Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Know when to hold 'em

Another of the movies that showed up on one of the streaming services -- I think Pluto TV since they seem to have a whole bunch of Paramount stuff -- was the original 1974 version of The Gambler. Apparently it got a remake about a decade ago, but I never heard of the remake. Anyhow, I sat down to watch the 1974 version so that I could do a post on it here.

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a man who you'd think could have at least a comfortable life, if not the most glamorous life. He's a professor of English at what is probably the equivalent of CUNY (City University of New York), New York City's equivalent of a state school or what would be SUNY (State University of New York) campuses in the rest of the state if the main schools in the system were still calling themseves SUNY. He's the grandson of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, Grandpa Lowenthal (Morris Carnovsky), who worked hard and succeeded in life, growing old as a wealthy man.

The only problem is that Axel has developed a fairly serious gambling addiction. Now, this was in the early 1970s, when the legal gambling was in Las Vegas, while any other gambling was illegal and as a result controlled by crime syndicates. I don't think that Atlantic City had even started building the new set of casinos yet. So he has to place bets with bookies such as Hips (Paul Sorvino), who are underlings for the Mob. The Mob makes its money partly on worse odds and partly on usurious interest rates to repay the loans, and Axel is to the point where he's pretty badly in debt to them. Hips personally doesn't dislike Axel, but he's got a job to do which is to get that money.

Mom (Jacqueline Brookes) has too much of an emotional attachment to her son, unlike Grandpa, who has the good sense not to "lend" the money to Axel to pay off his gambling debts since Grandpa knows it'll turn from a loan to a gift. Mom is either too stupid to realize this or too much of an enabler, so she gives a substantial portion of her retirement savings to Axel. Axel then goes off to Las Vegas with his girlfriend Billie (Lauren Hutton), where he first wins back the money to pay off his debts, and then doesn't know when to quit so he winds up losing all his money.

But, there is still one way Axel can pay back that debt. One of Axel's students is the star of the college's basketball team, and the mobsters will write off Axel's debt if Axel can get the student to shave points -- that is, not deliberately throw the game since everybody still wants to win, but play just badly enough so that the favored time wins by a closer margin than the betting line has said the final margin would be. But can Axel really ever escape his debts...?

The Gambler is another of those movies where I can see why other people liked it. However, if you don't like the Axel character because you want to reach through the screen and shake him like Bette Davis did to Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance, you're probably going to have a much tougher time with The Gambler. Unfortunately, I found myself in that latter camp. The ending also has what to me felt like a bit of an epilogue that came out of the blue and didn't work for me.

So The Gambler is definitely another one of those movies that you're going to need to watch for yourself and draw your own judgment on.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Full Treatment

Columbia Pictures seemed to get the rights to a lot of British movies that got released in the US. One such movie that I had never heard of until its recent airing on TCM is Stop Me Before I Kill!, which was known in the UK as The Full Treatment although I think that the American title is more descriptive.

Ronald Lewis plays Alan Colby, a British racecar driver who likes to go fast not only on the racecourse, thinking the roads are designed to be safe at rather higher speeds than the speed limit. However, one day while out in his sports car with his wife Denise (Diane Cilento), he gets in a head-on accident with a truck that kills the truck driver and leaves him in a coma for some time, although Denise seems unharmed. Alan obviously comes out of the coma since this all happens at the beginning of the movie, but there's still going to be a long recovery ahead, and who knows whether he'll ever be able to race again.

After getting out of long-term care, Alan heads off to the south of France for some much-needed recuperation. There, they meet a psychiatrist, Dr. Prade (Claude Dauphin), who also has a practice in London. Meanwhile, Alan finds out that one of his problems from the accident is post-concussion syndrome, or perhaps what we'd nowadays call CTE. His personality has changed, and he's prone to violent mood swings, with the emphasis on violent. He gets so violent on one occasion that he actually tries to strangle his wife, for reasons neither of them can comprehend.

Denise, obviously concerned, goes off to see Dr. Prade in the hopes that perhaps Prade can do something to help Alan. After all, Prade is a psychiatrist and should be an expert in this sort of thing. Prade starts working with Alan, putting Alan into some sort of drug-induced hypnosis in the hopes that Alan will be able to remember enough details about the accident to figure out what it is that's really making him have these thoughts about trying to kill his wife.

Eventually, Alan has a breakthrough that should enable him to be cured of his condition, and he and his wife go back to London to live happily ever after. Except that things don't go quite that smoothly. Alan wakes up one morning to find his wife missing and, when Dr. Prade comes over, Alan discovers that he's committed murder in exactly the way he had had bad dreams about doing....

Stop Me Before I Kill! is another of those interesting movies that has some serious problems. In the case of this movie, that big problem is the fact that it's pretty darn obvious where the movie is going to be going. Some of the scenes are obviously foreshadowed, such as the key scene of Alan waking up to find the apartment a murder scene. There's another scene at the beginning that seems out of place, until a few minutes before the end when you know exactly what's going to happen.

Still, as I said, Stop Me Before I Kill! is interesting if a fair bit of nonsense in terms of what would really happen to somebody who suffered an accident like this. Even despite its flaws, it's worth at least one watch.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Manhattan Project

One of the movies that recently joined the FXM rotation and that I had never seen before is The Manhattan Project. So I recorded it with the intention of doing a post on it the next time it shows up on FXM. Well, it's got another airing tomorrow (May 30) at 4:00 AM so now it's time for the review.

John Lithgow plays John Mathewson, a scientist working in a lab presumably at MIT, although the filmmakers didn't use the name, only mentionng it's Cambridge, MA. Mathewson is working on purifying plutonium-239, a radioactive isotope that's highly useful in nuclear weapons systems, so you know that the military is going to take an interest in all of this. They inform Mathewson that the research of national security importance, which means they'd like him to go someplace a bit more out of the way to keep working on the project. Thankfully the Department of Energy (in on this because they're not military and because of the connection to atomic energy) has a front company in Ithaca, NY (also home to Cornell University) that advertises itself as working in radioctive isotopes for medical purposes.

Ithaca being home to a major university, it's not a surprise that the school is full of upper-middle-class kids who are very bright and in many cases likely to be interested in the sciences, which I'd think would be more likely if one or both of your parents was a professor in one of the sciences. One of the bright but somewhat misfit kids is Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet), who surprisingly is not the son of a college professor. Instead, his estranged father is an architect while Mom (Jill Eikenberry) is a real estate agent. That job gives the perfect in for our main characters to meet each other, as Mathewson goes to the real estate office where Paul's mom works to find a place to rent.

Mathewson takes an interest in Mrs. Stephens, and eventually learns that Paul is interested in the sciences and lasers and fun stuff like that which wasn't quite so common in the 1980s. So Mathewson offers to give Paul a bit of a tour of the laser with which he works, which seems like it would be a major breach of national security unless the DOE had specifically set up a sort of Potemkin village in the facility to show to visitors and students on field trips. Shockingly, they don't, and Mathewson shows Paul where the real research is going on, although at least not telling Paul what the real research is.

Paul is smart enough to figure out that something doesn't add up, but doesn't quite know what. Meanwhile, fellow student Jenny (Cynthia Nixon) is a reporter for the school newspaper whose curiosity is piqued when she hears Paul's story. So the two of them come up with a ridiculous plot to infiltrate the facility and get some of the material that Mathewson is working with. You'd think a 16-year-old who'd only been in the facility once would be foiled by the security system, but amazingly the plot works.

And then Paul discovers that what Mathewson is really working with is plutonium-239, and that it pretty much doesn't have any good uses other than in an atomic bomb. Jenny wants to do a story on what the facility is really doing, figuring that the people ought to know, but Paul has an even more audacious idea. He wants to enter the national science fair, and decides that the winning project would be to build an atomic bomb, in part to show that it can be done with knowledge obtainable off the shelf and in part because of pure curiosity. Jenny is smart enough to realize she's got the story of her life on her hands, and goes with Paul to New York.

But by this time security at the facility where Mathewson works have discovered the security breach. Mathewson is smart enough to put two and two together and figure out that Paul is a subject of interest, and the military, led by Lt. Col. Conroy (John Mahoney), goes to New York to apprehend Paul and Jenny. Thanks to a couple of fellow competitors who are up for a good science-based prank, they're able to escape and get the bomb, making their way back to Ithaca.

The Manhattan Project bombed (pun intended, of course) on its release, and to be honest it's easy to see why. The plot requires too much suspension of belief, and the movie doesn't quite have the heart that something like Gleaming the Cube does. Paul's being able to get into the research facility is just too unrealistic. It also doesn't help that Paul, despite showing the potential to become a brilliant scientist, is naïvely stupid in his real life, making him annoying at times. Never mind that Paul really did violate a whole bunch of laws like trespassing and larceny.

It's also interesting to see the contrast between the 1980s and today. Back then, in the aftermath of Watergate and all the conspiracy movies of the 1970s, it was natural that the military and the three-letter law enforcement agencies were obvious bad guys. In the last six or seven years, ever since the goodthinkful people learned such agencies could be weaponized to go after Icky Class politicians like Donald Trump and wrongthinkers who might support him, the portrayal of who the good guys and bad guys are has changed.

All that aside, The Manhattan Project is a bit of a flawed movie, although it does feature another good performance on the part of John Lithgow, not that we'd expect anything less. It's also a bit of a time capsule of the 1980s, so definitely worth at least one watch.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Happy Pentecost!

Apparently, today is one of those lesser-known Christian observances, except that, somewhat surprisingly, some otherwise relatively secular European countries use it as an excuse to make the following Monday a public holiday since it falls at a convenient time on the calendar to have a holiday in between Easter and the start of summer. In any case, I decided to use the occasion to do a relatively brief post on a religious-themed movies I recently watched mostly for the title, Nude Nuns with Big Guns.

