Thursday, September 30, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks #377: Non-English TV

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're at the last Thursday of the month again, which means that it's time for another TV-themed edition of the blogathon. Once again, the theme is foreign-language TV, which is something I always have to think about because I don't watch much episodic TV. Once again, I went for the competition show route:

Der Große Preis. Long-running (in both senses of the word) German quiz show that seemed to be no more about the quiz as about what musical acts they could put in between questions.

The Cube (Ukraine). Originally a British show, this one asks contestants to perform progressively more difficult feats inside a cube. I found a Ukrainian version for your viewing pleasure. It took a long time for this one to come to the US because we had to suffer through the dreadful Minute to Win It first.

Exathlon. Originally a Brazilian show, this one pits two teams of the 2020 standard of Conventionally Beautiful and Fit People: one a group of Z-listers and the other being otherwise regular people who would like to become Z-listers themselves in a series of obstacle course-style challenges that eventually result in progressive elimination.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021


Another of the movies that I got the chance to record thanks to the free preview of the Showtime channels that I'm getting is UHF. It's going to be on again tomorrow, Sept. 30, at 2:30 PM on Showtime Family. (Note that Titan TV, which I normally use for listings on the premium channels, has Showtime Women in the slot occupied by Showtime Family, and for some reason doesn't have Showtime Family at all.) Once again, with that in mind, I sat down to watch UHF and do a report on it here.

"Weird" Al Yankovic plays George, who works at a series of odd jobs together with his friend Bob (David Bowe). The reason it's a series of odd jobs is because George has an extremely vivid imagination that causes him to daydream, constantly getting him fired from one job after another. It also causes him to forget things like dates with his long-suffering girlfriend Teri (Victoria Jackson).

Meanwhile, George has an uncle Harvey (Stanley Brock) who has a penchant for gambling. One night while playing poker, Harvey wins an unusual prize, as somebody put the ownership of local independent station Channel 62 in the pot, which Harvey won. Harvey doesn't have much use for a TV station, and certainly has no idea how to run it. However, he's got a nice nephew in need of a job, so he decides to make George the new station manager.

What George, who brings Bob along with him, finds is a station that's in terrible condition. Nobody watches the programs, and it's constantly being beaten in the ratings by Channel 8, which has a network affiliation and is run by overbearing R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy in a deliberately over-the-top role). George returns a package the mail sent to him instead of Channel 8, and finds Fletcher chewing out janitor Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards), so Fletcher offers him a job as Channel 62 janitor since the place needs a janitor and Stanley needs a job.

Channel 62 is so hard up for programming that George is reduced to hosting the kids' show himself, to the great distress of both George and the few kids watching it. One day he gets fed up and decides to go to a bar, giving Stanley the chance to host the show. Stanley turns out to be a whack job, but the sort of whack job that kids love to watch, leading the show to become a surprise ratings hit.

George and everybody else at the station come up with ever more bizarre and ridiculous ideas for TV shows that strike the popular zeitgeist, leading the channel to become #1 in the ratings, pissing Fletcher off. When Harvey gets some gambling debts, Fletcher sees his chance....

There's not much to the story of UHF, and the story of little guy in business taking on the big guy is one that's been done a lot. What makes UHF so appealing is the way the story is presented. If Paddy Chayefsky had taken Network and decided to make it not a black comedy but a light comedy with no pretensions of social commentary, he might have come up with something like UHF. (Unsurprisingly, among the many pop culture references in UHF is one to the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any longer" scene in Network.)

UHF, following the opening sequence parodying Raiders of the Lost Ark, is slow for a while, but really picks up once Stanley becomes a ratings hit, with some truly wacky show ideas if you get the cultural references of the late 1980s. If, however, you don't know who someone like Morton Downey Jr., to take just one example, was, then you might not find the references so funny.

Don't expect high cinematic art from UHF. Just sit back and think back to the days of the late 1980s, and have fun watching a warped take on the whole thing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A dozen years after Under the Volcano

This year's 31 Days of Oscar saw the TCM premiere of the movie Leaving Las Vegas. Not having blogged about it before, I decided to record it. I noticed that it's got an airing on Flix this week, at 10:00 PM on Sept. 29, so I once again made a point of watching it in order to do a blog post on it now.

Nicolas Cage plays Ben Sanderson, who at the start of the movie is buying a bunch of alcohol in order to go on the bender of all benders. He meets one of his friends in Los Angeles, who has obviously seen enough of Ben's antics and is not pleased with Ben accosting him in a business meeting at a restaurant. In a brief flashback, we learn that Ben has just lost his job as an associate producer with one of the Hollywood studios, and is thinking of taking his severance package and getting away to Las Vegas for a while.

Of course, he's really thinking of doing much more than that. He burns many of his possessions and leaves others at the curb in garbage bags before heading out to Vegas. When he gets to Vegas, he's clearly drunk already, that is, if he's even ever sobered up, based on how little he's paying attention to the throng of pedestrians in the Strip area of the city. Among those people is Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute whom Ben eventually runs into again. By sheer coincidence, Ben is alreadly peripherally involved in her story, as she's got a pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) who is being pursued by some gangsters Ben met in the Mojave desert on the way to Vegas.

At any rate, Ben runs into Sera again, and this time offers her $500 to come back to his crappy motel and spend some time with him. They don't have sex, but instead talk and form an odd and uneasy friendship. Ben tells Sera that his plan is to drink himself to death in Las Vegas, and that the one thing she absolutely has to do is not try to get him to stop drinking. She agrees but tells him not to judge her too harshly for being a prostitute.

Sera develops enough of an emotional bond with Ben that she even checks him out of the motel and brings him to her apartment, and both of them go through a lot of hell before their eventual storylines end.

To be honest, there's not much of a plot to Leaving Las Vegas, as it's as much a character study as a fully fleshed-out story. As I was watching, I couldn't help but think of Albert Finney in Under the Volcano. That's an extremely powerful acting performance, but also one that's incredibly difficult to watch. Leaving Las Vegas wasn't quite as difficult to watch, although it's definitely not a movie for everybody. Certainly, it's not your normal Hollywood sanitization and leaving everybody with a happy ending and the possibility of a sequel. And to be honest, I found it a bit difficult to understand why Sera would minister to Ben the way she did.

But if you want to see some good acting, this is definitely the movie to watch, as neither Cage nor Shue seemed to be going over the top. And if you can handle movies that aren't easy, than Leaving Las Vegas is absolutely worth the watch.

TCM's Ned Beatty tribute

Ned Beatty in Network (1976; tonight at 8:00 PM)

Actor Ned Beatty died back in June. TCM decided to schedule a night of his movies a couple of months later, in part I think because they couldn't do it in August due to Summer Under the Stars and in part because Beatty isn't someone that TCM has quicker library access to the way that anybody who worked a lot at MGM or Warner Bros. did. In any case, those movies are showing up tonight in prime time, and there are five of them.

Beatty isn't the star of Network, which kicks off the night at 8:00 PM, but he's got an important monologue.

A new-to-me movie is Promises in the Dark at 10:00 PM, in which Beatty plays the parent of a cancer patient treated by Marsha Mason.

Another new-to-me movie is Hear My Song at 12:15 AM;

Beatty isn't the star of Silver Streak at 2:30 AM, but the movie is absolutely worth watching.

Finally, at 4:30 AM, is Chattahoochee, about a Korean War veteran (Gary Oldman) with PTSD who winds up in a bruta mental health facility where Beatty plays one of the doctors.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Blondie of the Follies

Another of the movies that I've had sitting on my DVR for quite a few months is Blondie of the Follies. Recently, I finally got around to watching it in order to clear up some space on my DVR.

Marion Davies plays Blondie McClune, who lives in a tenement apartment together with her parents (James Gleason and Sarah Padden) and siblings. Money is always tight since there's a depression on, and not even enough money to buy Blondie that new dress she wants. Also living in the building is Blondie's best friend Lottie Callahan (Billie Dove).

The two want to get into a big Broadway show, which Lottie eventually does, taking on the stage name Lurline and getting noticed by one of those rich guys who picked up chorines in movies of the early 1930s, one Larry Belmont (Robert Montgomery). Lottie meets Blondie and invites her over now that Lottie is living in a swanky apartment on Park Avenue.

This is where Larry meets Blondie, and immediately takes a liking to her. Blondie could consider any boyfriend of Lottie's a platonic friend, but she would never dream of trying to take Lottie's boyfriend away from her. Lottie, understandably, doesn't see things that way, and it's going to drive a huge wedge into the friendship, even after Blondie too gets a job in the Follies, which pisses her dad off since he doesn't think that's appropriate for a good woman.

