Saturday, May 15, 2021

Tough to Review

A couple of months back, I did a post on The TAMI Show, the sort of movie that's difficult to review, and even more difficult to do a synopsis on. After all, it's just a concert movie, and whether you'll like it depends a whole lot on what sort of music you like. A similar movie is Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, which is getting an airing tomorrow at 3:30 AM on The Movie Channel. (It's also got a few more airings later in the week on various parts of the Showtime family.)

In December of 1981, comedian Richard Pryor gave some sold out performances at the Palladium theater on Los Angeles' Sunset Blvd. Director Joe Layton filmed them and edited them together into the movie we have. (I figured that even with the number of cameras Layton had, it had to be a composite from multiple shows; IMDb says the most obvious sign is in Pryor's handkerchief.)

Pryor covers a wide range of topics, starting with relationships; going to discussion of a trip to Africa as a black man; working as a young man being an MC in a Mob-owned nightclub; and, finally, ending the show with discussion of his cocaine addiction and, most notably, the accident he had trying to light cocain for freebasing in which he severely burned himself.

Thankfully, the sort of material Pryor proffers dates much less than people like the interminably unfunny Mark Russell, who had satirical material based on current events. Still, even though we know when watching old movies with story lines that it doesn't necessarily matter if some of the comedy seems old-fashioned, with stand-up it still seems different. There are a few references to Presidents Carter and Reagan at the beginning, but after that, it's more about Pryor's own life experiences, which sound as though they're just suitably far in some unspecified past, just like any memoir.

My personal feeling was that the movie started off rather slowly, which is a bit of a problem since 78 minutes is more than long enough for a stand-up comedy set and the best material comes toward the end. This includes the parts about the Mob, as well as all of the cocaine-related stuff.

If you've never actually seen any of Richard Pryor's stand-up, give it a try. Just be warned that there's a lot of talk about sex as well as bad language, so it's not exactly a family-friendly movie.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Lafayette Escadrille

Another of the movies that I recently watched off the DVR is director William Wellman's final film, Lafayette Escadrille.

Tab Hunter plays Thad Walker, a young man from a well-to-do family in Boston circa 1916 who obviously feels the pressure of being the good son in a prominent family like his, and frankly, he can't really handle the pressure. He keeps getting into scrapes until finally, he steals a car for a joyride, in which his accidentally runs down a cyclist in full view of a policeman. That's an obvious problem, so he decides to do what adventurous young men of the era did, which is to go to France to be part of the French Foreign Legion, fighting for France in the Great War against Germany; after all, American still hadn't entered the war.

On the ship over to France, a stowaway Thad meets a couple of other Americans, including Duke Sinclair (David Janssen), Tom Hitchcock (Jody McCrea) and Bill Wellman (yes, the director as a young man, and played by William Wellman Jr.), who are willing to put him up. The get to France, where they're going to join the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of Americans fighting up in the air as pilots. But before they even get to the training grounds, they have a night out at a French bar, which is where Thad meets Renée (Etchika Choureau). She's a woman with a past who's now working as a conductress on the Paris metro, and she and Thad immediately hit if off despite not having any language in common.

The guys all go off to train, with Thad showing up some days later after having spent time with Renée. The training is rather comic, with a Vietnamese cook serving as reveille, the pilots having trouble taxiing in straight lines, and the men not being able to understand the French drill sergeant (Marcel Dalio). Eventually, though, they do get off the ground. Or at least, most of them do.

Thad doesn't becuase of that rebellious nature we saw at the beginning of the movie. The drill sergeant treats him badly one too many times, and That responds by decking him, which is a serious no-no. That gets put in the base jail, and his friends eventually break him out. But of course there's no way that he's going to be able to serve since they'll put him right back in jail first to complete his sentence.

So Thad runs off to Paris to meet Renée again, hoping to get enough money for the two of them to flee to South America. But he can't even really get a job with his poor command of French and his being a wanted man. Renée had worked at a brothel before, so the madam gets Thad a job as an escort, she being able to provide him a modicum of protection. One of the people he escorts is an American general (Paul Fix), which is how Thad learns America has entered the war and he'll get his chance at redemption by signing up with the Americans.

Lafayette Escadrille, or at least, a movie about the original squadron, is an idea that has a lot of potential, and you can see that this was a highly personal project for Wellman. However, it winds up falling flat, in large part because it doesn't seem to be able to decide what it wants to be. A movie that's fully a war movie probably would have been worked well, but with Tab Hunter in the cast, we get a romance tacked on to it that doesn't particularly work. The comic relief also doesn't work quite as well as it could have. The little flying we do get it nice enough, but you leave wishing there were more.

Lafayette Escadrille is definitely fairly far down the list of William Wellman movies I'd recommend.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Skin Game (1931)

I think I've mentioned before that I picked up a cheap Mill Creek box set of early Alfred Hitchcock. One of the movies that I hadn't blogged about before is The Skin Game, which I first saw an age ago during one of TCM's salutes to Alfred Hitchcock. So I watched it again to refresh my memory and do a post on here.

Based on a play by John Galsworthy, The Skin Game tells the story of two families. The Hillcrists are an aristocratic family, led by a patriarch (C.V. France) who owns a lot of land in this rural area and lets it out to tenant farmers who, like his own family, have been in the same place for generations. One day he sells some of the land to Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), on the proviso that the tenant farmers get to stay in their cottages and continue to work the land.

Hornblower has no intention of doing that, however. He's a businessman, and interested in progress, having set up pottery factories. He wants those cottages to house his new factory's workers. When Hillcrist finds out he's been duped, he's displeased to no end. Worse is that Hornblower is intending to buy another large plot of land for the factory, and building the factory will really destroy Hillcrist's view from the manor house and the whole way of life in the area.

Fortunately, the land is going to be sold at auction, so Hillcrist is able to come to the auction along with an agent who is going to be doing Hillcrists' bidding secretly. Hornblower, of course, is none too stupid himself, so he does his own bidding while keeping another bidder in reserve. So when this reserve bidder winds up winning the auction, Hillcrist is at first relieved until Hornblower tells him nope, I pulled a fast one on you.

Thankfully, Hillcrist still has one trump card up his sleeve, although it's a rather dirty one. Hornblower's son Charles has married a womn named Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), and some of Hillcrist's agents have discovered that Chloe had a scandalous past, something involving getting paid to be the "other party" in divorce cases. It doesn't seem so scandalous by 2021 standards, but a century ago, among the polite classes, oh my. Hillcrist plans to use this to blackmail Hornblower: sell the land to me at a loss, or I'll reveal your daughter-in-law's secret. Predictably, tragedy ensues.

I said at the beginning that The Skin Game is based on a play, and there's a fair portion of it that's quite stagey, with few of the usual Hitchcock touches. The one place that does show Hitchcock's invention is in the auction scene, which has some mildly interesting panning and editing. But overall, this is a genre that Hitchcock doesn't seem terribly interested in, and the result is a movie that's mildly interesting but nothing great, especially not by the standards of Hitchcock.

The Skin Game is a nice addition to a box set, but don't expect typical Hitchcock.

Thursday Movie Picks #357: Period Drama

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week, the theme is "Period Dramas", which isn't too difficult. In fact, it's been done before, so the big task was to select three movies that I haven't used before, or at least not in a couple of years. (In fact, I don't think I've used any of them before this week.) I also decided to pick three movies that are all set in a period fairly close to each other:

Women in Love (1970). Glenda Jackson (who won an Oscar in a weak year for the category) and Jennie Linden play a pair of modern sisters in 1920s England who don't much care for the conventions of the time. They meet Oliver Reed and Alan Bates respectively at a friend's wedding, and begin to start torrid relationships. Based on the D.H. Lawrence novel, I frankly hated the movie as I felt it went nowhere and included a couple of pointless scenes, such as Glenda Jackson's interpretive dance when confronted by cattle:

As I said in my original review, the cattle realized there was enough BS in the movie already and walked off. Oh, there's also the nude wrestling scene between Reed and Bates, if that's your thing.

Agatha (1979). Mystery writer Agatha Christie (Vanessa Regrave) famously disappeared for 11 days in December 1926. There's been much speculation about what happened during those 11 days, although nobody really knows. This movie posits a rather fanciful scenario, with Agatha fleeing her estranged husband Archie (Timothy Dalton). An American journalist (Dustin Hoffman) finds her, but does she want his help?

Gosford Park (2001). In early 1930s England, one of those old English manors hosts a party for a bunch of people at which a murder occurs. The rich upstairs folks as well as the downstairs help are all scandalized by it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Coming up, May 13-14, 2021

Unfortunately, since I have DirecTV, every now and then it rains hard enough that the satellite signal goes out. (It's not anywhere near as frequent as detractors of satellite TV would have you believe, however.) Last weekend, I was finally going to get around to watching All That Jazz, which I had recorded off of TCM back in Spetmber. But somehow, the signal was lost for a good 40 minutes. At least, Ben Mankiewicz's outro ended at about 1:21 into the recording block. Anyhow, it reminded me of another movie that's coming up where the last time I recorded it, there was also a thunderstorm. That movie, If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, is on the schedule for tomorrow afternoon at 4:15 PM on TCM.

