Saturday, February 29, 2020

A hell of a lot more interesting than listening to Meghan and Harry


During one of the free premium channel previews, I recorded The King's Speech, since it did win the Best Picture Oscar and I haven't done too many posts on more recent movies. I recently sat down to watch it and do the review. Granted, this is one that most people are well aware of, so my synopsis might be a bit more brief than normal.

In 1925, Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second son of Britain's King George V, is the Duke of York and given the task of giving a closing speec at a major international exhibition. Unfortunately, Albert suffers from a severe stammer, making the speech a nightmare for all involved. To that end, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to find a discreet speech therapist to help treat her Bertie's condition. To that end, she finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born elocution teacher who has unorthodox teaching methods.

Albert isn't so certain he wants to trust Logue at first, but over the years he keeps coming back to Logue, as circumstances with his family make his life complicated. As Albert is second-born, it's his elder brother Edward (Guy Pearce) who is set to become King when dad George V (Michael Gambon) dies. But Edward is unmarried an in a serious relationship with American Wallis Warfield Simpson who has already been divorced once and is in the process of getting a divorce from her second husband. As the King is the nominal head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) isn't about to countenance a divorcée as Queen Consort (my how times have changed).

So Albert becomes King, taking the name George VI and having to speak ceremonial lines at the investiture ceremony, bringing Logue in for the help. But by this time the Archbishop has learned that Logue has no traditional credentials (the fact that his methods have actually, you know, worked is overlooked) and wants to get rid of Logue.

Finally, there's the stress of the world situation, as war with Germany is approaching. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, Britain declares war, and George VI has to give his first wartime speech, not only over domestic radio but delivered by shortwave to the entire world. Can he do it?

The King's Speech was nominated for a host of Oscars, and won three of the big ones, for Best Picture as well as for Firth and director Tom Hooper. It deserved to win, I think, as the movie is extremely well made with an excellent performance by Firth, and pretty darn good performances by the supporting actors (I haven't mentioned Claire Bloom as George V's wife Queen Mary yet). The production values for recreating the period seemed good as far as I could tell, although I did find the color palette a bit too gray. There were also a few cases of camera movement I found intrusive, but nowhere near as annoying as Darkest Hour. If you haven't seen The King's Speech yet, I strongly recommend it.

The King's Speech is available on DVD, and probably on streaming platforms too.

Arthur Franz, 1920-2006



Arthur Franz as The Sniper (1952)

Today is Leap Day, which means that there are fewer famous people who have birthdays than any other day of the year. In a brief post on Leap Day back in 2012, I mentioned that this is the birth anniversary of director William Wellman (born on this day in 1896). The other Hollywood name is not quite as famous, that of character actor Arthur Franz.

Franz's career started after World War II, and one of his earliest roles was as George Raft's murdered brother in the interesting noir Red Light. He was the narrator of Sands of Iwo Jima, which I think I have on a John Wayne war movies box set, although it's not in the queue to watch considering how many war movies I've blogged about recently. I don't remember Franz's role in The Member of the Wedding, and he was part of the crew in The Caine Mutiny.

But probably Franz's biggest triumph would be in The Sniper, an excellent little movie about a man who goes off the deep end and decides to start shooting people sniper-style, while Adolphe Menjou investigates the case.

Friday, February 28, 2020

A Small Town Idol


I recently mentioned Beauty's Worth, which was a 76-minute movie put in a two-hour Silent Sunday Nights time slot. Since there was a fair bit of time left, TCM ran the two-reel short A Small Town Idol.

After introducing all the cast members, a title card points out that this movie was made a long time ago. In fact, it's been edited down from a 1921 feature; I'm not certain how Warner Bros. got the rights to it but that's beside the point.

The plot involves Sam Smith (Ben Turpin), who lives in a small town and like a fair number of people in movies of the era, had a keen interest in Hollywood and its stars. He's engaged to Mary (Phyllis Haver), but wrote fan mail to a Hollywood actress. The studio sent back a production still with a joke comment on it about a marriage proposal. Sam's enemy Jim (Jim Finlayson) finds the still, uses it to get Mary to break off the engagement, and then starts putting the moves on Mary himself!

Sam goes off to Hollywood, where he somehow becomes a star, because however Ben Turpin became a star is a mystery to me. He returns to his hometown to win Mary back, but Jim isn't going to give Mary up without a fight. This having been edited down to a two-reeler, that's about all there is to the plot.

The plot is on the surface certainly serviceable, if hoary. However, Warner Bros.' editing of it ruins the movie (well, I'm assuming it ruins what was a good enough movie; I haven't seen the full-length original). The original having been made in 1921, it is of course silent. So Warner Bros. decided to add not just a narrator, but a Pete Smith-style narrator, and obnoxious sound effects. Perhaps audiences of the day found it funny, but I sure didn't.

The 1939 two-reeler seems to be on Youtube at the moment. There's an out-of-print box set of Ben Turpin movies that includes this one, although I didn't note whether it was the 1921 feature or the two-reeler.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #294: Romance (TV edition)





This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This being the last Thursday of the month, it's time for another TV-themed edition of the blogathon, with the TV theme this month being romance, something I suppose is appropriate for February. I've already used The Love Boat, and now I'm really irritated that I used Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire because it would be a hoot to use here. But at any rate I was able to come up with three shows with fit the theme to a greater or lesser degree:



Love, American Style (1969-1974). Anthology series about people finding love, usually somewhat comedic in nature. Originally an hour-long series, the use of multiple stories per episode made it easy to edit down to a greater number of half-hour episodes for syndication (which is how I remember it). The show also featured a story that would eventually become the long-running sitcom Happy Days.



Finder of Lost Loves (1984-1985). Anthony Franciosa plays a widowed private detective who, as you can guess from the title, helps people find lost loves. Of course, part of the drama is that life goes on and having a lost love from earlier in your life come back into it may cause more problems than it solves.



Divorce Court (1999-present). After the romance has gone, some couples split up and go to divorce court. This is the current incarnation, which allegedly features real cases in binding arbitration, a trend started back in the early 1980s by The People's Court. There were earlier Divorce Court shows as far back as 1959 which were re-enactments with actors.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Joe Pistone


During one of the free previews of the premium movie channels, I had the opportunity to record Donnie Brasco, not having done a post on it here before. It's available on DVD and is going to be on the Epix channels in the comind days if you have the premium channels and wish to watch it.

Johnny Depp plays Donnie Brasco, a jeweler in Brooklyn in late 1978. Or at least that his story that everybody believes. In reality, his name is Joe Pistone, and he's an undercover FBI agent who's been given a job of infiltrating the New York Mafia. He meets Lefty (Al Pacino), a mid-level mobster working under Sonny Red. It's a difficult case that requires Joe to be away from his wife Maggie (Anne Heche) and kids for long stretches, without his being able to tell her why he's away. (You'd think she knows he works for the FBI, since the real life Pistone had been in the FBI for several years before the Donnie Brasco operation.)

Lefty befriends Donnie, and brings him into the organization, which doesn't seem to be particularly successful since it's engaging in small-time fencing of stolen goods. Donnie is fitting in with them, to the point where one of his FBI handlers wants Sonny Black (Michael Madsen) to expand to Florida so that the FBI can get more sources. Donnie is able to do this, and in the process, become a direct underling of Sonny Black rather than Lefty.

However, there are problems brewing. One is domestic, where Maggie is getting increasingly irritated with only seeing Joe irregularly and at unannounced times. It gets to the point that she's ready to ask for a divorce.

More worrisome is the business side. Lefty is reading a story in Newsweek on the Abscam affair, and sees the same yacht that they had been on together down in Miami, so he knows something is up. This, combined with a raid on the bar Donnie has opened down in Florida leads Sonny Black to realize there's a stoolie in their midst. This leads to some rubouts, and Donnie becoming more like the men he's supposed to be surveilling, making him increasingly frightened of what he's becoming.

Donnie Brasco is a pretty darn good movie, with an excellent performance from Depp in what is more of a stretch for him than the other actors faced, I think. That it's all based on a true story makes it even more fascinating. The only problem I had is that I found myself looking for anachronisms. There's a fair amount of period music used, although several of the songs were released months to a year or so after the events depicted. (I listened to a lot of Top 40 radio growing up.) More humorous for me was a newspaper mentioning the death of John Wayne while Donnie and friends were in Miami. I thought Wayne died in 1978, but in fact he died in June 1979, so this wouldn't be an anachronism. But: during that same scene, Donnie/Joe is calling his wife back in New Jersey, who is complaining about it being 12 degrees with a bunch of snow on the ground. In June!

Of course, those anachronisms are a very minor nitpick and things most people wouldn't stop to think about. Even if you do, Donnie Brasco is still excellent.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Beauty's Worth


I didn't know when I watched Beauty's Worth that Baby Peggy was going to die and that I'd be blogging about a silent movie on the same day; it's just an odd coincidence.

