Monday, November 30, 2020

Briefs for November 30-December 1, 2020

We still have one more night of TCM's Star of the Month salute to Shelley Winters tonight. This final night features some of Winters' later movies from the 1970s. It starts off at 8:00 PM with The Poseidon Adventure, and also includes Bloody Mama 2:15 AM and Cleopatra Jones at 4:00 AM.

Unfortunately, that leaves out a bunch of fun movies that they didn't have time for in the salute, such as Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, What's the Matter With Helen?, or even Tentacles. And I doubt they'll ever show Delta Force unless they ever do a programming salute to Cannon Films.

At the same time Cleopatra Jones is on TCM, you could switch over to Flix and catch Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at 4:45 PM. I mentioned the movie a couple of month's back in Dell's Against the Crowd blogathon, where you have to select a movie that everybody loves but you hate, and a movie that everybody hates but you like.

Speaking of Dell, I'd like to thank him for running the Girl Week blogathon over Thanksgiving. I don't think I actually got around to commenting on his blog that my post was up largely because when I was going to, I saw that he had already left a comment on my post.

David Prowse died over the weekend at the age of 85. I didn't recognize the name, and I certainly didn't recognize the face, but Prowse was the man behind the Darth Vader mask for the first three Star Wars movies. We didn't even get to hear his voice, since that was dubbed in by James Earl Jones, and in the big unmasking scene in Return of the Jedi, they used a different actor for the face. (The heavy breathing was also done by the sound designer, Ben Burtt.

A River Runs Through It

Yet another of the movies that I had a chance to record during a free preview weekend is A River Runs Through It. It's got an airing coming up, tomorrow at 8:56 AM on Starz Cinema, so I decided to watch it over the Thanksgiving weekend to do a review on here.

Norman Maclean (played as an adult by Craig Sheffer) was a writer in real life born in Montana in 1902. His father (Tom Skerritt) was a Methodist minister and Mom (Brenda Blethyn) was your typical mother/housewife of the early 20th century. Norman also had a younger brother in Paul (played as an adult by Brad Pitt). Dad, being a Methodist minister, could be a bit strict (see One Foot in Heaven for another good example of a cinematic Methodist minister), but had as one of his great loves fly fishing, going out on the Blackfoot river and bringing his two sons with him. Both sons grow up to enjoy fly fishing, although Paul takes even greater pleasure in it.

Eventually 1917 and the American entry into World War I comes. With many of the adult males going off to fight, there's a need for labor that forces the two Maclean sons to grow up quickly. Dad, however, is insistent that his sons get an education and since the war is over by the time they graduate high school anyway, Norman goes east to Dartmouth in New Hampshire to get his degree in English, while Paul stays to study at the state school which gives him more time to keep fly fishing.

Fast forward to the spring of 1926. Norman has finally graduated college and returns home to Montana to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Paul has also graduated and gone on to work for a newspaper in Helena, where he's the stereotype of the alcoholic reporter, the alcoholism coming even though there's Prohibition on. Everyone is happy to have Norman back, although he's not certain whether he's going to stay or whether he's going to go east to do graduate work.

At an Independence Day celebration, Norman meets Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), a nice young lady who at first isn't necessarily interested in Norman. They do, eventually, start courting in the old-fashioned style of small-town 1920s. However, when they all go to a speakeasy, Norman realizes that Paul is really a mess. He's cavorting with a Native American woman, but worse, not only drinks too much but likes to gamble. And he's really gotten himself into debt.

Norman wants to go fly fishing more with Paul in the hopes that will bring some happiness into Paul's life and quiet those internal demons in Paul's head. But then Jessie's brother Neal returns home from Hollywood where he's trying to make it as a screenwriter. Neal wants to go fly-fishing with the Maclean brothers, but he shows up late and brings his girlfriend. Then the two get drunk and sleep out in the sun, getting a nasty sunburn. There's no way this is going to help Paul, or Neal, or Norman's relationship with Jessie.

Further complications arise when Norman gets a letter from the University of Chicago informing him that he's being given a position to do his graduate work, which also comes with a job as an assistant professor. He's set to go back east, which means leaving Paul behind to face his demons alone. And who knows whether Jessie is going to want to go east with Norman?

The real-life Norman Maclean's story is a fairly good one that has potential to translate well to the screen, even though in many ways it feels as though it's not breaking any new ground. The themes of coming-of-age and tradition (family in Montana) versus modernity (the job in Chicago) are timeless and universal, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them. Director Robert Redford does a fine job putting it all on the screen, helped immensely by the gorgeous scenery from location shooting in Montana (and some in Wyoming, according to IMDb). Unsurprisingly, that cinematography won an Oscar.

The acting is competent, although I think it's more likely that the actual story will be remembered more than the various stars' acting. In any case, the movie is absolutely worth a viewing. It is also available on DVD the last time I checked in case you don't have any of the premium channels.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Coney Island

I think I mentioned the other day when I blogged about Strike Up the Band that it would have benefited from being in color the way that a lot of the Fox musicals of the 1940s were. In fact, one of Fox's musicals with a mediocre plot but some rousing music is coming up in the FXM rotation: Coney Island, tomorrow at 6:00 AM.

George Montgomery plays Eddie Johnson. He comes in to Joe Rocco's (Cesar Romero) joint on the Coney Island midway one day around 1900, looking for Joe. Apparently, the two knew each other for many years, but some time in the past the two got involved in a poker game where Eddie feels Joe cheated him out of a large sum of money. Joe is obviously pretty successful now with this place, and Eddie wants payback.

Joe unsurprisingly says "hell no", leading Eddie to start a place of his own with his new Coney Island friend Frankie (Phil Silvers) that purports to have a Turkish attraction. And then, to try to take business away from Joe, Eddie has another friend Finnigan (Charles Winninger) to make a fals claim that Joe's bartender has a contagious disease. Joe tries to turn the tables on Eddie by coming up with a similar sort of BS story.

Eventually, Eddie creates the story that will make him a partner in Joe's business. Finnigan suffers a concussion in a fight at Joe's place, and Eddie and Frankie send Finnigan off to Atlantic City to recover, claiming to everybody else that Finnigan actually died, implying that Joe is guilty of manslaughter. Joe falls for the blackmail, and Eddie is in Joe's business.

It's here that the star of the proceedings, Betty Grable, really becomes the key player. She plays Kate Farley, who always been the singer at Joe's place, singing with a brassy music-hall style. It's good for the working-class types who would come to Coney Island. But Eddie thinks that Kate could do so much better, and basically forces Kate to sing the sort of arrangements Eddie thinks she should be doing, never mind what Kate thinks. Eddie also falls for Kate romantically, even though it's strongly implied that Joe has held a flame for her for however long she's been the singer at his place. Based on the billing, you might guess the two end up together, but considering how nasty is to Kate and how he consistently tries to destroy any of her desires to shape her own career, you have to wonder what she'd see in Eddie. (To be fair, for most of the movie she resists him.)

Joe has the chance to get Kate the featured role in a show for a big Broadway type, but Eddie blocks that by taking Kate on a date on the evening of what is supposed to be the live show audition, not telling her what he's done. It takes Joe a little time to figure out what Eddie's really doing, but then things speed up when Finnigan returns from his sojourn in Atlantic City. Joe decides that he's going to frustrate any chance Eddie might have of having happiness with Kate.

But the real point of Coney Island is to watch Betty Grable perform, not to see the Machiavellian maneuvering between the Joe and Eddie characters. To that end, the producers at Fox had her sing any number of period songs. "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" isn't my favorite, while Grable does well with "Cuddle Up a Little Closer". But the producers also brought in songwriters to write some new songs, and make some very energetic dance numbers. These all work quite well for anybody who likes musicals, especially the more nostalgic Fox musicals. Phil Silvers even gets to sing a humorous song when he finds that Finnigan has returned and is telling Eddie to take the money and run.

If you like musicals, then I think you'll really like Coney Island. If you also want a good story, I think you'd do better with some of Fox's other musicals, such as the musical biopics or the ones dealing more with World War II.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

There's a difference between a firing line and a line of fire

No, not Firing Line, but the thought of Groucho Marx and William F. Buckley together is intriguing

During one of the many free preview weekends, I had the chance to record In the Line of Fire. It's been on a bunch of times since then, but I never got around to watching it to do a review on it. With Thanksgiving being this week I had some free time to watch more movies, and noticed that In the Line of Fire would be on StarzEncore Suspense tonight at 9:00 PM and again tomorrow at 6:31 AM, so I finally watched it.

Clint Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who does the sort of things they did back before it was in the Department of Homeland Security and in the Treasury Department. As you may recall from Mister 880, the Secret Service investigated counterfeiting, and that's what Frank's doing with his new partner Al D'Andrea (Dylan McDermott). They have a particularly difficult case that nearly gets Al shot, but they get their man.

