Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The dark around a kiss

Ronald Reagan made several light romantic comedy programmers for Warner Bros. after returning from World War II. Another Warner Bros. movie in that genre that Reagan didn't make is A Kiss in the Dark.

David Niven plays the male lead, a concert pianist named Eric Phillips. He's gettin a bit neurotic, having been a pianist for ages and feeling like he can't remember any of his music and thus really can't go out there on stage. This is a prospect that frightens his manager, Peter Danilo (Joseph Buloff). Danilo is making good money off of running Phillips' career, and if he had to step away from that career for any period of time, well, who knows what would happen.

Danilo has also been getting his boss into things that Eric is being left more or less in the dark about. For example, Eric owns an apartment building. But the superintendent of the building, Horace Willoughby (Victor Moore) has been neglecting upkeep on the building, to the point that the building inspector has repeatedly issued code violations, and it to the point of putting out a warrant for the arrest of the building's owner if nothing is done to fix the violations.

Eric, realizing what a bad situation he's in, goes down to the apartment building to see what's up. What he finds is a series of quirky tenants. Most notably, there's Polly Haines (Jane Wyman), an advertising model whose usual photographer loves the piano music of one Eric Phillips. She's engaged to insurance salesman Bruce Arnold (Wayne Morris). There's also a tenant Mr. Botts (Broderick Crawford) who works an overnight shift and wants to sleep in the day, and thinks everybody is out to stop him from sleeping. So he harasses them to no end, nd all the other tenants want him out of the house.

Eric has some sympathy for most of the tenants, wants to fix up the building and put in all sorts of idiotic things there's no room for and that most of the tenants in real life would never wind up using, like a greenhouse. The one thing that's incredibly predictable is that Eric is going to fall in love with Polly, which is a problem since she's already got a fiancé. nd, of course, it's also going to be a problem for Danilo.

There are several movies that revolve around apartment buildings and the ensemble cast of tenants; Love Nest really came to mind while I was watching A Kiss in the Dark. However, I found A Kiss in the Dark to be a pale shadow of the other apartment movies, and the Ronald Reagan romantic comedies. Broderick Crawford is way too loud and obnoxious here; I'm not certain if it's the fault of the script or the director. Moore is someone you'd want to fire, and the whole interlude with the camping trip doesn't work in this movie. The one real bright spot in the movie is Maria Ouspenskaya, not long before her tragic death, as Eric's original piano teacher.

A Kiss in the Dark is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Pal Joey

I've said on several occasions that musicals are not my favorite genre. One of the movies that's a good example of my thoughts on the genre is Pal Joey.

Frank Sinatra stars as the titular Joey, that being Joey Evans, a man who got booted out of San Francisco's Barbary Coast nightclub scene for, well, reasons. Some time later, he shows up back in San Francisco, in need of a job. Fortunately for him, his old friend Ned Galvin (Bobby Sherwood) plays piano for the band at the club Joey walks into. The MC has failed to show up for the evening's show, probably for having drunk too much. So Joey decides to be assertive, going up on stage and taking the part of the MC, singing a song and even dancing with the chorus girls in one of the numbers!

One of those chorus girls is Linda English (Kim Novak), he immediately develops feelings for her, although those feelings are not exactly mutual. Indeed, Joey wangles his way into getting a room next to Linda's at her rooming house, and continuing to pursue her.

The band is asked to do a show at a party put on by wealthy widow Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth). Joey recognizes her as a former chorus girl who did a striptease act on stage. Joey even blackmails her into doing the act under the guise of raising money for the charity auction that Vera has been holding at her party. But Joey realizes Vera has two things he could use: class, and money. Joey has dreamed of opening up his own nightclub, and here's a woman who could help him achieve that goal.

So Joey is trying to pursue two different women, and neither one is particularly happy about Joey's relationship with the other woman. It gets to the point that Vera agrees to fund the club, but when she learns about Joey's relationship with Linda, she says she won't let the club open unless Linda is sent packing.

Pal Joey is filled with the songs of Rodgers and Hart, and some of the songs are quite good. However, they aren't from the original Broadway musical of Pal Joey; I immediately knew that "I Didn't Know What Time it Was" comes from Too Many Girls. Some of the songs slow the proceedings down way too much. And then there's the ending, which really struck me as untrue.

On the other hand, a lot of people will like Frank Sinatra's singing (Hayworth and Novak, of course, were dubbed), and the songs as a whole. It's just that they're in the service of an inane plot that doesn't quite work. Still, as alwys, judge for yourself.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Kept Husbands

A lot of times, studios didn't necessarily know what they had in their stars, so early in the stars' careers, they got put in a range of movies that seem odd looking back on things. Joel McCrea may be thought of now more for the westerns he did in the second half of his career, but early on he got some rather different stuff, such as Kept Husbands.

McCrea is second billed behind Dorothy Mackaill, who plays Dot Parker. Her father Arthur (Robert McWade) owns a steel mill, and even with a depression on -- not that it's mentioned in the movie -- he's still apparently making money hand over fist. One day he announces to his family that one of the employees saved several workers from an industrial accident, and that employee is going to get to come to the Parker mansion for dinner. Needless to say, everyone else thinks it's going to be a grand old time watching this poor hapless worker not be able to show any social graces, a sort of "rednecks in the mist" thing if you will.

Except that the employee in question is one Dick Brunton (Joel McCrea). He has dreams of becoming an engineer, helping to design industrial projects for the Parker mills' output. He was also an all-American football player back in college, in the days when football players were not necessarily the stereotypical "dumb jocks", all-Americans could come from places like the Ivy League, and society types would actually go to college football games. Dot notices the little football on Dick's watch chain, and puts two and two together. She also vows to her father that she's going to get married to Dick.

Dick, for his part, still lives with his mom (Mary Carr) because she needs the financial support; she's also taken in a boarder in the form of Dick's co-worker Hughie (Ned Sparks as the comic relief). Dick loves his mother and she's going to have good advice for both him and Dot later in the movie, but for now we only need know that she comes from much more modest circumstances, reminiscent of Thelma Ritter in The Mating Season so that we can see how big a gap there is between Dot and Dick.

But of course they get married. Dick is hoping to be able to take care of his wife on just his salary, especially considering that the lifestyle to which Dot had become accustomed would require them living on $50,000 a year in 1931 dollars. Her dad pays for the honeymoon, which involves taking the family yacht over to Europe and seeing all the great places, much to Dick's chagrin; he just wants to get back to his career and advancing that career.

When they do get back, to a home that Daddy gave to Dot, Dick's career does get advanced, but not in the way he'd like. He's bumped up to a vice-president's job which is probably more of a make-work job. Combined with all the social functions Dot wants Dick to attend, Dick doesn't seem to be getting much of anything done in the family business. When the opportunity to put over a bridge across the Mississippi using new materials and construnction techniques, Dick jumps at it, even though it's going to cause serious conflicts with Dot's social life.

McCrea and Mackaill both give adequate performances in Kept Husbands, and you wish there were a simpler way for the two of them to come to a meeting of minds, like before they actually got married. But this is the sort of material that I think I've seen done in a bunch of early 1930s movies. There's nothing new here, and nothing particularly special.

Although the DVD might make it look like a pre-Code, but it's only a movie made before July 1934; boundary-pushing stuff one normally thinks of when one thinks of a "pre-Code" movie. It's worth a watch for McCrea, and I'm glad it got a release on a box set and not just a Warner Archive standalone.

Eileen Heckart, 1919-2001

I notice that today is the birth anniversary of actress Eileen Heckart, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the overbearing mother to blind Edward Albert (Jr.) in Butterflies are Free. The movie may belie its stage origins, but it's still a very finely performed movie.

This was actually Heckart's second nomination, as she had been nominated many years earlier for her role as the alcoholic mother of a child murdered by Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, another film that was taken from a stage play:

Looking at Heckart's IMDb page, I was surprised to see how much TV work Heckart did compared to how relatively little film work she did. She was the daughter-in-law in the premiere of The Trip to Bountiful, which had a performance on one of those live (I'm assuming) anthology shows before moving to Broadway. Lillian Gish played her mother-in-law, and Eva Marie Saint was Thelma, the fellow passenger on the bus. Interestingly, Jo Van Fleet (who along with Saint and Heckart would go on to win a Supporting Actress Oscar) had a small role in the TV production, and would go on to take Heckart's part in the original Broadway production.

Heckart's final film was The First Wives Club, as the mother of the Diane Keaton character; it's on Showtime Women tomorrow evening and then on StarzEncore later in the week.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Let's talk about sex during the Production Code!

Shelley Winters was TCM's Star of the Month a few months back. One of her movies that I hadn't seen before is The Chapman Report, so I recorded that and recently sat down to watch it.

Dr. George Chapman (Andrew Duggan) and his assistant Paul Radford (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) are flying from the east coast out to Los Angeles in order to continue their scientific research, which is on the subject of human sexuality. Specifically, they want to do research into the sex lives of women, somthing which would have been a fairly controversial subject back in the early 1960s (and, you'd think -- rightly, in my view -- difficult to discuss with the Production Code still in effect).

Cut to a series of suburban women, all of whom plan to go to a lecture Chapman is giving about his research. This lecture is also a forum to call for volunteers, who are being handled in a very discreet way, or at least that's the intention. They'll all get ID numbers that aren't tied to their names in any way (indeed, they're not supposed to sign the cards they fill out); they'll do the interviews behind screens so that the researchers interviewing them won't be able to see them, and the like. The four women who form the main part of the movie are:

Kathleen Barclay (Jane Fonda). She was married to a test pilot who unfortunately died in an accident, leaving her a widow for the past three years. She's moved back in with Dad, and the two are busy editing her late husband's memoir, trying to turn it into a book in some way that might possibly sell. She's frigid because she was a virgin when she got married, and then when she didn't perform well for her husband, he treated her less than admirably.