Marion Davies plays Prudence Cole, a young Quaker woman who was born into a family with means but lives with the last surviving members of her family, two spinster aunts who are very conservative and think that the entire 20th century is a scandal. Poor Prudence is forced to dress in horrid outfits and have no fun.

Prudence had a childhood friend Henry Garrison (Hallam Cooley) with whom she thinks she's in love, and he and his mother are about to visit. Henry and his mom invite Prudence to the seaside resort they're going to be taking a vacation at, and the implication is that Henry might ask for Prudence's hand in marriage. Amazingly the aunts let her and the family maid go to the resort.

Of course, this is a fashionable resort for the well-to-do, and while Prudence meets Henry's friends such as Amy (June Elvidge) who has her eyes on Henry, Prudence is also all wrong for the place with that Quaker clothing. When the other young smart-set guests see what Prudence is, they make fun of her and think she doesn't belong.

The only one who doesn't is Cheyne (Forrest Stanley), but then, he doesn't really consider himself a part of Harry's set. He's an artist accompanied by his servant (played by a man billed as Thomas Jefferson Jr.; while no relation of the former president, his name really was Thomas Jefferson). Cheyne sees Prudence and sees that there's an inner beauty there that would come out if only she could be in the right clothes. And perhaps he can use Prudence to get back at those snooty guests.

Harry and his friends want to do "charades" (which turns out to be the sort of tableaux vivants we saw in Florence Foster Jenkins), and want Cheyne to come up with the charades. On top of that, they want Prudence to make the request to Cheyne since they know he'll turn them down if one of them makes it. Cheyne agrees on condition that he pick the actors; naturally he picks Prudence for the lead.

Everybody sees Prudence in the clothes Cheyne designs (how he can make them that quickly is beyond me), and everybody immediately realizes that perhaps Prudence might be beautiful after all. Harry is now ready to propose to her, although it's more because he likes the clothes than the brain of the person wearing the clothes. This leads Prudence to believe she might not be marrying the right man after all....

Beauty's Worth is an interesting movie. William Randolph Hearst, who was Davies' lover and who managed her career, wrongly thought that costume dramas were best for her, while Davies wanted to do comedy. Beauty's Worth seems in that mind like a sort of compromise, in that it's modern and mostly light drama, with some comedy mixed in. Davies, unsurprisingly, excels, and is at her best in the charade scenes. The other actors do an adequate job with the archetype roles. Prudence's maid and Cheyne's assistant get an interesting subplot.

Beauty's Worth is available on DVD in a restoration. TCM ran this print, which ran 76 minutes. IMDb and Wikipedia both claim that the movie originally ran 112 minutes. Since the movie was released in 1922 it's in the public domain and there are copies available on Youtube which do run 112 minutes. I haven't watched them, so I have no clue what's in the extra 36 minutes or how much of that might have to do with a different frame rate.

Diana Serra Cary, 1918-2020



Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)

Diana Serra Cary, who under the name Baby Peggy because a silent film star at the age of about 18 months until her father got her blackballed around the age of six, has died at 101.

Unfortunately, most of her movies no longer survive after a vault fire in the late 1920s, but among the few that do is the 1924 version of Captain January, where an orphaned Pegy winds up living with a lighthouse keeper, until it turns out her family was not in fact lost at sea, and understandably want her back. The movie was remade as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, for fairly understandable reasons.

Late in life, Cary was the subject of a documentary, Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room, looking at her silent film career and how it messed up the family dynamic to have a kid who was way too young to be legally responsible for everything be the breadwinner. Dad and the grandparents basically squandered the money, and she and Hollywood didn't want each other once she was an adult, so she went into more normal work, meeting artist Robert Cary, which is how she got the Cary name; the Diana and Serra came from her conversion to Catholicism. The documentary is well worth watching as TCM ran it several years back.

This claims to be the surviving footage from Baby Peggy's The Darling of New York:

Monday, February 24, 2020

Perfect Strangers


Another recent movie watch was the British film Vacation from Marriage (original title Perfect Strangers), which, due to its interesting provenance, is actually available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Robert Donat plays Robert Wilson, a bookkeeper married to Cathy (Deborah Kerr) in London in April, 1940. This is of course during World War II and the time of the Nazi blitz on London. Robert has decided he's going to do his part for the war by joining the Royal Navy, but he's a bit meek, having the same routine day after day and being a bit afraid to ask his boss to make up the pay difference since he's a few weeks short of the five-year tenure to get that. However, Robert feels that he has to be the protector of Cathy, who is even more fragile than he is.

Robert goes off and shows he's go no experience with naval life, although he does slowly begin to take to it. Cathy has been left in their London flat, a place that she really didn't like even though she never told Robert this because she thought Robert needed the stability thanks to his meekness. So now that he's gone, she decides that she too is going to do her part by joining up with the WRENs (the Women's Royal Naval Service), the UK equivalent of the WAVEs.

Cathy quickly makes a friend in Dizzy (Glynis Johns), but like Robert she too is not ready for the women's equivalent of naval life. However, also like Robert, she does slowly being to open up in the WRENs, especially when she gets the chance to do something slightly heroic by taking a message to headquarters by boat, the road and telephone both being out. She even gets over her constant colds.

Time goes on, and both halves of the couple become more changed persons, even meeting a person who might be falling in love with them. Neither one is certain about having anything more than a friendly relationship with the new person who loves them, but both of them are uncertain that they want to go back to their old relationship after the war, having seen what life can really be like.

So after three years apart, the two each get ten days' leave at the same time, and each decides that they're going to bring up the idea of divorce. They don't realize, of course, that the other partner has changed, and that divorce might not actually be necessary.

Director Alexander Korda and his London Films signed a contract with MGM that was supposed to lead to three pictures, although this turned out to be the only one. The movie works out well, mostly thanks to a really strong supporting performance by Glynis Johns. I'm not the biggest fan of Donat, and at times his character seems off to the point of dislikeability. Kerr is much more sympathetic here.

If you like little pictures that work, then Vacation from Marriage is certainly one worth watching.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Burning Hills


Another of my recent movie viewings was The Burning Hills, yet another of those movies that's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The movie starts off with a bang, almost literally, as we see a man tending to his ranch. That man is approached by some other men and shot to death. It turns out that that young man was named Johnny Jordan, who had a kid brother Trace (Tab Hunter) who helped run the ranch. When Trace returns with their ranch hand, he finds his brother dead, and one of the horses with the Jordan brand stolen. Thankfully the ranch hand is smart, and is able to deduce some of the traits of the killers, one having a decided limp and another wearing fancy Mexican spurs.

So Trace heads off to Esperanza to report the murder, only to find out that Esperanza has been turned into a sort of company town run by the big man in the area, Joe Sutton (Ray Teal). There's not much in the way of law enforcement here, and Sutton's men harass anybody they think isn't going to be toeing the Sutton line. A good example of this is given by the way they treat Maria Colton (Natalie Wood), a half-Mexican who owns a sheep ranch outside of town on land that the Suttons want.

The Suttons, you see, have been using the land for their own ranching, even though under the Homestead Act it's going to be doled out to people farming it, and some of those people like the Jordans and Coltons, have already been using the land. The Suttons don't like this, so they've been violently trying to keep everybody else off of "their" land that of course really isn't theirs.

With that in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise that it was some of Sutton's men who killed Johnny Jordan. Trace finds the men and confronts Joe Sutton, who pulls out a gun and tries to kill Trace. Trace gets his gun out faster and shoots Joe, wounding him and bringing in Sutton's men while Trace beats a hasty escape. As Trace is escaping on his horse, Sutton's men shoot from a distance, wounding Trace.

Trace wakes up in an abandoned mine shaft where there's water that flows down the hill. Who should come up that hill but... Maria Colton! Maria finds Trace and tends to him, not knowing at first why he's there. When she finds out why, she's sympathetic, since Sutton's men killed her father. However, she lives with an uncle and kid brother, and they're not as willing to stand up to the Suttons as Maria is. Trace is hoping to get away and make it to the fort to get the Army to send in law enforcement, since this is still a territory and not a state.

Sutton's men come by the Colton place looking for Trace, headed by Sutton's son Jack (Skip Homeier) and ranch foreman Ben (Claude Akins). The two are a bit at odds, with Ben wanting to do things with more of an appearance of legality, and Jack wanting to get Trace come hell or high water, and who cares how it looks. They have a feeling Maria knows more than she's letting on, and when they discover that she does, she's forced to go on the run after Trace, and Jack and his men not far behind.

