Sunday, May 31, 2020

You like me! You really like me!

Another movie that I finally got around to watching after having it on my DVR for a couple of months is the movie that made Paul Newman a star, Somebody Up There Likes Me

After an absolutely terrible opening song by Perry Como, we're introduced to Rocco Barbella (Paul Newman). He's a street criminal in the slums of New York just not long before World War II, comming petty robberies with a gang of friends including Romolo (Sal Mineo), and generally causing all sorts of heartache for his mom (Eileen Heckart). His Dad (Harold J. Stone) doesn't seem to care much for him.

Eventually, Rocco's crimes get him put into the reformatory, where he punches his way out of any problem he has. Then after being released, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, sending the US into World War II. Rocco, despite his criminal record, is drafted, but the military life just isn't for him, so he punches a commanding officer and goes AWOL!

He winds up at a gym, where in order to make a quick $10, decides to become a sparring partner. He's good at it, and it gets him fights under the tutelage of manager/trainer Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane) where he can make more. But, unfortunately, the military eventually finds him, and since he deserted, he gets a year in Fort Leavenworth. There, he really learns how to fight, and when he gets out, he becomes a true professional boxer, taking the name Rocky Graziano so nobody will learn of his past.

He also meets Norma (Pier Angeli), who would become his wife, although she doesn't exactly like being married to a boxer, especially because the scars and bandages frighten their daughter. He rises up the middleweight ranks, and eventually gets his first title fight, which he loses, getting knocked out.

Rocky is going to get a rematch, with a warm-up fight in between. But on the eve of that warm-up bout, his past comes back to haunt him, forcing him to fake an injury and back out, costing him his New York boxing license and moving the title fight rematch to Chicago. Now, since Rocky Graziano is a real person, we know how the story is going to end, but there are still some twists and turns along the way.

There's some quite good stuff in Somebody Up There Likes Me, but also some not-so-good stuff. Paul Newman, of course, is one of the good things, delivering a fine performance that deservedly made him a star. The cinematography of the second title fight is also excellent, reminiscent of Raging Bull two dozen years later and cementing in my mind that the latter movie doesn't quite deserve its reputation as one of the greatest movies of all time.

As for the bad, I already mentioned the Perry Como song. There's also the formulaic script and writing that requires people to be too shrill at times. There's also a climactic emotional scene between father and son that really reminded me of the one in another early Newman film, The Rack, both scenes were overwrought.

Somebody Up There Likes Me did get a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive. For some reason, the TCM Shop has it on backorder, although the last time I checked the DVD was available at Amazon. I believe .you can also watch it on Prime Video if you do the streaming thing.

Starting June 1

We're almost into a new month, which in the past I've stated always seems to mean some movies come out of the Fox vaults to run on FXM. There are some movies that I haven't mentioned in a while running on FXM, although I think they've been on a couple of times in May already. It's been almost five years since I mentioned Trouble Man, which will be on tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM. When I saw this one back on the FXM schedule a couple of weeks ago, I was really thrilled, but then I realized that I was actually thinking of a different movie that isn't on the schedule, Together Brothers. But that's rather unfair to Trouble Man, which is a pretty good movie in its own right.

Later in the day on Monday, at 12:05 PM, is the Laird Cregar version of The Lodger, which apparently is one I haven't done a full-length review on, although I've mentioned its airings a couple of times in the past. I think it's in part because I've mentioned the Alfred Hitchcock version of The Lodger on a couple of occasions. The Cregar movie is pretty good too, and well worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

Back on TCM, Silent Sunday Nights for this week is an airing of He Who Gets Slapped at midnight. I think this one just aired in May, although I didn't mention it then. It will be followed at 2:00 AM by Black Girl, the TCM Import about a young woman from Senegal who becomes a maid to a French family but finds domestic life in France to be not what she anticipated. Monday morning and afternoon will be devoted to the movies of Frank Morgan, probably best known for playing the title role in The Wizard of Oz. June 1 is the anniversary of his birth, having been born in 1890.

Finally, I'll mention that one of the TCM Spotlights for June is jazz music in the movie, with a whole bunch of movies running every Monday and Thursday in prime time, except I think for the 29th, which sees a centenary tribute to Ray Harryhausen.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

For some values of magnificent

Another of the movies that I recently watched is the 1954 version of Magnificent Obsession.

Rock Hudson plays Bob Merrick, a playboy who's Clearly Bad. He went through about a year of med school but dropped out to do things like go out on his high-speed boat on a lake in some small town in the Northeast. He gets in an accident, and is injured enough that he needs a "resuscitator", some sort of device normally used on heart attack patients.

The only resuscitator was owned by one Dr. Phillips, a man of Pure Virtue as the movie would have you believe, although fans of socialized medicine would point out that he kept that damn resuscitator for his personal use. That and, as we'll learn, he spent all his money giving other people free shit at his medical clinic, to the point that he's heavily in debt. As it turns out, Dr. Phillips had another heart attack just at the time that Bob had his accident, and obviously would have been saved if that resuscitator had been there.

Bob tries to express his contrition to the doctor's wife Helen (Jane Wyman) and daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), but he seems to think he can buy his way out of any situation with money, and the two women are having none of that, showing none of the doctor's presumed capacity for forgiveness that he must have had since he was such a Perfect Person if you believe the way everybody else in the movie talks about him.

Things get even worse when Bob, trying to make it up to Mrs. Phillips, follows her into a taxi. She tries to get out the other side, getting run down in traffic and suffering a brain injury that probably should have killed her like Natasha Richardson but, since we wouldn't have a second half of the movie then, only blinds her. Bob runs into her on the beach one day and realizes she doesn't recognize his voice! So now he can put the moves on her while trying to expiate his sins by paying to send her to Europe to get an operation that might restore his sight.

Bob eventually follows her to Europe and Joyce eventually forgives him. But when Helen learns who Bob really is, she's not certain how to react, and when he proposes marriage to her, she runs off to the middle of nowhere, not telling anybody!

Magnificent Obsession is a bunch of nonsensical moral twaddle, which shouldn't be surprising since it's based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a Christian apologist who gave us other books turned into movies like Green Light and The Robe. Those other movies aren't bad even though they lay on the Christian morality a little thick at times. Magnificent Obsession, on the other hand, is even more black-and white in its portrayal of morality than the others, and has overblown direction from Douglas Sirk to boot.

I'm glad I watched Magnificent Obsession to get it off the list of movies I hadn't blogged about here before. But it's not a movie I'm looking to watch a second time. You can get it on a pricey two-DVD set from the Criterion Collection if you want to watch for yourself or like this sort of movie.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Fallen Sparrow

I watched The Fallen Sparrow some weeks back. I thought I had blogged about it, but I'm a few weeks ahead in a sense in that I have a couple of other movies I watched weeks back but haven't blogged about due to needing to watch other things actually coming up on one or another of the movie channels soon and blogging about those. A search of the blog suggested that I hadn't yet blogged about it, and on further consideration, I was thinking of Experiment Perilous, which I did do a post on back in March. So now's the time to blog about The Fallen Sparrow.

John Garfield plays John "Kit" McKittrick, who is returning to his old home in New York after quite a long time away. He served with the Abraham Lincoln Briagde in the Spanish Civil War and spent a substantial amount of time first as a POW (the Lincoln Brigades having been on the losing side of the war) and then after having escaped, recuperating out west. But he's returning now because of the death of an old friend.

That old friend had helped Kit escape from the POW camp in Spain, and his death was ruled a suicide, but Kit just knows different. Still, it's going to be tough to figure out, in part because the police want the case dropped; the people responsible for the death are going to be tough to crack; and Kit still isn't fully recovered from his POW experience, hearing sounds that sound like his torturer, sounds which may not exist.

One person who may be able to help Kit is Ab (Bruce Edwards, an old friend of Kit's who lets Kit stay at his apartment. Kit also meets Toni (Maureen O'Hara), who seems involved in all of this somehow, being the purported relative of a French prince who may or may not be a real French prince. In the prince's circle of acquaintances is Dr. Skaas (Walter Slezak), who also clearly knows far more than he's letting on, and has a son Otto (Hugh Beaumont years before becoming Ward Cleaver) who is also in on it all.

Apparently everybody is after Kit because his unit killed a big Nazi general, and Hitler wants to avenge the general's death by getting the unit's standard. Kit supposedly knows where it is (well, he actually does), which is why he was tortured in the POW camp and why the Nazis follow him to New York to find where that damn flag is.