Sarah Garnell (Shelley Winters). She's in a conventional marriage to Frank (Harold Stone) with two children, but one that's hit a rut with her being bored by the relative lack of sex. So she's started getting romantically involved with Fred (Ray Danton), a director who works at the community theater that middle-aged housewives like Sarah were wont to take part in.

Naomi Shields (Claire Bloom). She's a divorcée, who suffers from an extremely high libido. As such, she started having sex at a relatively young age, and having it with a succession of guys. She got married (we never see her ex-husband), and had a series of affairs. Indeed, one of the first times we see her, she meets the bottled-water man (a young Chad Everett) delivering to her house; not long after that, a musician brings her some mail that was mistakenly delivered to him; this starts a disastrous relationship.

Teresa Harnish (Glynis Johns). She's happily married to Geoffrey (John Dehner), working with him to put out an audiobook of recorded poetry or somesuch. She starts recording her interview, which seems like a huge no-no, and gets the distinct impression that, while she's happily married as far as she knows, the interviewers are going to find it boring. So when a group of football players led by Ed Kraski (Ty Hardin) accidentally cross her path at the beach, she decides to start pursuing Ed, although things don't wind up the way she imagines.

While Naomi's story winds up in melodramatic disaster, as though she could have been one of the characters in a movie like The Best of Everything; Teresa's goes more humorously wrong. And frankly, this dichotomy is part of the problem with the movie. If everything had been handled as more of a light drama or a comedy in the sense that the later Sex and the Single Girl was, the movie might not be such a mess. However, director George Cukor and the writers wanted this to be a serious drama.

As I mentioned, back in the early 1960s you still couldn't really talk that openly about sex. So trying to talk about the serious issues that the Bloom and Fonda characters have is very difficult if not impossible. Well, maybe only impossible to make something good out of the material. In Fonda's case, it doesn't help that there's a serious violation of scientific research ethics that drives the plot. What works better is Winters' storyline, and even more so the more comic Johns storyline. She comes off as the best of the bunch.

I suppose, not having even been born back when The Chapman Report was made, that it should be viewed as a product of its time. It's just a product that's doomed by the constraints of the time.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Picture Mommy Dead

There was a lot of schlocky horror and sci-fi in the 1950s and 1960s. Recently, I had the chance to watch one such film, Picture Mommy Dead.

The movie starts off with a prologue scene of Jessica Shelley (Zsa Zsa Gabor) burning to death, and her daughter Susan (Susan Gordon) singing that song about "the worms go in, the worms go out". Cut to a convent school that apparently doubles as a sanatorium for troubled youth. Susan wound up there due to the trauma of seeing her mother die the way she did. But after several years, she's apparently ready to go back to the outside world, and her father Edward (Don Ameche) is picking her up from Sister René (Signe Hasso in a one-scene part).

In a bizarre move, Dad takes Susan back to the home she grew up in, which just happens to be the home where Mom died, something you'd think would be a traumatic experience. But that's not the only bizarre thing. While Susan was in the sanatorium, Dad remarried, to Francene (Martha Hyer), who just happened to be Susan's governess while Jessica was still alive. The family lawyer Clayborn (Wendell Corey in another one-scene part) discusses the will with the family, since Susan would have been too young to comprehend everything. Mom left most of the fortune to Susan in a trust that she'd only get control of once she turns 25. Mom had the wealth and Dad only had a high-society name, so Mom left Dad control of a much more modest sum of money, which Francene has already blown through.

So you can guess part of what happens next. Although Jessica's death was declared accidental by the coroner, Francene intimates that Susan was actually responsible for it, which is part of why Susan had to go into that institution. Susan starts to have nightmares as everything seems to remind her of her dead Mom and Francene seeems to be doing nothing whatsoever to discourage this, sort of like a bizarro world Z-movie version of Rebecca. It's an obvious ploy on Francene's part to get Susan committed which would give Susan and Edward control over Susan's money.

But Francene is a much bigger piece of work than that. Jessica had a cousin Anthony (Maxwell Reed) who was burned in the fire, and Francene is conspiring with him to wrest control of Susan's money not only from Susan, but from Edward as well!

While the plot of Picture Mommy Dead is lurid, the movie as a whole doesn't work, which is a bit of a shame. The problem is that the first two-thirds of the movie are too slow and tedious. The final third veers into camp, at which point the movie picks up and becomes a lot of fun. The acting goes way downhill and the nonsense goes way up, with echoes (not necessarily intentional) of such classics as Detour and Night of the Hunter. It's a mess, but laughably fun, and it's a shame that it takes the movie so long to get there.

Friday, March 26, 2021

I see dead people

There have been quite a few passings worth mentioning over the past week or so that I haven't gotten around to talking about. I had been planning on doing a "briefs" post today anyway, so I figure now's the time to mention all of those obituaries.

George Segal, who died on Tuesday at the age of 87, is the actor likeliest to get a TCM programming tribute. He got an Oscar nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a movie that I really don't like but a lot of people give high praise to. He was in a bunch of other well-known 1960s movies in supporting roles, such as Act One, King Rat, or Ship of Fools. He got starring roles in films like Where's Poppa? that I blogged about recently, The Quiller Memorandum, and The Owl and the Pussycat. He worked right up to the end of his life, playing the grandfather in the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs.

On Wednesday, it was the turn of Jessica Walter to die. She seems to have done a lot more TV than movies, but I've got her role in Play Misty for Me on Blu-ray in the same box set that has Two Mules for Sister Sara, which I blogged about recently. (Had I known Walter was going to die, I would have watched something else and saved Play Misty for Me for now. Walter was 80.

French director Bertrand Tavernier, who died on Thursday at 79, is one of those names that always sounded familiar, although I wouldn't have been able to name many of his movies. Looking through his filmography, I see he did Round Midnight, one of those movies that I've always known about by title but have never actually seen. I'll have to see if I can hunt down a copy; it's not available at the TCM Shop.

Finally, there's author Larry McMurtry, who also died Thursday, aged 84. Among his books to be turned into movies were Horseman, Pass By (as Hud); The Last Picture Show; and Terms of Endearment. He also won an Oscar for adapting Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain into the movie of the same name.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Mighty Joe Young

I see that there's a double feature on TCM tomorrow of Mighty Joe Young at 4:30 PM, followed by King Kong at 6:15 PM. (Actually, it's part of an entire afternoon of gorilla movies.) Since I had Mighty Joe Young on the DVR, I decided to watch it to do a post on here.

John Young (Regis Toomey) manages a farm somewhere in Africa, where he lives with his young daughter Jill (to be played by Terry Moore as grown-up Jill). One day, a couple of natives are walking past the farm gate with a basket, and Jill looks into the basket, finding a baby gorilla. She trades with the two men for the gorilla, which seems nuts, since how is she going to take care of a gorilla? But then we wouldn't have a movie.

Fast forward a dozen years. In New York, Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong) is a promoter who runs a nightclub, and is always looking for new and more spectacular acts for high nightclub. Together with PR man Windy (Frank McHugh), the idea they hit upon is an African-themed club, complete with lions (behind glass) and a whole bunch of other stereotypes. Fortuitously showing up at O'Hara's office is Gregg Johnson (Ben Johnson), late of the rodeo show that was at Madison Square Garden. He thinks he's got a rodeo act to offer Max, but Max can use him roping animals in Africa.

So they all head off to the RKO backlot or studio ranch version of Africa, where they find a bunch of lions, but also spot a gorilla that probably shouldn't be there since this is the wrong part of Africa for it. They try to rope the gorilla, but he's strong enough that it's dangerous business and the gorilla puts all of them in danger purely out of self-defense. At that point, adult Jill shows up and finds these strange men on her property, attacking her gorilla. Unsurprisingly, she's pissed.

However, Max is able to clear everything up, and having seen the gorilla, named Joe, he thinks Joe would be perfect for the nightclub, in an act with Jill because she seems to be the one person who can keep Joe tame. Jill is understandably not certain at first, but she does eventually go along with the idea, heading off to Hollywood with Joe, Max, Gregg, and Windy.

The opening night is a big success, since the act is little more than Jill playing "Beautiul Dreamer", the song that has a calming effect on Joe, while he hoists her and the piano she's playing. Of course, that's not much of an act, and audiences are quickly going to grow tired of it. So eventually, Max wants Joe to do more, such as catch some sort of plates he's giving the patrons.

Joe is kept in a tiny cage below the nightclub, and that's not much of a life for a gorilla. Jill is increasingly displeased, and wants to head back to Africa with Joe. Gregg is falling in love with Jill, and he's got a lot of sympathy for Jill and Joe, and not just becuase he loves Jill. Max, on the other hand, sees a gravy train and is reluctant to let it go.

Events are going to overtake Max. A trio of nasty drunk patrons are able to get backstage and eventually down into the basement where Joe is kept. They decide to offer Joe their bottles of liquor, which Joe drinks. You'd think an 800-pound gorilla would take a fair bit of alcohol to get drunk, but on the other hand, the big guy has never had alcohol before, so he can't really hold his liquor. He gets drunk enough to break out of the cage and go on a rampage, which understandably frightens all the patrons to the point that they call the cops who plan to shoot Joe.

