Wednesday, January 31, 2024

William Castle in antiquity

Rhonda Fleming was honored in TCM's Summer Under the Stars last August. TCM ran a couple of sword-and-sandal type movies with her as the female lead. I already did a post on Revolt of the Slaves; another one they aired was Serpent of the Nile.

The movie doesn't start out with Fleming. Instead, we get some opening narration about the assasination of Julius Caesar in Rome in 44 BC. This led to infighting among the various members of the cabal that got rid of Caesar, with Brutus and Cassius on one side, and Marc Anthony (Raymond Burr) and Octavian (Michael Fox) on the other. Now, we know that Octavian would later become Emperor Augustine. But first, he and Marc Anthony have to defeat Brutus and Cassius. General Lucilius (William Lundigan) has been serving Brutus, but he realizes the cause is hopeless, so he tries to come up with a way to get Octavian and Marc Anthony to accept his turning to their side.

While Octavian goes back to Rome, Lucilius gets captured by Antony's men. Antony already has a woman by his side, but it's not Cleopatra (that's Rhonda Fleming when we finally get to her) yet. He accepts Lucilius' pledge of loyalty to Rome, claiming that they're two of the same kind. And to make Rome truly peaceful, they're going to have to go to Egypt to pacify Cleopatra. She's been a canny politician, playing Brutus off of Octavian and Anthony in order to keep her dynasty going even if Egypt has to be a vassal of Rome.

Although, to be honest, Cleopatra has always been one to try to get more power for herself. That's why, before Julius Caesar got bumped off, she had been maneuvering to get herself married to Julius so that the two of them could be co-rulers of Roman dominions. Lucilius was with Julius back in those days, so he knows just how clever and beguiling Cleopatra can be. He tries to warn Antony that Cleopatra could be quite dangerous to him, as she was in many ways to Julius.

But as we know, Antony wasn't thinking with his big head, and he eventually falls for Cleopatra and her beauty and lavish displays of opulence. Lucilius sees it coming from a mile away and this makes him a danger to Cleopatra, who has him put under house arrest. But this Antony begins to realize that perhaps Cleopatra really is a danger like Lucilius had been warning him.

Serpent of the Nile was distributed by Columbia under the direction of William Castle and producer Sam Katzman, a couple of names I've mentioned, more briefly in the case of Katzman. Both of them were known for producing as much spectacle as they could get with a very low budget, and that colors this version of the Cleopatra story. Fleming's Cleopatra is really out for herself, not so much looking to be co-ruler of Rome and not as much in love with Antony as other versions. Cleopatra's attempted seduction of Antony includes women with whips and Julie Newmar painted in gold, and that's just the first time.

The casting also makes Serpent of the Nile a bit of a hoot, as Raymond Burr is almost as badly cast playing Marc Antony as many of the casting decisions in The Story of Mankind a few years later. It doesn't help that the dialogue doesn't serve any of them well.

It's easy to see why Serpent of the Nile isn't very highly rated. But it's one of those movies where you know how it's finally going to end being based on famous histoty. It's how it gets there that makes it fun to watch.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Jangsari, and thoughts on foreign films

I was looking through the movie channels on the Roku Channel app recently. One of them is called "Hi-Yah", and is dedicated to East Asian "action" movies, "action" here being a bit of a broad word to include the war movies and the sort of historical movie that has battle sequences; I'm also using it to contrast with drama in the Korean K-drama sense that's become a fad over the past decade or so and which has other channels dedicated to it.

Anyhow, coming up in a few minutes from the time I turned on the Roku box was a movie about an incident in the Korean War that I as an American didn't know anything about, Battle at Jangsari from Warner Bros. Korean division in 2019. I decided to watch it, although as I was watching it I found myself thinking more about foreign movies than about the movie itself in particular.

For those who don't remember the Korean War, the South made an advance at first before the Communist North called in the Soviets and the new Communist government in the PRC. They overran much of the peninsula, leaving the South and its allies including the US and other western countries in a small portion of the southeast. Douglas MacArthur, head of the US forces until Harry Truman summarily removed him over thoughts that MacArthur might want to use nuclear weapons, decided on an invasion at Incheon (I haven't seen the early 1980s Unification Church movie about Incheon), on the coast near Seoul.

But they also needed a diversionary tactic, so they decided to attack on the other side of the peninsula. However, the South Korean military was in a parlous state at the time, and the feint was to be carried out on a requisitioned ship carrying only four landing craft and several hundred student soldiers who were so untrained that they didn't even have serial numbers. Their job is to take a hill overlooking the Communists' supply routes and then break those routes, making it easier for the South to break out of their toehold.

In order to make the movie more palatable to American audiences, there's a not-quite-subplot that's really exposition, involving a lady American reporter (Megan Fox) dealing with a US military liaison officer (George Eads). She realizes that Jangsari is going to turn into a suicide mission and is horrified by it. Much of their scenes seem more aimed at making the action going on clearer for those of us in the west who wouldn't know as much of the situation on the ground at the time the movie was set. I'm assuming most of this stuff is intimate history for people in South Korea.

As a movie, Battle at Jangsari is serviceable, although for me it suffers from a lot of the things I think of as irritations in latter-day movies: a color palette dominated by greens and oranges; scenes that look too much like CGI; and the like. (Indeed, I found myself thinking of 1917, released a few months later, during the movie.) The story itself is OK, and if you want something different, it's worth a watch.

But as I said at the beginning, I was thinking as much about foreign films, and more specifically, what of the voluminous foreign output we get treated to here in America. I've complained on quite a few occasions how the influence of critics means we get a disporportionate amount of arthouse crap fed to us as "great" foreign film. However, there have always been a few niches that have a sort of underground cult status. I had a friend in high school who was into the cheap martial arts stuff that Hong Kong was putting out in the 1970s; anime is another genre that's had a strong following in the west. And, in recent years, there's the rise of the K-drama which I also mentioned above.

But when it comes to the sort of stuff generally produced for domestic consumption? You'd think that in this age of 5,000 channels there would be more niches for stuff that isn't trying to be Oscar bait, and yet that doesn't seem to be the case. There is stuff marketed at immigrant populations, especially older Spanish-lanugage movie from Mexico thanks to the US's increasing Hispanic population. But most of that isn't subtitled.

Now, I know there's also an adage that 90% of anything a culture produces is crap and that the reason foreign films have a cachet is that we're only getting the 10%. But I wonder at times whether what the critics think is the 10% really is the 10%.

That last night of Robert Mitchum

I mentioned at the beginning of the month in regards to Robert Mitchum being the Star of the Month on TCM that there was an open slot on the last night of the spotlight and wondering which of his movies would be in it. Also, at the time, I was surprised that I didn't see the movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle in the lineup. I may not have been paying close enough attention, as it looks like there were two empty spots, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which will be on at midnight tonight (so late in the evening of Jan. 30 in the west, and technically the beginning of Jan. 31 in the Eastern Time Zone). The other movie is one I'm not certain I've heard of before, The Grass is Greener, an all-star comedy with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as well. Considering how Cary Grant has been Star of the Month multiple times, you'd think a movie like this might have shown up before, but it's a British movie, which might explain why it hasn't shown up much and why there'd be a blank spot in the TCM schedule if they were trying to get the rights to this.

The full lineup for tonight into tomorrow afternoon includes eight of Mitchum's movies from the 1960s and 1970s:

8:00 PM The Grass Is Greener, with Mitchum coming between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr;
10:00 PM Cape Fear (1962), with Mitchum at his most villainous terrorizing Gregory Peck and his family;
12:00 AM The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which Mitchum plays an aging gangster;
2:00 AM Farewell, My Lovely, another version of the Philip Marlowe detective story;
3:45 AM Ryan's Daughter, a movie about the Irish Revolution that I had on my old DVR but never got around to watching before the big move;
7:15 AM The Yakuza, with Mitchum in Japan dealing with the Japanese Mob;
9:15 AM Going Home sees Mitchum come home from prison to an estranged son; and
11:00 AM The Wrath of God has Mitchum south of the border in one of those "westerns" set in the early 20th century.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Downhill (1927)

I'm a pretty big fan of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and have wanted to see all of his movies. Some of them, however, were a bit more difficult to find (at least without having to pay through the nose) than others. My cheap box set of Hitchock movies contains multiple silents, although one not in the set is Downhill. It aired on TCM some years back, but somehow my DVR didn't record it properly. So when it showed up a few months back on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights, I made a point to put it on the DVR in order to watch it finally.

The movie is based on a play by Ivor Novello, a fairly big star of the British stage in the 1920s who had already appeared in Hitchcok's The Lodger. Here, although he's much too old, he plays Roddy Berwick, a big man on campus at one of those British boarding schools where among other things he captains the rugby team to victory in the big game. He's also impossibly handsome by 1920s British standards, and girls apparently want him, such as shop-girl Mabel. She says she gets off at six, so perhaps Roddy could stop by afterwards.

Roddy, bored with all the formalities of the post-game, decides he's going to get out early, and goes off to Mabel's place behind the store together with his best friend Tim. There, they eat and listen to the newest sounds on Mabel's victrola and even share a few dances. But then there's a noise at the front door. A kid wants to buy something, and Roddy attends to it even though it's not his job. Hitchcock shows us Mabel and Tim continuing to dance with the possibility that Tim might be trying to steal Mabel out from under Roddy's nose.

It's much worse than that, however. Some time later, Roddy and Tim get a knock on their door, with a messenger telling them that the headmaster wants to see both of them. When they get there, Mabel is also in the room. She's been knocked up, and that's a decided problem. Now, we know that Tim is the one who did it, on that day when they went to Mabel's place. But Tim is not nearly as powerful as Roddy and, not coming from riches, needs a certain scholarship to get into Oxford. Having to marry Mabel would wreck all those chances. But Mabel puts the blame on Roddy since his family has the money to support her. So Roddy, believing in honor, offers to fall on his sword for his best friend and take the blame. Perhaps he thinks his wealthy father can fix things.