In many ways there's not all that much new going on in The Burning Hills, but it's still a nice western. Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood are both appealing in this undemanding material. Skip Homeier is suitably nasty, and the supporting actors all do OK. If you're looking to sit down with a bowl of popcorn and be entertained, you'll get that in spades. If you're looking for anything groundbreaking, you won't get that, but there's nothing wrong with wanting entertainment over something groundbreaking.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Enemy Below


A movie that's been in the FXM rotation for a little while now is The Enemy Below. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM and Monday at 6:00 AM, so you've got a couple more chances to watch.

The USS Haynes is a destroyer setting off for a tour of the South Atlantic during World War II, on patrol to prevent German ships and submarines from doing whatever it is they do. The crew isn't necessarily certain of their new captain, Murrell (Robert Mitchum), in part because he lost his last command, a Merchant Marine boat, when it got torpedoed in the North Atlantic by the Germans. Some think Lt. Ware (David Hedison, who I think was still credited as Al as he was at the beginning of his career), the second-in-command, should have been promoted, but as he admits, his experience in captaining is limited to yachts in Miami.

But they're all here to patrol, and with the radar on, they quickly find a surfaced Nazi U-Boat, which is captained by Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens). Von Stolberg dives and sonar from the Haynes starts pinging the U-boat and following it, trying to keep up the same course and speed so that the Nazis might think this is just an echo and not actually a ship following them. But Von Stolberg is no dummy, having been in command of submarines for years, and fires torpedoes at the US ship, narrowly missing.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game between the two veteran captains, but of whom are intelligent and have a pretty darn good idea of what the other is thinking and planning to do, which isn't going to make getting out of this sitation easy for either of them.

It's a bit tough to give much more of a synopsis than the above, mostly because this being a submarine pursuit film, there's not much more that can be done. I suppoe you could build up characters' back stories, but that isn't particularly necessary.

Having said that, however, The Enemy Below is quite good. It does move a bit slow at times, but again I think that's part of the nature of a submarine pursuit movie. Since the submarine is hiding out underwater, there's a lot of waiting going on that just can't be helped. I think I preferred The Bedford Incident slightly for adding a reporter character which opened things up a bit, and even Run Silent, Run Deep. But The Enemy Below is still an excellent example of the genre and well worth a watch.

Unfortunately, the print FXM ran is both letterboxed and pillarboxed (at least on my TV I was able to blow it up and as far as I could tell keep the proper aspect ratio). But it's also on DVD if you want to obtain it that way.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Some dawns I die, some I don't


A few years back I bought a four-film set of James Cagney roles. I did a review of City for Conquest quite some time ago, and recently sat down to watch Each Dawn I die when a search of the blog suggested that I've never done a review of it before.

Cagney plays Frank Ross, an intrepid reporter for a big-city newspaper. He's investigating District Attorney Jesse Hanley (Thurston Hall), who is running for governor but corrupt as all get-out, as Frank spots him and aides burning the evidence late one night in an industrial zone. (Why Frank didn't take pictures is beyond me.) The story pisses Hanley off so much that he decides to frame Ross, much the way that the bad guys in North by Northwest made Cary Grant appear drunk.

Of course, in this case, the "drunk driving" causes a crash that kills three kids, so Frank gets sent up the river for a long time, up to 20 years. Frank's colleagues on the newspaper vow to get him freed, but it's not going to be easy. On the way to prison, Frank meets one of his fellow prisoners-to-be, "Hood" Stacey (George Raft), a big-time gangster who's being sent to prison for 199 years. Stacey, being a gangster, has enemies in this prison from the rival gang, and the prison guards don't much care if the gang members want to bump each other off.

Frank makes a friend in Stacey, however, when he trips a guy who was about to stab Stacey. But one of Stacey's rivals gets stabbed to death during the prison's movie night. This, however, gives Stacey and Frank ideas. Stacey plans an escape which will involved going on trial for the murder that he didn't actually commit, something which will require Frank to finger him. In exchange, Stacey, once on the outside, will look for the folks who were working for Hanley to set Frank up.

It doesn't quite work that way, though. Frank, being a reporter, tips off his newspaper to the escape attempt saying something big is going to happen at the trial. The attempt does succeed, but the press coverage pisses Stacey off, so he decides to renege on his part of the bargain. The prison authorities assume Frank was in on it, so when he won't name names, they put him in solitary confinement. And Frank's girlfriend Joyce (Jane Bryan), pissed that Stacey isn't holding up his end of the deal, begs Stacey to reconsider....

Each Dawn I Die is the sort of movie where it's easy to see why it was so popular back in the day. It has the bite typical of the Warner Bros. movies of the 30s, and Cagney is as good as always. The one odd thing I found, however, was George Raft. His character, despite being a gangster sent up for 199 years, seems rather laid back, frankly unnaturally so. For whatever reason, this bugged me the whole movie.

Not that the movie is bad by any means. It's definitely worth a watch. In addition to the box set at Amazon you can also watch it via Prime Video if you can do the streaming thing.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #293: Love in the Tech Age






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 "Love in the Tech Age", which at first thought might have been a bit difficult for me since I don't watch the sort of recent movie that are the intended subject for the theme. But after some thought I decided to go in a slightly different direction:

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
New Technology: Telephone
Don Ameche plays Alexander Graham Bell, who taught deaf children, and tried to come up with artificial means of enabling them to speak. His attempts led him to the invention of the telephone, as well as falling in love with one of his partially deaf students, Loretta Young. Unfortunately for Bell, there was a patent dispute over the telephone....

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947)
New Technology: Typewriter
Betty Grable plays Miss Pilgrim, who becomes the first female office typist in late 19th century Boston, when it wasn't common for women to work outside of domestic service, teachers, or nurses. She falls in love with her boss (Dick Haymes), but her becoming a leader for women's rights and part of the suffrage movement threatens to derail the relationship.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
New Technology: Talking pictures
Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont (Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen) are a successful silent movie partnership. But sound comes to the movies, and Lina has a voice that's decidedly not for movies. So Don's friend (Donald O'Connor) has the idea of having Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) dub Lina. Kathy and Don fall in love along the way. The title song is originally from the 1929 movie The Hollywood Revue, which was basically a sound test for MGM's contract players other than Greta Garbo:


PS: I actually looked up the plot of One Million B.C. to see if I could use fire as a new technology, but the discovery of fire isn't a plot point. I haven't seen Quest for Fire to use that.

The Wayward Bus


FXM recently put a movie in its rotation that was new to me: The Wayward Bus. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 3:00 AM and 9:40 AM.

Rebel Corners, CA, is a small place in the middle of nowhere that doesn't seem to have anything but a diner that also serves as an end of the line bus stop. Alice Chicoy (Joan Collins) runs the diner, with some help from counter girl Norma (Betty Lou Keim), who has dreams of becoming an actress in Hollywood. Alice's Mexican-American husband Johnny (Rick Jason), drives a feeder bus from Rebel Corners to the larger town of San Juan, a route that has no direct connection by the larger bus lines since the roads are bad.

The Grey Fox (I'm guessing Fox couldn't use "Greyhound") bus line has runs that end in Rebel Corners, and one of those buses pulls up, bringing several interesting characters. There are the Pritchards (Kathryn Givney and Larry Keating), together with their neurotic daughter Mildred (Dolores Michaels); traveling salesman Horton (Dan Dailey), who reminded me of the Keenan Wynn character in Phone Call from a Stranger; a man desperate to get to San Juan before the courthouse closes for reasons that are only divulged at the end of the movie; and Camille (Jayne Mansfield), a woman with a past.

Johnny is going to drive all of them and Norma to San Juan, along with his junior mechanic "Pimples" (Dee Pollock), a prospect that his wife is not thrilled with because the bus Johnny drives is in crappy shape and the weather isn't going to be good. Still, Johnny needs the money, so the bus sets off, and Alice turns to drink. Their marriage has been on the rocks, no pun intended, and it's easy to see why.

Sure enough, the rains pick up and there are some landslides that block the already lousy main road to San Juan. But the passengers still want to get there, and Johnny decides to take them down a dirt road that's going to prove to be even more dangerous than the main road. Along the way, we learn a little more about some of the passengers as Horton and Camille strike up a relationship, while Pritchard wants to break it up because he's got some preconceptions.

The Wayward Bus was based on a novel by John Steinbeck, and with that pedigree you'd think the movie would be better than it turns out to be. I think that has more to do with the script than the acting, surprisingly enough. Collins and Mansfield have the sex symbol reputation (and in Collins' case, the descent into Dynasty) that leaves them not getting enough credit for what they do. Collins does have one big bad moment with a drunk scene, but other than that, I really think it's the pedestrian storytelling at fault. The Pritchard storyline is way underdeveloped, and San Juan turns out to be a surprisingly large place. There's no explanation for why anybody would have ended up in Rebel Corners in the first place.