The Fallen Sparrow is a movie that unfortunately has an inscrutable plot, which is a shame because Garfield gives about as good a performance as the material lets him. O'Hara is somewhat miscast but does as well as she can too, while Slezak once again runs with the story and gets to have fun as the bad guy. It's just a shame that all of this is in service of a bizarre plot that makes little sense (which is probably why it and Experiment Perilous ran together in my mind).

The Fallen Sparrow is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #307: TV edition: Reality Competition shows

This being Thursday, it's 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, with the theme this time being reality [sic] competition shows. I'm not a fan of so-called reality TV, which is just as staged as scripted fiction TV. But after a bit of thought, I was able to come up with three shows that I figure nobody else is going to pick:

Queen for a Day (1956-1964). Housewives tell their sob stories about why they should be pampered and treated like a queen for a day. Yeah, it's that shamelessly manipulative.

Can't Cook, Won't Cook (1995-2000). Two self-acknowledged lousy cooks were nominated by friends or relatives to be on this cooking show where all they had to do was follow the professional chef's instructions and make a tasty meal, with the winner of a blind taste test winning a prize package of cooking equipment. Of course, the chef goes so fast that it would be difficult for anybody to keep up, but the real message of the show is that while none of us are going to be as good as the professional chefs, it's a lot less difficult to make a good meal than you might think. I saw this one on BBC America back in the early 2000s when the channel actually still ran stuff from the BBC.

Who Wants to Be Governor of California? (2003). California Governor Gray Davis was subject to a recall petition in 2003 despite having won re-election due to his disastrous implementation of a fascistic "deregulation" of the electricity market that resulted in rolling blackouts. The recall was a circus, and Game Show Network got in on the act by hosting a special with celebrity candidates (including Gary Coleman) and the winner being porn star Mary Carey.


Some time back, I DVRed the Bette Davis movie Deception, but put off watching it because it wasn't available on DVD. Well, it just so happens that not only is it going to be on TCM tomorrow afternoon at 12:45 PM, the TCM Shop says that the Warner Archive will be releasing it on MOD in June. So either way, now is a good time to blog about it.

Bette Davis plays Christine Radcliffe, who at the beginning of the movie is running into a building that looks suspsiciously like the police headquarters Joan Crawford walks out of at the end of Mildred Pierce. Even if it is the same building on the Warner Bros. lot, this time it's a concert hall, and she's going to see a concert given by cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henried).

You see, many years ago, before war came to Europe, Christine, a pianist but nowhere near as good a musician as Karel, had a relationship with him. But World War II intervened and Christine was certain Karel was killed, so she headed back to America to try to start life over again. Now that Karel is actually alive, however, Christine can resume her love for him.

Karel is impressed with how Christine was able to start her life over again, as he goes to her apartment, which is the sort that you wonder how anybody can afford, let alone a second-rate pianist. She says she's been given lessons to the idle rich, and they've been able to pay her back by rather lavishly furnishing her apartment, but seriously, who would believe that?

We're soon to figure out the real story, which happens when Karel and Christine get married. Who should show up fashionably late for the reception but the noted composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains)? He seems shocked to see Christine getting married, to the point that he breaks a wine glass in his hand! That's a definite sign something is wrong.

What went wrong is that Christine, convinced that Karel had died, decided to support herself by having an affair with Hollenius, who is apparently a very successful composer considering his fine place. Successful enough, in fact, that everybody is waiting for the premiere of his new piece, which happens to be... a cello concerto! Perfect for Karel to play, if only everybody weren't so jealous of everybody else. Well, except for Karel, who seems oblivious to everything that's going on.

Deception is one of those movies that's clearly well-made, and a fine example of the production values the studio system could give to a prestige movie. And yet there's something not quite right about it. The movie runs and runs, but never really goes anywhere. Davis and Rains and Henried act, but it's somehow as if they acted their scenes alone and the others were spliced in or something. There's a pervasive thread of "slightly off" running throughout the movie.

Still, there's definitely a fair deal worth mentioning. If you like classical music, you'll definitely enjoy the soundtrack, which includes several famous pieces as well as new music by Erich Korngold (including the "Hollenius" concerto). The acting is good if sometimes over the top, even if everybody seems to have decided to take their own cues. And the production values are top-notch. If you like melodrama, I guess you'll probably enjoy Deception quite a bit.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Law and Jake Wade

Another movie that I DVRed some time back and only recently got around to watching is The Law and Jake Wade, another of those movies that got a Blu-ray release courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) is a man with a past. He's the marshal in a town called Cold Stream, but he had served in the Confederate army in the Civil War. After that, he was in a gang with Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark). One robbery went wrong and Clint saved Jake from getting killed, but at the cost of Clint's getting captured and sentenced to hang. Jake repays the debt by breaking Clint out of jail.

Interestingly, Jake's past isn't going to require him to pay for it the way most Code-era movies would require. But to get to that point isn't going to be easy. Jake tried to go straight by taking the marshal's job, and now even has a fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens), with whom he's willing to start a new life elsewhere after they get married. Of course, part of the reason for wanting to start a new life is to get away from Clint, which is a good idea.

You know that's not going to happen, however. Clint shows up with his gang, including Wexler (DeForest Kelley) and Ortero (Robert Middleton). In that botched robbery that resulted in Clint's imprisonment, the gang had taken $20,000. But it was Jake who was supposed to be the guardian of the money. He decided to bury it and become a marshal. Clint obviously didn't go straight, and equally obviously, he wants that $20,000.

So Clint takes Jake and Peggy hostage, forcing Jake under the threat of death to both of them to take Clint to the money. That money is buried in a ghost town, and as you can guess, the Indians are also following Clint and the rest of them, leading to the possibility that nobody's going to get the money.

The Law and Jake Wade was one of Robert Taylor's final movies at MGM after a long time under contract. He's getting old here, and although he does OK, he's never been one of my favorites as he's always a bit stiff. Widmark seems as though he's growing a bit tired of having to play the bad guy yet again, although he's as professional as ever.

The story is OK, as is the cinematography and the supporting acting. Overall, The Law and Jake Wade is another movie that does everything solidly enough, but doesn't break any new ground. If you like westerns, I think you'll definitely be entertained by this, but if you're not the biggest fan or trying to introduce somebody to old westerns, I'd start elsewhere, not that there's anything particularly wrong with the movie.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Lady sings something or other

I mentioned yesterday that this final night of TCM's "Wonder Women" spotlight of biopics about women deals with entertainers. Following Incendiary Blonde, at 10:15 PM you can watch Lady Sings the Blues.

At the start of the movie, it's mid-1936, and singer Billie Holiday (Diana Ross) is being brought into what looks like a psych ward of a prison. She's dumped into a padded cell, and when she starts screaming and flailing around, she's strait-jacketed. That's because she's going through heroin withdrawal, as we'll learn later in the movie. However, being along in a padded cell gives Billie the opportunity to reflect on her life and figure how she got here...

Because of course the movie needs to be told in a flashback style (although in this case, the flashback reaches the present with about an hour left in the movie). Teenaged Elinore Harris, not yet Billie, is working as a cleaning girl in a brothel down in Baltimore, living with an aunt and cousins because Mom (Virginia Capers) migrated north to New York to try to make a better life for herself. One of the clients thinks Elinore is one of the prostitutes and wants to sleep with her, something Elinore definitely doesn't want. Except that the client follows her home and rapes her when she's alone.

So Elinore goes to New York, where Mom gets her a job with one of Mom's fellow parishioners, apparently not realizing that the woman is also the manager of a brothel. This time, however, Elinore decides she's going to sleep with men to get the better things in life, at least for a while. Finally, one day she realizes she's had enough, and flees to a Harlem club managed by Jerry (Sid Melton). Elinore can't dance, but she can sing, so she gets a job if she can get tips. She's greatly helped out by the piano player (Richard Pryor).

It's there that she meets Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), who seems to have done well for himself in the Harlem Renaissance without quite explaining why. He loves Elinore, who by now has taken the stage name Billie Holiday, although she doesn't yet return the favor what with all the trauma she's had in her life to this point. And God knows she's going to have a lot more trouble.

One day, Reg Hanley (James Callahan) comes to the club with an offer. Billie wants to perform downtown, but Reg realizes that you have to pay your dues to do that. He's got a band, and he'd love to have Billie as the band's singer and go on the road so that they'll get the good reviews necessary to get the big-time bookers to notice them. Of course, Reg and his band are white (although surprisingly non-racist for early 1930s New York) and part of the tour is going to go through the south.