This all leads up to the climax of an escape and a burning orphanage which conveniently happens to be out in the middle of nowhere. Will Joe survive? Will Gregg and Jill marry and live happily ever after? You'll have to watch the movie to find that out.

Mighty Joe Young is well-paired with King Kong, because of the big ape, and that both movies were conceived by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. Joe is animated with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, in one of his first movies. Joe is an appealing character who is more fully fleshed out than Kong was 15 years earlier.

That's a good thing, because Joe papers over a lot of plot holes (like that middle-of-nowhere orphanage) and the fact that his size and weight are wildly inconsistent for all the things he's expected to do in the movie. The acting from the humans is adequate at best, but then all of them are in service of the gorilla, so you don't pay too much attention to them. The orange tinting of the orphanage fire is interesting, but ultimately intrusive as well.

Still, Mighty Joe Young should entertain the whole family if you don't think too much, ignore its shortcomings, and just sit back. The Blu-ray release claims it's 84 minutes and includes the orphanage scene; the print TCM ran was 94 minutes so I'm guessing that's just a typo on the TCM Shop page. There was also a remake which is also available on DVD.

Thursday Movie Picks #350: Opening Title Sequences (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 a TV-themed edition of the blogathon. This week, the theme is "memorable opening title sequences". I've always thought that a lot of TV nowadays doesn't have such memorable themes, as the (closing) credits are something taken out or squeezed to create more time for advertising. That, combined with the fact that I don't watch much episodic TV any more, led me to pick three older shows:

Dallas (1978-1991). A memorable theme song plays out over images of the city when it had a third fewer people than today, never mind how much smaller the rest of the Metroplex was. It's how I knew of Barbara Bel Geddes before seeing movies like Vertigo, and how I knew of Larry Hagman before seeing I Dream of Jeannie. Oh, and there's the ample bustline of Charlene Tilton.

The Prisoner (1967-1968). Groundbreaking TV series about Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan), a secret agent who gets abducted and winds up in a strange village where he wants to find Number 1. Unfortunately, this intro doesn't show Rover, the killer balloon:

ABC's Wide World of Sports (1961-1998). In the days before 24-hour sports channels, ABC's Wide World of Sports brought many lower-interest sports to American television screens on weekend afternoons. Host Jim McKay tells us in the opening that sports brings us the "thrill of victory" (lots of different sporting events used), and "the agony of defeat" (one image always used from 1971 on). More on that clip here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Great Expectations (1946)

Some movies make doing a synopsis relatively easy, since they're based on famous people or famous works of literature. TCM did a spotlight on literary adaptations a few months back, and ran David Lean's version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. It's going to be on again tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM as part of an afternoon of Lean's movies.

Pip (played by Anthony Wager as a child and John Mills as an adult) is an orphan who lives with his aunt and her husband, blacksmith Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). While visiting his parent's grave, he's accosted by an escaping convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Some time later, Pip is paid by Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to be a play-date for her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons as a child and Valerie Hobson as an adult).

Eventually Pip becomes old enough to become an apprentice. Havisham, who was stood up at the altar and hates all men as a result, sends Estella off to become a lady and treat men the way men treated Havisham. Pip has a mysterious benefactor who informs him, through solicitor Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), that he'll be receiving £250 a year, which is apparently a pretty nice sum back around 1830.

So Pip heads off to London where he first meets Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) before running into Estella again; she's making life hell for another man although she plans on hurting Pip too, given the chance. Abel Magwitch had been caught not long after first meeting Pip, and got sent to Australia, as convicts were at the time. He turned to sheep ranching and became wealthy enough to give Pip that endowment.

But, there's a lot more going on. Jaggers knows more than he's telling anybody, and there's the question of how anybody could have known that Magwitch was back in England. But everything ends up relatively well for Pip, after a lot of tribulation. This is, after all, based on a Dickens book, and there's a lot of pages for everybody.

Dickens' books may not be for everybody, since they tend towards the long -- after all, many of them were written as serializations and he needed to keep the number of installments high to make more money. But they also lend themself well to movie adaptations. David Lean did a good job with Great Expectations, at least as well as ould be expected for a 1940s British black and white movie. Everything does have a bit of a studio-bound look, and to be honest, Mills and Hobson are much too old to be playing Pip and Estella. Both were around 40 in real life playing characters in their early 20s.

But despite all of the technical flaws, they're easy enough to overlook, and Lean did well to distill Great Expectations down to its essence, not getting lost in any sub-plots. If you haven't seen it before, it's one you should definitely catch. There are, I think, some better British movies from the period, but as a literary adaptation Great Expectations is extremely accessible.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Flying High

Early musicals, at least those before 42nd Street, were often a bit of an odd bird, either way too static or trying to do a little bit of everything. A good example of the latter is Flying High, which is going to be on TCM tomorrow morning at 10:45 AM.

Bert Lahr plays Rusty Krause. He's an aviation tinkerer, in that I don't think the term aerospace engineer had been invented yet. Instead, he's the sort of guy who worked as a mechanic in a small garage, and in his spare time invented something he calls the "aerocopter", which is probably like a precursor to the helicopter or the sort of autogyro you see in It Happened One Night. Rusty is at an air show, where he hopes to show off the aerocopter, but he needs a pilot, and more importantly, money.

Enter smooth-talking promoter Sport Waddell (Pat O'Brien), the sort of man who's liable to wind up in jail for his smooth talking, as one of his marks remarks. Sport might be willing to help out Rusty, but he too doesn't have the money necessary. He meets a Mr. Smith (Guy Kibbee), who could be an investor, except that he admits he has cash flow issues and can't buy the stock just yet. But meeting Mr. Smith brings Sport in contact with Smith's daughter Eileen (Kathryn Crawford), and Sport falls in love with her.

Meanwhile, working at the aerodrome is waitress Pansy Botts (Charlotte Greenwood). She's without a husband, and has just come into a modest inheritance from her uncle, so she'd even be willing to buy a husband. She's so desperate, in fact, that she's thinking of heading off to a logging camp to marry a cook there.

Sport has to work fast, and offers Pansy a husband in the form of Rusty, who is decidedly unwilling to get married. Sport, for his part, shows Pansy a photo of Clark Gable when mentioning Rusty to her, so imagine the surprise of both of them when they meet and realize they're supposed to marry each other. But they get married in time, and Rusty is able to get a pilot's license, which allows him to fly the autocopter himself -- except that Pansy doesn't want him flying off alone, joining him for the flight.

Along the way, there are several musical numbers, including two big pieces which were choreographed by Busby Berkeley, which is why the camerawork shows Berkeley's style a year and change before 42nd Street. Of course, one number in which the dancers spell out various aviators' names, really requires the camera to be overhead. There's also the pilots' license exam number, in which a doctor (Charles Winninger) examines a bunch of scantily clad women before Rusty shows up.

It's a mish-mash which doesn't always work. A little bit of Bert Lahr goes a long way, and there's a lot of Lahr here. Greenwood is underused, and the climax of the autocopter flight is deliberately unrealistic but also unfunny as a result. Hedda Hopper has a small role as Mrs. Smith.

If I were going to introduce Charlotte Greenwood to people who aren't familiar with her work, I'd probably start with The Gang's All Here; others would probably select one of the other Fox movies or maybe even Oklahoma. If I wanted to introduce one of her pre-Code movies, I'd probably pick something like So Long Letty for its bizarre plot and much greater usage of Greenwood. Flying High would be down the list a ways.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Avalanche Express

I've mentioned before that pretty much every big-name star out there who made enough movies had at least one dud in their career. For Lee Marvin, that movie might well be Avalanche Express.

The movie starts off in the Soviet Union, with a bunch of high-ranking KGB officials discussing a germ warfare project code-named "Winter Harvest" and how information about it is getting leaked to the west by some guy named "Angelo". Angelo has passed information on a cassette tape to an American in Zürich, and the information keeps getting passed until the head of the operation, Haller (Mike Connors) can decode it. The Americans should meet Angelo at La Scala opera house in Milan at a particular time when he will reveal himself.

Angelo is really the code name of Marenkov (Robert Shaw), a KGB general who is not one of the hard-liners, and troubled that they're gaining the upper hand, hence going forward with Winter Harvest and his planned defection to reveal everything he knows about it. Haller and second-in-command Harry Wargrave (Lee Marvin) want to debrief Marenkov right then and there, but he already agreed that he'd only be debriefed when he reached the US. Plus, he's got a plan of his own.

Marenkov wants to defeat the head of the hard-liners, General Bunin (Maximilian Schell), but to do that is going to require getting him out in the open. So, Marenkov and Wargrave come up with the idea that they take the "Atlantic Express" train that goes from Milan to Rotterdam in the Netherlands (even though none of these places are near the Atlantic) from where he can be flown to the US. This would give the Soviets ample opportunity to try to get Marenkov, opportunities which are a double-edged sword as the CIA can flush out a whole bunch of Soviet agents and liquidate them.

Among the Americans who were already involved in getting the casette from Angelo are Leroy (Joe Namath) and Elsa Lang (Linda Evans). Complicating matters is that Elsa and Harry have an estranged romantic relationship, something that seems like it would be a problem amongst spies, but what do I know. At any rate, the train inexorably makes its way toward Rotterdam, with various groups of Soviet agents trying to ambush the train on one occasion, and setting off an avalanche (hence the title) in the Swiss Alps. Will Marenkov make it to America?