Elsewhere on TCM, there's Hot Money, Friday at 5:15 PM. It's a movie starting tragic Ross Alexander that I don't think I've seen before. But reading the synopsis sure made it sound familiar, and after a bit of thinking, I realized why. IMDb confirmed my suspicion that this is a remake of the William Powell movie High Pressure. (I find it hard to believe it's been a year and a half since I blogged about this one.)

Over on FXM, Conrack is back on, tomorrow at 3:00 AM and other times. There's also Compulsion at 9:35 AM, followed by Tony Rome at 11:20 AM. There was a sequel to Tony Rome called Lady in Cement that I've got on one of my Frank Sinatra box sets and have been meaning to getting around to watching, although other things have come up, like trying to watch stuff off the DVR considering how little room I've got left.

While looking through the premium channel schedules, the DirecTV box guide had the James Stewart movie Winchester '73 on StarzEncore Westerns. Unfortunately, TitanTV claims that it was actually the 1960s remake starring Tom Tryon, which will also be on tomorrow at 6:52 AM. TitanTV claims the Stewart version will be on a couple of times on May 20, but it could just as likely be the remake.

Another movie that was on as I was searching through the channels was At Close Range. This one will get another airing on Showtime Showcase at 4:00 PM Friday, as well as a couple of times thereafter on Flix.

Thoughts on the passing of Norman Lloyd

Norman Lloyd about to fall off the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942)

By now, fans of old movies have probably heard about the death of actor Norman Lloyd, whos long career started on the stage in the late 1930s and continued through movies, TV, public appearances, and even small roles as he was pushing 100. I first mentioned Lloyd's birthday in November 2012 when he turned a sprightly 98, not knowing that he was going to live another 8-1/2 years. Lloyd was 106.

I began thinking about people whose careers began as adults in that era who might still be with us; unsurprisingly, there aren't many. Angela Lansbury started at 18 in Gaslight playing an adult role, as the maid Charles Boyer brings in. Ann Blyth is about the same age, but her breakout role as Veda Pierce in Mildred Pierce isn't quite an adult role. There's also Marsha Hunt, who's 103 now; she was the female lead in Kid Glove Killer opposite Van Heflin. It's a really fun little movie, one of the best of the MGM B's. There's also Jacqueline White, who was in bit parts at MGM before RKO put her in two classics, Crossfire and her final film, The Narrow Margin; she's 98.

Obviously, there are several more child actors from that era still with us. Dean Stockwell turned 85 in March; Dwayne Hickman turns 87 next week, and Dwayne's older brother Darryl, who famously drowns in Leave Her to Heaven, will be 90 in the summer. Among the girl stars, Jane Withers, who steals the show from Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes if you ask me, turned 95 last month.

I think Saboteur is my favorite of the movies I've seen Norman Lloyd in, although The Southerner is also interesting. Lloyd has a small role in John Garfield's final film, He Ran All the Way, which is definitely worth a watch. I haven't seen any news of a programming salute to Lloyd, but of course, TCM's web-site redesign cut out a lot of such things. I can't imagine them not doing a salute to Lloyd at some point considering he did an extended interview with Ben Mankiewicz at the 2015 (I think) TCM Film Festival.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Merrily We Go to Hell

During last autumn's Women Make Film series on TCM, they unsurprisingly included Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women directing movies in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. The film TCM selected, Merrily We Go to Hell, was recently released on DVD courtesy of Criterion, so I sat down to watch it and do a review.

Sylvia Sydney plays Joan Prentice, daughter of a canned-foods magnate (George Irving) who, at the start of the movie, is a guest at a penthouse party in Chicago. Also at the party is newspaperman Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) who, like a lot of newspapermen in the movies, is cynical and a heavy drinker. Jerry hits Joan with an elastic band, which leads the two of them to talk, and Joan to invite Jerry to her house the next day for a party.

Jerry shows up, eventually, being late in no small part because of that drinking. But still, for some reason, Joan falls in love with Jerry, while Dad tries to disabuse Joan of any notions of romance. He also tries to disabuse Jerry, to the point that when he's proposed to Joan her dad offers Jerry a large sum to break off the engagement. But Jerry says he's going to marry Joan and live on his money, not her father's. Of course, he can barely bother to show up to the engagement party, having passed out drunk on the way when his friend and drinking buddy Buck (Skeets Gallagher) tries to bring him. And at the wedding, Jerry has lost the wedding ring. Talk about an auspicious marriage.

Jerry decides that he's going to right the Great American Play, although it's not clear if he'd ever tried to write any stage work before getting married. He's a journalist, you see, so he should be able to write anything. Unsurprisingly, success doesn't come at first, until just as he's about to give up and a telegram comes from New York saying the play can be produced if Jerry comes to New York to make changes.

Those changes are because the lead actress, Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen), demands them, and it seems she's had a past with Jerry. Jerry, for his part, has gotten on the wagon to try to get this play produced. But having Claire around is enough to drive any man to drink, especially considering she seems determined to drive a wedge between Jerry and Joan. Joan decides she too might think about stepping out. Only after she finally leaves Jerry to return home to Dad do we learn that she's gotten pregnant, too.

Merrily We Go to Hell is interesting if predictable, helped out by being a pre-Code movie and two good performances from Sidney and March. Cary Grant shows up ninth-billed in a small performance, but that voice is still instantly recognizable.

There are other pre-Codes that I'd recommend first, but Merrily We Go to Hell is definitely worth a watch.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Comic

TCM had a couple of new-to-me movies in their tribute to Carl Reiner when he died last summer. I got around recently to watching the last of them, The Comic.

Dick Van Dyke plays the comic in question, a man named Billy Bright (not a real person, although many character traits were based on old-time comic actors). The movie opens with Bright's funeral, fairly sparsely attended since, as one passerby says, he didn't even know Bright was still alive. One of the attendees comes to the church with a package. As it turns out, he was hired by Bright to pie the eulogist (and the eulogist was in on it). After all, a pie to the face is always funny.

Bright had been big back in the silent days, before the pictures got small, and we flash back to those thrilling days of yesteryear as Bright narrates his own life story. Bright was a vaudeville clown with a very distinctive look who shows up in California ready to act in movies, although the directors want things done their way, not the way Billy necessarily wants. Eventually, Billy starts to do things the directors' way, and becomes a pretty darn good comic actor and silent film star.

Bright even falls in love with his female lead Mary Gibson (Michele Lee), marrying her and, as a wedding present to her, starting his own studio so they can produce their own movies. Not every actor knew the first thing about production, however, and it's bound to be difficult. Billy also has other problems, in that he has a tendency to drink, as well as an eye for other women, tendencies his best friend Cockeye (Mickey Rooney, obviously based on Ben Turpin) tries to stop with a noted lack of success.

Eventually Mary files for divorce so that she can marry a man who will treat her and the kid well, Billy's old director Frank Powers (Cornel Wilde). By this time, sound has come to the movies, and Billy makes the fatal mistake of saying that comics act, not talk. Like a whole bunch of other silent comics, he fails to make the transition to sound, and winds up living in comedy until a late-career rediscovery thanks in part to Steve Allen (playing himself). But will Billy live long enough to enjoy it?

Dick Van Dyke was a very good comic actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but other than tripping over the ottoman I hadn't much considered his ability for physical comedy. I also hadn't thought much about his love of silent movies (in real life he knew Stan Laurel at the end of Laurel's life, and of course also appears in the silent-film section of What a Way to Go!). Van Dyke gives a fine performance here, as does Rooney. Lee understandably disappears in the second half of the movie, although she's more than adequate as Billy's wife.

Where The Comic isn't quite as good as it could be is in the script, which doesn't balance the dramatic and comic sides as well as it might, being at times too zany (Pert Kelton trying to marry her daughter off to an elderly Billy being a big example). Still, as an homage to silent cinema, and especially the silent comics, it's definitely worth a watch.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

I Never Sang for My Father

Today happens to be Mother's Day, but I recently happened to watch a movie that might be more appropiate for Father's Day: I Never Sang for My Father.

Gene Hackman plays Gene Garrison, a college professor in New York who's picking up his elderly parents at Kennedy Airport after they spent what was presumably the entire winter down in Florida. Gene gets a wheelchair for his mother Margaret (Dorothy Stickney), although she's able to walk: some time back she had a heart attack, and dad Tom (Melvyn Douglas) has been doing more of the housework as a result.

Gene has a rather complicated personal life, as his own wife died some time back. He met a gynecologist from California, Peggy (Elizabeth Hubbard) in the mean time, and is thinking of marrying her. But Dad is insistent that if Gene were to move out to California to get married, that this would kill Mom. Mom seems a bit less certain of this, wanting her son to find happiness in life, and pointing out that Dad spends a lot of time sleeping in front of the television with old westerns on the screen.

Things are about to get a whole lot more complicated for Gene when Mom suffers another heart attack, which leaves her in the hospital for a day or two before she finally dies. This brings Gene's sister Alice (Estelle Parsons) back into the picture and puts in sharper relief the problems that Gene has had with his parents, especially his father. Alice fell in love with a Jewish man, and the decidedly Christian Tom couldn't handle this, pretty much throwing Alice out of the house with no mind to how much this might have hurt Mom.