Obviously, with a title like Nude Nuns with Big Guns, one goes into it thinking that it's not about the plot, but about the nude nuns and the big guns. But even so, there needs to be something holding it all together. That nominal plot has to do with illicit drugs and a portion of the Catholic Church that's exploiting its nuns. The film starts off with a priest driving a bus which has a half dozen or so nervous nuns, stopping in the middle of the desert for a drug deal. The deal goes bad because one of the nuns decided not to hand over her share of the drugs, and the drug dealers kill several of the nuns looking for that valise full of heroin.

These nuns took their vows and were then basically coerced into processing the drugs, with the priests doing it working in cahoots with a biker gang led by Chavo. The gang's headquarters is at a service station even more isolated than what's in The Painted Desert or Heat Lightning, and in a gratuitous scene that doesn't really advance the plot, when a family of normies shows up the gang rapes the mother and daughter. The gang also owns a chain of topless bars.

Meanwhile, one of the nuns, Sister Sarah (I'm not certain whether this was a deliberate homage to Two Mules for Sister Sara or not) is able to get her hands on the titular big gun, and breaks away from the convent, feeling she's on a mission from God to extract revenge. Now, you'd think she'd be smart and go around in civilian clothing to do so, since she's fairly clearly renouncing her vows by violating that little commandment about "thou shalt not kill". But then, she's on a holy war, and the commandment is really "thou shalt not murder", so this could be seen as execution even though the Catholic Church is pretty strongly opposed to capital punishment. But continuing to wear a nun's habit makes Sarah a highly visible target. But again, don't expect a well thought out plot.

With all that, Nude Nuns with Big Guns is still a wildly uneven movie. We don't expect much more than an over-the-top revenge fantasy that's loaded up with nudity, sex, violence, and bad language. We get that, and some of the scenes are fun. But unsurpisingly, the acting is no good, while the production values, particularly the cinematography are somehow off as well.

If you're looking for an exploitation film, you could do worse than Nude Nuns with Big Guns. For more of the normal fare I proffer around here, you'll have to wait another day.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Greased Lightning

This being Memorial Day weekend here in the US, one of the non-movie related things that used to be a much bigger deal is the Indianapolis 500 car race, which is one of the oldest car races, dating back to 1903. "Indy Car" racing has declined in popularity for a bunch of reasons, partly I think because of the internal politics of the governing body, and in part because of the rise in popularity of stock car racing, which grew into NASCAR. (Note the SC which certainly used to stand for "stock car" although as someone who's not that much a fan of auto racing of any flavor, I don't know if it still does, and certainly the cars don't seem to be constructed from "stock" products any more.) The open-wheel racing got more attention from the movies in part because it's older, and in part for class reasons, as stock car racing grew out of moonshiners in the south trying to outrun the revenuers. There are some movies looking at the early days of what would become NASCAR; I've previous mentioned The Last American Hero; recently, I watched another one, Greased Lightning.

Wendell Scott was a real person who lived from 1921 to 1990 and who grew up in Danville, VA. There's an opening scene in the movie which shows his love for racing, although it's an informal bike race since none of the people depicted would have been well-off enough to race cars. Fast forward about a dozen years, and we're at 1945 or so which of course means the end of World War II and a lot of soldiers being demobbed and returning to their home towns. Scott (played by Richard Pryor) is one of those soldiers. Being black and from the small-town southern US, and then having gone off and seen a bit of the world fighting for his country, Scott doesn't want to go back to what was the normal career choice for black men in Danville, which would be to work in the cotton mills. Instead, he'd like to become an auto mechanic and own his own garage

However, starting one's own business takes money, so Wendell has to start off small, using the money he saved up from his military pay to buy a taxicab. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier) and eventually marries her, telling her that his real dream is to race cars, although considering the sort of tracks they had in those days, you wonder where the money in it is. Not that there's much money in driving a taxicab either.

Wendell has a friend Slack (Cleavon Little) who is working for the moonshiners, who offer the opportunity of a much bigger payday, although obviously that money comes from the fact that the legitimate authorites are banning what these people are doing. The power of the black market in action. Wendell, seeing no other way to make money, joins in with the moonshiners. But of course it's not all that long before he gets arrested.

The sheriff (Vincent Gardenia) is in cahoots with a local racetrack owner, Byrnes (Noble Willingham), and they make a proposal to drop most of the charges against Wendell in exchange for his racing at Byrnes' track. It's a chance for Wendell and a cozy arrangement for the two white men: the novelty of a black driver might well bring in black patrons, while simultaneously giving certain sections of the white audience a villain to root against. The only white guy who seems to be honestly on Wendell's side is Hutch (Beau Bridges).

Scott slowly moves up the ladder as the sport of stock car racing grows, and eventually gets the chance to race in the big race....

Greased Lightning follows a lot of the stock (pun intended) formulas for sports movies, but it does them fairly well. Pryor shows, as he had done in Lady Sings the Blues, that he was actually a pretty darn good actor, not just a comic actor. Pam Grier doesn't have much to do, but she also shows that she could have done well in serious films had she not been pigeonholed into the blaxploitation genre.

If you're into car racing films, definitely give Greased Lightning a chance.

Friday, May 26, 2023

It's Memorial Day Weekend

Monday (May 29) is once again Memorial Day here in the US, which as I think I've mentioned on several occasions started off as Decoration Day, an observance to mark the graves of those who died in the Civil War. Nowadays it's a holiday for those who died in any war, as well as the unofficial start of the summer season.

As always, it also means a marathon of war movies on TCM. The marathon starts with the start of prime time tonight, with A Walk in the Sun, a movie that I don't think I've actually seen before despite how many times it's been on TCM. The marathon continues all the way through Monday, including prime time, and the first movie on May 30 also happens to be war-themed, Today We Live.

Unsurprisingly, the marathon is disproportionately stocked with movies about World War II, mostly I think because of how much easier it is to get the rights to show those movies. After all, Hollywood churned out a lot of stuff for the homefront during World War II, with movies about that war still being popular for decades after because action movies about other wars weren't quite so upbeat.

It looks like Noir Alley is still being programmed, as the John Garfield movie The Fallen Sparrow is on at both midnight Sunday and then 10:00 AM Sunday. There's also Silent Sunday Nights featuring the 1921 version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There are also a lot of foreign-language films about World War II, but TCM is going with two British films for the slot following The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they're both pretty darn good ones: In Which We Serve and 49th Parallel.

FXM will be getting in on the act as well, but only on Monday; and, unsurprisingly, they only have a limited lineup of movies that are currently in the FXM rotation, including a pair of airings of The Blue Max.

I may finally get around to cracking open the box set of British war movies that I bought some time back, or watching the last movie I haven't seen before off my Mill Creek/Columbia set that included The Commandos Strike at Dawn which I blogged about two months back.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Thursday Movie Picks, May 25, 2023: TV Theme Songs/Scores (TV edition)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. As it's the last Thursday of the month, it means we get another TV version of the blogathon. This month, the theme, no pun intended, is TV Theme songs or scores. We did this one back in April 2021, and at that time I did a theme-within-a-theme of classical music being used as TV themes. However, in the intro, I mentioned another possible theme, and so I've decided to use that theme. All three themes were written by Mike Post, who gave us a bunch of memorable themes in the late 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, all three themes were also released as singles and became Top 40 hits:

The Rockford Files (1974-1980). James Garner plays Jim Rockford, an ex-convict turned private investigator who lives in a trailer in Los Angeles that also doubles as his office. If you think the Los Angeles locations are nice, perhaps you should try the next show instead...

Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988). Tom Selleck's mustache plays Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam vet who, having been demobbed, is now in Hawaii where he's a private detective working for reclusive (and unseen) author Robin Masters. Serving as intermediary and Magnum's nominal boss is Higgins (John Hillerman). Magnum often enlists the help of two friends, helicopter pilot TC (Roger E. Mosley) and bar owner Rick (Larry Manetti) in his cases.

Hill Street Blues (1981-1987). Ensemble series looking at the lives of police officers in a precinct in an unnamed large city, led by Lt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti).

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

What did I say about Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear?

Another of the movies that I watched when I was looking for something on the Watch TCM app that was just about to leave the app was Start the Revolution Without Me. I didn't know much about it beyond the synopsis, but watching the opening credits, I noticed it was another collaboration between Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, who are probably more famous for TV shows like All in the Family. Seeing their names gave me reason for trepidation, as I'll discuss in a bit.

After the opening credits, we get some opening narration from Orson Welles that little things can have great effect on history, and that this is the story of one of those little-known little things that might well have changed the course of the French Revolution. Flash back to a couple of decades before the revolution....

The Duke Di Sisi and his highly pregnant wife are on their way to Paris during the reign of Louis XV. for some reason it's important to them to have the baby at Versailles, but they're not going to make it in time, so they stop in some small village. Unfortunately, there's another woman, Mrs. Coupé, who is about to give birth as well. Worse for the doctor is that both women wind up giving birth to twin sons. And, the midwife is negligent in keeping the twins separated and identified. So the doctor decides to do the least bad thing, which is to mix up the twins, so that each couple will at least get one of their biological children. And, after all, the idea of fraternal twins would have been well known even then.