Another rich guy, Murcheson (Douglass Dumbrille) is having a party on his yacht, and since Larry and Lottie are guests, Lottie brings Blondie along, which bugs Larry enough to drive a wedge between him and Lottie. Larry is freer to pursue Blondie, but she's still loyal enough to Lottie that she wouldn't dream of trying to take Larry away from Lottie.

Still to come are Blondie's tragic reunion with her father, as well as Lottie getting so mad at Blondie that she tries to ruin Blondie's big number, also with tragic results. But it's that latter tragedy that might just bring BLondie and Larry together. After all, Davies and Montgomery get top billing, a sure sign that they should be together.

The box guide referred to this as a comedy, although it really isn't. The one big comic scene comes when Jimmy Durante finally shows up, basically playing a variation of himself. He shows up at a party Blondie is throwing, and together the two do a spoof of Grand Hotel, with Durante taking the part of John Barrymore (to be fair, Durante does have a rather notable profile himself) and Davies doing Greta Garbo. It's fun comic relief that works.

The rest of the movie doesn't work quite as well, but it's not exactly a bad movie. It's more one of those dated early 1930s movies that would be a bit difficult for people not fans of older movies to get into. Although Davies and Montgomery both do an adequate enough job, they were both better in other things. Still, for anybody whose opinion of Davies is based on Orson Welles' reference to her in Citizen Kane, even Blondie of the Follies should dispel that notion.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

I, Tonya

DirecTV decided to give me three free months of the Showtime package, so I've got about 10 extra movie channels mostly showing somewhat more recent movies. I've already recorded about as much as I've got space to on my DVR, and will slowly be getting around to watch the movies. First up is I, Tonya, which will be on TCM Xtra tomorrow (Sept. 27) at 2:00 PM, and again a couple more times this week.

I assume American readers already know the basic story, but I don't know quite how well known it is in other English-speaking countries. Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) was an American figure skater who was born into a decidedly modest working-class background, raised by mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Figure skating is one of those insular worlds that apparently expects its female competitors to skate and act a certain way, like little princesses more or less. Tonya was certainly not that way by upbringing, and her skating was as much physical as graceful, as seen by her being one of the few female skaters ever able to perform a difficult jump known as the triple axel. (As I understand it, the way you take off and land effectively requires you to perform an extra half rotation, which is what makes it more difficult than the other jumps.)

Tonya's athleticism over artistry, combined with a working-class presentation -- LaVona is portrayed as a very working class woman and extremely pushy stage mother -- made Harding less than a darling among the hidebound judges, compared to skaters like 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and Harding's domestic rival for a place on the 1994 Olympic squad, Nancy Kerrigan. This rankled Tonya, who by this time had gotten married to the equally blue-coller Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

What happened next is a bit unclear, mostly because everybody involved has obviously had reason to present their side of the story in a way that puts them in the best light. Gillooly had hired his friend Shawn Eckart (Paul Walter Hauser) to be Tonya's "bodyguard", and one of the three got the idea of trying to intimidate Nancy in the run up to the 1994 US Championships which were also the Olympic qualifying tournament. This was ultimately handled by Shawn hiring Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) to kneecap Kerrigan, who famously cries "Why?" after being hit.

Unsurprisingly, the Harding team being the gang that couldn't shoot straight, all of this was quickly figured out by the authorities, and the whole situation became an extreme media circus. Since all of the legal issues hadn't been sorted out, Harding was allowed to compete in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Unfortunately, she had a technical issue with her skates that only showed up at the beginning of her long program, forcing her to beg the judges for forbearance and allow her to start her program over again. Harding finished eighth, while Kerrigan, who had recovered, finished second, although at the time there was a fair amount of controversy over whether she had skated better than the ultimate gold medalist, Oksana Baiul.

I, Tonya presents all of this almost as a partial mockumentary, considering the way recreated interviews (that may or may not have happened in real life) are used, including both Hardings, Gillooly, and a tabloid TV reporter. (This isn't Kerrigan's story; the only line she gets is the famous "Why?" line. Also, the fourth wall is consistently broken, and the visual look of the movie comes out more like a music video. In fact, I was going to make a complaint about the movie having intrusive direction, until it hit me that much of the presentation seemed designed to be unrealistic. The whole situation was so absurd that if somebody had written the story as fiction, it probably wouldn't have been believed.

That visual style may bother some people, but it ultimately worked for me, although it did take a while. As for the story itself and how it decides to portray each of the main players, I have to admit again that I don't know what really happened in all of this. I can certainly understand some sympathy for Harding, as judging in those days certainly turned out to be old-fashioned and less than fully honest. The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics brought that to the fore when there was a huge controversy in the pairs' figure skating judging. But at the same time, it's tough for me to believe that Tonya had no clue that physical violence against Nancy Kerrigan was planned.

Overall, I, Tonya is an interesting look at a thoroughly bizarre event that really did happen, although a look that's not without its flaws.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Murder at the Gallop

MGM's British unit produced four films in the early 1960s starring Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie's detective Jane Marple. TCM ran all four of them back in August during Rutherford's day in Summer Under the Stars, although I only had enough space on my DVR to record one of them, Murder at the Gallop. I recently got around to watching it and doing a review on it here.

At the start of movie, Marple is going around town with her companion and custodian of the local library, Mr. Stringer (Rutherford's real-life husband Stringer Davis, reprising his role from the first of the movies, Murder She Said), to raise money for a local charity. One of the stops is at the big manor-type house of a rich old man, Mr. Enderby (Finlay Currie), notorious for not donating to charity. He lets them in, however, where they find him getting scared by a cat and suffering fatal heart attack in the process!

Miss Marple just knows that it's murder, and figures that the last person before them to show up at the house deliberately brought a cat in order to induce that heart attack. So even before local police inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell, also reprising his role in Murder She Said shows up, she's trying to get evidence, which you'd think would be a crime since she's technically impeding a legitimate police investigation.

Except that the police don't believe it was murder, just a run of the mill heart attack, leaving Marple free to come up with her batty conspiracy theories. Well, of course, this being Miss Marple maybe they're not so batty. First she concludes that the murderer, whoever it was, must have come over on horseback as she's able to get an impression of a riding boot. Find out whose boot it matches, and you've got the murderer. She also eavesdrops on the reading of the will.

Among the heirs is Enderby's sister Cora, so Marple goes to visit Cora, finding her dead, and a housekeeper Miss Milchrest (Flora Robson) who wonders whether Marple is in fact the killer. As for the other heirs, there's Enderby's nephew Hector (Robert Morley) who runs a local inn that also provides horse riding as part of the recreation; art dealer Crossfield (Robert Urquhart); and Mr. and Mrs. Shane. All of the heirs are staying at Hector's in the Gallop, so Marple decides she's going to take a "vacation"... at the Gallop.

Some vacation, since it's patently obvious that she's going to investigate the murder. Along the way, she's going to be put in a bit of danger as she finds everybody is a suspect. But you know that she's ultimately going to figure out who the killer is.

Eddie Muller, in the wraparounds, stated that this particular movie is based on one of Christie's books that did not in fact have Miss Marple among the characters. So for Agatha Christie purists, they may not like the movie as a result. I more or less liked it, as the mystery is good enough and Margaret Rutherford brings the same humor to the Marple role that she did in Murder She Said. I have to admit, however, that I preferred Murder She Said.

Still, anybody looking for a relatively undemanding mystery can enjoy Murder at the Gallop.

Friday, September 24, 2021

A circus with no nouns or adjectives preceding it

There's a small sub-genre of circus-themed movies that has been a recurring theme in Hollywood history. If I had to give a reason why, I'd guess that part of it has to do with being able to show people circus acts that they might only have the chance to see once a year when the circus went through town. That, and the circus performers probably not needing to be paid as much as stars, since nobody knows who these trapeze artists or tightrope walkers are. Anyhow, some months back I recorded another movie in the genre, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus.

This is clearly a re-release print, since the opening credits are a different typeface with Chaplin singing over them. But soon enough we get into the action. The circus has come to town, and it's typically one that's struggling financially, with the owner/ringmaster (Al Garcia) treating his stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy) like dirt and not giving her dinner after the show for screwing up. He even won't let the other performers give her some of their meals.

Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin's Tramp is watching one of the related attractions when a pickpocket comes along. The pickpocket is spotted by the police, and having a very light hand, is able to put the stolen wallet and fob watch into the Tramp's pockets without the Tramp noticing. Eventually, however, he finds that he has money, and a watch, and this leads to the victim spotting the Tramp and sending to police to capture him. The Tramp goes on a chase through a funhouse mirror maze before running into the circus and screwing up the show.

Or, you'd think that a stranger running through the circus would be a problem. In fact, he shows up during one of the clown acts, and everybody in the audience thinks that he and the policeman chasing him are part of the act. Not only that, but he's the funniest thing in the circus, which presents problems for the ringmaster since he doesn't have anything else that the audience will like.