If so, he's wrong. Roddy gets expelled, and having come home a week before the end of term, Dad knows something's up. When Roddy tells Dad, Dad responds by basically throwing Roddy out of the house. Roddy becomes an actor at a time when actors still weren't quite the most honorable profession, even marrying star Julia (Isabel Jeans) after inheriting £30,000 from his godmother. Julia is only in it for the money however, keeping up an affair with another co-star Archie (Ian Hunter). This really sends Roddy on a downhill spiral, as he goes first to Paris before winding up in a dump in the port city of Marseilles reminiscent of a male version of all those Madame X movies.

Alfred Hitchcok's directorial skill was already obvious by the time Downhill came along, since it follows The Lodger. There's a lot of artistic use of the camera, something Hitchcock had learned working alongside F.W. Murnau earlier. But Downhill is one of those movies that's not so-well remembered. I think it's because Hitchcock would go on to become the Master of Suspense, and Downhill is not in that mold at all. It's more of a melodrama. That's not to say it isn't good, although some have argued that Hitchcock still hadn't quite learned how to make what would become the Hitchcockian style more subtle yet. Scenes of Roddy going down stairs to signify that fall into the depths of a dissolute life are decidedly too obvious.

Still, Downhill is absolutely worth watching, and not just by Alfred Hitchcock completists.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Horla

Vincent Price was another of the honorees during Summer Under the Stars last August. One of the movies that I hadn't seen before and recorded was Diary of a Madman. I finally got around to watching it recently, and now can review it here.

The movie has an opening scroll about how Man is supposedly the master of all the animals, but then there's something called the Horla, which is the master of Man as it can control Man's will. We then cut to a funeral in 1880s France. The funeral is for the respected judge Simon Cordier (Vincent Price). As his friends leave the cemetery, there's some discussion over whether his death was accidental or a suicide. Simon left some instructions behind about what to do if he died, which means he somehow expected his otherwise sudden death to occur. Those instructions involve opening a locked box. Inside that box is a diary, so we can have the inevitable flashback....

Some time back, Simon is informed of a prisoner who is about to be guillotined for having committed a murder. That man, Girot, wishes to see Simon before the execution, and there's some though that there may be a real confession. Instead, Girot continues to insist, as he did during the trial, that something inside him forced him to commit the murder and that he couldn't control himself. We then see a strange green glow coming from the Girot's eyes as he proceeds to attack Simon. Simon defends himself, but in doing so Girot dies. No murder charge or anything like that, and besides, Girot is probably better off having died like this instead of being guillotined.

But if you've seen a movie like the 1935 Mad Love (or any of the other versions of the "Hands of Orlac" story), you can guess what that green glow is about. Not tht the characters would have any idea. So Simon is mildly alarmed when a picture of his late wife and child shows up back on the wall of his library where it had hung before their deaths many years earlier. And he sees some sort of writing in the dust in his attic. His two servants insist that they had nothing to do with it, of course, and they're telling the truth.

Besides, more strange things start happening to Simon in other places, like his office, where the servants have never been. That green glow was a manifestation of something called the Horla, a malevolent force which is able to inherit the mind of Man and able to take it over, controlling Man's will. And there was one inside Girot which was in fact the cause of the murder. It left Girot's soul during that scuffle in Girot's cell and enterted Simon's mind.

Eventually, the Horla reveals itself to Simon, because in addition to being malevolent, it's hubristic, thinking there's no way anybody can stop it. Is there in fact no way to stop such a force of evil? Simon's going to try to find a way if he can, even if it kills him.

Diary of a Madman is fairly ludicrous stuff, but Vincent Price is able to make the material work just like he did with so many horror films in this era. The sets look low-budget, but the colors are garish and that somehow helps with the atmosphere that pervades the movie. Diary of a Madman is definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Find the Blackmailer

Yet another of the B movies that I recorded off of TCM during their spotlight on B movies was an ultra-short film from Warner Bros. in 1943, Find the Blackmailer.

Jerome Cowan plays D.L. Trees, a struggling private eye who has a long-suffering secretary in the form of one Pandora Pines. She keeps dropping clues about the need for Trees to pay her, but Trees is either too dense to get it or is otherwise ignoring the clues. Since there's no work coming in, Trees turns on the radio in order to be able to listen to the paid political ad from reformist mayoral candidate John Rhodes (Gene Lockhart, by far the biggest name in this one). And then, wouldn't you know it, but Rhodes comes knocking on Trees' door!

Rhodes has a job for Trees, having picked him on the basis that Trees is apparently the least-known detective in town. If you've seen enough detective movies, you'd think somebody is setting Trees up. Anyhow, Rhodes says that he's being blackmailed by a Fred Molner, who is the brother of chorus girl and walking B movie femme fatale trope Mona Vance (Faye Emerson). Rhodes and Molner have some sort of past together beyond Mona, and Fred has been extorting money from Rhodes over it, a very bad look for a reformist mayoral candidate. Worse, Fred has been training his pet crow to talk, specifically to imitate Rhodes' voice to implicate Rhodes in Fred's death should anybody bump Fred off. Rhodes wants that crow.

So Trees goes over to Molner's apartment, only to find Fred very much dead. And as he's going through the apartment looking for clues, he finds another body. Except that this body isn't quite as stiff as Molner, just concussed. The body is Fred's bodyguard Ray Hickey. And while the two of them are talking, a third guy shows up, bookie Mitch Farrell. After the incident, Trees calls on the police to investigate, although Trees is going to be doing his own investigation in part to try to exonerate himself, and hopefully to get paid by Rhodes assuming Rhodes isn't the guilty one.

Find the Blackmailer runs a brief 56 minutes, but there's a lot going on, so much that it feels too complicated for its own good. But then, it was a B movie, so it was striving for entertainment rather than high art. In that regard, it does succeed. Nowadays, heck, anytime in the past 50 years, Find the Blackmailer is the sort of material that would be made for some sort of one-hour private detective TV series instead of as a movie. And there's a reason old detective shows like The Rockford Files are still running on those digital sub-channels.

Friday, January 26, 2024

The Gentle People

A movie that I think I'd seen part of at one time several years ago is Out of the Fog. It showed up some months back as part of TCM's Noir Alley even thought it isn't really a noir. So I recorded it in order to be able to watch it in full and do a review on it here.

After the opening credits, we get a fog-shrouded pier somewhere in Brooklyn. A man walks down to where the boats are moored, and flicks a match into one of the boats, starting a fire. He then walks into Caroline's bar and restaurant, run by Caroline (Odette Myrtil) who is in love with her short-order cook Olaf (John Qualen). Olaf feels she's a bit smothering, and would rather spend time with his best friend Jonah (Thomas Mitchell), a tailor who owns the place next door. The two of them have a boat and like to go fishing together.

The man who set the fire, Goff (John Garfield) goes back into the kitchen where he starts talkin to Olaf and then Jonah when he comes in. Eventually they hear the sirens of a fire engine. Goff, having set the fire, knows fully well that the boat is on fire and whose boat it is, so he knows it's not the one that Olaf and Jonah co-own; of course, nobody else knows any of this yet or what Goff's true nature is, although for a discerning viewer it shouldn't be too difficult to guess. And it's going to be revealed anyway.

We still have a few key characters to be revealed, however. Stella (Ida Lupino) is Jonah's adult daughter. The family live together in an apartment above the tailor's shop, and Stella is getting a bit sick of this kind of life because she wants something better. She's got a nice boyfriend in George (Eddie Albert), but she wants something better. So when Goff shows up, she realizes she's going to get that excitement she's always been craving.

Not that the excitement is going to be good for her. Goff, if you hadn't figured it out, does an extortion racket on the pier, and starts extorting Olaf and Jonah for what little money they have in exchange for not destroying their boat. It gets worse when Goff discovers that Olaf and Jonah have saved a bit of money. And then Jonah realizes that Goff is trying to put the moves on his daughter and that she seems to be OK with it, which really frightens him. Eventually, Jonah and Olaf figure that the only way to save themselves from the extortion, and to save Stella from Goff, is to kill Goff. The problem is that there's that pesky Production Code, and Olaf and Jonah are clearly supposed to be the good guys in this piece.

With the cast I've mentioned, and add in Aline MacMahon as Jonah's wife, it should be no surprise that Out of the Fog is well-acted, and definitely worth watching for the performances. It has a few problems, however, that are down to the time in which it was made. One, as I already alluded to, is the Production Code, which severely constrained how Hollywood could resolve all the dramatic conflicts that Olaf and Jonah have. The other thing is that the whole production looks clearly like it was done on the studio backlot and nowhere near the Brooklyn piers where the movie is supposed to be set. (It's based on a New York stage play.)

Out of the Fog may not be a noir despite the title or Eddie Muller's showing it in Noir Alley, but it's still one to watch.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

HMS Defiant

I recorded several movies from when Dirk Bogarde was TCM's Star of the Month, and now I'm getting around to watching another of them that I had never seen before it showed up: that movie is Damn the Defiant!.

The movie starts off with a title card informing us that the action is taking place in Spithead, England, in 1797. We then see a small landing boat heading from the HMS Defiant anchored just offshore to the harbor. On that boat is the captain, Crawford (Alec Guinness) and his second-in-command, Lt. Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde). If you've seen the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, you'll know that this is a press gang, looking for innocent people to be forced into serving on a ship that doesn't have enough of a crew. As you can guess, the good people in town are absolutely not thrilled to see a press gang showing up.

Meanwhile, hiding out in the basement of one of the taverns is a group of sailors, some part of the Royal Navy's Channel Fleet and some part of the Mediterranean Fleet. One of the leaders of this group, Vizard (Anthony Quayle), informs us that the sailors are looking for better conditions at sea, and that they're willing to "strike" if necessary, which really means a mutiny. Vizard and the rest of the cabal obviously don't want it known what's going on.