Frank is close to retirement age, which is part of the reason he's moved to anti-counterfeiting from doing what most people think of when they think Secret Service, which is defending the President. Indeed, in one early scene when he's helping in the detail of a visiting foreign dignitary, he clearly no longer seems physically up to it. But there's also another reason why he's investigating counterfeiting these days.

Back in 1963, Frank was part of the security detail around then-President John F. Kennedy. Now, if you know your American history, you'll know that Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas in Novemberf 1963, something the damn Boomers won't let us forget. One of Frank's jobs would have been to take a bullet for the President, and Frank was supposedly just indecisive enough that day that the first bullet hit Kennedy (realistically, I don't think anybody could have stopped it).

Fully well aware of this is Mitch Leary (John Malkovich). Leary was trained by the CIA to be an assassin, but removed from the job for reasons. Leary is resentful and planning to assassinate the current president. But like a lot of movie villains, he's also incredibly arrogant, to the point that he starts calling up Frank and taunting Frank about Frank's previous failure and how he (Mitch) is going to get the current president, who's in the midst of a tight re-election campaign. Note that I'm not really giving anything away, since this is a suspense movie in the Hitchcock classification of showing the audience the bad guy/thing and then leaving the audience to wonder whether it will be thwarted.

For this reason, Frank wants to be reassigned to presidential protection, since he's one of the only people who can really take down this unknown caller: he doesn't know at first that Mitch is ex-CIA; his bosses only get an inkling of something awful when a fingerprint search reveals classified results. But other people involved in presidential protection, such as agent Watts (Gary Cole) and the President's Chief of Staff Harry Sargent (Fred Thompson) aren't so sure. On Frank's side are his boss Sam Campagna (John Mahoney), and eventually fellow agent and love interest Lilly Raines (Rene Russo).

Leary makes his preparations meticulously, rather reminiscent of Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal, while Frank and the other agents know that there's going to be an assassination attempt coming; they just don't know when or where considering how the President is criss-crossing the country on his re-election campaign.

In the Line of Fire mostly works, although I think you're going to have to spend a bit of disbelief about Mitch's arrogance, as well as Frank's physical state in a scene where he's running across rooftops chasing Mitch. The suspense is well handled, and there's a lot of action too. Overall, it's a fairly undemanding movie, but of course it's in a genre where you're not expecting anything demanding. So in that regard, it's absolutely worth a watch with a bowl of popcorn or whatever your favorite snack is. It's available on both DVD and Blu-ray.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Girl Week 2020: Salaam Bombay!

Wendell Ottley over at Dell on Movies runs an annual blogathon called Girl Week. The premise fairly simple: pick a movie that celebrates women, usually either with a strong female lead or directed by women. With that in mind, I decided to look through my DVR and see which movies I'd recorded from TCM's Women Make Film spotlight to use one of those for the blogathon.

Now, I have to admit that I haven't recorded all that many of them, mostly because I'm chronically running out of space on the DVR (and DirecTV has another free preview this weekend over Thanksgiving, so I have to figure out what to delete, or watch as many movies as possible), but there were several candidates. Eventually, I decided on Salaam Bombay!, directed by Mira Nair, whch TCM lists as being available on a DVD from Kino Classics.

Krishna (Shafiq Syed) is a young boy in a rural part of India who's separated from his family. Dad apparently died and Krishna destroyed his older brother's motorbike, so Mom left him to join the circus to earn the 500 Rs needed to pay for the bike. One day at the circus, the manager sends Krishna into the village to pick up on chicken masala. But when Krishna returns, the circus has already packed up and left!

Being left with no opportunities, Krishna decides to take what little money he has and ask for a train ticket to the big city, which happens to be Bombay. When he gets their, his cans of masala are stolen, leading Krishna into the world of street children and the people who exploit them. One of the closest people Krishna has as a friend is Chillum, who deals drugs for Baba and is also addicted to the drugs Baba distributes. Chillum gets Krishna a job with Chacha selling tea from a snack bar.

Krishna also meets the older Sola and develops a crush on her, although she's destined for prostitution as that's about the only thing girls can do once they reach a certain age. Baba's wife Rekha is also in prostitution even though the couple have a daughter Manju. Chillum's drug habit causes him to turn to crime to pay for it, stealing the money that Krishna was trying to save up to get home; Chillum was the one who showed Krishna the hiding place. But Chillum's drug habit eventually kills him.

Another job that Krishna and his friends take is as busboys at a wedding of a rich couple. That lasts late into the evening, and walking home from the wedding, Krishna and Manju are picked up by the police and taken to a children's "home" that's really more of a prison for homeless children, with all the attendant pathologies you'd find in a prison. Rekha tries to regain custody of Manju, but the social worker at the children's home points out that Rekha, being a prostitute, is not a suitable parent. (In the social worker's defense, we see an earlier scene in which Rekha takes Manju along to a job because the alternative is leaving Manju at home alone.) Krishna escapes from the home, but will he ever be able to get back to his real home?

Director Mira Nair decided to make this movie after learning about the plight of Bombay's street children. She and her collaborator, Sooni Taraporevala, hired a bunch of street children and gave them rudimentary acting lessons, learning of their stories during these workshops and turning those stories into the movie we see. The movie was successful enough that it enabled Nair to fund a charity to help the street children which, as I understand it, still exists to this day, thanks in no small part to the financial success of the movie.

And to be fair, Salaam Bombay! deserves to be a success. I can't imagine how tough it must have been to film in the crowded conditions of Bombay's slums. The kids, having been through much of what was depicted in the movie in their real lives, are surprisingly good, never really crossing the line into too mawkish the way that Hollywood child stars had a tendency to do. I found myself interested not only in Krishna's story, but those of everybody around him; even Baba, the nominal villain here, doesn't have very many options in life.

If you get the chance to see Salaam Bombay!, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #333: Non-English (TV edition)

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. The theme is shows not in English, which is a tough one for me since I don't watch much episodic TV and definitely not foreign-language episodic TV. So I went with a more reality theme this time out:

Norwegian "Slow TV" (2009-present). In 2009, Norway's NRK TV came up with a programming idea that became a surprising hit in the country and made the news around the world. In the first edition, NRK put several cameras on the train from Bergen to Oslo, a seven-hour journey, and just let the cameras roll, as you can see above.

Aktuelle Kamera (1952-1991). East Germany's nightly news program, giving East Germans their nightly dose of propaganda. Luckily for most East Germans however, there was a transmitter in West Berlin broadcasting the West German channels so most East Germans (Dresden all the way in the southeast was the one big exception) could receive West German TV as well. The above is an extract from June 25, 1983; below is a full episode from May 1, 1989:

Melodifestivalen. Sweden's annual show to select the country's entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, an event that might not have been so well known to most Americans until the Will Ferrell movie from earlier this year. For most of the first 40 years of the competition, with the exception of a few years in the mid-1970s, countries were required to field entries sung in their official language (or, in the case of countries with multiple official languages, one of them; I believe Belgium and Switzerland have a policy of rotating which language is selected for their entry). 1974 was one of the years that everybody could sing in English, but in the national competition, we can see songs sung in the original language. Gotta love Björn's silver boots!

Another chance to catch Marnie

Thelma Ritter and James Stewart in a scene from Rear Window (1954), kicking off the night at 8:00 PM

Thanksgiving morning and afternoon on TCM is being given over to a bunch of family-friendly movies. But once we hit prime time, we're going to get something that's not quite so family-friendly: 24 hours of Alfred Hitchcock. The night kicks off at 8:00 PM with Rear Window. Yesterday, I mentioned that TCM was running Marnie as part of the salute to the late Sean Connery. That's on tomorrow at 2:00 PM.

A scene from Psycho (1960), about the Bates family

I suppose some of the movies have to do with families, however. James Stewart and his wife Doris Day find that their kid gets kidnapped in the 1950s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which seems to air less often than some of the other Hitchcock movies. It'll be on tonight at 10:00 PM. There's also the family in Shadow of a Doubt, with Teresa Wright and her uncle Joseph Cotten central to the action; that shows up at 6:00 PM tomorrow. And there's also Norman Bates and his mom in Psycho (overnight at 2:30 PM). That reminds that that I used the following old photo on Photobucket and now would be a good time to put another copy of it on Blogger thanks to the change in the Photobucket data caps several years ago:

Another one that I was going to re-upload was of Norman Lloyd on the boat heading toward the Statue of Liberty in the climax of Saboteur (9:30 AM tomorrow), but that's one that I'd already uploaded several years back:

Only one of Hitchcock's British movies is part of the lineup, that being The Lady Vanishes at 6:00 AM. I've got a picture of Dame May Whitty I've used, and a picture of Caldicott and Chalmers, but I'm not certain if either of those are from The Lady Vanishes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


With tomorrow being Thanksgiving and already having two posts planned for tomorrow, I thought about what to blog about as a suitable holiday movie. With that in mind, I got out my Jerry Lewis box set and put in the DVD of Cinderfella.