Still, the property master and others in the circus suggest to the ringmaster that he give this stranger a tryout. Unfortunately for the Tramp, he doesn't have any idea what made him so funny to the audiences in the first place, since he wasn't doing anything scripted. And if he's not able to be funny on command, he's not going to be able to get a job. But when he's not trying to be funny, he is, which gives the property master the idea to hire the Tramp on as an assistant, doing the things that will get audiences to laugh while the Tramp thinks he's just doing a different job.

Along the way, the Tramp falls in love with Merna, and she's friends with him. But the circus adds a new tightrope act, and Merna falls in love with that man, not realizing that the Tramp has an unrequited love for her.

To me, much of The Circus felt like a series of sketches hanging on a very threadbare plot. (Never mind that the whole pickpocket and Tramp-as-fugitive storyline is discarded.) However, in this case the various individual scenes mostly work, starting with the well-photographed mirror maze scene, something that seems like it would have been really difficult to pull off since you can't have the camera show up in any of the shots.

The Circus may not be as well-remembered as some of Chaplin's other movies, but it deserves to be.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Nice Little Bank that Should Be Robbed

The latest new-to-me movie that started showing up in the FXM rotation recently is A Nice Little Bank that Should Be Robbed. It's going to be on FXM again tomorrow, Sept. 24, at 9:45 AM; as always, with that in mind I made it a point to watch the movie and blog about it now.

Tom Ewell plays Max Rutgers, who runs an auto body shop that doesn't seem to get much business, as he seems to spend more time with his best friend Gus (Mickey Rooney), who is studying for his license to become a race-horse trainer. Unfortunately, Gus always seems to get incredibly nervous when he has to face the actual examiners, he consistently fails the examination. Meanwhile, Max has a long-suffering girlfriend in Margie (Dina Merrill) who would marry Max if only he had the money.

One day, Gus hears a story on the radio about a bank robbery, and comes up with the idiotic idea that he and Max can solve their financial problems if only the two of them rob a bank together! And he's even come up with a plan on how to do it! For whatever bizarre reason, Max decides to go along with this, even though in his mind he's planning to return the money after he can get enough back to repay what he's taken.

Amazingly, the robbery goes off without a hitch, which is something unusual in a heist movie. Of course, there's going to be problems later, thank you Production Code. Gus' plans for the money involve buying a race-horse and running it to win a bunch of prize money; with Max's share of the prize money, he can pay back the bank and have enough left over to get married to Margie. Or at least, that's the plan.

Gus and Max have to go to another state where Gus doesn't need a trainer's license, and there they run the horse. But in the meantime, their mutual friend, taxi driver Rocky (Mickey Shaughnessy) found the money bag that Gus and Max got the bank robbery money in and were too damn stupid to destroy. Rocky is unsurprisingly able to put two and two together, and wants in on his friends' money making scheme.

They'd all live happily ever after if only the scheme works. And it might at that, with their horse winning the first race it's entered in. That is, until the stewards have an inquiry and determine that the horse crowded others out in a way that contravenes the rules, thereby disqualifying the horse. Now Gus and Max are out a bunch more money.

As you might be able to guess, Gus comes up with a daft plan to rob another bank, this time in a different way from the first one, since if they robbed the second bank in the same manner, the police would be able to find them much more easily. Unfortunately, Gus isn't smart enough to realize that the bank vault is on a timer and that the bank manager can't just open it up before hours.

I mentioned that A Nice Little Bank that Should Be Robbed was a new-to-me movie. There's a reason I'd never heard about it before, which is that it's not very good. It looks as though it was done on the cheap, and the attempts at humor fall relatively flat. There's also the predictable plot holes involving incompetent crooks and what they expect reality to be.

Still, watch for yourself, as some people might enjoy this one more than I did.

Thursday Movie Picks #376: Femmes Fatales

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. Once again, we have a fairly broad theme, "Femmes Fatales". These were a staple of noir back in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the neo-noir movies of later, and there are some pretty good dames you don't want to get mixed up with. With that in mind, I went for a theme within a theme:

Dead Reckoning (1947). Humphrey Bogart plays a soldier returning from World War II whose buddy was up for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but went AWOL. Bogie goes to his friend's home town and finds an old girlfriend (Lizabth Scott) who is now involved with a local gangster but is trying to get Bogart to pursue her. It gets complicated after this, but not as much of a mess as The Big Sleep.

Pitfall (1948). Dick Powell plays an insurance investigator who gets an assignment to repossess some items from a woman (Lizabeth Scott) who had received them as gifts from an embezzling boyfriend. Despite her obviously being high-maintenance and Powell being married to Jane Wyatt, he starts having illicit trysts with her. Private investigator Raymond Burr, who has worked for Powell's insurance company, figures out what's going on and thinks blackmail would be just fine.

Too Late for Tears (1949). In one of the rarer cases where the femme fatale is the victim's wife, this movie stars Arthur Kennedy and Lizabeth Scott as a married couple on their way to a party in the Hollywood Hills when somebody throws a bag into the back seat of a convertible. Apparently this was supposed to be the transfer of some money from a criminal activity and our married couple just happened to have the same type of car as the gangsters. Kennedy wants to return the money but Scott wants to spend it. Dan Duryea would like the money back.

And for honorable mention, I could mention Scott as the villain in Easy Living, playing the grasping wife of football player Victor Mature, whose career is about to end due to illness. That one is going to be on TCM this Sunday at 11:30 AM.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon

TCM had a spotlight on "Body Images in Film" a couple of months ago, which gave me the chance to watch another new-to-me movie, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. I recently got around to watching it.

Liza Minnelli plays Junie Moon, who at the start of the movie is in the hospital, having suffered burns on an arm and one side of her face, which have required quite a few skin grafts. Eventually we learn, in flashback, that Junie liked to go out with a bunch of different men, and one of them raped her in a graveyard and deliberately poured battery acid all over her face and arm. But right now, she's getting to the point that there's not much more the doctors can do for her, so she's about to be discharged from the hospital.

During her time in the hospital, she's made a couple of friends. Warren (Robert Moore) is a gay man in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the waist down in an accident. Arthur (Ken Howard) has some sort of epilepsy-like disease that results in seizures and a lot of people thinking he's intellectually challenged. Indeed, his parents put him in a state-run institution that was torture for him, and to an extent he was never really able to grow up mentally.

Warren is in some ways a very forward man, in contrast to the introversion of Junie post-rape and especially Arthur. Warren has a plan that he's going to get the three of them on welfare and find them a place to live where the misfits can live together. Junie is the first of the three to get out, and she finds a cottage in nearby Manchester, MA. She's even able to convince the house's owner, Miss Gregory (Kay Thompson) to let the three of them rent it.

Unfortunately, the three of them aren't going to get the chance to live happily ever after. They've got a really nosy neighbor in Mr. Wyner, as well as still having health issues and the need to get a job. You'd think Junie might be able to get something not customer-facing; likewise Warren could do desk work. But it's Arthur who goes looking for work, eventually finding it with bachelor Mario (James Coco), who runs the local fish market. But Wyner tries to sabotage that.

Mario begins to have sympathy for the oddball household, even offering to help them take a vacation, although it's Warren who scams the hoity-toity beach resort out of a free weekend stay. While there, Arthur begins to realize he's falling in love with Junie although she's not so ready; Warren falls in love with one of the bellboy-types (Fred Williamson) whose job it is to make the guests happy.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is an odd little movie, and it's easy to see why it wasn't commercially successful. And indeed, sometimes the movie is too quirky for its own good. It's the sort of movie that you have to be willing to stick with, and by the end you might find out that it's better than the criticism would have led you to believe.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Cahill US Marshal

Some time back a late-career John Wayne movie I hadn't blogged about before showed up on TCM: Cahill, US Marshal. So I recorded it, and recently watched it to do a blog post on here.

Wayne, as you can probably guess, plays J.D. Cahill, the titular United States Marshal chasing after criminals somewhere out west. He's a widower with two children, and because of his time chasing all those bad guys, he hasn't been a very good father to his sons, being absent all the time. So when he comes home from his latest long jaunt away from the kids, he finds that elder son Danny (Gary Grimes), almost a legal adult, is in the town jail on a drunk and disorderly. Also in the jail are Fraser (George Kennedy), and his two henchmen Stuther (Morgan Paull) and Brownie (Dan Vadis).

It turns out, however, that this is a ruse. Fraser and his men robbed the local bank, with some help from Danny and JD's other son Billy Joe (Clay O'Brien), killing the local sheriff in the process; since they can claim they were in jail at the time, the might be able to convince people that they didn't commit the bank robbery. Of course, the fact that the sheriff died might be an issue.