Fast forward to 1789, as the voiceovers tell us in interminable detail. The Coupés, Claude (Gene Wilder) and Charles (Donald Sutherland) were orphaned and live by their wits, although Claude is revealed to have a girlfriend. Philippe (Gene Wilder) and Pierre (Donald Sutherland) Di Sisi are neurotic brothers living on the family estate in Corsica, well away from Paris where the revolution is about to come.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) seems more worried about tinkering with his clocks while his wife Marie Antoinette (Billie Whitelaw) is involved in various sorts of international diplomacy. Louis suspects something might be up, so he sends for the Di Sisi brothers. However, Louis' advisor and all-around henchmen the Duke d'Escargot (Victor Spinetti) realizes this is a good opportunity to act against the King and get the Di Sisi twins out of the way. So he intercepts the letter and starts a plot of his own.

Unfortunately, the peasants are revolting, and have a plan to steal a barge full of weapons. As part of the plan, the Coupé brothers are supposed to be sacrificed. Things go wrong, and somehow that Coupé brothers wind up in a carriage headed for Versailles, where they're taken in as the Di Sisi brothers, albeit wearing peasant garments as some sort of disguies. The real Di Sisi brothers, meanwhile, have to go back to the commander of the peasants and try to figure out a way to survive.

The combination of the "which twin is which" plot along with a sort of Trading Places storyline ought to make for a lot of comic opportunity. However, in watching the other movies that Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear made together, I had the same thinking. All of those wound up having some good points, but being fairly uneven movies, with the whole being less than the sum of its parts. I'm sorry to say that I found myself getting the same impression with Start the Revolution Without Me. Some of the jokes are just run into the ground, and the Di Sisi brothers are just made too nuts. Orson Welles does the best he can with his limited material, and fortunately for him he gets the least wacky material which allows him to deadpan things. The movie also has some nice production values, having been filmed entirely on location in France.

Some people will probably like Start the Revolution Without Me more than I did, so definitely watch this one and draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The sort of programmer MGM was good at

I've suggested before that I think Warner Bros. made the best B movies and programmers. Having said that, other studios could make good programmers too, especially when it fit the sort of movie the studio was good at making. If MGM needed something glossy and upscale for one of its programmers like a romantic comedy, they didn't do so bad. There were also the "family" type movies to keep up the spirits of people during the depression, such as all those Andy Hardy movies. Another movie that fits more into that second group is Listen, Darling.

The family here is a sort of broken family, which is largely because Dad has died, leaving behind Mom, Mrs. Wingate (Mary Astor) to try to raise two children. Billy (Scotty Beckett) is the nortmal sort of Hollywood brat you get a lot of from younger children in the movies, but the elder child is already becoming an adult. Pinkie (Judy Garland) is about 15, finishing middle school, and already a talented singer. She ought to go to music school, but then, Mom's a widow now, and can't afford that.

Meanwhile, there's a well-meaning banker, Mr. Drubbs (Gene Lockhart), who likes Mrs. Wingate as something more than just a friend. He also doesn't dislike the children, and is willing to provide for them by marrying their mother. Mom doesn't exactly dislike Drubbs, but recognizes that it would be more of a marriage of convenience to give the kids what they need. It's a sacrifice, but one that Mom would be willing to make for her children.

The other problem is that Pinkie is getting to the age where she's mature enough to understand all of this. She wants her mom to be happy, and recognizes that Drubbs isn't right for Mom. But how to get Mom to recognize this? Well, Pinkie has a platonic friend in the form of Buzz Mitchell (Freddie Bartholomew) who is picking up some extra money by working at his uncle's service station. Buzz finds some law books in the Wingate family trailer, and gets the idea to shanghai Mrs. Wingate into the trailer and then taking the whole family on a trip, where hopefully they'll find a more suitable man for Mrs. Wingate. It's a ridiculous idea, least of all because one wonders how they'll get the money to keep gas in the car and keep the trailer powered.

But of course, this being a light MGM comedy, you know that the plan is going to have success, and if you know the formula of the movie, it'll have too much success. Also traveling around by trailer is the bachelor photographer Richard Thurlow (Walter Pidgeon). He and Mrs. Wingate keep meeting and eventually become friends, with the possibility that it could become love. But one of the places they camp is just down the road from the mansion of insurance executive J.J. Slattery (Alan Hale), and he and his butler take care of the children when they get lost and have an encounter with a skunk. Slattery could be a good father for the kids, too, but he knows better since he's further down the credits from Walter Pidgeon's character.

Judy Garland was on her way to stardom, although the hadn't quite attained it yet, as this was a year or so before The Wizard of Oz and the big musicals with Mickey Rooney like Babes in Arms. As such, she only merits the programmer treatment and not a prestige movie, especially not with this plot. And you'd think that a plot like this could become too syrupy, yet somehow it works surprisingly well. Especially Walter Pidgeon surprises at doing what is fairly light comedy. Contrast this with something like Scandal at Scourie a dozen years later where he's weighted down by a moralizing plot and the presence of Greer Garson.

If you were looking to watch an old-style movie night with a B movie or programmer before the big show, Listen, Darling would be a great movie to start off with.

Monday, May 22, 2023


I've mentioned quite a few times before how I listen to various international broadcaster podcasts. Recently, Radio Prage ran a report on how a cinema in Prague would be airing a series of Ukrainian films as part of solidarity with Ukraine. The report mentioned Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Arsenal, a silent film from 1929. I had heard of and seen Dovzenko's Earth, but to be honest had never heard of Arsenal. So I searched it out on YouTube, and sure enoug there were multiple copies, many with intertitles translated into English. (Even though I can read Russian intertitles for the most part, some of the cards were crowded enough that it was nice to have the English translations along with the Russian.) So I sat down to watch the movie.

Thankfully, having listened to the Radio Prague piece I mentioned above, I knew a bit about the plot, which was nice because the plot would be a bit difficult to follow if you don't know that bit of history from the Russian Empire and Soviet Russia. The first intertitle informs us that there was a war on, and from the dates and the presence of a German officer, it seems like the opening is September 1917, just before Russia admitted defeat to Germany in World War I. The war had mostly not been going well for Tsarist Russia, which eventually led to the February Revolution deposing the Tsar. That, in turn, led the non-Russian provinces to try to assert their independence, including Ukraine, which formed the Ukrainian People's Republic. That led to both a sort of civil war between Ukrainian Bolsheviks supported by their Soviet Russian counterparts (the Reds), and the nominal government of the Tsentralna Rada (the Whites).

Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) is a Ukrainian worker who had fought against Germany befor the end of that war. When the Ukrainian People's Republic is formed, Semyon is part of the workers' collective, and more or less supports the Bolsheviks, since the movie was made well after the war and there's no way Stalin's Russia would have allowed the anti-Bolsheviks to be the good guys here. The war continues in various parts of the country, until in January 1918 the Kiev Arsenal (hence the title) rose up on the side of the Bolsheviks. Timosh seems to be pretty much everywhere, which makes him a wanted man by the White.

Arsenal is visually very interesting, thanks to Dovzhenko's skill at editing and intercutting along with his use of odd camera angles. That alone makes the movie definitely worth a watch. As a narrative, however, it may be a bit difficult to follow espeically if you don't know the history. There's also some decided propaganda, although it's nowhere near as heavy handed as in Dovzhenko's later Earth, which the Soviets wanted as a paean to collective agriculture. The propaganda in Arsenal is closer to the level that you'd get in Hollywood movies about World War II released in the decades after the war: definitely taking one side, but the propaganda isn't for the most part the point of the movie.

So if you want something different from standard Hollywood fare, definitely look up Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Arsenal and give it a try.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Did you live in New York in the 1960s?

Another of the movies that I recorded because of its interesting synopsis was Bye Bye Braverman. I had seen a review or two before watching it that indicated the movie had sharply divided opinions on it, and now that I've watched it, I can see why.

Morroe Rieff (George Segal) is a Jewish PR man living with his wife (Zohra Lampert) in an apartment in Manhattan's Upper East Side. One day, he gets a phone call from Inez Braverman (Jessica Walter) informing him that her husband died suddenly of a heart attack at the tender age of 41. Jewish tradition has it that the funeral is supposed to take place as soon as is practical (I'd guess that thousands of years ago, in the desert without any form of preservation, it was important to bury bodies as quickly as possible, and making that a religious commandment would make it more likely that people keep following it), so Mrs. Braverman informs Rieff that the funeral is going to be later that day, in a funeral home out in Brooklyn on Ocean Parkway. You can't miss the place.

Of course, you can miss the place, but we're getting ahead of ourselves in the story. Morroe calls some of his best friends, those who were mutual friends with Braverman. They hail from different parts of Manhattan, but agree to go to the funeral together. Those friends are, like Braverman, all intellectuals of a sort: Weinstein (Jack Warden), an academic writer; Ottensteen (Joseph Wiseman), a writer of fiction; and Holly Levine (Sorrell Booke), who writes book reviews. Holly is the one with a car, a practical -- but German (gasp!) -- Volkswagen Beetle, so the four men will all load themselves into his car for the drive to Brooklyn.

Of course, the drive to the funeral is not uneventful. There's a lot of the pseudo-intellectual banter you might expect from four white-collar men, punctuated by Holly's annoyance at having a bunch of back-seat drivers. More noteworthy would be a fender-bender they get into with a taxi driver (Godfrey Cambridge), who turns out to be a black Jew and, despite his driving a taxi, being as much of a pseudo-intellectual as the rest of them.

Eventually they get to a funeral home, where the rabbi (Alan King) is delivering a long-winded and equally pseudo-intellectual sermon. Of course, the point of all this, at least in terms of the movie's entertainment value, is that the posturing is supposed to be funny and lead to a reflection on life.

Now, whether or not you get that humor depends, I think, on how much you can identify with the characters and their milieu. I'm not Jewish and I'm also not an urbanite, so I have to admit that I didn't identify with them to the extent that people who like this movie do. I can see why some people would, and I can certainly see why director Sidney Lumet would have been attracted to the material, since his father was part of the Yiddish theater in New York back in the 1920s and 1930s. Other people, however, may find it a slog.

