the Librarian of Congress is showing up.

The selection of movies TCM is showing is interesting, but above and beyond that I need to mention it because of some schedule issues. TCM's weekly schedule page is missing two of the selections. One of those is a bit understandable since they picked a 30-minute documentary. The other one is omitted from the online daily/weekly schedule and the monthly schedule.

Everything starts off at 8:00 PM with The Phenix City Story, which is fun and really deserves inclusion even if only for the interviews with the real people involved that kick off the movie. The weekly schedule has a couple of regular (non-National Film Registry) shorts on the weekly schedule that for some reason have been omitted from the daily schedule.

Thankfully, at 10:00 PM, the daily and monthly schedules show I Am Somebody, a half-hour documentary about striking black nurses in South Carolina, a movie that's new to me so I can't comment on it.

At 10:45 PM there's the 1944 Ingrid Bergman version of Gaslight, which is listed as a 114-minute movie in a four-hour slot. The weekly schedule claims that the 11-minute short R.F.D. Greenwich Village is on at 12:49 AM, with nothing between that and the 2:45 AM feature Girlfriends. What comes on in the intervening time isn't mentioned on any of the TCM schedules I could find, so I had to go to my box guide to see what it said. That says (and the inclusion of R.F.D. Greenwich Village implies the box guide time might just be right) that at 1:00 AM TCM is showing the 1984 documentary Before Stonewall, about the gay rights movement, well, before the Stonewall riots. It's an 87-minute movie, so if it is at 1:00 AM, it's not going to run over the alloted time slot.

Concluding the night is Oscar Micheaux's 1925 movie Body and Soul, which features the film debut of Paul Robeson.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Widow from Chicago

A movie that I thought I had recorded as part of Joan Blondell's turn as Star of the Month last month, but which in fact does not have Blondell in the cast, is The Widow from Chicago.

The star is actually Alice White, although we don't meet her at first. Instead, we see gangster "Swifty" Dorgan (Neil Hamilton), who's traveling from Chicago to New York via train. However, a couple of people show up to meet him and push him off the train to his death! In New York, one of those people, Jimmy Henderson, turns out to be a policeman on an undercover mission.

That undercover mission is to replace Swifty in order to infiltrate the underworld leader Dominic's (Edward G. Robinson) sphere of influence. Polly (that's Alice White), it turns out, is Jimmy's sister. And poor Jimmy, for his part, has been found out by somebody from Dominic's gang, as he gets shot gangland style.

Polly decides that she's going to be the one to infiltrate Dominic's gang, so she goes to his club, claims to be Swifty's widow, and gets a job presumably as part of the show but I don't think we actually see her doing any singing. At any rate, she seems like she might be making some progress in getting the good on Dominic, until something unexpected happens.

Swifty was in fact not killed when he was pushed off the train, and he shows up, which presents a bit of a problem since Swifty isn't married and has no idea who this Polly who's been claiming to be his widow is. The two of them sort of have to form an uneasy alliance as they try to fool Dominic long enough to obtain that evidence....

The Widow from Chicago is one of those early talkies, dating from 1930, when talking pictures were still finding their way. So this one isn't as good objectively as some later programmer gangster movies would be. Still, it's not bad, even if Robinson doesn't get to be as bombastic as he would be in some of his other gangster roles.

The Widow from Chicago is available on DVD from the Warner Archive, but is another of those movies that probably ought to be on one of those four-movie box sets that Warner Home Video in conjunction with TCM used to put out.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Delicate Delinquent

I mentioned some time back picking up a box set of Jerry Lewis movies, having watched The Stooge off the set. I recently watched another DVD from the set, The Delicate Delinquent.

Lewis, who was about 30 at the time he made this movie, plays Sidney Pythias. He works as a sort of janitor/handyman at a tenement apartment building in a poor part of the city, presumably in exchange for the rent on his apartment since he's got a really poor basement apartment. One night, two groups of street hoodlums of the less threatening than they look sort that populated teen angst movies of the 1950s get together for a rumble in the alley at the back of the building where Sidney lives. Sidney makes the mistake of trying to put out the garbage just as the police are coming to arrest the juvenile hoodlums, so he gets taken in for booking too.

Now, it should have been fairly easy to establish that Sidney was not in fact part of either group of delinquents, but apparently he knew a couple of the members of one of the gangs, Artie (Richard Bakalyan) and Monk (Robert Ivers). This gets him kept in custody, although the policeman who arrested them all, Mike Damon (Darren McGavin), has some sympathy for Sidney.

This sympathy, combined with the presence of a do-gooder social worker, Martha (Martha Hyer), leads Damon to try to reform Sidney, since he seems more reformable than any of the other gang members. And for Sidney's part, he wants to be "reformed", at least in the sense that one of his goals in life is to better himself by becoming a policeman. Not that you'd think he could do the job, based on the way he does his handyman's job. But at least he could impress his girl Patricia enough.

Damon starts working with Sidney, and finds that getting him through the police academy is going to be more difficult than he thought, this being almost 30 years before the Police Academy series showed us that almost anybody can make it through the academy. Damon isn't helped by the fact that Artie and Monk think he's selling out and that becoming a policeman is a bad idea.