The big problem with Avalance Express is that it seems more like a bunch of set pieces with a threadbare plot, and a bunch of characters who are given overly complicated relationships. Robert Shaw and director Mark Robson both died during post-production, and from what I've read Shaw was already quite ill during primary filming. I can't imagine the Soviets being this violent, either, considering the number of innocents around, but then, we probably wouldn't have much of a movie.

I remember when TCM did a spotlight on the special effects of MGM's A. Arnold Gillespie that one of the modern-day effects artists they had discussing the movie said a big problem trying to film water effects is that the drops can only get so small, so if you're using miniatures you want them as large as possible lest the water droplets look too big. That was the same problem that the avalanche (which I think is supposed to be the highlight of the movie) has, only with snow instead of liquid water.

Overall, Avalanche Express doesn't really work, and feels like a tired late-era entry in a genre that had been played out. It's available on DVD, though, should you wish to watch for yourself.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Earth Dies Screaming

If you like B science fiction, then you'll probably like one of the movies that's back in the FXM rotation for the first time in many years: The Earth Dies Screaming. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 10:20 AM and again Tuesday at 4:55 AM.

The movie starts off with a train engineer collapsing and the train derailing off a curve. Similarly, a car crashes into a wall, and other people just drop dead. It's a promising enough start, before Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) shows up in a small English village to examine the situation. After finding seemingly everybody dead, he walks into the local inn, and tries to turn on the TV to get some news, but just gets a buzz. The same thing happens when he turns on the radio.

At this point, Jeff learns that he's not the only person still alive. A man and woman show up, with the man pointing a gun at Jeff. That man is Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price), there with his wife Peggy (Virginia Field). At least, he says Peggy is his wife; in a private moment with Jeff, she tells him otherwise, which implies that Quinn might be a villain in this whole thing. There's still the question of what happened and why. A bit of investigation suggests a large-scale gas attack, as each of them was in a situation where they had their own air supply. Another couple shows up, Edgar (Thorley Walters) and Violet (Vanda Godsell).

And then, as the look outside, they see a couple of men in what look to be some sort of space suit, or maybe the sort of suit you'd see somebody wearing in a highly contaminated Ebola zone or that village where almost everybody died in The Andromeda Strain. Violet thinks help has arrived, and goes up to the men to ask for help, but it turns out they're some sort of aliens who kill her with a touch of the hand!

One more couple shows up, Mel and his pregnant wife Lorna. The survivors hunker down in the inn to try to figure out what to do, with some slight dissension among them because of Quinn's dishonesty and Edgar's drinking. They've got a bigger problem, however, in that Violet suddenly gets up and heads off downstairs, now looking a lot like a zombie. One can only guess that the rest of the townsfolk are going to turn into zombies eventually as well.

The Earth Dies Screaming is nothing more than B science fiction, with a running time of just 62 minutes and stark black-and-white photography. There's nothing particularly new here, but there's nothing notably wrong, either, above and beyond those problems that are typical to the low-budget B-movie genre. The movie ends a bit suddenly, and there are a few plot holes, such as why Quinn's character is as willing to oppose the rest of the group as he is, considering there are so few survivors.

But to be fair to The Earth Dies Screaming, nobody expects an all-time classic in these B movies. The Earth Dies Screaming entertains, which is what it set out to do, and in that it's more than worth a watch. I suppose I wouldn't have been surprised if it had gotten a DVD release on some box set of cheap sci-fi -- and there are some box sets that appear to be out of print. But The Earth Dies Screaming got a standalone Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber's Studio Classics division.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Heaven Knows, Mr. Eastwood

Some time back, I bought a box set of Clint Eastwood films, which was technically a mash-up of two other box sets, one of four Eastwood dramas and one of three Eastwood westerns. Recently, I watched Two Mules for Sister Sara off the set, and see that it's also going to be on StarzEncore Classics tomorrow morning at 7:07 AM.

Eastwood plays Hogan, who as the opening credits run is on his horse riding through the wilderness somewhere in northern Mexico, like a whole bunch of other westerns. But he soon comes along a woman who it looks like is about to be raped or killed by some bandits, and he saves the young lady by shooting the bandits. At this point he discovers that the woman he's saved is... Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), a Catholic nun who is actually wanted by the French Army.

These are the days in the late 1860s when the French had installed Emperor Maximilian in Mexico (thus explaining the presence of the French army), with Benito Juarez fighting against this with a bunch of guerilla forces known as Juaristas. Sister Sara has been giving clandestine support to the Juaristas, which is why the French are after her, and now after Hogan. As for Hogan, he's a mercenary who has a deal to help the Juaristas by enabling them to attack a French garrison; in exchange, he'll get a substantial sum of money.

The two set off together, being unlikely partners in that Sara is a rather naïve nun who doesn't seem to know that much about surviving in the harsher conditions of the Mexican wilderness. Hogan finds that Sara is an unlikely nun in that she seems to have some life experience that he wouldn't expect from a nun, like a knowledge of bawdy language and some experience having drunk whiskey. But in any case, it's more important to esacpe the French and get to the camp of Col. Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas) for the attack on the garrison.

Along the way, the pair has to evade the French by staying in an abandoned village infested with rattlesnakes. Then they get ambushed by a group of Yaqui, the people who were the subject of 100 Rifles although that's set 40-some years after Two Mules for Sister Sara. There's also an operation to destroy a rail trestle as a train carrying French troops crosses it. In some ways, this is a victory for Hogan and Sara. But it's a Pyrrhic victory too. The original attack on the garrison was supposed to occur on Bastille Day, July 14, when the expectation was that the French would all be quite drunk celebrating their national holiday. But with the attack on the trestle, everybody is on high alert, so no drinking.

As I was watching the movie, I couldn't help but think of Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, for several reasons, starting with a largely two-character film about a man and a nun facing enemies. It turns out that I'm not the only person to have made the connection; indeed, this was apparently deliberate on the part of Budd Boetticher, who wrote the original story (although he didn't do the screenplay or direct).

The acting in Two Mules for Sister Sara is appealing, as are the set pieces. However, to me the movie felt like it was running a bit slow at times. It's a 113-minute movie that probably could have come in around 100 minutes or so. Other people probably won't have any pacing issues. Add in nice cinematography and the movie is a winner that's definitely worth watching.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Cash on Demand

I wrote once, many years ago, I think when I was blogging about Village of the Damned, that having a good script can make up for having to make a movie on a shoestring budget. Another movie that illustrates this is Cash on Demand.

Peter Cushing plays Harry Fordyce, a martinet of a bank manager in Haversham, a small town a couple hours' drive north of London. It's near Christmas, but Fordyce doesn't feel like letting his employees celebrate, indeed berating his assistant Pearson (Richard Vernon) for "borrowing" £10 to make the books come out right, even though the money was returned. Fordyce could have Pearson fired and unable to find another job in the banking sector.

Into the bank comes Col. Gore Hepburn (André Morell). He shows Pearson and Fordyce his private business card, informing them that he's from the bank's insurance company, and is there on a surprise audit to check the bank's security measures; after all, you don't want to give people advance knowledge of this so that they can fix the problems and make the place look like a Potemkin village.

Fordyce invites Hepburn into his private office to discuss the audit, when his phone rings. It's a call from his very anxious wife, begging him to do what the men want, with an even more anxious son being heard in the background. Obviously, Fordyce doesn't quite understand at first, but it's fairly quickly made clear that Hepburn is there to rob the bank, and a couple of accomplices have Mrs. Fordyce and the son held hostage, ready to kill them if Harry doesn't follow orders.

Hepburn has been investigating this particular branch's operations for a year, and knows that they should have a good £90,000 in the vault. Of course, there are all sorts of security measures to make certain that money doesn't leave the vault in an illicit manner, such as multiple keys held by multiple members. Hepburn wants to inform as few people about the robbery as possible, since that will lead to one of them screwing up the carefully planned scheme and calling the police, possibly necessitating the killing of Mrs. Fordyce.

For Fordyce, the shoe is now on the other foot as he's got the highly intelligent Hepburn ordering him around, Fordyce being afraid to do anything the least bit wrong lest the family gets killed. After all, he's been such a taskmaster to all his employees that he doesn't really have any friends, just his family. Hepburn has figured this out and uses it to his advantage. As part of the getaway, Hepburn is going to have his accomplices take the wife and kid with them for an hour.

But even though the robbery itself goes mostly to plan, and well enough for Hepburn if not for Fordyce, problems begin to develop not long after Hepburn leaves. A call had been put into the insurance company in London about the sending of the auditor, and it's ony after Hepburn left (this was the days when getting a long-distance line was a bit more difficult) that the truth is discovered by everybody other than Fordyce, and Pearson has called in the police. From the point of view of everybody else in the bank, as well as the police, it's certainly possible that Fordyce could have been in on it as part of an inside job.

Cash on Demand was apparently based on a stage play, which is part of why there are so few sets and the movie could be made on a fairly limited budget. But the movie is quite good for a little programmer, thanks to the performances from Cushing and Morell. The tension really is palpable, and figuring out how the robbery is going to play out really is a mystery. Unfortunately, the ending is rushed and a bit implausible, but thankfully that's only the last several minutes.

Peter Cushing is understandably known for his horror roles, but he was really a more versatile actor than that, as Cash on Demand shows. It's one of those little movies that really deserves to be better known.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Gas Food Lodging

TCM's Women Make Film series from last autumn gave me the opportunity to record several movies I hadn't seen before, although I probably could have recorded more had I had the room on my DVR. That being what it is, one of the films I did make room for was Gas Food Lodging>.