Jerry Lewis plays Cinderfella; at the start of the movie his father has just died and the will is being read. Dad's second wife, who is Fella's stepmother (Judith Anderson) inherits everything, including all the money and the palatial mansion, with a caveat that the money is supposed to used to help Fella. Stepmom and her two kids, Maximillion (Henry Silva) and Rupert (Robert Hutton) are at the reading; Fella is looking in through a window in the rain.

We learn further that Stepmom treats Fella terribly, forcing him to be their servant, doing all sorts of chores for them. They only tolerate his presence because they're convinced that his father buried a treasure somewhere on the estate and that Fella knows where it is; they want that money. Fella has dreams about the treasure but apparently doesn't know where it is.

One day, while Fella is cleaning the pool, suddenly showing up on a float in the pool is an odd man; how he got there is anybody's guess. That man is, of course, Fella's Fairy Godfather (Ed Wynn). In their conversation, Fella uses the word "persons", which Fella explains to his Godfather means some people are fancy and are "persons", while normal everyday folks like Fella are "people". Godfather implies that's going to change.

A news report mentions that Princess Charming (Anna Maria Alberghetti), from the Grand Duchy of Morovia, is going to be visiting the US; specifically she'll be an honored guest at a party that Stepmother is going to be putting on. Stepmother has the plan that she'll be able to marry off one of her sons to Charming, bringing them some much needed money. Fella, of course, is not to be invited to the party, although with the help of his Fairy Godfather, that's going to change.

The plot of Cinderfella is, unsurprisingly, one that's very easy to see where it's going, mostly because it was intended as a humorous take on the Cinderella story only with most of the roles switched in gender. Fella is indeed transformed and gets to go to the ball, but has to leave by midnight, leading to the climax and denouement....

But does this reimagining into Cinderfella work? Not as well as it might. The first half, setting up the who transformation and ball, it reasonably good, with a lot of opportunities for Lewis to do the sort of physical comedy for which he was known. Anderson and Wynn are also bright spots in support. However, the second half, with the ball, felt surprisingly sterile to me, and really brings the movie down a notch or two.

If I were going to recommend Jerry Lewis to people, the movie I'd start with isn't Cinderfella, but the other one it engendered: The Bellboy. The studio wanted to release Cinderfella as a feel-good summer movie, but Lewis thought it was a Christmas movie. The agreement they reached was that Lewis would make another film for summer release, and that movie was the big hit The Bellboy.

TCM's Sean Connery tribute

Sean Connery (l.) and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (5:30 AM)

Actor Sean Connery died at the end of October at the age of 90. To honor him, TCM will be spending prime time tonight with five of his movies. The first two are James Bond movies, Thunderball at 8:00 PM and You Only Live Twice at 10:30 PM.

Blofeld's underground headquarters in You Only Live Twice; I didn't have any good photos of Connery in either this or Thunderball

Third up is Marnie at 12:45 AM; the movie is a bit of a mess but it's not really Connery's fault. To be honest, the real best reasons to watch for it are on one hand the things that make it a mess, and on the other hand Diane Baker.

The final two selections are The Hill at 3:15 AM, which I apparently have not blogged about yet; and the aforementioned The Man Who Would Be King at 5:30 AM.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Strike Up the Band

TCM ran a centenary salute for Mickey Rooney back in September which gave me the chance to record a couple of movies I hadn't blogged about here before. One of them is Strike Up the Band.

Mickey Rooney plays Jimmy Connors, not the ill-mannered tennis player but a high school senior who plays the drums in the school band. However, Jimmy has ideas about playing in a jazz band, that being the hot new style of the day. He gets a bunch of his classmates together, and they start practicing after school, although there's some consternation amongst the parents who think this might just be taking time away from their kids' studies.

Among the folks involved in the band are Mary Holden (Judy Garland), who is the singer for the band, and Willie (Larry Nunn), whom we only mention because he's going to come up later in the movie in a key if mawkish plot point. They put on a dance to raise money for the school, which proves to be successful, and gives Jimmy bigger ideas.

Jimmy's big ideas are going to be furthered when he's brought into contact with rich girl Barbara Morgan (June Preisser, basically reprising the same sort of character she played in Babes in Arms). Jimmy falls for Barbara which could be a problem with Mary, and also offers to be the band for a big party Barbara's parents are putting on, something that could make more money for the band.

The band has also put on another show after learning about a big contest Paul Whiteman (playing himself) is putting on for high school-aged bands. The only thing is, Whiteman is based out of Chicago, and Jimmy and his friends are out east (I think Long Island but I'm not certain the movie specifically gives the location of the fictional high school), and are going to need $200 to get the money for train fare to Chicago for the contest.

They're in luck, however. The Morgans aren't going to hire Jimmy and his band because they already have one for the party -- Paul Whiteman and his band! Jimmy and his friends show up at the party and, during one of the Whiteman band's breaks, do something unimaginable: they pick up the Whiteman band's instruments and start playing! Now, I'd think that if a professional musician found a bunch of well-meaning amateurs taking their instruments like this, the pros would be absolutely pissed. But instead, Whiteman is impressed, and after Whiteman hears Jimmy's sob story about not having the last $50 he needs to get the band to Chicago for the radio contest, Whiteman personally fronts Jimmy that money.

Ah, but there's another catch. Remember Willie? The second show the band put on was not just a concert, but a musical comedy show. Part of that show had Willie in a harness that gave him a serious arm injury. Willie needs an operation stat, but the orthopedic surgeon who has the most qualification to perform it is out in Chicago, and the plane there is going to take the $200 that the band needs to get to Chicago for the contest.

Of course, you know that the conflict is going to be resolved and Jimmy and Marry are going to wind up together in the last scene, which is actually a big concert of all of the bands in the contest, whom you'd think might have a bit of trouble being in sync seeing as they haven't practiced together before. But this is an MGM musical, so minor plot points like that can be ignored.

To be honest, I didn't mind the new tunes to be particularly memorable, but of course I'm also not the biggest fan of musicals. Anybody who is a fan of musicals, or of Judy Garland, is going to really like Strike Up the Band. Garland and Rooney bring a lot of energy to the movie, and even if the plot is hokey and predictable, their enthusiasm overcomes it. This was made for audiences who knew what they wanted and not something daring, and there's nothing wrong with that.

The last I checked, Strike Up the Band has been released on both DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Enter Laughing

A few months ago, after the death of Carl Reiner, TCM ran a programming tribute to him of some of the movies he directed, including Enter Laughing. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM as part of the salute to Star of the Month Shelley Winters, so I recently sat down to watch it and review it here.

Although Shelley gets second billing, she's not really the star here, having a smaller role. She's Emma Kolowitz, matriarch of a New York Jewish family in 1938 with husband Morris (David Opatoshu) and son David (Reni Santoni, who is the real star of the proceedings). David is a recent high school graduate, and a huge fan of Hollywood movies, especially actor Ronald Colman. He has a girlfriend Wanda (Janet Margolin), but also eyes other women. And he's got a job working in the machine repair shop run by Mr. Foreman (Jack Gilford), although he always seems to be preoccupied with things other than work, much to his boss' consternation.

One of the things David is interested in is becoming an actor, although he's never really done any acting before and doesn't have all that much ability for it. Mom wouldn't hear of it anyway; she wants David to go to pharmacy school and learn a nice, respectable profession that will also pay the bills. But David has learned about a community theater that currently has auditions for the latest play they're running, so David signs up.

This is actually a pretty threadbare operation, even more so than the traveling theater we saw in Exit Smiling. Actor Harrison Marlowe (José Ferrer) is the owner, with his daughter Angela (Elaine May) being the lead actress, and Pike (Richard Deacon) serving as stage manager. Mr. Marlowe and Pike see quite clearly that David can't act, but that doesn't dissuade Angela. David's the right height, and reasonably nice looking, so she begs Daddy to cast David in a small part. Dad eventually relents.

And then David learns just how threadbare an operation this is. David gets a "scholarship", but that only means he's supposed to chip in $5 toward the running of the place instead of the regular $10. And the role he has requires him to wear a tuxedo, which he's supposed to provide for himself. Not that David has one, and the cheapest one he can find, not being able to afford anything better, is extremely ill-fitting.

Meanwhile, Angela seems to be in love with David, which presents him some problems in his relationship with Wanda. Worse, however, is that Mom finds out how David is spending his extra time and money, and she's pissed. Acting is just not respectable, and she went to so much trouble to get the money to send David to pharmacy school. So she starts putting the stereotypical Jewish mother guilt trip on David.

Eventually, after many twists and turns, we get to the opening night of the play, and David's big scene, which almost doesn't come off considering the quality of David's acting. But this being a comedy, everything ends up relatively happily for most of the characters.