So Bye Bye Braverman is more than a lot of others the sort of thing where you have to watch and draw your own judgment.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Let's make a low-budget pastiche of Rebecca and Gaslight

I was looking through another one of the streaming channels, this time one that specializes in mystery stuff that's presumably in the public domain. It's where I watched Death Goes to School, and this time, the movie in question was The Second Woman.

The on-screen synopsis mentioned Rebecca, and boy did the beginning remind me of Rebecca. Betsy Drake plays Ellen Foster, who like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca has a comment about not being able to go back to Manderley, because the house has burned to the ground. In this case, however, we're then informed that Ellen might be in danger because of who she has in her house. That person is Jeffrey (Robert Young), and at this point we get the flashback about how the two met and why Jeff might be trouble.

Ellen is an insurance actuary, working in risk calculation, and she's moved from the big city back to the California coast to be with her aunt Amelia (Florence Bates), although in Ellen's case she's not bad news the way that Barbara Stanwyck's Thelma Jordon was. As you can imagine, Ellen and Jeffrey meet, and the two begin to develop a close relationship, but it's complicated by the fact that bad things seem to keep happening to Jeffrey. Heck, we know that his house is going to burn down, although unlike Rebecca that happens midway through the movie, not at the climax.

There's even a first Mrs. DeWinter of sorts, although that woman didn't quite get married to Jeffrey. She was killed in a drunk driving accident just before their wedding, and Jeffrey's business partner, fellow architect Ben Sheppard, was the father of Jeffrey's fiancée. Jeffrey's trying to put his life back together, with a bit of help from his friends the Ferrises (John Sutton and Jean Rogers), although they're now a divorced couple, the sort of couple that winds up becoming better friends after the divorce than they were during the marriage.

As I said, a bunch of bad things happen to Jeffrey, and it's clear that, like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, somebody else is causing these bad things to happen in order to drive Jeffrey crazy. But who's doing that, and why? Ellen, being an actuary and studying risk, consequently has a bit of detective in her, so she starts investigating. That's part of why the opening bit mentions the possibility of her being in danger thanks to Jeffrey's presence.

The Second Woman isn't a bad movie, but it's one that you can't help but think of other movies while you're watching. And the problem is that those other movies are better, making The Second Woman look like a pale imitation. If you came to The Second Woman before those other movies -- and if it had a better print -- it might have a bit of a better reputation. And if it had been made at a major studio instead of being a United Artists release, it might be the sort of thing to wind up on one or another of the movie channels more frequently, which would put it at least a bit higher in people's consciousness. As it is, I hadn't even heard of the movie before seeing it on this streaming channel.

So definitely give The Second Woman a chance. It may not be the greatest movie out there, but it definitely deserves to be seen.

Friday, May 19, 2023

At the Earth's Core

Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably best remembered for his Tarzan stories, and then for his Mars stories. Recently, I came across a movie based on one of his stories that I hadn't heard of before: At the Earth's Core. Obviously, with a title like that, you can imagine what you're getting, and that's a premise that sounds interesting enough, so I watched it.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing in the early part of the 20th century, with the period just before World War I being a time when combining adventure with scientific and technical advances was apopular theme. In this case, British scientist Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) is working on a drilling machine to get deep into the earth's crust, where one can imagine that there are all sorts of minerals and oil to be had. But the difference in this drilling machine is that it's designed to have somebody in it, operating it at that ridiculous depth. And there's room for more than one person. So Dr. Perry is accompanied by his financial backer, American David Innes (Doug McClure).

Somehow, however, the machine goes off course, presumably because they reach a hollow part of the earth and there's not really anything to drill through. At this point, our two intrepid men make the bizarre decision to step out of the machine, not knowing what the atmosphere outside is like, and all the science about gravity be damned. In the story, it turns out there is a world under the world we know.

But it's a dangerous one, with various sorts of creatures attacking our two men. Of note are the bird-like creatures made with horrendously bad special effects. But those aren't the only things in this world, called Pellucidar. There's also a race of human-like beings who are being enslaved by another, different race of human-like beings, much like the Morlocks enslaving the Eloi in The Time Machine. And those bird creatures use some sort of telepathy on both races. Or maybe it's mind control, as Dr. Perry has the fairly hilarious line, "You can't mesmerize me! I'm British. Ah, the era of British chauvinism in adventure stories.

Naturally, our two heroes get captured and thrown in with the more human-like of the two races, which counts among its number the lovely Dia (Caroline Munro) to serve as a love interest, and a quisling named Hoojah (Sean Lynch) whom you can expect to betray everybody. Can our heroes from the earth's surface save the humans below and free them from their captivity?

The plot is a mess and the special effects are, as I said, terrible. But At the Earth's Core is the sort of movie that I can see being charming for younger boy viewers who aren't old enough to know better and who naturally gravitate to this sort of adventure. A generation earlier, it would have been an ultra-cheap one-hour movie shown at the Saturday matinee. But it was released in 1976, long after the Saturday Matinee era, and had pretentions of being bigger than a Saturday B movie.

If you can watch At the Earth's Core for what it should have been, it's not that bad a movie. If you try to take it seriously, however, do so at your own peril.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Well, there is a divide

One of the movies that I recorded off of TCM recently because the synopsis sounded interesting, and because I'm always up for an early talkie, was The Great Divide.

There's an opening title card informing us that the movie is set about where the "Great Divide", by which I'm assuming the continental divide that divides waters flowing to the Pacific and those flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, meets the US/Mexican border, which would put it in southwestern New Mexico. Steven Ghent (Ian Keith) owns a mine there, but has just decided to sell it. To celebrate, he goes into town.

At the same time, a bunch of rich folk from back east show up, including Ruth Jordan (Dorothy Mackaill) and her fiancé Edgar (Creighton Hale). They're part of a fast set that a man of hard physical work like Steven doesn't really care for. But things are about to get a lot more complicated. As part of the celebration, Steven dresses up as a Mexican bandit and does a musical number in costume. Ruth sees this, and immediately falls for the exotic-to-her man, even though she's supposed to get married to another man. And Steven of course, has that antipathy for Ruth and her friends at first.

And then there's Manuella (Myrna Loy), who has always had the hots for Steven even though the feeling isn't mutual and he only considers her a friend at best. But she tries to get Ruth to think that Steven is engaged to her, to no avail.

And if you think all that is complicated, there's more. Steven learns that Ruth is the daughter of a man who used to be the co-owner of the mine along with Steven! So Steven decides he's going to give Ruth a quick education in the West, which he does... by kidnapping Ruth and taking here through the mountains of the Old West and eventually back to his cabin up in the mountains. Everybody else has no clue of what's really happened, and thinks that somebody sinister has kidnapped Ruth, so a posse is set up to look for the guilty man, which could put Steven in a whole lot of difficulty.

The Great Divide is really a bit of a mess that doesn't quite work, largely because of the bizarre plot, which I can't imagine not being bizarre even for 1929 when it was released. On the bright side is the presence of Myrna Loy. At this stage of her career she hadn't worked with William Powell, and certainy hadn't become Nora Charles. Instead, she was still typecast as the exotic vamp. She'd still be doing it for a couple more years, but I can't help but wonder whether she already found annoying at this point, because Loy plays Manuella in the most shamelessly overacting style you can imagine. It's hilariously if unintentionally funny, and Loy steals the show every time she's on screen.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Gotta love those sports-film stereotypes

I actually watched a couple of sports films recently because they were both about to leave the Watch TCM app. One of them I'll save for later because I just did another movie with the same actor, so of the two, we'll start off by mentioning Hoosiers.

Of course, Hoosiers is probably the sort of movie you all know about not just because of the sports-film tropes about underdogs, but because of its reputation as a pretty darn good movie. Into the town of Hickory, IN, circa the fall of 1951 comes Norman Dale (Gene Hackman). He's a basketball coach who even used to coach in college, but has been in the service for the past 10 years. Now, that ought to put his leaving basketball as being at the same time as Pearl Harbor, but that of course is not the way it's presented in the movie. Instead, Dale had some ignominous exit from the college game, and is now trying to rebuild his career in a small town because presumably nobody else will have him except his old friend the high school principal Cletus Summers (Sheb Wooley).

Not only that, but nobody is sure of the new coach, with rumors about his past flying around. And this is one of those small towns that lives for its basketball the way the Texas town in The Last Picture Show lived for football. So they're not so certain about this new head coach who, after all, must have left the bigger college game for a reason. Dale doesn't make his life any easier by being a different sort of coach than the previous one, who was beloved by the small town before his untimely death. Indeed, the star of the team, Jimmy Chitwood, decided to quit basketball when the old coach died.

Frankly, however, that suits one teacher, Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) just fine. She's been a sort of foster mother to Jimmy who has had a fairly unstable family situation. Myra even warns Dale not to try to recruit Jimmy, becaue she hopes Jimmy can be successful enough to get a college education and get out of a dead-end town like Hickory. She in fact only came back because she had aging parents to take care of. Of course, you know that despite the inauspicious introduction Fleener and Dale have, they're going to wind up a lot lcoser by the end of the movie.

You also know that there's going to be a moment where Jimmy has to decide what he's going to do, which comes at a town meeting where the townsfolk are willing to tear up Dale's contract and fire him, contract law be damned. Somehow I doubt they could afford to buy out his contract. They don't like the unorthodox coach who drove away some of his few players at the beginning of the season although they return hat in hand, and because it's going to take a little while before he has success.