Billie does become successful, although she also becomes addicted to heroin along the way. After the War on Drugs (not called such at the time, of course) comes after her, her dreams of performing at Carnegie Hall are in jeopardy, unless she goes back on the road together with Louis and the Piano Man.

That's a brief synopsis of the movie, although it's not necessarily a good synopsis of Holiday's life. That's because the movie, like a lot of Hollywood biopics, takes all sorts of liberties with the subject's life. I don't know as much about Holiday, so I don't know how much the producers mangled the story, although the jazz fan reviewers I've read think there's a lot of mangling going on, and that this is a huge problem. It reminds me of Young Man With a Horn in that regard. That movie stars Kirk Douglas as a jazzman supposedly based on Bix Beiderbecke, but doesn't name him that so that the movie can take more liberties. In fact, it's such a loose retelling of Beiderbecke's life that where Bix died young, Kirk Douglas lives.

I suppose that if Lady Sings the Blues were sort of based on Billie Holiday without actually giving Diana Ross' character that name, it would probably be rembered as a much better movie than the reputation it has. The thing is, Diana Ross actually does fairly well as an actress here and probably did deserve that Oscar nomination. She and Billy Dee Williams are both a fair sight better than they are in Mahogany. Ross is also, unsurprisingly, good as a singer, even if her type of singing isn't really the way the real-life Holiday interpreted the songs. Richard Pryor is excellent in a rare dramatic role.

So I think you should really give Lady Sings the Blues a try. I suppose if you're looking for authenticity, and especially if you're a jazz fan, you might have some problems with it. But if not, it's really a pretty good movie. I watched it off a DVD I bought some years back when I also picked up Mahogany, but I didn't check to see if it's still in print.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Incendiary Blonde

One of TCM's programming themes this month has been "Wonder Women", which has been biopics of women who, in one way or another, been some sort of trailblazing. It's been running on Tuesday nights into Wednesday mornings, with the biopics classified by the sort of woman being profiled. This last Tuesday deals with women who are more or less involved in entertainment (the one stretch is Song of Love, starring Katharine Hepburn as composer Robert Schumann's wife Clara Wieck). There are two movies in Tuesday night's lineup I'd like to blog about, so I'm starting today with the first of those two, Incendiary Blonde, which kicks off the night's lineup at 8:00 PM Tuesday.

Betty Hutton plays Texas Guinan, and if you read the Wikipedia article and watch the movie you can see for yourself just how accurate the movie is or isn't. The movie starts off at her funeral, with her father (played by Barry Fitzgerald) in attendance, which leads to the inevitable flashback to how "Texas" became famous in the first place. This takes us from 1933 back to 1909, at a Wild West show in Texas. One of the show's attractions involves paying $50 to any man who can ride a notorious bucking bronco. Texas is, of course, not a man, but takes up the challenge, and her winning it leads to her getting a job in the show, run by Bill Kilgannon (Arturo de Cordova).

She helps the show get publicity by hiring a midget to play a baby and crawl out on the arena ahead of a stampede, to be rescued by Texas. This does bring them fame, except that there's a newspaperman Tim Callahan (Bill Goodwin). He figures out the ruse, and parlays it into a job as the company's PR man.

This sets up the romantic conflict that runs througout the course of the film. Tim loves Texas, and the two eventually get married. But Texas has always loved Kilgannon. He would be happy marrying her, except that he's got a wife in a sanatorium that he can't get divorced from.

Tim's publicity takes Texas to New York and fame in vaudeville and the Broadway stage, but then she decides to go to Hollywood, which leads to problems as Kilgannon gets caught up in a stock deal gone wrong; as such, this sours the relationship between him and Texas and eventually results in her going back to New York.

By this time, it's Prohibition, and Texas gets a job as the headliner at a club which is taken over by gangster Joe Cadden (Albert Dekker). Texas makes the place a huge success, but unfortunately that brings the club to the attention of another bunch of gangsters, the Vettori brothers, who try to drive Cadden out of business so they can take over the place for themselves.

Meanwhile, Texas has always had a premonition that she's going to die young, something we know from her biography and the beginning of the movie does in fact happen. She sees a doctor who reveals that she's got cancer and maybe two years to live. Kilgannon's wife must have died, as he's now able to marry Texas, not knowing that she's got terminal cancer. There are also the Vettori brothers, who may kill Cadden and Kilgannon first.

Like most biopics, Incendiary Blonde takes a fair number of liberties with the truth, especially in Guinan's relationships with men. She had one legal marriage and two relationships that could probably have been called common-law marriages if the legal need arose, but the Kilgannon character doesn't seem to have been any of those men. The real-life Guinan probably was more involved in the alcohol business than the screen version, although Guinan was never convicted.

Even if the story is changed, it still works well, thanks to Betty Hutton's irrepressible personality. She's also given a lot of songs to sing, and the numbers are mostly well staged. Incendiary Blonde has a further plus in being filmed in vivid Technicolor, which works for a life story as garish as Guinan's.

As far as I could tell, I couldn't find Incendiary Blonde in print on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Marnies Let's Go woud have been more interesting

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and while TCM has been running war movies all weekend, FXM is really only getting into the holiday tomorrow morning, with four war movies. The one I haven't blogged about is Marines, Let's Go, at 1:15 PM Monday (and again 9:50 AM Tuesday).

Some narration introduces us to our stock character US Marines who are serving in Korea during the war. The five main ones are Pfc. Skip Roth (Tom Tryon); upper-class Pfc. Chatfield (David Hedison); naïve Texan Pvt. Newt Levels (David Brandon); nominal leader Sgt. Hawkins (Peter Miller); and Pfc. McCarthy (Tom Reese), nicknamed "Let's Go" because he's born for combat instead of leadership and constantly exhorts his comrades-in-arms, "Let's go!"

The whole outfit gets leave to go visit Japan at about the same time Pfc. McCarthy is set to get a promotion. Everybody else thinks the promotion is going to be terrible for him, as he's not really suited for command, so Roth spends much of the time in Japan trying to get Let's Go busted back to private. As for Hawkins, he's got the chance to have a real honeymoon with his wife; Newt has a girlfriend who he thinks of as a fiancée, Grace (Linda Hutchings), but as we'll see, she has a past.

Roth wangles a series of hotel rooms in a respectable family hotel by claiming that he and his marines are on a secret spy mission. They uses a field telephone to communicate back and forth, but military intelligence picks up these conversations and realize something is going on, although they're too stupid to figure out exactly what.

Along the way, the Marines get in some drunken fights, while Let's Go runs into three sisters who are the main attraction in a nightclub floor show and also have a sumo-wrestler brother. Let's Go finally figures out what Roth has been doing to him, and uses the wrestler to get revenge on Roth.

The marines finally get caught out and are going to get the courts-martial they so richly deserve (well, not Hawkins, who has been spending leave trying to get that honeymoon suite). But just as they're about to get their due punishment, all leaves are called off as the marines have to go back to fight in Korea, adding a roughly 20-minute epilogue onto the movie.

Marines, Let's Go is frankly a terrible movie, with the only saving grace being the location establishing shots and the fact that FXM ran the print in the proper Cinemascope aspect ratio. These marines are obnoxious (and in Newt's case, preternatuarlly stupid), making John Wayne's Spig Wead from yesterday's The Wings of Angels look like a positively normal person. They didn't just deserve court-martial; frankly a good beating from the wrestler brother would have been in order as well.

On top of that there's the gross cultural stereotypes of the Japanese and the Koreans, one of the marines having a Korean wife. Then they all get back to Korea and the battle scenes are tedious, not helped by what seems stock footage. All in all, there's just so much here that makes Marines, Let's Go not worth a watch.

Marines, Let's Go did get a DVD release courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme, and is also available for rent on Prime Video.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Wings of Eagles

This being Memorial Day weekend, TCM is running a bunch of war movies, as they always do. One that I haven't blogged about before is The Wings of Eagles, which is on tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 PM.

John Wayne plays Frank W. "Spig" Wead (1895-1947). At the start of the movie, Spig is stationed at the naval base in Pensacola, FL, where he's interested in combining naval operations with flight, something which was new in the early 1920s. His attempt to fly solo is a disaster, nearly getting him court-martialed, something which bothers his long-suffering wife Min (Maureen O'Hara).

Then the Army announces it's going to do the first round-the-world flight and Spig and his buddies, not wanting the Army to win, try to convince the Navy to sanction a similar flight that will beat the Army to the punch; all of this is more of an excuse to have Wayne and friends engage in fight scenes with the folks playing Army men.