Alice wants Gene to get a housekeeper for Dad, who could certainly afford it, given how he goes on about having worked his way to the top and making $50,000 a year when he retired in the mid-1950s (which would have been a good three times what Jim Blandings was making in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House if I ran the numbers correctly). Dad also needs somebody around, as he's clearly beginning to show the signs of early-to-moderate dementia. At some point, he's not going to be able to live independently, and that point is sooner rather than later.

Alice also wants Gene to live his own life, warning him that if he doesn't head off to California now, he's never going to get to live his own life since Peggy isn't going to wait for him. She, of course, also has the experience of having been thrown out by Dad and not particularly caring what happens to Dad as a result. Gene, for his part, feels extremely conflicted, and understandably so. This is amplified by his visit to a "good" private nursing home along with a state-run home which is much more frightening.

I Never Sang for My Father is an always-relevant movie, as everybody is getting older and pretty much every family is going to be faced with the difficult decisions of what to do at the end of life and how to handle the conflicting needs of having to live one's own life (especially if one has children) and how not to abandon one's parents. In the case of the Garrisons, things are made much more complicated by the very demanding nature of Dad's personality, something that was apparently never seen by anybody outside the family. I Never Sang for My Father made me think of Make Way for Tomorrow, but rather more real since Hollywood wasn't really handling most topics with complete candor back in 1937 -- not that they were dishonest; just that Make Way for Tomorrow sugar-coats things in a way I Never Sang for My Father doesn't.

The performances in I Never Sang for My Father are excellent and ring quite true, I think. My own mother most likely had an undiagnosed mental illness that could make her as difficult to be around as Tom Garrison is here, and her own dementia only exacerbated that. Alice may seem like an extremely cruel character herself in the way she simply doesn't care about Dad, but looking at it from her perspective, it's awfully difficult to blame her.

I Never Sang for My Father may be difficult to watch at times, but it's an absolutely worthy movie.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Roberto Rossellini, 1906-1977

From left to right: Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman, and Vittorio da Sica

Today marks the birth anniversary of Italian director Roberto Rossellini, whose neo-realist films are eminently worth watching and led to one of cinema's more famous scandals.

Rossellini got his start in Fascist Italy, but once the Allies defeated Italy in World War II, Rossellini turned to making what would become Rome, Open City, the first film in a trilogy also including Paisan and Germania Anno Zero. Over in Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman was taken with these movies, and so wrote to him offering herself for a potential future project of his.

That project turned out to be Stromboli, in which Bergman plays a war refugee who marries and resettles on an isolated Italian volcanic island. However, that movie also resulted in Bergman and Rossellini falling in love, which would be quite romantic if it weren't for the fact that both of them were already married to other people at the time, which makes things rather more complicated. Public opinion turned against both, especially after Bergman got pregnant by Rossellini. Stromboli was a box office bomb in the US, although that might be because of RKO's editing of the movie. (I saw the movie many years back, although I don't recall what edit it was.)

Rossellini would eventually divorce Bergman after falling in love with another woman while on a film project in India; I suppose Ingrid should have seen it coming although by this time she was back in Hollywood's good graces. Criterion has a box set of three of Rossellini and Bergman's movies together.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Navy Comes Here

Some movies showed up in TCM's 31 Days of Oscar for rather surprising reasons. One example of this is Here Comes the Navy. I had never seen it before, so I recently sat down to watch it.

James Cagney plays Chesty O'Connor, a riveter at a shipyard who's good at what he does, at least until Biff (Pat O'Brien) comes along. Biff is an officer aboard the USS Arizona (yes, the ship that sank in Pearl Harbor), but on land when he first meets Chesty who's busy catching rivets. A dispute comes up between them, and the two men nearly come to blows for reasons that make no real sense.

Some time later, Chesty is with his co-workers at the Ironworkers' Ball, and who should show up but Biff. Chesty wants his revenge from the previous fight, but when all the men go out into the alley to fight, Chesty learns that he's no match for Biff, costing him a deposit on a tuxedo, his girlfriend Gladys (Dorothy Tree), and even his job thanks to his injuries.

Now Chesty really wants revenge, but he finds out that Biff's ship has sailed, literally, since after all Biff is in the Navy. So Chesty decides he too is going to join the navy and get himself assigned to the same ship as Biff just to finish that fight and finally come out on top. This too makes no sense as I can't imagine the navy actually enlisting Chesty with such motivations, or Chesty ever getting anywhere close to the Arizona. He'd have ended up in the brig long before that with his constant insubordination.

But in that case, we wouldn't have a movie. So Chesty, along with his friend from training, Droopy (Frank McHugh), somehow get assigned to the Arizona, and Chesty immediately sets out to get himself booted from the Navy for his violent ways. Again, however, that just wouldn't do for the sort of movie Warner Bros. wanted to make, so we know that Chesty is going to be turned into a good person.

There's a big complication along the way, however. As part of a running joke about Droopy trying to buy his mother a set of false teeth (the running joke finally being revealed in the last scene), he and Chesty go to wire her the money. They meet telegraph office worker Dorothy (Gloria Stuart). Chesty immediately falls for her, and even gets her to invite him to her apartment for dinner the next night. What he doesn't know is that Dorthy is Dorothy Martin, Biff's sister. If Chesty wasn't in bad with Biff before, boy will he be now!

But Biff is going to get those chances to turn into a good person, when a couple of disasters happen and Chesty takes personal risk to save his fellow man, although in at least one case he only claims he's looking out for himself. Still, it's goin gto lead to the predictable ending that would have been pleasing for audiences of 1934 when the movie was released.

Amazingly, Here Comes the Navy got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. In 1934, there were 12 nominees for Best Picture, which might explain it. It's not exactly bad, although it has all sorts of facepalm-inducing motivations and seems unoriginal today. This, however, was the first pairing of Cagney and O'Brien, so it might have been more original to audiences of 1934. The two, as well as the supporting players, go through their paces and make something that definitely would have entertained audiences back then, although it may seem dated today.

There's also the archival footage of both the USS Arizona (indeed, some scenes were also filmed on board the ship) as well as the navy dirigible USS Macon. Everybody knows what happened to the Arizona; the Macon went down in an accident in 1935. Both ships are an interesting part of America's naval history.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks #356: Oscar Winners -- Best Director

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This year, several of the months have, on the first Thursday, a look at movies that won an Academy Award in one or another category. This time around, we're up to Best Director. I decided to go with five movies this time, since they have a common theme:

The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Alfred Hitchcock received his first nomination for Best Director for Rebecca in 1940, but lost to John Ford and his direction of John Steinbeck's book about Okies who migrate to California during the Dust Bowl, led more or less by Henry Fonda.

Going My Way (1944). Four years later, Hitchcock would be nominated again for Lifeboat, and should have won for both a tour-de-force of a movie on an extremely limited set, and an extremely disturbing story about mob violence. The fact that the mob was Americans killing a Nazi (Walter Slezak) probably doomed Hitchcock's chances. Instead, we get an incredibly mawkish story about a couple of priests (Bing Crosby and an absolutely retch-inducing Barry Fitzgerald) at a run-down parish that won a whole bunch of awards it didn't deserve. Almost anything else nominated should have won Best Picture (although I'd go with the unnominated A Canterbury Tale), and Alexander Knox should have run away with Best Actor for Wilson. I have no idea what the Academy was thinking in 1944.

The Lost Weekend (1945). Alfred Hitchcock would be nominated again the following year for Spellbound, but was up against Billy Wilder's daring movie about alcoholism, at least daring by 1945 standards. Ray Milland plays an alcoholic writer with writer's block with a girlfriend (Jane Wyman) who has the patience of Job and a brother (Phillip Terry) on the verge of giving up.

On the Waterfront (1954). Hitchcock would get a fourth nomination for Rear Window, and again did an extremely fine job in a tight set, but when you're up against On the Waterfront, something has to lose. Elia Kazan got an excellent performance out of Eva Marie Saint, along with fine performances from Marlon Brando and the supporting actors, of whom I'd single out Karl Malden as the parish priest. Brando could have been a contender for Best Actor, and in fact won.

The Apartment (1960). Alfred Hitchcock's final nomination was for Psycho in 1960, and once again, he had the terrible luck of being up against a movie that's really underrated. Hitchcock's direction is quite good although the sort of thing where it's obvious to see how it would earn a nomination. Billy Wilder brings more subtle direction to his story, getting another fine performance as a heel from Fred MacMurray; Jack Lemmon as the man who lets his bosses use his apartment for their nights "entertaining"; Shirley MacLaine as the jilted woman; and Jack Kruschen as Lemmon's neighbor who exhorts him to be a mensch. A really fine romantic comedy.

