Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Lost Squadron

Some time back I DVRed The Lost Squadron on TCM, and only now got around to watching it. It's another of the movies available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so now's the time to do the blog post on the movie.

The movie starts on the morning of November 11, 1918, a few hours before the end of World War I. Four men: Gibby (Richard Dix), Woody (Robert Armstrong), Red (Joel McCrea) and Fritz (Hugh Herbert) are American flyers who went off to France to fight in the war and became friends as a result. The war ends, and the four vow to remain friends forever, going home to pick up the lives they left behind when they joined up for the war effort.

Yeah, right. Each of them gets home and finds that life is going to be vastly different for them. Gibby had a girlfriend in Follette (Mary Astor) who is an aspiring actress; she took a different boyfriend while Gibby was away. Woody had a business he left behind, and the partner embezzled all the money, leaving Woody flat broke. Red could have his old job back, but with the economic downturn, the boss has to fire somebody else to bring back Red, in this case a man whose wife gave birth not too long ago. Red isn't about to let that happen.

Not having any economic prospects, Red, Gibby, and Fritz decide to become hobos, hopping a freight train that will eventually take them to Los Angeles. Silent films are the big thing, the movie being set in the early 1920s, and our three friends stop by the premiere of director Arthur von Furst's (Erich von Stroheim) latest aviation picture. Whom should they meet but Woody, who has made it in Hollywood as a stunt pilot!

Woody vows to do what he can to get the other three guys jobs in the movie industry, as there's always a place for a good stunt pilot. Woody also introduces them to his sister, nicknamed "The Pest" (Dorothy Jordan). Gibby and Red both eventually fall in love with The Pest.

Woody is able to get the others jobs on the crew of von Furst's new movie, and who should be playing the female lead in the new picture but Follette! Not only that, but she's now Mrs. von Furst. Unfortunately, the director is a hard taskmaster, and uses planes that aren't in the best of condition. Making things more worrying for everybody is that Woody drinks, so they all wonder whether he can do his stunts.

Gibby, on meeting Follette, finds that she still holds a flame for him, something which is bound to enrage von Furst when he finds out. And when he does, he decides he's going to sabotage Gibby's plane. Only, Woody gets in that plane to do the stunt....

The Lost Squadron is a well-made movie, but I can't help but think at the same time that it's not necessarily going to be for everybody. That's partly because it's an early talkie, and not nearly as polished as later movies, which I think is a bit of a problem in the stunts. Something felt off that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I also feel like this particular love triangle (or the multiple triangles) came across a bit old-fashioned by modern sensibilities, more so than in other 1930s movies.

That's not to say that The Lost Squadron is a bad movie. It's just that there's other stuff from that era that I'd recommend first.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Remind me why I'm not an Ernest Hemingway fan again

Another recent movie watch was the Spencer Tracy version of The Old Man and the Sea.

I read the novella in either eighth- or ninth-grade English class (I don't remember which), so the story was already well known to me, as it probably is for a lot of you. Spencer Tracy plays the old man, since there isn't any way he's playing the sea. Tracy also serves as the narrator, reading what I presume is text straight from Hemingway's story. The old man is a Cuban fisherman who probably ought to retire if he had a family to support him in his dotage, but one assumes he doesn't. He's been going out every day, but for the last 84 days has failed to catch a fish.

He's got a friend in The Boy (Felipe Pazos Jr.) who used to go out on the boat with him, but hasn't in some while. The Boy helps with errands, but most of the story involves the old man out at sea alone. He sets up lines of varying length, the point I guess being that different types of fish are normally found at different depths. And then he waits, and waits...

Eventually he gets a bite on the deepest line, a fish that must be pretty strong because it's able to drag his boat farther out to sea. Eventually the old man sees the fish surface, and it's a huge marlin, bigger than his boat. No wonder he's had so much trouble hauling it in. In fact, the old man winds up fighting the fish for something like three days.

The old man does catch the fish, but it's too big to put on his boat, so he has to lash it to the side of his boat. However, he also had to harpoon it to kill it, and that means blood poured out into the ocean. You can probably guess what blood in the water means....

The Old Man and the Sea is a well-enough made movie, and Tracy gives a pretty good performance. But the movie has a pretty big problem with the source material, which is pretty sparse. The movie runs 86 minutes, but even at that it's slooooooow for substantial stretches as there's not much to do but wait for the old man to try to catch the fish. However, I'm glad I did finally get around to watching it.

Having been produced at Warner Bros., The Old Man and the Sea is unsurprisingly available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Another French Connection

A movie that's been in the FXM Retro lately has been French Connection II. It's going to be on FXM again tomorrow at 9:45 AM, and again twice a week and change from now.

As you can guess from the title, this is a sequel to the Oscar-winning movie The French Connection. If you remember that movie, about New York cops trying to break a heroin smuggling ring originating in Marseilles, France, you'll recall that Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the French leader of that smuggling operation, got away at the end. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is the only person who can recognize Charnier, his partner Buddy apparently having left the force or something since Roy Schedier does not reprise his role. So the NYPD send Popeye over to France to help the French police on their end of the investigation.

All of this even though Popeye doesn't speak a word of French; as I stated the justification given is that he knows Charnier on sight and the people who speak French presumably don't. So Popeye is going to be a fish out of water, which is one of the themes here. Indeed, he shows up at a fish market, which is where he's supposed to meet his contact, Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), because the French police claim there might be stuff smuggled in through the fish. Or maybe they're just playing an April Fools' joke on Popeye, since they're not happy having him here.

It's not just that Popeye doesn't speak French and is going to be dependent on them; it's that they've read his police files and he is, well, an American policeman, quick to use his gun. That, of course, is strictly forbidden in France, never mind that Popeye is a policeman. He's not French, so no gun. (Except, of course, that he's smuggled one in.) And, indeed, Popeye botches the very first part of the investigation he's allowed to shadow the French cops on.

Anyhow, after this, they do let Popeye do some legwork, at least using his eyes to look out for things. It seems that an obvious place to look is at the port in Marseilles, since that's one of the big functions of the city, and it's an obvious place for drugs to get in and out of the country if it's not going elsewhere on the continent.

Popeye is apparently getting too close to Charnier, as a couple of his goons kidnap him and hold him prisoner for several days, during which time they inject him with enough heroin to make him have serious withdrawal symptoms. Charnier helps him recover in secrecy since having it become public knowledge that a cop went through heroin withdrawal would be very bad PR. After that, Popeye remembers where he was held captive, and that sets in motion the action-packed finale.

French Connection II isn't a bad movie, but it isn't nearly as good as the original. I think for me one of the big reasons was the kidnapping of Doyle and making him a heroin addict. That second act of the movie goes on way too long, and really drags down the pacing of the movie. Popeye's lack of French also makes for a lot of difficult dialogue, and I felt made it harder to keep track of what was going on in the movie.

On the plus side, the location shooting was great, and the seamy underside of Marseilles is just as well depicted as the original depicts the same underside in New York. Veteran actress Cathleen Nesbitt, probably best remembered in to American movie buffs for being the grandmother in An Affair to Remember or her role in Separate Tables, steals her one scene as a heroin addict who visits Popeye during his captivity. Overall, French Connection II is a nice entry in the cycle of 1970s crime/police procedural movies, even if there are better examples.

As far as I can tell, the movie is not in print on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the FXM showings.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Biogaphry of a Bachelor Girl

TCM ran the movie Biography of a Bachleor Girl not too long ago. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM if you want to watch it for yourself.

Ann Harding plays the titular unmarried woman, an artist named Marion Forsythe. She apparently gained some fame while she was over in Europe, and is now returning to her native America. Richard "Dickie" Kurt (Robert Montgomery in an odd pair of spectacles for him) is a magazine editor who has come up with a great idea to pitch to his publisher to help shore up the magazine's flagging fortunes. He'll get Marion to write her autobiography, which will be serialized in their magazine, and that will boost circulation.

Kurt goes to the boat Marion is sailing in on and finds that he's not the only one who wants her attention. There's also Feydak (Edward Arnold), brother of an artist Marion knew, but for whatever reason Feydak seems to drop out of the movie fairly early on. Eventually Kurt is able to talk to Marion about the biography, and since she's in need of money, she reluctantly accepts.

But this is going to cause other problems. Earlier in life, she met lawyer Leander "Bunny" Nelson (Edward Everett Horton) and apparently had a torrid affair with him. This shouldn't be a big deal nowadays, but for the mid-1930s such affairs probably were more scandalous. Bunny wasn't married at the time, but now he's engaged to Slade Kinnicott (Una Merkel), daughter of a newspaper publisher back in her and Bunny's home state. And Bunny is now running for the US Senate, so if news of that affair were to come out, he fears it would sink his candidacy.