Back to the officers of the Defiant. It's really Scott-Padgett's job to impress those sailors into duty. Crawford is ashore because his wife and son live in Spithead. The younger Crawford is hoping to follow his father into service, being fast-tracked into the officers' corps unlike those poor seamen who were pressed into service. These scenes also serve to set up part of the dramatic conflict, which is that Crawford is the "humane" officer while Scott-Padget is an absolute dick, even though one does need quite a bit of discipline to be able to go out to sea and then fight the upcoming threat of the French.

The Admiralty has indeed allowed the younger Crawford to join his father as a midshipman, and the Defiant soon sets sail for the Mediterranean. Capt. Crawford doesn't want Scott-Padget to show any favoritism to the younger Crawford, so the lieutenant responds not only by not showing favoritism, but by showing anti-favoritism, treating him so badly that the captain starts looking for ways to get his son off the ship.

Matters come to a head when Capt. Crawford falls ill, and has to give command over to Scott-Padget. He's so bad to the sailors that they finally decide to mutiny in a move not related to the more general mutiny Vizard and his men had been planning at the beginning of the movie and that, as far as they know since there was no good way to communicate with other ships in those days, has not yet taken place.

Damn the Defiant! is a well-made entry into the historical naval genre. I don't know that there's anything terribly original. I made a comment once about one of the submarine movies that there's only so much you can do in the confined spaces of a submarine. Likewise, there's only so much you can do on a Napoleonic era ship, both because of the confined spaces and because of the historical limitations. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with these constraints; it's just that if you're looking for something truly original, you'll be hard-pressed to find it in pretty much any naval movie.

Despite those constraints, Damn the Defiant! is one that absolutely deserves a watch, in no small part thanks to the fine performances from its leads. It's definitely one to look out for.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Great Bank Hoax

Another of the movies that I recorded because it had an interesting synopsis is The Great Bank Hoax. Recently, I finally got around to watching it in order to be able to do the obligatory post on it here.

The movie opens up with establishing shots of the fictional town of Pewter, MA (in fact, the movie was filmed in Madison, GA, which explains the M instead of a P on the marching band uniforms later in the movie). It looks like one of those idyllic small towns that populated movies of a previous era, but were becoming passé by the time this movie was released in the late 1970s. After seeing the marching band practice on the village green under the watchful eyes of a retired Army major (Arthur Godfrey in a cameo role), we move on to the local bank, this being one of those old one-bank towns.

Julius Taggart (Ned Beatty) is the bank's chief accountant in charge of keeping the books, and making certain that the books balance when the FDIC bank inspectors come; as you can imagine, keeping those books balanced is a big deal. And Taggart has discovered that not only do the books not balance; they're off to the tune of slightly over $100,000, which for a small bank like this was still a pretty big deal in the late 1970s. He informs his bosses, bank president Manny Benchly (Richard Basehart) and chief loan officer Jack Stutz (Burgess Meredith) about the shortage.

Cut to the town bingo night, hosted by the local church and its man of the cloth, Rev. Manigma (Michael Murphy). Among the players are the bank's chief clerk, Richard Smedly (Paul Sand), and Patricia Potter (Constance Forslund). They start a romantic relationship that's more one of convenience, as Potter is simply looking for a loan for some business idea she has and things that Smedly can approve it, which would be a ridiculous breach of ethics even if he were the loan officer instead of Stutz.

In the meantime, Stutz has gone to Rev. Manigma to make a confession of sorts. What, he asks, would happen if somebody robbed the bank and the books had a shortfall of sorts? Not that he's robbed the bank, of course, and not that he's responsible for the shortfall that only the three officers knows about. But it's becoming clear that Stutz has a nefarious idea, which is to rob their own bank from the inside in order to be able to cover the losses from whoever was responsible for those losses. Taggart especially is uncomfortable with the idea of fake-robbing his own bank, but Stutz is one of those charismatic types who can get people to do things they might not believe in.

And then we learn that it's Smedly who's been embezzling money, and that he's got enough of a conscience that he's not certain whether he should just return the money. And if he does return the money, what's that going to do when the fake robbery is reported, especially when Taggart has been busy cooking the books so that whatever is reported missing from the fake robbery will more or less make the books balance?

The Great Bank Hoax is the sort of material where you can see Hollywood of the 1930s thinking there's the basis of a really fun B movie here, except that in the 1930s Hollywood would have had to deal with the Production Code, and this movie doesn't really offer any good ways to resolve the conflict while adhering to the Code. By 1977, however, they didn't have to worry so much about the Code. Unfortunately, the writers also didn't seem to worry about coming up with a script that rose above the old B movies. The result is a movie that's not terrible by any means, but also one where it's easy to see why it's become largely forgotten.

The Great Bank Hoax will entertain you for 90 minutes, but it's another of the many movies that could have been so much better.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Briefs for January 23, 2024

The first big thing worth mentioning, and something that probably deserved its own post, is the passing of director Norman Jewison over the weekend at the age of 97. (The death was not announced until yesterday as far as I know.) Jewison was nominated several times for Best Director although I don't think he ever won. His most notable movies include In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck among a host of others. He was also a producer, on works such as The Landlord that brought Hal Ashby into prominence.

In looking through the TCM schedule, it doesn't look like there are any of Jewison's movies on the TCM schedule through the end of the month. I'll have more on the February schedule as the month opens. But 31 Days of Oscar begins on Feb. 9, which actually makes sense in that the 31st day will be March 10, which is the day the Oscars are being awarded. In any case, I'd assume that a TCM tribute to Jewison wouldn't come until after 31 Days of Oscar. I don't see anything on their site, but that's not a surprise considering how badly run their site is any more. There's a post on his passing on Twitter, but no mention of a scheduled tribute yet. And as of right now no TCM Remembers short on their Youtube site.

Speaking of 31 Days of Oscar, today is the day that the Academy Award nominations were announced. And you know what? Once again I don't think I've seen any of the nominated movies. It doesn't help that in the aftermath of the lockdowns, the local movie theater no longer has early-ish weekday matinees. The last two movies I saw in the local theater were a 12:30 PM Monday matinee of Florence Foster Jenkins back in 2016, and a roughly 10:45 AM Monday matinee of 1917 in January of 2020. I just looked at tomorrow's schedule, and the earliest showtime is 1:40 PM. There do seem to be earlier matinees on the weekend. And I see they're bringing Oppenheimer back in the wake of the nominations, but it's 185 minutes.

Still nothing particularly that's newly back in the FXM rotation, although one thing I don't think I've mentioned recently is My Darling Clementine, which will be on FXM at 6:00 AM Thursday (Jan. 25). Definitely worth watching if you haven't seen it before.

Bells Are Ringing

I've got way too many movies on my cloud DVR. A lot of the ones that I recorded off of FXM are coming up again in the FXM rotation, but there's a movie that I hadn't yet gotten around to doing a post on that's coming up on TCM. That movie is Bells Are Ringing, and you can see it tomorrow (January 24) at 5:45 PM on TCM.

The movie opens with an establishing scene about the wonders of something that will be an anachronism to any younger viewer who might happen to stumble across this movie: the professional telephone answering service, a service that could take messages especially for businesses that needed off-hours coverage, but also apparently for wealthy individuals. By the time I was a kid, the telephone answering machine was already coming into vogue, followed by the pager and then ubiquitous voice mail. Nowadays we have call centers that I suppose provide a similar service for large businesses, but this sort of answering service is a thing of the past, much like the party lines in Pillow Talk.

The answering service here is called "Susanswerphone", run by Sue (Jean Stapleton) with a few employees, among them Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday). Ella, in answering the phones, is supposed to be professional, but she's a little too professional, and in the wrong way, as she plays Santa for one client's young child, and tries to help various other clients solve their problems. This latter causes the company to be in a spot of trouble as the authorities think it might be a front for an escort service.

The company does become a front, although unwittingly. Otto Pranz (Eddie Foy, Jr.) is part of the bookie racket, taking bets on horse races. They need to increase volume, so he comes up with the brilliant idea of posing as a record label dealing in classical music, and using composers and works as code words for horses and race-tracks. So when Susanswerphone transmits those messages, the operators will think they're just giving messages about bulk record purchases. It isn't until one of Ella's friends hears her talking about Beethoven's Tenth Symphony -- any classical music fan would know he only wrote nine -- that things start to go wrong in that subplot.

Ella, meanwhile, has "friends", in the sense of the people whose lives she comes to know a bit about on the phone and whom she tries to help out. She gives a dentist the gumption to try his hand at songwriting and suggests a Marlon Brando wannabe (played rather hilariously by Frank Gorshin) dress better. The big one, however, is playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She gives him wake-up calls and disguises her voice as an older mother-type when talking on the phone to him. So when she shows up at his apartment he doesn't recognize her, never having seen her, and doesn't know these two are the same woman. He falls in love with the young Ella, but she doesn't fit into his world -- or so she thinks -- and disappears. Having not given her real name to him is going to make it difficult for him to find her again.

Bells Are Ringing is the sort of musical for people who like musicals. That sort of person is, sadly to say, not me. It's not that I hated Bells Are Ringing, however. It's more that I felt like I was seeing the flaws that come with trying to translate a stage musical to the screen. Most of the musical numbers seem way too artificial and stagebound, and there's nothing in this version of New York that feels like anything less than Hollywood soundstages and the MGM backlot. But, as I said, people who enjoy musicals will easily be able to overlook this stuff. The song "The Party's Over" has also become a standard in the 65 or so years since the stage musical premiered.

So, if I were trying to introduce movie musicals to people who aren't knowledgeable about the genre, I'd pick some other stuff first, likely one of the backstage musicals and/or something from Busby Berkeley. But for musical lovers, this version of Bells Are Ringing is definitely worth seeing.