Fairuza Balk plays Shade Evans, who at the start of the movie is watching a movie of her favorite actress, Mexican Silver Age star Elvia Rivero (not a real person in case you're wondering), in a theater in the small desert town of Laramie, NM. After getting out of the movie, Shade goes to meet her elder sister Trudi (Ione Skye) at the diner where her mom, Nora (Brooke Adams) works as a waitress. Busboy Javier (Jacob Vargas) spills a drink on Trudi, who responds with racial epithets and results in the end of Javier's employment there.

Trudi is one angry young woman, resentful of having to live in a trailer park in a dead-end town like Laramie with a single mother because Dad walked out on them years ago. Trudi rebels by going out every night and skipping school, and when Mom confronts Trudi, she drops out of school to take a job as a waitress at the same diner where Mom works. It's there that she meets Dank (Robert Knepper), a British geologist looking for some of the fluorescent rocks for which the region is apparently known. They start a relationship because Trudi jumps quickly to any man who shows interest in her. Shade, meanwhile, has some interest in emo kid (not that they called them this back in the early 1990s, I don't think) Darius (Donovan Leitch Jr.; he and Ione Skye are both children of 1960s singer Donovan), although he seems to be a bit coy about returning the favor.

Mom, meanwhile, had an on-again, off-again affair with married man Raymond, and has neighber Hamlet (David Landsbury, nephew of Angela), who installs satellite dishes, showing an interest in her. But Nora is a bit unsure of whether to start a relationship with Hamlet, and is also a bit put off by his slightly goofy nature, even though he's really a nice guy at heart. Shade tries to set up a blind date for Mom, but it's with Raymond, whom Shade didn't know already had that affair with Mom so it leaves some tension between Shade and her mother.

Love changes for both Shade and Trudi. Trudi goes out to the caves with Dank, who shows her those fluorescent rocks before they have sex the one time which is just enough to get her pregnant, although it's not the first time she's actually had sex, just the first time with Dank. Mom is understandably pissed and insists that Trudi get an abortion; when Dank doesn't return, Trudi decides to leave for Dallas to have the baby and give it up for adoption. Shade, having been rejected by Darius, runs into Javier, who actually really likes Shade, and the two of them start up a relationship.

Meanwhile, when Shade is on her way back from a party, she gets picked up by a guy named John (Josh Brolin), who points out that his last name is Evans and that he is in fact the children's father. He's in a new difficult relationship and has a couple of stepchildren, and has never been able to summon up the courage to see Nora or the kids.

Gas Food Lodging is more of a slice-of-life movie that reminded me of several I've blogged about here. One is The Last Picture Show, with some obvious resonance to a dying desert town and a main character who likes the movie theater, although of course most of the main charcters in that one are men. A couple of other movies that really look at the small-town white lower class also came to mind, At Close Range and Ulee's Gold, even though both of those have rather different themes from Gas Food Lodging. But what made me think of those two is that all three movies have extremely evocative production design.

Gas Food Lodging also has a pretty darn good story, even if I wonder whether a town like Laramie would have anybody like Darius living there. The acting is more than adequate, and the entire movie as a whole is quite engaging even if there are a few parts that feel a bit contrived for the purpose of moving the story along, or a bit slow. But the flaws are minor, and Gas Food Lodging is a memorable movie that really deserves to be better known than it is.

Thursday Movie Picks #349: Fake Identities

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 "Fake Identities", which isn't too difficult, considering how many con artists use fake identities. I decided to select three movies that I blogged about recently, so as it turns out not all of my selections are cons faking their identity:

Sneakers (1992). Robert Redford plays a man who hacked into early mainframes back in his college days circa-1970, but never got caught. Now working in security analysis under a false name, the FBI find him and offer to clear his name if he'll help retrieve a chip that can break all currently-known encryption. Among the identity faking is Redford's ex-girlfriend trying to get the voice of one Werner Brandes (his voice is his passport).

Cast a Dark Shadow (1955). Dirk Bogarde kills his first wife but because he misunderstood that she was going to write him into her new will, not out of it, he doesn't inherit her wealth. So he meets a wealthy widow (Margaret Lockwood) and plans to kill her, but she's no dummy. Also no dummy is another woman (Kay Walsh) who shows up and whom Bogarde starts wooing because the marriage to Lockwood is loveless. One of them is faking their identity, but I won't give away which one and why.

The Catcher Was a Spy (2018). Based on the true story of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a former backup catcher in Major League Baseball who was extremely intelligent, having gone to Princeton and speaking multiple languages. When World War II comes, his abilities are put to use by the OSS, forerunner to the CIA, and he gets put on the mission to meet German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) and find out if the Nazis are really going to be able to get the atomic bomb. This mission is going to require Berg to use a false identity. The movie isn't bad but not quite as good as it might have been.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Quiet Man

With today being St. Patrick's Day, it's unsurprising that TCM is running a bunch of Irish-themed movies. Among them is The Quiet Man at 8:00 PM. Not having blogged about it before, I recently watched it. Interestingly, the recording was from TCM, last St. Patrick's Day at 8:00 PM.

John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, who shows up on the train in the small Irish town of Castletown. He asks the people at the train station the way to Inisfree, but they all have the gift of gab and can't be bothered to give him accurate directions to Inisfree. Thornton, it turns out, is American, and his family came from Inisfree before emigrating to the US, specifically Pittsburgh and the steel mills there. Dad died young and Sean heard all the doe-eyed memories from Mom about Ireland, so Sean wanted to come back and find the old family farm.

The place is still there, more or less, although it's not exactly in the best condition, since it hasn't been used in a while. It's now owned by the widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick), who, as with Tonight's the Night that I mentioned a few weeks back, seems to own a lot around Inisfree. She may be willing to sell that bit of land, but there's a catch. Local "squire" Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) also wants to buy it.

A bidding war ensues, with Thornton winning. Having met Will, he also meets Will's spinster sister Mary Kate (Maureen O'Hara). These characters being played by John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, you know that they're going to fall in love. But again, there's a problem. In the traditional Irish society of the 1920s when the movie is set, her family has to approve of the marriage and pay the dowry. Her parents having died, Will is the patriarch of the family, and being pissed off at Sean, refuses.

So local schemer Michaeleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald, playing the same sort of irritating schemer he played in Tonight's the Night) decides to start intimating that the widow Tillane might be interested in marrying Will if there's no Mary Kate around to interfere with their happiness. With that, Will approves of Mary Kate's marriage to Sean. But he finds out about the deception at the reception, since nobody bothered to inform Tillane about it. Will refuses to pay the dowry, and Mary Kate refuses to perform her wifely duties because an undowried wife would apparently be a scandalous thing.

To win back the dowry, Sean is going to have to fight Will, literally. Sean, however, is reluctant to do this because of his past in Pittsburgh. He was a boxer, but as with Killer McCoy, he accidentally killed a man in the ring. He retired from boxing, and understandably doesn't want to fight again. But since this is the only way to win the dowry and happiness with Mary Kate, he eventually does it....

There's actually a good story in The Quiet Man, and there's gorgeous cinematography. But all of the parts that portray director John Ford's doe-eyed view of Ireland makes the movie a bit of a slog at times. Barry Fitzgerald's character is as annoying as ever, while the music, which may appeal to some people, didn't appeal to me. John Wayne is John Wayne here, but O'Hara and Natwick both give good performances.

A lot of people will like The Quiet Man more than I did, so I'd say it's definitely worth a watch. It's also available on DVD.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Boxing Finds Andy Hardy

TCM did a programming tribute to Mickey Rooney on the centenary of his birth last September. One of the movies that I hadn't blogged about before which they ran is Killer McCoy. So I DVRed it and watched it to do a post on here.

Rooney plays Tommy McCoy, a young man who makes money for his family selling newspapers, because it's not as if his parents are bringing in any money. Mom (Gloria Holden) is a housewife, while father Brian (James Dunn) is a former vaudeville star waiting for a comeback that's never going to come. Dad deals with this by drinking and wasting whatever money the family does get. But the local church hosts a boxing night with entertainment, that entertainment being Brian and Tommy doing a dance number.

Not long before, Tommy had gotten in a scrap with another newspaper seller who he thought was honing in on his territory, Tommy ignoring licensing laws. That other guy shows up at the fights, and Tommy challenges him to a fight, which he wins. That gets the notice of lightweight prizefighter Johnny Martin (Mickey Knox), who barnstorms the country and invites Tommy and Brian to be part of the performance.

Eventually Mom dies, with Dad missing out because he's too busy getting drunk at all the bars on the road. Johnny also loses a fight, and announces his retirement to start up a ranch with his wife, leaving Tommy to try to start a career in boxing. Tommy has some success in the ring, but Dad is taking all the purses and gambling on the horses with numbers runner Jim Caighn (Brian Donlevy), even eventually selling Tommy's contract to Jim.

Tommy has a big fight lined up, but the opponent has to back out injured, so who gets brought in to replace the guy by Johnny Martin, who's gone broke and needs the money despite being badly out of shape. Tommy wins the fight, but it comes at the cost of killing Johnny with a punch, giving Tommy the nickname "Killer McCoy".

Tommy tries to quit the ring, but needs the money and so goes back to Caighn, who still has Tommy's contract. Caighn offers Tommy a secluded training sight at the house of a Mr. Carrson, and while training there, who should show up but Carrson's daughter Sheila (Ann Blyth)? She's being educated at a private school and didn't know anything about Tommy's presence, so she's miffed, but once things get ironed out, the two fall quickly in love. Very much complicating matters is the fact that Sheila shows Tommy a picture of her father, who is... Jim Caighn, not that you couldn't have figured that one out.