Enter Laughing is for the most part a pretty funny movie, although there were a few times when I felt it was crossing over from funny to manic and needed to be toned down. Carl Reiner let Shelley Winters go way over the top toward the end, for example. On the other hand, Richard Deacon is quite good in his supporting role. Michael J. Pollard also shows up as David's friend, who seems to serve the role of comic relief, since I don't know why else he's there.

Enter Laughing doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Another of the movies that I had the chance to DVR during one of the free preview movies was the landmark 1972 horror movie The Last House on the Left. I was hoping to do a post for it in the run-up to Halloween, but it wasn't back on TCM just then. I noticed that it's finally got an airing tomorrow at 4:15 AM on Epix Hits, and I think another airing on November 30, so I watched the movie to give you a review here.

Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell) is a 17-year-old daughter of Dr. John and Estele Collingwood, who live in one of the more distant Connecticut suburbs of New York. (IMDb says Westport was a filming location, and based on a map on the wall of the police department, it looks consistent with Westport.) It's Mari's birthday, and one of the things she plans to do is celebrate with her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) by going to a concert in New York City. Mari's parents are worried that the concert is in a rough part of the city, this being the era (as I like to describe it) just before Gerald Ford told the city to drop dead.

While Mari and Phyllis are making their way to New York, we hear radio reports about a couple of extremely violent criminals who have escaped prison: Krug Still (David Hess), who has kept his son Junior (Marc Sheffler) hepped up on dope; Krug's girlfriend Sadie (Jeramie Rain); and a fourth named Weasel (Fred Lincoln). They brutally killed a priest and nun among other crimes, and the way that they're constantly mentioned, it's pretty obvious that their paths are going to cross the paths of Mari and Phyllis.

Soon enough those paths cross, in a rather stupid way. Phyllis decides she wants to score some weed, and just starts asking random strangers if they know where she can get it. Of course, one of the criminals is the guy she asks, and he brings them up to their apartment, where they immediately begin to sexually harass the two young women. And it's not as if they can let the two women go on their merry way, because of course the police will be on the case. Cut to the next morning, and the criminals are stuffing their two hostages into the trunk of their car, as the criminals try to get away to who knows where.

Wouldn't you know it, but the place they wind up escaping to and stopping once their car breaks down just happens to be the forest exactly where the Collingwoods live! The criminals take the two women out of the trunk and into the forest, and precede to be even more abusive and taunting to their victims. Both victims try to escape, but eventually get caught. For their efforts, the young women get raped and killed.

In a turn of events that's not really a twist because you can probably see it coming, the criminals, still being stuck in Connecticut with a broken-down car, decide to stop for help at the nearest house, which of course just happens to be the Collingwods' house. Eventually, the couple realize that the guests they have are the psychotic killers, and that said killers murdered their daughter, leading to the movie's climax.

The Last House on the Left is a low-budget movie that has gained a lot of notoriety over the years in no small part because one of the driving forces behind the movie was Wes Craven, who would of course go on to make the Nightmare on Elm Street series. As a low-budget movie, it would be easy to dismiss the movie as the cheap B movie it is.

But at the same time, while it has all the flaws of such low-budget movies, especially bad character decisions and some plot holes, the movie is still surprisingly effective and watchable. The low budget gives it a more intimate feeling, which works to the movie's advantage. There was a remake about a decade ago, but I haven't seen that so can't compare or comment. I believe both versions are available on DVD.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Front Page (1974)

The movie His Girl Friday is fairly well known, especially among fans of classic movies. The fact that it's a remake of the 1931 movie The Front Page, but with a gender switch in one of the key roles, is also well known. Having fallen somewhat through the cracks is the 1974 remake, again called The Front Page and reverting to the gender roles in the original play and movie. That 1974 remake is going to be on TCM tonight at 6:00 PM.

It's 1929 in Chicago, and anarchist Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) is scheduled to be executed tomorrow morning for the murder of a cop, a crime Pendleton insists was an accident. All of Chicago's newspapers are covering the story. But Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), managing editor of the Examiner, is in a spot. His star reporter Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) would be perfect for the story, especially to try to get a last-minute interview with Williams. But Hildy is unavailable.

The reason for that is because Hildy is schedule to leave Chicago on the midnight train for Philadelphia, together with one Peggy Grant (a young Susan Sarandon), on their way to get married with Hildy then taking a job at an advertising agency in Philadelphia. Hildy is insistent that he's done with the newspaper business, but if you've seen either of the two earlier versions of the movie, you know that's not quite the case....

Walter tries every trick in the book to get Hildy to do this one last story, from the mild of pointing out that Hildy would have the time to do it before getting on the train, to the more extreme of trying to drive a wedge between Hildy and Peggy by posing as a probation officer and telling Peggy that Hildy is on probation as a sexual deviant! Frankly, if I found out my boss did something like that to me, there's no way I'd ever work for him again, but then we wouldn't have a movie, would we.

The actual story Walter wants Hildy to cover gets more complicated when a psychiatrist, Dr. Eggelhofer (Martin Gabel) is brought in to interview Williams to see whether he's competent to be executed. Eggelhofer's unorthodox methods give Williams a chance to get the sheriff's (Vincent Gardenia) gun and shoot his way out of custody, eventually winding up in the pressroom, hidden by Hildy in a roll-top desk. Williams knows a prostitute with a heart of gold, Mollie Malloy (Carol Burnett), who also shows up looking for Williams.

But then, you've probably seen one (or both) of the earlier movie versions of the story so know more or less what's going to happen. Director Billy Wilder did change things up a bit, in part by adding a cub reporter (Jon Korkes) to cover the execution for the Examiner, which really serves as Walter's means of playing on Hildy's pride -- this young reporter is so unfit for covering the execution that Hildy is just not going to be able to countenance the kid doing it, and take over himself. I think the Mollie Malloy role is also made bigger and given a resolution I don't remember from either of the previous two versions.

If Billy Wilder had found an old 1920s play and dusted it off to make an original movie out of The Front Page, what we get on screen wouldn't be a bad little movie, although some fans of studio-era movies might be less than pleased with the language. However, there's the well-known and deserved classic His Girl Friday sitting there, and that's a problem for any subsequent movie version. As a result, this 1974 version pales somewhat and it's easy to see why it hasn't stood the test of time the way His Girl Friday has. Wilder allows Carol Burnett to play her part too broadly, and Martin Gabel's antics don't work at all.

Overall, however, this version of The Front Page really isn't bad, and it's also the chance to see Allen Jenkins in his final film role, along with some other veterans getting smaller parts. It is available on DVD should you miss the TCM showing.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Briefs for Nov. 20-21, 2020

Something seems to be up with IMDb's search site. When I was watching Woman Wanted to do the post on it here, I noticed that the boat house where Joel McCrea takes Maureen O'Sullivan seems mighty familiar, as though the set was used in another movie. That's not surprising, of course; I just couldn't figure out which movie it was. Since Woman Wanted was released by MGM in 1935, I decided I'd look up what movies MGM released from 1934 to 1936 and see if I recognized the title. IMDb's Advanced Title Search has a selector for companies, so I ticked that. But the search yielded a bunch of movies, many British, that were made somewhere else and distributed by MGM. As far as I can recall the studio option didn't do that in the past.

The first movie up in this week's TCM Underground is Earth Girls Are Easy, overnight at 2:00 AM. I blogged about this one back in April, and I think it's a TCM premiere although I'm not certain. (I don't recall seeing it on TCM since I started paying great attention to the schedules which was even before I started blogging, and that was in January of 2008.)

There's almost nothing I haven't blogged about coming up on FXM Retro in the next several days; I think there might be a Fox musical or two like Coney Island and/or Greenwich Village. Looking at tomorrow's schedule, I think I did full-length posts earlier this yera on all of the movies with the exception of The Incident at 1:20 PM; it turns out I already mentioned back at the end of January that it was back in the FXM rotation.

Following the previous TCM showing of Woman Wanted, or maybe it was Breakfast or Two, there was several minutes left in the 75-minute slot, but not enough for a short, so TCM ran other stuff like the "TCM Classic Movie News" report. It mentioned Alex Trebek's final book, The Answer Is, and even though the piece was recorded and aired before Trebek's recent death (ie. my recordings of both those movies were from before his death), it still seemed a bit macabre to see the book being hawked.

Among today's births are Estelle Parsons, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Bonnie and Clyde; she turns 93. Also celebrating a birthday is Bo Derek, whose memorable hair graced the movie 10; she's turning 64.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #332: Villains

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 villians, which in some ways is an easy one since so many movies have bad guys. But I figured that this topic should really be about movies where the villain is the main character, which narrows things down quite a bit:

Villain (1971). A fairly obvious first choice, this one has Richard Burton as a British gangster who gets involved with a payroll heist gone wrong, and tries to blackmail an elected member of the House of Commons to provide him with an ironclad alibi, what with MPs in those days being considered more above reproach. Burton does well, and it's nice to see Britain as it was in the early 1970s.