In any case, JD sets off to find the bank robbers in order to bring them to justice, taking Danny along with him as a sort of impromptu deputy. What they find is MacDonald (Royal Dano) and his men, who had robbed somebody passing through. They're not the bank robbers, but since they've got money on them it's enough to get a jury to convict them and sentence them to hang.

I mentioned that kid brother Billy Joe, all of about 12, was in on the robbery in an attempt to get attention from his father, and that's where the problems start to mount. His job was to hide the money until things blew over and Fraser could divide the money. Well, things have moved quickly, and Fraser and his men would like their share, the sooner the better. They'd be willing to kill him, except that he's the only one who knows. However, Billy Joe secretly takes Danny to get the money, found out by Cahill and mixed-race tracker Lightfoot (Neville Brand). So Dad knows who committed the robbery, even if he isn't letting on.

Cahill, US Marshal isn't Wayne's best western by a long shot, but fans of the Duke will get what they're looking for. It's amiable enough and feels like it's treading ground that Wayne had been doing for years. So if you want something comfortable and not too demanding, Cahill, US Marshal will fit that hole fairly well. For people new to any of the stars, however, there are other things I'd pick first to recommend.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Kiss Me Kate

Tomorrow morning and afternoon, TCM is running a bunch of Shakespeare-themed movies. I'd never done a review of Kiss Me Kate before, so the last time it showed up on TCM, I recorded it with a view to getting around to watching it sometime. Seeing it on the schedule speeded up that process, so now you're getting the review.

Howard Keel plays Fred Graham, a Broadway star who is talking with his good friend Cole Porter (Ron Randell) about his latest project. Cole has written a musical treatment of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and Fred would be perfect for the male lead Petruchio. They know who would be perfect for the role of Kate, actress Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson). There's just one catch: Lilli is Fred's ex-wife. And Fred is pursuing another woman now, dancer Lois Lane (Ann Miller), although she's got a boyfriend in Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall).

After some persuading (and a spectacular if meaningless to the plot dance number by Miller), Lilli agrees to take on the role, and the play is a go. At this point, a substantial portion of the movie becomes the performance of the musical version of the play, although some of the backstage stuff is going to come into play.

Lois and Bill ahve both been cast in the play too, as Bianca and Lucentio respectively, if you know the original Shakespeare play, which I have to admit I don't know that much about. That's no big deal, except that Bill likes to gamble and has racked up a substantial amount of gambling debt. Worse, he forged Fred's name on an IOU to the gangsters.

The gangster, however, sends some henchmen who don't know what the guy who signed the IOU looked like, or else they'd find Fred and realize that Fred isn't the one who racked up those debts. Instead, the henchmen, Lippy and Slug (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore respectively), simply expect Fred to pay up. At least Fred has the good sense to realize that he has a hit on his hands and try to wait for the box office to come in long enough to pay off the IOU.

But here there's a big catch: Lilli got a bouquet of flowers from Fred, whch she thought was part of an attempt to make up. But it was a mistake: the flowers were meant for Lois. When Lilli sees the card addressed to Lois, she threatens to quit the show then and there, like literally between acts of the performance. This would obviously be a disaster for Fred, and leads to the film's funnier moments of Lippy and Slug being dressed up in Shakespearean garb and going on stage to watch Lilli and make certain she doesn't bolt.

Kiss Me Kate has a lot of potential. Whether you like it, however, is going to come down to whether you like the singing and the dancing. For me, that was a bit of a problem, as neither Howard Keel nor Kathryn Grayson are my favorite singers. Not that they can't sing; they're more than proficient enough. It's just a style that I don't think holds up so well today. The dancing, unsurprisingly, is quite good, thanks not just to Miller, but Rall and also a young Bob Fosse as two of Miller's suitors in the stage version of the show.

Kiss Me Kate wouldn't be my first choice when thinking about any of the stars, or for Cole Porter musicals, but there are definitely going to be people who like it a lot.

Sunday, September 19, 2021


Earlier this year saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. TCM marked the day with a bunch of his films, which gave me the chance to record a film that was new-to-me, his version of the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People.

Henrik Ibsen wrote his play in the 1880s and set it in his native Norway; Ray moves the action to the present day (well, 1989 when the movie was made) and places it in a small city called Chandipur somewhere in the Indian state of West Bengal (that being the same state in which Calcutta is situated and bordering Bangladesh. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a doctor there who has also written some articles for the progressive newspaper Janavarta; he's planning another one about an outbreak of jaundice in the community.

Dr. Gupta has a feelnig that the outbreak is caused by contaminated water, and to that end he's collected a sample of water in one of the districts and sent if off to Calcutta for testing. His suspicions are confirmed, as the water is indeed contaminated. So, there's a simple solution, which is to fix the water problem with new wells and, if the community could support it, some sort of treatment facility.

The bigger problem, however, is that the district with the contaminated water contains a relatively new Hindu temple, and that temple's holy water is what really seems to be the source of the contamination. The temple has become a site of pilgrimage, bringing a lot of people to Chandipur, and with them a fair amount of financial gain to the city.

The town fathers, then, led by Dr. Gupta's elder brother Nisith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), are understandably worried about what the consequences are going to be if word gets out that the temple water is in fact the source of the problem. There's the old saw about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on, but here, even if the the temple water contamination is cleaned up, the stories about the contamination will always remain more prominent than the fact of any cleanup that might occur in the future.

So Nisith brings quite a lot of pressure to his brother not to publish the story about the contaminated holy water. Indeed, the publisher of Janavarta decides, along with editor Haridas (Dipankar Dey), to spike the story. And it's not as if any other newspaper will publish it. Fortunately, however, Ashok's daughter, a local schoolteacher, is also engaged to a member of a theater company, and they have a printing press as well as a theater to hold meetings. So it's decided to advertise a public meeting where Dr. Gupta will give a speech about the contaminated holy water.

Unfortunately, Nisith gets his allies together and uses parliamentary procedure to sabotage the meeting. He also gets Dr. Gupta relieved of his duties at the local hospital, and even Dr. Gupta's daughter fired from her teaching position. What are Dr. Gupta and his family going to do?

This version of An Enemy of the People is very interesting, and takes the Ibsen play in some interesting directions that Ibsen himself didn't go. The action is in a small city rather than a village, which changes the dynamics somewhat, as it's easier to whip up an anonymous mob than in a village where everybody knows everybody. But the bigger thing is the debate between faith and science which the original play doesn't have. The story is quite good, and it's both universal and timeless, as we can see even today in the kerfuffle over Nicki Minaj's thoughtcrime regarding the coronavirus, and how the establishment is using the guise of "fake news" to suppress opinions the establishment doesn't like.

Unfortunately, this version of An Enemy of the People also suffers from what I thought was surprisingly poor direction. Almost unforgivably for a movie from the late 1980s, six decades into the sound era, it has shockingly stagy camerawork, and acting that seems like people declaiming their lines rather than real acting. (Apparently, Ray was in quite poor health by the time he made this movie, which might help explain that.) There's a very small amount of opening up the action by showing a few shots of people receiving the temple water, but that's about it.

Still, despite the movie's flaws, Satyajit Ray's An Enemy of the People is highly worth seeing for a fresh take on an always relevant story.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Steamboat Round the Bend

Quite some time back, I recorded Steamboat Round the Bend on TCM. I recently noticed that there's a box set of Will Rogers movies that includes Steamboat Round the Bend, so recently I watched it to do a review on here.

Will Rogers plays "Doctor" John Pearly, one of those medicine-show quacks who plies his trade in a decrepit riverboat up and down the Louisiana/Mississippi section of the Mississippi River in the 1890s, having to deal with all sorts of people along the way, such as rival captains like Eli (Irvin Cobb), and revivalist preachers.

Into Doc Pearly's life comes young Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley). She's the girlfriend of Doc's nephew Duke (John McGuire). Duke, meanwhile, is in legal trouble. One of the rural types from Fleety Belle's community was also in love with her, and confronted Duke over it, resulting in an incident in which Duke killed the other man in apparent self-defense. The authorities didn't see it that way, however, largely because no witnesses could be found to corroborate Duke's story, the only one being one of those preachers calling himself "New Moses". So Duke is convicted and sentenced to be executed down in Baton Rouge.

Doc needs a good way to get the money to get better legal representation for Duke. One of those ways involves a discarded wax museum, which he picks up, and uses to turn his riverboat into an attraction. Not that any of the locals agree with it. Fleety Belle, for her part, is willing to break Duke out of jail, but Duke will have none of that, since he doesn't want Fleety Belle to wind up in legal trouble herself.

Eventually, Doc Pearly comes across a blockage in the river, as traffic is being stopped for the start of a race from that location to Baton Rouge, which coincidentally happens to be where Doc is trying to get to to see the governor about a possible retrial for Duke. What Doc doesn't realize is that the execution is being put off until after the race, or at least after Captain Eli's ship crosses the line first. So if Doc can take his old wreck of a riverboat and finish ahead of Eli, he might still have a chance to save Duke. And he might have a chance to find the New Moses along the way, too.