Ooh, a virtual film festival again

It's hard to believe that governments have been shutting stuff down for 14 months now thanks to the panic over the coronavirus. It wasn't that surprising that last year's TCM Film Festival got shut down in the "two weeks to flatten the curve" hysteria, but to still be shutting stuff down a year later when empirical evidence shows lockdowns haven't worked one bit is madness. At any rate, this year's TCM Film Festival starts tonight, virtually, on TCM and HBO Max.

I suppose one minor advantage is that if you do the streaming thing and subscribe to HBO Max, it's like those old-time movie theaters that would put a movie on loop and people would supposedly come in at whatever point in the movie and leave when they got to that point in the next showing, which frankly doesn't make any sense to me. The only difference is that with streaming you can start the showing whenever you want, and you don't have to line up outside a theater to do it. (At least, that's what I'm guessing; I don't know whether the films become available only at the same time as they air on TCM.)

In any case, the opening movie on TCM tonight at 8:00 PM is a 60th anniversary airing of West Side Story. It's 155 minutes but put into a 3:15 block, so I'm guessing that the extras on HBO Max will show up in the extra time allotted. I don't see any overriding theme for the four days of movies.

The Film Festival being this weekend also means there's not much going on for Mother's Day, with the exception of I Remember Mama at 4:30 PM Sunday.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Moonrise

Another of the movies that I recently got around to watching to try to free up some space on my DVR is Moonrise.

In a prologue, we see the silhouette of a man being hanged for murder, while kids beng kids, taunt the son of the hanged man, Danny Hawkins. For whatever reason, these kids being kids are far worse than in real life, and the taunting continues into adulthood, as they all believe that Danny has "bad blood". The taunting is led by Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), a man that as it turns out a lot of people have a reason not to like.

One person, however, who doesn't seem to dislike Jerry is local teacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell). She was all set to get married to Jerry, while Danny kind of likes her. At a dance, Jerry teases Danny one time too many, and and Danny responds by picking up a rock and hitting Jerry with it. Unfortunately, this is enough to kill Jerry, and in a panic, Danny doesn't know what to do, although he's fortunate that the exchange took place in a swamp so nobody will find the body for quite some time. The bad news is that Danny accidentally left his pocket knife at the scene, and it's a very distinctive knife.

With Jerry out of the way, Danny tries being nice to Gilly, and she likes his niceness. But Danny is also racked by guilt, and to be fair, he probably should since he killed a guy, even if the guy was a fairly distasteful person. Danny's guilt causes him to do some rather nasty things like get in a car accident, kick a hound dog that finds Jerry's body, strangle the deaf-mute (Harry Morgan) who finds the pocketknife, or jump off a Ferris wheel because he thinks the sheriff is on to him.

Eventually, the sheriff does figure things out, but this is an odd little backwoods Virginia town in that the sheriff and others have weird views of justice and salvation based on 19th century romanticism. Danny doesn't really have bad blood, you see, since the killing Dad committed was understandable: a doctor's malpractice led to the death of Danny's mom, and Dad killed the doctor in a revenge killing, and turned himself in. If only Danny can turn himself in in the same way, and not all handcuffed and everything, perhaps the jury will have mercy on him. (We don't actually get to the trial and justice portion of the story, since that would have required the movie to adhere to the Production Code.)

Moonrise is an odd little movie, in that it seems more about the visuals, and in some ways a psychological look at the main character, than it does about the actual story, which is fairly pedestrian. Physically it's a nice movie to look at, if you can overlook that story. Dane Clark isn't the world's best actor by any stretch of the imagination, and while he doesn't do badly, many of the supporting actors are just as much worth watching. I haven't mentioned Rex Ingram, as one of those solitary wise black men, along the lines of Juano Hernandez in Stars in My Crown. Ethel Barrymore has one scene as Danny's grandmother and unsurprisingly nails it.

If you're in the mood for something slightly off Hollywood normal, but not too far off, then Moonrise is definitely worth a watch.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Gallant Sons

A couple of weeks back in the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon, the subject was "Amateur Sleuths". I hadn't watched Gallant Sons yet, and at any rate it doesn't fit into the them-within-a-them I ended up using. Still, it's an interesting little entry into the genre.

The sleuths in question are going to be adolescents, but it takes a little longer to get to the actual sleuthing. Johnny Davis (Gene Reynolds) and Byron "By" Newbold (Jackie Cooper) are classmates and friends in high school, even though their parents don't get along. Johnny's dad, "Natural" (Ian Hunter), is a gambler and owns the local illicit casino, although he's always able to stay one step ahead of the cops. By's father Barton (Minor Watson) is a crusading editor at the newspaper, constantly trying to bring Natural Davis down. Also in the group of adolescent friends are Leo Gorcey as "Doc", Bonita Granville as Kate Pendleton, and June Preisser, whom MGM were obviously trying to groom for stardom at the time. Oh, and El Brendel is the janitor who seems to be the "responsible adult".

Further complicating things is that Kate's mom Clare (Gail Patrick) is in a relationship with Natural that the kids apparently known nothing about. And both Kate and Natural are being blackmailed. Natural wants to stop the blackmailing. So after a raid the fizzles out, Natural goes to an apartment where he's supposed to meet somebody involved in the blackmail. What he doesn't know is that Barton Newbold is following him. He also doesn't know that the woman he's supposed to meet is already dead, having been shot. Natural, on finding this out, makes the spectacularly stupid move of picking up the gun and putting his fingerprints on it.

So, for all the obvious reasons, Natural gets convicted and sent to prison. Johnny gets sent to live with Kate and Clare, distressing him because he has to live with a girl!, horror of horrors. Also unsurprisingly, there's a big falling out between Johnny and By, since Johnny thinks By is partly responsible for what happened. The other friends, however, are able to patch things up by making the suggestion that the group investigate the case themselves to try to solve what really happened. (I'm guessing that forensic science wasn't advanced enough to determine the time of death by how digested the contents of the dead woman's stomach were. This would likely have given Natural an alibi since he was at the casino all evening with a whole bunch of witnesses.)

There isn't much of a mystery here, as suspicion falls on a composer/bandleader who's blown the apartment in the same building as the dead woman but leaving behind sheet music. In fact, the mystery is superfluous to the plot. Further investigation gets the kids into slight danger. Meanwhile, By is supposed to be writing a play for the school's drama club, and this is tied into the plot by having him come up with the same insight that Hamlet did: The play's the thing/wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. The climax of the movie is a play that recreates the teens' reconstruction of events, with their suspect in attendance so that he'll incriminate himself.

The play-within-a-movie isn't just the climax, it's the highlight of Gallant Sons. It requires our adolescent stars to become terrible actors, and I mean really awful. They pull it off with aplomb, and there's also a lot of heckling from the audience that I found myself wondering whether a truly talented playwright could have put in as a way to break the fourth wall. Whether it was supposed to be part of the play or just comic relief in the movie doesn't matter; all that does matter is that it works well.

Gallant Sons is a really fun little B movie with a lot of enjoyable adolescent actors, with Leo Gorcey being the most oddly cast of the bunch. Fans of mystery may enjoy this change of pace.

Monday, May 3, 2021

TCM Star of the Month May 2021: Bob's Picks, sort of

Roberts Mitchum, Ryan, and Young in Crossfire (1947), tonight at 9:30 PM

We're in the first full week of a new month, and with 31 Days of Oscar having finished, it's time for a new Star of the Month on TCM. The only thing is that this isn't one of those traditional Stars of the Month, where we get a whole bunch of movies from one star. Instead, we get one or two movies each from a different star named Robert, every Monday in prime time in May continuing into Tuesday morning. The month kicks off with a Robert who wasn't a movie star, however, that being Robert Osborne, in the Private Screenings interview where he was the subject, getting intreviewed by Alec Baldwin. That will be followed by a movie with not just one Robert, but three of them: Crossfire, at 9:30 PM.

Yes, Robert Stack will be there, and it will be The Last Voyage

You can probably guess a lot of the stars who will be part of the line-up. There's Oscar winners like Robert Donat (although they're showing The 39 Steps and not Goodbye Mr. Chips) and Robert Duvall (again, we don't get the Oscar-winning Tender Mercies but The Great Santini). There are also lesser stars, like Robert Benchley. What we don't seem to get, however, are Bobs, as there's no Bob Hope even though TCM just ran The Facts of Life last month.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

You take the good, you take the bad...

Bob Hope is known for his brand of humor that was going out of date by the time the 1960s rolled around. He kept making movies, however, and a surprising one in his output is The Facts of Life.

Lucille Ball plays Kitty Weaver, who at the opening of the movie tells us that she's arriving at an airport to meet a man who's not her husband. That man is Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope). Kitty is surprised with herself for doing this, but what brought it about? Well, as you can guess, we're going to get a flashback.

Kitty and Larry are suburbanites each married, although not to each other, and with children. Kitty's husband Jack (Don DeFore) likes to gamble and often has to go away on business, while Larry's wife Mary (Ruth Hussey) spends a lot of time with the children. None of them are bad people; each half of each couple could just do with spending a little more time together. The Weavers and Gilberts are friends with each other and a third couple, the Masons (Philip Ober and Marianne Stewart), to the point that they all belong to the same country club and take vacations together since it's cheaper that way and the only way they can afford it. But Kitty doesn't have any great love for Larry and his bad dad jokes (not that the term was used in the early 1960s).

