Saturday, April 30, 2022

Walpurgis Night

Tonight, April 30, is Walpurgis Night, which is nominally a celebration of Catholic St. Walpurga (feast day celebrated on May 1), but in most of the places in northern Europe that celebrate, also a celebration of the coming spring and the concomitant fertility, much like Easter is co-opted from fertility rituals in other parts of Christendom. This being a big tradition in Sweden, it's unsurprising that a film would have been made called Walpurgis Night. The movie stars a young Ingrid Bergman, and was run by TCM on Ingrid Bergman's day in Summer Under the Stars this past August. But it's also on the Eclipse Series (from Criterion) box set of Ingrid Bergman in Sweden, so I deliberately waited to watch it until I could do a post on Walpurgis night itself.

The movie is set -- or at least starts and ends -- on Walpurgis Eve, or the day of April 30, at the offices of the Morgenposten newspaper. Fredrik Bergström (Victor Sjöström) is the editor in chief, and runs pieces every April 30 about the coming spring. But there's also a perceived fertility crisis in Sweden, in that people are getting married later and putting off having kids, with the fear of a coming demograph crash, a fear that's a much bigger thing these days than I would have thought it would be in the 1930s. The Morgenposten has unsurprisingly stepped into the social debate over how to increase the birth rate, with various ideas put forth. As for Fredrik, he didn't have a fertility problem, with he and his late wife being parents to seven children.

The youngest of those children is Lena (Ingrid Bergman), who works in a bank as the executive secretary to Johan Borg (Lars Hanson). Lena loves Johan, and the feeling eventually becomes mutual. But Johan is trapped in a loveless marriage to Clary (Karin Carlsson), one which has produced no children, that being important because the birthrate is a major theme of the movie. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Lena has decided to quit her job, as she knows she'll never get Johan, and continuing to have an affair with one's boss is a big problem. Johan is disappointed since Lena is really pretty darn good at the job she's paid to do. Dad obviously doesn't know about Lena's relationship, although it's going to come out when one of Lena's nephews finds a photo of Borg when the whole family gets together for a birthday party for the elder Mr. Bergström.

I was getting ahead of myself talking about the Borg relationship, but it turns out that it's technically not so childless, as Clary has gone to her doctor and found out that she's pregnant. She doesn't want the child, however, as it's going to interfere with her happiness and ability to live a free life without being tied down. So she plans to get an abortion, even though reputable doctors won't perform the abortion. So she's sent to a place in the countryside where the procedure will be performed and she can stay for a couple of days for observation to make certain she doesn't bleed out in a botched abortion. Unfortunately, the cops discover what's going on, and a gangster informs the doctor the police are coming. The gangster also finds the admission card for Mrs. Borg, and takes it so that he can later blackmail Mrs. Borg.

Needless to say, all of the subplots come together, and when evidence points to Johan having possibly paid to obtain the abortion, Mr. Bergström thinks it was for his daughter. That of course isn't the case, but Johan has to keep the real truth from coming out.

Walpurgis Night is an interesting movie that compares fairly well with a lot of the pre-Codes Hollywood would have made, especially the social issue dramas at Warner Bros. Those were more frank than what was made at the other Hollywood studios, but Walpurgis Night's discussion of abortion is even more frank than anything Americans would ever have gotten, even from Warner Bros. That by itself makes it interesting, never mind the presence of a young Ingrid Bergman, who is pretty good, as is the rest of the cast.

The movie, however, has problems with the scripts. It felt to me as though about two-thirds of the way in, the movie couldn't figure out how to resolve all of the problems it had set up to that point, so the writers start throwing us a series of ever more extreme curveballs to twist the plot over the final third of the movie. These don't quite work, and that's a shame since the movie has a really interesting premise.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Empire of the Sun

Another of the movies that's been sitting on my DVR since not long after I got the current DVR, which has been over two years, is Empire of the Sun. I think I left it so long because I've become increasingly reluctant to set down for longer movies unless I've got a long weekend, and with this running a good two and a half hours, I wanted to wait for another long weekend. So that's now, and I finally got around to watching it.

A young Christian Bale (and it's only coincidental that I mentioned him in the Thursday Movie Picks yesterday) plays Jim Graham, who at the start of the movie is living in Shanghai in the autumn of 1941, with the starting date probably being Sunday, December 7 based on the events in the opening. For those who don't know history, China was relatively weak following the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century, with the result that a whole bunch of countries were able to obtain business concessions in Shanghai, along with setting up expatriate communities that were effectively enclaves, immune from Chinese law. Each nationality had its own enclave, more or less, and the Grahams are living in one of those enclaves, living a life that's a fairly high standard even compared to the average person in the UK proper, never mind what the Chinese in Shanghai would have experienced.

Now, the Japanese had already invaded China quite a few years earlier, taking over the rest of Shanghai in 1937, but hadn't attacked the rest of Southeast Asia yet, as places like Malaya (which you may recall from the Claudette Colbert movie Three Came Home) wouldn't be conquered until the beginning of 1942. But the Japanese occupation of the Shanghai enclave coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some Westerners had already left Shanghai, seeing the writing on the wall, but many didn't, and now that Japan was attacking, there was a mass panic to try to get out now.

In that panic, Jim gets separated from his parents. Not knowing what to do, he goes back to his house, thinking that his parents are going to show up. They were successfully evacuated, so of course they're not going to be showing up at the house, and the technically orphaned Jim has the run of the place, at least for a couple of days until the food runs out. He goes outside to try to surrender to the Japanese, but they don't comprehend what's going on, and who cares about an orphaned kid, even a westerner?

Down at the river, Jim is taken in by Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), two Americans who having been living the sort of life that would be the real sort of life Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would have faced in the Road movies: conning their way through, but nothing romantic about it. Young Jim is nothing more than a burden, at least until he's able to tell the Americans where his neighborhood is and that there's stuff they can loot there. Unfortunately, by this time, the Japanese have occupied the neighborhood, so all three are taken to an internment camp 100 miles up the river.

Amazingly, not long after this point the movie fast-forwards to 1945. We of course know that the war is about to end, but of course the characters aren't so sure of that, even if they might have had some inkling that the tide of the war in the Pacific had already turned. Jim looks remarkably good for somebody who's spent the last three years in an internment camp, even if everybody else looks at least somewhat the worse for wear. Jim is helped to survive in part by Basie, who has been using those con-artist skills he learned on the outside to be a sort of William Holden in Stalag 17, as well as the doctor for the westerners, Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers). In turn, Jim tries to help a woman prison, Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson), although it seems she's reached the frail enough stage that she's going to die before the camp is liberated.

Except that the camp doesn't really get liberated in the traditional sense. Americans attack the camp, and the Japanese respond by sending all of the prisoners on a forced march that's likely to kill a bunch of them. The marchers wind up at an outdoor storage facility that includes some of the Grahams' household goods, which have held up as well as Jim, this again being amazing since the stuff was probably left outside for years. And wouldn't you know it, but this coincides with the American atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Jim, despite having been separated from all of the other prisoners, is technically free, but is he going to be able to survive until help can arrive?

Empire of the Sun is a movie that's physically beautiful to watch, thanks to director Steven Spielberg and his cinematographer having a good grasp on what would make for good imagery. However, the story seems surprisingly flaccid. The movie is based on a book that is supposedly based on the real reminiscences of somebody who had survived one of the Chinese internment camps, but it feels rather clichéd at times. It also doesn't help that the movie is 153 minutes when it probably could have come in under two hours with a better script. Still, the actors do the best they can with the material; John Malkovich is good while Christian Bale shows potential already even if he doesn't quite have the range yet for the darker portions of the script -- not that many child actors did, and Bale was all of 12 when the movie was filmed.

So Empire of the Sun is a bit of a mixed bag, which is a shame for a movie that requires such a time investment.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Thursday Movie Picks #407: Royalty (TV edition)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. It's hard to believe, but we're already up to the last week of April, 2022, which means that it's time for another TV-themed edition of the blogathon. This time, the theme is "Royalty", and with the combination of that and it being a TV edition, this one was actually a bit tough for me. Thankfully I was able to recall a couple of TV movies from the 1980s, as well as something that has to be seen to be believed:

Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986). International co-production whose story you'll know, more or less, if you've seen the Ingrid Bergman movie Anastasia. Anna Anderson (played here by Amy Irving) was a mysterious woman who showed up in Berlin a few years after the Communists killed the Russian imperial family, claiming to be Anastasia, the daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra. DNA would ultimately prove -- but only after the fall of the Soviet Union -- that Anna was an impostor. But in the 1920s, nobody knew about DNA, so the question of whether this really was Anastasia was rather a controversial one. This is a surprisingly star-studded TV movie, with Olivia de Havilland, Rex Harrison, Omar Sharif, and a very young Christian Bale as the Tsar's son Alexei.

To Catch a King (1984). Fictionalization of a real-life story from World War II in which the Nazis tried to capture the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Duke being the former King Edward VIII, as it was thought that the Duke harbord Nazi sympathies. As a result of all this, the Duke was sent to the Bahamas to sit out the rest of the war.