I have to admit to not having seen too many Will Rogers movies, so I'm not quite certain if Steamboat Round the Bend is typical of his films. His acting style is certainly different, and it's definitely going to be an acquired taste for the audiences of the 2020s. His folksy, gentle humor, however, is something that apparently really appealed to at least a certain segment of the American moviegoing population during the first half of the Depression, which is why Rogers was such a hit until his tragic death in a plane crash in Alaska not long after he completed filming on this movie.

The story in Steamboat Round the Bend is a bit of a mess, as it felt to me as though there were multiple disparate sublpots the writers were trying to mesh together, and it doesn't always work. With that in mind, it definitely helps to be a fan of Will Rogers. The supporting actors, however, are mostly given a scene or two each to shine, much to the movie's benefit.

If you haven't seen a Will Rogers movie before, do yourself a favor and give him a try.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Jane Powell, 1929-2021

Jane Powell and Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951)

Actress Jane Powell, who started as a teenager at MGM in the 1940s before appearing in iconic musicals like Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, has died at the age of 92.

I'm not the biggest fan of musicals, so I don't really have one movie of Powell's that I would recommend first up, although Royal Wedding has the famous scene of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling.

Later in life, Powell became an advertising spokesman for Polident denture adhesive, joining a long line of Golden Age stars doing commercials. Speaking of Golden Age stars, she was approached by Dickie Moore in the mid-1980s when he was doing research for a book he was writing on child stars, he having started at an even earlier age than Powell. The two fell in love and eventually married, remaining married for 27 years until Moore's death in 2015.

Powell was also a substitute host for a week on TCM back in 2011 when Robert Osborne had to take an emergency break, the first of many before his ultimate death in 2017. Powell didn't actually talk much about the movies she was presenting, although I remember her saying something to the effect that she didn't get to know certain other stars (I think she was specifically referring to Doris Day at Warner Bros.) very well because of the way the stars worked back then: since all the MGM stars were on the lot so much, they wound up spending evenings together, while the same was true with the contract players from the other studios and, so she claimed, there wasn't as much mixing as there might otherwise have been. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any of those guest hosting segments on Youtube.

I don't know if there's been a TCM Remembers piece for Powell up yet; if so I'm pretty certain it would be the first one under the new graphics package. I also haven't been able to find anything yet on whether TCM has scheduled a programming tribute to Powell.

It Happened to Jane

Doris Day was TCM's Star of the Month back in March, and I hadn't gotten through all of her movies that I DVRed during the tribute. Recently I watched another of the movies, It Happened to Jane.

Doris plays Jane, a widow in Cape Anne, ME, one of those old-fashioned New England towns that still has a town meeting and enough of a civic spirit that everybody in town attends the meeting. George Denham (Jack Lemmon) is an attorney in town who runs for First Selectman at every meeting and keeps losing; he's also in love with Jane and would love for her to marry him now that she's a widow. (The movie doesn't say how long she's been a widow, but implies that it's been long enough for her to consider dating and marriage again even though she has two kids.)

Jane supports her family by fishing for lobster, which she ships off to various hoity-toity places in New England and beyond courtesy of the Eastern and Portland Railroad, which is headed by Harry Foster Malone (Ernie Kovacs). However, due to staffing cuts at the railroad, one of her shipments was not able to be signed for by anybody at the station, with the result that it sat around for a couple of days and the live lobsters wound up dead, which defeats the point of having lobster. Jane is pissed, rightly so, and since she's out a good deal of money, George writes a threatening letter to the railroad.

Malone sends two lawyers up to Maine to meet with Jane and George. They know that the company is in the wrong, and offer her to settle for the value of the shipment, which is probably all they're legally liable for. However, Jane thinks she's lost more than just the value of the lobsters; there's a cost to her reuptation of being able to provide a good product. So she wants more, and sues the railroad.

Since the suit is held in a local court, Jane is able to win, but there's a problem with collecting the money. For Malone, there's the principal of the matter, even though he doesn't realize that trying to dick over a small businesswoman like this is going to be much worse for his business in the long run. So he has his lawyers take the case to the next higher court, meaning Jane doesn't get her money yet.

In the meantime, Jane learns that it's possible to attach somebody's property to get the money one is owed, and Jane has George do this to one of the railroad's trains, which I'd think is worth for more than the value in dispute in the case. Malone escalates further, and the case become a national cause célèbre, with Jane getting invited down to New York to do a round of all the New York-based shows. It's here that she meets reporter Larry Hall (Steve Forrest), who quickly falls in love with Jane too.

Eventually Malone decides to play hardball by just closing the line servicing Cape Anne. This would prevent Jane from shipping her product entirely, at least in a way that's not cost prohibitive, but would also make life difficult for the rest of the townsfolk since the town has a better rail connection than road connections. Jane could use that locomotive to ship the lobster, but she needs fuel and access to the tracks, and Malone is going to make that difficult, too....

As a game show fan, I knew that It Happened to Jane has some of the only color footage of the set to I've Got a Secret, as Jane appears on the show (with the actual host and regular panelists) with her secret being that she's in a legal fight against the meanest man in the world. But that and the other cameos might be the highlight of what is very much a lesser Doris Day vehicle. Cape Anne is just too stereotypically New England, replete with quirky characters. Malone is too one-dimensionally mean, and the humor overall feels too forced. I'd recommend one or another of Doris' movies with Rock Hudson or James Garner to those who don't know much about Doris Day rom-coms.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks #375: Outlaws

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 another broad one, "Outlaws". Normally, outlaws are thought of, at least in movie terms, as being bad guys in westerns. So I decided to set myself a challenge and see if I could come up with three movies not set in the old American west. Now, that does mean there's a gratuitous image I had in mind that I can't really use, but since it's gratuitous, why not use it after all:

Jane Russell in The Outlaw

OK, now that we've got that out of the way, let's get to my real three selections:

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). Set in 18th century Iceland, Victor Sjöström plays Karl, who shows up on widow Halla's farm looking for work. He may be Ejvind, the famous outlaw, and the local law enforcement man, Björn (Nils Arehn), who is also pursing Halla as she's his sister-in-law, tries to discover the truth. But Karl falls in love with Halla to, and when the truth comes out, he and Halla escape into the Icelandic highlands.

M (1931). Somebody's killing children in Weimar Berlin, and the police are baffled. Their dragnet cuts seriously into the regular underworld's business, so they declare the serial killer an outlaw and pursue him themselves. That somebody is Peter Lorre, whom the underworld finds before the cops do and put him on trial outside the law.

Robin and Marian (1976). After the events in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Robin goes off to fight in Europe with King Richard. 20 years later, he returns (played by Sean Connery), finding a land laid waste by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) and King John (Ian Holm). He goes looking for Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) who, not having seen Robin for ages, took vows and became a nun who is being pursued by the Sheriff. Robin tries to protect her, but he's an outlaw and even more wanted than Marian.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Blues Brothers

I've mentioned before that there's a "Blind Spot" blogathon somewhere out there in the classic movie blog world where the challenge is to pick 12 movies you haven't seen that are generally considered movies most movie buffs will have seen, and do a post about them, one a month for a year. I don't take part in that, mostly because I don't plan that far in advance what my movie viewing is going to be. But one that would have been a good candidate for such a blogathon is The Blues Brothers. I recorded it during one of the free preview weekends, and it's going to be on Starz Comedy tomorrow at 8:47 AM and 8:00 PM, with a few more airings next week.

John Belushi plays Jake Blues, who at the start of the movie is just getting out of prison in Joliet, IL, having done a three-year stretch. He's picked up by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), who traded in their old, beat-up "Bluesmobile" for a former police car, not repainted yet. They then set out for their home town of Chicago.

On the way, however, they stop at a Catholic orphanage, where they were raised. The last of the nuns they remember is Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), and they want to see how everybody at the orphanage is doing. Unfortunately, that's not very well. The orphanage apparently has to pay tax, and hasn't paid a good $5,000 of those taxes to Cook County. If they can't pay up, and soon, the county is going to take over the facility and give it to the education department.

Jake and Elwood have to come up with a way to get that $5,000, and fast. Fortunately, they have a bit of a plan. Before Jake went into prison, he and Elwood fronted a band called the Blues Brothers. All (and that word is doing a lot of lifting here) they have to do is find the old band members, convince them to rejoin the band for one night, and have a big show that will net them the $5,000. Needless to say, there are going to be problems.