But because of the sort of film Hoosiers is, you know that Dale is ultimately going to have success, and that the town is ultimately going to line up behind him. In fact, the story is inspired by the real Indiana town of Milan, and their run to the state championships, although apparently a lot of liberties are taken with that story. Oh, and did I mention Dennis Hopper as the alcoholic father of one of the players who gets tapped to be an assistant coach as long as he can stop drinking?

As I said, there are a lot of tropes in Hoosiers. But despite all those tropes, it is a pretty darn good movie, in no small part thanks to the acting performances of Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, the latter picking up an Oscar nomination. It was also filmed on location in Indiana, although there's no actual town of Hickory as far as I'm aware. In any case, the location shooting makes for a pretty darn good atmosphere. It's no wonder the movie gained a high reputation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Ruth's Story

One of the movies that's been in the FXM rotation for the last few months that I hadn't blogged about before is the biblical movie The Story of Ruth. So I recorded it, and since it's got a couple of airings coming up starting with tomorrow (May 17) at 12:45 PM, I made a point of sitting down now to watch it to be able to do a review on it here.

The movie is based in part on the Old Testament book of Ruth (played here by newcomer Elana Eden). I didn't know much of the details of that book of the Bible, and reading through the synopses, it seems that much of the first half of the movie is giving Ruth a backstory that's not in the Bible. Ruth is a young girl in Moab, a non-Jewish civilization, who is being raised to become a priestess and possibly a human sacrifice, something decidedly non-Jewish. Moab has wound up with some conquered Jews in its population, notably Naomi (Peggy Wood) and her sons Mahlon (Tom Tryon) and Chilion. Mahlon has grown up to become a stonemason and, since the Moabite religion worships stone representations of its main god, the king brings in Mahlon to do some work on one of those statues.

This, as you can guess, is how Mahlon meets Ruth. Mahlon starts talking not-so-casually about how the Hebrew conception of God is rather different than what the Moabites believe, and that the Hebrews most certainly don't believe in idols. Ruth seems to like Mahlon, and his talk about religion gets her to thinking, which is a dangerous thing to do since the Hebrew tribes' religion is so different from the Moabites'. Ultimately, when Ruth is supposed to take part in one of the ritual child sacrifices, she's had enough and tries to stop the proceedings, which gets both her and Mahlon in trouble.

At least for Ruth, the king seems to have the hots for her and wants her in the royal household, but for Mahlon it's off to the mines to do some good old-fashions life-shortening slave labor. Ruth, having fallen in love with Mahlon, is a bit dangerous in that she's liable to try to walk out on the king so that she can go free Mahlon. Of course, doing so is going to get her banished from Moab and forcing her to make an escape back to Judea. Never mind that Mahlon gets fatally wounded in the escape attempt. At least he lives long enough to marry Ruth, albeit not long enough to consummate the marriage or impregnate Ruth in a way that would satisfy the Production Code.

So Mahlon dies as his brother did before him, and Naomi is left with two widowed daughters-in-law. Orpah stays behind in Moab while Naomi and Ruth head off to Judea, where they find that life isn't quite so good as it was when they left because the rains haven't been coming as much as they should.

Boaz (Stuart Whitman) is a powerful distant cousin who could help Naomi and Ruth, and even possibly marry Ruth in accordance with Jewish law about the next-of-kin marrying a widow. But there's another man who's an even closer relation to Ruth's late husband, Tob (Jeff Morrow), and he's willing to marry Ruth if only to keep Boaz from marrying her. There's also the issue of Ruth's having been a high priestess back in Moab, and whether that's in violation of any Jewish laws. (It shouldn't be, if the religion believes in sincere conversions, but the question of valid conversions is still a vexing one today, especially in a relatively non-hierarchical religion.)

The Story of Ruth is a surprisingly low-key affair by the standards of the other biblical epics that were being released around this time. It doesn't have the spectacle of movies like King of Kings or Ben-Hur, or the tittilation of something like Joan Collins in Esther and the King. But the modest nature of the movie mostly works, with the exception that the movie runs a bit long. Putting in spectacle helps make a long movie seem not so long, and without that spectacle, a movie like The Story of Ruth really ought to run under two hours instead of the 130 or so minutes we get here.

The other unfortunate thing is that FXM has panned-and-scanned the print down from the Cinemascope ratio (which we get to see for the opening minute and then again briefly at the end) to 16:9. I don't know if there's a full Cinemascope print available.

Monday, May 15, 2023

The File on Thelma Jordon

Many years back -- I think it was just before I started blogging, because I remember making a post briefly mentioning the Burt Lancaster movie Atlantic City in conjunction with it -- TCM and Paramount signed an agreement on TCM getting the broadcast rights to a handful of the post-1949 Paramount films. One that aired as part of it and then didn't show up for a long time was The File on Thelma Jordon. Recently, the movie showed up again as part of Eddie Muller's Noir Alley series, so this gave me another chance to watch it and do a post on it.

We don't see Thelma Jordon at first even though she's the title character and in many ways the main character. Instead, we meet Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), walking into the office of his boss, Miles Scott (Paul Kelly), late one evening. Cleve is an assistant DA and part of the investigative unit of the DA's office. Anyhow, Cleve goes to the office because he doesn't want to be at home. It's his anniversary, but his wife (Joan Tetzel) has invited her side of the family to a party and they make Cleve feel inadequate and smothered as though he has no say in anything that goes on in his life. Additionally, all that has led him to drink heavily, with his wife calling up all the drinking locations Cleve frequents.

Miles leaves the office and Cleve stays to keep drinking, which is when Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) comes in. Apparently she's recently moved in with her elderly Aunt Vera, who is also fairly wealthy but doesn't have any family apart from Thelma. Vera has been getting harassed and is a bit eccentric, so Thelma wants plainclothes investigators not from the police to check up on Aunt Vera and make certain everything is OK.

The two walk out of the building, whereupon Thelma finds she's been ticketed for parking right in front of the building. But Cleve works for the DA's office, so he can get the traffic ticket "fixed", for which Thelma will be eternally grateful. She drives him around to his favorite joints, since he's clearly drunk and needs a designated driver, not that they used the term back in the day. But it leads Cleve to think fall in love with Thelma, since his own marriage is loveless. Thelma seems willing to have Cleve in her life.

But there are some big problems, one of them being that Thelma has to lie to everyone around her about what's going on and only see Cleve in clandestine situations. She's also being less than honest about her own life, as Cleve learns that she was married to a man named "Tony" -- and may still be, as it seems Tony has come out west from Florida looking for Thelma. Perhaps it's Tony who has been harassing Aunt Vera, as he could be looking for some of Vera's money in exchange for getting a divorce from Thelma.

Eventually Aunt Vera has enough of all this, and when she thinks she's heard another intruder, she picks up a gun and goes looking for the intruder herself, at which point we hear a gunshot that kills poor old Aunt Vera. Thelma finds Aunt Vera dead, and calls up Cleve. But Thelma wants Cleve to help her cover up any evidence that might lead police to question whether Thelma was the one to kill Aunt Vera! That, and there might also be evidence that Cleve was having an affair with her!

Things get worse when the DA recuses himself from the case, leading to Cleve having to be the one to prosecute it! Not that he can reveal anything of the affair, because that would also reveal he was in on the cover-up, and that would be a serious ethical no-no.

Unfortunately, there's still the Hollywood Production Code, so we know that Cleve is going to have to pay for what he did wrong. Thelma doing so is one thing; it's not that difficult to compare her to a less blatantly sexual version of Lana Turner's character from The Postman Always Rings Twice. But there would be more suspense if there were the possibility of Cleve being able to get away with the things he did in covering up Aunt Vera's shooting death.

The result is that we get a movie that's competently made, and features reasonably good performances, even if Wendell Corey isn't really anybody's idea of a hot romantic lead. But the Production Code really hamstrings the movie, right down to the ending that makes everybody pay, but only in a way that Hollywood and not real life could provide.

So The File on Thelma Jordon is definitely worth a watch, but be aware that it's a frustrating watch at times.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Imagine a Hammer Films sex comedy

One of the streaming channels, I think on Pluto, has been running a movie that I have to admit was new to me: One Bitten. The synopsis sounded interesting, so I recently sat down to watch it.

Cleavon Little, who died much too young, plays Sebastian. He's a sort of butler/factotum in a Los Angeles mansion, serving his boss, the Countess (Lauren Hutton). If you didn't figure it out from the title, it should become obvious once Sebastian opens a coffin and lets the Countess out, telling her it's sunset, that the Countess is in fact a vampire. Not only that, but she's a fairly old vampire, on the order of several centuries, despite the fact that she doesn't look anywhere near it. That's because she's learned the secret for vampires of looking young. Aparently, you have to taste the blood of a virgin three times once a year, in the run-up to Halloween. This will also turn the person biten by the vampire in the vampire themselves; the Countess is keeping several of her conquests in the basement.

Meanwhile, Mark Kendall (a very young Jim Carrey) is a gawky teenager at one of those suburban Los Angeles high schools that popped up quite a bit in teen movies in the 1980s. He's got a girlfriend in the form of nice girl Robin (Karen Kopins), and drives an ice-cream truck as an after-school job to earn extra money. Being a teenage boy, he's also sex-obsessed, wanting finally to lose his virginity and hoping Robin will go along with him. But she's a nice girl, and not yet ready to lose her own virginity, no matter how much she loves Mark.

So Mark and his sidekicks Jamie and Russ go out to a singles bar in Hollywood that's decidedly 80s in tone: people sit at numbered tables and you can call up the other tables on an internal phone line to flirt/introduce yourself to someone in whom you're interested. Yeah right, like somebody's going to be interested in these three high school boys.