Along the way, there's family strife for Spig. First, his infant son dies; then, his being away from Min all the time causes more problems since she's left to take care of the two other kids pretty much by herself. It's going to get even worse when Spig returns home one night to celebrate a promotion. He trips and falls down the stairs, resulting in his being paralyzed.

Slowly, he learns to walk again but clearly can't return to military service, so he winds up with a second career as a screen writer (The Wings of Eagles was released by MGM and the clip we see is of Wallace Beery and Clark Gable in Hell Divers, written by Wead and released by... MGM). This goes well until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Spig wants to contribute to the aircraft carrier problem.

Spig Wead sounds like a really interesting character; as such, it's only natural that Hollywood should eventually make a biopic about him. Unfortunately, The Wings of Eagles is the biopic we get. I found that this movie has two big problems: star John Wayne and director John Ford. I don't necessarily dislike John Wayne, but felt like he was the wrong person to play Wead. Not so much because Wayne was pushing 50 and Wead was much younger for most of the events depicted, but because this movie has John Wayne being John Wayne, which just doesn't work here.

Add to that the direction from John Ford. I've found myself having a diffident attitude to a lot of his post-war movies, and that stems from what I would describe as a ham-fisted bravado that permeates a lot of Ford's later movies. In the case of The Wings of Eagles, that manifests itself in the movie developing really slowly, with the opening scenes in Pensacola going on way too long, as well as the fight scenes between the Army and Navy, all of which just make Wead look like a jerk.

As always, however, you may want to judge for yourself, as there are a lot of other people who really like The Wings of Eagles. It did get a DVD release from the Warner Archive Collection, although it's another one that the TCM Shop oddly claimed is on backorder the last time I checked. You can get it off of Amazon, or which it on Prime Video if you do the streaming thing.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Briefs for May 22-23, 2020

I didn't think to look until this afternoon what tonight's TCM lineup is, and it's one that looks interesting, being three Rankin/Bass (the folks responsible for the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) movies that are new to me. Unfortunately, I don't have enough room on my DVR for them.

Tomorrow starts Memorial Day weekend, which means we get a bunch of war movies on TCM. We're going to get a few on FXM, but only on Monday from 6AM to 3PM. So be prepared for a couple of war movies in the upcoming reviews. (I also missed TCM's showing of Underground back on the 14th; I had recently watched an earlier airing of it and didn't realize it was going to be on again so soon or I would have blogged about it then.)

The other genre that's going to be showing up a bit frequently in my upcoming posts is the biopic, as I've got one planned for the Memorial Day war films and there are some others running on TCM's Tuesday night lineup of amazing women.

I think I may finally get around to cleaning up my blogroll this weekend, adding a blog or two and seeing if any have gone dormant. I've been meaning to do it for a while.

Personal Maid's Secret

Warner Bros. made a lot of good programmers and B movies in the 1930s. Among them is Personal Maid's Secret.

Ruth Donnelly plays the personal maid, a woman named Lizzie who works for a wealthy family along with butler Owen (Arthur Treacher). Or, should I say, a formerly wealthy family, since they haven't been able to pay her wages for some months. (At least they get room and board, I suppose.) So Lizzie decides she's going to quit and look for greener pastures elsewhere.

She goes to an employment agency, where she meets Joan Smith (Margaret Lindsay), a wife and mother in need of a maid. Lizzie wants more than Joan can afford, but the two women come to an agreement that Lizzie will take less in salary than she wanted while Joan will pay more than she was willing to; with this, Lizzie goes off to work for Joan and her husband Jimmy (Warren Hull). Owen doesn't think this is going to work, and shows up from time to time for a bit of comic relief.

Jimmy is an insurance salesman who works on commission and has hopes of getting the bigger policies which will earn much higher commissions. There's a catch, however, in that with the Smiths' modest means, they may not be able to meet the sort of people who are likely to buy the big-money policies. Lizzie has the brilliant idea of getting the Smiths to "invest", using their savings to make them appear wealthier than they are, and thereby gaining access to a richer clientele.

It works, and the Smiths move up in the economic world. It brings them, especially Joan's brother Kent (Frank Albertson), into contact with Diana (Anita Louise), a young woman who's recently returned from finishing school in Europe. Diana gets involved in a love triangle with Kent and an already married man Sherrill who is only going to take on Diana as a mistress. Here Lizzie gets to be helpful again, solving everybody's problems including her own.

As I said at the beginning, Personal Maid's Secret is one of Warner Bros. B movies, running a very brief 58 minutes. But thanks to the professionalism of the studio system and the presence of Donnelly, this one turns into an eminently watchable little movie. It all strains credulity at times with the idea of the Smiths being able to afford Lizzie and then suddenly moving into a higher economic stratum. But the movie does work for the most part.

Personal Maid's Secret did get a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive. But I personally think it's the sort of movie that really should have been part of a box set, those having lower per-movie prices than the standalone Archive Collection movies. I'm just not certain what sort of box set Warner Home Video could have packaged it in.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #306: Great final films of actors and actresses

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "Great Final Films of Actors/Actresses". Note that it says "Great", not "Memorable", so I couldn't use

Joan Crawford in Trog (1970). Instead, I picked three other movies with great actresses in great roles, although I'll also admit to having used one of them over two years ago:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Actress: Renée Jeanne Falconetti. To be fair, this was more or less her only movie, having appeared in one silent a decade earlier. The movie focuses on the trial of Joan of Arc (Falconetti) after she had led the French to victory in the battle of Orléans and ticked off certain sectors of the Catholic Church. Falconetti is outstanding and the cinematography by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, is tremendous too.

The Whales of August (1987). Actress: Lillian Gish (although it's also the final completed performance for Bette Davis, I believe, she having done a few days' filming on one more movie before her death). Gish and Davis play elderly sisters returning to their summer cottage in Maine in the 1950s for one final time, Davis being wheelchair-bound and nearly blind. They have a neighbor in Oscar-nominated Ann Sothern, and add a fourth in putative Russian émigré nobleman Vincent Price, the baby of the cast at 75.

To Be or Not to Be (1942). Actress: Carole Lombard. Lombard plays a Polish actress married to Jack Benny; they're forced to do Hamlet instead of the satire of Hitler they intended for political reasons. Every time Hamlet starts his soliloquy, Polish airman Robert Stack goes to see Lombard in her dressing room, he being in love with her. The Nazis invade and Stack goes off to England, eventually parachuted in for a secret mission and meeting up with Lombard, Benny, and their troupe again. Lombard was killed in a plane crash on a war bonds tour in early 1942, so this movie was released posthumously, and as I understand it wasn't successful at the time because audiences weren't ready for this sort of comedy during the war.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Gambler from Natchez

A movie that recently showed up in the FXM rotation is The Gambler from Natchez. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 10:05 AM and again Friday at 8:35 AM.

The first thing I noticed is that the print wasn't in Cinemascope, despite being released in 1954. That, and the "Panoramic Productions" title card. It turns out that the movie was not made in Cinemascope and only distributed by Fox, so the 4:3 aspect ratio and pillarboxing are correct here.

Dale Robertson plays Capt. Vance Colby, an Army captain returning to New Orleans after four years serving under Sam Houston, setting the movie sometime in the 1830s or 1840s. Vance's father is a riverboat gambler, and Vance learned quite a few things from Dad, as we see when he defeats another gambler on a riverboat. It's there that he also meets Melanie Barbee (Debra Paget), daughter of the captain of a decrepit riverboat (Thomas Gomez).

After getting off the boat and heading off to see Dad, his carriage trip is interrupted by a young woman caught in the rain, Ivette Rivage (Lisa Daniels). Ivette lives with her wealthy brother André (Kevin McCarthy), who it turns out has a relationship with Vance's father, although Vance doesn't know this yet.

When Vance finally goes to meet Dad, he's disappointed. Dad, you see, has recently been killed, by a gambler who clearly planted a false marked deck on the elder Colby. Dad had recently decided to get out of the actual gambling side of the gambling business, and instead go into business by running a riverboat that offered gambling and raking off the profits. Vance's father was to go into business with Rivage and two of Rivage's friends, and it seems clear that they set Colby up to be murdered.

So Vance wants revenge, and as you can probably guess from a movie like this, is eventually going to be able to get that revenge, with the climactic fight being against Rivage since Kevin McCarthy's name is much higher in the credits than the other guys.

The Gambler from Natchez is a pedestrian little movie, one that's not terrible but also not particularly great. Robertson doesn't have a notable screen presence, which probably explains why he never became a big star. Still, this is the sort of material that is a serviceable time-passer if you've got a rainy night and a bowl of popcorn.