The three couples have another vacation in Acapulco scheduled, but a couple of things happen. One is that Jack has a business meeting up in San Francisco that suddenly comes up, delaying his trip to Acapulco by a couple of days. But Kitty should go ahead and enjoy herself. Meanwhile, an emergency with one of the kids will delay Mary, who doesn't think Grandma might be able to handle this emergency. So for the time being it's just Kitty, Larry, and the Masons. Larry rents a fishing boat to do some deep-sea fishing, but on the morning the four are supposed to go out, the Masons have gotten sick and in no condition to go out.

So Larry figures that since he's already paid for the boat and can't get the money back, perhaps he and Kitty should go out by themselves and the crew. Kitty even catches a big fish, and the two find out that they're not as bad as they might have thought about each other. Perhaps that will make things go smoother at the country club when they get home. But then they also begin to think that perhaps they might be falling in love. This is a big no-no, and not necessarily what they want.

When they get back to the US, the put it behind them, figuring it was just a vacation fling that will never happen again. But somehow, since they belong to the same country club and run in the same circle of friends, fate keeps conspiring to leave the two of them alone together, and they find out that they still have those feeling from the vacation.

In fact, things begin to go downhill between Kitty and Jack go downhill in part because of Jack's gambling habit, to the point that Kitty and Larry plan another vacation together and Kitty is even thinking of filing for divorce. What will they decide when they rent a cabin up near Monterey?

Although both Hope and Ball are both known for comedy, Ball had rather more of a career outside of comedy, even putting in fine performances in films like Lured and The Dark Corner. In the case of Bob Hope, I can't think of much non-comedy he did. The Facts of Life might be closest, as much of the film is a relatively light drama, with a bit more comedy in the second half after everybody gets back from Mexico.

Ball unsurprisingly does well. Hope doesn't do too badly, although I think the mish-mash of styles doesn't particularly help him. The movie starts to lose a bit of its steam in the second half even though Hope is more suited to comedy. The bright side is that the two characters' motivations seem quite real and plausible, which really helps the movie.

The Facts of Life is an interesting period piece and look at societal norms back in the early 1960s, as well as an interesting movie in the careers of both Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. It's not the greatest movie for either of them, by a long shot, but it's definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Briefs for May 1-2, 2021

Today is the final day of 31 Days of Oscar on TCM. They've been running the movies alphabetically, and the final film will be the Costa-Gavras movie Z, tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM, a political thriller loosely based on events in Greece in the early 1960s but still relevant today considering how authorities lied for months about the death of a Capitol police officer and the media willingly peddled the government's lies.

But that's not why I'm mentioning Z. I was wondering if there were any other movies beginnign with the letter Z that could have been used in 31 Days of Oscar. There's one pretty obvious one that's aired on TCM in the past, Zorba the Greek. There's also Zelig, which got cinematography and costume design nominations. Everything else is much more recent; a couple of foreign films, the animated Zootopia, and Zero Dark Thirty. (No nominations for Zoolander, in case you were wondering.)

After 31 Days of Oscar, we get 24 hours of Satyajit Ray on TCM starting Sunday at 8:00 PM as this will be a centenary salute. Most of the movies will be new to me and I unfortunately don't have any room on the DVR to record them. One interesting choice might be An Enemy of the People at 4:00 PM Monday, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen and turned into a movie in the 1970s by Steve McQueen.

It's been a while since I've mentioned Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and it's back in the FXM rotation. It has an airing tomorrow at 7:45 AM, and another one this coming Thursday. It's fun enough, but you can't help but think the big names in this (Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, and Peter Lorre) were in it for the paycheck.

Apparently the AFI is coming up with some website of Robert Osborne's TCM intros. I have no idea what they're going to have that TCM's Youtube channel won't have, and that tcm.com doesn't seem to have at all even since their site redesign. The Watch TCM app also only seems to have features right now, although I don't know if that's because of 31 Days of Oscar and the smaller number of shorts aired.

And now for the deaths. We'll start of with Kirk Douglas' widow Anne Buydens, who died on Thursday at the age of 102. Anne, who was married to Kirk for 66 years until his death, worked peripherally in the movies as a publicist and several other things, and also did a lot of philanthropy.

Johnny Crawford is better known for his TV work, although he was in El Dorado along with John Wayne. Crawford, who played son Mack McCain on The Rifleman, also died on Thursday, aged 75. Dad and I watch The Rifleman every Saturday at dinner, and it's to the point where I know most of the plots, although it's fun seeing who the guest stars are because the show got some guest stars who would become surprisingly well known, such as a young Dennis Hopper. It's also surprising how many movies Paul Fix had bit parts in back in the day.

Finally, Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis died today aged 89. Dukakis won a Best Supporting Actress oscar for Moonstruck.

Friday, April 30, 2021

A Life at Stake

Going through that Mill Creek box set of crime movies, I recently decided to watch another completely new to me movie off of it, A Life at Stake.

Keith Andes plays Edward Shaw, a man who got into the building trade after World War II much the same way Zachary Scott's character in The Unfaithful was. The only thing is that in Edward's case, one of the deals went south, and a whole bunch of his good friends lost their investments. Apparently Shaw wound up with a $1,000 bill out of it, which he had framed and refuses to break for... reasons that aren't really well explained.

Shaw lives in a rooming house run by an unnamed landlady (Jane Darwell), and coming to visit Shaw is lawyer Sam Pearson (Gavin Gordon). Pearson has an offer for Shaw that might get those debts paid off, and might get Shaw to start building housing developments again. The backers are the Hillmans, wealthy Gus (Douglass Dumbrille) and his much younger wife Doris (Angela Lansbury).

Edward meets Doris out by the swimming pool at her house, and it seems like there might be some sparks between the two of them. At any rate, Edward agrees to the deal and is even able to get Gus to pay off the debts, at least in installments. He's putting up enough money that doing all of it at once is going to be difficult.

One minor detail in the agreement is that the Hillmans are going to take out "key man" insurance on Edward. This sort of insurance is often for something like a TV show where if one key star dies suddenly, it'll pay off for all the people who will be put out of work by the star no longer being there. But in this case architect Edward is nominally supposed to be that key man, if you can believe it.

Edward has good reason to believe it's bogus, especially when it turns out that another of the Hillmans' business associated died in Wyoming under mysterious circumstances. After all, why do they need that much insurance on a little old architect? And why did they get an insurance policy that's non-cancellable (and why would the insurance company agree to that)? And why are they trying to drug him?

You can guess where things are going to go, with Edward getting increasingly paranoid and the Hillmans possibly trying to kill him. This is an ultra-B movie despite the presence of Lansbury, so there really aren't any surprises, especially as all of the wacky plot details wind up being more important by the end of the movie.

The print on the box set I have doesn't have a production company logo at the beginning, having been made independently by some studio I hadn't heard of; unsurprisingly, the print is also a bit raggedy. While A Life at Stake is by no means a great movie, it's the sort of thing you could imagine getting played on some local station's Late Late Show.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Hot Dog

I hadn't done a post on a short in a while, in part because TCM isn't listing what shorts are in the schedule ever since the website changed formats. I bought the Dogville collection some time back, so I decided to put one of the DVDs in and watch one of the shorts, Hot Dog.

I think this is the first of the Dogville shorts, since there's almost no plot here and it's not focused on parodying other movies the way later entries in the series did. Instead, the first half of the short focuses on a nightclub and pans over most of the customers while showing a bit of the floor shot. One female dog is there with a male dog who is not her husband. The husband shows up, a shooting occurs, and then there's a trial. That's about it.

Hot Dog is also the weakest of the Dogville shorts I've seen so far, and it's not the first one I'd show to people, but I'm glad that it's on the box set.

Thursday Movie Picks #355: TV Theme Songs (TV edition)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're in the last week of the month, which means that it's time for another TV edition. This month, the subject is TV themes or scores, which is fairly easy. So I thought about what sort of theme-within-a-theme I'd do. I had a couple in mind, such as composer Mike Post (The Rockford Files and others), or themes that became big hits, such as Welcome Back, Kotter. In the end, I decided to go with three TV shows that borrowed pieces of classical music. I think for two of the shows the music is at least as connected with the show as it is as a standalone piece:

Alfred Hitchock Presents (1955-1965). Appropriate, I suppose, for a movie blog, this TV show produced and hosted by the famous movie director is an anthology of mystery and suspense stories. The theme music is "Funeral March of a Marionette", by French composer Charles Gounod:

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Firing Line (1966-1999). Conservative writer and thinker William F. Buckley hosted this long-format interview show with a wide range of guests from across the political spectrum and a polite, if clearly adversarial, style of interviewing allowing guests to explain themselves more fully and designed to be more highbrow than, say the Sunday morning shows. An example of this is British philosopher Malcom Muggeridge who did several episodes, including one which became a Christmas staple. The theme song is the third movement of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2.