The first is that most of the old band members don't want to rejoin, having gone on to better jobs that actually pay the bills. But where Jack Carson could be a schmoozer, Jake Elwood one-ups him by being particularly vulgar at it, which really causes difficulty for the band member who is now working as a maitre d', for example. Eventually, Jake and Elwood are able to persuade the other old band members to do the comeback performance.

There are still other problems, which is that Jake and Elwood have a whole bunch of people trying to stop them from getting to that concert. First up is the police. Jake, after all, is still on parole, while Elwood has a host of traffic violations a mile long for which he's never paid the fines. So any time the computer runs their license plate, the police are liable to arrest him, leading to a bunch of chase scenes.

While trying to find all of the band members, Jake and Elwood come across the Illinois Nazis, who are trying to head up a march the way the real-life Nazis tried to march through Skokie, IL a few years earlier. Jake and Elwood drive the Nazis off a bridge, and the Nazis will stop at nothing to get revenge. There's also a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who keeps showing up and seems to know a lot about Jake and Elwood's movements, with a view toward killing Jake.

Eventually, Jake and Elwood get the band together and get a first job, although it's at a country place where a real country band is booked; Jake passing the Blues Brothers off as that country band. So add another set of enemies. That concert doesn't earn enough; they're going to have to perform at a big venue, get there safely, and then get to the assessor's office to pay off the tax bill.

I have a feeling The Blues Brothers was funner back in 1980 when it was released than I found it in 2021. Not that it's not funny, but it would have been fresh in 1980, and some of the jokes have become part of the culture. (We have both kinds of music, country and western.) But that never stopped me from enjoying Airplane. One of the differences is in Belusi's character, whom I found to be quite the jerk. Also, since the Blues Brothers are a band, there are a lot of musical performances, most of them involving real singers much more talented than Belushi and Aykroyd. All of those songs, while good, also bring the movie to a bit of a standstill and bring the running time to 133 minutes.

Still, there are reasons The Blues Brothers remains such a well-remembered movie, and you should probably watch for yourself to see why it was such a big deal back in 1980.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Square Peg

I've mentioned British actor Norman Wisdom once, briefly, at least according to a search of the blog. But apparently I haven't done a full-length post on any of his movies. I had The Square Peg on my DVR for a while since TCM showed it last December as part of the looking back at people who died in 2020 -- in this case, actress Honor Blackman. Apparently there's a DVD avaiable of two of Wisdom's movies that includes The Square Peg, so I recently watched it.

Wisdom plays Norman Pitkin, who is the assistant to a surveyor in the British town of St. Godric. There's a military base nearby, as the movie is set during World War II. The town is measuring roads near the base for some reason they claim is of utmost national importance but is never really made clear, and Norman and his boss Grimsdale (Edward Chapman) are pretty meticulous about it. This irritates the base commanders no end. Also getting irritated is Sgt. Loder (Campbell Singer), who has to deal with Norman digging a hole while Loder is trying to drill new recruits, with funny results.

After some thought, the local base comes up with a brilliant idea for getting Norman and Grimsdale out of their hair: have the War Office draft them! Even if they wind up at the local base (which you just know is going to happen), at least they'll be forced to be subservient, and not civilians who can make the army officers' lives miserable. Except that of course this being a Norman Wisdom movie, it's not quite going to work that way. Among other things, Norman meets one of the secretaries in uniform, Lesley Cartland (that's Honor Blackman), and falls in love with her.

Eventually, due to a mix-up, Grimsdale and Norman get sent over to France (before the D-Day invasion) as some others from the base, including Lesley, are part of a mission with the French Resistance. Norman being himself threatens to screw up the mission, until it's discovered that he looks amazingly like the German general Schreiber who is the military commander of the town (of course, this is Wisdom doing a double role).

There's not a whole lot of plot, at least certainly not a deep plot, to The Square Peg, but then, Norman Wisdom movies were less about the plot and more about the humor. The one time I mentioned him here, I mentioned that he's sort of like a British Jerry Lewis, with some of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean mixed in. Wisdom's character here is not quite as bumbling and manic as something like Lewis' The Errand Boy, but I think the similarity should be noticeable. In any case, the humor mostly works to result in a movie that's more than pleasant enough if not an all-time great by any stretch of the imagination. Hattie Jacques is also fun as a German opera singer.

An interesting bit of trivia that I mentioned the other time I wrote about Norman Wisdom -- indeed, it's why I mentioned him in the first place -- is that he was about the only western actor whose movies were shown in Communist Albania, which was one of the most repressive and isolated of the Eastern European regimes. The story goes that Wisdom's bumbling characters who always seem to get the better of his bosses were viewed by the Communist authorities as a stinging indictment of the capitalist system. Audiences knew better, and Wisdom was a huge success in Albania, even being made honorary Albanian captain for an England-Albania soccer match.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Fiercest Heart

We've got yet another movie that was new to me when it showed up in the FXM rotation a few months back. That film is The Fiercest Heart. It will be on again, tomorrow at 10:15 AM.

The FXM recording I got started off a bit inauspiciously, with the opening credits both pillarboxed and letterboxed, leading me to wonder whether we wouldn't get a 4:3 panned-and-scanned print after the credits. Sure enough, that was the case, although the movie is enough of a rarity that I think this is the only way we'll get it. Anyhow, after those credits, we're informed that we're in South Africa in the 1830s. At a British fort, Steve Bates (Stuart Whitman) is being flogged before sentenced to the stockade, for having slept with the wife of an officer. But with a little help from his African friend Nzobe (Rafer Johnson), Bates is busted out of prison, along with another prisoner, Harry Carter (Ken Scott).

The three escapees hole up in a hay loft. That happens to be on the farm of one of the Boers, Willem Prinsloo (Raymond Massey). With the Brits showing up, there's not a lot of love between the Boers and the British, with the Boers planning their big trek northeastward to points more interior, looking for good farm land. Unfortunately, it's a dangerous trip, as William has already lost his son in a previous trek, and he now being extremely protective of his granddaughter Francina (Juliet Prowse), who is engaged to Barent.

Eventually the Boers find the three fugitives, but decide not to turn them over to the British because of their hatred for the British soldiers. Bates is also smart enough to try to pass Nzobe off as a Zulu who knows the way through the mountains, as well as being one of them so the other Zulus won't attack. Nzobe isn't a Zulu, of course, but the fugitives will deal with that when the time comes. In fact, they're planning to take the Boers just to their destination before leaving to wherever they can find freedom.

The journey is arduous; so arduous, in fact, that they couldn't film much of it and had to use stock footage from an earlier Fox South Africa-themed movie, Untamed. OK, joke aside, it's always tough for pioneers, who unsurprisingly face attacks from the Zulus among the other hardships. (Willem had everybody burn down their houses so they couldn't turn back.) One of those attacks results in Willem getting his by an arrow, with an infection that ultimately kills him.

On his deathbed, Willem decided to name Bates the new leader of the group, not that anybody wanted it. Francina's fiancé and a lot of the younger Boer men didn't, and Bates sure didn't. Also not wanting it is Harry. He found that Willem brought an entire sack full of cash on the trek. I'm assuming it had to be gold coins that could be freely convertible based on their weight, because what other use would the cash have? He'd like that money for himself, and after the men come across an ivory-trading slaver, Harry thinks he'll be able to get the men to get the Boers' wagons along with the gold for himself.

The Fiercest Heart plays like a very Disneyfied version of history, although of course it was made at Fox. If you want stock animal footage, nice color, and a silly story of love and redemption among the pioneers, well, this is your chance. (Oh, and don't forget the obligatory lovable moppet.) If you want real history, I highly doubt this has anything to do with it. Massey tries to bring class to the proceedings although I think he's miscast, as is Whitman, who doesn't seem British at all. Everybody else is decidedly second rate.

There's a reason The Fiercest Heart isn't very well known. Watch for yourself and see why.

Sunday, September 12, 2021


TCM's Monday night lineup is a bunch of Paul Newman movies. Well, not that big of a bunch since some of the movies have long running times. But I've got a movie airing elsewhere early Tuesday that's going to be the subject of tomorrow's post, so I'm posting about a Monday night movie a bit early. That movie is Exodus, at 10:30 PM Monday.

It's 1947 in Cyprus, and Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint) is a widowed nurse visiting as a sort of respite from traveling around the world and ministering to people affected by the war. If you know your history, Cyprus was a British protectorate at the time. General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson) is one of the commanders of the British military garrison. This was also the time when Jews who had survived the Holocaust and were refugees were trying to get to Palestine, still under the British mandate. The British were trying to prevent them from getting to Palestine and screwing up the demographic situation; when they intercepted a ship carrying Jews they brought the Jews to Cyprus.

Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) is the son of Barak Ben Canaan (Lee J. Cobb) who had emigrated to Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century. Barak made a life for himself as a farmer, but Ari has decided to join the Haganah, a group of freedom fighters who are not quite as violent as the Irgun or the Stern Gang, who were the Jewish groups more likely to cross the line into terrorism. There's a big UN vote coming up on whether to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, and Ari wants to make certain that the UN will vote for partition.

With that in mind, he shows up on Cyprus with a daring plan. A ship called the Star of David has recently been intercepted, with 611 Jews on board. Ari and his confidants intend to break those 611 Jews out of the refugee camp and get them on board a ship that will break the British blockade of Palestine. One of those is a teenager named Karen (Jill Haworth), who had been smuggled out to Denmark where she lived with a Christian family. She hopes to go to Palestine in the hopes that her father is there She also has a boyfriend in Dov Landau (Sal Mineo) who survived Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, Kitty, having seen the conditions under which the Jewish refugees are living, has decided that she's going to spend the rest of her "vacation" tending to the people in the refugee camp who are clearly in need of more medical care than the limited number of doctors and nurses there can provide. This is how she meets both Karen and Ari, and decides that she's going to bring Karen to America with her if she can get the paperwork done; perhaps she'll later adopt Karen. So Kitty might not be so happy at first when she learns that Ari is planning to bring Karen to Palestine.

Eventually, Ari gets all the Jews on a boat, but the British find out and blockade the harbor, to which the Jews respond by throwing all their food overboard and going on a hunger strike. Kitty, being a Christian, is the only one who's able to get on and off the boat, and by now is beginning to develop some sympathy for the Jews, helping to get the British to relent and let the ship go to Israel.

But that's not the end of the movie, not by a long shot. There's still the independence drive, which isn't going to be easy. Karen and the other kids are taken to a kibbutz not too far from where Barak Ben Canaan lives. Their land was deeded to them by a local Arab leader, Taha (John Derek), who believes in living in harmony with the Jews. But of course, with partition, that's simply not going to be possible. Dov wants to join the Irgun, claiming to be an explosives expert. And Kitty finds herself falling in love with Ari -- and the future is mutual -- even though their differences cause all sorts of difficulties.

The Irgun carries out terrorist attacks, most notably the bombing of the King David Hotel. But as we know from history, the UN does eventually vote in favor of partition, and the two sides try to get as much territory on the ground so that the UN will be forced to give them more under the de facto partition. The Arabs attack, but the Jews had been defending themselves, and to be fair, both sides were going to want as much of their territory to be contiguous as possible,something that wasn't going to happen at all with the UN partition plan.

As far as I understand it, Exodus gets the big outline of history correct, although once it delves into putting fictional characters into the flow of history, it's going to get things less than correct due to the need for narrative tension. The narrative mostly works here, anchored by strong performances from Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint


If there's a problem, it's that the movie runs 208 minutes, and that's with the intermission stripped out. At least, the last time TCM ran it, there technically was an intermission card, but that ran about 10 seconds, and was well over halfway through the movie, and well into the Israel part of the movie. Quite a few of the characters are only in one of the two story lines, which don't get an equal amount of time. I can't help but think the screenwriters should have come up with a way to make two movies out of this, one dealing with the ship blockade (and flesh that one out to just under two hours), with a second movie dealing with the struggle for Israeli independence -- the story is wrapped up too quickly even for a movie running three and a half hours.

Still, if you haven't seen Exodus before, it's certainly worth a watch, in no small part as a document of how academic and cultural elites still viewed Israel favorably before the revolutions of 1968 led to a complete sea-change in elites' opinions.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Against the Crowd Blogathon 2021

Every year, Wendell over at Dell on Movies runs a really fun blogathon: Against the Crowd. The rules are fairly simple. Find two movies: one that everybody else loves but you hate, and one that everybody else hates that you like; with the "everybody" being determined by scores on Rotten Tomatoes. The only difficulty is that since Dell's been doing it for several years now, some of the movies I'd think about using are movies I've used in the past. That, and some of the "hated" movies aren't as hated as I might have thought.

Anyhow, I had seen Dell's announcement of this year's blogathon a couple of weeks ago, but for some reason was thinking that the blogathon was going to be next weekend. So I had to come up with a couple of movies in quick order. Also, having finally installed a new OS on my computer recently, I wasn't certain if I had the freeware photo editing software necessary to crop the Rotten Tomatoes scores. Thankfully, Linux Mint's "Draw" application makes cropping photos moderately easy, if you can tell exactly how much you want to crop (and with nice rectangular boxes here, that wasn't a problem). My choices this year are an Oscar-winning movie, and a 1970s disaster pick:

I Want to Live! (1958)

Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Barbara Graham, a real woman who on about her fourth marriage picked a guy who was addicted to all sorts of illegal drugs, which led to Barbara's getting involved with criminals and pistol-whipping a woman the gang was going to rob to death. For this she was senteced to death in California's gas chamber. The movie greatly softens Barbara as though it was just bad luck that she was involved in the murder, while Hayward plays her as shrill and obnoxious. The movie is quite obvious in blaming sensationalist media to the point that we get it already. And if that's not enough, the execution is shown in excruciating detail. I'm opposed to the death penalty, since I don't think the state should have that power which it will always abuse (and on September 11, I think it's fair to say that events of the last 20 years and especially since March of last year have made the state's abuse of its powers abundantly clear). But by the end of the movie, I couldn't wait for Barbara to just die already. It's almost enough to turn one pro death penalty. If you want to see a really good movie that's anti-capital punishment, watch 10 Rillington Place.

Tentacles (1977)

Somebody in Hollywood must have seen Jaws back in 1975 and thought that what was needed was a different sort of sea creature terrorizing the beautiful people of Southern California. That's what we get here, with a mutant octopus killing people unfortunate enough to get too close to it. There are a lot of the standard tropes here, from the bad special effects, to the 1970s conspiracy theories about corporate pollution creating the octopus, to bratty children. John Huston plays a reporter married to Shelley Winters and with a son much too young for either of them who investigates the deaths and links the mutant octopus to Henry Fonda's company. You'd think that Shelley Winters would have learned from A Place in the Sun and The Poseidon Adventure not to get close to the water, but here she is again, having gotten even bigger in the five years since The Poseidon Adventure. This leads to one of the great lines in the movie. Winters' kid and one of the kids' friends are going to be sailing in the junior regatta, unaware of the danger that lurks beneath the water. Shelley says she wishes she could be in the boat with them, to which the son's friend responds, "Then we'd need a tornado to move the boat!" Bad but really fun.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Make Me a Star

A year and change ago I did a post on the Red Skelton movie Merton of the Movies, mentioning that it was based on an old George Kaufman play that had already been made into a movie a couple of times before. The surviving version is the early talkie Make Me a Star.

Stewart Erwin plays the would-be star, a man named Merton Gill who works at a general store for the Gashwilers in some Middle America small town. Merton has dreams of becoming an actor but has never actually done any acting; to that end, he's been taking correspondence acting lessons. His acting idol is the cowboy star Buck Benson (George Templeton), and for all his portfolio photos and the like he shamelessly imitates Benson.

Eventually, Merton loses his job and heads west to Hollywood, where he goes to Majestic Pictures because they're the studio that has Buck Benson under contract. He's stupid enough that he has no desire to work for any other studio, and never seems to get the lesson that a young Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born got about extra work when she first landed in Hollywood.

We don't see much of anything Merton does to make ends meet, just him sitting around the casting office with the two women secretaries, including one who's a would-be actress herself, Flips Montague (Joan Blondell). She finds Merton hanging around the lot after he's been evicted from his rooming house, and takes pity on him by making certain he gets some extra work in a western.

The only problem is, Merton is a terrible actor, constantly flubbing his lines. But Flips comes up with an idea: star him in a movie that will be a parody of all the Buck Benson westerns, but don't tell him it's going to be a parody, since Merton thinks comedy is beneath him. Instead, keep lying to him and have him think he's really making a serious western picture. How Merton is dumb enough not to figure out what's going on is beyond me. But he'll find out come the premiere. By this time Flips has fallen in love with Merton and has come to regret what she's done to him....

I think there are two problems I had with Make Me a Star. One is that it's too serious at times, veering into light drama as opposed to just comedy. With Red Skelton in the remake, you knew you weren't going to get anything but a comedy, and that works (assuming, of course, you like Skelton's brand of comedy). The other problem is that this version doesn't come up with a good reason to keep Merton around the studio. In the remake, Merton uses the correspondence acting lessons from the cowboy star to foil a crime at the theater, and the studio uses this as a PR move to keep Merton in Hollywood. Here he just comes to Hollywood of his own accord; why he wouldn't have been caught at the studio and arrested is beyond me.