White Heat (1949). James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, the gangster who's excessively dedicated to his mother (Margaret Wycherly), and is so nasty that he has no qualms about giving somebody stuffed in the trunk of a car air, by shooting holes into the trunk and killing the guy! Jarrett also leads a payroll heist that goes wrong, but at least Cody makes it to the top of the world.

Purple Noon (1960). Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley, an American who is sent to Italy to find Philip Greenleaf (Maurice Ronnet) by Greenleaf's father. Ripley, who is of a much lower social class, winds up killing Greenleaf and trying to steal Greenleaf's identity in order to get at his money. Based on a Patricia Highsmith story, the movie would be remade in the late 1990s as The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon as Ripley.

Breakfast for Two

Herbert Marshall isn't particularly remembered for comedy. I think a good portion of the reason for that is that when he did get to do comedies, they were programmers at best. A good example of this is Breakfast for Two, which is going to be on TCM at 2:00 PM tomorrow.

Herbert Marshall plays Jonathan Blair, a wealthy businessman who has a butler named Butch (Eric Blore). One morning, Butch finds a woman named Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck) in Blair's house. It turns out that Blair went out for a night on the town, met Valentine, and got incredibly drunk; when Valentine brought him home, the dog wouldn't let her back out. So here we are.

Blair, although owning a shipping company, is the latest in what is a line Blairs in a family-owned business. And Jonathan has always seemed to be more interested in being a playboy than actually running the company, much to the consternation of the board. Valentine learns about this, so she maneuvers to take control of the company, not because she wants to be mean to Blair and take over the company through underhanded means a la Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight; instead, she's concerned for Jonathan and doesn't want to see the company go under.

The thing is, Valentine kind of likes Jonathan. However, he already has a girlfriend in the form of actress Carol (Glenda Farrell), and indeed is even planning to marry her. Valentine thinks that too would be bad for the family business, so she has to maneuver to stop the wedding as well as keep the company afloat.

Now, we know that since Stanwyck is top-billed here, she's liable to end up with Herbert Marshall's character at the end, and the bigger reason for watching (or not watching) a movie like this is to see how the characters get to the inevitable wedding. In this case, it involves Valentine and Butch working together, much to the consternation of the Justice of the Peace (Donald Meek) who has been hired to preside over the wedding, and has to do so on multiple occasions because it keeps getting interrupted.

But for the most part, Breakfast for Two turns out to be rather lesser comedy, even in the œuvre of Herbert Marshall. In his case, I think I'd recommend Trouble in Paradise or maybe If You Could Only Cook first. Stanwyck, of course, made glittering comedies like Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve. Blore, and to a lesser extent Meek, are the best things in this one.

Breakfast for Two is one of those movies that probably should have wound up in a box set of either Marshall's or Stanwyck's movies, but instead has wound up on a standalone DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Woman Wanted

It just so happens that two movies that I have on my DVR are both on the TCM lineup for the daytime on Friday. Since tomorrow is also Thursday Movie Picks, it means that I'm going to blog about one of the movies tomorrow and the other one today, a good 36-plus hours before its airing. That first movie is Woman Wanted.

Maureen O'Sullivan plays Ann Gray, a woman on trial for murder where the case has just gone to the jury. While waiting for the verdict, through the window her eyes catch those of lawyer Tony Baxter (Joel McCrea), who isn't involved in the case and doesn't recognize her at all, which seems mildly odd since this is apparently a prominent murder trial that would have been in all the papers. Tony pantomimes asking Ann to dinner, although for obvious reasons she's not available.

The jury comes back, and Ann is found... guilty! As she's being remanded into custody, some gangsters deliberately crash into the police car, allowing her the opportunity to escape. She naturally takes it, and winds up running into Baxter outside the entrance to his apartment hotel, so she takes him up on that offer for a meal, following him up to his apartment.

However, there are all sorts of problems, as you can guess with a woman who's a fugitive from justice, even if she insists she's not guilty, and the movie lets us know that this is in fact the case. Ann's picture is in all the papers so certainly somebody will recognize her; sure enough, that happens as the house detective and a policeman come up to Baxter's apartment looking for her. But that's not the only problem as far as Tony's side of the story is concerned. He's got a fiancée of sorts in Betty Randolph (Adrienne Ames), and she recognizes that there's another woman in the apartment, which needless to say displeases her.

As for Ann, her problems are with the gangsters who facilitated her escape. They weren't doing it for altruistic reasons. They know that Ann is not guilty. But the murder involved $250,000 in bonds that have gone missing. The gangsters think that Ann knows something about where those bonds are, and want her to tell them, even though she doesn't know where they are.

With that in mind, Tony and Ann set out and leave the city partly to escape the police, partly to stay one step ahead of the gangsters, led by Smiley (Louis Calhern), and partly to try to prove Ann's innocence. The action shifts fairly quickly to a road-house, then a boat house, and finally to Smiley's nightclub, where Ann seems to be in danger. But we know this is the sort of movie that's going to have a happy ending, even if the Production Code hadn't required the guilty party to get what's coming to him.

Woman Wanted is a perfectly acceptable B movie, surprisingly good in fact considering that it's an MGM movie released at a time (1935) when it was really Warner Bros. that was cranking out the great Bs and programmers like Fog Over Frisco, which came out about a year before Woman Wanted. In Woman Wanted, we have two appealing leads in O'Sullivan and McCrea, and a story that really zips along in its running time of 67 minutes.

Woman Wanted is definitely worth a watch, and is also available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020


Quite some time back, I bought this box set of Frank Sinatra movies. One of the movies in the set is Can-Can, which has been in the FXM rotation recently. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 6:00 AM (and I think two more times next week), so I recently sat down to watch it to do a post on here.

The setting is 1896 and Montmartre, the district of Paris known for its artists and bohemian lifestyle. Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine) owns a nightclub in Montmartre, and one of the things she does one night is to put on the can-can, the dance made famous by Jacques Offenbach's music 50 years earlier but which in 1896 is considered lewd and lascivious so it violates the obscenity laws, according to the League of decency.

On that particular night, Simone's lawyer François (Frank Sinatra) is there with a judge, Paul Barriere (Maurice Chevalier) who is approaching retirement age but is still on the bench and is a frend of François. Somebody has tipped off the authorities that the can-can is going to be performed, and they raid the place, arresting Simone while François and Paul are able to get away by disguising themselves as waiters.

François defends Simone at the trial, which is headed by multiple judges which I think was standard for the French legal system. One of the other judges is young Philippe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan). He absolutely wants to see the obscenity stopped, and is damn well going to use this trial as an opportunity to stop it if at all possible. However, Simone is just so lovely that Philippe winds up falling in love with her. This is a big problem because of the conflict of interest, but also because Simone has been pursuing François, who probably does love her but is also a confirmed bachelor.

Along the way, Philippe proposes to Simone, who doesn't necessarily want to accept, but decides to do so because she's sick and tired of François stringing her on. She's not right for Philippe's class of society, as seen in the engagement party on a boat in the Seine where she performs a disastrous musical number. She decides to come up with a scheme to get back at François for driving her into the arms of Philippe....

Can-Can is a story set to the music of Cole Porter and based on an earlier musical. The story itself isn't bad, and while some of Cole Porter's songs stand on their own -- indeed, a couple of Porter standards written well before the original stage show such as "Just One of Those Things" replace songs from the stage show -- I couldn't help but feel while watching this that several of the songs really slowed the movie down. I also thought about Fox jumping on the success of Gigi, although apparently the original stage show came out before the movie Gigi.

Specifically, I think I'd say that a lot of the songs that don't have dance numbers to go along with them are the problem here, especially when Jourdan gets a number. Sinatra gives it his best shot, and fans of his will certainly enjoy his singing. But he doesn't really fit in with la belle époque the way Jourdan and Chevalier do. Ironically, the best number in the movie, the Adam and Eve dance near the end, doesn't have much of anything to do with the plot at all and made me think of the cadenza that Gene Kelly put into Singin' in the Rain where he dances with Cyd Charisse.

Although I think Can-Can would have worked better as a straight-up comedy/light drama with only one or two numbers, it's still fairly watchable. The print FXM airs is in a 135-minute slot, while you may see reference sources putting it at 142 minutes. That's becaue the 142-minute running time (which is the one on the DVD I have) is the roadshow version, which includes an overture, a brief intermission, and exit music. Removing these (I know the FXM print doesn't have the overture, although I didn't watch it far enough to see if it skips the intermission and exit music although I'd presume it would) should get the movie down to under 135-minutes.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Triumph of something other than the will

Another of the movies that I had the chance to record during a recent free preview weekend was a new one to me: Triumph of the Spirit. It's going to be on again, tomorrow morning at 3:25 AM (or overnight tonight if you will) on Epix2.