Masterpiece Theatre (1971-2008). PBS anthology show repackaging BBC dramas such as Upstairs, Downstairs or I, Claudius. The show dropped the word "Theatre" in 2008, as part of a restructuring that also changed its sister program Mystery; at the same time it also dropped the theme known for three dozen years, Jean-Joseph Mouret's Rondeau. Under the new title of Masterpiece Classic, it's aired such BBC fare as Downton Abbey.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now

There are multiple different movies with different stories but having the same title, Mannequin. Recently, I watched the 1937 Mannequin.

Joan Crawford stars as Jessie Cassidy, a woman working in some sort of garment factory and supporting an entire family of Mom (Elisabeth Risdon), Dad (Oscar O'Shea), and bratty kid brother Clifford (Leo Gorcey). Dad and Clifford are both layabouts that don't seem to want to work for anything, and Jessie is really beginning to get sick of that. Thankfully, she's got a boyfriend in Eddie Miller (not the self-styled King of Noir and played by Alan Curtis) whom she likes and who wants her to marry him, so she does.

At their wedding dinner, Jessie and Eddie are in a restaurant where another of the patrons is John Hennessey (Spencer Tracy). He came from the same neighborhood as Jessie, but worked like a dog to make it to where he is now, which is pretty darn well-to-do in the shipping industry. But he visits his old roots, I guess trying to remind himself of where he might wind up if he's a slacker. He sees Jessie and immediately falls in love with her. But he's lso a fundamentally decent guy and is never going to try to woo Jessie because it would be wrong to pursue a married woman.

Jessie gets a new and better-paying job in the Gebhart Follies as a chorus girl, and finds that Eddie is almost as bad as her father and brother, always having some sort of get-rich-quick scheme that is of course never going to work. As an example, he gets some friends to lend them their apartment because they're going away for a few months or something, but never tells Jessie, so when the friends come back and want their apartment, Jessie and Eddie are out on their keisters. Who would stay married to somebody after an incident like that.

Eventually there's going to be one such incident too many, but the one that comes really takes the cake. Eddie decides on a sort of reverse Palm Beach Story. He and Jessie should get divorced so that Jessie can have a quickie marriage to Hennessey, and then take Hennessey for a bundle in alimony, after which Eddie will be on easy street. Jessie is unsurprisingly appalled, and this finally gets her to leave Eddie. She doesn't run to Hennessey, however, because she never loved him, just considered him a decent person.

Hennessey, however, finds out that Jessie and Eddie split, and starts looking for Jessie, who didn't leave any forwarding address. Eventually, however, Hennessey finds her working as a department store model (hence the title Mannequin) and starts putting the moves on her. Jessie refuses at first, since of course she doesn't love him the way he loves her, but Hennessey keeps trying and Jessie eventually decides that even if she doesn't love Hennessey, she likes him and there is financial security in being Mrs. John Hennessey.

Except that the longshoremen have a way of going out on strike. Hennessey has always tried to give his workers a fair deal, but eventually even his employees go out on strike. Since Hennessey has all his capital tied up in his business, it threatens him with bankruptcy. Worse, nasty Eddie shows up to tell Hennessey about the proposition he had made with Jessie just before she divorced him, to try to get Hennessey to believe that's the only reason Jessie married him.

Mannequin is a competent little programmer. It's certainly not the best thing in the careers of either Joan Crawford or Spencer Tracy, although to be fair this was just before Tracy won his Oscars and just a couple of years after he moved over to MGM, so he wasn't getting just prestige roles yet. Both pull off their parts just fine, although the story at times leaves a bit to be desired. Curtis is suitably nasty, and young Leo Gorcey is already ready for the Bowery Boys.

People who like 1930s movies or like Joan Crawford will enjoy Mannequin if they're looking for something new to them; for people newer to classic films I'd start with more prominent titles.

One little point of trivia: the brothers of two prominent character actors named Frank show up: Frank Morgan's brother Ralph plays Hennessey's right-hand man, while Frank McHugh's brother Matt is another of Hennessey's underlings. Apparently they were in two other movies together as well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Anne of the Great Depression

I mentioned last week that the 1980s movie version of the Broadway musical Annie was coming up on TV this week. It'll be on tomorrow at 5:51 AM on Starz Kids and Familiy, with a repeat at 8:00 PM tomorrow.

Aileen Quinn plays Annie, a little orphan whose parents dropped her off at the New York orphanage for girls run by Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). Hannigan is a nasty little blankety-blank, and makes the kids do all sorts of menial labor, kind of like the orphanage in Oliver Twist. The kids rebel by singing, while Annie is actually able to escape once, which is how she winds up with Sandy the dog.

Anyhow, Annie and Sandy get caught by a policeman who returns them to Miss Hannigan. At the same time, Grace Farrell (Ann Reinking), personal secretary to ultra-wealthy Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney going bald) shows up at the orphanage. For PR reasons, Warbucks is looking to have a kid at his palatial mansion for the holidays. Annie eavesdrops on this, and is able to convince Grace to set requirements of what kind of kid gets selected to be exactly those requirements that Annie meets.

Annie is enchanted by the Warbucks mansion, and despite the fact that "Daddy" Warbucks didn't exactly want to do this at first, he's bowled over by Annie's charm, the same way everybody in Shirley Temple movies was, even though this is set before Temple became a star so name-dropping her is one of many anachronisms. (The Greta Garbo movie Camille is even more surprising, especially considering that Annie wasn't released by MGM.

Annie still talks fondly about her parents, who left her at the orphanage with nothing but the clothes on her back and half of a locket. Warbucks decides he's going to find Annie's parents for her and give them a reward to be able to take care of Annie. He doesn't mention the locket, however, so that the multitude of imposters will overlook a key fact they need to claim Annie, a sort of 1930s form of two-factor identification.

Miss Hannigan has the other half of the locket, as Annie's parents are in fact dead. (How Grace wasn't informed of this seems a major plot hole to me, as any sort of fostering would, I should think, have had to go through the government.) Two of Hannigan's old con-artist friends, Rooster (Tim Curry) and Lily (Bernadette Peters) show up willing to play the part of Annie's parents, since they'd be able to produce the locket. In exchange, they'll split the reward with Hannigan and dispose of Annie. The other orphans overhear all this and try to warn Warbucks.

If you're a 10-year-old girl who likes musicals, you'll love Annie. If you're either not a 10-year-old girl or don't care so much for musicals, you'll probably ahve a lot of problems with Annie. Making things even more difficult is that for the most part, it's children doing the singing, with the decidedly imperfect voices that pretty much every child has.

Everybody is also sharply drawn as either pure and virtuous or unalloyed evil. This is something that will work for kids, but as adults, it gets a bit grating. Still, even though I didn't care so much for Annie this is a much clearer case of a movie that some people are definitely going to like, and not so much a poor movie.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Devotion (1946)

I had two movies on my DVR titled Devotion, with different stories. The early talkie version doesn't seem to be on DVD, but the 1946-released movie titled Devotion is, so I watched that recently to do a review on here.

The Brontës are a family living in Yorkshire near the moors in the 1830s, where their father (Montagu Love) is a reverend in the Anglican chuch. There are four surviving children, daughters Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland), Emily (Ida Lupino), and Anne (Nancy Coleman), along with son Branwell (Arthur Kennedy). (In real life there were two older daughters but they, like all of the siblings, died young.)

As you probably know, all three of the surviving daughters liked to write, while Branwell liked to paint, as well as drink. Charlotte and Anne are set to go off to become governesses, while Emily stays to look after Branwell. He gets drunk one night at the local inn just as a new curate, Rev. Arthur Nicholls (Paul Henried) shows up to work alongside the overworked Rev. Brontë in the parish. Rev. Nicholls brings Branwell home, but Emily thinks Nicholls is one of Branwell's drunkard friends.

Emily has on again-off again feelings toward Arthur, until Charlotte shows up back home. The three sisters finally think about publishing some of their poetry, although they do it under male pseudonyms since apparently the thought of women writers, at least from outside the gentry, was somewhat scandalous. Not as scandalous as Branwell's behavior, mind you, but scandalous nonetheless.

Emily and Charlotte go off to Brussels to teach in a school there, where they meet married headmaster Constantin Heger (Victor Francen). Charlotte is portrayed as having a crush on Heger while Emily has more muted feelings for him, although this is probably just Hollywood hogwash from what I've read. Branwell has another bout of illness that forces the sisters to return home, just in time for him to die.

As you know from real life, Emily became famous for writing Wuthering Heights and Charlotte for Jane Eyre. Charlotte goes to London after Jane Eyre has been published under the pseudonym Currer Bell. There she meets William Thackeray (Sydney Greenstreet), author of successful books like Vanity Fair. He learns the secret of the Bells which is that they're actually women, and thinks that Emily's writing is more powerful than Charlotte's, not that he dislikes Charlotte. And then Emily gets sick too....

As with most Hollywood biopics, from what I read, there's a lot in Devotion that's exaggeration at best and made up out of whole cloth at worst. As a movie, however, Devotion is an interesting jumping-off point if you want to learn more about the Brontës. Arthur Kennedy looks like he's channeling MGM contract player Van Heflin here, although since the movie was made at Warner Bros. they probably couldn't get Heflin. In fact, although the movie was released in 1946, it was actually made early in 1943 and shelved for a couple of years, possibly because of de Havilland's lawsuit against Warner Bros. (Indeed, Montagu Love died in 1943, long before the movie was released.)