The Grand Knockout Tournament (1987). I already used the game show Jeux sans frontières, also known as Games Without Frontiers (as in the old Peter Gabriel song) and a variety of other names. It had a brief run in the US in the mid-1970s as Almost Anything Goes and All-Star Anything Goes, and a somewhat longer run in the UK as It's a Knockout. Britain's Prince Edward, his royal duties rather lessened once Princess Diana fulfilled her royal duty of producing heirs, wanted to get into television, and had the brillliant idea of reviving It's a Knockout for charity with various members of the royal family as sponsors of the celebrity teams, each playing for a different charity.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

American History X

I talked over the weekend about doing posts on "more recent" movies that are actually surprisingly old, in regard to the almost 30-year-old What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Another such movie I watched recently is American History X, which was filmed 25 years ago, although it didn't get released until the autumn of 1998.

The movie starts with a bit of a prologue. In Venice Beach, CA, the Vinyards are a working-class family, although at first we only see kid brother Danny (Edward Furlong), elder brother Derek (Edward Norton), and Derek's girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk), with whom Derek is having sex, all in black-and-white as are the rest of the flashback scenes. Since Derek is naked we can also see his Nazi tattoos. Danny hears something outside the house, and discovers that it's a couple of people trying to break into Derek's car. Worse, it's a couple of black guys. As you can guess, someone like Derek with neo-Nazi tendencies doesn't like black people, so when Danny tells Derek what's going on, Derek goes out and shoots them. Since the black guys also had guns, Derek is only convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to several years in prison.

Three years have passed since that night, and Derek is about to get out of prison. Meanwhile, Danny has grown to idolize Derek during that time, to the point that Danny did a report for his history teacher on Mein Kampf, which gets him sent to the office of the principal, Mr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks). Sweeney ordes Danny to do a report on what led to his brother's winding up in prison, and the significance of all those events. Cue some more of the flashbacks....

Some time before the shootings, the Vinyards were a family with not just the two sons, but also two daughters, mom Doris (Beverly D'Angelo), and Dad, who was a firefighter in the Los Angeles Fire Department. But Dad was killed fighting a fire, and Derek is especially pissed, since he believes two firefighters who only got their jobs because of affirmative action are the ones responsible for his father's being dead. So with that in mind it's easy to see why Derek might have turned to neo-Nazis like Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) to deal with his frustration.

Except that, as we eventually learn, Derek already had an inchoate version of those frustrations in his mind from before Dad died, as Dad was already convinced the affirmative action hires were a disaster waiting to happen. It doesn't help that in those days, Derek had Sweeney as a teacher, who was assigning some prominent works from black authors to his students, leading to a debate at the dinner table over this and things like the 1992 riots over the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. The movie isn't told in a linear style, but instead mixes the flashback scenes with the present day. Derek, having gotten out of prison, has to meet his parole officer tomorrow and is hoping he can get his old (unstated) job back, looking to move forward. Which means, in part for reasons that will be revealed later in the movie, that he's not so interested in going back to being a neo-Nazi. However, Danny has looked up to that part of his big brother's life, which means that those influences are still going to be around, notably the aforementioned Cameron as well as former friend Seth (Ethan Suplee), working as an exterminator. They all think Derek is just going to go back to his old ways.

I don't really want to go into that much more detail, mostly because I don't want to give away the reasons why Derek ended up the way he did on getting out of prison, as well as the ending of the movie in general. Suffice it to say that American History X is a brutal movie thanks to its difficult subject material, along with very strong depictions of violence and sex. And it's also a very well-made movie, thanks to a strong performance at the center of it all from Edward Norton.

At the same time, however, I couldn't help but feel like the movie could have been better. To be fair, it's pretty hard to make a movie that deals with such complex and adult matters and wrap it all up in two hours, while keeping the characters from becoming archetypes. American History X, I think, gives some of the characters short shrift in this regard, thanks to some weak dialogue. Derek's monologue to the TV reporter asking him about his father's death came across as a thoroughly artificial scene, with nobody talking like that right after their father died.

American History X is pretty high up on IMDb's list of the Top 250 movies, which ranks movies in part on the average rating and in part on the number of votes, and I think it's the latter which gives it that high IMDb ranking. While it's a movie that everybody's going to see and give a pretty high rating too, I don't know that I'd put it on a top films of all time list.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Road to Zanzibar

I've mentioned a fairly big box set of Bob Hope films that I picked up some time back. I think it's actually two box sets repackaged as one, with a bigger set of just Bob Hope, and a smaller set of Hope with Bing Crosby. The Hope/Crosby set has some but not all of the "Road" pictures, and recently I watched the second of those, Road to Zanzibar.

Hope and Crosby are still a team after getting off the Road to Singapore, starting off here as a carnival attraction in which Crosby is Chuck Reardon the barker, while Hope is Fearless Frazier, the human cannonball. But Fearless isn't just a cannonball; on top of that his outfit is supposed to be doused in kerosene such that when he's shot through a ring of fire, he'll (or at least his outfit) catch fire before landing in some body of water.

However, that's not really the way the act works. In fact, the cannon has a secret compartment in the base, and "Fearless" hides there while a kerosene-soaked dummy goes through the ring of fire. It's really much safer that way, after all. This time, however, there's a glitch. The dummy doesn't land in water, but instead crashes into the circus big top which, being fabric, catches fire, burning to the ground and sending everybody running to escape. Fortunately, nobody's found dead, not even Fearless.

That of course is because Fearless was still in the cannon. But it also means that the ruse is going to be figured out sooner or later, so Chuck an Fearless need to start up a new act somewhere else. That's how they wind up on the island of Zanzibar, which at the time was a British possession before becoming nominally independent for a few years in the early 1960s and ultimately joining with Tanganyika to become Tanzania.

Before they can restart their carny schemes however, Chuck gets the duo into more trouble, as he buys a worthless diamond mine. Fearless sells it on to someone else, but that's going to necessitate them making another quick escape. This is how they meet Donna (Dorothy Lamour) and Julia (Una Merkel). Julia says that Donna has been capured by white slavers, and indeed, she takes the two men to a slave auction where Donna can be bought. So Chuck and Fearless buy Donna's freedom, before finding out that this was a scam and the two women were in cahoots with the supposed slave trader. Donna also supposedly has a wealthy boyfriend, and she and Julia get the two men to take them on a safari so that she can scam them by eventually meeting her rich boyfriend.

Of course, both Chuck and Fearless fall in love with Donna, complicating matters. Both of them get the opportunity to sing a number of songs along the way, before the eventual more or less happy ending.

There's not a terribly coheren't plot to Road to Zanzibar. Apparently, after the success of Road to Singapore, Paramount wanted to make a sequel for Crosby and Hope, which meant that the movie would be more about their gags and singing, ultimately feeling more like a series of sketches than a fully coherent movie. This may not appeal to some viewers, but if you like the amiable humor of Crosby and Hope, you'll probably like the movie. Audiences back in the early 1940s certainly liked the pair, making the movie a hit.

Some modern viewers will also be a bit uncomfortable with the thoroughly inaccurate look at Africa, but it should also be pointed out that part of the humor in the Road movies is that they were spoofing popular movie conventions of the day, much in the same way the Dogville shorts did at the beginning of the sound era. Hope and Crosby never made a "Road" movie about Europe, but I get the impression it would have had the same inaccurate and stereotypical view of European villages a lot of Hollywood movies from that era had.

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Man in Grey

A movie that had been sitting on my DVR for some time was the early James Mason movie The Man in Grey. Recently, I finally got around to watching it.

The movie was released in 1943 and starts off fairly close to the present day, during World War II in London. There's an auction being held at the estate of the Rohans, with things being sold off because the last of the legal heirs to the estate has died. Some of the stuff is selling for a pretty penny, but two people of much more modest means show up and sit next to each other: women's naval auxiliary member Clarissa Richmond (Phyllis Calvert) says she's a descendent of the Rohans, while soldier Swinton Rokeby (Stewart Granger at the very beginning of his career) says he's descended from somebody who knew the Rohans intimately. One of the items up for bid is a trinket box along with the contents inside; bidding on it however gets interrupted for the blackout. Somehow Clarissa and Swinton aren't forced to leave the building like everybody else, and are actually able to go up to the box and look at the contents inside, something I would have thought was a major no-no at an auction. But this is a needed plot device for the fairly obvious flashback....

We head back to Regency England, which for those who don't know their British history or don't remember my review of The Madness of King George a few months back is the 1810s, when George III was finally declared incompetent to reign, but still alive, so that his son, who would become George IV, was named regent. Miss Patchett (Martita Hunt) runs a boarding school for girls of a certain class in the hopes of "establishing" them either as wives to the nobility, or in other cases governesses to such families. Another Clarissa (obviously also played by Phyllis Calvert) is one of the students at the school, and much lower-class Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) is accepted there as a favor. Clarissa becomes friends with Hesther even though this probably isn't a good idea.

Hesther leaves school to get married, and Clarissa also leaves so that her godmother can marry her off to a suitable man. That man happens to be the titular "man in grey", Lord Rohan (James Mason), known throughout London society for his playboy ways. He'd like to keep being a playbody, but he also needs to knock up a woman who can produce him a legitimate male heir -- note the word legitimate there -- so he marries Clarissa, with the understanding that it's as much a marriage of convenience as anything.

Some time later, Clarissa sees a poster for a production of Shakespeare's Othello. She notices that the actress playing Desdemona is one Hesther Barbary, and she's convinced that this is the Hesther she knew from Miss Patchett's school, so she decides to attend the play. Along the way she's waylaid by a highwayman, Peter Rokeby (again Stewart Granger), who it turns out is not a highwayman at all but the actor playing Othello. Clarissa, having met Hesther again, offers to obtain for her a position as governess to the Rohan heir, but Lord Rohan says that Hesther should be Clarissa's lady companion.