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Man of Property

You may have heard of The Forsyte Saga a series of books by British author John Galsworthy. Set near the end of the Victorian era, it's the sort of material that would be perfect for studio-era Hollywood to make a picture out of. Indeed, MGM had the rights, and in the late 1940s made a movie adaptation of the first book, a movie called That Forsyte Woman.

The movie opens with Irene Forsyte (Greer Garson) running into a hospital looking for a man to whom she is not related. So the man at the desk isn't so sure to let him in, but Irene is so distraught that they let her in. She's followed by two more people named Forsyte, cousins (not hers) Soames (Errol Flynn) and Jolyon (Walter Pidgeon). Irene doesn't want to see Soames, so Jolyon, a widower, takes her back to his house, where his adult daughter June (Janet Leigh) is none too pleased to see that her father has brought this woman home with him. Flash back to how everything wound up this way....

Soames is a "man of property", the latest in a long line of Forsytes involved in some sort of proper business. He's met Irene, a music teacher who is on her way to becoming a spinster, and seems to love her, which is a bit of a minor scandal because Forsytes always marry the right person. The rest of the family wonders whether she's a gold-digger, but Soames says he's been pursuing her for a year without her saying yes. Needless to say, she does eventually say yes, but the marriage doesn't quite go to plan, which is how we wind up with that opening scene.

Jolyon is the black sheep of the Forsyte family. He married and the wife died suddenly, with the rest of the Forsytes taking custody of daughter June. Jolyon is a struggling artist who went off to Paris but, as the flashback opens, is back in London where some of his works are part of an exhibition. Soames goes there looking for something good, while Irene falls in love with one of Jolyon's paintings. You get the feeling that Irene and Jolyon might make a better couple than Irene and Soames, but Soames is a jealous man who, once he gets a possession, isn't about to let it go. And Irene is going to become one of his possessions.

You'd also be right about Irene and Jolyon being better matched. But these are the Forsytes, and the thought of divorce is so horrifying to them that they'd never permit it. And Soames wouldn't permit it anyway. So things are going to have to reach that ending some other way. Enter Philip Bosinney (Robert Young). He's an architect, and of the sort who is exactly everything that Forsytes don't care for, being interested in new styles and materials while the Forsytes are decidedly old school.

But Bosinney and June Forsyte have met, and fallen in love. This being the late Victorian era, Bosinney feels he can't marry June until he's got an independent stake of his own, which means some sort of commission that's going to get his business off the ground. Irene, who has become friends with June since they're both different from the stodgy side of the Forsyte family, obliges by introducing the couple to the rest of the Forsytes as well as getting Bosinney hired to design the country house Soames wants to build for her. But Irene finds herself falling in love with Bosinney, too....

That Forsyte Woman is the sort of material that MGM could make really well, and in this case, it's definitely another quality production. It might not be so well remembered, something I think is down to the unorthodox casting. Errol Flynn wanted to stop the typecasting of the swashbuckling action star, so he decidedly wanted to take on the part of Soames when you might think Jolyon was more to his perceived character. Walter Pidgeon is also the person you think would be more suited to Soames. Flynn shows that he really was a good actor, while Pidgeon, well, not quite so much. Not that he's bad; it's just that he doesn't really overcome his typecasting the way Flynn does.

That Forsyte Woman is absolutely worth watching as another example of the quality MGM could bring to its period productions.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Destiny's Passport

Another of the B movies that TCM ran in their spotlight to B movies back in the summer was Passport to Destiny. Recently, I finally got around to watching it.

The movie was released in 1944, and the opening credits are superimposed over establishing shots of London, which pretty squarely puts the movie in World War II when the Nazis were trying to bomb London to oblivion. One morning on a bus, cleaning woman Ella Muggins (Elsa Lanchester) overhears a conversation about how the Nazis have just destroyed a long-time pub. Ella, who's a widow, talks about how she's survived so far thanks to her late husband (the photo used is Lanchester's real-life husband Charles Laughton), who served in India and brought back a "magic eye" charm. And then, while she's up in the attic storage, she actually finds the charm in an old trunk.

Not much later, there's another of the nightly bombing raids on London, and Ella gets caught in it. Except that she survives, because if she didn't there wouldn't be that much of a movie. She attributes her survival to the charm. In the bomb shelter in the Underground, she starts talking about the charm, and people have the idea to ask what would you do if you had a charmed life. This being the middle of World War II, one woman says that if she had such a charmed life, she'd go over to Germany and give Adolf Hitler what-for. Ella, naïve woman that she is, gets an idea....

It's only about one scene later that we see a boat that's about to leave London and join one of the convoys trying to cross the Atlantic, followed by a shot of Ella sneaking aboard the ship thinking it's going to Germany. When she's found out, the crew is none too happy, because female stowaways are decidedly bad luck. Sure enough, this being a B movie, it doesn't take more than one scene for the ship to get bombed and everyone to have to abandon ship. And wouldn't you know it, but charmed Ella is able to hide from the Germans while the rest of the crew become POWs.

So she decides to make her way to Berlin, posing as a deaf-mute so that nobody will figure out that the only language she knows is English and as such, is decidedly not German or even from one of the countries the Nazis conquered. She eventually stows away on a train bound for Berlin, getting away with it by pretending to be working on the train. The compartment where she is just happens to have as passengers two men who are both part of the resistance working against Hitler, so when he gets to Berlin she's going to be be able to find somebody who might be able to help her.

Her plan is to get to the Chancellery where Hitler's office should be, and get a job there with the intention of going into Hitler's office and killing him. Also working there is Lord Haw-Haw, although it seems as though his usefulness to the Nazis is coming to an end. All of the plot strands come together, but since this was made during the war, you have to think they can't really kill Hitler, can they?

It's easy to see why a movie like Passport to Destiny would go into production during the war, but it's got so many plot holes and other problems that the movie doesn't really succeed. And on top of that, Ella's play-dumb act gets increasingly annoying. So Passport to Destiny is a bit of an interesting curiosity from the war, but not a particularly good movie.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

All the President's Men

Today being January 20, which is inauguration day here in the US in years that follow a presidential election, I figured today would be the right time to put up a post on a movie that I had on my DVR for several months: All the President's Men.

The movie starts off with a shot of a typewriter typing the date of June 17, 1972. For those who know their history, this is the date on which a security guard at the Watergate complex in Washington DC found a door with the bolt taped so that the door wouldn't lock. Five men are arrested in the break-in, which happened to be the Washington headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The men are found to be carrying surveillance equipment, which would lead some people to question whether or not the burglars were trying to bug the Democrats.

Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), an editor at the Washington Post newspaper, sends reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) to cover the arraignment, which seems an odd affair since there's a lawyer there who claims not to be representing them and these nobodies have a "country club" lawyer. Some time after the hearing, Woodward gets a call from an FBI agent who tells him that the found some papers on the suspects that linked an "HH" at the White House. Obviously that's a reference to Howard Hunt, who was working for White House Counsel Charles Colson. Woodward later learns that Hunt had previously worked at the CIA.

Then, Bradley tells Woodward that he's puting a second reporter on the case with him, one Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). They work well together, but as the investigate it seems to be an increasingly sprawling case with so much to try to figure out. It seems to point at president Richard Nixon, busy running for re-election, in some way, and Nixon's campaign committee, but they can't come up with anything firm in part because nobody really wants to speak on the record. And the movie version of Ben Bradlee is one of a man who only wants to print confirmable facts, a massive difference from the news organizations of today.

Indeed, one interesting thing is how, when Woodward and Bernstein are trying to get some background on Hunt, they go to the White House library and the Library of Congress trying to get library records. After the events of September 11, 2001, when the Patriot Act was first up for passage, there were howls of protest that the law might allow the FBI and CIA to spy on what books Americans were taking out of the library. Here, however, going after people's library records is portrayed as virtuous because they're going after those icky Nixon administration types.

As such, as I was watching All the President's Men, I couldn't help but think of another movie, the 1944 biopic Wilson about one of America's nastiest presidents who is whitewashed in a rather hagiographic portrayal. Both movies are extremely well made, while at the same time being utterly self-congratulatory. It's also ironic how Woodward's most famous source, "Deep Throat" (played by Hal Holbrook) turned out to be a former deputy director of the FBI who want to Woodward in large part because he was passed over for a promotion after J. Edgar Hoover's death and wanted to get back at the new boss.

So how much you like All the President's Men may depend on how much you can stomach the journalistic love fest. Considering how much it's become obvious journalism, and even more so the FBI, only investigates based on political affiliation, that love fest may be a bit much for some people to handle.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Neither 30 nor dirty

Some years back, TCM ran a movie with an interesting title: Lolly-Madonna XXX. For whatever reason I didn't get to record it. Back in August when Robert Ryan was honored in Summer Under the Stars, I got the chance to record it so that I could finally see it and do a post on it.

The movie starts off with the opening credits panning over a series of old-timey family photographs, as well as bucolic scenes of the eastern Tennessee hill country. The photos show two families: the Gutshalls with patriarch Pap (Robert Ryan), and the Feathers, headed by Laban (Rod Steiger). The two families have been in a feud, presumably for generations, with one of the big parts of the field having to do with a certain meadow between their properties. The current younger generation engages in a series of skirmishes over that meadow.

The current one involves one of the Gutshall sons, Ludie (Kiel Martin). He creates the fictitious Lolly-Madonna, writing a postcard from her that implies she's a bride coming to get married. The Feathers get the postcard, and two of the sons, Thrush (Scott Wilson) and Hawk (Ed Lauter) go down to meet the non-existent Lolly. This is a ruse to get them to go to the bus stop and away from their still in the woods, with the Gutshall boys planing to destroy the still as revenge for some hogs that the Feathers have taken.