De Havilland and Lupino both do reasonably well, although some people might find the material a little beneath them what with Hollywood's changing biographies around for dramatic effect. It all winds up feeling like material that should have been handled by MGM since they still had the gloss necessary to put this kind of movie over. Devotion isn't bad by any means, but it feels like it could have been so much more.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Briefs for April 25-26, 2021

Ah, yes, the Oscars are tonight. Not that I've been paying attention, since I don't watch too many recent films. That's especially so with the government forcing movie theaters to shut down thanks to the coronavirus, and my lack of internet bandwidth suitable for streaming lots of movies. I think I saw a story on the news recently that New York finally allowed movie theaters to reopen, but only at 25% capacity. That wasn't enough for the local arthouse theater, which is permanently leaving one of its two locations.

TCM's programming for 31 Days of Oscar this year having all the movies in alphabetical order means that if you've got a remake, chances are it means you're going to have the same story twice in a row. Or, in fact, three times in a row. The first three of the movies called A Star Is Born are going to be run back-to-back starting tomorrow at 6:00 PM with the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Fredric March version. That will be followed at 8:00 PM by the 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason film, and the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version at 11:15 PM. The recent version with Lady Gaga is not on the schedule, although if memory serves it actually won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Some people might argue that the original version of the story is actually 1932's What Price Hollywood?, which did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story. But What Price Hollywood? is not on the 31 Days of Oscar schedule.

Over on FXM, a movie that's back in the rotation is Forever Amber, which I blogged about almost exactly 10 years ago. It kicks off tomorrow's FXM Retro block at 3:30 AM with a second airing at 10:55 AM tomorrow, and one more on Mother's Day, but that's in two weeks' time. StarzEncore Westerns is one of the few premium channels that has really old movies on a regular basis, but I don't see anything that I blogged about a long time ago and ought to bring up again.

Director Monte Hellman died on Tuesday at the age of 91. He's probably best known for Two Lane Blacktop which I haven't blogged about before; it's probably likeliest to wind up on TCM Underground. One of his earliest movies was Back Door to Hell with a young Jack Nicholson. In addition to directing, he took over editing and some direction on Avalanche Express after Mark Robson died.

Wise Blood

John Huston is one of those directors whose work I've found very uneven as I've gone through it, at least in terms of how much I've liked it. Some of the movies are greats, like The Maltese Falcon or The Asphalt Jungle; others like Sinful Davey and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean have left me much colder. Another movie that fits into that second category is Wise Blood.

Based on a book by southern writer Flannery O'Connor, the movie stars Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes. Hazel has just gotten out of the army, and returned to his old home somewhere in Georgia, although the exact location isn't mentioned. Apparently his parents must have died while he was in the army and nobody told him, since he gets to the old homestead acting as though he's expecting somebody to be there for him. Instead, the home is dilapidated and everybody's been buried. So Hazel sells off his army uniform, buys a new suit of clothes, and sets off for the big city of Taulkinham.

Taulkinham looks amazingly like the city of Macon, GA, considering how many of the businesses are Macon something-or-others. (As you can guess, and the closing credits reveal, the film was indeed shot in Macon.) After cavorting with a prostitute, Hazel goes out to see the town, which is how he meets Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and Hawks' daughter Sabbath (Amy Wright). Asa is a blind street preacher who is so obviously a fraud and con artist that you wonder why on earth anybody would stop and listen to this guy, much less make a donation. Hazel thinks Asa's preaching is nonsense, but he's clearly taken by Sabbath. He also makes his one friend in Taulkinham, another transplant named Enoch Emory (Dan Shor). Or, at least, Enoch considers him a friend.

Hazel decides he's going to find out where Sabbath and her father live, which turns out to be a rooming house run by an unnamed landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce). After some talking with Sabbath and Asa, and Hazel's rejection of traditional Christianity, Hazel decides he's going to become a street preacher too, preaching the Church of Truth Without Christ, or something like that.

How anybody could listen to Hazel either is a mystery that is left unanswered. But Sabbath keeps pursuing Hazel, and Enoch tries to keep making Hazel be his friend. Asa's non-blindness is revealed by Hazel and Asa winds up working with another preacher (Ned Beatty), while Enoch goes nuts and steals a gorilla costume in a subplot that makes no sense whatsoever.

In fact, none of the movie makes sense. Perhaps I'm being too hard on John Huston, and instead should be harder on Flannery O'Connor for writing a story that doesn't translate to film. (Having not read the original book, I don't know if it doesn't work in print form either.) It also doesn't help that there's not one likeable character here. Every one of them is a selfish jerk, and with a bare wisp of a story, it's hard to be interested in these people.

However, some people will probably enjoy this look at a certain segment of society at an unnamed time. As for that time, most of the production design such as the cars suggests the 1970s (the movie was released in 1979), but the themes seem more from the days of The Trip to Bountiful (just after World War II) and Hazel takes what really seems to be a pre-Amtrak train. I assume the themes are supposed to be timeless.

So Wise Blood is absolutely a movie that you're going to have to watch and judge for yourself. You may come to a completely different conclusion than I did.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Ford v Ferrari

Whenver we get a free preview weekend from DirecTV of one or another subset of premium channels, I find myself recording a bunch of movies. During one of those weekends, I recorded Ford v Ferrari. It's going to be on HBO tomorrow morning at 9:20 AM (or three hours later if you only have the west coast feed), so I recently watched it to do a review on it today.

In 1959, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) wins the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race in an Aston-Martin. But upon returning to America, his doctor informs him that he has a heart valve issue that results in his having a high resting heart rate that will kill him if he keeps racing. (In real life Shelby had that issue since childhood and finally got a heart transplant in the late 1980s.) So Shelby turned to desiging racing cars.

Meanwhile, at Ford Motor Co., sales are flagging thanks to a change in taste among the American car-buying public. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), a junior executive at Ford at the time (he'd become chairman in 1970, get fired in the late 70s, and move to Chrysler where he was chairman for a dozen years), comes up with the idea of going into European-style auto racing, NASCAR being a highly regional thing at the time. The first idea is to go into partnership with Ferrari, which had the best racing team at the time. But Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) is disdainful of the Americans and uses the offer to extract a higher price from Fiat. So Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides to start a team to go up against Ferrari and beat them at their own game.

Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a British World War II veteran and would-be racecar driver who, in order to pay the bills, opens a garage repairing other people's cars in the Los Angeles area. Shelby finds Miles, and knowing Miles' reputation, hires Miles to test drive Shelby's cars as well as driving some of them in more local races. Miles is successful, but because of his abrasive reputation, it's going to be hard for him to work with anybody but Shelby.

This is going to be a problem because Ford, in their desire to beat Ferrari, turn to Shelby for help. Shelby is a good designer, and with Miles as a driver, is able to diagnose all of the problems with Ford's prototypes. However, the attempts to improve the prototype result in brake fade that almost kills Miles. That's going to make it difficult to get the car ready for the 1966 Le Mans, let alone have any chance to defeat Ferrari. But thanks to a lot of work and a daring wager from Shelby, not only are they ready for Le Mans, but Miles has a chance to be a driver for one of the cars.

Ford v Ferrari is based on a true story, and like most Hollywood retellings of history, it gets things wrong, although often for dramatic effect. I have no idea what these people were like in real life, although it wouldn't surprise me that, to get to the top of their chosen field, they all had to be extremely driven to the point of alienating folks around them. Damon's Shelby and Bale's Miles both display this quite well, with Iacocca being slightly less obnoxious.

I'm not a fan of auto racing to be honest, but found the portrayal of the characters in the run-up to the racing to be quite compelling. The races, however -- and the 1966 Le Mans unsurprisingly takes up a good half hour or so -- were a bit more difficult for me to get through. Part of this was that the special effects were the sort of latter-day effects that always leave me cold, as I talked about when I reviewed 1917. A bigger issue, for me, however, was the amount of Hollywood heartstring-tugging going on during the race with, among other things, constant cutting to Miles' wife and kid back in Los Angeles watching the race (which I would have thought wasn't broadcast live, and certainly not for the entire 24 hours). Others may not have a problem with this sort of story-telling.

In any case, Ford v Ferrari is definitely worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Another of the movies that I recorded some months ago on TCM and only recently got around to watching is the early Meryl Streep movie The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Streep plays Sarah, a young woman who at the start of the movie is walking along a breakwater somewhere in southwest England in the 1860s. Except that we're seeing the making of a movie, much like in Day for Night. After a scene of this and some of the people taking about Sarah's doomed relationship with a French lieutenant, we cut seamlessly to the present day. There, Anna, the actress playing Sarah, is sleeping in her hotel room with her costar Mike (Jeremy Irons), when she gets a make-up call that he answers, so everyone knows about their affair, since they're married to other people.