Of course, Lord Rohan falls in love with Hesther. But Rokeby has already fallen in love with Clarissa, and when they meet again at Epdsom Downs for the big Derby race, Hesther puts a plan into motion that will also get Rokeby employed by Lord Rohan so that Rokeby and Clarissa will fall in love, leaving Hesther free to marry Lord Rohan and have the life of luxury she's always wanted. Of course, things don't quite work out that way for everybody....

The Man in Grey is a good example of the British studio-era period piece. The players here are slightly better suited to play the parts than their Hollywood counterparts, as there's not quite as much perceived need on the part of the studio to stage things in a way that make their stars look good. A lot of British actors having been classically trained also probably has something to do with why the seem more appropriate for period pieces. All of the leads pull off their parts with ease, making The Man in Grey a more than competent movie to watch. And thanks to a story that's more than adequate as well as an escape from the war raging in real life, it's easy to see why this was such a big hit in the UK when it was released.

For any fan of classic Hollywood looking for a prestige film they might not be familiar with, The Man in Grey is a good place to start.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Beyond the Time Barrier

One of the TCM spotlights this month has been movies dealing with time travel. One that aired the first week of the month sounded vaguely interesting to me was Beyond the Time Barrier, so I recorded it and recently watched it.

The print that TCM showed looked like it had been panned-and-scanned, as the Star Wars-like credits receding toward a vanishing point seemed to be blocked for some sort of wide-screen format every time a new credit appeared at the bottom of the screen. But IMDb claims the original aspect ratio is in fact 1.37:1, even for a 1960 film. This might also be explained by the fact that, when we get to the end of the opening credits, the movie informs us it was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a master of low-budget direction.

The action begins at an air force base just outside of Dallas, TX. Maj. William Allison (Robert Clarke) is a test pilot who is being prepared to make a test flight in the X-80, a rocket-powered airplane that has a top speed of a good 5,000 MPH or more (that would be Mach 7, IIRC), and will be flying to an altitude of 100 miles, which would have been higher than anyone had been before as Yuri Gagarin's flight into space was still a year away. The flight goes well, until....

Part of the flight is shown by low-budget models against a backdrop of the sky that has way too many stars. But in one of those images, we see the plane develop a second image, before the two images merge together. After that, Maj. Allison loses contact with ground control, although he's able to bring the plane in for a safe landing and what to him seems like a successful flight.

Except that, when Maj. Allison gets back to the air force base, he finds that it's terribly decayed, with nobody there and all of the buildings falling apart. (Amazingly, the runway was intact, a plot hole that's not mentioned.) Maj. Allison goes to several buildings, and finds nobody. But off in the distance he's able to see a low-budget matte backdrop of some sort of futuristic building with a shining beacon atop it, so he heads off for it.

There are actually people in that building, and one of them is watching a surveillance camera that has a couple of targets superimposed on the image. The man brings those targets together, zeroing in on Maj. Allison, and shoots Allison! Except that it's not some sort of gun that's going to kill Allison, just something that's going to knock him out and paralyze him so they can bring him into that building to pump him for information. That doesn't work, as Maj. Allison has a bunch of understandable questions of his own, so they stick Allison in an underground dungeon that has a lot of mutants who have lost all their hair.

Eventually, the ruler of this place dubbed "The Citadel", the Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff), wants to see Allison, who is brought there by his original captor, the Captain. The Supreme has a granddaughter, Princess Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), who is a deaf-mute but also empathic, and she can tell that Maj. Allison is being honest in his questioning and confusion about how and why he ended up here. As a result, the Supreme decides to entrust Allison into the Princess' custody, although the Captain is still suspicious.

The Princess takes Allison to a prison laboratory where several scientists are being held, and they're finally able to tell Allison what's happened. Apparently, due to some sort of relativistic paradox, Allison was briefly able to send his plane 64 years into the future, as everybody is now in the year 2024. Also in the intervening years, mankind's above-ground nuclear testing destroyed the part of the atmosphere that kept cosmic radiation from bombarding earth, with the result that everbody wound up with some horrible plague that left people either bald like the mutants, deaf-mutes like almost everybody in the Citadel, sterile, or some combination of the three. Princess Trirene is the only one known to be fertile, and since Allison comes from before the plague and is obviously fertile too, the Supreme would like him to mate with Trirene.

As for the scientists in that prison lab, they also came from the past, although not as far in the past as Maj. Allison. They're from after the plague began, having figured out some way to get mankind to travel at near-light speeds without inducing relativistic time dilation, something used to get people off earth and onto colonies on other planets where they wouldn't have the plague. But these scientists wound up in the same sort of paradox as Allison and wound up in 2024. The Supreme and the Captain think they might be able to solve the problem of the plague, but all of them would like to get back to their own time. Allison, having an intact plane, could get back to his time and warn everybody about the plague, but will they believe him? And will the other scientists sabotage him to get to his plane themselves?

Watching movies from the past set in a future date that's rapidly approaching, or has already passed, is always interesting, to see what the filmmakers have gotten right and what they got wrong. In this case, I find it hard to believe that mankind would have forgotten about the entire past in just six decades, at least not if some subsection of them was able to create a citadel. I also can't believe they would have become this futuristic in just 60 years, not even considering that the 2024 setting of the movie is close to our present. I don't think mankind will have advanced that much by 2082.

All that aside, Beyond the Time Barrier isn't a bad movie for what it is, which is a low-budget B movie that was produced quickly with no pretentions of it being anything artistically important. If you're looking for a prestige film, skip over this one. But if you like the low-budget science fiction of the drive-in era, then Beyond the Time Barrier is certainly worth a watch.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

What's Eating Gilbert Grape

I like to say that I wind up recording more recent movies when I get the free preview weekends from DirecTV, but then, some of the movies are really not all that recent. Closing in on 30 years go, for example, is What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I see that it's on again, tomorrow (April 24) at 1:00 PM on The Movie Channel Xtra if you've got the premium channels. It'll be on again several amore times over the following week.

Johnny Depp plays Gilbert Grape. He's a twentysomething living in the small town of Endora, IA, in a sort of dead-end life. He works at the local grocery store, Lamson's, which has been serving the community since 1932, although it's in financial difficulty now since a new Foodland supermarket has opened up in the next bigger town over. As part of his job, Gilbert gets to make deliveries, this being the era between the pre-supermarket days when grocery stores would still have delivery boys, and the current day with apps promising delivery of almost anything, at least in bigger cities. One of Gilbert's frequent clients is Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), trapped in a loveless marriage to an insurance agent. Both Gilbert and Betty use these deliveries as an opportunity to escape the difficulties in their lives.

Frankly, Gilbert has a lot more difficulties in his life than Betty does. Gilbert's father walked out on the family many years ago and committed suicide, leaving the family in dire financial straits and stuck in a house that could probably collapse any day now. Gilbert's older brother fled town on graduating high school, while Momma (Darlene Cates) decided she wouldn't leave the house and ate herself into the sort of obesity that seriously shortens people's lives; no wonder the older brother couldn't face all this. But wait, there's more; Gilbert has a kid brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie that made him a star) who is autistic or has some other sort of brain injury that's left him trapped at a fairly young age developmentally, much younger than the 18 he's about to turn. Of course, the doctors didn't even think young Arnie would reach 10. The only good news for Gilbert is that he's got two sisters who can help out around the house.

One of Arnie's joys, and one that's a relative positive for the people around him, is the annual parade of Airstream trailers that go through Endora every year on their way to an annual meet-up of fans of those old trailers. You've probably seen them before, the aluminum trailers with rounded corners towed by a pick-up truck or something with similar power. This year, one of the trucks breaks down on the road where Gilbert and Arnie are watching the procession, leaving two women stranded, young Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother.

Gilbert offers to do what he can to help in terms of driving Becky around to do errands like getting fresh groceries or picking up the neeed parts for the car, since she and Grandma can't do the driving. This gives Gilbert a chance to fall in love with Becky, but it also means he won't be watching Arnie quite so closely. Another of Arnie's joys is running off and hiding, and this is a joy that is a constant source of consternation for the rest of the Grapes, since Arnie likes to hide from everybody else by climbing the town's water tower, which isn't really hiding at all since it brings out a crowd and really embarrasses both Gilbert and Momma, albeit in different ways.

Major life events happen to more or less everybody, although for Becky they're not quite so major, involving finally getting to meet Gilbert's mother -- something Gilbert had always been reluctant to do -- and getting the part to repair the truck which of course means she'll be leaving town and leaving Gilbert behind.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape is one of those little movies, despite the presence of Johnny Depp, who was already a pretty big name after his starring role in Edward Scissorhands. That, combined with the subject matter of the movie, makes it fairly easy to understand why the movie was a box-office failure on its original release. That's a shame, since the movie is filled with fine performances, even when they're playing the sort of characters who can be difficult to sympathize with. (Despite Arnie's having a medical condition that's clearly not his fault, it's also obvious why people around him would have periods of intense frustration, reminiscent of Benny and Joon, also starring Depp and released a few months before What's Eating Gilbert Grape.)