Willem Dafoe plays Salamo Arouch. At the start of the movie, he's in what looks like some form of solitary confinement, as somebody opens up an eyehole and looks in on him. Salamo in a voiceover tells us that he thinks of his wife Allegra (Wendy Gazelle), his father (Robert Loggia) and his brother Avram (Costas Mandylor), and the things he liked to do in the old days.

You see, Salamo is a Jew, from the Greek city of Thessaloniki, and this is the beginning of 1945. Salamo is interned at Auschwitz. Flash back a couple of years. Salamo worked with his father for a bit at the port of Thessaloniki, as well as taking up boxing. He was naturally good at boxing, and even became the middleweight champion of the Balkans. But then World War II came and the Nazis occupied Greece, forcing the Jews into a ghetto before ultimately putting them in cattle cars and sending them up north to the various extermination camps, which for the entire Arouch family was Auschwitz.

When the train arrives at Auschwitz, the Jews are separated, the men on one side and the women on another. One woman wants to be with her child, which turns out to be a fatal decision as this is the first group of people to be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately upon arrival, not that the people arriving knew this was going to happen.

The remaining people are put to slave labor, given poor rations that are going to weaken them to the point that it's easier for the Nazis to decide which ones to gas next, and have to deal with kapos (roughly similar to the trustys from Brubaker metioned a few weeks back) who enforce all of the obnoxious and dehumanizing rules the Nazis have instituted.

One day during the enforced labor, one of the kapos goes after Salamo, who makes what you'd think is a mistake of fighting back, and actually besting the kapo in a fight. This brings him to the attention of Major Rauscher (Hartmut Becker), one of the Nazi officers in the administration of Auschwitz. It turns out that one of the things the Nazis have been doing to the Jews (and other undesirables who have wound up in the camps) is to set up boxing matches between them for the entertainment of the officers, who bet on the boxers. Rauscher, upon learning about Salamo's having been middleweight champ of the Balkans, knows he's got a winner on his hands and could make a lot of money.

Salamo decides to fight, mostly because it means a chance at life and perhaps a little bit better conditions. But it's goin to be tough, as the boxing matches aren't a set number of rounds, but until one opponent falls and can't get back up. And lose too often, and it's off to the gas chambers for you. He's coached and helped in general by a Gypsy (Edward James Olmos).

Meanwhile, life (for some values of life) at Auschwitz goes on, with Avram being gassed for refusing the job of cleaning out the gas chambers after another round of gassing, and Dad getting too old to go on, leading to his gassing too. Among the women, they're trying to survive too, with one faking a pregnancy to try to get some extra rations based on everybody else's sympathy.

Now, we know that Salamo survived so we can expect that he's going to survive at the end of the movie when the camp is finally liberated, but there's still a lot of brutality he has to face along the way, such as when there's an uprising among the Jews, and a drunken Rauscher drawing his gun on a Jew who won't fight.

Salamo Arouch's story is an interesting one, although unsurprisingly Triumph of the Spirit takes some liberties with it. A big one is that Salamo only got married after liberation; he's also portrayed as being rather older than he was in real life.

I didn't know any of this until looking up Arouch after watching the movie. The bigger problem for me was that the movie consistently had a sort of TV movie-of-the-week feel to it, making the horrors of Auschwitz seem rather sanitized and anodyne. Not as bad as Operation Eichmann, but definitely noticeable. On the bright side, the filmmakers were able to get permission to do some second unit shooting at Auschwitz, especially surprising since the movie came out in 1989 and at the time of filming the Communists were still in power.

Despite the problems I had with the movie, I'd definitely recommend Triumph of the Spirit. It seems to be out of print on DVD, but it is available on Amazon streaming, the last I checked.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The part of Tony Rome is now being played by... Kirk Douglas

Some time back I bought the Kirk Douglas Centennial Collection box set, and have been going through the films. Another one that I recently watched is A Lovely Way to Die.

Sylva Koscina, one of those European actresses that Hollywood tried to bring over and make stars of, plays Rena Westabrook, the trophy wife of Loren. But it's not necessarily the happiest of marriages, as the two bicker on the way back from the racetrack, and Rena has taken on a boyfriend in the form of Fleming (Kenneth Haigh). The couple gets home after some car problems outside the house of another wealthy man, Finchley, and as Loren decides to go swimming that night, he's shot to death diving off the diving board!

It's fairly obvious from all that's happened to this point in the movie that Rena and Fleming are natural suspects in the killing, with Fleming as the killer and Rena only an accessory since she would have been in the house not where the bullet came from. Lawyer Tennessee Fredericks (Eli Wallach) is hired to defend Rena both on the murder charge and from the inevitable media circus.

It's to that latter end that Tennessee hires Jameson Schuyler (that's Kirk Douglas, not as if you could miss him). Jameson is one of those stereotypical movie characters of the police detective who has unorthodox methods that get him in trouble with the bosses and lead him to leave the force. In this case, Jameson isn't quite hired as a detective so much as a bodyguard from Rena to keep her from getting herself in trouble.

But based on Jameson's previous police work, it's obvious that he's going to do some detective work. Never mind that this gives us more of a movie than if Jameson were just a bodyguard. Jameson goes to the Finchley place, and gets the decided feeling that something odd is going on there. We know in fact that there is, since the producers show it to us. Jameson also finds at a local road house that Rena might just have an alibi, which is that she was at the place, but does she want it known that she was unfaithful to Loren? In any case it's no matter, as the witness gets killed.

Meanwhile, Rena seems to be playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Jameson, who may or may not be falling in love with Rena. In any case, she's certainly not giving anybody any reason to think that she might be not guilty. And it's all getting Tennessee exasperated. Eventually, we get to the trial, and Jameson wants Fleming found guity since that's who he thinks did it. Rena and Fleming are eventually both found not guilty, but that's not the end of the story, as the real killer may still be out there....

As I was watching A Lovely Way to Die, I couldn't help but think of a slightly earlier detective film from the era, Tony Rome. Not that they're particularly close in terms of plot or anything, but more the idea that Kirk Douglas or somebody close to him watched Frank Sinatras in Tony Rome and thought that what Douglas needed was to play a similar sort of detective.

A Lovely Way to Die is lovely to look at, with nice photography, color and sets among the rich set. But I ultimately found it an entirely forgettable movie, as it's of a piece with a bunch of other movies from the era, and Koscina isn't a notably good actress. Everyone goes through the motions and eventually gets to an ending that's satisfying for the right characters, and that's about it.

If you want something undemanding to go with a bowl of popcorn, you could do worse than A Lovely Way to Die. I'm also glad that it's part of a box set, because I wouldn't want to pay standalone prices for it.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Corvette Summer

With it finally getting colder around these parts, I thought about whether there were any summer movies I had watched recently and hadn't blogged about. One that came to mind is Corvette Summer.

Mark Hamill plays Ken Dantley, a high-school senior (stop laughing) in Southern California who lives with his divorcée mother in a trailer and cares more about cars than girls. One day the shop class, taught by Mr. McGrath (Eugene Roche), is at a junkyard looking for car bodies for the class' big senior project. Ken finds one that looks like a great restoration project, a Corvette Stingray, this being when the Corvette was a big status sportscar in the US.

So Ken and his classmates restore it, souping it up and giving it a paint and engine job that make it look distinctive but that would probably make any purist blanch. (I'm not exactly a car buff, so I can't really judge.) It's near the end of the school year, so the class takes it out for a night on the town cruising. Technically it's the class car, but since Ken put the most work into it and had all the big ideas, he treats it as his own baby.

Things go fine until one of Ken's classmates gets behind the wheel and goes to a local diner to pick up snacks for the class. When he gets out... the Corvette is nowhere to be found! This even though he took the keys out of the ignition. Ken is pissed, and wants to do whatever it takes to get that car back, even though it would probably be taken to a chop shop for parts because who can avoid detection driving a stolen car that looks like this around?

Eventually, a rumor comes through the grapevine that the Corvette might have been seen in Las Vegas. So Ken decides he's going to head there, even though he has next to no money and no realistic hopes of finding the car, just his faith. He has to hitchhike, which doesn't always work until a van stops by, driven by Vanessa (Annie Potts).

Vanessa is a young woman who must have watched Midnight Cowboy and thought that Jon Voight's idea of going to the big city to become a hustler was a brilliant one, as she's going to Vegas in the hopes of becoming some sort of hooker or escort or something that will land her a rich man. Not that Ken is that rich guy, but Vanessa being the steretypical "prostitute with a heart of gold", she takes Ken in and takes him all the way to Vegas

Surprisingly, Ken does spot the Corvette a couple of times, at least until the car thieves get wise to this and repaint it. It turns out that one of the thieves is a former student of McGrath's which lets McGrath help get Ken a job with the thieves that would of course technically involve him committing crimes. Ken thinks more about stealing "his" Corvette out from under the noses of the car thieves....