So Bunny has what he feels is a perfectly good reason for trying to convince Marion not to write that memoir, while Kurt has own job to think of in trying to get Marion to fulfill their agreement. Eventually Marion goes back to a small town to consider her prospects, with everybody following her.

Biography of a Bachelor Girl came out in the beginning of 1935, and it really feels like the sort of movie that was badly neutered by the enforcement of the Production Code, which began in July 1934. There's a fair amount of potential in the material, but none of it was realized as the movie can't seem decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. There's also the disappearance of Feydak, and the whole small-town thing not working here the way it did in many other movies.

Biography of a Bachelor Girl does not seem to be on DVD as far as I can tell, so you're going to have to watch the TCM showing.

Friday, March 27, 2020

B.F.'s Daughter

Another of the movies from 31 Days of Oscar that I recently watched was B.F.'s Daughter.

B.F. is played by Charles Coburn. This is B.F. Fulton, an industrialist living in a posh New York mansion during the height of the Depression. His daughter, Polly, is played by Barbara Stanwyck. She's got a boyfriend who's not quite a fiancé in Robert Tasmin (Richard Hart), who works as a stockbroker. He wants to be successful on his own before marrying Polly, instead of relying on her father's wealth.

One day, Polly and her friend Apples (Margaret Lindsay) go to a speakeasy, where they meet Thomas Brett (Van Heflin, being cast with Stanwyck again after The Strange Love of Martha Ivers). He's an assistant professor of economics who also writes essays and gives public lectures. He's to the left of Franklin Roosevelt (the movie starts about a month before Roosevelt's first election), so he certainly wouldn't like B.F. But Tom and Polly hit it off, and Polly devises a scheme to meet Tom as a theater showing of Hamlet.

The relationship continues to the point that they're going to get married, a sort of elopement so that Tom can go off to a little cabin to write his next book. He also wants to go on a lecture tour, but the bookers aren't about to give prominence to an unknown like him. What he doesn't consider is that Polly has money, and to make her husband happy by helping him to succeed, she convinces the agent to let her back the lecture tour's profitability (without telling Tom, of course).

The lecture tour winds up being a success, Tom becomes famous, and by the time World War II is about to roll around, Tom gets an important position in the Roosevelt administration, something he relishes because it gives him the opportunity to fuck over the sort of person he doesn't like, much like politicians have always done and do even today. The job also comes with a lot of duties that keep him away from Polly.

So she tries to make him happy again by getting him a nice place in Connecticut, but it's here that Tom learns about Polly's having backed the original lecture tour, which pisses him off because he, like Tasmin (who married Apples), wanted to succeed on his own. It threatens to destroy their marriage.

However, this being an MGM movie, you know it's likely to have a happy ending. If there's one thing wrong with the movie, it's that MGM shine, as I mentioned regarding another Stanwyck/Heflin pairing, East Side, West Side. Both leads are good with the material they're given, but the material is infuriating at times. (It doesn't involve either Stanwyck or Heflin, but there was a scene regarding a World War II mission where I found myself saying out loud to the TV that military secrecy is being horrendously violated.) I also found the love at first sight between these two a little hard to believe here.

Still, I think there are a lot of good performances, not just from the two leads, but from Coburn, and Keenan Wynn as a lefty radio commentator friend of Tom's. (It's his radio commentary that violates military secrecy.) That all makes the movie worth a watch, even if it probably could have been better. The movie is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, so you can watch at your leisure.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #298: Documentary series (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 edition. This month, the theme is documentary series. I've said a lot that I don't watch a lot of episodic television these days, so I don't know much about the current documentary series. This means I took the easy way out:

Nova (1974-present). PBS series of science documentaries, although I think in recent years they may have gotten away from hour-long documentaries to episodes with multiple pieces. I may be confusing that with Scientific American Frontiers, however, a different science series that ran on PBS from 1990 to 2005 and was hosted by Alan Alda.

Frontline (1983-present). PBS series with current events documentaries, taking a deeper look at one issue in the news over an hour. One of the episodes I remember is "Innocence Lost", which examined one of the daycare sex abuse hoax cases which were a thing in 1980s America, this one in Edenton, NC. (Showtime, I think, did a TV movie about the much more infamous McMartin case out in Los Angeles.)

P.O.V (1988-present). Series running independent documentaries of varying themes. One particularly interesting feature I remember is one from the mid-1990s called "Taking on the Kennedys", about a man who ran for Congress in Rhode Island in 1994 against Patrick Kennedy (Ted's son, if memory serves), and the uphill climb he faced both as a Republican in a blue state (not that red/blue had taken hold then), and as an underfunded candidate against someone with a famous name and star power on call.

Nothing But a Man

TCM is running another night of "The Black experience on film" nights tonight, although there's nothing on TCM's main page about whether anybody is sitting down with Ben Mankiewicz to discuss the movies. One of tonight's movies, Nothing But a Man at 11:30 PM, showed up on Martin Luther King Day so I had recorded it than and watched it now to do a post on.

Ivan Dixon plays Duff Anderson. He's working on the railroad in Alabama, work that pays fairly well but is also itinerant labor, having him move around the southern US. In the town where he's currently working, he goes into town one day and meets Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), daughter of the local preacher. The two begin to fall in love, but you know that their relationship isn't going to be an easy one.

Part of this is because Duff is a railroad worker, meaning that he wouldn't be seeing Josie much if he kept working on the railroad. Josie's dad knows all this, and has seen Duff's type before, so he warns Josie that he's not right for her. But she won't listen, and Dad might be wrong anyhow.

Duff decides he'll quit the railroad and try to settle down, but finding a job isn't going to be easy for a black man in the early 1960s South. He gets one at a cotton mill, but the boss thinks he's trying to organize a union, so out the door he goes. Other places either aren't hiring or are too humiliating for Duff.

Josie should at least be able to bring in some income as the teacher at the local segregated school, but after she and Duff get married she gets pregnant, and you wonder whether she'll be able to keep working. Duff also has complicated personal problems of his own, having fathered a child out of wedlock in another relationship, with the baby mama deciding to marry another man and migrate north, leaving somebody else to raise the child. And Duff's dad is an alcoholic who's not long for this world. Meanwhile, Duff keeps encountering racism everywhere he goes.

I liked Nothing But a Man mostly because of its portrayal of Duff as a complex, fully fleshed-out human being who has real and serious flaws. It's a stark contrast with Hollywood's consistent use of Sidney Poitier at the time as the virtuous black man who was breaking down racism by being oh-so-perfect. The low budget also results in the film bein made in a much more cinema verite style, which again works and contrasts with most Hollywood portrayals of the South, even when they went on location. The low budget also meant that the acting is a bit uneven, but that doesn't really take away from the movie.

I'm glad I saw Nothing But a Man, and I hope you get the chance to watch it, too. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Yakuza

My latest movie viewing off the DVR was the intriguing The Yakuza. It's another of the movies that's available on DVD from the Warner Archive, so I feel comfortable doing a full-length post on it without it airing soon.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, who had served in the US Army during the post-war occupation of Japan, before returning to the US to a modest life as a private detective. One day, he hears from an old army buddy of his, George Tanner (Brian Keith), who had stayed behind in Japan after his stint in the military. Tanner has a daughter who has been kidnapped, and Tanner needs Kilmer's help in finding the girl.

So Harry flies off to Japan, and when he gets to Tokyo, one of the first things he does is to look for Eiko (Keiko Kishi). Harry had fallen in love with Eiko, a widow with a daughter, during the occupation, and even offered to marry her, but she turned him down. Harry helped get her on her feet by getting her a teahouse, and the daughter is now an adult. But there's also a business reason for meeting Eiko. Her brother Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura; most western sources put Japanese given names first although this movie follows the Japanese tradition of using the family name first, both in dialogue and the credits) is in the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and he might be able to help find Tanner's girl.

The reason for this is something known in Japanese culture as "giri", a sort of duty that people feel they need to perform to somebody who has helped them, and in Ken's case that's the support Kilmer gave to Eiko. Ken, it turns out, has retired from the Yakuza, and started a martial arts kendo in Kyoto. But beacuse of that giri, Ken is going to set aside the kendo and help Kilmer in finding Tanner's daughter.

The thing is, Tanner isn't exactly an innocent. He stayed behind in Japan in order to run guns to the Yakuza, guns being highly illegal in Japan. And apparently he reneged on one of the deals, which is a big no-no, so the Yakuza took Tanner's daughter as revenge.