Meanwhile, back in the ring, Tommy has a killer right hand, but Caighn has come up with the idea that he should avoid using it to get rich bettors to think that Tommy is just a palooka, with Caighn making a killing off of them. Caighn also finds out his daughter is seeing Tommy, and is none too pleased with it because he doesn't want his daughter to know the truth about him. (It turns out she already does, but has never let on to Dad that she does.) One of the bettors finds out about Caighn's deception, and kidnaps Brian and Sheila to force Tommy to throw the fight.

The story in Killer McCoy is not particularly special; in fact the movie is a remake of The Crowd Roars which I have not yet seen. Despite the silly ending, Killer McCoy is worth a watch thanks to the fine performances of Mickey Rooney and Brian Donlevy. As for Dunn, people will probably come to diametrically opposed views on him. He's such a jerk that some people are probably going to hate him, while other people will probably have some sympathy for the fact that his life has been empty for years and has nothing to live for other than his son's success.

The boxing scenes are also well-photographed, although as someone who's not a fan of boxing I don't know just how inaccurate they are. The dance number at the beginning, to "Suwanee River", was directed by a very young Stanley Donen, and a young Shelley Winters has a bit part.

Killer McCoy received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Catcher Was a Spy

Many years back, I heard a radio interview with the author of a book called The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. I had read over the years that there were plans to option the book for a movie, but those plans apparently fell through until a few years ago when the movie The Catcher Was a Spy was finally made. I recorded it during one of the free preview weekends, and recently watched it.

Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) was a backup catcher for a bunch of Major League teams in the 1920s and 1930s. Berg was also very bright, having gone to Princeton, and very intellectually curious. On a baseball goodwill tour of Japan, for example, several years before Pearl Harbor, Berg went ostensibly to visit someone in hospital but used this as an excuse to get up on the roof to film the harbor as it was an important military target.

World War II eventually comes, and the Nazis declare war on the US. Berg offers his knowledge to the OSS, which was the forerunner to the CIA. Berg was probably too old and had too bad knees to do regular military service, but as a very intelligent man who could speak multiple languages, spy work could be right up his alley. So the OSS take him on and groom him for any number of missions, eventually trying to get Italian scientists to defect to America. Berg meets one of those physicists, and asks an important question the Allies would like to know the answer to: how far along are the Germans in their attempt to build a fission bomb?

History tells us that this was an extremely difficult question to answer, in no small part because the German physicist leading the German research into nuclear physics and its potential use as a weapon, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) was thought by some (and apparently still considered today) to be deliberately trying to go slow to keep the Germans from getting the bomb first. (By the same token, it's been debated whether the real-life mission depicted in The Heroes of Telemark, preventing heavy water from getting to Germany, was necessary because the operation wasn't efficient enough and the Germans weren't far enough along in their nuclear program anyway.) However, there's also a pretty big risk. As one of the spymasters says, if there's a 5% chance of stubbing your toe in the dark, you take that risk rather than turning on the light and waking up your wife. But if there's a 5% chance the Germans can get the bomb first and win the war, what do you do?

The Allies know that Heisenberg has a physicist friend, Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson), who lives in Zürich, in neutral Switzerland. Also, Heisenberg has been known to visit Scherrer on multiple occasions, while Scherrer has some sympathy for the Allied cause. So Perhaps Scherrer could get Heisenberg to come for another visit to Zürich to give a lecture, which Berg can attend to try to ascertain just how far along the way the Germans are to getting the bomb. If they're close enough, Berg's mission is to kill Heisenberg to prevent the Germans from getting the bomb.

Moe Berg's real-life story is a fascinating one, but unfortunately, the movie version of The Catcher Was a Spy doesn't quite tell it as well as it perhaps could. The opening portion is too concerned with Berg's sexuality (he never married and had a girlfriend Estella (Sienna Miller) who wound up marrying another man at the end of the war), while the middle is a bit too slow in having Berg engage in less relevant operations. This leaves the last portion, the meeting with Heisenberg, to be rushed even though the movie is only a little over 90 minutes. Still, it's an interesting story, and one that definitely deserves to be better known.

The Catcher Was a Spy is available on DVD.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Where's Poppa?

Back in July, TCM did a programming tribute to the late Carl Reiner, running a couple of movies that I hadn't seen before. This gave me the opportunity to watch Where's Poppa? recently, and finally do a post on it.

George Segal plays Gordon Hocheiser, and the movie starts with his morning routine in his Manhattan apartment. Part of this routine involves getting breakfast ready for his mother (Ruth Gordon). Dad died some years back, and Mom is now suffering from dementia although it's not called that in the movie. Gordon cuts up mom's orange, and she complains that it's only cut into four pieces, not the six that she likes, a sign that she can be a bit demanding.

Well, a bit demanding is putting it mildly. Mom keeps wondering where "Poppa" is, making life extremely difficult for Gordon, and aready having driven off multiple care nurses. But it's not just Gordon's home life that's a mess, as the lack of sleep and running around caring for Mom has made it harder for him to function properly in court, as we see with the trial where he's currently a defense attorney.

Gordon is interviewing new nurses to take over the job and get Gordon some relief, and when he meet Louise (Trish Van Devere), he knows he's got the right nurse. Of course, it's the right nurse for Gordon as he falls in love with her at first sight. Gordon brings Louise home, and Mom bollixes everything up as she's afraid of this strange woman.

The obvious solution is the difficult decision to put Mom in a nursing home, but there's a catch. Gordon and his brother Sidney (Ron Leibman) promised Dad on his deathbed that they would never put Mom in a home. Heck, Gordon has actually had thoughts of killing mom, a la Throw Momma From the Train. Not that Sidney would go for that either. And Sidney also has a wife who has no sympathy for the situation, not even wanting her husband to help Gordon out in an emergency.

Where's Poppa? goes on like this for about 90 minutes, purporting to be a black comedy. Unfortunately, I found the whole thing grating and had a whole bunch of problems with it. First, there surely have to be nurses out there who understand dementia, even back in 1970 when the movie was released. Louise, in her defense, says that her references are poor, but you'd think the agency would send nurses who could handle dementia patients.

Second, a lot of the stuff that happens away from Mom feels like it doesn't necessarily fit into the movie and is often not funny. Neither of the trialsat which Gordon is a lawyer works (watch for Rob Reiner as a defendant), but even worse is the indignity Sidney has to suffer. He walks through Central Park to get to Gordon's apartment, and gets waylaid repeatedly by a gang of muggers who, in one case, force him to commit rape. None of this works at all.

Still, some people may enjoy this sort of stuff, so as always, watch and judge for yourself.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Ah yes, it's Daylight Savings Time again

So we've reached that time of the year when, in most of the US and Canada, people move their clocks ahead one hour so that we have more of the daylight later in the day. This always causes havoc with TV schedules as everybody is used to programming for 24 hours, not 23 or 25.

Surprisingly enough, however, it seems as though both TCM and FXM (I didn't check the other movie channels) got their programming down pretty well this time around. TCM has Noir Alley as always starting at midnight between Saturday and Sunday, this time being The Night Holds Terror, running 86 minutes plus the usual longer intro and outro from Eddie Muller. For the repeat of Noir Alley a 10:00 AM, this is in a 1:45 time slot, but tonight it's in a two-hour slot. No mention of what short will fill out the time since there's clearly at least 15 minutes to fill. (And yes, the lack of listing the shorts on the new schedule is still irritating.) That two-hour slot ends right as the clocks are supposed to move forward in the Eastern Time Zone, so at 3:00 AM we get Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival, followed at 4:00 AM by Jeanne Eagels, since that of course starred Kim Novak.

Over on FXM, they're running Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at 12:30 AM, in a 2:11 time slot. The movie itself is 108 minutes, so I'm assuming 23 minutes of commercials plus whatever they get in by shrinking the credits. Since this takes us past the time change, next up at 3:41 AM is one of the FXM Presents featurettes they have about whatever programming they're trying to promote; I have to admit I'm not recording stuff that picks up these featurettes so I haven't seen one in years. Then, at 4:00 AM, the FXM Retro schedule begins, with Tony Rome. It's not the only movie that's on tomorrow morning's schedule that I blogged about some time back; there's also Conrack at 7:05 AM Sunday and The 300 Spartans at 11:10 AM.

Oddly enough, my DirecTV box guide has FXM Presents, but not the Kim Novak interview.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Tropical Siren

Some months back, I recorded the Silent Sunday Nights airing of Siren of the Tropics. It's been a little while since I've done a silent feature, so I recently watched this one to do a post on here.

The movie will be remembered for the performance of Josephine Baker, but she doesn't show up for a good 20 minutes or so. Before that, we get Sévero (Georges Melchior), a wealthy French businessman who's got a wife, the Marquess, and a goddaughter Denise that the couple has apparently raised as a sort of foster child. Sévero turns out to be a rather nasty man, as he's got the hots for Denise and is hoping to divorce his wife so that he can marry Denise, even though she doesn't seem to want this! Obviously the Marquess isn't up for a divorce either, and she's not going to let her husband cavort with Denise.