If the movie has flaws, it's probably that the sort of small-town life seen here is stereotyped, with all of the supporting characters being practically archetypes of what you'd really meet in a small town. That, and the story wrapping up just a bit too neatly. But those are relatively minor flaws in what is otherwise a very good movie.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Alexander's Ragtime Band minus the Irving Berlin tunes

Recently, I went through my DVDs again and decided to go back into the Alice Faye box set from which I already blogged about Rose of Washington Square. This time, I picked out The Great American Broadcast.

After a montage in the opening credit showing any number of people who were famous on radio back when the movie was released in the spring of 1941, we get transported back in time to 1919, which means just after World War I. Rix Martin (John Payne) was one of those flyboys in the war, and having returned and not having anything better to do in life after seeing something of the world, he's now working taking people up in the air and giving them an aerial tour of New York for the princely sum of $3. But he's at some sort of unofficial airfield, and a group of linemen has the right-of-way to put up new poles and telephone lines. This is a problem for Rix because the lines are too close to the runway for him to fly safely. His attempt to stop the linemen results in a fight that will cause him to lose his job.

However, when the linemen leave, there's still one up on a pole, that being Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie). He has sympathy for Rix, so Rix takes Jack on his motorcycle back to Chuck's apartment. It rains along the way, so both are soaked through by the time the get back to Chuck's place, and Chuck gives Rix the time to dry off and a set of dry clothes. Chuck is into wireless technology, communicating the way ham radio operators did, at a time when this was still very much an experimental thing. Indeed, the first experimental voice-over-radio radio broadcasts from KDKA in Pittsburgh were still some time away. (Wikipedia says the first broadcasts began in 1919, although regular programming would begin with covering the presidential election in November 1920.) The new technology intrigues Rix, especially when it brings him into contact with Chuck's neighbor and girlfriend, Vicki Adams (Alice Faye).

Rix gets the idea to promote a sponsored entertainment broadcast from the roof of the apartment building, with Vicki, who has a fine voice, providing some singing, along with some professionals. But a thunderstorm comes the night of the broadcast, limiting its range. Still, Rix winds up falling in love with Vicki, along with seeing the possibility for radio to make a much bigger splash.

The only problem is radio's limited range. In the early days of radio, there was a thing known as DXing, or deliberately trying to pick up distant broadcasts. AM frequencies mean that under the right conditions, the radio waves can travel several hundred miles, but for intercontinental broadcasts, shorter wavelengths were needed, which would become short-wave radio (and indeed, in other parts of the world AM was called "medium wave"). But for the purposes of this movie, we really only need to know that weather and the relatively short distances radio waves traveled meant that national broadcasting across the 48 states was for the time being a technological limitation.

The best solution they could come up with at the time was broadcasting at higher power, but that of course costs money that Rix doesn't have. Ah, but Rix's fellow veteran Bruce (Cesar Romero) does have the money. However, he'd like a radio station of his own, seeing the possiblities, and would like Vicki to perform on his station, leading to the love triangle that was common for this sort of movie.

Rix, being in search of a good challenge and seeing he can't go any further in US radio as is, just up and leaves Vicki and heads off to South America, leaving Chuck to run the radio station. However, he gets the idea that long-distance telephone lines could be used to create a coast-to-coast hookup that really would allow for national broadcasts in almost real time. Now if he can just get Rix back from South America to learn what a chump he's been with Vicki before Vicki can run off to Reno and get a divorce in order to marry Bruce.

There are a lot of plot elements in The Great American Broadcast that are similar to what was in the other Fox musicals of the time: a look back at the America of the past, a love triangle that one person walks out of, the reunion at the end, and so on. So in such a musical, much of the strength of it lies with the music. Here, we get a series of songs by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon that, while competent, are certainly not up to the level of Irving Berlin who repacked his old songs for Fox in Alexander's Ragtime Band three years earlier.

That having been said, some of the musical numbers are quite good, thanks to the addition of the Ink Spots and the dancing Nicholas Brothers who show up as porters in a railway station (and, as far as I could tell, not on a radio broadcast in that number, which is why it doesn't matter that it wouldn't be suitable for radio). On the other hand, the Wiere Brothers, whom I don't think I'd heard of, do a skit on one of the radio shows as the Stradivarians, a piece that relies too much on visuals. Yes, we're watching a movie, but in the movie these people are supposed to be on radio where we can't see them!

Also of note is archival footage of the 1919 heavyweight title fight between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard; in the movie Rix tries to promote radio by broadcasting this fight live. The grainy silent footage stands out as being of a clearly different film stock from the sound film.

The Great American Broadcast is the sort of movie that seems dated today, although watching it, I can see why the audiences of 1941, having been through an economic depression with entry into World War II lurking on the horizon, would want to watch something nostalgic and escapist. The Great American Broadcast certainly fits that bill.

TCM's Peter Bogdanovic tribute

Director Peter Bogdanovich died back in January, and somewhat surprisingly, TCM didn't get around to doing a tribute to him in February the way they did with Sidney Poitier, who died right around the same time as Bogdanovich. They couldn't do it in March thanks to 31 Days of Oscar, so instead that tribute had to wait until April.

This time around, it's an interesting tribute in that it's being held over two nights rather than just one long programming block like an entire evening in prime time, or an entire morning/afternoon. Those two nights are tonight and tomorrow, and I'm guessing they decided to split it over the two nights to keep TCM Underground overnight tonight and the midnight showing of Noir Alley tomorrow intact.

There are three movies tonight:
Paper Moon, with Ryan O'Neal (again) and Tatum grifting their way through the Depression, at 8:00 PM;
The Last Picture Show, about a dying town in 1950s Texas, at 10:15 PM; and
What's Up, Doc?, in whch O'Neal tells Barbra Streisand that "'love means never having to say you're sorry' is the dumbest thing he's ever heard", at 12:15 AM.
On Saturday, there are two more movies before Noir Alley:
Saint Jack at 8:00 PM is one that's new to me, so I can't say too much about it; and
The documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration concludes things at 10:15 PM Saturday.

I should have a real full-length review on another (non-Bogdanovich film) coming up this afternoon.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Thursday Movie Picks #406: Artificial Disasters

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. The topic for today, as posted on the TMP site, is "April 21 - Environmental Wrongs/ Disasters (not a natural disaster, so something like Chernobyl) ". So to make things clear I decided to call it "Artificial Disasters", if only to distinguish from natural disasters, although these are all environment-related disasters, too. In the end, I did end up repeating one movie that I selected about two years ago.

Ring of Fire (1961). David Janssen plays a policeman who arrests a couple of hoodlums in a rural part of Oregon. They waylay him and force him to take them to the forest, where they're going to hike their way through to escape. Unfortunately, one of the criminals is also a smoker, and Janssen warns them that smoking in the forest is a no-no since it's so dry the whole forest could go up in flames. Of course it does, as if you couldn't figure that out from the title.

An Enemy of the People (1978). Based on the Henrik Ibsen play, this one stars Steve McQueen as the Norwegian doctor who returns to his home village, a place known for its healthful spa waters. Unfortunately, he's determined that the tannery upstream is polluting the water, making the spa extremely unhealthful. Since the spa and the tourist revenue it brings in is the lifeblood of the village, nobody in town, including brother Charles Durning), is willing to believe him.

Night of the Lepus (1972). The movie opens with docudrama-type footage of how rabbits were released by man in various parts of the world where they're not natural as a form of pest control, only to become pests themselves. We then find that ranching country in Arizona is one of those places. Rancher Rory Calhoun needs help dealing with the rabbit problem, and scientists Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh start experimenting with rabbits that will go sterile. Unfortunately, they commit an extreme (and extremely stupid) breach of the scientific method, with the result that mutant giant rabbits that can kill with one wind up roaming the countryside in slow motion. The movie has a bad reputation, but it's one of those movies that's so bad it's hilarious.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

God's Wrath

The second of the Robert Mitchum movies airing today that I wanted to do a blog post about is The Wrath of God, which concludes the afternoon at 6:00 PM.

It's sometime in the early 1920s in a Latin American country that, as far as I can tell, is not actually named. There's a revolution going on, and the local authorities are about to execute a couple of people by firing squad. But before they can do that, American priest Fr. Van Horne (Robert Mitchum) shows up, insisting that he be allowed to give the condemned men their last rights. In fact, he's in the middle of doing just that when the firing squad shoots.

He's not the only Anglo in town, however. There's also Emmet Keogh (Ken Hutchinson), who's looking for transport north to get out of the country, and even has his train ticket. But Jennings (Victor Buono), the third Anglo in our story, is an asshole who has somebody steal Keogh's tickets and passport so that Keogh won't be able to leave the country and instead be forced to do a job running bootleg liquor for Jennings.

Keogh and Fr. Van Horne meet up out on their way out of town, with Jennings eventually showing up where the alcohol is supposed to be delivred. Instead, there are a bunch of soldiers raping native girl Chela (Paula Pritchett), having killed the person who is supposed to receive the alcohol. It's here we learn that Fr. Van Horne is not quite what he seems, as his carpet bag has a machine gun in it that he uses to kill the soldiers and save the girl! (No mention is made of where they keep getting ammo.)

Eventually, the leader of the revolutionaries, Col. Santilla (John Colicos), finds out about this and starts chasing the three Anglos, capturing them and putting them before the firing squad. Except that this time, the firing squad doesn't actually have any bullets in the gun when they fire. (It's a good thing Alec Baldwin wasn't on the firing squad.) That's because Santilla needs a couple of non-Hispanics for an operation. It's totally voluntary of course, in that if they don't want to do it Santilla will be happy to have them executed.