The Yakuza is a thoroughly American movie, which is one of the things I think makes it so intriguing. Directed by Sydney Pollack, you definitely get an outsider's view of Japan, albeit one that really feels like Pollack and everybody (well, all the Americans) in the cast were going out of their way to appreciate Japanese culture (unlike, say Walk Don't Run, which just happens to be set in Japan). And yet, there's a lot in the movie that feels thoroughly like one is just a fly on the wall and a movie written and directed by Japanese would be much deeper.

That's not to say The Yakuza is a bad movie. Mitchum is professional if getting on a bit in years, while Takakura is pretty good too. I did have a big problem with the climactic fight scene, which seemed terribly implausible considering it was two against I don't know how many. All in all, though, I found The Yakuza to be a nice look at something different, even if an Akira Kurosawa could have made something much better.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Hedy Lamarr stars in Gaslight

TCM ran the movie Experiment Perilous during 31 Days of Oscar because it earned a nomination for its art direction. So I DVRed it and sat down to watch it recently.

George Brent plays Dr. Huntington Bailey, who gives a voiceover at the beginning about some days back in 1903 being the strangest days of his life. we then see Bailey on a train during a terrible rain storm, which is where he meets Cissie Bederaux (Olive Blakeney). They're both going back to New York where they live, although Cissie hasn't been there for five years which she spent at a sanitarium where she may or may not have had a heart problem. She vows to move out of her brother Nick's (Paul Lukas) house and asks Bailey to find a good apartment hotel for her. She then asks him to visit the Bederaux place where they'll be having high tea for her birthday.

Bailey shows up, but too late, as it turns out that Cissie has died of some heart condition. But Bailey meets Nick and his lovely wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). Nick, on finding out that Bailey is a doctor with apparently some research in the then-new field of psychology, asks Bailey to examine Allida surreptitiously to find out what's wrong with her. Since Allida is so beautiful, Bailey naturally accepts.

But there's more going on. Bailey suggested Cissie stay at his apartment hotel, so she had her baggage delivered there. But thanks to a mix-up, she received one of Bailey's bags while he got one of hers. Bailey finds hers, which contains some diaries and research material for a biography she's writing on Nick's life. Apparently they had a tough childhood in Europe, with Mom dying giving birth to Nick and Dad committing suicide. As Bailey reads on, he gets the sinking suspicion that Nick is trying to do something to Allida and their kid, who's constantly kept away from everybody else in the top floor of the house. Allida has been complaining of being followed and Bailey realized he's being followed, too.

Bailey also realizes that he's probably in some trouble, since he knows that Nick will have received his bag. Then he'll put two and two together to determine that Bailey has Cissie's bag and has read the diaries. This probably has something to do with why Nick wanted Bailey to examine Allida too. The fact that Bailey is falling in love with Allida isn't helping, either.

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, I couldn't help but think of Gaslight as I was watching Experiment Perilous. I also couldn't help but think that Gaslight was rather the better movie. I think that a lot of it comes down to the casting of George Brent as the male lead. Brent was at his best at Warner Bros. playing the nominal male lead who was clearly second fiddle to the female lead, often someone like Bette Davis. Here, despite Lamarr's top billing, Brent is just as much a lead as Lamarr. It doesn't work to the movie's benefit. I also didn't find Lukas and Lamarr as good as Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman from Gaslight

Still, the movie is lovely to look at, and the story is interesting enough to make it worth at least one watch. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

Alice Guy-Blaché night

Tonight, TCM is shining a spotlight on pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché, who deserves the "pioneer" label not just for being one of the first female directors, but because she was working at the dawn of film when, well, everybody was a pioneer of sorts. There's apparently a documentary on her that came out last year called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, and that's airing tonight at 8:00 PM, with a repeat at midnight for those of you on the west coast.

In between there are several of her shorts, most of them two-reelers, although I don't necessarily know if you should call them shorts since it's not as if feature-length movies as we know them today were being produced. I've mentioned Algie the Miner before, and that one is airing, according to the TCM schedule page, at 2:35 AM. As always, however, when TCM programs a block of shorts like this, I'm never quite certain of the exact start times. I've also mentioned Falling Leaves (10:00 PM) before, which is worth mentioning in these times because of the theme of a patient with tuberculosis and other characters not quite following medical protocol.

But the one I'm going to embed a video of is the "epic" Birth, Life and Death of Christ, which purports to tell the story of Jesus in a series of vignettes, the epic lasting about 34 minutes, which was pretty darn long for 1906. It's in the public domain, of course, and there are several prints available on Youtube:

Monday, March 23, 2020


A movie that recently showed up in the FXM rotation is one I hadn't heard of before, Peeper. It's going to be on again tomorrow, twice, at 3:00 AM and at 1:30 PM.

Michael Caine plays the titular "peeper", which is just 40s slang for a private detective, named Leslie Tucker. He's working in Los Angeles circa 1947, when in walks a man named Anglich (Michael Constantine). Anglich says that he fathered a daughter 30 years ago, but that the mother gave the daughter up for adoption, while he moved off to Florida to try to make a living. It turns out that Anglich was quite successful, which is why he's come back to Los Angeles. He wants to find that daughter he gave up, so that he can write her into his will or give her some of the fortune outright. All Anglich has to go on is a picture outside a house.

It looks like a pretty big house, and Tucker quickly figures out that the house is in Beverly Hills, owned by the Prendergast family. The family has two daughters who seem to be about the right age, Ellen (Natalie Wood) and Mianne (Kitty Winn), along with their uncle Frank (Thayer David). Tucker visits to figure out whether either daughter actually is the one in question, and along the way he falls in love with Ellen.

But not so fast. Tucker returns to his office one evening, and finds that Anglich has been killed. And then he gets a package as well as a visit from Ellen. They are then visited by a pair of thugs, Sid (Timothy Carey) and Rosie (Don Calfa), who are obviously trying to kill Tucker for whatever is in that package. Tucker and Ellen escape, and then some time later they both make their separate ways to an ocean liner for the movie's ultimate climax.

Peeper was designed as a comic homage to the noirs of the 1940s, and in some ways it doesn't do too badly. Caine and Wood are both unsurprisingly good at this sort of comedy, and the movie is visually quite stylish. There's also on odd openin credits, which are spoken by a Humphrey Bogart impersonator rather than the more traditional opening credits. However, I found the plot to be incredibly convoluted to the point that it was tough to figure out exactly what was going on. Perhaps I needed to be paying better attention instead of watching it at night.

I would, however, give Peeper a recommendation in spite of its flaws. The movie doesn't seem to be on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the FXM showings, which also include a couple showings next Monday.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Pygmalion (1938)

Somehow I've wound up with a bit of a backlog of watched movies to blog about, which I suppose isn't a bad thing. Among them is the 1938 version of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.

This is one of those movies where a lot of people probably already know the basic plot, since it's based on a well-known play and there's the famous musical remake My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) sells flowers outside Covent Garden, London, a decidedly working-class job at best. One night as she's selling those flowers there's a strange guy writing down everything she's saying, a fact which unnerves her since she thinks this is the police about to nick her for a crime that she hasn't committed.

That man is, in fact, Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), a linguist who has spent his career studying regional accents, which in the UK aren't just regional but class-based. Higgins is clearly of a higher social class than Doolittle, and knows it.

After Higgins reveals his identity and another patron, Freddy Hill (David Tree) gives Doolittle a relatively substantial sum for the whole basket of flowers, Eliza decides she wants to dake diction lessons so that she can get a higher-class job, showing up unexpectedly at Higgins' house. This is actually fortuitous for Henry. He's got a guest in Col. Pickering (Scott Sunderland), a fellow linguist but not as good as Henry. The two men make a bet that Henry can change Eliza not just in accent, but in manners, to the point that she can fool the upper crust into thinking she's of noble birth.

Eliza isn't necessarily thrilled with it at first, but Henry's offering her better job prospects regardless of the outcome, and she'll have a nice place to stay for a few months, so she eventually takes them up to be the subject. You can guess what happens next, which is that Eliza becomes an apt pupil and starts thinking for herself. She and Henry are also falling in love with each other although neither is prepared to admit that.

Pygmalion is a very well-made movie, albeit one that I did have some problems with, which are mostly down to the story. Henry Higgins is written as a really selfish character who winds up being rather an unlikeable jerk. That might have something to do with Shaw not wanting the play to have the typically happy ending of boy and girl winding up together at the end. Hiller also has some cringe-inducing scenes courtesy of the script, such as when she goes to visit Henry's mother. But Hiller is quite good in her role, as is Howard. Wilfrid Lawson also does well as Eliza's father.