Somehow, however, Sidney gets accepted into the police academy, and goes through all the training before he's sent out on his first patrol with an experienced police officer. But things go wrong on that first patrol, threatening to end Sidney's police career before it even really begins....

Whether you like The Delicate Delinquent will depend a lot on whether you like the comedy of Jerry Lewis. This is the first movie he made without Dean Martin, who apparently was originally cast in the role Darren McGavin wanted, but in not wanting to play it hastened the break-up of the comedy team. There's not quite as much of the manic, acquired-taste Lewis comedy as there is in some of the other movies, but at the same time, that sort of comedy doesn't work within the context of the story the way it does in The Stooge.

As for my personal recommendation, I think I would start off with some other Lewis stuff, like The Bellboy.

TCM Star of the Month 2020: Patricia Neal

We're in the first full week of a new month, which means it's time for a new Star of the Month. This time out, it's Patricia Neal, and TCM is going to be showing her movies every Tuesday night in prime time. So I looked through the blog to see what photos of Neal I've already used that I could reuse in this post:

Tonight kicks off at 8:00 PM with The Fountainhead, an interesting if deeply flawed movie based on the Ayn Rand novel; it's that basis that causes most people to pan the movie outright, because as we saw with Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes recently, a lot of people don't like having their worldview challenged.

The Fountainhead is followed at 10:00 PM tonight by Bright Leaf, which re-teams Neal and Gary Cooper. Unfortunately, it also has Lauren Bacall, who increasingly is becoming one of my less enjoyable actresses as I find her roles uninteresting.

January 21 kicks off at 8:00 PM with A Face in the Crowd, which really should be a warning about what the solons in the media let us see, but instead is used to decry wrongthinkers who become celebrities. Neal helps bumpkin Andy Griffith become famous, and fame goes to his head.

A Face in the Crowd is followed at 10:15 PM on January 21 by Hud, the movie that won Neal an Oscar as the maid to a Texas rancher (Melvyn Douglas, who also won an Oscar), his son Hud (Paul Newman), and the son's nephew (Brandon de Wilde).

Monday, January 6, 2020

The original Death Wish

When I had the free preview of all the movie channels over the Thanksgiving weekend, another movie that I got the chance to record was the 1974 original version of Death Wish.

Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, an architect in New York City with a wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and married daughter. He's successful enough to take vacations and live in a nice apartment, at least by early 1970s New York standards. This of course is the era as I like to describe of of just before President Ford telling the city to drop dead. (Not that Ford said that of course, but that's how the Daily News interpreted the president's desire not to bail out the bankrupt city.) Times Square was seedy, and crime was much higher than it is today, although on the last point it should be mentioned that the high crime rate wasn't just a New York City thing.

Anyhow, it's that crime rate that's important. One day when Joanna and her daughter are going to the grocery store, they arrange for the store to deliver the groceries, since carrying that many groceries in the big city is a pain. A couple of hoodlums in the store hear this and take a look at the address for the delivery, so they're able to go up to the Kerseys' apartment and claim to be the grocery delivery. Gaining entry in this way, they then proceed to savagely beat and rape the two women.

Paul and his son-in-law go to the hospital, where they learn that the daughter is going to recover, but that Joanna just died. This is long before the use of DNA evidence, so there's not going to be much of any way to find the assailants. And the daughter doesn't really recover. Well, she does physically, but mentally she's shattered to the point that she won't talk and has to go to a sanatorium.

Paul tries to go on with his life, taking an assignment out in Arizona for the property developer Jainchill (Stuart Margolin). In addition to owning a whole bunch of land, Jainchill is interested in target shooting, and takes Paul out to a shooting range where the two find out that Paul is a pretty good shot, and seems to like it. So Jainchill gives Paul a gun, which is officially illegal in New York despite it being a massive violation of the Second Amendment.

One day, Paul himself gets caught up in the petty crime, and since he has his gun on him, he fights back by shooting the thugs. The police don't like this, of course, since homicide is a bit of a problem even if this one is a justifiable homicide. More than that, they don't like the fact that somebody is showing the cops up. So Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) starts investigating the case, with little to go on -- until Paul starts becoming a more brazen vigilante and there are more killings.

The police are distressed, but the average people are cheering the mysterious vigilante on, being sick of an ineffective police force. Remember, this was the era of Serpico when it was becoming public knowledge just how corrupt the New York police were (and still are, but since 9/11 the amount of sucking up to the police has become almost unbearable). Eventually, something's bound to happen to make Paul's identity as the vigilante become public....

Charles Bronson wasn't the best actor out there by a long shot, but Death Wish is a movie that really plays well to his skill set as an actor. The movie also came out at a time, a few weeks before Richard Nixon's resignation, when there was a lot going wrong in America both nationally and in New York, and it's easy to see why the movie would capture the imagination of all those people who would like to think they could do something to stand up to all that was plaguing them.

Death With may not be an objectively great movie thanks to Bronson's limited range and what seemed to me to be some continuity issues, but the movie has an obvious appeal, both as a time capsule and a catharsis for anybody who's ever wanted revenge, which is probably most of us. Death Wish is available on DVD and Blu-ray, if you haven't seen it and wish to watch for yourself.