Brutal "dictator" De La Plata (Frank Langella) rules in a town about 40 miles away. But there's only one road into town, and that's guarded by a mountain pass so none of Santilla's men can get through. (The town also doesn't look like much of a capital city.) However, foreign white guys could get through. The town has a mine that's petered out, so Jennings will play the part of an investor, with Keogh being a "mining engineer" there to inspect the mine. Fr. Van Horne will go up to town ostensibly to replace the previous parish priest, but really to kill De La Plata. Of course, there's a catch. De La Plata hates the Catholic Church, and will happily have any priest celebrating Mass executed.

Still, since the men don't have much realist choice they undertake the mission. De La Plata lives with his widowed mother (Rita Hayworth, who was already in the early stages of Alzheimer's although nobody knew it at the time), who doesn't care for her son's anti-clerical nature although she doesn't have much power. The locals don't care for De La Plata, but they don't want to be seen as helping the priest because they know what De La Plata has done to the last several priests. And Keogh, having saved Chela, finds out that her father has betrothed Chela to him.

The Wrath of God is one of those movies that I probably ought to rate higher than I'm going to, but then, I couldn't help but think about the problems with the movie as I was watching it. First was the fact that the Victor Buono character was such a jerk that it was hard to have any sympathy for him. And then there was the plethora of plot holes. Still, Robert Mitchum seems like he's enjoying himself, and people who want action movies with just a touch of humor will probably enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Yes she could have

TCM is running a bunch of Robert Mitchum films tomorrow (April 20) morning and afternoon even though it isn't his birthday. I have two of the films on that schedule on the DVR that I want to blog about, so we're getting one Mitchum movie today and another tomorrow. First up is She Couldn't Say No, airing at noon tomorrow.

Now, an eagle-eyed viewer might be able to guess that Mitchum is not playing the "She" in the movie's title. The "She" is instead played by Jean Simmons, as a character named Corby Lane. She's rich enough that she was able to spend a lot of time in England an buy a car in cash now that she's back in America, hoping that the dealer can move the steering wheel over to the right-hand side, just because she's more used to it. It's a relative throwaway scene other than to show just how idle rich Corby is.

But Corby has a plan for the car, and for her wealth. She heads down to the small town of Progress, Arkansas, with a population of about 200 people and the sort of small southern town that led Variety to write the famous 1935 headline "Stix Nix Hick Picks". It's full of stereotypes, starting with the lovable town drunk, Odie Chalmers (Arthur Hunnicutt) who spends his time at the general store/post office, presumably waiting for a relief check. But Corby isn't so interested in him; she's looking for Dr. Sellers.

Corby gets directions to Dr. Sellers' house, but he isn't there, so she rings the emergency bell even tough what she wants to talk about isn't an emergency, and Dr. Sellers (that's Robert Mitchum as if you couldn't tell) thinks it's more likely to be something like the pregnant Mrs. Jordan about to give birth. And Corby isn't exactly pleased to see this Dr. Robert Sellers, as she was expecting somebody much older. In fact, she was expecting Robert Sr., but he's dead and the son took over the practice because Progress needs a doctor.

Dr. Sellers and Corby, using the pseudonym Corby Johnson, go out for a drink, or enough drinks to get Corby incredibly drunk since Sellers is clearly trying to pump her for information about why she's here. That should become clear the next day, after Mrs. Jordan gives birth. Some anonymous donor decided to buy a whole bunch of baby supplies for the Jordans. Too much, in fact, as the Jordans don't have space for it all.

Dr. Sellers, having seen that Corby's luggage is monogrammed "CL", is able to put two and two together. Corby was one of his father's patients a long time ago, when she was just a kid. Her father was working in the oil fields, traveling wherever there was work, and stopped in Progress for a while. But he was a bit down on his luck as Corby fell ill and needed some sort of operation that she couldn't get in Progress. So the townsfolk took up a collection for her to send her to St. Louis (why not Little Rock??) to get that operation. Corby's father eventually made good in the oil industry, and Corby wants to pay back the townsfolk of Progress, albeit anonymously.

The problem is, every way she tries to pay somebody back only backfires. She buys fine alcohol for Odie, only to learn that he being an alcoholic, the bartender has been surreptitiously watering his liquor. Buying the veterinarian a new car leads him to want to leave town. And when she just says the heck with it and anonymously sends everyone in town cash, that makes the news and gets a bunch of greedy little shits from the rest of the country to come to Progress stupidly thinking they could get some money themselves.

She Couldn't Say No is the sort of movie that, 15 years earlier before World War II, would have made a silly little programmer for any studio picking up the story and providing it to two of its contract players. But by the mid-1950s, it feels dated and a bit beneath both Mitchum and Simmons. Not that the two of them are bad; they both give a professional effort and do the best they can with the material. It's more that the material does everybody in. It doesn't help that this being RKO, the movie looks like it was done on a discount.

Still, if you want some pleasant enough fun hearkening back to a different era, you could do a lot worse than to watch something like She Couldn't Say No.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Harlem Nights

I've got a backlog of movies that I recorded during one free preview weekend or another, and I generally try to get through them as they come up on the premium channels again. This means that I now get the chance to blog about Harlem Nights, which has an airing tonight at 11:30 PM on HBO Comedy.

The movie starts off with a scene in Harlem, 1918. Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) runs an underground floating craps game somewhere in Harlem. One night during the game, a young boy who runs errands for Ray shows up, much to the consternation of one of the gamblers, who claims that kids bring him bad luck. Ray has the reaction of "yeah, right", and besides, he's the one running the game, so the kid stays. The other guy craps out, and then threatens to knife Ray to death if he doesn't get his money back. Ray has a gun for just this sort of thing, but wouldn't you know it, the kid has already taken it to shoot the other guy dead just in case.

Twenty years pass. Ray, having found out the kid is an orphan, raised the kid as his own son, giving him the nickname Quick (Eddie Murphy). Ray and Quick are running a swanky but thoroughly gray-market at best club called Sugar Ray's, which offers gambling and a brothel run by Ray's friend Madame Vera (Della Reese before she was fondled by an angel). Among the people running the craps tables is Bennie (Redd Foxx), who had been at that fateful craps game two decades earlier.

However, the sort of club that Ray runs is usually the province of gangsters. Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner) is the gangster who seems to have a monopoly on such clubs in Manhattan, so he sends one of his black enforcers, Tommy Smalls, to check out Sugar Ray's to try to find out how much they make so that Bugsy can give Sugar Ray an offer he can't refuse. Tommy brings along the lovely Creole woman Dominique La Rue (Jasmine Guy) along, and Quick immediately falls for her, not realizing that it's a trap. For not only is Bugsy a violent mobster, he's got corrupt police on his side in the form of detective Phil Cantone (Danny Aiello).

Eventually, Bugsy does make Sugar Ray that offer, which amounts to taking two-thirds off the top, so you can understand why Sugar Ray wouldn't want to take it even though there's a good chance it will lead to him and everybody else high up in the club getting shot. And indeed, Quick does have to run for his life and lay low when Bugsy starts sending people after him. So Sugar Ray comes up with a plan to double cross Bugsy.

Bugsy will be handling the betting for the boxing title fight, between black champion Jenkins and a white Irish challenger. The thinking is that all the white people will make the sucker bet on the white guy even though Jenkins is a heavy favorite. So Sugar Ray and his associates will also bet on the white guy to make Bugsy think that Jenkins has been paid to throw the fight, and try to cover things himself. Meanwhile, Sugar Ray will take the money bet on the fight while it's being transported.

Harlem Nights, in addition to starring Eddie Murphy, was also directed by him, and that's where a lot of the flaws of the movie come in. It's a formulaic, by-the-numbers movie, which isn't necessarily a terrible thing, beyond the fact that there's nothing original here. Heck, it was already almost 20 years since movies like Shaft started mainstreaming black crime movies, although I don't think most of them were period pieces like Harlem Nights.

The other problem the movie has is that it's not quite sure what genre it wants to be. Tonight's showing is on HBO Comedy, and my box guide has it listed as a comedy, but it's really more of a lighter drama that has some humor to break up the tension. It's not as serious as the 1930s gangster movies, but it's not a straight comedy either, and that doesn't always work considering how many of the leads had a reputation for comedy instead of drama.

Still, Harlem Nights is an interesting misfire that certainly deserves at least one viewing. There's a reason why it was a critical failure but reasonably successful commercially on its first release back in 1989.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

Recently, I was reading one of the posts linked in the blogroll of my blog -- I think it was Laura over at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings -- and she mentioned director Daniel Raim, who directed the documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story. I had this one on my DVR because I have a tendency to DVR the documentaries on movies that TCM runs, and since Kino Lorber put it out on DVD, I decided to watch it.

Now, I hadn't heard the names of either Harold Michelson or his wife Lillian, but apparently both of them did things that were very important for Hollywood movies. Harold was a World War II veteran who did some sketches of the things he saw in World War II, which led his commanding officer to tell him that perhaps he ought to try to make a professional go of art in some way. So after the war he made his way to Hollywood where he eventually became a storyboard artist. For those who don't know, storyboards are comic book-like drawings that are designed to show how the director and cinematographer could film a certain scene. There's a mini-documentary on North by Northwest that TCM has run once or twice before that talks about Alfred Hitchcock's use of storyboards and how he practically had the movie already directed before he even began filming, something that would fit his quote about actors being little more than cattle.