The one good thing about Pygmalion is that it doesn't have the songs that My Fair Lady does. This isn't the sort of material that lends itself to being a musical if you're not a big fan of musicals (which I'm not). Pygmalion is a pretty darn good movie that's definitely worth a watch. The TCM Shop lists a DVD that looks like a sketchy gray-market MOD disk, while Amazon has it on Prime Video.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Last Seduction

A more recent movie that I recorded during one of the free preview weekends was The Last Seduction. (Hey, 25 years old is pretty recent for this blog!)

Bill Pullman plays Clay Gregory, a doctor in New York city who runs what authorities would nowadays derisively call a "pill mill", prescribing addictive medicines at the drop of a hat. As such, he's got access to large quantities of those medicines, quantities which would be worth a hell of a lot on the black market. So his wife Bridget (Linda Fiorentino), a manager in a telemarketing boiler room, has convinced him to do one sale on the black market to make the two of them a large sum of money.

Well, only one of the two of them. While Clay is taking a shower afterwards, Bridget decides she's going to take the money and run, which unsurprisingly pisses off Clay. Bridget gets in her car and drives west toward Chicago, but stops to spend the night in the "cow town" of Beston, somewhere in western New York, where the siren song is actually the call of Buffalo, already a declining Rust Belt city at the time.

In a bar in Beston, Bridget meets Mike Swale (Peter Berg). He works at the local insurance company branch, which seems surprisingly large for a town like Beston, but ignore that plot hole. Bridget has a one-night stand with Mike, but upon learning of the existence of the insurance company, decides she can get a job there as her management skills will be needed. Using the phony name of Wendy Kroy, claiming her husband abused her, she gets a job where she's the boss of Mike -- who for his part has returned to Beston from Buffalo after a disastrously brief marriage.

Clay is looking for Bridget, and has hired private detective Harlan (Bill Nunn) to find Bridget and the money, not being able to go through normal channels since the money was obtained rather illegally. Harlan at first tracks her to the area code (something you wouldn't be able to do today of course thanks to the portability of phone numbers) and then does find her. But Bridget is one step ahead of everybody else, it seems, and is able to thwart Harlan, and a more local investigator that Clay hires.

Bridget is also hard at work on manipulating Mike. When she's decided that Clay has gotten too close to her, she comes up with an audacious plan to have Mike go down to New York City and kill Clay, although Mike doesn't realize that the man he's supposed to kill is in fact Bridget's husband.

The Last Seduction is a thoroughly enjoyable, if disturbing at times movie, with a look at a femme fatale who is one really nasty woman. Fiorentina is excellent, and the story is mostly good although I did feel there were a few plot holes. I was amused in looking it up on IMDb that the "cow town" of Beston was actually played by Irvington, which is a very affluent suburb of New York City in Westchester County. Perhaps the establishing shot for the bar entrance was done somewhere else, or it was still around back in 1994. If I had one problem with the movie, it was with the score, which I found extremely intrusive.

That score, however, in no way takes away from my very high recommendation for The Last Seduction.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Time of Your Life

Another of the movies that I recently watched was The Time of Your Life.

Based on a play by William Saroyan, the movie tells the story of Nick's, a dive bar on the San Francisco waterfront run by bartender Nick (William Bendix). More than that, it looks at the stories of several habitues of the bar, as observed by Joe (James Cagney). Joe spends all day at the bar, and there's no indication of how Joe earns a living to be able to do this. Nick, for his part, wants to play the ponies, and considering how little people buy, it's a good question how he makes his money, too.

Tom (Wayne Morris) is Joe's "stooge", looking up to Joe for reasons I don't get and running all sorts of bizarre errands for Joe. Then Kitty (Jeanne Cagney) walks into the bar. She claims to be an actress, although she has a past, as will be revealed at the end. Tom falls in love with Kitty, and he's eventually going to get a real job to be able to support himself and Kitty.

There's also Harry (Paul Draper), a man who can dance and offers to be entertainment if Nick were ever to have a floor show, although again there are the questions of how Nick could pay for any of this. He's joined by Wesley (Reginald Beane) the pianist. Other denizens of the bar are the pinball player Willie (Richard Erdman) and Dudley (Jimmy Lydon), who is in love with Elsie (Nanette Parks), who is not a denizen of the bar.

There are a few more patrons, including a slumming couple (Natalie Schaefer, best known as Lovey Howell on Gilligan's Island, is the wife), an obnoxious cowboy, and a couple of cops who pass through.

There's not much of a plot here, although most of the characters other than Joe and Nick have their own subplots. And to be honest, that's one of the big problems with the movie. A second problem is that it felt very stagey to me, since it's based on a stage play by William Saroyan and is mostly set in the bar. Then there's the fact that there are a couple of overlong dance sequences and other musical numbers. But most of all is that I found all the characters irritating.

Perhaps this is material that would work better on the stage, and perhaps other people are going to like it more than I did. But I have to admit I didn't care for it at all. Still, it's available on DVD so you can watch and judge for yourself.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #297: Bad Boys

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 "Bad Boys"; by an odd coincendence, it looks as though tomorrow's (March 20) TCM daytime schedule is chock full of movies that fit the theme. And I happened to pick one of those before looking at the upcoming TCM schedule. I'm also admitting to using a movie that I used three years ago, because I thought of using it here and then decided to look up whether I'd used it before.

Bad Boy (1949). Audie Murphy has his first starring role as a delinquent who winds up at a Texas ranch for troubled boys. Lloyd Nolan has another of his solid moral center roles as the head of the ranch who tries to reach Audie and figure out why he went wrong to end up at the ranch. Not that Murphy is going to make it easy for Nolan, continuing to cause trouble. (Spoiler: Nolan does figure it out, and Murphy becomes a good young man. But you probably could have guessed that.)

Breathless (1960). Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the bad boy here, falling in love with American journalism student in Paris Jean Seberg and then inviting her to accompany him on what becomes a crime spree. This is the sort of movie that epitomizes why I'm not a big fan of the French New Wave, as it's talky (especially toward the end) and felt to me like a lot of nothing going on. But lots of other people love this stuff.

Night Nurse (1931). Barbara Stanwyck plays a nurse who tends to a gunshot wound for bad boy Ben Lyon, before getting a job in a private home caring for two young girls. There, she learns that another bad boy, chauffeur Clark Gable, is having the girls starved so they'll die and he can get at the trust fund, meanwhile keeping the girls' mother drunk so she doesn't know what's going on. A bad-boy highlight is when a maid suggests an old wives' tale of giving the surviving girl a milk bath as her pores will soak up the nutrients in the milk or some such nonsense. Stanwyck of course doesn't have the money to buy the milk, and when she tells Lyon, the movie cuts to a scene of him doing a smash-and-grab at a delicatessen and getting the milk his girlfriend needs! The whole movie is chock full of such pre-Code goodness.

Louis Hayward, 1909-1985

Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Louis Hayward, who was born on this day in 1909. His career never really hit the heights it could have for any number of reasons, a lot I think having to do with World War II. Hayward was born in South Africa and made his way first to Britain, and then the US and MGM. A part in Anthony Adverse helped his career, but it was working for independent producer Edward Small and the double lead role in The Man in the Iron Mask that is probably the best in his career.

And then World War II came, and Hayward served in the US Marines; according to IMDb he had become a US citizen on Saturday, December 6 1941. Talk about timing. There was the delay in his career and apparently the war changed Hayward enough to destroy his marriage to Ida Lupino. But he still got a good role after the war in And Then There Were None, based on the Agatha Christie story:

Hayward's career continued in movies and TV through the early 1970s.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Out west with Patricia Neal

One of the movies I DVRed during Patricia Neal's turn as Star of the Month on TCM was the western Raton Pass, being interested in the idea of Neal having done a western. Recently I sat down to watch it.

The first theme is one which shows up in a whole lot of westerns: the cattle baron who owns a lot of land versus the homesteaders who are closing in on that land. In Raton Pass, the ranchers are portrayed by Basil Ruysdael as dad Pierre Challon and Dennis Morgan as his son Marc. They own land on both sides of Raton Pass, and on some of the less productive land in the middle, there's the homesteaders, led by Pozner (Louis Jean Heydt). Pozner and his friends don't like the Challons, and for good reason since they think the Challons are taking all the grazing land and the water.

Into all of this walks lovely Ann (Patricia Neal). Ann falls in love with Marc, and the two have a whirlwind romance that leads to marriage. Marc's late beloved mother, God rest her soul, apparently had an agreement with Dad that when Marc got married, the whole ranch would legally be deeded over to Marc and his wife. But the love isn't to last.

The ranch is in some need of money, and when railroad man Prentice (Scott Forbes) comes into the picture needing a right of way for the new rail line, Marc sees the chance at money. But Ann is even smarter and more ambitious than Marc, and decides she'll make the bargain with Prentice. Of course, her bargain involves co-owning the ranch with Prentice, not with Marc.