Denise, for her part, doesn't want the Count either. She's got a fiancé in André Berval (Pierre Batcheff), who is a mining engineer for Sévero's firm. This gives Sévero an idea. He's got some new land holdings out in the Antilles, so he's going to send André out to the Caribbean for a year to do some prospecting to see what sort of mineral wealth the land holds; that will also give him the professional experience necessary to make him a more suitable groom for Denise. Of course, that's the nominal reason. The real reason is that Sévero has an even nastier man, Alvarez, overseeing the Caribbean holdings, and Sévero impresses on the amoral Alvarez the need to ensure that André never returns to France.

It's in the Caribbean that we finally see Josephine Baker. She plays Papitou, a peasant girl with an alcoholic father who keeps the family going by... well, that's never explained. But Alvarez owns the land that all the peasants rent, which is how she's able to come into contact with André. André saves Papitou when Alvarez tries to waylay her while she's bathing, and it's love at first sight, at least on Papitou's part. André doesn't have anything against Papitou, but of course he's engaged and faithful to Denise. But when Alvarez tries to kill André, it's now Papitou who comes to the rescue.

Unfortunately for Papitou, she learns that her love is unrequited when it transpires that Denise and the Marquess have come to the Caribbean to see André. Considering all that's happened to him, the three decide to return to Paris to have an immediate wedding. Papitou hears this and figures she's going to get to Paris too, by hook or by crook, just to see André one more time. This even though she has nowhere near enough money for boat passage to France.

Of course she makes it to Paris and gets discovered as a dancer, where she could make big money in the nightclubs. However, she refuses to dance unless she gets to see André again. This gives Sévero the idea to make it look like André and Papitou had an affair out in the Caribbean, which will get Denise to break off the engagement and leade Denise for the count! Eh, it doesn't quite work like that.

Siren of the Tropics is an interesting movie, although the plot is all over the place, as if the writers had some ideas for two-reelers and didn't quite know how to turn it into a feature-length film. The story does more or less hold up, but it's really a vehicle for Baker. This is a silent, so she doesn't get to sing, but of course she gets to dance and that's a treat. There are some odd tinting choices for some of the scenes, while I also found parts of the score didn't quite work.

Baker's three films were released in a box set some years ago, and that box set is available at the TCM Shop; I'm not certain if Siren of the Tropics is available as a standalone.

Thursday Movie Picks #348: Movies that Haven't Aged Well

Editors' Note: I switched to the Brave browser recently, which seems to have a glitch with Blogger in that it often publishes posts to draft rather than publishing them directly to the public. I overlooked this when I posted this yesterday, which is why you're getting the Thursday Movie Picks on a Friday.

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 "Movies that have aged badly", which is fairly obvious, but I suppose also subjective. So I went with three movies that have aged in different ways:

Mission to Moscow (1943). After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, America's communists quickly went from being relative isolationists, a position they took after the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, to full-throated support for war. Indeed, in that period Dalton Trumbo wrote the book The Remarkable Andrew with the ghost of Andrew Jackson telling Americans to stay out of war. (The book was turned into a movie I have not yet seen, but from what I've read it doesn't quite follow the book.) At any rate, once the US entered the war after Pearl Harbor and the Nazis declared war on the US, Americans were treated to all sorts of propaganda about why Stalin was really an OK guy. (Maybe the Soviets wouldn't have suffered so badly in the first years of the war if Stalin hadn't killed off almost the entire officer corps in the 1930s purges.) In this movie, strongly promoted by Franklin Roosevelt, Walter Huston plays the US Ambassador to the USSR Joseph E. Davies, who really whitewashes those purges.

I'll Take Sweden (1965). Tired Bob Hope generation gap comedy in which his daughter (Tuesday Weld), having fallen in love with a man Dad doesn't approve of, leads Dad to transfer the family to the company's Swedish branch, where we learn that Sweden is, well, every sterotype that America had about liberal and sexually liberated Sweden. Lots of aging stars were trying to stay hip and made movies like this (see Deborah Kerr in Marriage on the Rocks for another horrifying example), most of which fall flat.

THX 1138 (1971). George Lucas' first feature film, about a man (Robert Duvall) in a future dystopia where everybody is drugged into emotionlessness, who sufferes a breakdown when his female roomate switches his drugs. The movie isn't bad although others will probably like it more than I did. The problem is that, like most cinematic looks at the future, the future is in many ways stuck in the present day that the movie was made. Total surveillance on reel-to-reel tape?

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Champagne Charlie

FXM doesn't show too many of the B movies made at the studio during the golden age before the advent of television. One that is currently in the rotation is Champagne Charlie, which is getting another airing tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM.

We don't see Charlie for a while, which is odd consdering the movie is only about 59 minutes. The film starts off with ship's bartender Mr. Fipps (Herbert Mundin) going on about his love of Charlie, who was his former boss for 15 years, but has been dead for about a year. Coming onto the boat are several people. One, Linda Craig (Helen Wood), already knows Fipps although they haven't seen each other since Charlie's death. She's there with her fiancé Tod Hollingsworth (Thomas Beck), who had been a rival of Charlie's for Linda. There's also Linda's female companion Lillian (Minna Gombell) who is there with her latest husband.

Seeing all of this happen from a chair at the side of the lounge is one Pedro Gorini (Noel Madison). He's another man that Fipps knew, and Fipps knows that Gorini means bad news. Later that evening, Gorini calls Linda's cabin to try to blackmail her, and when she goes to see Gorini, she finds that he's already dead. Fipps demands to see the ship's captain about a very urgent matter, telling he captain that he just killed Gorini. Linda shows up and says no, it was actually she who killed Gorini. Cue the flashback, and how we finally get to see Charlie....

Charlie (Paul Cavanaugh) was an inveterate gambler who traveled around Europe with his manservant Fipps. At the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo he runs into Linda who seems to have one of those "systems" for winning at roulette that always seem to show up in the movies even though there aren't any such systems that work in real life. Linda wins a ton of money while Charlie loses. Charlie has a pair of backers, the aforementioned Gorini and his friend Suchine (Montague Love) who are understandably pissed, although why anybody would back a professional gambler like this is beyond me.

Anyhow the backers have a scheme. Linda is an heiress to a copper company, and worth $20 million. Apparently, whoever marries her gets some sort of prenup worth $1 million, with the rest of Linda's money off limits or some oddity. So the backers want Charlie to woo and ultimately marry Linda, with him getting half of the million and the backers getting the other half. Unfortunately, he falls in love with Linda for real, forcing him to come up with some sort of double cross.

Champagne Charlie isn't exactly terrible, at least not by B movie standards. The big problem is that there's a whole lot of nothing wrapped around a plot that's way too convoluted for its own good. I don't know that Herbert Mundin ever got a bigger role than this, and he runs with it for all it's worth. The others aren't bad, but there's just not all that much reason to care about them. Of course, since it's only a B movie, the studio was just trying to churn it out quickly.

Amazingly, Champagne Charlie did get a DVD release courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme, although the TCM Shop claims it's only available on backorder. There was also a British movie with the same title but a different plot which is also available on DVD.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

For the George Arliss fans

I notice that Voltaire is on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. A search of the blog suggested I mentioned it once before, when it was part of a TCM Bastille Day line-up many years ago. I think I watched it more recently than that post, but it's still been at least a couple of years, so the movie isn't quite so fresh in my mind.

As you can probably guess from the title of the post, George Arliss plays Voltaire, the French writer from the reign of King Louis XV (Reginald Owen) who has views that were relatively radical for the time although I wouldn't be surprised if there are idiots somewhere who think he should be canceled. In this movie version, Voltaire has some support from the King's mistress, Madame de Pompadour (Doris Kenyon), she of the hairdo, but is opposed by the King's chief advisor, the Count de Sarnac (Alan Mowbray).

Voltaire writes some controversial stuff calling for one M. Calas to be spared the death penalty, but that doesn't happen, and part of the punishment is also to be dispossessed, which is a problem for Calas' daughter Nanette (Margaret Lindsay). She, looking for help, runs off to Voltaire, but for him to hide her in his house is legally problematic for both of them.

How to save himself? Well, Voltaire wrote a lot, so in this movie, he extricates himself from the situation by writing a new play which is an allegory for the situation he is in, with a King of some other country in a more exotic part of the world doing the things Louis did. It ought to be a fairly obvious reference, but this Voltaire, and of course George Arliss, are so darn charming that the King can't help but have sympathy for Voltaire.

The plot may be a bit frustrating at times and some might suggest that Arliss could be prone to mugging to the camera. I think I'd say that's a bit more true in the historical dramas like Voltaire, and less in the contemporary dramas, where Arliss is usually quite good, raising mediocre material to something worth watching. As with those, Arliss is the big reason to see Voltaire, as he really is that charming.

I don't think Voltaire has ever gotten a DVD release; it probably should have one one of those four-film box sets that TCM and Warner Home Video used to release. There are quite a few Arliss movies that would be better at the box-set price point.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021


Kurt Russell's birthday is on March 17, which is St. Patrick's Day, so unsurprisingly TCM will be running a bunch of Irish-themed movies that day instead of Kurt Russell films. Instead, TCM has a double-feature of Kurt Russell's movies tomorrow morning concluding at 8:00 AM with Overboard.

Russell plays Dean Proffitt, a handyman carpenter in the coastal Oregon town of Elk Cove who has a rather modest living. That's because he's a widower with four kids, and has more or less decided that he's going to give his four sons the minimum of what they need and otherwise let them grow up on their own.