So in the end I think I'd call The Wayward Bus an interesting misfire. It's not on DVD as far as I can tell, but at least the print FXM ran was in the proper Cinemascope ratio, and not both letterboxed and pillarboxed like some of the recent Cinemascope showings.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Mr. Kitty Carlisle


Another of the movies I recently watched that's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive is Act One.

The movie is based on the memoir by celebrated playwright Moss Hart (played here by George Hamilton), a man I first knew of as the late husband of To Tell the Truth panelist Kitty Carlisle Hart and her pearls, because I was the right age to see that show and not any of Hart's plays. (Kitty is not a character in the movie, for the record.) Obviously, later on I learned about Hart and his plays such as You Can't Take It With You which were wildly successful both on the stage and the screen.

But Act One tells the story of Hart before he became famous, or at least part of the story. (Hart died before he could write an Act Two.) The action starts in September 1929, when Hart is in his mid 20s. He had dreams of making it as a writer, and wrote several plays of the sort he thought a serious playwright like Eugene O'Neill would have written. His agent Maxwell (Sam Levene) and his friend Joe Hyman (Jack Klugman) both like the plays, but they also know that dramas won't sell as they're a dime a dozen. If you want to hit it big, you have to write a comedy.

Mossy doesn't know what to write about, and comedy is hard, anyway. But he reads an article in Variety about how the advent of talking pictures has caused all sorts of upheaval in Hollywood. So he thinks he can write a comedy about the behind-the-scenes part of the stage and movies. Eventually, he finishes it, and even gets an appointment with Broadway producer Warren Stone (Eli Wallach). Stone makes Moss wait days for that appointment, and then sits on the play for weeks.

In the meantime, one of his friends knows another producer, Harris, and Harris is able to get Moss a meeting with the already successful playwright George S. Kaufman (Jason Robards, who was still using the "Jr." in his name at this point in his career). Now, we know that Kaufman and Hart went on to write You Can't Take It With You, so we know it will ultimately become a successful partnership, but the movie ends before the big successes.

Kaufman reads the play, and likes the idea, but also knows that as it is, it's going to die on the stage because it just isn't funny enough. So he tells Moss that they're going to have to rewrite the whole darn thing. And even then, it's still not a sure thing that the play is going to become a success....

I haven't read the book on which the movie was based, but the reviews of the movie I've read from people who have read the book say that a lot was lost in the translation from page to screen. I don't have nearly as low an opinion as some of these reviewers, but I can understand why people might consider it a disappointment. The movie is OK as far as it goes, but there's always the feeling that there could be something more here. This is probably most notable at a tea party where Moss meets most of the Algonquin Round Table, but that's all we see of those celebrated wits.

Robards comes off best as Kaufman, and there are some interesting faces with recurring roles as Moss' friends who meet at a deli as a sort of round table of their own. There's future game show host Bert Convy as Archie Leach (yes, that Archie Leach, and surprisingly there's a plot point about his going to Paramount in Hollywood -- Act One was distributed by Warner Bros.). A young George Segal plays the friend who gets Moss the meeting with Kaufman, and David Doyle, a man I only knew from reruns of Match Game which mentioned he was a star Charlie's Angels, plays the last member of the group of friends.

You could do worse than Act One, but you could also do better. Still, I'd say it's worth a watch.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Yolanda and the Thief



Er, not that Yolanda....

Another of my recent movie watches was the Fred Astaire musical Yolanda and the Thief.

Fred is obviously not Yolanda; that honor goes to Lucile Bremer. She plays Yolanda Aquaviva, the daughter in a very rich family in the Latin American country of Patria, who is the heir to a fortune when she reaches her majority. That's just about to happen, as she's graduating from a convent school to go back and live with her Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick) who has been the custodian of the fortune. Unfortunately, Yolanda has spent so much time in the convent school that she knows next to nothing about the big wide world out there.

Enter Astaire. He's Johnny Riggs, on a train in Patria together with his friend and partner-in-crime Victor Trout (Frank Morgan). He reads a newspaper about the newest head of the Aquaviva family, which of course gives him the idea of parting her from some of that fortune. Of course, every man in Patria knows the Aquavivas, it seems, and their wealth allows them to run it and be sort of above the law.

Johnny and Victor go to the front gate of the Aquaviva mansion and when Johnny is able to get on the grounds, he finds that Yolanda is having a crisis. She's obviously devoutly Catholic what with this being 1940s Latin America and her having spent all that time in the convent school, so she's praying to an angel statue, and that's where Johnny gets his idea: he's going to pretend to be Yolanda's guardian angel!

This being an MGM musical with Fred Astaire in the starring role, and thanks to the Production Code, you know that Johnny isn't going to get away with fleecing Yolanda, so there have to be complications. One is that Johnny finds himself beginning to like Yolanda, even though he's trying to get her to sign over power of attorney to him. The other complication is a Mr. Candle (Leon Ames), who takes the satchel containing Yolanda's stocks and bonds after Johnny drops it on Victor's head, knocking Victor out. He seems to know a lot more than he's letting on.

To be honest, the story in Yolanda and the Thief is a bit tedious and much too slow. The is made up for by the dance numbers, which are exceedingly colorful, especially the "Coffee Time" number near the end. There's another dance number in the middle that dance fans will like, but I felt went on much too long. And Bremer is miscast, being much too old for the role. Having the film depend on her naivete is also a mistake, as there certainly would have been a transition period before Yolanda was given full control over the family fortune.

Yolanda and the Thief is one of those movies you probably need to watch for yourself and come to your own opinion on. It wasn't my cup of tea, but it may be yours.

Monday, February 17, 2020

So Long, Letty


Some weeks back, TCM ran a morning and afternoon of movies with meddling aunts and uncles. I recorded a couple of obscurities that are available from the Warner Archive Collection, and recently sat down to watch So Long, Letty.

Letty shows up near the beginning, just after the uncle, Claude Davis (Claude Gillingwater, whom you might recall as the soap magnate who falls for charming Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl). He's just returned from Europe with his two granddaughters Ruth (Marion Byron) and Sally (Helen Foster), going to one of those beach hotels in Florida. His plan is to meet his nephew to see if the nephew is worthy of an inheritance, Uncle Claude being the head of a ketchup manufacturer.

Showing up at the hotel is Letty (Charlotte Greenwood), who works there in the spa. Apparently she works on commission as she's extremely forward about trying to sell facials and other treatments to the new guests at the hotel. Those include Claude and his two granddaughters. The granddaughters seem to like Letty, but Claude doesn't.

But back to the nephew. Tommy Robbins (Bert Roach) returns from a day at work to a house that's a mess because his wife isn't very domestic, and Tommy is growing tired of it. And then he finds a telegram from Uncle Claude in all that mess. If Claude sees this mess, Tommy is convinced, Uncle Claude will never give him that inheritance!

Tommy lives next door to Grace Miller (Patsy Ruth Miller), a housewife who is very domestic and takes a bit of pity on Tommy when he goes to commiserate with her. She's got a similar problem, in that her husband Harry (Grant Withers) wants a little more excitement in his life, and Grace is nice but a bit too staid.

Uncle Claude knocks on the Millers' door, finds Grace talking to Tommy since Harry isn't home from work yet, and immediately assumes Grace is Tommy's wife. Good for Tommy, in that this means he's definitely going to get that inheritance. Except of course that we already know Grace is not Tommy's wife.

Mrs. Robbins is about to show up, and Mrs. Robbins is... Letty! Poor Letty knows that Claude isn't going to be happy to see her after what happened up in his suite earlier that day, but doesn't yet realize that Claude is her husband's uncle and that Uncle Claude has that inheritance planned. To make matters worse, Harry shows up and doesn't understand what's going on.

Tommy has what seems like a perfect idea for a television sitcom: He and Harry should swap wives for the duration of Uncle Claude's stay in Florida, so that Tommy can get the inheritance. (The obvious solution would be to offer the Millers a percentage of the inheritance.) Grace is obviously horrified by this, not quite realizing the necessity of that inheritance, but Letty has an offer for Grace. If each of their husbands thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, then perhaps the two wives should take them up on that offer and go all the way to the other extreme so that the husbands will get fed up with the lifestyle they think they missed out on by marrying the wrong woman. Of course, there's the little question of what's going to happen when Uncle Claude finds all this out.

So Long, Letty was made in 1929, at the dawn of the sound era, and as a result is a bit of a mish-mash. Charlotte Greenwood was a star on Broadway, so they gave her a couple of songs, although the movie is definitely not a musical. It's firmly a comedy, and one that's bizarre enough in its premise that it winds up being a lot of fun. Greenwood is a blast here, although some people might think she'd be better used in a supporting role as she was in The Gang's All Here. A little of her goes a long way, and there's a lot of her here.