Marc gets the brilliant idea that he can sell, and then go in with the homesteaders to block off Raton Pass, meaning that all the cattle on what's now Ann and Prentice's ranch can't get back to the other side, forcing them to sell cheaply and reducing the value of the ranch which Marc can then get back. Of course, the homesteaders aren't necessarily going to be interested in this, considering they don't care for the Challons.

Ann, for her part, has a trick up her sleeve too. She hires gunman Cy Van Cleave (Steve Cochran) as her new ranch foreman. He has no qualms about resorting to violence to get what's best for, well, seemingly the ranch, but more importantly him. He convinces the sheriff that Marc is rustling cattle by blocking off Raton pass, and kidnaps Pozner into testifying to this. It all leads to the climactic shootout.

Raton Pass is another of those movies that's not really doing anything particularly new, but is entertaining enough. It's mildly odd seeing Patricia Neal in a western, but even more jarring for me was the presence of Dennis Morgan, who I thought was not particularly well cast. He does his best here, and even though he's not great, he certainly doesn't sink the movie.

If you want to see a good example of a studio system western, you could do a lot worse than to watch Raton Pass. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Stuart Whitman, 1928-2020

Stuart Whitman (l.) in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Mark (1961)

Although everybody seems to be freaking out over coronavirus, remember that there are still other things out there that can kill you. Such is the case of Oscar-nominated actor Stuart Whitman, who died yesterday at the age of 92. Whitman started his career in the early 1950s with a bunch of uncredited roles, but came to more prominence in the second half of the decade in movies like Seven Men From Now before getting his best roles in the early 1960s. In addition to the Oscar-nominated role in The Mark, there's also Murder, Inc. and The Comancheros in that era.

Unfortunately, his roles in the second half of the 60s and beyond aren't as good, although Whitman worked steadily in movies and TV up until the end of the 90s. I think the most recent post in which I mentioned Whitman was the lousy An American Dream, which has him opposite Janet Leigh:

And if that's not bad enough, Whitman and Leigh would go on to make another hilariously bad film, Night of the Lepus:

I don't know if TCM has a TCM Remembers piece up yet, or if they're going to be doing any programming in his honor.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Cain and Mabel

Another of the movies that I recently watched was Cain and Mabel, which is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The first thing I noticed was that the opening credits only mentioned the two lead actors, Marion Davies and Clark Gable, and not any of the other actors, which made for a fun game trying to recognize the various cast members until their names are listed in the closing credits for anybody who didn't bother to look them up. Davies plays Mabel and shows up first.

Mabel O'Dare is a waitress at a busy breakfast café in New York, where she meets Reilly (an unmistakeable Roscoe Karns). Reilly is a newspaperman, except that he's gotten fired from pretty much every paper in the city, and with a depression still on, he's out of a job and doesn't really have the money to be in a café like this. When Mabel is asked to return an order of eggs from a different customer, she gives them to Reilly, something which ultimately gets her fired. Reilly decides he's going to become a PR man and get Mabel a job on Broadway.

Jake Sherman (Walter Catlett) is producing a new play on Broadway, and when the lead actress quits, Reilly badgers Sherman into letting Mabel have an audition, even though she really can't sing or dance particularly well. Somehow, it works, and she gets the lead, although she's going to have to practice a lot with the male lead Ronny (David Carlyle). They get a hotel suite for this, which is where Clark Gable comes in.

He plays Larry Cain, a heavyweight boxer who is in New York to prepare for his world championship fight. He's got a cushy hotel suite, except that it happens to be exactly one floor under Mabel's, and her constant dancing is keeping him up until all hours of the night. So he confronts Mabel, and the two immediately hate each other.

But you know it's not going to end there. Mabel's show goes on, but it's not particularly successful thanks to her not having any star power. Cain eventually becomes champion, but he has no charisma such that his fights are sparsely attended and he doesn't make much money. Reilly, being a PR man, has the brilliant idea of putting these two together in a romantic relationship (or at least the semblance of one) for the papers, as this will give both of them a positive boost in popularity. Of course, he doesn't realize that the two have already met (although they know each other only on sight) and hate each other. So when they finally realize who they're being set up with, they're not happy.

Once again, however, you know it's not going to end there. The two are going to find out that the other isn't really what they seem -- it wasn't Mabel's idea to become a Broadway actress and Cain would really rather open up a service station. And when they find that out, they're going to fall in love with each other. But that threatens to end their public careers, which everybody in their entourages can't have, so they try to put a spanner into the works.

Cain and Mabel is a pleasant enough romantic comedy, but for the most part one where you know exactly where it's going. Everybody does a good enough job with their roles; among the recognizable faces I haven't mentioned before are Allen Jenkins as one of Cain's trainers, and Ruth Donnelly as Mabel's aunt. The one big problem was the presence of a couple of musical numbers that really brought the movie to a screeching halt.

Still, Marion Davies always deserves more positive attention, and apart from the musical numbers Cain and Mabel is a definitely worthwhile watch.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Model and the Marriage Broker

A movie that's been back in the FXM rotation for a little while now is The Model and the Marriage Broker. It's going to be on again Monday at 6:00 AM.

Thelma Ritter gets third billing, but she's really the star here. She plays the "marriage broker", since you didn't expect her to play the model, did you? She's Mae Swasey, who's running a sort of dating service plus for shy, homely, and otherwise not particularly marriageable people. An example of this is Hazel Gingras (Nancy Kulp), brought in by her sister, who wants to marry her off. After some thought, Mae gets the idea that perhaps the optometrist George Wixted (Zero Mostel) would be right for her. Another client is the Kuschner family, who are about to marry their daughter off to X-ray technician Matt Hornbeck (Scott Brady), but are trying to stiff Mae on the marriage fee part of the contract.

Anyhow, Mae goes to see Mr. Wixted, which is how she comes into contact with the model. Mae winds up with the wrong purse from her visit to Wixted's office, and in trying to figure out whom it belongs to, she reads a letter from the model's boyfriend, a married man having an affair who is clearly wrong for the model. The model, Kitty Bennett (Jeanne Crain), finds Mae's contact information in her purse and shows up at the office to return it, not knowing quite what Mae does since the door to her office only reads contacts and contracts.

Kitty doesn't like that Mae read the letter, but Kitty also doesn't have the courage to break off the affair on her own, so she shows up to Mae's house at a mixer for Wixted, Hazel, and some others, having asked the married boyfriend to show up so she can break off the relationship with moral support from Mae. Mae realizes Kitty doesn't have the courage to break off the relationship on her own, so she sends the man away, and lets Kitty spend the night. It also gives Mae an inspiration. Matt the X-ray operator stiffed the Kuschner girl at the altar, but he'd be right for Kitty. So she decides to set those two up, free of charge, without Kitty knowing what Mae is doing.

Matt is smarter than that, but despite thinking he's a confirmed bachelor, falls in love with Kitty anyway. But it's not going to be a smooth path to love, because Kitty is bound to find out exactly what it is that Mae does. Mae, meanwhile, has personal problems of her own, as her first husband ran off with another woman and that other woman shows up now that the husband has died.

The Model and the Marriage Broker is a movie that I didn't find particularly great, although Thelma Ritter delivers another nice performance and other people like this a lot more than I did. I think the big problem I had is that I found it difficult to imagine anybody in New York City circa 1950 using Mae's services; maybe in a smaller town or an earlier time it might have worked better. I also didn't care for some of the supporting performances from Mae's clients who came across as terrible stereotypes, particularly a Swedish immigrant. And the second Mrs. Swasey (Helen Ford) way overacted in her role.

Still, this is probably one that you should watch and judge for yourself. Amazon lists it as available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme, as well as digital through Prime Video.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Cincinnati Kid

Last weekend I mentioned having watched The Cincinnati Kid off a TCM airing and that there was a Joe McDoakes short afterwards that I blogged about. Well now it's time for the feature.

Steve McQueen is the titular Kid, a professional gambler named Stoner originally from Cincinnati but now in 1930s New Orleans. He's one of the best poker players out there, to the point that lesser players think he's cheating. He's got a girlfriend in the form of Christian (Tuesday Weld) who came from a farm a few hours away and wants the Kid to settle down. He's also got a good friend in Shooter (Karl Malden) who is known as a fair dealer. Shooter has a wife in Melba (Ann-Margret) who wants him to settle down, and is also friendly with Christian.

The Cincinnati Kid is one of the best poker players out there, but not yet the best. That honor has gone to Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), who travels the country fleecing rich people out of their money, and every now and then getting into epic poker matches. Here in New Orleans he's fleecing Slade (Rip Torn). Unsurprisingly, word gets out that both Lancey and the Kid are in town, so the obvious thing to do is to set up a game between the two of them.