But Blondell is always a professions and Erwin winds up being appealing. The supporting cast does an OK job too, although cross-eyed Ben Turpin may not be to everybody's liking. So watch both Make Me a Star and Merton of the Movies and judge for yourself.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Foreign obituaries and more

There have been a couple of deaths over the past week that I probably should have noted earlier. The biggest of these would have to be Jean-Paul Belmondo, who died on Monday at the age of 88. Belmondo is best known for starring in the French New Wave classic Breathless as the criminal who falls in love with an American in Paris (Jean Seberg). I have to admit, however, that Breathless is not my favorite, not being a big fan of the French New Wave. I rather preferred That Man from Rio, which has him going to South America to find an ancient artifact and his kidnapped girlfriend (Françoise Dorleac). I think I saw Mississippi Mermaid ages ago when TCM did a spotlight on François Truffaut, but it looks like I never blogged about that one.

Another actor known for his roles in a very famous French movie is Nino Castelnuovo, who also died on Monday; he was 84. The Italian-born Castelnuovo had a smaller role in Rocco and His Brothers, but a much bigger role as the love interest opposite Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. If you can get past the fact that all of the dialogue is sung, it's actually quite a good story.

An obituary for someone who wasn't much of an actor is Mikis Theodorakis, who died last Thursday aged 96. Of course, Theodorakis wasn't an actor at all but a composer. It was he whose music had to be smuggled out of Greece for Costa-Gavras' Z, but he also wrote the music that Anthony Quinn shuffles along to in Zorba the Greek. That's some pretty iconic music there.

Speaking of Greeks, the death was announced recently of Michael Constantine, who had actually died at the end of August at the age of 94. Most of the people remembering him on Twitter mentioned his starring role in the early 1970s sitcom Room 222, which is one of those shows that doesn't seem to show up on any of the digital sub-channels so I've never actually seen it. He also played the patriarch of the family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as well as doing a lot of stage work in original Broadway plays that went to better-known actors when the movies were made, including Compulsion and The Miracle Worker. He also had a supporting role in The Hustler, which is going to be on TCM on both Saturday and Monday in prime time.

Finally, a movie clip that's always relevant:

Thursday Movie Picks #374: Actors playing themselves

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 "actors playing themselves". This isn't too difficult, as a lot of movies have cameos. However, I wanted to see if I could come up with some movies that have the actors playing themselves getting somewhat more substantial roles. I think I came up with three good ones:

Night and Day (1946). Cary Grant plays songwriter Cole Porter in this Technicolor biopic full of Porter tunes. In real life Porter had been a college classmate of one Monty Woolley, who would go on to become an actor in such films is The Bishop's Wife. Here, Woolley plays himself.

Four Jills in a Jeep (1944). Carole Landis did a bunch of tours with the USO during World War II, and wrote a book about it. That book inspired this movie, with Landis and three others playing themselves (Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair) signing up to do a tour for the boys not quite knowing what they're getting themselves into. What they get into is modestly unnerving for them, and nothing like what the soldiers were really facing, but enough for them to gain a greater appreciation of what the GIs were up against in World War II.

Starlift (1951). Somebody during the Korean war thought about all those morale-boosters done during World War II and thought that what the Korean War vets needed was a similar movie. Ron Hagerthy plays an Air Force corporal from the same home town as an up-and-coming actress. The corporal's sergeant friend (Dick Wesson) convinces the suits at the studio that they'd make a good couple, and get the stars to do a series of shows at Travis AFB near San Francisco. These include Doris Day, who's technically the star here; Ruth Roman and James Cagney are among the Warner Bros. stars who have cameos.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Blood Simple

TCM had a month of latter-day noir back in July: movies that share a lot of the themes of the classic noir cycle of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but because of the exclusive use of color and the end of the Production Code form a cycle unto themselves. This gave me the chance to record a couple of movies I hadn't seen before, including Blood Simple.

Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) owns a bar in Texas of the sort that's slightly seedier than Mickey Gilley's place in Urban Cowboy, but not as bad as the bar in Missouri that Patrick Swayze tames in Road House. He's got a pair of bartenders in Ray (John Getz) and Maurice (Samm-Art Williams), and a wife Abby (Frances McDormand) who may or may not love him any more. At least, he's convinced that Abby is stepping out on him. And wouldn't you know, he's right.

Abby has been having an affair with Ray, and is worried that she might use her gun on Julian, so she's thinking of leaving town entirely. What she doesn't know yet is that Julian has hired a private detective, Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to find out if Abby is having an affair with anybody, and if so, who. So once Julian gets that information, Abby is sure to get it too, since Julian calls up the hotel where Abby and Ray have their little tryst.

Julian isn't so sure what to do, but comes up with an idea borne of jealousy that doesn't seem like a good one if he spent a night sleeping on it: have somebody kill Abby and Ray and dispose of the bodies. I have no idea how anybody expects contract killings to work because as we learned in Double Indemnity you have to go all the way to the end of the line. And who can keep up the crocodile tears over the wife you hate getting murdered? But in any case, Julian discusses with Visser the possibility of killing Ray and Abby, and Visser seems down with it.

Except that Visser has other plans. He sends Julian away for a couple of days in order to establish an alibi, but in fact it's because Visser needs time to carry out his plan. He doctors some photos of a bloddy Ray and Abby dead in their bed, and steals Abby's handgun. Then when it comes time to collect the money from Julian, Visser shoots Julian with Abby's gun and takes the money! This of course means that the police will find Abby's gun, making her the #1 suspect, never mind that she and Ray were having an affair.

But, as always happens in noir films, complications ensue. Visser didn't notice that Julian took one of the photos that Visser had presented as evidence and put it into the safe, presumably as a way to blackmail Visser. And then there's Ray, who shows up at the bar and finds Julian dead. He finds the handgun, which means he knows he'll be implicated too, so he has to clean up the crime scene (good luck with that what with all the blood) and dispose of the body. Said body, however, turns out not to be quite dead yet....

Blood Simple has more twists and turns on the way to its mighty entertaining conclusion. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to think that Visser wouldn't be able to kill Julian at close range, Blood Simple is a pretty darn good movie, and definitely one you should watch if you get the chance.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021


A couple of months back, TCM ran the movie musical Gypsy. Realizing that I had never done a blog post on it, I made a point of recording it so that some day I could get around to watching it and doing a post on it. I finally did watch it, so here's the post.

The title Gypsy, of course, refers to Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970; played as an adult by Natalie Wood), famous for he striptease act. But we don't get any of that until almost the end of the movie. She was born Rose Louise Hovick (called Louise for most of the movie), with a sister June (who in real life became June Havoc). Her mother Rose (Rosalind Russell) had worked vaudeville and was now a single mother with a bunch of ex-husbands, so she's trying to push her two kids into vaudeville. Well, mostly Baby June since she's the one Mom thinks has talent.

An audition run by Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden) goes badly, with Herbie basically walking out on the producer and taking the show on the road, as it were, with the Hovicks. Mom comes up with an idea that has them and a bunch of boys be a child act, but of course they're all going to grow up and the depression is going to come, which is what ultimately kills vaudeville. Mom tries every trick in the book to get bookings for the act, and is also an incredibly pushy stage mother, who seems to care more about the kids' performing than the kids themselves do.

Eventually, they reach the end of the line. The boys are grown up and haven't been paid regularly. One of them has fallen in love with June and the two elope, planning to quit the act, leaving just Rose, Louise, and Herbie. Mom starts all over again, hiring a bunch of no-talent girls to be the new act, and putting Louise in the starring role, even though she doesn't seem to have anywhere near the talent that June had.

Louise's transition to Gypsy comes when Herbie gets the act a booking in Wichita. Only, it's not a vaudeville house but a burlesque house, with the Hovick act, now the Hollywood Blondes, being booked to be the "clean" entertainment between acts, much like Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance or the Britt Ekland character in The Night They Raided Minsky's (in fact, Minsky's Burlesque does get a brief mention in Gypsy). However, Mom is extremely unhappy with this. When circumstances conspire such that the owner needs somebody to do the "striptease" in a pinch, Louise volunteers and becomes Gypsy Rose Lee.

In a montage of her doing her number in a bunch of places, Gypsy becomes successful, enough so that Mom decides to look her up, although that might cause quite a bit of tension.

I think that fans of musicals will probably enjoy Gypsy, while other people will enjoy it somewhat less. Rosalind Russell plays Mama Rose as so obnoxiously pushy that for me she became grating. Wood does well, and Malden provides pretty good support in what I found to be a relatively thankless role. But for me it was the musical numbers, which are of course old-fashioned since the movie is set in the 1920s and 30s, that didn't work for me. I also felt the whole striptease montage was a copout. (I've never seen the stage musical, so I don't know how it's handled there.)

Still, Gypsy shows all the pizzazz that Hollywood studios would try to bring in the 1960s to what was becoming a dying genre, which also makes it a bit of an interesting artifact. It's just one that can be a bit of a slog at times.