The big difference between The French Lieutenant's Woman and Day for Night, however, is that in The French Lieutenant's Woman, the movie-within-a-movie is treated as the main story, as this isn't a movie about the making of a movie. So with the exception of a director' clapper at the beginning and a set that hasn't been struck at a wrap party at the end, we don't really see things from the point of view of a crewmember, but as if we're in the movie theater watching the movie, because well, we are, more or less.

So the movie jumps sharply from the Victorian era to the present-day actors and back, which is how we learn that in many ways they're going through the same story. In the Victorian era, Mike's character Charles is a Darwinian looking for fossils who meets Sarah and falls in love with her. The only problem is, he's already fallen in love with Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter) and ask her father (Peter Vaughan) for her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Sarah is emotionally unstable because of the failed romance, and rather an outcast because she's defying convention. One doctor suggests to Charles that Sarah is suffering from melancholia, and should perhaps be sent away to a sanitarium. Charles, for his part, can't get Sarah out of his mind.

The cast were shooting on location in Exeter, and eventually, Anna learns that her husband is flying in, so since there's apparently going to be a break in shooting, she'll go see her husband in London for a few weeks. This distresses Mike greatly, who organizes a luncheon for a few of the main cast members and their families at his London house. There, it's discussed that the book on which the movie-within-a-movie is based has two endings, one happy and one sad. Which one will the movie take, and which one will the actors' lives take?

The French Lieutenant's Woman is based on a book that was apparently considered for quite some time to be very difficult to translate to the big screen. I haven't read the book, but from my viewing of the movie, what they did make works exceedingly well. Both halves of the story are compelling, and since there's a big difference between the look of the Victorian era and 1981 (I couldn't help but imagine Meryl Streep lending those eyeglasses to Dustin Hoffman for Tootsie), it's not exactly complicated to distinguish the two stories.

The actors all give good performances, with the two leads understandably being the best, and the production design works, with the standard movie caveat of everything being too bright and clean.

Apparently, audiences of the day didn't care for the movie's structure, and it was a box-office bomb. That's a shame, since the movie worked for me, and I think is one that should be better remembered.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks #354: Psychological Thrillers

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 "Psychological Thrillers", another one that seemed a bit tough, so I decided to go with three suspense movies in which people try to solve murders at some danger to themselves, with pyschiatric analysis playing a part in all three movies:

Spellbound (1945). Gregory Peck plays the new head of a sanitarium in Vermont where one of the staff psychiatrists, Ingrid Bergman, falls in love with him. The only thing is, Peck isn't the new boss, but an amnesiac under the care of the man who was supposed to be the new boss, and who was murdered, with Peck being an obvious suspect. Bergman and Peck go on the run to try to solve the murder, before the authorities can catch up with him. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, there's a very famous dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, and a laughable Freudian kiss involving a double exposure of a long hallway with doors opening up. (Almost as memorable and obvious as the train going into the tunnel at the end of Hitchcock's later North by Northwest.)

Klute (1971). John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a detective in small-town Pennsylvania who gets asked to investigate the disappearance of a local businessman who disappeared in New York City. Klute goes to the big city and finds that the disappeared guy was seeing prostitute Bree (Jane Fonda in her first Oscar-winning role), who may know more about what's going on. In asides, Bree discusses with her psychoanaylst why she's into prostitution. As Klute keeps investigating, both he and Bree might be in danger.

Still of the Night (1982). Roy Scheider plays a psychiatrist who is visited by the mistress (Meryl Streep) of one of his patients. The patient winds up murdered, and as the good doctor investigates, he winds up falling in love with the mistress, even though she's an obvious suspect in the killing, and both of them might be in more danger the closer he gets to finding out who committed the murder.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

C'era una volta

Some time back TCM had a day of interesting love story movies, which gave me the chance to record a couple more movies I hadn't seen before. Among them was More Than a Miracle.

After a 1960s MOR song by Roger Williams with choir, we finally, mercifully get to the action of the story. Omar Sharif plays Prince Rodrigo, the prince of somewhere in Spain. He's busy breaking a horse, which rather irritates his mommy, the Queen (Dolores del Rio), who would rather he do his princely duties and get married and start producing more heirs to the throne. Rodrigo doesn't seem to care, so he rides off with the horse until it throws him.

After searching for the horse, Rodrigo comes upon a monastery where there's a flying monk (not played by Sally Field) named Giuseppe sees Rodrigo in torn clothing from the fall, so he (and nobody else) seems to know that he's a Spanish prince. Giuseppe gives him some magic flour and tells him to make seven dumplings from it and eat them, before giving Rodrigo a donkey to get back home.

On the way home, Rodrigo finds his horse, which is now being used by a peasant woman Isabella (Mrs. Carlo Ponti, Ponti having been the producer; of course, Ponti's wife was Sophia Loren) to carry the harvest. Isabella understandably doesn't want to surrender the horse and doesn't like this insistent man who keeps begging her to make those seven dumplings. Finally, just to get rid of him, she does, but she eats one of them herself.

The end result of all this falderal is that Rodrigo and Isabella wind up falling in love with each other, but it's going to take them a long time to get back together and wind up in love in the last reel. Isabella enlists the help of some witches, but later some of Rodrigo's men stick her in a barrel where she's supposed to stay for five days with only bread and water, except that the barrel starts rolling all the way to the sea. Don't ask, I don't think it's supposed to make sense.

Ultimately Rodrigo is going to be married off whether he likes it or not, and Mom has selected seven princesses as candidates, each having some political advantage. Poor Rodrigo isn't even going to get to pick, as the bride will be whichever princess wins an odd homemaking contest of washing a large stack of dishes as quickly as possible while breaking as few of them as possible. Aren't these princesses going to have servants? Isabella worms her way into the contest, and looks like she's going to win, but....

As you can tell from the snark in the preceding paragraphs, I had a lot of problems with More Than a Miracle. Now, the fact that magic and witches are involved could, I suppose, be used as an explanation for why the plot doesn't make much sense, jumping from point to point. But I don't think it's a good enough explanation. The movie is also quite slow, taking way too long to get to the conclusion even though it only runs 103 minutes.

The other problem might be guessed from my title for the blog post. More Than a Miracle was an Italian-French production that MGM somehow got the rights to distribute in the US. But it was originally filmed in Italian, with the American title release More Than a Miracle being dubbed into English, and not too well. I'd guess that Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif did their own voices with Ponti intending from the start for the movie to be dubbed for American audiences. But the rest of the cast is badly dubbed, especially the main witch and a group of ragamuffins who sound much older than they look. It's highly intrusive.

More Than a Miracle, having been distributed in the US by MGM, did get a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

As much of an acquired taste as My Sharona

A few months back, TCM had a one-night spotlight of the films of director Richard Lester. One that I hadn't blogged about before is The Knack... and How to Get It. Recently, I finally got around to watching it, so now you get the post on it.

Michael Crawford (yes, the guy who'd do Phantom of the Opera in the 1980s) plays Colin, a schoolteacher living in a London house that he probably inherited, since there's no good way that he could afford a house like that otherwise. Indeed, he can't afford it, which is why he's renting out rooms to people like Tolen (Ray Brooks), who doesn't use his given name. Tolen has a string of women coming to his room one after the other while he makes love to them. Colin isn't thrilled with this, as he thinks he should be able to get women too. Perhaps Tolen can teach him.

There's another empty room to let in the house, and a la Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier, young Tom (Donal Donnelly) walks in through the window and decides on the spot to rent the room for himself. However, he doesn't like Colin's furniture, or the color of the walls, so Tom takes it upon himself to change these, blocking the front door with the furniture, among other things. Now, I don't understand why Colin would keep Tom around in a situation like this, but whatever. Don't pay attention to the plot.

Meanwhile, coming into London for the first time is Nancy (Rita Tushingham), looking for the YWCA probably because it's fun to stay there. Again, you'd think she'd have looked up the address of the YWCA before she left for London, and then figured out which bus to take to get there. Instead, she just randomly starts asking strangers, who probably shouldn't have any better idea where the YWCA is in such a big city. The movie keep going back and forth between Nancy's subplot and the three guys, but you know the two are going to converge eventually.

When Nancy meets up with the guys, Tolen immediately starts putting the moves on her although Colin thinks he should have first dibs, especially since it's his house and Tolen has enough women already. Tom has more sympathy for Colin than Tolen. The fact that you can probably guess which two are going to wind up together doesn't help.

There are a lot of problems with The Knack... and How to Get It, starting with the fact that the movie isn't really about the nominal plot. Instead, like The Bed-Sitting Room, it's more of an absurdist comedy. Richard Lester, who directed, had already made It's Trad, Dad! and A Hard Day's Night, which both play with our perceptions and in the case of the former, really break the fourth wall. But this time around, it doesn't work.

The plot holes, if you actually pay attention to the plot, don't help either. Nancy is unbelievably stupid, while Tolen is such a dick that you can't help but wonder why Colin didn't evict him long ago. Whole sections run on too long (even though the movie is only 84 minutes), the the humor isn't that funny.

But perhaps I'm not of the right generation to enjoy this one, and those who enjoy Mod London will. (On the other hand, I liked Georgy Girl and Bedazzled, for example.) So watch and judge for yourself.