Lillian was an orphan in Florida who was quite a few years younger than Harold, but who somehow knew Harold's younger sister. There was a bit of love at first sight, but at the same time, Harold's parents weren't certain about the relationship. Still, not long after getting out to Hollywood, Harold sent Lillian a letter that perhaps she should come out to Hollywood and marry him. She obviously did go out, and married him, with the result being the two of them remaining married for the next 60 years until Harold's death in 2007.

Along the way, Harold and Lillian had three sons, the eldest being born with autism at a time when little was known about the condition and psychologists thought it was brought on by mothers not taking care of their kids properly. This, unsurprisingly, horrified Lillian, and when she realized the advice of the "specialists" wasn't helping to ameliorate her son's condition, and was causing problems with the relationships the two younger sons had with the rest of the family, she stopped taking part in the psychiatric charade. We only see vintage home movie footage of the sons, although it is revealed that the autistic son became a computer programmer and had a successful career. I guess nowadays he'd be considered one of the 49320572105% of people diagnosed as being "on the spectrum", but relatively "high-functioning". (The local autism center runs radio ads that over the past few years have claimed the autism diagnosis rate has gone from 1 in 69 to 1 in 44, something which sounds rather scammy to me, apologies to anyone with a child on the more severe end of the spectrum.)

At some point, Lillian felt unfulfilled with a life as just a mother, so she began looking for work to do. Not being able to type well enough to get a secretarial job, she eventually found work in one of the studios' research libraries. Much like the library that Katharine Hepburn and her assistans run in Desk Set, such libraries had all sorts of reference works that could be called on to look up things from what New York City looked like in the 1910s to fashion, slang, and so on. Any scriptwriter or director who wanted consistency and wanted to avoid anachronisms would use the research library to impart a greater sense of verisimilitude to their films.

And then the research librarian Lillian was working for retired; not wanting the books to go to waste; she offered to sell them to Lillian since the studio didn't own them. Lillian bought, which led to her career as one of Hollywood's more respected research librarians. However, it wasn't without a struggle, as she was always looking for space for that research library.

Harold and Lillian is an interesting movie, in large part because it shines a light on two different aspects of film-making that are both quite important, but generally go underrecognized. (Both worked on hundreds of movies, but Lillian only has credits for about 10 according to IMDB, while Harold has a few more, thanks to getting elevated to art director later in his career, which also earned him a pair of Oscar nominations.) It helps that the two were apparently very well-respected, so any number of famous people (most notably Danny DeVito and Mel Brooks) did interviews for the documentary. But another sign of the respect they had is that they got a pair of characters named after them in the movie Shrek 2.

Harold and Lillian may not be for everyone, mostly because casual film fans may not be too interested in the more arcane work of things like storyboarding and research. But anybody who's more of a movie buff will probably really like the movie, which is very well made.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

"Heaven" is in the title, but it's not really an Easter movie

Another of the movies that I had the chance to record thanks to one of the DirecTV free preview weekends was Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. It's going to be on again tomorrow (April 17) at 1:15 PM on The Movie Channel, or three hours later if you only have the west coast feed. It's got several more airings over the next few weeks as well.

The movie begins in 1916 in Chicago. Bill (Richard Gere) works in a factory there, and he gets into some sort of argument with his foreman. We don't quite hear what the argument is about, since it's a loud steel mill, but it's plain to see that this is an argument, even before we see the result of that argument. Bill hits his foreman on the head, and the foreman falls to the factory floor, fatally injured. Bill, knowing that the police are going to be after him, finds his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz), who also serves as the narrator of the film, and gets on a freight train out of town, hobo-style.

The three wind up in the Texas panhandle, where Bill and Abby pass themselves off as brother and sister. They, along with Linda, find work at a farm growing wheat, one that's owned by a relatively young farmer (Sam Shepard) and run by an unnamed foreman (Robert J. Wilke). Bill and Abby are supposed to be brother and sister, but they really don't make much effort to hide the fact that they're in love with each other, although at least Bill has the good sense not to get Abby pregnant. However, some other farm workers do wonder whether Bill and Abby are really siblings.

The farm work goes moderately well, although the foreman thinks Bill could do better. Bill, for his part, shows up just outside the farmhouse one day when there's a doctor's truck outside the house. Bill eavesdrops and overhears snippets of the conversation that suggest that perhaps the farmer might be terminally ill, even though he never really looks it over the course of the movie. But this gives Bill an idea.

Bill thinks that perhaps Abby should marry the farmer. After all, the farmer has already seen her and obviously thinks she's nice looking. The farmer need not know that Abby is taken in the moral sense but not the legal sense, so if the farmer and Abby do marry there could be no hint of bigamy. But the big point is that, since the farmer is presumably going to die fairly soon, if Abby marries him she won't have to be married very long before she becomes a widow and inherits the farm, leaving her free to marry Bill and live happily ever after with a modicum of wealth, or at least until the Dust Bowl hits in another 15 to 20 years.

Needless to say, this scheme isn't going to work, as the foreman has his own suspicions. And eventually the farmer also cottons on, leading to the climax and denouement of the film.

As I was watching Days of Heaven, I couldn't help but think of Malick's earlier film Badlands, which also has a pair of lovers on the run. But where Badlands is fairly direct in its storytelling, Days of Heaven is rather more indirect, relying on Linda's narration as well as things seen and heard in fragments and snippets. It's a form of storytelling that's deliberately different, and it may not work for everybody.

Days of Heaven is also incredibly slow-paced, with Malick deciding to focus on a lot of shots of the agricultural process, such as amber waves of grain waving in the wind, or the smaller animals that one would see in the undergrowth. The movie only runs 94 minutes, but for some people it will probably feel like it runs a lot longer. The cinematography, however, won an Academy award, which it probably deserved. For all the narrative flaws one might find in the movie, it's a stunningly beautiful film to look at.

But is sheer physical beauty enough? In the silent screen days, absolutely. In more recent years? Maybe not for some people.

Briefs for Easter 2022

Tomorrow, April 17, is Easter Sunday, at least for those following western forms of Christianity; I don't remember when Orthodox Easter is this year. As always, TCM has some movies appropriate for the occasion, starting after the first showing of Noir Alley. Night and the City (12:30 AM, so still Saturday night in more westerly time zones) is not exactly an Easter movie. It also gets the Sunday morning Noir Alley slot, breaking up the religious-themed movies on Easter Sunday. Most of them are the sort of epic you can imagine getting aired, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (6:30 AM) or Barabbas (2:30 PM), about the thief who was released from crucifixion in order to crucify Jesus. As always, there's an 8:00 PM Sunday airing of the musical Easter Parade, which is not religious like the other movies. The TCM Imports movies have a Catholic theme to them as well, but unfortunately TCM isn't programming the 1929 version of The Passion of Joan of Arc as part of Silent Sunday Nights.

Interestingly enough, FXM is also getting into the Easter theme, although in a more limited way. FXM has The Robe at 7:00 AM, which is about a robe that Jesus wore just before the crucifixion, and how a Roman centurion (Richard Burton) comes across that robe, with pretty major consequences for the rest of his life. The movie had a sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators continuing the story albeit not with the main stars of The Robe for fairly obvious reasons; that comes on at 9:15 AM. And then the double-feature is repeated starting at 11:00 AM. So nowhere near as much as TCM, but then they don't have access to as many movies as TCM does. And they are starting the commercial part of the schedule with everyone's favorite Easter movie, Die Hard.

It's been a while since I've mentioned anything that I listened to in any of the podcasts I listen to. But Radio Prague recently had an interview with casting director Nancy Bishop, who was born in the US but moved to Prague in the early 1990s after the fall of Communism. She talks about her experiences in Prague, but also about being a casting director and the intricacies of casting Czechs in non-Czech movies (thanks in part to the language issue). The interview runs around 16 minutes and can be streamed directly from the link above; if you'd rather download the MP3 to listen to elsewhere (I, for example, can listen to downloaded audio but not stream stuff where I work due to privacy issues only allowing the corporate firewall internet at our workdesks), the link is here and, I think around 8MB.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Rocky Mountain

Errol Flynn is this month's Star of the Month on TCM, and I've recorded several of his lesser movies aleady. Having that many of his movies on the DVR, I decided to watch one to do a review on, and picked Rocky Mountain.

The movie starts off in the present day, with a car driving through the California mountains where they stop at a plaque informing us that they're at Rocky Mountain/Ghost Mountain, where a little-known chapter of the Civil War took place in the closing days of the war. It should be fairly obvious that we're about to flash back to those days at the end of March 1865....

Lafe Barstow (Errol Flynn) is a captain in the Confederate Army. Robert E. Lee knows that there's virtually no shot of winning the war any more, do he's decided one one desperate gamble. There's a man out in California named Cole Smith who has some ability to gather men, and apparently some Confederate sympathies, so if those men could attack the forts in California, it would divert valuable resources from the Eastern front. The job of Barstow and his men are to find Cole and get him to get those men.

Unfortunately, Barstow's crew are interrupted in that mission when they see the area's Indians attacking a stagecoach. Barstow does the human thing, and saves whom he can from the stagecoach, which is the drive and a female passenger, Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore). She's traveling alone, something not normal for women to do back in those days, because she's on her way to the fort where her fiancé, Lt. Rickey of the Union Army (Scott Forbes) is waiting for her. Unsurprisingly, some of Barstow's men are going to have inappropriate thoughts about Johanna along the way, leading to some conflict.