Except of course that the Countess is there, and she immediately recognizes that these three boys are virgins, leading her to call Mark over to the bar. She brings him back to her house, puts the moves on him, and... bites him as part of the sex act. Unfortunately, Mark has had enough to drink that he doesn't remember much of what happened that night.

However, he starts acting strange. The audience knows that it's because he's showing the initial signs of becoming a vampire, but of course the people around him don't know any of this, at least not until Robin starts doing a bit of searching. She keeps seeing the Countess, who is stalking Mark, and Robin is not about to lose Mark to anybody. This is important once the Countess makes the final preparations to bite Mark the third time and turn him into a vampire for good.

As I was watching Once Bitten, I found myself thinking of Earth Girls Are Easy, since that's another movie from early in Jim Carrey's career that has similar themes of a fish out of water and sex. Personally I slightly preferred Earth Girls Are Easy, but Once Bitten is also a lot of fun. It's not a perfect movie, and you can see why some people might not like it so much, but it has a lot of energy and knows not to take itself very seriously. The comedy also holds up 40 years on. Once Bitten is just a rollicking good time, and definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sunrise at Campobello

Another of the movies that TCM ran during the 100th anniversary salute to Warner Bros. is one that has a fairly well-known story, if the actual movie itself may not be quite so well known. (Indeed, I was surprised by the low number of reviews on IMDb.) That is the movie version of the play Sunrise at Campbello.

Ralph Bellamy plays Franklin Roosevelt, but this is well before he became President. Instead, it starts in the summer of 1921, at the Roosevelts' summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick just across the border from Maine. Those who don't know US history quite so well may not recall that Franklin Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Woodrow Willson administration, which included World War I. In 1920, he was nominated for the Vice-Presidency by Democratic presidential candidate James Cox, an election that saw heavy defeats for the Democrats and kicked Roosevelt into the political wilderness. His grasping wife Eleanor (played by Greer Garson) wanted him to keep campaigning for progressive causes, while his more stately mother Sara (Ann Shoemaker), who had been part of the upper-class for some time, wasn't so sure.

And then the non-political thing for which Franklin Roosevelt is best known happened. Franklin and the kids went swimming in the Bay of Fundy one day, and Roosevelt didn't get out of his wet bathing suit for some time. He developed pains in his legs, and then a fever which did not subside for some time. Doctors were called in and diagnosed polio (although some modern-day authors think it might actually have been Guillain-Barré instead). As we all know, Roosevelt would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life, while everybody around him tried to keep that a secret from the public.

That's actually the main plot of the movie; the debilitation led Sara to suggest even more strongly that Franklin should retire to a life of writing at the family estate at Hyde Park. Eleanor and, to a lesser extent, Franklin's best friend and advisor Louis Howe (Hume Cronyn) thought that there might be some chance of recovery and encouraged Franklin to stay active. Meanwhile, Eleanor especially doesn't want it known by the public just how sick Franklin really is. Eleanor, however, keeps her husband's name in the public eye by going out and campaiging for Democrats in the 1992 elections, when they made big gains, coming just short of a majority in the House of Representatives.

The 1924 presidential election was on the horizon, and Franklin had no political capital or experience to make a run himself. Instead, he supported his ally in his home state of New York, Governor Al Smith (Alan Bunce). There was a thought that the Republicans might be weak, with many who had served under Harding compromised by the Teapot Dome scandal and Calvin Coolidge, who became president when Harding died suddenly, not having much of a political base within the Republican party. Now, I knew that Smith would gain the 1928 nomination for the Democrats, and that he didn't gain the nomination in 1924, so I was mildly surprised to see this show up in the movie. When I did a bit of research, I was reminded that in those days the political parties didn't have the long string of primaries that we see in the US today. Smith and a former Treasury Secretary from California, William Gibbs McAdoo, were the two leading nominees, although delegates deadlocked with the result that after dozens of ballots a compromise candidate, John Davis, was ultimately selected.

Anyhow, the movie deals with Franklin Roosevelt's role in the convention, which was to place Smith's name in nomination and give a speech. However, Eleanor and Louis Howe didn't want Franklin to deliver the speech from his wheelchair as everybody would see just how weak he was. Instead, Franklin was going to have to make the ten or so steps from the curtain up to the podium from which he'd deliver his nominating speech (this is the speech in which the term "Happy Warrior" was coined for Al Smith). The movie more or less ends with Roosevelt placing Smith's name in nomination. Since this is all based on real history, we know what happened and I don't think I'm giving much away.

Sunrise at Campobello is definitely hagiography, although it's fairly well-made hagiography. Also, it should be unsurprising that the movie takes such a positive tone toward Franklin Roosevelt. At this point in time, nobody would have greenlit anything that wasn't overly positive toward him. Certainly not somebody like Dory Schary, who wrote the play and was a decided Hollywood liberal (remember, a decade earlier he took over from Louis B. Mayer at MGM and changed the tone of the studio's output). To add to that, Eleanor Roosevelt was an advisor, and there was no way anything strongly negative would have passed her approval.

Still, Bellamy and Cronyn both give pretty good performances, although Garson is rather weaker in giving what seems more like a parody of Eleanor Roosevelt like what Louis B. Mayer gave us in Babes in Arms 20 years earlier. Bellamy has gone on to be thought of as the definitive FDR thanks to his performance in the play and later movie; this is your chance to see the movie.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Briefs for May 12-14, 2023

I actually have a couple of movies watched, but I just haven't had the energy to do a full post after work. I should have written one up yesterday in advance since yesterday was only the Thursday Movie Picks post, but didn't think to do so. Anyhow, there's certainly a few other things worth mentioning.

I blogged about Summer of '42 recently, and see that it's already back on the TCM schedule. You've got a chance to watch it tomorrow (May 13) at 6:00 AM, just before the Saturday Matinee block. I didn't notice what was airing last Saturday morning, but I notice that the post-10:00 portion of it has one of the Bonita Granville Nancy Drew mysteries.

Sunday is Mother's Day, which means the usual suspects show up on TCM, most notably Mildred Pierce at noon and I Remember Mama at 7:30 AM. Also definitely worth watching if you haven't seen it before is The Trip to Bountiful at 4:00 PM.

FXM doesn't seem to be doing anything for Mother's Day, although the FXM Retro lineup for Sunday includes a couple of fun films. I've mentioned Phantom of the Paradise (11:25 AM) a couple of times; that's followed by The Fury at 1:00 PM. I suppose that if your mother was a horror show, then perhaps those two might be appropriate movies.

StarzEncore Westerns has a couple of westerns that aren't exactly motherly, but are certainly classics, lined up for Sunday. There's High Noon, although it comes on well before noon at 8:38 AM. That's followed by Angel and the Badman at 10:05 AM.

If you want to feel old, consider that Emilio Estevez turns 61 today. It's also the 64th birthday of action star Ving Rhames, while Millie Perkins of The Diary of Anne Frank turns 85.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Thursday Movie Picks, May 11 2023: Period Dramas

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week the theme is an easy one, "Period Dramas". It's been used before, more or less, so I wont be surprised if one of the movies I pick is one I've already used. The other two I'm pretty certain I haven't only because I've just seen them recently. And since this was an easy theme I decided to go with three movies all set in the same era, the Napoleonic era:

Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951). Gregory Peck plays Hornblower, a naval captain who gets sent to Mexico to find an ally against Napoleon and winds up finding the betrothed sister (Virginia Mayo) of the Duke of Wellington. He gets into a bunch of adventures along the way, and then gets into more adventures upon his return to England when he's asked to participate in the naval blockade of France.

Désirée (1954). Jean Simmons plays Désirée, a young woman in southern France during the late Revolution who meets Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) on his way up to power. She keeps meeting him and becomes a well-to-do society wife in Paris once he's in power. The two are even in love although for political reasons they can't do anything about it. The political situation gives both of them an out, however.

The Duellists (1977). Harvey Keitel plays a French officer circa 1800 who has a thing for duels. The only thing is, he picks one with Keith Carradine, a fellow officer, that ends inconclusively. Keitel wants his revenge, and keeps challenging Carradine to a duel every time they run into each other over the years as they rise through the ranks of the military. Based on a story by Joseph Conrad, and the feature film debut for director Ridley Scott.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

New York lights

I've briefly mentioned Lights of New York on several occasions. It's a film that has a place in movie history largely as the first feature-length all talking film. Movies like The Jazz Singer, which is often referred to as the first talking picture, had some sound scenes, in that case mostly for the musical numbers, together with silent scenes and intertitles. Lights of New York was the first feature to dispense with the silent scenes, although it only runs about 56 minutes and there were short films that were all-talking anyway. But the movie was produced at Warner Bros. which adopted sound before the other studios; I'd presume it's because of the movie's place in history that TCM included it in the centenary tribute to Warner Bros. And with that in mind, I was able to record it so that I could finally do a review on it here.

In some town in "upstate" New York, probably not that far from the city and accessible by train without having to change trains, although Hollywood always made upstate look like a land filled with small-town bumpkins, Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis) and his friend Gene (Eugene Pallette) run the barbershop at the hotel that Eddie's mom owns. The two dream of making it big in the big city down the Hudson, Eddie especially because his girlfriend Kitty (Helene Costello) has already gone to New York to try to make it big herself.

Meanwhile, a pair of gangsters hiding out in town to get away from the heat they'd be facing down in New York overhear Eddie and Gene talking about barbershops. These gangsters have just the business opportunity for Eddie and Gene. We, of course, know that it's a bogus opportunity, as the barbershop would be a front for the big gangster, Hawk (Wheeler Oakman). Still, Eddie and Gene aren't bright enough to figure this out until it's too late, and Eddie is probably thinking with his little head anyway. So they borrow a stake from Eddie's mom, and head off to New York.