The Gambler from Natchez has apparently received a DVD release courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Don't be artificial

A few months back, TCM ran a night of movies directed by pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. The night included a new-to-TCM documentary, Be Natural: The Alice Guy-Blaché Story. Obviously not having seen it before, and being interested in such stories about old moviemaking, I DVRed it and recently sat down to watch it.

Alice Guy (1873-1968) was a daughter in a middle-class French family who, in the early 1890s, got a job with a company making cameras and camera supplies run in part by Louis Gaumont. When the Lumières had their exhibition of moving pictures in 1895, Guy was in attendance with Gaumont, and thought she could do better by putting narrative stories on film. Gaumont allowed her to do this, since part of the plan was to use these films as an advertisement for the equipment the Gaumont company was making. (Humorously, the one catch was that Guy could only do it as long as it didn't interfere with her day job!)

Her first narrative film proved to be a success, and it led to basically being head of production for the Gaumont studio, where she directed hundreds of short films until 1906, when she was sent abroad and met Herbert Blaché, whom she would marry. The two of them were assigned to the US, which eventually led Alice to found the Solax studio in Fort Lee, NJ, since filmmaking had mostly not yet moved to Hollywood. (I mentioned regarding the Pioneer Cinematogrphers documentary TCM ran last November that some filmmakers had decamped to Hollywood to escape Edison's patent attorneys.) Solax and Guy's marriage both eventually failed, and in 1922 Guy headed back to France, never to make another movie.

But the story doesn't end there. For quite a few reasons, Guy fell into obscurity. Her films didn't have one of the big moneyed studios behind them, and were tough to find; she went back to France; other filmmakers promoted themselves better; and so on. At some point well before this documentary was conceived, she began to get a bit of her due, as I had certainly heard of her by the time TCM ran her Algie the Miner as part of the Gay Images on Film series back in, I think, 2007. Falling Leaves might have aired even earlier; I can't remember. But there are always new things to learn in researching such early days in the film industry.

Director Pamela Green proceeded to try to find that information to complete the story of Alice Guy-Blaché, and that's the other half of the documentary. It was tough to find relatives, since even Guy's grandchildren would be elderly now if even still alive. But Green found some, as well as descendants of some of the people who had worked with Guy and had archival information available to help tell the story. (One thing I found interesting as a fan of game shows that are often languishing on old media, but may not appeal to everybody, is the story of how an interview with Guy's daughter is on an old video format that's difficult to restore.) There are also some interviews, a few on film and one audio-only interview, with Guy herself near the end of her life.

Be Natural is an excellent and engaging documentary that should be of interest to anybody who has an interest in the dawn of moviemaking. If there's one quibble I have, it's that the latter stages of the movie go too far in my opinion in arguing that Guy fell into obscurity because she was a woman. Guy was a pioneering filmmaker not because she was a woman, but because everybody making movies at that time was a pioneer. Alicia Malone and her guest who did the intro to the documentary mentioned that D.W. Griffith did a lot of self-promotion which might have something to do with why he's got such an outsized place in movie history (the other part, I'd argue, has to do with Griffith donating copies of his movies to the Museum of Modern Art which is why more of his silents survive than most people's). But there are lots of other male moviemakers who wound up in obscurity too. I also can't help but wonder whether people would be taking as much interest in Guy if it were a male Alex Guy and they couldn't play the "woman filmmaker" angle. But that's really only a minor quibble.

Be Natural is available on DVD at Amazon, although the TCM Shop only has it on backorder. You can also watch it streaming via Prime Video.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Listening to the winds of change

During one of the previous free preview weekends for Epix, I had the chance to record Gorky Park. It's going to be on again multiple times this week, starting tomorrow afternoon at 3:50 PM on Epix Hits (and again Friday on Epix 2 and Saturday on Epix).

One winter's night near the skating rink in Moscow's Gorky Park, somebody runs across three decomposing bodies, which is of course disconcerting. The militsiya, the local civil police (not a "militia", and a four-syllable word, despite everybody in the movie calling it the "militia"), led by Arkday Renko (William Hurt), is called in. Renko is the son of a World War II hero and good at what he does, although on previous cases he's butted heads with the KGB, something that really worries him.

He's going to have good reason to be worried, as the three bodies are clearly murder victims, with their faces and fingertips cut off so as to make identification that much more difficult. There are still small bits of evidence, with a couple of them being surprising. One is a pair of ice skates which have a woman's name on them. Renko goes to see that woman, Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula). She's unsurprisingly evasive in her answers.

The other surprising clue is that one of the dead men has dyed red hair, and dental work using materials not currently used in Europe, identifying this man as likely American. This means a posible international incident. Indeed, Renko is invited to visit the dacha of Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, where he meets American furrier Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), who has been importing Russian sable, one of the finest furs. There are also people from the KGB there, worrying Renko even more.

Osborne turns out not to be the only American Renko meets. One day he gets waylaid by somebody who beats the crap out of him, and in investigating further, winds up at a hotel for foreigners where he makes his way to the hotel room of one William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy). On going through Kirwill's stuff (no search warrant here, this not being the US), he finds information on the triple murder case, and parts that assemble together to make a gun -- but then Kirwill walks into his room!

It turns out that Kirwill is a police detective from New York City, and that the dead American is most likely Kirwill's kid brother James, who had studied in Moscow and who wanted to help people defect from the USSR, a very dangerous game indeed. Renko decides eventually to accept whatever help Kirwill could give him despite being constrained by being a foreigner in Moscow.

Renko also discovers that Osborne and the KGB may well be involved in the triple murders, as the three were building a chest that could hide religious icons being smuggled out of the country. Perhaps this could allow Renko to crack the case wide open, but then, there's still the KBG to deal with....

Gorky Park is a well-constructed mystery, at least up until the third act, as a longish final act is tacked on that I felt made the story bog down. Still the acting is uniformly good and nobody really tries to recreate a phony Russian accent, which is also a plus. This having been made in the Soviet era, they obviously couldn't film in Moscow, so Helsinki stands in and mostly does a good job other than a few buildings that didn't look Russian to me at all.

Gorky Park is definitely worth a watch. It's been released on DVD with TCM having it as part of a set of three movies and Amazon having the standalone DVD. Amazon also has it on Prime Video if you can do that.

Briefs for May 18-19, 2020

Tonight's lineup on TCM is "College Musicals", a genre that isn't always my favorite, especially when it includes something like June Allyson and Peter Lawford in Good News (overnight at 3:15 AM). But one of the movie is Too Many Girls, which I recommended ages ago and which I really like. This movie, which has Desi Arnaz playing a college football player(!) who with a couple of other stars (including Eddie Bracken) is sent to a cow college to spy on Lucille Ball, shows up at 1:30 AM. Bracken gets to dance with Ann Miller and is great. The movie got a DVD release ages ago but seems to be out of print. You can find it on Prime Video however.

I should have mentioned a couple of deaths over the past week, which you've probably heard of by now. Jerry Stiller died last week at 92; I had forgotten that he has a small role in The Taking of Pelham One, Two Three:

Fred Willard died over the weekend at the age of 86 (although some sources claim he was only 80). He was in several of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, such as This Is Spinal Tap:

Finally, I notice that French actor Michel Piccoli died this morning aged 94. The name seemed familiar although I couldn't remember offhand where I'd seen him. It turns out he's in several well-known movies, starting with playing Brigitte Bardot's husband in Contempt. There are English-language movies like Peter Ustinov's Lady L and Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz. Back in his native France he was also Danielle Darrieux's fiancé who runs a music stor in The Young Girls of Rochefort and appeared in some of Luis Buñuel's films like Belle du Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

(Sorry I couldn't find a subtitled version.)

Sunday, May 17, 2020


Some time back, during one of the free preview weekends, I DVRed In Bruges. It's available on DVD, and is going to be on One or another of the HBO channels later this week, so I recently sat down to watch it and do a review of it here.

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are a couple of hitmen from the UK who have been sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, who isn't seen until after an hour into the movie) to Bruges in Belgium at Christmastime because of a hit gone bad. Or at least, that's as much as they know; Ray was recently involved in a bad hit and Harry sent the two of them to Bruges without further explanation. The two are to spend two weeks there until Harry can get in touch with them.

Neither of them want to be in Bruges; indeed, they didn't have much idea where the place even was before they were sent to Bruges. They don't speak the language, although fortunately, more people speak English now than did when I was in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium where Bruges is located) two decades before the movie was made. But, the two make the best of it, trying to take in a little of the culture.