Since the stagecoach doesn't show up at the Union fort, the Union sends out a detachment to find it, and Barstow and his men ambush that, too, getting several more prisoners, including Lt. Rickey himself. But there's a complication, which is that the Indians have seen what happened, and figured out where Barstow and his men are. They'll be able to surround Barstow's group and slaughter them, so Barstow is going to have to figure out a way to escape. Also, they've already met Cole Smith, who was going by a false name. Still, Barstow sends Smith off to try to get those men, which if he's successful could lead to having enough men to take on the Indians.

Rocky Mountain was apparently the last western in Errol Flynn's career, and the one that introduced Flynn to his final wife (Wymore), but it's not otherwise a particularly important movie or much more than a programmer. It was only given black-and-white treatment, and a couple of the scenes are actually pretty murky. The script is serviceable, and Flynn does a more than professional job, as do the supporting stars. So as a result Rocky Mountain is definitely worth a watch even though there's nothing special or new going on here.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Thursday Movie Picks #405: Psychics/Mediums

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. The theme this week is Psychics/Mediums, a theme that became relevant once again with the release late last year of the remake of Nightmare Alley. If you haven't seen the Tyrone Power version, I highly recommnend it; I haven't seen the remake. Anyhow, I immediately had two 1930s films in mind, and was trying to think of a third movie to use without having to resort to Nightmare Alley. In the end, I was successful:

The Mind Reader (1933). Warren William plays the carnival fake mind reader who falls in love with Constance Cummings and moves to the big city with her. She finds out that he's a fake, and wants him to do more honest work than scamming lonely old ladies. He tries, but there's a depression on and getting honest work may be difficult.

The Clairvoyant (1935). I notice I actually used this one back in 2017. Claude Rains plays the phony mindreader, with a catch. There's one particular woman he meets who has the effect on him of making him see real visions of things that actually do come true. Obviously nobody believes him, and this creates all sorts of problems when he has a vision of a mine collapse.

The 13th Chair (1937). In British India, there's been a murder, and both a police investigator (Lewis Stone) and a friend of the murder victim (Henry Daniell) want to find out who did it. So the two get together a bunch of people who might be suspects and some who might not, and bring in a medium (Dame May Whitty) to hold a seance with the real purpose of trying to find the killer.

Time Bandits

I think I mentioned last week that TCM is doing a spotlight this month on time travel in the movies, airing movies on the theme every Thursday in prime time. I had recorded the movie Time Bandits a few months back, and see that it's on the schedule as part of this month's spotlight, overnight tonight at 1:00 AM (so still late Thursday evening out on the west coast). As always, with that in mind, I made a point of watching it to do a review on it.

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a young boy living in what looks like a smaller-city British housing development with his parents, who seem more concerned with what's going to be on the telly tonight than they do about Kevin. As such, Kevin is a bit of a loner who has vivid fantasies. One night in bed, he sees a knight in shining armor riding out of the armoire in his bedroom, only to go through the wall on the other side. Now, you might think this is all just a bad dream, and it's possible that the whole movie is just a dream, although it doesn't say so.

Kevin, however, is curious, so the next night, he arranges to try to get photographic evidence should anything come out of his armoire again. Amazingly enough, a group of dwarves come bounding into his room. That ought to be frightening enough, but even worse is that this disembodied head claiming to be a Supreme Being also comes out of the armoire, so all of the dwarves push one of the walls of Kevin's bedroom to make a long hallway. And with the Supreme Being possibly threatening Kevin too, he decides to join the dwarves, who eventually escape into some sort of hole.

Or, this being a fantasy film, it's really a vortex, one that takes them to different times and places. The dwarves have found a map that will enable them to look for, well, something. Not really found, but stolen, and the Supreme Being (who finally shows up in the flesh for the finale and is played by Sir Ralph Richardson) would like it back. Also wanting it for his own nefarious purposes is the Evil Genius (David Warner), who has no qualms about killing his minions at the drop of a hat.

In any case, the dwarves and Kevin have wound up in the Napoleonic era, at a time when Napoleon (Ian Holm) is attacking Italy. The dwarves wind up putting on a show for Napoleon, who really enjoys it. But unfortunately, the Supreme Being finds where the dwarves have gone off to, and shows up to force them to beat a hasty escape, something that's going to happen several times over the course of the movie. Meanwhile, the Evil Genius watches on like a witch watching in a crystal ball.

The group next winds up in England in the time of Robin Hood (John Cleese), as well as the sinking of the Titanic, Greece in the time of Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and a boat captained by an ogre and his wife (Katherine Helmond) before the ultimately make it to the Evil Genius' lair for the climactic battle of good and evil.

Time Bandits has a wonderful premise, although I found myself thinking that the individual segments don't quite make a coherent whole, making it a bit hard to decipher what the movie is really going to be about. Still, there's enough adventure in the film for boys about the age of Kevin in the movie, while there's also some humor in each of the segments that will probably go over the heads of the kids and appeal to the adults watching it. The ending is also a bit surprising.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Group

For the past several years, TCM has taken one night in December to honor some people who died over the past year but who weren't big enough to merit a regular programming tribute. One of those honorees for 2021 was Jessica Walter, who was part of the large ensemble cast of The Group. I hadn't seen it before, so I recorded it and recently got around to watching it.

The movie starts off in 1933 with commencement at Vassar (or maybe a Vassar-like women-only college), and eight young women who became friends over their four years in college graduating together. Over the course of the next 150 minutes or so, the movie will look at the life of the group, as well as the lives of the individuals in it, up until about the spring of 1940 when Hitler's army overran France. The movie's opening credits introduces the eight women in the group alphabetically by surname of the actress playing each woman, so that's how I'll do a brief one- or two-line synopsis introducing each of the women:

Candice Bergen plays Lakey, who studied art history and leaves for Europe not long after graduating, studying art in Vienna until coming home just in time to escape the Nazis and the start of World War II in Europe. She's got a surprise for everyone when she comes home.
Joan Hackett is Dottie, who is also out of a good portion of the movie, as she marries a wealthy businessman out in Arizona and moves west as well as spending time in Bermuda. She does return for the ending, however.
Elizabeth Hartman is Priss, who at the start of the movie is an ardent supporter of the New Deal and works in Washington before marrying a doctor (James Congdon) who wants her to have children, and then insists she breastfeed when she finally does have a child.
Shirley Knight plays Polly, who studied chemistry with a view to becoming a doctor, only becoming a hospital nurse/lab tech instead. However, she too winds up with a doctor, a psychiatrist (James Broderick) who is able to help her take care of her manic father (Robert Emhardt).
Joanna Pettet is Kay, who apparently came from a bit more modest means, only to marry right out of college as she weds never-quite-successful playwright Harald (Larry Hagman), who drinks way too much and has affairs with other women, which plays havoc with Kay's mental health.
Mary-Robin Redd plays Pokey, who seems to keep having twins, much to the other women's shock.
Jessica Walter is Libby, the gossip of the group, who hopes to become a published author but doesn't seem to succeed. Walter, however, gets to be extremely catty in the role.
Finally, there's Helena (Kathleen Widdoes), an artist who writes the group newsletter.

As you can see, with eight "main" characters, it's hard to come up with a movie that doesn't really underuse some of them. Kay, Priss, and Polly get a disproportionate amount of the screen time, with Polly's story probably being the best because the three main characters in it (her, her husband, and her father) are all more likable.

In fact, I found myself thinking that a film, even one at 150 minutes, wasn't the right format for this story, which was based on a novel by Mary McCarthy (sister of Kevin from Invasion of the Body Snatchers who got in a lawsuit with Lillian Hellman over the movie Julia; as McCarthy said of Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'.") who herself graduated from Vassar. I haven't read the book, but as I was watching the movie I thought that it would probably work better as a 70s/80s-style miniseries (not that TV was doing this back in the day), or as one of today's "limited" series that's only intended to run for one season.

As things stand in the movie, it's confusing for long stretches of the beginning of the movie to keep track of who is who, and who is having an affair with whom, since someone like the publisher played by Hal Holbrook is a major part of two character's story lines. It's also difficult to like a lot of these characters, who seem about as vapid and selfish as the characters in The Women.

Some people will definitely be interested in seeing some of these stars early in their careers, but be warned that the movie is not without some serious flaws.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Whistle at Eaton Falls

A couple of months back, TCM ran the interesting movie The Whistle at Eaton Falls. I had seen that it was scheduled for a Blu-ray release, but I thought the first time I checked, that release was supposed to come in mid-March. Then I checked again, and thought I saw a late March release date, and in late March saw an April 12 release date. Apparently, it's now listed as getting its release on April 15. But since I watched it over the weekend in anticipation of doing a post today, that's the post you're getting.

The opening titles point out that it's produced by Louis de Rochemont, with a story from real life. Now, apparently I haven't mentioned de Rochemont on the blog before, but a bit of introduction to him should tell you the sort of movie you're going to get. Louis de Rochemont apparently got access to a movie camera in the late 1910s, filming the people and places around him. In the 1930s, he started producing the famous newsreel series The March of Time, which were different from other newsreels, in that they were two reels and focused on one story, rather than about a minute per event as other newsreels did. De Rochemont also used dramatic reconstructions of events, which might be controversial, since that technically makes a lot of the "news" not real.