Needless to say, they quickly learn that the roads in New York City are not paved with gold, and that the situation is going to be a lot more complicated and difficult to get out of. Hawk has structured the deal so that it'll be hard for Eddie and Gene to pay back the money they borrowed from Hawk. Hawk is also trying to put the moves on Kitty, who is working in the stage act at Hawk's club. Hawk also has an old girlfriend in Molly (Gladys Brockwell) who tries to warn all the small-town newcomers about life here.

And then one of Hawk's underlings goes and kills a cop. It is Prohibition, after all, and Hawk's gang are heavily into dealing booze. Hawk realizes he's got a perfect way out in Eddie and Gene, using their barbershop as a way to dispose of the hooch and put the finger on Eddie while he's at it. Molly is aghast when she learns about this....

Lights of New York clearly amazed audiences when it was released in the summer of 1928, as it must have been a great novelty. And, I don't think there had really been that many gangster movies before, as it's one of the genres that's a bit more difficult to do in silent film, The Racket aside. The movie's popularly couldn't possibly be because of the movie's high quality because, well, if one tried to watch it objectively, one would have to admit that it's got a whole host of flaws, from a banal and rushed plot to bad dialogue and the technical limitations of sound in 1928 forcing people to stand around too much.

Watched, however, as a piece of Hollywood history, it's easy to see why the movie was so popular. The actors have energy even delivering bad dialogue, and talking pictures were so new that it would take both audiences and filmmakers a couple of years to figure out how to make things not be so static. (And to be fair, there were still movies in 1929 and 1930 that were more static than Lights of New York and had more stilted and worse-delivered dialogue.) And it really is fun even if a huge mess.

So if you get the chance, give Lights of New York a try. Even if you don't like it, it's only an hour of your time lost.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

How mawkish can you make a boy and his dog story?

Another movie that I decided to watch because I saw it was about to leave the Watch TCM app and because the synopsis sounded interesting was Goodbye, My Lady. So now you get the review.

In the swamps of southern Mississippi (the TCM synopsis said Georgia, but all the geographic references are obviously Mississippi), young Skeeter (Brandon De Wilde) lives with his uncle Jesse (Walter Brennan, which should be a warning). Skeeter is apparently an orphan as his Mom died some years back and Jesse doesn't ever want to talk about Skeeter's pa which led me to think throughout the movie that Pa was in prison and when there's a stranger coming to town with a dark musical theme that it might be Dad getting out of prison. But despite the negative references to Dad, we never get the full story. Anyhow, the two of them live in a shack in the bayous, where Jesse makes a hardscrabble living cutting wood for Cash Evans (Phil Harris), who also runs the local store that gets all its goods by coordinating people's orders from the Sears catalog. Based on the presence of cars and some other mentions, however, it really sounds like the story is set relatively close to the present day (the movie was released in 1956 but was based on a novel published in 1954 that, in turn, was a fleshing out of a short story from the early 1940s).

One day, while out looking for whatever it is a boy of Skeeter's age looks for in the bayou, he comes across a really strange dog. The dog doesn't bark, instead making a noise that sounds a lot like the laught that Muttley had in the old Dastardly and Muttley cartoons. It's obvious that the dog has been cared for and has escaped from somewhere, but nobody in the area recognizes the dog. So Skeeter takes custody of the dog and raises it, learning that the dog, now named Lady, has a tremendous ability to hunt, something that's quite valuable in the bayou where hunting food can mean extra sustenance and not going hungry.

Cash brings his dog to see Skeeter, Jesse, and Lady, and they all go hunting together, which is how it's confirmed that Lady really is that good of a hunting dog, something that had never been seen in those parts. So news gets out, and that means it should be clear to anybody who isn't pig-ignorant that there's going to be somebody looking for the dog. Indeed, an acquaintance from the other side of the bayou who isn't so ignorant, Gates (Sidney Poitier in a supporting role), has been doing some research in hopes of finding the owner and getting a reward. But since Skeeter was the one able to capture Lady, it'll be him who has to deal with the owner when the owner comes calling for the dog. Skeeter has never had to deal with such a thing, and it's one of those milestones on the way to maturity....

I should have known from seeing Walter Brennan's name in the opening credits, along with the lyrics of the terrible opening song, that Goodbye, My Lady was going to be an incredibly schmaltzy film. And it didn't disappoint in that regard. To be fair, however, the actors do the best with the material they're given. It's more that the material is way too sentimental, and the story, having been extended from a short story, is something that still would have been better suited for episodic television, especially a 30-minute show. One could easily see skilled writers working the material into something that would have been fit for a show like The Rifelman where Lucas could impart an important lesson to young Mark. Extended to 95 minutes, however, the material grows stale fairly quickly.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Fox remakes The Wizard of Oz

There's an apocryphal story about Shirley Temple being up for consideration to play the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, a role that ultimately went to Judy Garland. Of course, there was no way this was ever going to happen as producer Arthur Freed was at MGM and Temple was at Fox, and Freed had Garland under contract at MGM. It's possible that Temple wanted to play Dorothy -- what female child star wouldn't? -- and this got blown up into the story we have today. In any case, Fox responded by finding a similar property to utilize Temple. That movie has been in the FXM rotation recently: The Blue Bird. Not having done a post on it before, I recorded it and recently sat down to watch it.

The movie, like The Wizard of Oz, opens up with a scene in black and white (although not sepiatone). Temple plays Mytyl, a young girl living in a rural part of Central Europe during the early 1800s when Napoleon was on the march. Mytyl and her kid brother Tyltyl (Johnny Russell) are out in the forest when they capture a beautiful songbird. They pass by Angela (Sybil Jason), a sick girl, on their way home, and selfish Mytyl doesn't give Angela the bird.

Mytyl is increasingly unhappy, with her parents (Spring Byington and Russell Hicks) admonishing her. Things get worse for Mytyl when Dad learns that Napoleon is on the move again and all the able-bodied men are going to be called up to fight. Both kids go to bed in a very glum mood, but amazingly, both of them have the same exact dream.

Not only that, but as in The Wizard of Oz, they dream in Technicolor and get visited by a fairy, this one named Berylune (Jessie Ralph). She tells the two kids to look for the bluebird of happiness, and sends them off to a magical land to try to find the bird. Meanwhile, several characters from the kids' real life show up in this land, although where in The Wizard of Oz the characters were changed from humans to animals, in The Blue Bird the characters become human instead of the family dog and cat. Tylo the dog (Eddie Collins) is loyal and tries to help the two kids, while Tylette (Gale Sondergaard), the family cat, is mischievous and tries to thwart the children.

Mytyl and Tyltyl visit a series of places, starting with their dead grandparents, who come back to life because people are thinking about them, which is supposed to impart a message on both the two kids in the movie as well as any kid watching. Never forget your elders, and they'll always live on in your heart, if not biologically. The kids also suffer the danger of a forest fire, see a land of great wealth, and finally, the place that must have been the inspiration for Fox to make For Heaven's Sake a decade later: children waiting to be born.

If Fox had made The Blue Bird before The Wizard of Oz, it might be better remembered today. But watching The Blue Bird, it's impossible not to make comparisons to the more famous movie, and come away less than impressed in all of those comparisons. The Wizard of Oz is one of those movies where the MGM gloss really pays off. Here, in The Blue Bird, everything feels like it's being done on a tight budget, with the result that it feels like there's just something missing. Mytyl is also a heck of a lot less likeable than Dorothy, which doesn't help matters.

Still, The Blue Bird should be watched, at the very least to study what can go wrong when one studio tries to imitate the classic results of another studio's film.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

For those who like Hollywood movies trying to be hip

Another of the movies that I recorded due to it having an interesting synopsis and recently got around to watching was the 1968 film Petulia. Made at the height of the counterculture era, the movie is obviously trying to keep up with the times, but that's something which makes it a decidedly acquired taste.

The movie opens up at a charity ball in San Francisco designed to raise money for people who have suffered debilitating injuries in car accidents. Among the people attending is Dr. Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), an orthopedic surgeon who operates on the patients who are the focus of the benefit. Also there is Petulia Danner (Julie Christie). As we eventually learn, she's the foster parent to a young child who got hit by a bus and for whom Dr. Bollen performed the operation, which is why she has a good reason to be there too.

The two also have something else in common, which is that they're both in marriages which seem well on their way to divorce. Dr. Bollen is further down that road, no longer living with his wife Polo (Shirley Knight), and having an affair with another woman while only seeing his children on weekends. Petulia is in a loveless marriage to David (Richard Chamberlain), a controlling man who uses his father's (Joseph Cotten in a small role) influence to maintain that control while most likely being abusive to Petulia along the way.

Petulia meets Archie, and finding out what they have in common, immediately propositions him, with the two going to an odd urban motel where everybody parks right next to their hotel room door, except that everything is in a parking garage and the "front desk" is all remote, which would have been very uncommon in 1968. Petulia is odd in other ways, too, stealing a tuba and taking it to Archie's bachelor pad where she apparently expects him to sleep with her.

As all of this unfolds, we learn about the pasts of Archie and especially Petulia in a series of flashbacks that aren't so obviously flashbacks at first; this is how we learn the full story of Petulia's becoming a foster parent and how the kid wound up getting in that accident. However, because the flashbacks aren't particularly obvoius, it makes the narrative structure a bit of a mess.