It eventually happens, but there are some complications first. One is that Christian has finally reached the breaking point, and decided to go back to her family, forcing the Kid to go looking for her. More worrying, though, is the betting that's going on around the match. Slade has decided to put a bunch of money down on the Kid, and wants to make certain he can collect on that wager. Both the Kid and Lancey agree that Shooter is a fair dealer, with Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell) to come in as a relief dealer. Slade, having that bet on the Kid, and more importantly a marker on Shooter, decides to tell shooter that he's going to help the Kid to win. And to sweeten the pot, Shooter's going to have more money on the Kid. And if that's not enough of a problem for Shooter, he's going to find out that Melba has taken a bit of a liking to the Kid when they spend some time together.

Eventually we get to the game, which doesn't start off as being just between the Kid and Lancey, but has other players. Of course, those players drop out one by one, leaving only the Kid and Lancey at the climax. As you can probably guess, the Kid finds out that Shooter has been asked to cheat, something the Kid does not want at all, while Christian returns just in time to discover that Melba had been seeing the Kid.

The Cincinnati Kid is another of those movies that's very well made, although it didn't really feel to me as though it was breaking any new ground. Everybody gives a solid, professional performance, and the story is more than adequate. In short, it's a nice little bit of entertainment, and another movie that I can definitely recommend if you want something undemanding.

Friday, March 13, 2020

American Gigolo

During one of the recent freeview weekends, I was able to DVR American Gigolo. Recently, I finally got the chance to watch it.

The movie starts off with my be the most remembered thing about it, the song "Call Me" by Blondie. This is over scenes of Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) driving his Mercedes convertible up the California coast to Malibu. There he's going to meet his boss Anne (Nina van Pallandt). Officially Julian is a chauffeur, but he's really a high-class escort for lonely wealthy women. This enables him to live in a really nice apartment in a tony part of Los Angeles.

However, Anna isn't the only procurer he works for. He can also get good money from Leon (Bill Duke), who sends Julian out to do rather kinkier things, in this case a bondage session with a married couple, the Rheimans, out in Palm Springs with the husband watching Julian engage with the wife.

As part of one of Julian's jobs, he meets Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton). The two fall in love with each other, which is a problem in that, well, Julian has his profession. The bigger problem is that Michelle is Mrs. Stratton, and Mr. Stratton is a California state senator with higher ambitions. Obviously the thought of a politician's wife carrying on an affair with an escort would cause a scandal that Michelle doesn't want to cause at all.

She may not have a choice. One night, Mrs. Rheiman is murdered. The police, in the form of Det. Sunday (Hector Elizondo), investigate, and the fact that Julian had been hired comes up so of course the police have to ask questions. (At this point Julian should have immediately stopped and asked for his lawyer, but way too many people are too stupid to do this.) Julian has a fairly airtight alibi -- except that it's that he was sleeping with Michelle at the time of the murder.

Worse for Julian, he begins to realize that he's being framed, but by whom? Sen. Stratton seems like a reasonably candidate if he's figured out that his wife is cheating on him, and in fact Sen. Stratton sends one of his aides out to tail Julian. But in any case Julian has to figure things out without much help from anybody else since he doesn't want to hurt Michelle by revealing the nature of their relationship.

In some ways the idea of the framed man makes American Gigolo seem like it could fit in well in the noir genre, only updated to 1980. And boy has it been updated, since Hollywood of the studio era could never get away with many of the themes here -- prositution, homosexuality, and even Gere's nudity. But it's also extremely 1980 in its production design, which while stylish is also extrememly trapped in 1980. If you want to know what the time looked like, this is a good place to start.

All of this is to say that the movie is actually pretty good; better, I think, than critical reception might have you think. Gere actually gives a pretty good performance, as does Elizondo. But it's also one that really not breaking any new ground beyond updating old themes and using things that couldn't be used earlier. The resolution of the murder case is really not handled as well as I think it could have been.

Still, I can certainly recommend American Gigolo if you want more adult themes.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #296: Spoofs/Satires/Mockumentaries

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 one that's fairly broad, but that I also think lends itself to more recent movies: Spoofs, satires, and mockumentaries. But, with the studio system, it wasn't uncommon for studios to take jabs at each other and just poke fun at the stars in general. Sadly, I already used Come to Dinner, the 1934 Warner Bros. short spoofing MGM's Dinner at Eight a few months back, so I had to come up with three other movies:

The Coo Coo Nut Grove (1936) and Hollywood Steps Out (1941). These were two Warner Bros. animated shorts, both poking ample fun at the Hollywood stars of the day in a way that audiences of the day would have recognized but that most people today probably wouldn't get; both use the framing story of a night out on the town. The Coo Coo Nut Grove (I think) has the obligatory George Raft at the boat rental gag, while Hollywood Steps Out has, among other things, Ann Sheridan saying nothing but "Oomph" -- Sheridan was known in the day as "The Oomph Girl".

Alias Jesse James (1959). Bob Hope plays an insurance salesman who has to go out to the old west to try to save his job, selling a life insurance policy to Jesse James (Wendell Corey). Jesse gets the brilliant idea to get Hope identified as Jesse James and killed, so that the real Jesse can claim the insurance and keep clear of the law for a while. Hope has the usual in-jokes, but the real spoof here is that a bunch of TV western stars of the day show up in the final shootout to help meek Bob win the day.

The Phynx (1970). The dictator of Albania is stealing American actors and other celebrities, and a supercomputer gets the brilliant idea that the way to bring them back is to create a fake pop band (the titular Phynx) and have themselves get invited to Albania, where they'll rescue all the Hollywood types. It's a parody of the spy genre and to an extent of the teen music movie, with a whole bunch of old stars in small roles, especially for the climactic rescue. Oh, it's also hilariously awful. It's one of those things that's so shockingly bad that it has to be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

I didn't see any trapeze

Recently, I watched another of the titles on my box set of W.C. Fields movies, Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Fields once again plays a henpecked husband, this time named Ambrose Wolfinger. This is his second marriage, as his first wife died when his daughter Hope (Mary Brian) was young, and Ambrose felt she needed a mother. Unfortunately his wife Leona (Kathleen Howard) is a nag, and his mother-in-law Mrs. Neselrode (Vera Lewis) is far worse. To top it all off, she's got a layabout son (so Ambrose's brother-in-law) Claude (Grady Sutton) who can't be bothered to look for work, so Ambrose is effectively supporting five people.

The movie starts off with two crooks showing up in the basement of the Wolfinger house while Ambrose is in the bathroom "brushing his teeth" -- with some of the apple jack that he's been making in the cellar. Eventually he and a cop confront the two burglars.

Ambrose has tickets to a big wrestling match, and he's planning to go, but it's in the middle of the day and he'd have to get off work for it. Now, he's been working for the same company -- an importer of woollens -- for 25 years and is quite good at his job, which is apparently to keep track of all the potential clients and what their interests are and their lives are like, so that the bosses can schmooze more effectively with the clients. But supposedly in all those 25 years he's never gotten a day off. Really?

So, to be able to get that afternoon off, even though Claude has tried to steal the tickets, Ambrose says that his mother-in-law has died from drinking poisoned liquor. The bosses get Ambrose's coworkers to send flowers, and they take out a story in the paper detailing the mother-in-law's death (which of course never actually happened) to warn people about bad liquor. When they discover the truth, which is that Mrs. Neselrode isn't really dead, it could cost Ambrose his job.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is an odd little movie, because it's not really a full-fledged story, but a series of gag strung together into something that supposedly has a plot. Some of the gags work better than others, and depending on your sense of humor some of them may not work at all. The whole opening sequence with the burglars didn't really work for me, for example. Thankfully, at about 66 minutes it's all over fairly quickly if it turns out not to be your cup of tea.

I think, however, that fans of Fields are still going to like Man on the Flying Trapeze. And the box set wasn't that expensive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Seven against death

A movie that showed up in the FXM rotation recently is The Cavern. It's going to be on again tomorrow (March 11) at 10:45 AM.

The scene is Italy, in September 1944. This puts it toward the end of World War II, late enough for the Allies to have free movement in a good portion of Italy, but with the Nazis still fighting fiercely. Anna (Rosanna Schiaffino) is an Italian woman who's been caught up in the fighting in a rural part of the country. She goes to see her friend of sorts Mario (Nino Castelnuovo), a sentry at an ammunition dump in a cave.

A jeep pulls up; it contains retired British General Braithwaite (Brian Aherne), who is now some sort of media liaison together with his public relations man Capt. Wilson (Larry Hagman). Two further allies show up to this meeting: an American who's been busted down to private, Cramer (John Saxon); and a Canadian flyboy who apparently escaped a POW camp, Lt. Carter (Peter L. Marshall; yes, this is the future master of the Hollywood Squares who for some reason is using a middle initial).