However, when Thrush and Hawk arrive at the bus stop, which is as much of a bus stop as the place Cary Grant stands in the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest, they find a woman there. She's not Lolly-Madonna, of course, but a totally innocent bystander, Roonie Gill (Season Hubley). Thrush and Hawk, for their part, have no reason not to believe she's the Lolly-Madonna of the postcard, and as part of the family feud they decide to kidnap her and bring her back to the Feather place. Despite her protestations nd Laban questioning her, she can't convince the Feathers that she's not Lolly-Madonna, and just passing through on her way to Memphis.

All of this only serves to escalate the conflict between the Gutshalls and the Feathers. Meanwhile, younger Feather brother Zack (Jeff Bridges) begins to fall in love with Roonie/Lolly, and the feeling begins to become mutual as these two aren't really made for the life the Gutshalls and Feathers are living. Their feelings for each other also serve as a way to flesh out the back-story of how the two families wound up feuding. The rest of the family members can't be bothered to care about what caused the feud in the first place, just keeping it going, which will eventually lead to disastrous consequences.

Lolly-Madonna XXX is a movie that surprised me, in part because the opening credits point out that it's based on a novel by Sue Grafton. Yes, that Sue Grafton of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries. I didn't know she had ever written material like this. It's also not the sort of material you'd expect based on the title of the movie (the book is slightly more indicative, titled The Lolly-Madonna War; the XXX of the title is for three kisses on the postcard). As such, the movie may not be for everybody. It's also a bit slow to develop and a bit complicated because of the way the movie presents the back-story in bits and pieces.

But for people who want something a bit quirky, Lolly-Madonna XXX is definitely worth watching, in no small part thanks to the ensemble cast giving some fairly fine acting performances and lovely location shooting.

Thursday, January 18, 2024


I was recently browsing through the PlutoTV channel listings, and one of the channels dedicated to older movies had a John Wayne western I hadn't heard of before: Dakota. So, I decided to watch it in order to be able to do a review on it here.

The movie was made in 1945, although one of the opening title cards indicates that the print here is a re-release print. After the opening credites, we get one of those text scrolls that establish the scene of the action, which is 1870, or 75 years before the movie was made. Also, both eras are just after the end of a war (this movie was released on Christmas Day 1945). There's a vast untamed west that, at the time the movie was set, was only recently connected coast to coast by rail, although there are sections without rail, such as the Dakota Territory, where people have been moving under the Homestead Act to grow wheat.

Cut to the main action. John Devlin (John Wayne) shows up at the house of one of the railroad magnates living in Chicago, Marko Poli (Hugo Haas). At the same time, we see a woman throwing bags out her bedroom window. That woman is Sandra (Vera Ralston), adult daughter of Marko. She's throwing her stuff out the window because, as we quickly learn, she's also Mrs. John Devlin, and if need be she'll run away with him. Need certainly will be, as Dad doesn't approve of the marriage, forcing John and Sandra to beat a hasty escape while Dad and his men chase on another carriage, shooting at the Devlins.

The Devlins do make it to the train station, but along the way Sandy has rather foolishly waved the $20,000 that she's taken from the house, which is a signal for anybody and everybody who might know about the existence of the money to try to steal it from the Devlins. John was planning to take Sandy west to California to start their new life there, but Sandy has a different idea. Her father owns the railroad line that currently goes as far as St. Paul, MN. But Dad is planning to extend the line to the Dakotas, just needing to buy the land. Sandy figures they can go to Dakota and buy up that land first before re-selling it to whoever winds up building the railroad and making a killing. And Sandy will know where that railroad is going since Dad owns the line. Sounds like a criminal conflict of interest. Wouldn't you know it, however, Sandy gets the couple on the train to Minnesota.

Since the train doesn't go all the way to Fargo, the couple have to take a stagecoach through one of California's rock formations that simulate the old west to get to the Red River of the North which will take them to Fargo. The Devlins get on the River Bird, a decrepit riverboat captained by Capt. Bounce (Walter Brennan). News of Devlin's money has reached the area, and one Jim Bender (Ward Bond) shows up with his men to steal that money so that they'll be able to buy out the wheat farmers and get that land.

Devlin remains in hot pursuit, but it's not going to be easy for him to get the money back, since he's badly outnumbered, and frankly, Sandy has enough of a fear of guns that she'd rather John not carry one. They do eventually get to Fargo, and find that Bender is trying to install his corrupt friend Collins (Mike Mazurki) as sheriff. Together, they'll go to whatever means necessary to ensure that the farmers aren't able to bring in the harvest. This includes burning down crops. It's up to Devlin to save the day and get the farmers a fair deal.

Dakota was made during John Wayne's time at Republic, after Stagecoach had pushed him up the ladder of stardom, although true stardom was still a bit away with the later John Ford Westerns in the late 1940s and beyond. Vera Ralston was married to studio head Herbert Yates, and at this time she still had some difficulties with English, she (coincidentally like her screen father Hugo Haas) being from Czechoslovakia. That having been said, Ralston does well here, lightening the tone of filme while being a clever enough woman to get her own way.

Still, Dakota is decidedly not a prestige movie in the standards of the major Hollywood studios, and it's unsurprising that it's one of those movies that isn't so well remembered today despite being another John Wayne starring role. It's not bad, but there are definitely better movies out there.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The King and the Chorus Girl

Some months back, TCM ran another of those surprisingly new-to-me movies, surprising considering how long I've had TCM and this is one of those movies that should be in the Turner Library so ought to get a few more showings on TCM: The King and the Chorus Girl. I recorded it so that I could watch it later and do a review on it here.

After the opening credits, a camera pans over a series of portraits of kings, from Alfred I through to Alfred VII, who looks quite contemporary. Cut to Alfred's apartment in Paris, although we don't see him at first. Alfred VII is the deposed king of one of those made-up central/eastern European countries that were a big thing in movies made before World War II. A doctor is visiting, and talking to Alfred's last two attendants, Count Humbert (Edward Everett Horton) and Duchess Anna (Mary Nash). Alfred's been on another bender; the benders last three days and sleeping them off lasts another three, with Alfred being in the sleeping it off stage. The doctor informs the Count and Duchess that Alfred has an acute case of apathy.

Alfred (played by Fernand Gravey) finally wakes up, seemingly sober, and we see that he's not exactly a likable character, self-centered and still expecting the trappings of power. He feels like he's done everything there is to do in Paris, and is bored with life. The Count and Duchess suggest some ideas that might lull him back to sleep out of his boredom, and eventually everybody agrees to try another night at the Folies Bergère, even though they've heard all the jokes from the vaudeville-style comedy pair before.

But this night turns out a bit differently. One of the musical numbers has a bunch of chorus girls, and one of the chorus girls, American-born Dorothy Ellis (Joan Blondell) keeps shining her mirror where the light is going to reflect right in Alfred's eyes. Alfred notices this, and decides she's impudent enough that he'd like to invite her over to his apartment for dinner after the show, before getting up and leaving. Not that she knows anything about ex-king Alfred, but she agrees to go, because who wouldn't want to meet a king. And he might even have a tidy sum of money still.

As for the Count and Duchess, they realize that bringing Miss Ellis over isn't such a bad idea, because it might help Alfred deal with that apathy. Unfortunately, Dorothy, the Count, and Duchess return to the apartment to find that Alfred went home and right to sleep, apparently having forgotten that he'd invited a chorus girl over for dinner, or perhaps just joking about the idea of inviting a chorus girl over. Dorothy is unsurprisingly displeased and walks out, not even seeing Alfred.

The Count and Duchess decide that a woman who would walk out on Alfred is just what he needs, so they decide to try to bring the two together. Based on the sort of movie this is, we know that they will mostly likely wind up together in the final reel, although there are going to be quite a few complications along the way.

The King and the Chorus Girl is a bit of an odd movie, for a couple of reasons. One is the casting; although Joan Blondell had played chorus girl types in the early 1930s, but 1937 when this one was made Blondell as an American in Paris feels a bit off. It feels more like the sort of story that MGM would have made with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. That, and the story doesn't feel like a typically Warner Bros. story; instead, it feels like something more suited to MGM as I said, or maybe the Korda brothers over in the UK.

Not that The King and the Chorus Girl is a bad movie. It's definitely formulaic, and something that won't appeal to everybody, but for the people who like 1930s romantic comedies, they'll definitely like it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The Italian Untouchables

Another of the movies that I DVRed based on the interesting synopsis was the late 1960s crime movie Machine Gun McCain. Recently, I finally got around to watching it off the DVR to do the usual post on it here.

The movie starts off with a pre-credits establishing sequence in which a bunch of Italian Mafia types are about to pronounce death on a regional crime boss, out in the western part of the US, having heard from the soon-to-be new regional boss Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk) that the predecessor was skimming campaign money off of them. Said predecessor is summarily mowed down after dropping his kids off at school.

The credits then reveal that this is an Italian production, albeit one with an international cast, produced in English (the Italian title translates to "The Untouchables"). Adamo, having been elevated, wants to expand his power and influence, and decides that the best way to do that is to go to Las Vegas. There, he plans to buy a stake in the newly built Royal Casino. But it's actually a Mob-owned casino, so Charlie is on shaky ground trying to muscle his way in. The manager refuses to sell, so Adamo comes up with an idea to get revenge.

But Adamo is going to need help. One of his underlings is young Jack McCain, who is the son of Hank McCain (John Cassavetes), the titular McCain. The only thing is, Hank is in prison, and it's going to cost a bunch to obtain a pardon. Worse, Jack doesn't tell his father that the plan is actually being bankrolled by Adamo. That plan is to rob the casino's safe on a Saturday night, when there's bound to be a seven-figure amount of cash in the safe. Hank, who doesn't know his son very well thanks to all that time in prison, isn't all that certain that his son is up to it.