Bruges is a city close enough to the coast that it was a natural hub for commerce, which enabled it to become fairly wealthy and develop a beautiful town center that in more recent years became a magnet for tourism, to the point that the center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, so if you're willing, there's a lot to see. And eventually, the town does begin to have a bit of a magical effect on the two hitmen.

They're helped by the fact that they run into a movie shoot involving a dwarf named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) and one of the behind-the-camera crew, Chloë (Clémence Poésy). Ray especially strikes up a relationship with both of them, although this becomes fraught with problems as Chloë has a former boyfriend Eirik who is extremely jealous. Ray gets in further trouble when he's on a dinner date with Chloë and a Canadian tourist couple complains about her smoking, leading to a fight.

Meanwhile, there's the little matter of Harry. He finally gets in touch with Ken, telling Ken the real reason for sending him and Ray to Bruges. During that botched hit, which was supposed to be on a priest, Ray did shoot the priest, but in a way that left an altar boy witness. Ray decides to eliminate the evidence, which means offing the innocent boy, and that's a huge no-no. So Ken has to kill Ray, something he is now reluctant to do. Harry is eventually going to come to Bruges to make certain Ken has completed his job....

In Bruges is a movie that's lovely to look at, thanks to the natural beauty of Bruges. It would have been hard to go wrong filming there. But to be honest, I did have a few problems with the movie. The basic story is quite good, although it bogs down a bit near the end and the actual resolution of the story is something that I found a bit unrealistic. There's also a fair bit of speechifying that bogs down the movie at times as well.

Viewers should also be aware that In Brugs is filled with violence and bad language, although I'd point out that you should probably expect that from a latter-day movie about a pair of hitmen and their vengeful boss. It didn't bother me, althuogh I suppose there are some people who might find it uncomfortable.

In Bruges is a movie that, if you haven't seen it before, you probably should, and I can definitely recommend it.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Never So Few

Another of my recent watches off the DVR was Never So Few. It's another of those movies that's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

The scene is Burma in 1943, which as you should know from your history means World War II is still raging, in this case a part of the Asian theater which doesn't get quite as much mention from Hollywood movies as the Pacific or Europe. The local Kachin rebels, led by Nautaung (Philip Ahn), are getting help from the British, under Capt. De Mortimer (Richard Johnson), and US OSS (forerunner of the CIA) officer Captain Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra).

However, it's difficult work as the Kachin are out in the middle of nowhere meaning that support from the higher-ups is patchy at best. Specifically, one of Reynolds' underlings gets a wound that's not going to heal because of a lack of medicine, forcing Reynolds to shoot the guy! He then goes off to Calcutta, where western headquarters are, to try to get more medicine.

It's there that Reynolds meets Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida). Unsurprisingly, the two fall in love, although this is a bit of a problem what with the war going on and the fact that is technically the girlfriend of arms dealer Regas (Paul Henried) already. Still, the two see each other when they can. The trip to Calcutta is also a chance for Reynolds to get a new aide, Ringa (Steve McQueen).

The war goes on back in Burma, and Reynolds gets injured in a Japanese attack that surprised them to the point that the only possible explanation is that the Japanese got information from a Kachin embedded with the US and British forces! This is bad enough for Reynolds, but things go from bad to worse when he's ordered to engage in an operation with Chinese support, but the Chinese seemingly turn on them too, or at least don't provide the agreed-to support. So Reynolds turns on the Chinese, which is really going to get him into trouble.

It's fairly easy to see where the filmmakers were trying to go with Never So Few, but in my mind they didn't really quite succeed. I think that's a lot because the movie is more drama than action, and goes on too long at 124 minutes. It really feels like a very slow 124 minutes. The movie also has a formulaic feel as though it's not treading any new ground, only contributing further to the slow feeling.

Still, Never So Few is definitely a movie that fans of war movies or Sinatra or Steve McQueen are going to find of some interest to them. It's just absolutely not the first movie I'd select to recommend to people new to any of those.

Friday, May 15, 2020

After Mel Brooks' The 12 Chairs....

Another of my recent movie watches was the 1937 version of The 13th Chair. The movie is a remake of a 1929 movie, and the two are available together on DVD.

There's been a murder in Calcutta in the days of British India, and London has sent out Scotland Yard detective Inspector Marney (Lewis Stone) to investigate and see if he can find out who the murderer is. The house where the murder occurred has been kept locked, but when Marney goes into the house, he finds a man waiting for him, one John Wales (Henry Daniell). Apparently this man was a friend of the dead man, but his presence at the crime scene makes him an obvious suspect.

Wales knows who's who among the British in Calcutta, which Marney doesn't, so Wales comes up with a daft plan to find who the killer is. He'll invite a whole bunch of people together for a séance; some of them are the prime suspects while others are just friends along for the ride so that the suspects don't realize until it's too late to back out what the séance is all about. The séance is to be conducted by Madame La Grange (Dame May Whitty), who mostly does séances for entertainment but insists that she really does have the power of a medium to see into the next world.

If you've watched enough 1930s movies, you'll probably recognizes some of the participants in the séance, notably Elissa Landi and Madge Evans. Anyhow, Mme. La Grange insists on having the séance held in the dark, with all of the participants holding hands. Somebody suspects this means La Grange herself might be up to no good, so she agrees to be tied to her chair so as to avoid suspicion. But we still know something is going to happen at the séance....

That something is one of the participants getting bumped off, stabbed in the back, although where's the murder weapon. And why is everybody still holding hands? The only way to solve the second murder is to come up with something even more daft, which is a second séance, which does work with one of the oldest tricks in the book. Not that you didn't expect the detective to solve the case, this being a Code-era movie.

The 13th Chair is a perfect example of a 1930s programmer, this one from MGM. It runs a whopping 66 minutes, but has a couple of higher-tier stars in Stone and Whitty. It's extremely competently made and for the most part entertains, although if you really want it's not that difficult to poke holes in the mystery. So while it's nothing that will be long remembered, it's certainly another worthwhile watch.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #305: Girls Trip

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "Girls' Trip". Now, I'm assuming that this is supposed to mean a pair of girlfriends, or a larger group, going on a journey together. But as the blogger who does these things differently, I had a blinding flash of inspiration and decided to take this one in a completely different direction, even though I've probably used two of these movies recently:

The Thin Man (1934). Myrna Loy, playing Nora Charles, trips on making her entrance; after finding her husband Nick (William Powell), she proceeds to emulate him and order six martinis. The two then go on to solve the murder of Edward Ellis, who is actually the titular thin man in this movie, not Nick Charles.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Gene Tierney plays an extremely jealous woman who will do anything to keep anybody (notably half-sister Jeanne Crain) from getting between her and husband Cornel Wilde. This includes tripping herself down a flight of stairs so that she'll kill her unborn baby who would have taken attention away from her.

The Big Cube (1968). Lana Turner is sent on an acid trip by her evil stepdaughter Karin Mossberg, and the daughter's chemistry-practicing boyfriend George Chakiris. This because Mommy won't let her new step-daughter marry the boyfriend. This one is memorably awful, trying to appeal to the changing mores of the late 1960s and failing spectacularly.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Countdown (1968)

Er, not that "Countdown"

Another of my recent movie viewings was the vintage sci-fi movie Countdown. It being available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive (as well as on Amazon Prime Video for people who can do that), you're getting the review now.

To be honest, Countdown has a fairly straightforward plot. It's the late 1960s, when NASA has just started the Apollo program which of course in real history would go to put the first man on the moon about a year and a half after the movie's American release. But at the time the movie was made, there was still the space race with the Soviet Union.

Robert Duvall is Chiz, an astronaut who would make a logical candidate to be on the first mission to the moon, as he knows the various spacecraft inside and out. But a problem comes up. Intelligence gets wind that the Soviets are planning a mission to the moon that would beat the Americans there. Now, NASA (at least in the movie) had a special contingency plan for this, something that would involve sending one man to the moon on a one-way trip, to stay there in an already launched shelter module, until NASA can send an Apollo mission since those preparations take some time.

Now, I don't think I'd want to go on a mission like that, but Chiz would certainly be willing to do it. However, the word from intelligence about the Soviet mission is that it's going to be sending civilian scientists. All of the NASA astronauts had been military (I think every one of them had beeen Air Force pilots, much like Yuri Gagarin had been in the Soviet Union). Sending Chiz up wouldn't do because NASA think that it would be better PR to beat the Soviet civilian mission with a civilian mission of their own.