Even though it's easy for modern viewers to see where the movie is going, as we've seen the sort of material here in all sorts of later works (I specifically mentioned sitcoms because the spouse-swapping plot is something I could imagine Lucy and Ethel trying on Ricky and Fred in I Love Lucy). But Greenwood makes it fun; Gillingwater is suitably dyspeptic; and the "throw everything out there and see what works" approach that characterized early talkies makes this off-kilter enough to be more than worth a watch.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The movie needed to have Howard be one of the hawks


In the 1950s, it wasn't uncommon for movies to be made in the UK with one American star (usually past their studio contract days) in the cast to make it easier to get a distribution deal in America. An example of this is The House of the Seven Hawks.

Robert Taylor, who had been at MGM for a good two decdaes, plays John Nordley, an American who lives on his British-flagged boat and makes money by taking people on charter trips. Apparently he does more, like going into international waters for people who want that, which he's not licensed to do. He promises the harbor master that he's not going to do this again, oh no, scout's honor.

Yeah right. A certain Mr. Sluiter (Gerard Heinz) is looking to charter the boat, ostensibly for a seven-day cruise along the coast, but once they get out of port he offers Nordly £500 to take him to Maasluis in the Netherlands, showing Nordley wads of cash in his briefcase. (There is a real Maassluis just down the river from Rotterdam, but the British port, Baymouth, is a fictional place as far as I can tell.) Along the way, Sluiter claims to be feeling not so well, so he goes and lies down, especially since it's apparently going to be an overnight trip anyway.

Sure enough, Nordley goes to check on Sluiter, and finds him quite dead. Nordley gets his money and takes a few other things off Sluiter's body, notably what looks like some sort of map. Before getting into harbor in Maasluis, Sluiter's daughter Elsa (Linda Christian) shows up, not realizing that Dad is dead.

Things get complicated here. Nordley had reported Sluiter's death, but it turns out he didn't die of a heart attack, but of insulin shock. (Nordley is innocent and the cops know it because they know Sluiter took his insulin capsule before meeting Nordley.) Sluiter was a police inspector in the UK on a special assignment, which Inspector Van Der Stoor (Donald Wolfit) won't reveal the nature of. But Nordley is in some trouble because his story doesn't fit. When he talks about seeing Sluiter's daughter, Van Der Stoor brings in the daughter, who is a woman named Constanta (Nicole Maurey) who has never met Nordley! Obviously Elsa is an impostor.

Nordley is let out on bail, which was paid by a mysterious Rohner (Eric Pohlmann) who also puts Nordley up at a local hotel. Rohner also has a main Peter tailing Nordley. But Nordley gets away in order to go see his old friend and partner in crime Charlie, whose help Nordley wants in getting out of his predicament.

Eventually it's revealed that the map that Nordley took off of Sluiter is some sort of key to finding a bunch of buried Nazi loot, and everybody wants it, and who knows who's double-crossing whom. The only thing we can guess is that since Nordley is the one played by a star, he's probably going to figure out a way to wind up on the up-and-up so that the movie could still adhere to the Production Code and get distributed in the US.

The House of the Seven Hawks is the sort of thing that by the late 1950s when it was made would probably have worked better as episodic TV. Everybody tries, but there's nothing new here and nothing particularly exciting. The movie plods along in mediocre fashion until all is revealed, not quite satisfyingly since you'd think there are some serious plot holes. Still, for Taylor, it must have been nice to get away to the Netherlands to do a movie on location, especially since his wife at the time, Ursula Thiess, was from Germany.

The House of the Seven Hawks is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Hangover of Size


When I recommended Whisky Galore! a few weeks back, I think I mentioned that it was part of a night of movies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition. Another of the movies that ran was The Big Hangover.

Van Johnson plays David Muldon, a man about to graduate from law school and, being at the top of his class, getting a spot at the bottom of the ladder at a prestigious law firm. One of the partners, Belney (Percy Waram), is celebrating his birthday today, and his daughter Mary (Elizabeth Taylor) is bringing him to the firm for the party.

Unfortnately for David, the party means that everybody is celebrating with a cup of punch that has most definitely been spiked. Logically, David should just say he's a tee-totaler, but no, he has to think he can reform himself and start drinking again. The predictable result is that David starts talking to one of the lamps.

Mary notices this and takes David aside. David tells her his unusual story. He's not really an alcoholic or anything like that; instead, he was in World War II and get a spot in law school thanks to the GI Bill (hence why he's an older starting lawyer). While he was fighting in France, he was injured and recuperating in a monastery. The monks there produced a fine brandy, but the Nazis staged an air raid that left David trapped in a cellar with burst bottles of brandy, up to his neck in the stuff. Apparently his pores soaked up enough brandy that he got some sort of alcohol poisoning that results is his becoming a wacky drunk every time he takes even a sip of alcohol. Mary likes David and decides to try to help him.

Meanwhile, the David is about to get in trouble with the law firm, not that he realizes it. The firm represents a tony property management company that has decided to keep one of its upscale developments whites only if they can help it. However, somebody has sublet to a Dr. Lee (Philip Ahn) and his wife, and the company is trying to renege on the contract. City Attorney Bellcap (Leon Ames) is trying to force the company to abide by the terms of the contract. David takes the side of Dr. Lee, not realizing that the law firm is taking its client's side.

The Big Hangover was produced at MGMin 1950, I'm guessing under the aegis of Dore Schary, since I can't imagine Louis B. Mayer approving the anti-discrimination subplot. The movie is an odd little mishmash with the lawsuit plot being social drama but the rest being almost slapstick comedy. It doesn't always work, largely because I found one of the law firm partners, Parkford (Gene Lockhart) to be shockingly mean-spirited. Not because of the Dr. Lee case, but because he's learned about David's alcohol problem -- and decides he's going to surreptitiously spike David's food at a serious banquet just to watch him become a wacky drunk!

As for the stars, Johnson and Taylor are both appealing enough, and the supporting actors are as good as the script allows. It's just that the script is a mess. trying to do two wildly disparate things and not really doing either of them as well as it could.

The Big Hangover got a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive collection, and is currently on the Amazon streaming service.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Briefs for February 14-15, 2020


Ann E. Todd died last week at the age of 88. Todd was a stage name, of course; she was a child star who appeared in a bunch of movies starting in about 1939 before retiring from showbiz in the early 1950s. I don't think I would have recognized her as a child star per se, but she's got some roles in well known movies, starting with one of Leslie Howard's children in Intermezzo: A Love Story. She's one of the kids raised by governess Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too, and the child who grows up to be "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan in Kings Row.

Brubaker is on TCM tonight. I'm not certain if I've seen it, at least not unedited. Thankfully it's on DVD too, so it's going on the DVR for me to do a review on at some point in the future. My "new" DVR is actually rapidly filling up, and I think it's about twice as big as the old one.

When Kirk Douglas died, I mentioned that StarzEncore Westerns was running his movie Posse. In fact, the channel has the rights to a handful of his westerns and is running a mini-marathon of them on Saturday, Feb. 15:

The Man from Snowy River, with Douglas in a dual role, kicks things off at 12:21 PM;
Man Without a Star, which I just watched, comes on at 2:07 PM;
Gunfight at the OK Corral, about, well, that gunfight, follows at 3:38 PM; and
Posse concludes the mini-marathon at 5:42 PM.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #292: Meet Cute






This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week the theme is "Meet Cute", which focuses on the circumstances under which a couple first meet, especially if it's something out of the ordinary. The term "cute" implies something light-hearted, so I went in that direction -- at least for two of my selections:

The Major and the Minor (1942). Ginger Rogers plays the "minor", a woman who, in order to travel home on the train, disguises herself as a 12-year-old in order to get the child fare since she doesn't have the money for the adult fare. On the train, the "Major", Ray Milland, meets her. The could fall in love if only Ginger Rogers were an adult....

The Tender Trap (1955). Frank Sinatra plays a New York theatrical agent with a string of girlfriends who meets Debbie Reynolds at an audition. She's obnoxiously pushy and has decided ideas on the arc of her life and even though Ol' Blue Eyes is a confirmed bachelor, he winds up falling in love with Reynolds anyway. I find Reynolds' character too obnoxious, but the sets, especially Frankie's fabulous bachelor pad, are great.

Badlands (1973). Teenaged Sissy Spacek meets adult garbageman Martin Sheen, and it's love at first sight. Except that Dad (Warren Oates) doesn't like him. Sheen for being much older. So Sheen shoots the father dead, burns the house down, and the two lovers run off for a life of crime. OK, maybe that's not so cute. But it's a well-acted movie.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

65 years before Elizabeth Berkley & Co.


Another of the movies that I recorded and watched off my DVR recently is the early talkie Show Girl in Hollywood.