Another car comes in the opposite direction and our Allies think they can get help, but it turns out the car has Germans in it, and a brief firefight ensues. This is interrupted by an aerial attack from what is probably the Americans except that they can't tell who the good guys are down below, so everybody has to beat a hasty retreat. That ammo dump in the cave seems like a good safe place.

Except that the aerial bombardment bombs the entrance to the cave, filling it with cubic yards worth of rubble. In theory they could try to dig out, but who knows how long that would take. Thankfully there's some food left and, amazingly, the electric didn't get cut off. So the seven set about looking for a way to escape, and they're going to have to work together even though they're on opposite sides of the war.

There are any number of probles, with one of the big ones being the presence of Anna among five young soldiers (Gen. Braithwaite presumably being too old to worry about that sort of thing). The food isn't much to write home about, and it's going to run out eventually anyway. The air isn't, which means there must be some other way out, but they're going to have to find it without getting lost. Mishaps are still to come....

The Cavern was an international co-production filmed mostly in Italy where it had the title Sette contra la morte which translates to "Seven Against Death", which is just as good a title as The Cavern. It was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, his final feature film, on a low budget, and it's frankly nowhere near as bad as you might think considering Ulmer, the size of the budget, and the international cast half of which aren't native English speakers.

Still, the movie certainly does have problems, mostly in the form of massive plot holes. One that I mentioned was the fact that the electric in the cave somehow didn't go out during the Allied bombardment. I also don't know how much food was put in there, but it lasts six months, even though after three months Braithwaite makes a comment that there's only a couple weeks' worth left so cut rations. There was also a problem with some of the titles mentioning how much time passed. "152 Days Later" should be taken is the time from the initial bombardment, not the previous title, or else we would have gotten past the end of World War II (the Germans surrenedered in Italy at the end of April 1945 so the action in the movie does end before that).

There's also a relative lack of character development, or at least backstories for them. Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention, but I wasn't certain what Braithwaite was doing there, and how Cramer got separated from the rest of his platoon.

One final problem is that this print is panned and scanned, and not a very good print at that. And as far as I can tell, it's not available on DVD, so you're going to have to watch the FXM showings. Still, it is worth at least one watch.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Max von Sydow, 1929-2020

Max von Sydow (r.) plays a game of chess against Death in The Seventh Seal (1956)

The death has been announced of Swedish-born actor Max von Sydow, who died yesterday about a month before what would have been his 91st birthday.

Von Sydow had a long career starting in his native Sweden where he made several movies with Ingmar Bergman. The Seventh Seal might be the best remembered, but among others would be Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly. He also worked with other Swedish directors, notably Jan Troell in The Emigrants and the sequel The New Land, where he played a poor Swedish farmer married to Liv Ullmann who decides to leave for America since he can't survive farming in Sweden any more:

With fame, Hollywood called, and von Sydow played quite a few roles in Hollywood, and an extremely varied lot at that. I had forgotten that he was Ming the Merciless in the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, or Ernst Blofeld in Never Say Never Again (although some don't consider that a real Bond movie, of course). There's also Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. In another religous theme, he played the priest in The Exorcist:

Von Sydow's career continued late into life, having appeared in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens and on TV in Game of Thrones, among other roles.

I haven't seen yet whether TCM has scheduled a programming tribute in von Sydow's honor.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Louisiana Story

Another of my recent DVR watchings was the quasi-documentary Louisiana Story.

Joseph Boudreaux plays The Boy, a kid of about 11 who doesn't seem to go to school at all, living with his parents (Lionel Le Blanc and Mrs. E. Bienvenu) on a bayou in southern Lousiana, hunting and fishing to help support the family. One day, he hears some sort of industrial stuff going on.

It turns out that Dad has signed a lease with one of the oil wildcatters to lease out a small portion of their property to try drilling for oil. The oil company's activities, moving in the equipment by boat, threaten to tip over The Boy's small flatboat in their wake, but as the derrick gets built, The Boy becomes fascinated by it as a lot of boys get fascinated by industrial machinery.

As the drilling goes on, the oil rig workers actually let The Boy hang out on their derrick, which frankly seemed incredibly dangerous to me what with all the moving parts threatening to impale, decapitate, or strangle people. (Not quite related, but in The Enemy Below which I reviewed a few weeks back, the moving equipment on the deck of the destroyer actually does injure one of the sailors and necessitate the amputation of several fingers.) The workers, for their part, treat The Boy as a sort of mascot.

But the drilling isn't so straightforward, as the rig first blows rather than gushing thanks to a buildup of pressure. The workers eventually plug it and come back, becoming successful and making the family a little less poor thanks to the royalties they're going to get.

Louisiana Story has an interesting provenance. Standard Oil funded the production, obviously trying to create either propaganda or promotion depending on your point of view about the good work that oil drilling was doing in producing energy for a still-growing country. They hired director Robert Flaherty, who had made not-particularly-true documentaries like Nanook of the North, to film the story. Since Flaherty introduces the main actors silent film style where it was more common to identify a character and the actor portraying that character in intertitles, it seemed more clear to me that this was trying to be a fictional story told in documentary style and not an actual documentary.

As for the movie, it's visually quite good, thanks to Flaherty's knack for composition and the cinematography by Richard Leacock. There's not much to the story, and thankfully little dialogue, as Flahery hired non-professionals for the three family members (and I'm guessing Standard Oil employees for the oil rig workers). Most of the story is told through the visuals, and that works quite well here. Filming was done on location, in a bayou just south of New Iberia, LA (home of McIlhenny tabasco sauce so you might have seen the name), which is roughly halfway between New Orleans and the Texas border.

Alpha Video released a DVD some years back, although everything I've read says that's an old print that is quite bad compared to the restoration print that TCM showed. There's also a streaming copy at Amazon Prime Video, but I don't know about the copy of that print. Amazon's reviews mix up various formats and releases -- if there are multiple DVD releases it'll be tough to figure out which one the reviewer is reviewing. But at least they mention the format, and the reviews all seem to be for the DVD and not for Prime Video.

I can certainly recommend Louisiana Story, but be aware that you might get a crappy print.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

So you want to be a gambler

I've mentioned the Joe McDoakes shorts on a number of occasions. Recently, I watched the recording I made of The Cincinnati Kid back when Joan Blondell was Star of the Month. They put a 102-minute movie in a 2:15 slot, which left time for a pair of shorts. One was the promo short for the movie; the other was the Joe McDoakes short So You Want to Be a Gambler.

George O'Hanlon returns to play Joe McDoakes, the more-or-less good guy who always seems to have bad luck. In this one, he's an inveterate gambler who just needs another nickel which he knows he can parlay into a fortune. He eventually gets it at a drugstore and wins big on the pinball machine -- $50 in 1948 dollars.

Armed with this, he goes off to a casino where he meets friend Homer (Clifton Young, reminding me of Wayne Morris in John Loves Mary). There, Joe humorously tries his hand at blackjack, poker, craps, and roulette, each with mild comedy mixed in.

As I was watching this one, I couldn't help but think of Joe McDoakes as being Warner Bros.' answer to Pete Smith, only with more actual dialogue. There's some reasonably good humor in this one, such as the poker player with an extra hand, or the parrot that Joe shouldn't listen to -- take your $50 and quit while you're ahead! But at the same time, I found myself feeling more like this stuff is an acquired taste. Not everybody is going to like it.

One thing I don't think I've actually mentioned when pointing out that a Joe McDoakes short is coming up is that the Warner Archives put them all together in a box set, 63 shorts on six discs. So if you want, you can watch any of them at any time.

Daylight Savings Time briefs

Here in the US, it's time foe the annual spring forward, when clocks advance by one hour. This means that the TCM schedule is once again slightly wonky, since they don't seem to know when to put the time change. (Frankly, I don't think it's that difficult, but that's another story.)

It dawned on me that there's an unintended benefit to having Noir Alley get a Saturday night airing as well as the one at 10:00 AM Sunday, which is that it pretty much starts at midnight between Saturday and Sunday every week and runs two hours. This week, the movie is Ride the Pink Horse, a 101-minute movie that's going to run well over 1:45 once you add in Eddie Muller's extended intro and outro, so it fits well into two hours. That takes us right up to when the clocks go forward an hour in the Eastern time zone.