Hank is right to be worried, although the bigger issue is that they're going to be robbing from the Mob. Eventually, Charlie's superiors inform him of the Royal's Mob ownership, and the shouldn't be trying to buy a stake. Charlie wisely calls off the heist, but Jack is such a stupid SOB that he doesn't do anything about it, and Hank is so full of hubris that he thinks about going through the plan anyway. At least Hank has the smarts to realize that Jack's colleagues are out to kill them.

Hank does go to Las Vegas and pulls off the heist anyway, but obviously the Mob isn't going to let that go unchallenged, forcing Hank to go on the run together with Irene (Britt Ekland), the woman he first met after getting out of prison. Can they escape the clutches of the Mob?

Machine Gun McCain is an interesting addition to the crime and heist movie genre. I'm not certain if it's because you had an Italian production crew trying to do an English movie, or if it's because the print TCM ran isn't the Italian "original". Sources suggest that the movie has a running time of just under two hours, but the version TCM showed was in the 95-96 minute range. It's stylish enough and a nice look at the late 1960s, thanks to more than capable performances from Falk and Cassavetes. If I were going to introduce people to movies of the genre, I don't think this is the first one I'd pick, but it's definitely worth a watch.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Uptown Saturday Night

A few weeks back in the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon I mentioned the movie Uptown Saturday Night. I had it on my DVR from the last time TCM showed it, and having watched it, now I can do a review on it, just by sheer coincidence on Martin Luther King Day here in the States..

Sidney Poitier directed, and also stars, playing Steve Jackson, a blue collar metalworker who is happily married to Sarah (Rosalind Cash) living in a smallish apartment in the city, although the two of them dream of moving out to the country permanently. This is a couple that clearly loves each other. When relatively conservative Steve isn't spending time at home with his wife, he's spending time with his somewhat more adventurous best friend, taxi driver Wardell Franklin (Bill Cosby). Steve has an upcoming vacation, and Wardell suggests they start it off by going to Zenobia's, the elegant if not quite legal gambling house. Steve has never been there, largely because he's too straight-arrow to spend that kind of money.

The two eventually do go to Zenobia's dressed to the nines since that's the dress code, and look like they're enjoying themselves, at least the gambling part of it. Steve would never be seen with a woman of ill repute. Everything goes well, until... a bunch of masked men come in, guns blazing, demanding everyone empty their pockets and even strip down to their undies to show that they're not hiding anything. The thieves then take all the valuables, including Steve's wallet, which is quite a bummer.

If that's a bummer, things are about to get even worse for Steve. The next day, he's reading the newspaper, and sees an announcement of the winning lottery number. Not too long ago, Sarah had taken his coat to the cleaners, and found the lottery ticket. And wouldn't you know, Steve's ticket is the winning ticket, worth $50,000, which is a reasonably nice sum for 1974, at least two or three years' income. Certainly enough to seed moving out to the country. Just produce the ticket. Unfortunately, Steve put the ticket in his wallet for safekeeping.

So Steve accosts Wardell, and insists that the two go looking for that lottery ticket. This leads them to a lot of places, starting with a private detective (Richard Pryor) who turns out to be quite the crook himself. Then they hope they can get help from their local congressman (Roscoe Lee Browne), who is an utter hypocrite. There are also a pair of gang leaders who might know something about the theft, Geechie Dan (Harry Belafonte) and his rival Silky Slim (Calvin Lockhart). Eventually, everybody and the ticket wind up at a church social hosted by the local reverend (Flip Wilson), leading to the car chase.

Uptown Saturday Night is a movie that has a premise that holds the potential for a lot of fun. And the film really has a fine cast of people who mostly can do comedy. Poitier isn't exactly what you'd think of as a comic actor, although like Gregory Peck in Captain Newman MD, he's more than good enough at letting everybody around him be funny. However....

Poitier, as the director, clearly came to the project wanting to give a whole lot of black actors who never got good roles under the studio system the sort of meaty part and a chance to shine that they wouldn't get otherwise. Poitier's direction, however, tends to give each of these actors their cameo at the expense of the story working as well as it otherwise could. The result is a movie that definitely has its share of hits, but is also decidedly uneven.

Uptown Saturday Night is definitely worth a watch, although it really could have been a much better movie.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Martin Luther King Day programming briefs

Tomorrow is already the third Monday in January, which means it's Martin Luther King Day in the United States and a paid holiday for people who happen to work for the government or certain government-adjacent contracting. TCM is once again doing "special" programming for the day. During the daytime, that only means running a bunch of Sidney Poitier movies, because there weren't many black stars back in the studio era that TCM can promote with an entire day of programming that won't put a more degrading spotlight on blacks as the hired help.

At least in prime time, however, we get something a bit different, with several documentaries about the US civil rights movement. And there is one non-documentary movie, Song of Freedom at 4:30 AM Jan. 16, which stars Paul Robeson. I think a couple of the movies, specifically Crisis (1:00 AM Jan. 16 and decidedly not the Cary Grant drama) have shown up repeatedly in TCM's Martin Luther King Day programming of past years.

I actually have a Sidney Poitier movie scheduled for tomorrow, having had it on my DVR for a while. It is, however, not one of the movies in TCM's line-up tomorrow; otherwise, I would have scheduled the blog post for today in order to be able to point out when it was airing.

FXM, mildly surprisingly, doesn't seem to be doing anything. I'm not surprised that the FXM Retro block during the morning doesn't have anything special; apart from Sidney Poitier's No Way Out (which will be on TCM anyway) there not a whole lot that they could program. But I could swear I've seen times in the past (notably the first Juneteenth after the George Floyd Mostly Peaceful Protests) where they did go out of their way to pander.

Down By Law

I've made no bones over the 15 years that I've been doing this blog that I tend to watch older movies a lot more than more recent stuff, with "more recent" being after I was born, and certainly the 1980s and later. Not that I don't want to watch more recent stuff, of course, if it sounds interesting. An indie 1980s movie I didn't know anything about until I saw it show up in the TCM schedule was Down By Law. So, as always, I recorded it in order to be able to watch it later and do a review on it.

The movie starts off with a pre-credits sequence showing a lot of camera panning over lower-class housing in New Orleans along with some of the environs. In and among these shots are two guys getting in bed with a girlfriend (different girlfriends, of course). After the credits, we find that the two aren't in the best of relationships. Zack (Tom Waits) is a disk jockey whose girlfriend is the primary tenant in the apartment, paying the rent, and feeling like Zack doesn't appreciate her. So she gets in an argument with him, throwing 45s at him, and kicking him out. Cut to a shot of Zack outside one of those balconied buildings that show up in lots of films set in New Orleans.

Jack (Tom Lurie) is a white pimp sleeping with a black woman who makes trenchant comments about Jack's white hookers. Jack is waiting to have a meeting with Fatso, a man who procures women for Jack. When Fatso gets to the apartment he tells Jack he's got a 19-year old "Cajun goddess" for Jack to pimp out. Things aren't going to work out for either Zack or Jack.

Jack goes to meed that "Cajun goddess", only to find out that she's a minor, and this this was a set-up by some of Jack's enemies to get him arrested and out of the pimp game. As for Zack, he starts drinking, until a guy offers him an obscene sum of money to drive a car across town and park it there. That sort of easy money should be a warning sign, but Zack is too stupid or drunk to realize it. In the trunk of the car is a dead body, and Zack is found out when he's pulled over.

The two stories come together because, as you might be able to guess, the two men are put in the same jail cell until they can await trial. They don't know each other and once they get to know each other they find that they don't like each other at all. If that sounds bad enough, things are only going to get worse thanks to the introduction of a third arrestee. Roberto (Roberto Benigni), nicknamed Bob, is an Italian tourist with a limited command of English. He gets arrested on a manslaughter charge and put in the same cell with Zack and Jack.

The three have to try to get along somehow, with Zack and Jack at each other's throats and Bob not understanding how much he's bugging the other two, since his English isn't good enough to pick up on that. Worse, Bob thinks that the three of them can escape jail just like that. And wouldn't you know, but the three of them do come up with an escape plan.

However, that plan involves the three of them making their way through the bayous of southern Louisiana, a place none of the three knows very well and where it will be easy for them to get lost. And they still have their disagreements from jail to deal with....

Jim Jarmusch isn't the most mainstream director out there, and if you watch his movies it's not difficult to see why. In the case of Down by Law, Jarmusch decided to use stark black-and-white photography, which works for the urban scenes although not so much for the bayou scenes. There's also a decided air of unrealisticness here, which may work for some but didn't quite work for me. Not that Down by Law is a bad movie; it's more the sort of thing that isn't going to appeal to everyone.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Curtain Call

I mentioned earlier this week that I recorded quite a few of the B movies that were part of TCM's spotlight on B movies back in July. I still have quite a few of them to go to, and the next one to get a post is 1940's Curtain Call.

The movie starts off in Medbury, one of those small towns that populated Hollywood movies of the era. Helen Middleton (Barbara Read) is the adult daughter in a family with her parents and a kid brother. She's also got a boyfriend Ted (John Archer) who would like to marry her, if only he could get the money to do so. Thankfully he thinks he's about to get a promotion that might enable that marriage.

Helen has also been busy working on a play that she thinks is the greatest thing since sliced bread. And wouldn't you know it, but the paper announces the arrival of one Donald Avery (Alan Mowbray). He's a noted New York theater director who comes to the Medbury area every off-season on a hunting trip. The locals all toady up to Donald since they like the idea of having a big celebrity-type person in their midst and want him to partake of their theater culture, such as it is. Helen even tries to show her play to Avery. That's not how it works; get an agent please.