NASA decide on lunar geologist Lee Stegler (James Caan) for the mission, which as I said isn't going to be an easy one. Chiz starts training him, and understandably isn't sanguine about Lee's chances as they only have a few short weeks to prepare if they want to beat the Soviets. Still, it's a matter of national prestige, so they prepare.

Eventually, the day for the launch comes, and Lee goes off into space while his wife Mickey (Joanna Moore) stays at mission control to follow the mission. Unsurprisingly, the mission runs into technical glitches, because without those you wouldn't really have much of a movie, would you?

The plot of Countdown is a fairly simple one, and you can probably guess what's going to happen as it goes along. Still, it's very competently made, thanks in part to the direction by Robert Altman, who hadn't yet developed his later style yet. Caan and Duvall both do well, and it's interesting to see Ted Knight in a non-comic role as the press secretary who handles the press conferences.

If you want to sit back and be entertained by vintage science fiction, you could do a lot worse than to watch Countdown.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Winning Team

With rumblings going on about when the baseball season is finally going to begin after all the state governors' cower in place orders, I recently watched The Winning Team, which was on the TCM schedule back in March when the baseball season was originally scheduled to begin.

The story is a biopic, more or less of Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the great pitchers of the pre-All-Star Game era. Ronald Reagan plays the pitcher, who at the start of the movie is in his early 20s, working as a lineman out in his native Nebraska. But his baseball prowess is also well-known, as he's asked to pitch for the locals against a barnstorming team.

This produces all sorts of problems. Grover loves to pitch, and the team needs him, but he's also got a girlfriend Aimee Arrants (Doris Day) whom he's about to ask to marry him; the ultimate plan is to buy a farm and settle down. But having to go to town to pitch is going to make him miss his dinner with Aimee and really piss off her Dad. The game also brings Grover to the attention of professional baseball scouts.

Eventually, Grover is offered a tryout and a minor league contract, and he hopes to be able to make enough money to buy that farm and settle down. However, during one game he gets hit in the head by a batted ball, which it is feared will leave him blind. Instead, it "only" leaves him with double vision, which is still bad enough and clearly going to prevent him from pitching, until by miracle his pitching improves.

He starts his Major League career with the Philadelphia Phillies, taking time off to serve in World War I, which is another disaster when he suffers from a mustard gas attack and winds up with epilepsy (not actually called that in the movie). When he suffers an attack during a game, he turns to drink, which sends his career into a downward spiral, although he gets a chance to redeem himself when his old friend Rogers Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy) wants him on the St. Louis Cardinals, who are part of the 1926 pennant chase.

OK, some of what is portrayed in The Winning Team is what happened more or less, while some is badly moved around and some made up for dramatic effect. As I understand it, Alexander was already an alcoholic before World War I, although that wouldn't have made for as good a movie. His move to St. Louis is also handled differently (in reality, Alexander was sold on waivers and the barnstorming we see actually occurred in the 1930s). And the 1926 World Series ended differently in real life.

Still, Ronald Reagan is appealing enough, even if he's way to old for the part in the first half of the movie. (Alexander was 39 during the 1926 World Series and in his early 1920s during the beginning; Reagan was 41.) Doris Day shows she can handle drama, and the supporting actors all do a creditable job. Watch for a very young Russ Tamblyn (during his days credited as Rusty) as Grover's kid brother.

Even with its historical inaccuracies, The Winning Team is worth a watch as an example of the studio system's production of biopics. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Pennies from Heaven

Bernadette Peters, Steve Martin, and Jessica Harper in a promotional still from Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Tonight's lineup on TCM is several movies incorporating tap dancing, including a new-to-me documentary kicking the night off at 8:00 PM. The night concludes early tomorrow at 4:00 AM (or overnight in more westerly time zones with Pennies from Heaven.

Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, who lives in 1934 Chicago with his wife Joan (Jessica Parker). It's a marriage on the rocks, however, as there's a depression going on and Arthur's job as a seller of sheet music doesn't earn much. He's got dreams of owning a store of his own, but the only way he could do that is to use his wife's inheritance as collateral, something he's unwilling to do. So he leads a life of quite desperation, going around his territory in east-central Illinois.

One time out on the road he meets a couple of people. The first is a blind accordion player (Vernon Bagneris) who will become an important plot point later in the story. The second comes when he's trying to sell a store owner some sheet music. A teacher comes in looking for part songs for a children's choir, something that unfortunately Arthur doesn't have. But Arthur sees her from a distance and finds her beautiful, and knows that he's got to see this woman again, despite the fact that he's already married.

Arthur does a bit of research and finds that this teacher is one Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters), who teaches at the local elementary school and lives in a farmhouse outside of town with her parents, she becoming a spinster. The two meet and fall in love -- and the feeling is mutual -- even though Arthur lies through his teeth about already being married. Still, the two are enough in love that they decide to have sex, and having sex just the one time is still enough to get Eileen pregnant, which of course is going to lead to problems between Arthur and Joan, as well as for Eileen when she loses her job as a result and goes out on the road looking for Arthur.

Meanwhile, Arthur runs into a nice blind girl by an underpass, but it's just a chance encounter. Later, the accordionist winds up there, and when the blind girl runs into him, the accordionist kills her. But there's circumstantial evidence linking Arthur to the scene, and once the police figure out he's got some sort of relationship with "loose" woman Eileen, Arthur is going to be in serious trouble.

The traditional, if you will, plot of Pennies from Heaven could have made a pretty good movie. However, the producers had a different idea in mind when they came up with this movie. That was to make an homage to the musicals of the 1930s, by having characters fantasize about escaping the Depression through 1930s-era stylized musical numbers, with the main actors mostly lip-syncing to the songs. The idea is something that reminded me of the movie The Boy Friend from about a decade earlier. I had problems with The Boy Friend, but I think the musical fantasy conceit works better there than it does here, in part because the "real world" setting of the earlier movie is a group of actors trying to put on a musical; inserting musical numbers into a backstage movie does make sense. Here, it really didn't work. It doesn't help that the early 1980s look at the 1930s looked too sterile, as evidenced by the photo above.

Pennies from Heaven was a commercial flop at the time it was released, and frankly, it's easy to see why. Even though I didn't particularly like it, I still think it's one that probably should be seen once, in part because there are people who are probably going to like the idea of using musical fantasy numbers to advance the story. Pennies from Heaven is also available on DVD and I believe Amazon streaming, so you can also watch it that way.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Every now and then, TCM likes to run a morning and afternoon of "creature feature" movies, silly horror movies mostly from the 1950s. During one of the recent blocks of such movies, they ran one that's often considered to be a better film in the genre, Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Carl Maia (Nestor Paiva) is a scientist doing research work in the upper reaches of Brazil's Amazon rainforest, and it's there that he happens upon a really weird fossil. It's something that's got claws making it look humanoid, but is also obviously an amphibian. Unfortunately, finding the rest of the fossil, if it even exists, is something that's going to take more manpower and more money. So he goes back down the river to whichever big city is the headquarters for the institute that handles oceanography and its freshwater equivalent.

There, he meets old student Dr. Reed (Richard Carlson). Reed is down in South America researching lungfish, and when he hears about what Maia has found, he wants to go up the river to do research of his own and help to dig out the fossil. But there's still the matter of the money to do it. Helping in that regard is Dr. Williams (Richard Denning) and assistant Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams, billed as Julia). Williams also has a company with the money to finance any further expedition, from which he hopes to profit.

After getting back to where they found the original fossil, it's determined that the sediments would have come down the river from a legendary place called the Black Lagoon. So the boat is going to have to set off for that lagoon. But at the same time, a mysterious creature comes out of the water and kills two of the grunt workers in their tent!

In spite of that, the research party goes up the river, eventually finding that there is some sort of "missing link" creature. Reed wants to capture it for research, while Williams wants to make money exhibiting it King Kong style. To do the latter is going to put everybody at risk, however, especially when the creature takes a liking to the lovely Kay....

Creature from the Black Lagoon isn't a bad movie, and it certainly is a cut above a lot of the other creature features of the era. But at the same time, I couldn't get past how bad the guy in the rubber suit playing the Creature looked. That, and all the tropes which you can't even argue this movie helped create considering that some of them reminded me of King Kong. Still, for anybody who likes 1950s scifi, Creature of the Black Lagoon is definitely entertaining, and absolutely more than worth a watch.

The movie's popularity spawned two sequels. Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on DVD both as a stand-alone, and in a set with the other two movies in the series.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Why is everybody thinking of Crisis?