Alice White plays Dixie Dugan, reprising a character she had played in Show Girl at the end of the silent era. She the star of her writer-boyfriend Jimmie's (Jack Mulhall) broadway play "Rainbow Girls". But unfortunately, the play has closed after a short run. However, Frank Buelow (John Miljan) was in the audience, and works out in Hollywood. He tells Dixie that she'd be great in the movies, and that he'll bring her out to Hollywood to make her a star.

Dixie is surprisingly naïve, and follows Buelow out to California despite Jimmie's advice against it. Jimmie was right. Buelow's boss at the studio, Sam Otis (Ford Sterling) doesn't want Dixie at all, because ingenues are a dime a dozen, and that's with inflation. And when Dixie keeps pushing herself, Otis responds by releasing Buelow from his contract, even though he keeps telling Dixie he can get her a job.

Dixie runs into Donny Harris (Blanche Sweet), a star who used to be big (or maybe still is if the pictures are getting small) and has most of the rooms in her mansion shut off and unfurnished while she keeps up the illusion of being big even if she's a has-been at 32. It'll happen to Dixie too, she warns. But Dixie is just so stupidely hopeful.

Surprisingly, she's justified in her hopefulness. Buelow was such a bad guy that in addition to bringing Dixie out to Hollywood, he also ripped off "Rainbow Girls" from Jimmie. Otis finds out about the copyright problems and offers to buy the rights from Jimmie, especially because he remembers an ingenue who would be right for the role, which just happens to be Dixie. Jimmie is willing to let "Rainbow Girls" be filmed, but only if his girlfriend gets to play the lead as she had done on the stage. They don't realize for a while that they're talking about the same person.

So Dixie gets the job and everybody lives happily ever after. Not by a long shot. Dixie gets Donny a role in the movie, but Buelow continues to be a jerk and gives Dixie ideas about how to do the movie that will sabotage it. This costs Dixie and Donny their jobs, and now Donny is at the end of her rope....

There's a reason why early musicals were generally not well-received on the big screen until Busby Berkeley and 42nd Street came along, and Show Girl in Hollywood is, I think, an example of why. To be fair, it's not terrible, but many of the plot points about the Hollywood newcomer weren't new even if their use in talking pictures was. One of the songs, sung by Blanche Sweet for no reason, brings the movie to a halt, while the climactic musical number at the end is also extremely static. Alice White gets the interesting "I've Got My Eye on You", which is well-used as Jimmie trying to get Dixie noticed at a nightclub.

Show Girl in Hollywood is a creaky curiosity that probably ought to be on DVD in one of those old four-movie box sets that Warner Home Video used to put out. However, it only seems to be on a Warner Archive DVD, which is a shame considering how relatively pricey they are.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Yes we have no bananas


One of my recent movie watches was the heist movie The Split.

Jim Brown plays McClain, a man returning to Los Angeles and his estranged wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) after some time away. Possibly McClain spent a fair amount of time in prison, since Eliie isn't happy to see him back and doesn't expect him to go straight. And sure enough, McClain meets Gladys (Julie Harris).

Gladys is the money behind an idea for a heist, one that would make the people in it a bunch of money. The Los Angeles Rams play at the Coliseum, and since most of the take is walk-up sales and concessions, there's going to be a lot of cash at the game. So McClain should find a group of experts in the various phases of the heist, and get them to join him and Gladys for a share. They could net close to $100,000 each, which is still nice today but huge 50 years ago.

So McClain goes to a gym where he finds some muscle if you will, in the form of propietor Clinger (Ernest Borgnine). Then there's the getaway car, so McClain goes to Kifka's (Jack Klugman) limousine service to see how good a driver Kifka is. McClain has a prostitute take safecracker Gough (Warren Oates) to a safe where she leaves him on the dead man's switch and tells him to find a way out, which he should be able to do if he's as good a safecracker as advertised. And then for the sniper, there's Negli (Donald Sutherland in an early role).

With the team assembled, it's time for the actual heist, which involves breaking into the Coliseum in the pre-dawn hours and then waiting for the security people in the cash collection area, who apparently don't show up until close enough to game time that our gang has to hold them for that much more than the 2-1/2 hours or so until the two-minute warning. Still, the heist goes off without a hitch....

Or so it seems. Heist movies always have a hitch, and in this case, it happens a good deal after the heist. The robbers are going to wait a day before getting back together to split the loot, and in that time, McClain decides he's going to hide it at Ellie's place since she's clean. But Ellie's skeezy landlord Sutro (James Whitmore) shows up and sees the money, leading him to kill Ellie and take the money! And in the investigation, Det. Brill (Gene Hackman) sees one of the money bands, so he knows where to look.

Meanwhile, the robbers all think, and in their defense quite understandably, that McClain has taken the money and fled with it. So they find him and, naturally, want him to tell them where the money is. Which of course, he doesn't know.

The Split is entertaining, helped out some compared to earlier heist movies by the color photography and the nice location shooting which is at time stylish and at times filled with a gritty verisimilitude. There's a nice ensemble cast, too, even if some of them are underused. Even though The Split is entertaining, it does at times feel a bit like we've seen it before. I do think it's more than worth a watch, however.

The Split is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

Monday, February 10, 2020

1917


For a bunch of reasons, I rarely go to the movie theater, and so only saw one of this year's Oscar-nominated movies, 1917. Now that the Oscars have come and gone, but while the movie is still in theaters, it's a good time to mention it again.

Dean-Charles Chapman plays Lance Corporal Blake, a British soldier in the north of France in April 1917. This is the era of trench warfare, with all the horror that implies, but as the movie opens Blake is resting a bit behind the lines. His commanding officer approaches him and tells him to pick one of the soldiers in the battalion, and the two are to go meet Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth). Blake picks his best friend, fellow Lance Corpora Schofield (George MacKay).

The two men don't know what they're about to be in for, and in some ways it might be better if they didn't. Erinmore informs them that several miles away, Col. Mackenzie's (Benedict Cumberbatch) regiment is about to make an advance on the German lines. But they're really walking into a trap, which would cost the British some 1600 soldiers. And Erinmore can't get word to Mackenzie not to attack because the field telephones are down. So Erinmore needs two special couriers to deliver a letter by hand to Mackenzie. Of course, this means traversing several miles of no-man's-land, with a very high likelihood of attacks by the Germans. Oh, and to make the stakes higher, LCpl. Blake's brother is in Mackenzie's regiment.

The two corporals don't have much choice but to set out, and the mission is immediately dangerous as the retreating Germans have booby-trapped some of their trenches. Schofield wasn't exactly thrilled about getting picked in the first place, and he's really not thrilled now. But it's a life and death struggle as the two men make their way forward to Mackenzie's position. Not only that, but it's harrowing in that there are all of the horrors of war.

To make matters worse, there's some dogfighting overhead that results in a German plane being downed and burning. And the German pilot stabs Blake, forcing Schofield to try to finish the dangerous journey all by himself.

1917 is a fairly simple tale, but one told quite well. You've probably heard of the conceit that the movie was filmed to look like one long take, and that for some people it can be distracting. For the most part, I didn't find it particularly distracting, although I did find myself thinking of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Hitchcock, of course, had intended to film the movie as one long take, but realized that there were points when the projectionists had to change reels that the illusion would be broken. So Hitchcock inserted hard cuts at those points in the film. I think 1917 would have benefited from similar cuts at certain points where the angle of motion changes. (Now that we're in digital, director Sam Mendes wouldn't have had to worry about changes of reels, of course.)

The one other area where I had a problem, but others might not, was with the CGI effects. TCM just reaired Battleground the other day, the late 1940s MGM movie about the Battle of the Bulge, and it's fairly obvious that most of it is on the backlot. And yet, while in some ways the CGI is more realistic-looking, to me it also has the effect of looking quite sterile and antiseptic, as if there's something about it that's not quite right in a way I can't place but can with backlot movies. (I had this feeling even more when I saw the trailer to Call of the Wild before 1917.)

Still, 1917 is quite the technical and storytelling achievement, save for one scene of a Frenchwoman and a baby in an otherwise abandoned village that really grated on me. How did everybody but her escape, and why was she oh so conveniently switching from English to French just when Schofield needed to be confused? It's one of those coincidences that movies often need to work, but here it just bugged me.

1917 isn't on DVD or Blu-ray yet, but Amazon seems to list it on Prime Video and it's still definitely in theaters; at least, I looked up my local theater's website and they have three showings of it tomorrow.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Dust Around the Blossoms


I mentioned this morning not having seen any of this years Best Actress nominations. So instead, I'll mention a movie that garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination ages ago: Blossoms in the Dust.

Greer Garson plays Edna, née Kahly, a young woman living in Wisconsin with her parents and sister Charlotte at the turn of the last century. She's set to get married, as is her sister, but two things happen. One is that bank teller Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon) meets her and vows to marry her, even though he's not her fiancé. The other is that Charlotte's past as an adoptee, making her -- [whispers] -- illegitimate -- and certain her fiancé won't marry her.