But big-city theater life isn't the be-all and end-all that some folks in places like Medbury think it is. Right now, Avery and his producer partner Jeff Crandall (Donald MacBride) a huge problem with their big star, Charlotte Morley (Helen Vinson). Her contract is almost up and she'd like to sign with a new producer, but she still has to do one more play with Avery and Crandall before she can sign with anybody else. She's money in the bank, which is why she's got clout and why Avery and Crandall don't want her to jump ship.

Crandall comes up with a "brilliant" idea. The contract says Charlotte has to do the play the producers assign to her, so go look for the absolutely worst play they can find, and make Charlotte do it. When she realizes how bad it is and will want to do something else, Crandall will agree on conditin that Morley sign a new contract with them. They've found a truly awful play to assign, The End of Anything, which is the play that young Helen was working on back in Medbury and tried to show to Avery.

But two big complications happen. One is that Helen shows up after getting the check for the rights to the play. She's got stars in her eyes, and is excited that her play is getting produced. Worse, however, is that Charlotte reads the play and thinks it's the best thing she's read in a long time! So now Avery and Crandall have to figure out some way to get Charlotte off the play and keep Helen happy while other people try to put ideas in Helen's little head.

RKO, which produced Curtain Call, wasn't the biggest studio, and this sort of comedy with a pretention of being highbrow wasn't really their forte. Having said that, Curtain Call isn't bad by the standards of B movies. And it's not like you'll waste that much of your time by watching it. There are much worse ways to spend 65 minutes.

Friday, January 12, 2024

The Three Faces of Fear

TCM unsurprisingly ran a bunch of horror movies during October. They have access to a certain subset of horror, notably all those Hammer Frankenstein and Dracula movies, as well as the movies that Vincent Price made which I think were distributed by American International. A different movie AIP released was the American version of a horror anthology, called Black Sabbath in America. (The movie was originally made in Italy, with a title translating to The Three Faces of Fear.

The movie is an anthology of horror stories, and when Alicia Malone introduced it, she said this was going to be the version released in Italy. However, what they showed is, I'm pretty certain, the American version, as the two versions have a different ordering of the stories. Boris Karloff introduces each of the stories with a bit of Hitchcockian dark humor, and even stars in one of the stories.

First up in the American version is "The Drop of Water", supposedly is based on a story by Anton Chekhov. Jacqueline Pierreux plays Helen, a British nurse, who late one dark and stormy night gets a telephone call. The caller is a maid who works for a medium. Or worked, since the medium just died, hence the call to the nurse. The maid wants Helen to prepare the body for burial. When she arrives, she notices that the dead medium, who already looks like she's decaying bit, is wearing a gaudy sapphire ring. Nobody else has use for it, Helen thinks, so she decides to take the ring for herself. In the process of trying to remove it from the dead woman's hand, she knocks over a glass of water that was on the nightstand. When she gets home, she gets the distinct suspicion that every faucet in the apartment is dripping, and no matter how many times she shuts them off, she keeps hearing dripping, leading her to wonder whether she's being haunted by the medium.

That's followed in the US version by "The Telephone", with a claimed provenance by Guy de Maupassant. This one looks like it's set closer to the time the movie was made (1963). Rosy (Michèle Mercier) hears the phone ringing, and goes to pick it up. No answer. It rings again, and she picks it up; again no answer. Finally, the third time, she hears a man's voice, claiming it's someone she knows, and accurately describing how she's only got a towel on. The phone calls keep coming, and eventually we learn that the man is someone Rosy helped send to prison. So she calls her friend Mary for help, although doing so may not give her as much help as she needs.

Last but not least, is "The Wurdulak", based on a story by Aleksey Tolstoy (cousin of Leo; Karloff mistakenly calls him Ivan Tolstoy). This one is set in 19th century Serbia, and has Mark Damon as a count who comes a murder victim who was stabbed to death. Surprisingly, at the farmhouse he stops at, the people recognize the knife as belonging to one of their members. Meanwhile, the patriarch, Gorca (Boris Karloff) is hunting a "wurdulak", a vampire-like creature. But more people get killed, including a young child, and the parents are stupid enough not to stab the dead child through the heart to prevent it too from becoming a wurdulak. Sure enough, the child's face shows up outside the window of the farmhouse....

Black Sabbath was directed by Mario Bava, the Italian director who would go on to define what's known as "giallo". Here, the stories are all adequate; there's nothing wrong with them although they weren't quite my cup of tea. Much more worth mentioning was Bava's use of light and a garish color palette, starting off with the green light coming in through the window at the beginning of "The Drop of Water" that reminded me of the neon lights in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. It's distinctive, and makes the movie much more memorable than it otherwise might be.

Black Sabbath is probably more worth mentioning in October than January, but it's worth watching any time.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

To Please a Lady

Another of the movies that I've had sitting on my DVR for a couple of months is To Please a Lady. Recently, I finally got around to watching it in order to be able to do a review on it here.

After the opening credits, the camera focuses on a poster advertising "Regina Forbes, America's Leading Woman Columnist". Forbes is played by Barbara Stanwyck, and she's in the office with her editor, Gregg (Adolphe Menjou). They're watching a TV promo about Mike Brannan (Clark Gable), a racecar driver who drives all sorts of cars to make a living. The promo points out that he's become successful, but he's also now the villain because he'll do anything to win, not that they had the word kayfabe in those days. In any case, Gregg thinks Brannon would be a perfect person for Regina to do her next column on.

Regina and Gregg go out to Newark to the midget car track where Brannan is racing this week. Brannan is good and knows it, and as a result treats Regina with all the respect he deserves, which is not much but also about as much as he'd give to any writer not already in the racing world. It's an attitude that turns Regina off to Brannan. She and Gregg stay in the stands to watch the race, which is rather an eventful one. Brannon and another driver are in a fight for the lead, having lapped other cars that are much slower. In an attempt to lap another car, there's enough of an accident that Brannan's rival crashes off the track, eventually dying from his injuries. Regina is ruthless in her column, and Brannan finds that he's unable to race anywhere.

Some time later, Gregg reads a newspaper article mentioning how Brannan has been blackballed from racing, and is now a trick driver at the sort of traveling carnival that, a generation earlier, would have featured stunt pilots who would have been lionized in early talkies. Regina feigns disinterest, but you get the feeling she was so turned on by Brannan's bad boy act back in Newark that she just has to go to the carnival when it shows up in the New York area. Not only that, but she goes over to see Brannan after the show even though he seems to be pursuing one of the women working in the carnival.

Regina is clearly falling for Brannan, although he certainly doesn't return the favor at first. And he's got good reason to be pissed at her. But he thinks he's finally earned enough money to try to get back into racing, and this time big time racing as in the Indianapolis 500, which was the Great American Race back in thos days. But you know that eventually Brannan is going to thaw and start having feelings of his own for Regina.

It takes some time as Brannan goes back up the ranks, and Regina is also forced to re-examine herself when another person she wrote a nasty column about decides to commit suicide rather than face a prison sentence resulting from one of Regina's poison-pen columns. Brannan and Regina may finally be able to accept each other for who they are, but the relationship is going to have to survive Brannan's attempt to win the Indy 500.

I've mentioned in the past how I think MGM was quite good at doing literary adaptions and costume dramas. However, there were certain genres they weren't as good at, and To Please a Lady falls squarely into that latter half. It doesn't help that the movie was made in 1950. Gable and Stanwyck were both much too old for their roles, Gable in particular. Plus, tastes were changing after World War II and To Please a Lady feels a lot like the sort of auto racing movie that would have been done in the pre-war years. The script also doesn't do any of the stars any favors.

To Please a Lady may be of interest to fans of either Clark Gable or Barbara Stanwyck, but it's not a terribly good film.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Woman of Straw

Gina Lollobrigida died early last year, and TCM ran a programming tribute to her in May. They ran a bunch of movies I hadn't seen before, so I recorded quite a lot to get through. Next up from the Lollobrigida tribute is Woman of Straw.

Ralph Richardson plays Charles Richmond, a fairly nasty man, but one who did well in the business world and lives in a big manor house someplace not too far from London. He treats everybody around him badly, including his nephew Anthony (Sean Connery). But Charles has a bad heart and requires a live-in nurse. His nasty personality has driven off a bunch of nurses, and Anthony is bringing in another one on a trial. This one is a foreigner, Maria Marcello (Gina Lollobrigida).

Charles is a widower with no children of his own, and Anthony has done the best he can managing his uncle's business affairs despite Charles thinking Anthony is no good. To that end, Charles has only left a paltry portion of his eight-figure fortune to Anthony in his will. Anthony chafes at that, and would like to inherit more of his uncle's estate, but how to get at that money? Anthony has an idea, and it's part of why he brought in the beautiful Maria to try to be Charles' nurse.

If Charles only has his nephew, he can dispose of the estate pretty much however he sees fit. But if he has a wife, British inheritance law will make certain the widow gets some of the estate. So Anthony wants Maria to marry Charles, which should only be a relatively short marriage since he's in apparently poor health. Anthony will get Maria to agree to marry Charles and get Charles to change the will such that Maria will inherit everything. Maria will then agree to give Anthony £1 million out of that fortune.

Maria, despite having walked out on Charles already, eventually agrees to the deal! She returns to the estate, and sets about getting Charles to fall in love with her so that he'll propose marriage. That, and get Charles ready to go on his luxurious private yacht on a cruise to the Mediterranean. And wouldn't you know it, but on that cruise Charles eventually does propose marriage to Maria, and then does write a new will on Mallorca.

However, there's one catch, which is that the will apparently needs to be registered in the UK to be valid under UK law. And Anthony is worried that his uncle won't survive long enough for them to get to dry land and Charles' solicitors to have the will registered. Sure enough, the morning that they're supposed to dock, Charles is found dead in his stateroom on the yacht. So Charles comes up with a ridiculous plan to presage Weekend at Bernie's and fool everyone for one day that Charles is still alive.