A movie that started showing up in the FXM rotation recently is Intent to Kill, another movie I had never heard of. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 7:40 AM and again on Monday May 11 at 6:00 AM, so I DVRed it and watched it to do a review here.

Juan Menda (Herbert Lom) is a South American leader who apparently has a lot of enemies in his unnamed home country, as he was attacked some time back and suffered some sort of brain injury that finally requires him to seek medical attention, which he's doing at a hospital in Montreal under the assumed name Martin. The assumed name is because he's understandably worried that the people who attacked him before are going to attack him again.

Menda is right about that, but more on that later. The brian surgery Menda needs is going to be performed by Bob McLaurin (Richard Todd), a British-born doctor working in Canada. His wife Margaret (Katie Boyle) is unhappy with that relationship, and she's also convinced that one of the female doctors at the hospital, Dr. Ferguson (Betsy Drake), has the hots for Bob. So Mrs. McLaurin wants her husband to go back to England and become the sort of society doctor that Robert Donat became in The Citadel.

I said that Menda was right to fear for his life. That's because there are three hired assassins, led by Finch (Warren Stevens), who are planning to do Menda in in exchange for a large sum of money. (They're actually distressed by the possibility that Menda could die on the operating table anyway, since that means they wouldn't get their money!) The plan is to dress one of the men up as a doctor, send him into Menda's room, and inject him with an air embolism, which will give Menda a heart attack with the doctors having no clue that he was in fact murdered.

Menda is no dummy, however. He has reason to be concerned about the room he's in, so gets his room changed, whereupon the person who gets put into that room is given the fatal air embolism. The doctors discover this mostly because the unfortunate victim only had a slipped disc that shouldn't have caused a heart attack like this, unlike brain surgery might.

As all of this is happening, Mrs. McLaurin is turning up the heat on her husband, threatening to go to Bob's boss (Alexander Knox) and tell him about the affair even though it's a pack of lies. But to be fair, it turns out that Dr. Ferguson has held a torch for Dr. McLaurin, and with this stressful situation, McLaurin finds that he could fall in love with Ferguson too.

The theme of performing brain surgery on a South American leader, and the presence of Betsy Drake in the cast, but give an obvious vibe of the earlier movie Crisis, in which Cary Grant plays a doctor forced into doing the brain surgery (Drake was married to Grant for a time). The similarities end there. I think Crisis is much the better movie, but Intent to Kill is not exactly a bad movie, either.

Sure, Intent to Kill has problems, in that the giant subplot of Dr. McLaurin's personal life is way overdone. It also looks like it was done on a low budget, having been filmed in Montreal but with mostly British and American stars. The fact that FXM showed a panned-and-scanned print doesn't help, either. But it's a nice enough suspense movie with a good surprise at the end.

I don't think Intent to Kill got a DVD release, so you're going to have to catch the FXM showings.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Truck Busters

TCM has been running a bunch of short (right around an hour) B movies as part of the Saturday matinee block. One that I hadn't seen before is Truck Busters, which has an interesting enough plot, so recently I watched it.

The movie was released in 1943, which is during World War II, of course, a time which came with any number of economic hardships for the war effort. One of those was a curtailment of the production of automobiles and domestic trucks in exchange for the factories churning out tanks. This was going to hurt those truckers who couldn't maintain their trucks, and as is the case with all regulation, it served as a barrier to entry for the little guys and would leave the market with a few consolidated actors, much easier for the government to control (which of course is the purpose of all regulation).

The Dorgan brothers, Casey (Richard Travis) and Jimmy (Charles Lang) are the nominal head of the independent truckers in their neck of the woods, the two co-owning a truck and driving it together, one keeping up driving while the other sleeps. Like a lot of the truckers, they've got payments to make on their trucks and if they could pay off on a new truck before the end of production, great.

The big guys want to stop that, and with that in mind come up with the idea of buying up the finance company and calling in as many of the truckers' loans as they can so that when the truckers can't pay, they can just send in repo men. They get Bonetti (Don Costello), who seems like a gangster, to buy the finance company and run it. And when the truckers keep on trucking, he's going to resort to violence.

Now, Casey has a girlfriend in former waitress Eadie (Virginia Christine) while Jimmy has a wife in Peggy (Ruth Ford), who is about to tell him she's pregnant, which is a sure sign that she's going to end up a widow with a now fatherless child. Sure enough, the thugs drive the Dorgans off the road, killing Jimmy in the accident. Casey wants to take the law into his own hands.

Truck Busters is one of those Warner Bros. B movies that's pretty good as far as B movies go. No big names here, and no new territory; again it's the sort of material that in the 1950s would have been fodder for a TV episode of some sort (probably a private eye trying to help the truckers against the gangsters or something similar). But it's more than entertaining enough, packing a decent amount of action into its just under an hour running time.

Truck Busters got a standalone DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive, but this is another movie that really needs to be in a cheap box set of Warner B movies or some such, four or six on two DVDs. If it shows up on TV it's definitely worth a watch, but I wouldn't pay. (Amazon lists it as currently being available on Prime Video for a $2.99 rental.)

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #304: The Seven Deady Sins: Envy

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This year has been seing the first Thursday of each month being taken up with the Seven Deadly Sins; for May, the sin in question is Envy. I have three movies in mind, one of which I'm very surprised a search of the blog claims I haven't used.

Primrose Path (1940). Ginger Rogers plays a young woman who is the daughter and granddaughter of prostitutes (Marjorie Rambeau and Queenie Vassar respectively). She meets nice Joel McCrea, and decides that she wants to marry him, which is a problem because she knows he'll never agree if he finds out the truth about her family. Her family, meanwhile, envies her, and doesn't want her to marry him, to the point that they'll try to stop it.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Apparently I haven't really used this one yet, other than briefly mentioning it in the Over a Meal theme last November. Bette Davis plays former child vaudeville star Baby Jane. She lost her fame as an adult, while her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became a big movie star, at least until her car accident that left her wheelchair-bound. Jane has been caring for Blanche for the last 25 years, and envies and resents the success that Blanche had.

Hilary and Jackie (1998). Hilary Du Pré-Finzi (Rachel Griffiths) wrote the book A Genius in the Family about her sister, the world-class cellist Jacqueline Du Pré (Emily Watson). Hilary was a good musician, but not nearly as good a Jacqueline, and gave it up to raise a family. Jacquline becomes famous for her music as well as in classical music circles for her relationship with conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim -- but then she gets struck down by multiple sclerosis, which ultimately killed her at the young age of 42. Each sister envies what the other has in this difficult relationship.

TCM Star of the Month May 2020: Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson's in Little Caesar (airing May 7 at 8:00 PM)

Now that we're in the first full week of a new month, it's time for a new Star of the Month on TCM. This time out, that star is Edward G. Robinson, who became known for playing gangster roles thanks to his breakout role in Little Caesar, but whose career spanned a wide range of roles and over 40 years until his final film released after his death. Robinson's movies air on TCM ever Thursday night in prime time, extending into Friday morning. This time, rather than a relatively chronological look at Robinson's career, we get one based on type of roles.

It's not surprising that the first up are the tough guy roles, which start at 8:00 PM with Little Caesar. I don't currently have a screencap saved of a 50-somthing Robinson looking rather frightening in a bathtub with a cigar in Key Largo (airing at 12:30 AM Friday, or late this evening in more westerly time zones).

On May 14, we turn to Robinson as a comic actor, and he actually did some good comedies, such as A Slight Case of Murder, which is on at 9:45 PM on May 14. There's also the very good The Whole Town's Talking, with Robinson in a double role, at 8:00 PM; and Larceny, Inc. at 11:30 PM.

The third Thursday has Robinson in "good guy roles", concluding with Robinson's final movie, Soylent Green, at 8:30 AM on Friday, May 22. There's another iconic good guy role in Double Indemnity (11:30 PM May 21). Some of the movies, however, I'm not quite certain I'd call Robinson a "good guy" as the roles are more ambiguous, such as Illegal at 5:15 AM May 22.

Finally, on May 28, there's Robinson in "dramatic" roles, which I suppose is as much a catch-all for the remaining movies TCM is showing as anything else. One of Robinson's best roles is in Scarlet Street, at 11:45 PM on May 28. One of Robinson's more interesting roles is as a Norwegian immigrant farmer in contemporary (ie. WWII) Wisconsin raising daughter Margaret O'Brien in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, which kicks off the final night at 8:00 PM. It's one of several movies having Robinson in a variety of ethnic roles, along with the aforementioned Little Caesar and Robinson as a German doctor in the biopic Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, in which he plays the doctor who found an effective treatment for syphilis.