Corvette Summer isn't exactly a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. Mark Hamill is much too old to be playing a high school senior, and the movie is full of plot holes. And yet, there are still all sorts of reasons to watch it. One is that it has a sort of odd charm as you can't imagine these two naïve characters up against a world that would probably chew them up and spit them out in real life. Another is for the cars, which fans of vintage cars will enjoy seeing.

And then there's Las Vegas, which is as much of a star here as Hamill and Potts. Las Vegas in those days was known for the gaudy neon lights of the Strip coming from those casinos on the Strip; of course, the sun comes up in the morning and what's Vegas going to look like then? I actually had the opportunity to spend a daytime in Vegas around the time Corvette Summer was released. Our family did one of those "pile up the van and go across the country" trips in 1978, and overnight in the Mojave Desert we suffered a blowout which required spending the next day getting the car serviced at the nearest Ford dealership, in Vegas. My one memory of Vegas was that it was decidedly less glamorous than the pictures I had seen; I think Corvette Summer really captures that lack of glamour, and does it in a humorous way.

Corvette Summer doesn't show up on TV all that often, which is a bit of a shame, because while it's definitely worth one watch, it's not my first choice for what I'd pop in the DVD player. Corvette Summer, being an MGM release, did get both a DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Brooklyn Cossack

Another of the movies I watched off my DVR recently is the 1962 version of the Nikolai Gogol novel Taras Bulba.

Yul Brynner plays Taras Bulba, leader of a band of Cossacks in the late 16th century. The part of the world inhabited by the Cossacks is stuck between three powerful nations: the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and Poland. The various Coascak bands fight a lot; at the same time, there's also fighting with the Ottomans going on. In this case, it's a battle between Poland and the Ottomans, and the Cossack intervention on the side of the Poles saves the day. However, the Poles are duplicitous and take over the Cossack lands. Taras flees into the hills to escape the Polish yoke. (I thought this might be the Carpathians, which extend into Western Ukraine, although supposedly it's supposed to be the steppes even those are relatively flat.)

Taras and his wife have two children. They grow up to be the adults Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez). Taras wants them to get a good education, so he sends them off to university in Kyiv, which is accepting Cossack students but is under Polish governance. The Poles don't particularly like the Cossacks, and treat Andrei and Ostap like dirt, subjecting them to disciplinary floggings and the like.

Worse for the brothers is that Andrei sees the lovely young woman Natalia (Christine Kaufmann). In and of itself, that wouldn't be such a big deal. But Natalia is a Polish princess. There's both class and nationality issues regarding any sort of relationship between her and a Cossack like Andrei, and if the the relationship became public, it would mean big trouble for Andrei. Unsurprisingly, the authorities do find out, and Andrei and Ostap have to beat a hasty retreat out of Kyiv and back to the old family home.

Dad is glad to see them, but in the mean time, the Cossacks have become relatively peaceful; indeed, we get to see them have a couple of celebrations. But the possibility of more fighting comes with the Poles asking the Cossacks to help them subdue the Baltics in exchange for the spoils of war. The Cossacks do go off and fight, but Taras has a trick up his sleeve. He's planning to turn on the Poles and take back the land the Poles stole from them all those years ago.

At the battle of Dubno, Taras puts his plan in motion, and is able to force the Poles to retreat inside the city walls where Taras can besiege them into surrendering. The fact that there's also a plague going through Dubno should only help the Cossacks, even though some of the people under Taras are not pleased with having to keep up a siege instead of fighting. And then it turns out that Natalia is in the city....

I have not actually read Gogol's original novel so I can only trust other reviewers who comment on how faithfully the movie follows the source material. In that light, I obviously can't make any complaints about the movie going off in its own direction. As a period action movie, it's not bad, although it certainly does have some problems. One is that it's too long, at just over two hours, and another is the casting of Curtis and Lopez as the two sons; both of them stick out like sore thumbs.

Yul Brynner, on the other hand, was born to play material like this, and does a fine job. There's also nice scenery. As I was watching, I was wondering whether this was another of those international co-productions that got made someplace like Yugoslavia which at the time was the most open of the Communist countries. When I looked it up, I discovered that filming was actually in Argentina. I guess the Pampas could easily substitute for the steppes.

All in all, Taras Bulba is not a bad movie to watch on a rainy day if you want action and something that's not overly demanding.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Thursday Movie Picks #331: Cinematography

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is a broad one, movies with favorite cinematography. There are any number of movies that are notable for their cinematography, such as Citizen Kane with its deep focus and camera angles courtesy of director Orson Welles and cameraman Gregg Toland. But I wound up picking a couple of other movies that are interesting to look at even if they're at varying levels of quality:

The Red Shoes (1948). Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's movie set against the world of ballet. Moira Shearer plays the ballerina who gets hired by a producer (Anton Walbrook) to dance a notoriously difficult ballet, the Red Shoes. Along the way, Shearer falls in love with the ballet's composer (Marius Goring), and faces the eternal conflict of what sacrifices one is willing to make for one's art. Cinematography is by Jack Cardiff, a master of Technicolor photography in the 1940s and 1950s.

Dersu Uzala (1975). Akira Kurosawa was at a low point in his career in Japan, so he took an offer from the Soviets to do a co-production, doing this story of a Russian surveyor in the early 20th century sent to survey unknown lands in eastern Siberia, and Dersu Uzala, the native who become's the surveyor's factotum. Dersu, however, isn't equipeed to handle encroaching civilization. This was a very difficult movie for Kurosawa, but there's some very beautiful photography of a very isolated region.

Service With a Smile (1934). Short about the owner of a service station that burns to the ground, and the owner has a plan to use the insurance money to rebuild and create the sort of service station you'd get if Busby Berkeley were running the place. Because we all want our gas pumped by chorus girls on roller skates. Part of the reason for mentioning this is combination of the choreography and cinematography; the other reason is because it's an early live-action three-strip Technicolor movie, and in the print that TCM runs (there's also currently one on Youtube as well), the color is absolutely gorgeous.

Mechanical Principles (1930). This short isn't worth describing; it has to be seen instead:

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Exit Smiling

Stage Actress Beatrice Lillie didn't make too many movies, but when I've seen her on screen, she's been quite enjoyable. Her first film was the silent Exit Smiling.

Lillie plays Violet, the seamstress/costume manager for a traveling theater troupe, although this being one of those perennially tight on funds troupes, she really has to do a whole lot more. In fact, she pretty much does everything but act, which irritates her because she thinks she can act and wants to play one of the vamp roles, and the manager won't let her act.

In one of the small towns the company visits, there's a young man named Jimmy Marsh (Jack Pickford, tragic younger brother of Mary). He works at a bank, and the bank is short $5,000, because one of the managers embezzled the money to pay off gambling debts. But the manager framed Jimmy, so he knows the law is after him and hops on a train to get the hell out of town.

You can guess that the train he gets on is the one to which the theater company's car is attached. Violet sees Jimmy and pretty quickly falls in love with him, although Jimmy had a girlfriend back home. Not that the company can afford another mouth to feed, but Violet thinks she can turn Jimmy into an actor and get him roles in the play they're putting on. Amazingly, Violet's plan works, at least in that it gets Jimmy a job with the company as an actor. Not that it gets Violet any parts in the plays.

Now that Jimmy has a job, he and the rest of the company are traveling around from one small town to the next. And you can probably guess again what's going to happen, which is that the train is going to stop in Jimmy's home town to do some performances of the play. (Why they stop there twice is beyond me; it's not as if the play was a success the first time.) Jimmy is understandably worried that people are going to notice him, considering he's a fugitive.

But this is also going to give Violet her big break. She offers to take Jimmy's part in the play, and after the play, she also gets the chance to redeem Jimmy, which is also going to involve some acting on her part.

Exit Smiling is surprisingly short at about 76 minutes, but also a lot of fun. Lillie is quite good when she has to do the difficult task of being a lousy actress. Pickford is appealing, and among the supporting cast is a young Franklin Pangborn. The story works well even if you know where it's going, and it's interesting to see backstage of a traveling theater company, since the older cast members probably had first-hand knowledge of such troupes.

Exit Smiling does have a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive collection, and is certainly worth a watch.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Hurt Locker

I have to admit I haven't been watching too many of the movies in the Women Make Film series on TCM, mostly because I don't have much room on my DVR to record them. Some months back during one of the free preview weekends, I had the chance to record The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. She's one of the directors in the TCM spotlight, and The Hurt Locker will be on overnight tonight at 12:30 AM, which is still late in the evening in more westerly time zones.