By the mid-1940s, de Rochemont was interested in producing feature films, with the first being the interesting docudrama The House on 92nd Street. He would go on to produce several more docudramas, as well as movies that were slightly further afield from the docudrama, The Whistle at Eaton Falls being in that latter category.

The setting is Eaton Falls, NH, which is a company town. Well, not quite at the beginning, when it's a two-company town. The titular whistle is on the roof of the Granite State Shoe Co., but thanks to rising prices and the same forces that spelled doom for a lot of the mill towns in New England, the shoe company is forced to shut down, putting a lot of people out of work and leaving Doubleday Plastics as the town's biggest employer by far.

Doubleday is not immune to the same economic pressures that closed down Granite State, and Daniel Doubleday, president of the company, calls in the head of the labor union, Brad Adams (Lloyd Bridges), to discuss the problem. In order to cut costs, Doubleday would like to invest in new capital that will increase productivity, which of course means fewer workers to produce the same output. Doubleday's hope is that this will eventually result in more contracts for lower-priced output, eventually allowing everybody to return to work. But the key word is eventually. There would have to be some layoffs that would hopefully be temporary. Brad points out that the union would have to approve the use of the new machines per the contract, but is going to face trouble. He's got some hotheads in the union like Al Webster (Murray Hamilton). On managment side, there's Doubleday's second-in-command Dwight Hawkins (Russell Hardie), who is notoriously anti-union.

Brad is in a difficult situation. He's the one man in the union that the other workers trust, but the economic pressures should be evident, especially considering the recent closure of the other major employer in town. But things are about to get a whole lot more difficult for Brad. In order to try to drum up business, Mr. Doubleday goes on a business trip to meet with the other side of a major production contract. But the plane crashes, killing Mr. Doubleday. Now, the lawyers and bankers want Mrs. Doubleday (Dorothy Gish) to sell and live a comfortable retirement. She, however, doesn't want that, since she knows it would kill the company and put her fellow townsfolk out of work. So she comes up with a radical and risky idea: make Brad the new general manager at the company!

So now Brad gets to see the other side of business. When he goes to keep the appointment that killed his boss, the factory owner on the other side tells him, what would you do if you were in my position? It's not good news for Brad, but it's the obvious answer. And then there's the bidding for plastic buttons for Navy uniforms, which is a brutal process with the low bidder getting the contract period.

Finally, when all seems lost, Brad gets a brilliant idea: have the plastic cutter be part of the same machine as the molder, a process heretofore done by hand because nobody's been able to overcome the technical difficulties. Somehow, he and his assistants are successful. But the companie he's going to sell to has hired Hawkins on, and Hawkins figures out what's going on. So he's going to go to Eaton Falls to rile up the union to get them to reject the deal, so that Doubleday can go out of business and his new company can buy up the machines cheaply.

The Whistle at Eaton Falls is an interesting story, albeit one that seems like a junior high level of sophistication in dealing with complicated issues. Brad Adams gets to see both sides of the problem and finds that -- golly gee, management is just as difficult as labor! Everybody is also either a little too good or a little too bad. But it's a fairly unique story for Hollywood of that period, and it's helped by location shooting and capable acting, not just from Bridges, but many of the supporting stars, some who would go on to a lot bigger things. Anne Francis has a small role as the daughter of one of Brad's older co-workers, while playing one of Brad's co-workers and friends is Ernest Borgnine a couple of years before he became a star.

Monday, April 11, 2022

What's the Matter With Helen?

If Tod Slaughter, one of the stars of yesterday's selection Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, got to go over the top and make the movies he was in fun as a result, another person who did the same later in her career was Shelley Winters. One of those performances can be found in What's the Matter With Helen?

The movie starts off with newsreels from early in the days of the Franklin Roosevelt administration. After stories about Franklin and Eleanor, we get a fictitious one about the notorious trial of two young men in Braddock, IA, who committed a particularly grisly murder. The two men were found guilty, and their mothers walk out of the courthouse and into a car waiting to whisk them away to the collective jeers of the people assembled outside.

The action then shifts to "real life", or at least real by the movie's universe, and out of the newsreel. The mothers are Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds), and Helen Hill (Shelley Winters), who seems a little more high strung. Adelle ran a school of dance for children in Braddock, with Helen a business partner providing accompaniment on the piano among other things. But they won't be able to keep a business running in a small town as the mothers of two notorious criminals. Worse, Helen reveals in the car that somebody stabbed her in the palm of her hand. Worse, she starts getting threatening phone calls from some guy who breathes like the obscene phone callers of 1970s jokes.

So Adelle gets the idea that she's going to change her name to Adelle Stuart and decamp to Hollywood, teaching there the children of stage parents who think their daughters might actually have some artistic talent. Helen, who generally puts more faith in the Lord, listening to radio evangelist Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead) and not doing worldly things like going to the movies, has nothing else to do so she takes the name Helen Martin and goes out to Hollywood with Adelle.

Despite the fact that there's supposed to be a depression on, Adelle's school does moderately well. Well enough for Helen to keep rabbits in the yard out back, as well as for people to take an interest in the school. One is Hamilton Starr (Micheal Mac Lammoir), who just walks in to the house one day because Adelle keeps leaving the front door unlocked. This should be unnerving to anyone, but is especially so for Helen. You see, in addition to the phone call back in Iowa, she has this feeling someone is out there watching her. Worse, she starts having hallucinations in which she sees the dead body of the woman her and Adelle's sons killed. But Hamilton, it turns out, is a bit of a chancer who claims he can teach the dancing daughters elocution, something they'll need if they want to act.

And then a rich Texan also comes into the picture. That mank is Linc Palmer (Dennis Weaver), and he begins to fall in love with Adelle, which drives a bit more of a wedge between her and Helen, whose behavior is growing increasingly paranoid. Is one of these men out to get Helen and Adelle? Do they know about the women's past? Well, you'll have to watch the rest of the movie to find out.

By the time What's the Matter With Helen? was released, it had been almost a decade since What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? took two grand old stars of Hollywood and put them together in grand Gothic style. So in some ways you would think the genre had mostly been played out. And in some ways, that's true, because there's not much new going on here. However, the success of a movie like What's the Matter With Helen? depends as much on the performances of the stars. Winters does reasonably well, although not as well as some of the other actresses in the genre, or as well as she'd do the following year in The Poseiden Adventure. Reynolds also seems a bit too flat for the role.

Still, What's the Matter With Helen? is pretty darn entertaining in spite of its flaws, and is definitely worth watching.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror

Back in 2019, I reviewed the Tod Slaughter movie Crimes at the Dark House which is part of a DVD box set of British B movies that I have. I pointed out at the time that the DVD has a second Slaughter movie on it, (Sexton Blake and) the Hooded Terror. It's only recently that I finally got around to watching that one.

The opening title card is clearly one inserted later, for TV syndication back in the days when companies bought the rights to B movies to show on TV stations that needed programming outside the hours that networks weren't programming, and then has the title The Hooded Terror. Now, since this DVD has a second Tod Slaughter movie on it, that's not such a bad thing, as Slaughter is the Hooded Terror. But the movie belongs just as much if not more to Sexton Blake (George Curzon). However, we don't get to either of them for a bit.

The movie starts off with a scene in Shanghai, where a guy named Granite Grant (David Farrar some years before Black Narcissus is being chased before being able to escape to the lobby of his hotel; nobody is going to attack him in public like that, especially not at a hotel catering to westerners. Grant tells a Paul Duvall to meet him in his room in five minutes, but in those five minutes Grant gets stabbed within an inch of his life. However, he is able to tell Duvall about a nefarious crime syndicate called the Black Quorum that's going to be meeting in London, and Duvall will have to get that information to London.

Fast forward to London, which is where we get to meet Sexton Blake. He's a rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, even living on Baker Street and having a Watson-like assistant in the form of Tinker (Tony Sympson). However, he's no dummy as a detective. Duvall, not having been able to get the London police to listen to him, goes to see Blake, but gets killed by a poison blow-dart. However, he left a piece of paper with invisible ink (yeah, right) that would be a vital clue to the whereabouts of the meeting of the Black Quorum, which is headed by the aforementioned Hooded Terror.

Eventually, Blake finds where the meeting of the Black Quorum is, as does Julie, who seems to have the same interest in philately that the Terror does when he's not wearing his hood and going by the name Michael Larron. Michael, unsurprisingly, falls head over heels for Julie, but that's also going to be his downfall.

Larron decamps to France, so everybody else follows him to Paris to try to find him. Julie is given the opportunity to save herself by becoming his girlfriend, but she says no, which subjects her to the death chamber for which the Hooded Terror is known. What that entails, however, I'll leave as a surprise to the viewer.

IMDb, in addition to listing the US TV distributor from the 1950s, lists MGM's British arm as the original production company for this 1938 movie, which would indicate that it was produced as a "quota quickie" for them to be able to show the Hollywood prestige stuff in the UK. As such, it wasn't made with a big budget or anything other than a desire to finish production. Nominally a mystery, the story is a bit of a mess, but Curzon and even more so Slaughter are entertaining enough to make it worth a watch.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror is the sort of movie that would be perfect for TCM's Saturday matinee block, and the sort of movie that's perfect on a cheap box set. I'd never pay standalone prices for it, but as a representative of the quota quickie era and an example of what Tod Slaughter could do, I'm quite happy to have watched it.