TCM's schedule page does get it right at first, with a pair of Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple movies airing. The first one is Murder, She Said, which airs at 3:00 AM ET (although it's still 1:00 AM CT) and runs 86 minutes. That's followed by Murder Most Foul, which should begin at 4:30 AM on the east coast, 3:30 AM Central, and 1:30 AM Mountain. But for some reason TCM lists it at 3:30 AM ET. They also say it's a 91-minute movie, but have only put it in a 90-minute time slot. (IMDb lists it as 90 minutes; I don't have a DVD to check the run-time down to the second.) So I'm guessing that after the overnight theme and with the coming attractions, it's going to run a bit into the time slot of the next movie.

And I would like to mention the beginning of the Sunday morning lineup. That ostensibly begins at 6:00 AM, although it's likely to be a minute or two late, with Leslie Howard's 1938 version of Pygmalion. That and a two-reeler get us to 8:00, which is another airing of the excellent documentary on Howard that premiered on TCM a few years back, Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Angel of no particular color

I bought a four-film box set of Marlene Dietrich movies some time back, which I mentioned when I reviewed Seven Sinners a year ago. I recently watched another movie off of it, Angel.

Dietrich unsurprisingly plays the angel, although that's not her real name of course. She's first seen checking into a Paris hotel under an assumed name, which is for a good reason. She's in Paris looking up a friend, a Russian émigrée the Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews) so that she can commiserate about her personal problems.

To be honest, her personal problems could be a lot worse. Her real name is Lady Maria Barker, and she's married to a prominent British diplomat Sir Frederick (Herbert Marshall) who is prominent with the League of Nations in Geneva and is constantly going there because of all the important international political events going on (the movie was released in 1937, so things could still heat up more). Because Sir Frederick is away all the time, Lady Maria feels a bit neglected.

The Grand Duchess runs a salon of sorts where fashionable people meet. One man who goes to the salon is Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas), and when he sees Lady Maria, he's immediately taken by her beauty. So he takes her out for a night on the town, although she doesn't say anything about what her identity is, or the fact that she's married. Anthony like her so much that he refers to her as the titular Angel. She likes him too, but isn't certain whether she's ready to be unfaithful to her husband. So she says if she wants to continue the relationship, she'll meet him same place, same time next week.

Lady Maria returns home to Sir Frederick, who has some time off from his business in Geneva. But what Lady Maria doesn't know is that Anthony served in World War I with Sir Frederick and know each other as a result. (Frederick obviously doesn't know anything about what happened in Paris.) And Anthony decides to show up that the Barker estate, not realizing that Angel is his old friend's wife. You can imagine the dilemma for Lady Maria.

Angel is an odd little movie. It was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and has an impressive cast, and yet it feels like something is missing. Maybe it's the script, but everything felt a little flat, as though it was hard to care about any of the characters or their personal problems. There's some comic relief from Edward Everett Horton, but even that doesn't come to as much as it should.

That's not to say Angel is bad at all, just that it could be better and is a fairly minor entry in the filmographies of all the main participants.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #295: Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We continue with the theme of the seven deadly sins and, this time, the sin is gluttony. I came up with two movies right away, and had to think a bit to come up with a third:

Fatso (1980). Dom Deluise plays a glutton who eats his family's good Italian food to the point of getting quite fat. A cousin who got similarly fat died at the age of 39, and now Deluise's sister Anne Bancroft is begging him to lose weight. It's tough, but when he meets a nice lady (Candice Azzara), he might just get the motivation to drop that weight.

The Loved One (1965). A biting satire of the American funeral business, this one looks at British expats in Hollywood and a nephew (Robert Morse) of one of them who dies (John Gielgud) and has to bury him. Rod Steiger plays an insane embalmer named Mr. Joyboy, and it's his mother who is the glutton here.

Cool Hand Luke (1967). Paul Newman, prisoner on the chain gang, gets into a wager that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour:

Maybe if he didn't have a failure to communicate he wouldn't have gotten himself into that bet.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Story of Three Loves

One of the movies in the Kirk Douglas tribute on TCM tomorrow that I haven't blogged about before is The Story of Three Loves, which comes on at 10:00 AM.

Douglas doesn't come into the movie until the third act, but that's be design, since as you might have guessed from the title, this movie is an anthology of three love stories, with the hook tying the three together being that the men in the love stories are all traveling on the same transatlantic liner to the United States.

First up is James Mason, in a story called "The Jealous Lover". He plays Charles Coutray, a choreographer and producer. His love is a tragic one, being involved with ballerina Paula Woodward (Moira Shearer). Or maybe I should say ex-ballerina, since she has a heart condition that is supposed to keep her from dancing. But she's so desperate to dance that she runs off to Charles and does a tremendous dance for him. Too tremendous, in fact.

The scene then goes to young boy Ricky Nelson, playing Thomas Campbell. He had a French governess named Mademoiselle (played by Leslie Caron; "Mademoiselle" is also the title of this segment), who was taking care of him while his family was in Rome. He couldn't handle the French poetry and irregular verbs that Mademoiselle was trying to make him learn. On a dare from another American, he goes to see alleged witch Hazel (Ethel Barrymore), who gives him a special ribbon that turns him into an adult for one night (Farley Granger), a night on which he falls in love with Mademoiselle.

Finally, we get to Kirk Douglas, in a story called "Equilibrium". Kirk plays Pierre Narval, a French trapeze artist who is no longer doing his routine because it was an extremely daring one. Too daring, in fact, as it killed his previous partner. But then he meets Nina (Pier Angeli) and thinks she'd be perfect as his new partner. This even though she knows nothing about the trapeze and has a tragic past of her own, having lost her husband in World War II and having tried to commit suicide as a result. Still, Pierre trains Nina and the two fall in love along the way. But then the time comes for the two to do their most daring stunt without a net....

Anthology films are quite often uneven because each story is self-contained, and naturally some stories are going to be more interesting than others. For me, I found that The Story of Three Loves had a different problem. It was made in nice Technicolor at MGM, and all three stories are very competently filmed. But to me the movie kept having that MGM touch that I've described before where everything seems a little too perfect, winding up cold and sterile instead of full of vitality. Some point out that "The Jealous Lover" has an obvious comparison to The Red Shoes, and to be honest I've never been a fan of The Red Shoes either (not that it's bad, just that I find it a difficult watch). Leslie Caron isn't my favorite actress, so for me the Kirk Douglas story is the best of the three.

But I'm sure that other people will like The Story of Three Loves more than I did, considering how professionally made it is. The movie is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so if you can't catch the TCM showing, you can still watch and judge for yourself.

TCM's Kirk Douglas tribute

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960), airing tomorrow at 9:45 PM

Kirk Douglas died a month ago at the age of 103, and TCM couldn't run a tribute during February because of their annual 31 Days of Oscar programming. So TCM got a bunch of movies together and is running 11 of them all day and night tomorrow. The progrmming lineup is as follows:

6:00 AM The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
8:00 AM Two Weeks in Another Town
10:00 AM The Story of Three Loves
12:15 PM Along the Great Divide
2:00 PM Out of the Past
3:45 PM Young Man With a Horn
5:45 PM Lust for Life
8:00 PM Paths of Glory
9:45 PM Spartacus
1:15 AM Live from the TCM Classi Film Festival: Michael Douglas
2:30 AM The Bad and the Beautiful
4:45 AM Seven Days in May

I'm not certain why they stuck the Michael Douglas special in at 1:15 AM; if the programmers had trouble getting the movies to fit into a 24-hour (well, actually 24 hours and 45 minutes) block, stick the Michael Douglas special at the end after all of Dad's movies.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

TCM Star of the Month March 2020: Joe E. Brown

Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon in the finale of Some Like It Hot (March 24 at 8:00 PM)

I mentioned earlier that with 31 Days of Oscar being over, it's time to get back to the regular programming features on TCM. One is the spotlights; another is the Star of the Month. This time out, the Star of the Month is Joe E. Brown, whose rubbery face adorned a bunch of comedies in the 1930s before his career went south after leaving Warner Bros. Brown's movies will be on TCM every Wednesday in prime time, although I'm posting this one a day early because I've already got two posts planned for tomorrow.

Brown might be best known for Some Like It Hot, as I think the general public wouldn't recognize any of the 1930s movies. And, of course, it's a bit difficult to find good pictures of him considering that the image searches tend to focus on the TV judge. Another of his roles in a more prestigious movie was in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where he plays one of the members of Bottom's (James Cagney) comic acting troupe, a role which suited him about as well as you could expect when a studio had to cast so many Shakespearean roles with non-Shakespearean actors.

I was able to find a good picture from one of the movies that's airing this week, The Tenderfoot, which will be on at 9:15 PM Wednesday, March 4. Also on the schedule tomorrow night is the early musical On With the Show (1:30 AM), which I mentioned last April, and the Fox musical Pin-Up Girl at midnight. I'm mildly surprised TCM were able to get the rights to that one.