Sam is planning to start a business milling wheat in Texas, and starts writing to Edna, a correspondence that turns mutual and results in her getting married to him and leaving for Texas, and they live happily ever after.

Well, no they don't because all this happens in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Edna has a kid, but the kid dies aged about 4, leaving the couple childless. A woman is going to have to give up her kid for adoption, but Edna is so moved by the possibility of this that the decides to do what she can to turn the Gladney house into a day-care center for those women who have lost their husbands or never had husbands, making them able to work at the mill.

But the mill goes bust, forcing the Gladneys to move from rural Texas up to Fort Worth. Sam is working his ass off to pay his debts and try to come up with a new process of milling wheat that would be more efficient an profitable. He sends Edna to the courthouse with the papers to file for a patent. While there, she passes by the juvenile court, which has so many cases of childless children that the State has to tag them to keep track of the kids. This bothers Edna, who decides to take two of them in.

From there, two grows and grows, until Edna is running a moderate-sized adoption agency. But she knows, in part from her own step-sister, the stigma that children born out of wedlock faced at that time, so she also starts a cruse of getting the word "illegitimate" stricken from birth certificates. The old biddies hate the idea, when they really should have been fighting against the subsidies from the biggest sugar daddy of them all, the state, that have since the implementation of the Great Society enabled multiple generations of families to have no fathers whatsoever, with all the concomitant social problems.

But I digress. Edna continues her work, and even leads to a fair amount of destigmatization of children born out of wedlock. But she's still always wanted children of her own, and is even beginning to think about adopting one child, shutting down her adoption agency, and moving back north....

Blossoms in the Dust is based on a true story, as Gladney was a real person, but as is always the case in Hollywood biopics, facts are changed and moved around for dramatic effect. The movie is competently made and in nice Technicolor, but one thing you do have to know is that the stars are Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, and this is MGM. That means there's a certain style, that, combined with the sort of "family-friendly" material we're dealing with, may come across as too syrupy at times for many viewers (myself included). Felix Bressart is quite good in his supporting role as a pediatrician, but this is Garson's movie all the way, especially after Pidgeon's character dies.

The TCM Shop lists Blossoms in the Dust as being available on a four-movie box set but not a standalone DVD. Amazon has the same box set, and has the movie available streaming if you can do that.

Ireland and the Oscars


I was looking through various international news sites this morning as is my wont. I wound up on RTÉ, the site of the Irish public broadcaster. Saoirse Ronan happens to be up for an Oscar today, although I didn't see her movie (or any of the other Best Actress nominations, for that matter). It's more that there was a link on the RTÉ site that intrigued me: "The luck of the Irish": Irish Oscar wins and American culture.

It's an interesting if cursory given the time constraints look at Hollywood and its portrayal of Irishness and Irish-Americanness over the 90-plus years that Oscar has been around, as seen from the other side of the Atlantic. I'm not quite certain I agree with the author's view on Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way, although that's a movie I really really hate.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Starless man


With Kirk Douglas' death a few days ago, I went through the box sets I have looking for one of his movies that I haven't blogged about before. I wanted to so a post on Before I Forget, which is on the TCM four-movie box set, but it turns out that that box set is now out of print, so I was going to have to pick something else. With that in mind, I picked out Man Without a Star, a new-to-me western.

Douglas plays Dempsey Ray, who is riding the rails heading north from Texas to Wyoming in search of wide opwn spaces. Joining him on on the freight train is Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), a naïve young man who is conisistently in need of Dempsey's protection, as Dempsey saves him after a fight with a railroad guard and then gets him off a murder accusation.

Eventually the two wind up in Wyoming, where Dempsey meets old flame Idonee (Claire Trevor) and eventually gets a job working for Reed Bowman, who is coming from out east to run a giant spread with over 10,000 had of cattle. Wyoming is still open range, but some of the cattlemen have decided to put up barbed wire because they need to fence off some of the grass to save it for winter.

Although Dempsey doesn't like these ranchers for fening in land, they're really not bad guys because of their good reasoning for putting up the wire. It also doesn't help that Reed turns out to be a cattle queen (played by Jeanne Crain), who simply plans to bring in as many cattle as possible, before the land is no longer fit to support those cattle whereupon she'll move on to greener pastures. It's somewhere between slash-and-burn agriculture and the tragedy of the commons.

Dempsey gets named formean despite his skepticism for Reed's plans, and when Jimson gets in a scuffle with the ranchers putting up the barbed wire, there are people other than Dempsey to protect Reed's interests, those being the group of cowboys led by Steve Miles (Richard Boone) who brought another herd north.

Man Without a Star is a competent western, albeit one that isn't breaking any new ground. Douglas is good, of course, with the exception of his hairdo which seems all wrong. Campbell does his best despite being badly miscast; he made me think of Robert Walker Jr. for some reason. The supporting cast is good although Claire Trevor is underused.

All in all, Man Without a Star certainly isn't a bad way to spend a Saturday matinee, although I'm gladd I was able to get it in a box set. The set I picked up is now listed as being on backorder at the TCM Shop, although there's also a pricey standalone Blu-ray available.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The night of size


Some weeks back, Eddie Muller's choice for Noir Alley was a film new to me, The Big Night. Since it's available on DVD, I recorded it and watched it to do a full-length post here.

George La Main (John Drew Barrymore, credited here as John Barrymore Jr.) is a young man turning 17 and living with his widower father Andy (Preston Foster), who lives over the bar he runs. George is apparently a bit soft for 17 considering the way the youths outside pick on him, while Dad and dad's coworker at the bar have made a birthday cake for George.

Into this blissful family scene walks sportswriter Al Judge (Howard St. John), with an odd request. He asks Andy to take off his shirt and show some skin! Andy first takes off his dress shirt, and then his undershirt, and is told to get on his hands and knees. At this point, Al starts caning Andy, with a distressed George watching!

Al leaves and Andy doesn't explain what happened or why, such as why he would put up no resistance. But George knows this senseless attack needs to be addressed! Fortunately, there's a big fight tonight and Andy had tickets, so Georges takes them and a gun and heads off, since a famous sportswriter is certain to be there too.

At the fight, George meets Dr. Cooper (Philip Bourneuf) after selling him what was Dad's ticket, and Cooper proceeds to help George on his quest to find Judge, although George doesn't tell Cooper exactly who he's looking for or why. Along the way, George meets Cooper's girlfriend Julie (Dorothy Comingore), and Julie's good-girl kid sister Marion (Joan Lorring). When they all end up at Marion and Julie's place, Julie takes a liking to George and takes the gun from him after he passes out drunk. She knows George and a gun put together will only lead to no good.

But George finds the gun and heads out of the apartment to continue his search for Judge. Eventually one of Judge's co-workers at the newspaper gives George some vital information leading to Judge's whereabouts as well as the shocking reason of why Judge beat the crap out of Andy....

The Big Night is an interesting but odd little movie. In many ways there's not much of a plot, just a series of scenes put together, although some of them are quite striking, notably the black nightclub singer whom George sees and finds beautiful, but.... Barrymore is surprisingly good as the not-quite-a-man (Barrymore was 19 playing 17), even if the opening scene seems way off. He's got a bit of an odd look about him, one that's not quite fresh-faced, but also not experienced in the ways of the world, and it mostly works for the movie.

Script problems aside (which have to do with the looming blacklist and that several people involved with the movie wound up leaving the US), The Big Night is definitely worth a watch for Barrymore's performance.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #291: Seven Deadly Sins: Lust






This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week looks at one of the seven deadly sins -- I think all seven have been picked for various points during the year. The first of the seven is lust. The Production Code tamped down a bit on lust, but I was still able to come up with three movies that fit the bill:

Lust for Life (1956). OK, I'm cheating a bit, since this isn't about sexual lust. But with the recent passing of Kirk Douglas, I had to pick it. Douglas plays famed painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was born in the Netherlands, worked for a time in Belgium, and eventually wound up in the south of France, where his likely mental illness overtook him. But he painted some brilliant paintings along the way. Douglas got a Best Actor nomination, while Anthony Quinn picked up his second Supporting Actor statuette as fellow painter Paul Gauguin.

The Lusty Men (1952). Robert Mitchum plays a rodeo rider retired through injury, who returns to his home town and starts to mentor Arthur Kennedy, who is married to Susan Hayward. She doesn't want her husband to go into rodeo because she doesn't want him to wind up like Mitchum's character, but men will be men and all three go off on the rodeo circuit together. OK, not much sexual lust here either, but the title fits.