Things start to go south, however, when it's determined how Charles died. And then there's the question of whether anyone saw through the ruse about Charles' being alive until they got him home. Worse for Maria is that her story and Anthony's are really not agreeing....

Woman of Straw is, to me, very much a product of the 1960s, in that it feels like it's trying to keep up with the changing times, but at the same time there's somethign decidedly old-fashioned about it. The first half of the movie is rather slow to develop, and then once Charles dies the story veers in ways that are both unpredictable and credulity-straining.

Still, all three leads give entertaining performances and just about make the story work in spite of all the things that shouldn't make sense. It's not the best movie any of the three leads made, but it's still definitely worth one watch.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Moon Under the Blood

I mentioned last week that Robert Mitchum is the TCM Star of the Month for January 2024. I happened to have one of his movies that I hadn't seen before on my DVR, and that movie is now on the TCM schedule: Blood on the Moon, early tomorrow at 3:30 AM Jan. 10 (or overnight tonight if you prefer to look at it that way).

The movie opens with Mitchum as a lone man on his horse riding somewhere through the old west. It's raining quite hard and getting dark, so the man sets up a makeshift camp for the night. However, not long after that, he hears sounds which he realizes are those of a cattle stampede. He climbs a tree for safety before the cattle come through, destroying his camp. And when the man who owns the heard shows up, he's none too pleased. That man is John Lufton (Tom Tully), who seems to own the entire region, or at least that part of the region that's not part of the Ute reservation. The interloper (Mitchum's character) is Jim Garry, who had been a cattle driver down in Texas before he lost his own herd.

This is one of those regions where homesteaders are beginning to show up, and Lufton is not pleased about that either. He offers Jim a choice, which is either to work for him or to leave the region. No joining in with the homesteaders. When Jim chooses to keep drifting, Lufton gives him a note and asks him to take it to his home in the valley. But before Jim can get to the Lufton spread, he's accosted by a gunman. Well, actually, a gunwoman, who turns out to be Lufton's daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes). Amy is hot-headed, but has an older sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter) who seems to be more level-headed.

Jim rides on into town, where he learn that he's not exactly a drifter. He had an old friend in the cattle driving business, Tate Riling (Robert Preston), who wrote him to come because he had a business proposition for Jim. Ostensibly, Tate wants Jim to help out the homesteaders, salt of the earth people like Kris Barden (Walter Brennan). To do this involves taking Lufton down a peg, which Jim can do by helping force Lufton to sell his herd. Tate has been working with the local Indian agent, Pindalest, to get Lufton's cattle off the reservation.

Now, Tate and Pindalest are going to play hardball. Pindalest has the power to declare it illegal for Lufton to have his cattle on the reservation, and use the military to get rid of the cattle if necessary. Riling also wants to manipulate the homesteaders into preventing Lufton from driving his cattle off the reservation. That would in theory force Lufton to sell the cattle at an artificially low price. But Lufton hates Riling, and would never sell to Riling. That's where Jim comes in. Lufton might well sell to Jim, who would then resell to the US government as represented by Pindalest, with the three of them pocketing the profits.

Once Jim learns the full extent of what's going on, he's horrified. This is complicated by the fact that Amy eventually starts falling in love with Jim after he informs her of what's going on and his possible willingness to side with Lufton. But can Jim get anybody to trust him?

Blood on the Moon is the sort of more complicated western that was beginning to show up in the years after World War II, and part of that is having someone not normally thought of as a direcor of westerns behind the camera: Robert Wise. Wise takes this complex and grown-up story and does quite a good job with it, helped by the fact that he and star Mitchum were both able to handle the noir-adjacent elements of the story. The supporting cast also mostly does a good job, although I have to say Walter Brennan isn't a particular favorite of mine. He's nowhere near as obnoxious here as he is in some other movies, however.

If you want a movie that's both intelligent and has action, you could do a lot worse than to watch Blood on the Moon.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Today would have been Elvis Presley's 89th birthday

January 8 is the birth anniversary of Elvis Presley, that famous singer who appeared in some 30 films although whether you want to call a lot of it acting depends on your opinion of Col. Tom Parker, I suppose. TCM likes to honor Elvis either on his birthday or on the anniversary of his death in August during Summer Under the Stars, but this year TCM doesn't seem to have any Elvis planned. I happen to have two of his movies on my DVR, so I decided to fire up one of them and watch it to do a post in conjunction with Elvis' birthday. That film is Girls! Girls! Girls!.

Elvis sings the title song over scenes of a fishing boat. That's because Elvis' character, Ross Carpenter, works in Hawaii as the captain of one of those charter fishing boats taking wealthy tourists out to try to catch a big fish. Ross works for a Greek-American couple who were partners with Ross' late father, and one of the boats they now own, the Westwind, was built by Ross and his father. Indeed, Ross still lives on it. But unfortunately, the husband of the couple has some health issues that require his moving to a drier climate. So he's retiring and selling the business to move to Arizona. He'd be happy to sell Ross the Westwing, but Ross doesn't have the money.

Ross goes to the local nightclub to commiserate with the people there on his troubles. He's friends with the club's singer, Robin (Stella Stevens), and sometimes he even goes up on stage to sing himself, since this is after all an Elvis vehicle. And the proprietor thinks Ross would make a good attraction at the club, but since we need dramatic conflict at the club, Ross insists that he's a sailor through and through.

Also at the club is Laurel Dodge (Laurel Goodwin), who's new to Hawaii and as we first see her getting into an argument with what looks like a boyfriend. She leaves the club with Ross, now definitely being sans boyfriend, and as Laurel and Ross talk, the quickly become friends on the way to being in love with each other. Except that all of this happens in the first third of the movie, so you know there still has to be more romantic conflict until Laurel and Ross wind up together in the final reel.

Part of that romantic conflict comes from Robin, who may or may not be more than just a friend to Ross. But then Laurel does something to make a mess of things. We learn that she comes from a wealthy family in the contiguous 48. Wealthy enough, in fact, that she can phone home and ask for an advance on the money she gets from the family trust or whatever it is. She uses it to buy the Westwind so that Ross can keep it, but this only pisses off Ross because he wanted to do things independently.

Sure, we eventually get to a happy ending, and Elvis gets to sing quite a few songs along the way, again unsurprising since it's an Elvis Presley movie. The best known of the songs is "Return to Sender", although there's also "Earth Boy" that Elvis sings with a pair of Asian-American girls, an a couple of songs for Stella Stevens to sing.

As for the main story, well, it's serviceable but not particularly great, thanks as always to Col. Tom Parker, who didn't want to "ruin" Elvis' reputation by stretching him far enough that the audience might not like something so radically different. Instead, he "ruined" Elvis by typecasting him, which is a shame, because Elvis could have been a more than capable actor given good material. Everybody else is adequate too, but you get the feeling they all could have handled a more challenging script.

Girls! Girls! Girls! isn't bad, but it's another of those movies that could have been so much more.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

I Promise to Pay

I've been mentioning over the past few months how I recorded quite a few movies during TCM's spotlight on B movies, in no small part because they have interesting plot synopses. Next up from that spotlight is a late 1930s movie from Columbia, I Promise to Pay.

The movie opens with a B-movie shenanigan, that of a montage of newspaper headlines to set the stage and make it look like more is happening than really is. In this case, it's news of a heat wave gripping the city. This is really just a ruse to introduce us to Eddie Lang (Chester Morris), an office worker with a wife Mary (Helen Mack) and two young kids. They're living on Eddie's salary in a small apartment that doesn't really cool down, these being the days before widespread residential air conditioning.

Eddie, having a bit of trouble concentrating on his job, comes across a classified ad in the newspaper from somebody offering a vacation out in the country. And he's got a week's vacation coming up. The only problem is that he needs the money. He's got an annual bonus coming up after the vacation, so he hopes that he could perhaps borrow against that bonus. Sadly, the boss says the company has a flat policy against that, and to be fair to them, setting that sort of precednet is a terrible idea.

Eddie has a "friend" named Al, however, who tells Eddie of a business he just happens to know that lends small amounts of money to lots of people just like Eddie. It sounds too good to be true, and of course it is. Al is a tout for Richard Farra (Leo Carrillo), who runs the local loan shart racket. And the rates Farra's organization charges are outrageous: $10 a week on the $50 loan that Eddie wants to borrow, which he gets from a cigar stand, something that should be a warning sign with red lights and sirens. And Eddie is actually smart enough to realize that the chit he signs doesn't say anything about interest. But he figures he'll be paying the loan back in full in two weeks when he gets his bonus.

But a couple of things happen. First is the interest that I mentioned, which they fill in afterward to make it look like the people who take out these loans know full well what they're getting into. And then Eddie finds out that his company isn't in good enough shape this year to pay out the annual bonus, so now Eddie is going to have to come up with some other way to pay off the loan, which is going to be tough since just getting that $10 a week is hard enough, never mind the principle.

And he doesn't know about Al's being in Farra's employ, so when he tells Al his plans, Al goes off and blabs to Farra, since that's Al's job. And when Eddie decides he's simply not going to pay and go to the police, well, Farra knows that he can call on force to get people to pay up. Eddie, getting deeper into debt, gets himself into trouble that costs him his job, although this at least this has the "benefit" of forcing him to move to where he thinks Falla's men can't find him....

I Promise to Pay was made in the late 1930s, which is partly while the Depression was still going on, and partly after Joe Breen started enforcing the Production Code. So we know that the story is going to have a happy-ish ending with the bad guys getting what's coming to them. That, and it's going to give us a bit of a moral message about the evils of the loan racket. So watching a movie like this almost 90 years on, it's decidedly dated. But audiences of the day probably wouldn't have found it so, and would have identified with people having such terrible financial troubles. In that regard, I Promise to Pay does work as a B movie. It's no great shakes, and certainly not the sort of material that would get produced today, but even in the 1930s B movies weren't seen as anything more than for current consumption.