Joanna Stayton (Goldie Hawn) is fabulously wealthy, living on her yacht with her husband Grant Stayton III (Edward Hermann). Joanna basically spends her days making life hell for everyone around her, with the closest to her other than her husband being her butler Andrew (Roddy McDowall). Their yacht docks in Elk Cove, which is how Joanna first meets Dean. She's dissatisfied with her suite on the yacht, and wants a new closet. So she hires someone and gets Dean. Since she's so nasty, however, she decides not to accept a closet made of oak, an won't pay Dean one red cent out of the $600 Dean charges, even eventually throwind Dean and all his tools overboard.

Later that evening, Joanna has to go back up on deck to retrieve her wedding ring. As you can probably guess from the title of the movie, in the dark she slips and falls overboard, with nobody recognizing that she's gone missing until it's too late. She's picked up by a garbage scow, but... she has the sort of case of amnesia that one only gets in the movies or on soap operas.

The yacht is still close enough to Elk Cove that it can receive the local TV broadcasts, and so Grant sees the mug shot of the lady who doesn't know who she is and is in the psychiatric unit of the hospital, realizing that the woman is of course his wife. Grant goes to the hospital to retrieve her, and then decides that Joanna has been such a jerk that he's going to say no, he this isn't his wife, and go back to the yacht and party.

Dean also sees the news reports, and decides that he's going to get some revenge on Joanna for the way she treated him. He claims that the mystery woman who doesn't remember who she is is in fact his wife Annie. Fortunately for Dean, Joanna had been wearing such a skimpy bathing suit that he recognized a birthmark in a sensitive area, something only a husband could be expected to know.

Dean takes "Annie" home with him, expecting to have he work just enough to pay off the $600 for the closet. But any number of things happen that again, you can probably guess. Dean's children come to learn that they need a mother, and would like her to stay. Dean finds himself falling in love with Annie, even if he doesn't want to admit it. And Annie likes the children, although she's not so certain that she likes Dean.

You also know that Grant is going to come back into Annie's life, although that occurs in part from the proding of Joanna's mother (Katherine Helmond). It's the presence of Grant that finally wakes up Annie from her amnesia, and she has a choice to make, although again, you can probably figure out what's going to happen.

Overboard is a predictable movie, but the sort of thing that works well thanks to the chemistry and acting of the cast. Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have been together for close to 40 years now, and even though they'd only been together for a few years at the time they made Overboard, they look like they belong together. The kids are obnoxious at times like most movie kids, but that's in part because the script requires it for the first half of the movie. Hermann and Helmond show themselves to be fairly adept at comedy, too.

The plot of Overboard requires a fair bit of suspension of belief, but if you can do that, it's a really enjoyable little 1980s movie. It's also available on DVD and Blu-Ray if you miss the TCM showing.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Booty Call

Some time back, I recorded Booty Call during one of the free preview weekends. It's going to be on again several times over the next week, starting with tomorrow at 12:35 PM on Showtime Next, so I sat down and watched it.

As you can guess from the title, Booty Call isn't one of those elegant screwball comedies, but a raunchy sex comedy, not that there's anything wrong with that. Tommy Davidson plays Rushon, a nice professional who has another date with his girlfriend Nikki (Tamala Jones). Rushon has been going with Nikki for all of seven weeks, and he thinks that's more than enough time for him finally to get some sex out of the relationship. But there's a bit of pressure on going out on such a date all alone, so he's decided to make it a double date.

Rushon has a friend Bunz -- yes, with a Z -- played by Jamie Foxx, who seems like the sort of smooth operator where you wonder how exactly he makes his living. Nikki has a friend living in the apartnemt across the hall, Lysterine -- yes, with a Y -- played by Vivica A. Fox, who is also unattached, so Rushon and Nikki set up Lysterine and Bunz.

Now, the box guide on my DirecTV gives the synopsis as, "Absurdity rules on a double date but does nothing to quell the couples' quest for passion". And the date gets absurd fairly quickly, even before the date begins, considering that Lysterine is snobby enough to complain that she's been set up with a guy named Bunz with a Z. Come on Lysterine, surely you've gotten enough ribbing for your name, and that's what you're going to complain about? Anyhow, the two couples go to a restaurant in Chinatown, where we learn that Lysterine and Bunz might not be so compatible, as Lysterine seems to be the sort of professional-class woman who you'd think would be better paired with Rushon, not that Nikki is necessarily wrongly paired with him. But Bunz and Lysterine both speak Chinese so one point for something in common.

They're still not necessarily comitted to sex yet. That is, until they go back to Nikki's apartment for a nightcap and some cards. There's a little bit of footsie, but more importantly is Nikki's little yippie dog, Killer, who spices things up between Bunz and Lysterine although they don't realize Killer is playing the part of catalyst. But the job having been done, the two couples retire to the women's respective apartments with the expectation that they'll finally get it on.

Not so fast, since we're nowhere through the film's running time. Benz apparently forgot to bring any condoms with him, and Rushon only seems to have the one, which Killer intercepts. Nikki especially is insistent that she have safe sex. So Rushon and Bunz have to go out and procure condoms. And if you think the movie was absurd before this point, it's about to get a whole lot more absurd, as everything the two men try seems to backfire on them. with Rushon ultimately having to be taken to the emergency room.

OK, there's not really that much of a plot to Booty Call, as it's more a series of sketches. But I don't think one should really expect a whole lot of plot development in a movie like this. It's incredibly raunchy, and if you're either prudish or not in the right mood, you're probably going to hate the movie. (You probably wouldn't have considered watching it in the first place if you're that prudish.)

I was in the right mood, and for the most part found it quite funny. There were certainly some flaws, such as the waiter in the Chinese restaurant. The hospital scene also made me think of Richard Pryor's Critical Condition, but I don't know that the writers were truly unoriginal here. Some of the characters, such as the two Punjabi convenience store workers, may push some viewers' stereotype buttons, but I didn't mind those scenes.

Obviously, Booty Call isn't going to work for everybody. But it worked for me.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Mongkut and I

Among the movies that has recently started running in the FXM rotation is Anna and the King of Siam. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM, and again Friday morning, so I made it a point to watch this weekend to do a post on it.

Irene Dunne plays Anna Owens, a British woman who, as the opening titles inform us, traveled to Siam (now Thailand) to take on the job of teaching the English language and Western knowledge to the children of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison), all 67 of them. Mongkut has seen what was happening in other parts of Asia, with Western countries coming in and turning the places into colonies, and he absolutely doesn't want that to happen to him and his people. So to that end he's trying to modernize and has brought in a Western tutor for that purpose.

Now, as I mentioned, the King has 67 children, and a bunch of wives, all of whom live in a harem within the palace. It's just one of the many vast cultural differences between Siam and the West, something that goes both ways as Mongkut doesn't always get western traditions and Anna and her son certainly don't understand the Siamese. Indeed, Anna gaffes on her first day in Bangkok, when she meets Mongkut's chief advisor Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb).

When Anna is housed in separate quarters within the palace, she begins to learn what she's up against. She meets the king's first wife, Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard), who is also the mother of the Crown Prince. However, the king has taken many other wives since then, including his current favorite, Tuptim (Linda Darnell). Thiang has reached the point thta she just wants what's best for her son, since she knows she's not going to get what she needs from the king.

With that many wives, there's all sorts of palace intrigue going on, and adding a western woman into the mix isn't going to make things easier for anybody. Whether Anna was that much of a fighter for women's equality by western standards might be up for debate, but compared to the king's harem, she absolutely was, being horrified by the treatment of the wives and how everybody is expected to prostrate themselves before the king. But at the same time, Anna fails to understand that sudden social upheaval causes all sorts of problems of its own.

By this time, Mongkut has learned that the western powers are looking on Siam as backward, and he is desparate to dispel that image, so he decides to invite a bunch of representatives from various European countries to show them that Siam can be just as western as Europe, and convince them to have equal diplomatic relations with Siam rather than to try to colonize the place. History tells us that this more or less worked, as Siam (and Japan) were much closer to equals with Europe than any other place in Asia; Siam wouldn't really be colonized until the Japanese came along in World War II.

Anybody looking back at Anna and the King of Siam 75 years after it was released is going to have issues with it, I think. As with any Hollywood historical movie or biopic, there's the question of how much the movie is playing fast and loose with history. The fact that this movie is based on a fictional novelization of Anna Leonowens, who had published a memoir back in the 1870s, doesn't help. Others will point out the yellowface, although I'm not certain how much of a Southeast Asian population there was in the US in 1946, even if the studio had wanted to strive for as much accuracy as possible. In the years just after World War II, having Japanese-Americans or Chinese-Americans play Southeast Asians really wouldn't have been any better, I think.

One thing I think the movie is at least trying to be conscientious about is the difficulty King Mongkut finds himself facing in having an outside world encroaching on him. It made me think of The Barbarian and the Geisha, about Japan's being forced open to the world after 250 years of being almost entirely shut off. Of course some of Mongkut's attempts are going to look silly and foolish, but he also didn't have too many options.

As for the acting, Irene Dunne is unsurprisingly good, since she gets to play a westerner. Everybody else faces the difficulty of being white people playing Asian. Sondergaard and Darnell both do reasonably well, since it's easy enough to compare them to the wives and ladies-in-waiting behind any western throne. Lee J. Cobb is surprisingly sympathetic, even if he looks terribly miscast and it's hard to shake off roles like Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront as you're watching. Rex Harrison, unfortunately, came off as a bit of a buffoon, and was for me the weak spot of the movie.

Anna and the King of Siam, for all its flaws, is still an interesting movie, in part for its look at how Hollywood tried to navigate a complex and to them exotic history back in the mid-1940s.