Safe in Hell (1931). Finally we get sexual lust, and have to go back to a pre-Code to do it. Dorothy Mackaill plays the girlfriend of a sailor (Donald Cook) who turns to prostitution to make ends meet while her boyfriend is away. One of her clients attacks her and she kills him in self-defense. To protect her, Cook takes her to a Caribbean island that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US. The only problem is, all the men on the island start lusting after Mackaill.

Kirk Douglas, 1916-2020

Kirk Douglas, the legendary actor whose career spanned some 60 years and 90 films, has died at the age of 103. Over the dozen years I've been doing this blog, I've posted a fair number of pictures, and thankfully I had a bunch of them posted together on Douglas' 100th birthday back in 2016, so it was a bit easy to find movies to show his broad range:




The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was one of Douglas' earliest movies, with Douglas playing an ambitious district attorney married to a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) with a secret that's threatened with exposure when former friend Van Heflin returns to town after 15+ years away.



Unfortunately, the photo I had of Douglas in Out of the Past isn't as good, considering I used it to illustrate Jane Greer at some other point. But this was another auspicious movie early in Douglas' career.



Champion is, if memory serves, sometimes considered the role that really made Douglas a star, as he plays a boxer who treats people badly on the way to the top and finds life there isn't all it's cracked up to be. That's Paul Stewart in the photo, while the movie also provided Arthur Kennedy his first Oscar nomination. Kirk also got his first nomination (of three) here, never winning but getting an honorary award in 1996.



Kirk Douglas roughing up George Macready in Detective Story



Douglas as a slimy journalist in Ace in the Hole, a movie still relevant today as journalism really hasn't changed all that much.



Douglas' second Oscar nomination came for playing producer Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful, which won Gloria Grahame her Oscar.



Poor Kirk got upstaged by Esmerelda the seal in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which also sees Kirk doing a bit of singing. (Considering the movie, it doesn't matter whether or not he could sing, much like Jimmy Stewart in Night Passage.)



Douglas' third and final nomination came for playing Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, a movie that won Anthony Quinn his second Oscar.



Paths of Glory is one of the movies that clearly shows Douglas' political conscience, although a lot of people are going to mention his putting noted Communist Dalton Trumbo's name back on screen in Spartacus.



There's also Seven Days in May, in which Douglas ultimately thwarts Burt Lancaster's attempted coup against president Fredric March, is another politically relevant movie, especially considering what has been going on in Washington recently.

But unlike Lancaster, Douglas had the good grace to work with John Wayne despite their political differences, making The War Wagon, a western that's fun if not so well remembered.



I was trying to remember the name of the movie I had recently blogged about in which Douglas starred with Thelma Ritter. It turns out the movie I was thinking of was For Love or Money...



but, I had forgotten that both were also in much smaller roles in



A Letter to Three Wives.

I'm sure that TCM will have a 24-hour salute to Douglas sometime after 31 Days of Oscar ends, although I haven't checked yet to see if it's already been scheduled. If you have StarzEncore Westerns, they'll be showing The Man From Snowy River on Saturday, and a movie I hadn't heard of, Posse, on Sunday. TCM will be running Martha Ivers early Tuesday morning, with The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life later that day.






Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Body and Soul (1925)


TCM ran a night of movies back in January highlighting some added in the most recent round of the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. The 1925 Oscar Micheaux film Body and Soul was among the selections that TCM ran, so I recorded it to do a post on here.

Paul Robeson, in his movie debut, has a dual role, with the first one being Reverend Isaiah Jenkins, a preacher somewhere in small-town Georgia. The Reverend is a phony, as a shot of a newspaper article at the opening informs us. The Reverend immediately heads to a speakeasy whose owner also engages in card games, and proceeds to shake down the owner for free liquor!

Also in town is the young woman Isabelle (Julia Theresa Rusell), and her mother Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert). Isabelle happens to be in love with Sylvester, who is Isaiah's twin brother, so also played by Paul Robeson. Black churches were, I think, an even bigger part of the black community at the time than white churches were, and Martha Jane and a bunch of other townsfolk look up to Rev. Jenkins, not knowing of course that he's a crook. Martha Jane, in fact, would be happy for Isabelle to marry the reverend.

Martha Jane has saved up money for Isabelle to start a life with whomever her husband is when she gets married, but when she goes to show a couple of her fellow parishioners the money that she's kept in the Bible, she finds that the money is gone! And then she finds a note from Isabelle that she took the money and left for Atlanta for reasons that Ma would never understand.

Ma goes off to Atlanta to try to find Isabelle, who is living in poverty since as it turns out she didn't take the money and that letter she left Ma was a lie. She then tells the real story, which is that Rev. Jenkins assaulted her (really, raped, although this had to be hinted at), and then came back to take the money knowing that nobody would believe her. After telling her story, Isabelle dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Actually, all the good people in the movie do live happily ever after, which is the problem with the movie. It's not Micheaux's fault, however. When he went to show the movie, the censors in New York had a fit and said they'd never let that sort of preacher be shown. So Micheaux had to make edits and, not having the money to make good edits to placate the censors, came up with one of the worst plot resolutions you can think of. It's maddening, because the film otherwise has so much potential. (The print TCM aired ran 93 minutes while IMDb lists a running time of 102 minutes; I'm not certain what version that is.)

Robeson does quite well, looking surprisingly timeless as the Reverend while many of the other characters do look like the came right out of the 1920s. Gilbert, however, as Martha Jane, suffers, engaging in all sorts of silent film histrionics that look over the top even by the standards of silent movies.

It's a shame that so few of Oscar Micheaux's movies survive, because all of the ones I've seen have been quite interesting even though they're not without their flaws. Body and Soul seems to be available on a Criterion Collection box set of Robeson movies, so while it is out there, it's also rather pricey.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Tight Little Island


Last month, TCM ran a night of movies appropriate for the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition in the US. You could argue that one of the movies might not quite have fit in, however, that being Whisky Galore!.

The movie is based on a real incident that happened in Scotland in World War II, and that Scottish setting is why one could argue it doesn't have to do with Prohibition (and certainly not American Prohibition). Todday (the location having been renamed) is an isolated island of the Outer Hebrides, off the northwest coast of Scotland. The inhabitants eke out a living from the land and the sea, with their contact with the world being a ferry that goes from the island to the mainland.

The locals love their whisky, as apparently all good Scots do, but that island being a distant outpost, they have a problem: they've run out of whisky! This turns the normally happy little island quite morose. They've also got a problem with the war being on, since being on the edge of the country, they could be a possible location should the Nazis ever try a surprise invasion. So the Home Guard is on the island, led by Capt. Waggett (Basil Radford), engaging in training exercises in case anything should ever happen.

Meanwhile, the local post office/telephone exchange is run by the Macroons, a father and two adult daughters, Peggy (Joan Greenwood) and Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt). Each of them has a man in love with her: Peggy pursued by Waggett's second-in-command Sgt. Odd (Bruce Seton), while Catriona is pursued by local schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), still under the thumb of his mother who seems to be the one person on the island who doesn't drink. These two romances provide the subplots to the story.

But the main story comes when a cargo ship, the Cabinet Minister, runs aground. The fishermen's rowboats are able to save the crew, and it is revealed to the rescuers that the ship was carrying a cargo of... thousands cases of whisky! All our locals' problems are solved, as they can salvage this whisky that's just going to go to the bottom of the sea anyway, and they won't be out of whisky!

Of course, it's not going to be that easy. There's the risk of boarding the ship to get that whisky, and the fact that it's not legal, because as this is whisky designated for export, no internal excise taxes have been paid on it. Taking this whisky without the government getting the taxes it's addicted to is wrong, wrong wrong. But the first problem is that the ship runs aground late on Saturday, and by the time a "salvage" crew can go out, Sunday has begun. This being a distant part of Scotland and the 1940s, the Sabbath is still adhered to faithfully, so the men don't feel they can go out.

Waggett sends Sgt. Odd to stand watch, but some of the other locals in the Home Guard waylay him and get as much whisky as they can before the ship founders and goes under. Waggett, on seeing what's happened to Odd, realizes there's contraband liquor on the island now. Being officious -- and English -- he demands to see the Inland Revenue to let them know what's happening. It's a race between them and the islanders to keep Inland Revenue from finding the alcohol.

Whisky Galore! is a delightful little comedy from an era when Britain -- and especially Ealing Studios -- was churning out this sort of little picture and doing a much better job with the understated charm than Hollywood was. The main story and the subplots fit together well, but probably the bigger plus is the location shooting, showing a culture that was rapidly disappearing with the advance of technology.

The movie is available on DVD, with a few caveats. There's a Reel Vault MOD DVD that the TCM website has listed at various times as being available or on backorder. Also, the movie was remade a few years back, and that 2016 version is definitely in print. But there's also a release set for March that's part of a two-film set with The Maggie, although that release looks to be rather pricier.