And that's the huge problem with Petulia. It's easy to see what the producers as well as director Richard Lester were going for, but unlike some other movies from the same era that had a daring narrative structure -- I'm particularly thinking of Two for the Road -- it doesn't always work. If the movie had kept a linear structure, I'd have a lot less of a problem with Petulia. It still wouldn't be one of my favorites, to be honest, but it would be easier to see the good things about it, especially the view of San Francisco as it was in 1968.

Still, it's another of those movies where I can easily understand why people who want something arty and deliberately trying to upend Hollywood conventions would like it. So for some people, it's definitely going to be more than worth a watch.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Fan service from Hope and Crosby

I mentioned some time back getting a box set of Bob Hope movies that's really a repackaging of two Hope sets. One of those sets is several of the Road movies. Recently, I put the third of those movies in the DVD player, Road to Morocco.

The movie stars off with a bunch of radio commentators talking about a ship that blew up in the middle of the ocean. Two of the surviving passengers were Jeff Peters (Bing Crosby) and Orville Jackson (Bob Hope), who are now floating on some of the wreckage from the ship. Amazingly, they aren't carried farther out to sea, but instead wind up drifting ashore, to a part of northern Africa where the desert literally meets the sea. That allows for a camel to show up on the beach, which the two men can then ride to get to civilization and safety.

Except, of course, that there wouldn't be much of a movie in that case, so when they get to the first big town, one of those stereotypical Arab towns with a bazaar, a local strongman with a lot of women, and all that fun stuff. This is, after all, a comedy. The two men try to get some food but don't have any money, so Jeff surreptitiously sells Orville into slavery to get the money for the meal. And these two are friends?

At least Orville is going to have the chance to turn the tables on Jeff. Orville has wound up in the palace with Princess Shalamar (Dorothy Lamour) and her ladies-in-waiting. Shalamar is supposed to marry the local sheik, Mullay Kasim (Anthony Quinn), but she falls in love to marry Orville. It's a ruse, however, as Shalamar has heard a prophecy that her first husband is going to die a violent death shortly after the marriage, while it's the second husband who will have a long and happy life. Thus, marry a schlub like Orville and, after he dies, make Kasim the second husband. Meanwhile, truly falling in love with Orville is the lady-in-waiting Mihirmah (Dona Drake).

Orville learns about the prophecy, which is why he offers to let Jeff marry Shalamar. Orville figures that in this case, it will be Jeff who dies the violent death, leaving Orville free to marry Shalamar and become that happy second husband. In any case, the two mean still have to deal with the wrath of Kasim....

That's the basic plot of Road to Morocco, but by this point, even though it was only the third movie in the series, the movies are really more about the banter between Hope and Crosby, and breaking the fourth wall, than they are about the actual goings-on. As such, the movies may not appeal to people looking for something with a more coherent plot. There's also the chance for Crosby to croon several songs, while Lamour also gets to sing a song.

I'm not all the way in the "wants a coherent plot" camp, but I'm also definitely not firmly in the "inside baseball" camp. As a result, I can see that there are going to be people who like Road to Morocco more than I did. It's certainly not a bad movie; you just have to know what you're getting into and be lookin for that.

Friday, May 5, 2023


Firing up the Roku recently, I saw there was a section of recommendations because of one thing or another I had watched recently. One of the selections it gave me was a movie I had never heard of before, The American Success Company. Since it sounded like a quirky business comedy, I decided to give it a try.

Jeff Bridges plays Harry Flowers, a man working in the Munich offices of The American Success Company, which I presume is supposed to be a stand-in for American Express. They provide various financial services, such as charge cards. One couple hasn't paid off their charge card and run up a bill they have no hope of being able to pay, so it's up to Harry to get the couple back to the States and claw back whatever purchases he can. It's not much of a job, but somebody has to do it, even if he's got coworkers suspecting he's not very good at his job.

And if Harry's work life isn't going well, his home life is even worse. Harry married Sarah Elliott (Belinda Bauer), the daughter of Harry's boss Mr. Elliott (Ned Beatty). Sarah would prefer to dance ballet than to be a wife to Harry, while Mr. Elliott wants to boss Harry around to the point of ordering for Harry at a business lunch -- and ordering things that Harry doesn't want. Harry even has to suffer the indignity of the neighbor's dog realizing that Harry isn't enough of a man.

What's a man to do? In Harry's case, he decided to enlist the services of a prostitute, Corinne (Bianca Jagger). Only, in Harry's case, it's not really for the sex. Instead, it's to have Corinne teach Harry what sort of qualities women find irresistible in a man. Harry gets a wig and one of those Hollywood-style rubber prosthetic face masks, and goes out in public as this new man, Mack.

And surprisingly enough, much like Richard Basehart in Tension getting contact lenses, nobody's able to figure out that these are the same two people! Or maybe in Sarah's case she realizes it but doesn't care because she likes this Mack guy ravishing her. And if Harry can pull one over on the people in his personal life, this might just give him the confidence to pull one over on the people in his work life, leading him to come up with a scheme that reminded me of Peter Ustinov in Hot Millions.

Unfortunately, The American Success Company winds up being more than a bit of a mess. Doing a bit of reading on the movie, it seems as though there were multiple edits, and I'm not quite certain which edit I saw. One of the things that doesn't help is that with there not really being as obvious a difference between Harry and his alter ego, it's difficult at times to figure out exactly what's going on.

Another movie I found myself thinking of was Blake Edwards' S.O.B., in that both of them are movies where you can see why the idea being pitched is one that would really pique a producer's interest as being a quirky, offbeat film. However, when you've got something like this, you need to get the execution right, and I don't think The American Success Company succeeds (no pun intended) in that regard.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Captain Horatio Hornblower

Another of the movies that I hadn't blogged about before but showed up during TCM's salute to Warner Bros. was the naval adventure Captain Horatio Hornblower. So, I recently sat down to watch it so that I could do a review on it here.

Gregory Peck plays Capt. Hornblower, captaining a relatively small ship, the HMS Lydia for England during the Napoleonic era, specifically during the era of the Peninsular War. For those who don't know their history, Napoleon had his brother Joseph installed as the king of Spain to make them a more pliant ally, although the Spanish ultimately revolted. If memory serves, it's also the backdrop for the Cary Grant movie The Pride and the Passion. Anyhow, at the time the movie starts, Spain is still an ally of France and still has all its colonies in the New World. But there are people in the Spanish colonies who aren't so thrilled with Napoleon's occupation of Spain, and perhaps the British could use that to their advantage.

To that end, the Lydia has been sent to the New World to get help from one of those restive Spanish local bigwigs. It's extremely stressful for the crew, as they have to go all the way around Cape Horn without knowing what their mission is and having to stay away from being sighted, since they are technically the enemy. And as it turns out, the Spanish commander they're supposed to meet is only in it for himself, which means that he may be a danger to the English as well.

The voyage to the New World is a long one; long enough that by the time they get there, Spain, or at least a significant portion of it, is nominally on the side of England, so that the commander the Lydia helped is actually no longer on the side of the English. To make matters worse, Hornblower gets himself involved in a battle with a Spanish ship that is really on his side, although he has know whay of knowing the political situation back in Europe changed since he was incommunicado.

The Spanish ship he attacked was fleeing Panama, where there was a yellow fever epidemic. They also had some English captives who were being removed from Panama because of their value as hostages. Specifically, that's Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo), who happens to be the sister of the Duke of Wellington. No wonder she's so important. She and Hornblower, being at sea for months, fall in love, although there's a problem there as well in that Lady Barbara had been betrothed to another man back in the UK and Hornblower is going to have to keep his feelings for Lady Barbara a secret. But at least she's useful as a nurse tending to the sailors, until she gets sick herself.

After Hornblower gets back to England, having gained a son but lost a wife in childbirth, he has to go back to sea to help in a blockade of France. This provides the movie's third act, which is many ways really isn't related to the first two acts, although the action it provides is satisfying enough.

Captain Horatio Hornblower is an enjoyable enough movie, and certainly well made thanks to the Technicolor photography and the capable performace from Peck. But it also feels more like a bunch of set pieces with only a relatively bare plot on which to hook all those pieces. The connection between the first two acts at least is vaguely plausible, while the third act in France feels like it comes out of nowhere. So if you want a great story, you won't really get it here. If you just want to sit back, relax, and watch Gregory Peck do the adventure movie thing, however, I think you'll definitely be entertained.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Soft Drinks and Sweet Music

One of the movies I DVRed was put into a spot a half hour longer than the movie, which meant tht there was more than enough time left for TCM to run a two-reeler in the remaining time. That short was one of Warner Bros.' "Broadway Brevities", called Soft Drinks and Sweet Musci.

Georgie Price (more on him later) plays George Harris, a soda jerk at a drug store in the days back when you could get a soda and ice cream and other good stuff at the drug store counter; think Dana Andrews' character in The Best Years of Our Lives before he went off to fight in the war. George is also an aspiring song writer, and has a girlfriend in one of the waitresses, Sally Ray (Sylvia Froos).

Up to the counter comes one Mr. Hayburn, who George has reason to think is a big Broadway producer. So George pitches his ideas in a series of ever more bizarre musical numbers. Does George get his big break?

I know it's just a two-reeler, but even at that, there's not enough of a plot or framing device tying the musical numbers together. The first number is still set in the drugstore and works, but the following ones not so much. Contrast this with another 1934 Warner Bros. two reeler (with the same director), Service With a Smile, which also has beautiful Technicolor, and a service-station theme that is smartly used.

As for Georgie Price, I'd never heard of him. It turns out he was a vaudeville star who for whatever reason was not able to make the move to movies once talking pictures came along. I wasn't able to find a copy of Soft Drinks and Sweet Music on the web, but did find some recordings of Price from the 1920s, such as this one singing Al Jolson's "California Here I Come":