The US Army's Bravo Company is stationed in Baghdad in 2004 in the aftermath of the second Gulf War. Those who opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein have been reduced to a campaign of random targeted bombings, and Bravo Company is one of the units tasked with disposing the bombs. There's another bomb in the middle of a street, and Bravo Company has sent a team of three men, scheduled to be rotated out of Iraq in five weeks' time, to the scene: Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the leader; Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is Sanborn's backup; and Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce) is the guy who actually does the dirty work of making certain the bombs can be detonated safely by reducing the blast radius or even defusing the bombs.

Unfortunately, some of the bombs are remote controlled, with Iraqis having come up with a rudimentary detonator powered by cellular phone, so Sanborn and Eldridge are always on the lookout for anybody in the area who might have a cell phone that they could use to detonate the bomb. Indeed, the current bomb has just such a detonator. But they spot the man with the cell phone too late, and he's able to detonate the bomb, killing Thompson, who isn't able to get far enough away.

Sanborn is matter-of-fact and tries to be logical, for the most part, since keeping your wits about you is one way to improve your chances of getting out of a war zone like Baghdad alife. Eldrige, on the other hand, is shaken up by what happened, feeling as though he should have been able to stop the Iraqi guy from detonating the bomb. It's also fairly evidently not the first emotionally difficult situation Eldridge has faced in Iraq, as he's been seeing the base's psychologist, Col. Cambridge (Christian Camargo) to deal with things.

In any case, Bravo Company needs a new bomb disposal man. The Army sends them SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). James is completely different in terms of personality than either Sanborn or Eldridge, and presumably different from Thompson although we never get to know Thompson's personality since he's killed off in the opening scene. James reminds me of George C. Scott's Patton (since I just blogged about that a few days ago), sure of himself and usually right, although he doesn't do things by the book. For a World War II general that might be a political problem in dealing with the other generals. But for a bomb disposal man it's potentially fatal, and it's extremely understandable why Sanborn would constantly be butting heads with James. For James, however, it seems to be his way of dealing with the stress of bomb zones.

Much of The Hurt Locker then becomes more of a character study as there are scenes of some action but much more suspense as there are the various bomb scenes to detonate. But there's also the grim reality of everyday life back at the compound as the bombs punctuate this at irregular intervals. The three men try to form a coherent team together, although it's not always easy because of the constant tension between James and Sanborn on the one hand, and Eldridge's often being near the breaking point on the other.

I've blogged about several movies that were more character studies than plot-driven movies before. But The Hurt Locker is different from the others in that being a character study works greatly to the movie's benefit, as each of the three main characters has a dramatically different personality, and (mis)handles the stress in very different ways, all three actors giving fine performances.

Since The Hurt Locker is being shown on TCM as part of a spotlight on directors, I have to say I felt the direction was mostly unobtrusive (a good thing), with one minor irritant. Some of the explosions are done in slow motion, which I can understand as an artistic device to express the sense of time moving more slowly in such a situation, like the way people talk about one's life passing before one's eyes. But still, each time it was done it felt to me like a trite, overused technique.

I can definitely recommend The Hurt Locker. It's also available on DVD should you miss the TCM showing.

Monday, November 9, 2020


Shelley Winters' turn as TCM's Star of the Month continues tonight at 8:00 PM with Lolita.

Lolita is one of those movies that starts off at the end. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) shows up at the house of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Quilty is a dissolute man, at least from the looks of his house, with a table tennis table in the main room covered with all sorts of junk, and a generally slovenly look to the whole place. But Humbert is really there to shoot Quilty!

Flash back four years. Humbert Humbert is a British professor of French literature who has gotten a job at one of those small liberal arts colleges that dot Hollywood movies, this one being somewhere in Ohio. But Humbert decides he's going to spend the summer before he has to go out to Ohio working on a book, so he shows up in the town of Ramsdale, NH, looking for a place to rent a room for the summer. The one he gets is in a house owned by Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters).

Haze is a widow with a teenaged daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyon), who has the nickname Lolita. Lolita is beginning to learn about boys, and don't you think she doesn't know the power that she has over them, what with her good looks and their hormones. She even pursues Humbert, who finds himself falling prey to her charms. But Charlotte is also in need of a man, not that she's going to be as direct about it as her daughter.

One night at a dance ostensibly for the teens, Charlotte and Humbert meet Clare Quilty, a screenwriter also in Ramsdale for the summer. Humbert keeps finding that he wants to be alone with Lolita, but this is obviously not morally acceptable, so he comes up with the next best solution, which is to start up a relationshp with Charlotte as a ruse to be able to be near Lolita. Charlotte, being in need of a man and not realizing what Humbert is up to, agrees to marry Humbert.

But then she reads Humbert's diary and learns the truth, which causes her to go nuts and run out in the rain, where she gets run down by a car and killed. Lolita is off at summer camp at the time, so she doesn't know what happened. And Humbert is too stupid to tell her the truth for several days after picking Lolita up from the summer camp!

On the way back from summer camp, they run into Quilty at a hotel, Humbert not recognizing him from that dance back in Ramsdale. But Quilty certainly recognizes Humbert and Lolita, and starts plotting a way into Lolita's life, as we see when he shows up at the Humbert house in disguise claiming to be a high school psychiatrist! He's also written a play just to get Lolita cast in it and near him. Humbert tries to get away, while Quilty keeps following.

I had two big problems with Lolita. One was with the characters. None of the four main characters was particularly likeable. Humbert lies for no good reason; Lolita is nastily manipulative; Charlotte is a shrill clingy harpy; and Peter Sellers is in post-Strangelove obnoxious mode even though this one was made a year before Dr. Strangelove. The other big problem is with the director, Stanley Kubrick, who decided that the best way to handle the material is to have it drag on for over two and a half hours. It's way too slow, I think.

Interestingly, the one thing I didn't have much of a problem with is the whole idea of a much older guy with a stepdaughter who may or may not be of legal age. That idea is handled reasonably well, in part because the Production Code hadn't been completely dismantled yet (even though the movie was made in England, Kubrick was obviously going to have to conform to the Code to get the movie shown in America). So everything is handled in a somewhat more circumspect manner than it would have been half a dozen years later.

There's also a 1990s version of Lolita, which I haven't seen, so be careful if you're looking for a DVD.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Hard to Get

Olivia de Havilland died at the end of July, and TCM replaced an entire day of their original Summer Under the Stars with a day of de Havilland's movies, which gave me the chance to record a couple of movies that I hadn't seen before, and certainly hadn't blogged about. One of them is Hard to Get.

De Havilland plays Maggie Richards, elder daughter in a wealthy New York family of the sort that would go off to Newport for the summer. Except that for whatever reason, she decides she's not going to go this year, staying behind with her father (Charles Winninger) while Mom (Isabel Jeans) and her sister Connie (Bonita Granville) head off the Newport only to show up again in the final reel.

Maggie goes off for a drive, stopping to get gas at a service station somewhere in the suburbs which is run by Bill Davis (Dick Powell). Bill is an architect who is running the station because he has plans that the company should be setting up a bunch of Interstate-style service areas with attached motels (although there were no Interstate highways back in those days, of course), somewhat like the desert station we see in Heat Lightning. Anyhow, Maggie doesn't have any money on her, simply expecting to be able to put any purchases on a tab or to be able to come back and pay the next day. Yeah, right, says Bill, who makes her do chores around the station to pay off the debt.

Maggie is irritated by this, so she comes up with a plan for revenge after Dad tells her that Bill was right to do what she did. She finds out about Bill's plans for the service stations, which works to her benefit as Dad is an oilman who knows the people who could put the plan into motion. So she gives Bill Dad's nickname as a password to get in to see him, knowing fully well that Dad only gives that nickname out to his closest friends and is going to be pissed to see this stranger calling him by that nickname. Dad wants to know who gave Bill the name, but Bill isn't going to tell.

Instead, Bill winds up going back and forth between Mr. Richards and Atwater (Thurston Hall), a banker who isn't about to give Bill the time of day either despite Bill's increasingly outlandish schemes to try to get in to see both Atwater and Mr. Richards. Bill gets one of the Richards' maids (Penny Singleton) involved, and as you can probably guess, also starts to fall in love with Maggie along the way. She has fallen in love with him first, but it's going to take until the last reel for the two to wind up together even though we know it's coming.

Hard to Get is predictable but still competently made, which should be no surprise considering the caliber of stars in the lead roles. Watching it, though, I can see why de Havilland is one of those people who tried to break her contract to get better roles. After thinking about her time at Warner Bros., most of her good roles were with Errol Flynn, while her other good roles were at other studios (eg. Gone With the Wind or Hold Back the Dawn). Powell, it feels like, is taking a step down into a programmer with a routine plot and a lot fewer musical numbers for him to sing. However, he did get one classic in "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby".

Hard to Get is perfectly passable entertainment, and a movie that's more than worth watching the next time it shows up on TCM. It got a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, although it's another of those movies that would be nice to see in a box set.