Tuesday, January 24, 2017

MGM's 40th anniversary

I've mentioned the short Some of the Best on several occasions in the past. It's MGM's 25th anniversary presentation, looking at one movie from each of the first 25 years of the studio's history, followed by a look at upcoming movies and (the best part) a luncheon showing more stars than there are in the firmament.

MGM made quite a few shorts showing their plans for the coming year; I've mentioned the late-60s short Lionpower a few times as well. And today at 7:15 PM, TCM is running MGM 40th Anniversary. This one, which I'll admit I haven't seen, is from 1964 and according to the reviews, nowhere near as good as some of the earlier shorts. (Lionpower, at least, is humorous in its breathless pumping up of the movies.

The one reviewer at IMDb points out that MGM wouldn't make another decadal featurette like this one. Of course, ten years later, they made the first of the That's Entertainment! pictures, and in the promotional trailer pointed out that there would never be another picture like it. Until the sequel a few years later.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Communist screenplays

I see that TCM is spending the afternoon with a couple of movies that screenplays by notorious totalitarian supporter Dalton Trumbo.

I think I've argued here in the past that actors certainly shouldn't have been blacklisted by Hollywood for their political beliefs. One can make a case that people who were bad for box office would have lost jobs, and that's certainly a stickier issue, since the studios can play fast and loose with the accounting numbers. But it's not as if their political beliefs were influencing the movies that much. Directors and most behind the camera people should never have been subject to a blacklist either. If anybody deserved to be smacked by studio heads, though, it was screenwriters, who more easily could use their platform to influence what wound up in the movies.

I think the best example of that airing today is A Man to Remember, airing at 1:00 PM. This is a remake of an earlier film, One Man's Journey, about a doctor who winds up spending his whole career in a small town, while his son grows up to have the opportunity to do prestigious research in the big city. Lionel Barrymore plays the doctor in the original; Edward Ellis does a fine job in the sequel. The problem is that Trumbo wrote a didactic screenplay, starting off with the doctor's funeral and telling the story in flashback, with some evil bankers going through the doctor's strongbox. Throughout the movie we get leaden plot lines about the heroic small-town doctor going up against sinister monied interests.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (2:30 PM) isn't so bad, mostly because it's wartime propaganda. Hollywood's communists were internationalists up until the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact in August 1939, at which point they did a volte face and became isolationists. Until June 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR, that is, at which point they switched to a pro-war stance, and it's that latter pro-war stance that seems to be remembered.

We Who Are Young (4:30 PM) is, in tone, more in line with A Man to Remember. Lana Turner and John Shelton play a couple who both work for a bookkeeping firm and violate the firm's rules of probity; Trumbo's screenplay makes no bones that it's the bosses who are ridiculously evil as the capitalist system visits horror after horror upon the couple.

I don't think the Communists should have been blacklisted any more than, say, Leni Riefenstahl. (And Riefenstahl was a glaring omission from TCM's Trailblazing Women series.) And even more certainly the blankety-blanks in Congress shouldn't have dragooned anybody from Hollywood into appearing before them, on any issue. But it shouldn't be forgotten that Communists were, at best, useful idiots supporting a hideous totalitarian ideology who are just as bad as Holocaust deniers. It's just that they're supporting a different flavor of totalitarianism.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Piper Laurie turns 85

I just happened to be looking up actress Piper Laurie the other day because I saw that one of her lesser-known movies, the western Smoke Signal with Dana Andrews, is going to be on StarzEncore Westerns later this week (5:48 AM Thursday, to be exact). It's one that I can't remember the last time I saw; those old Universal(-International) westerns don't show up on TCM very often. And I don't currently have any of the premium cable channel packages or the bandwidth to do streaming video.

But today happens to be Laurie's 85th birthday. Laurie started her career at Universal as an 18-year-old, playing small parts for several years before decampign to television. She eventually wound up getting one big role, as Paul Newman's girlfriend in The Hustler, which earned Laurie the first of three Oscar nominations, this one for Best Actress. Marriage slowed Laurie's career, but she eventually returned in the late 1970s, earning a second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress in Carrie. Laurie's third nomination would be for Children of a Lesser God 10 years later.

Despite that long layoff that produced little screen work, Laurie has a substantial body of both movie and TV work.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I have mentioned all of these before, haven't I?

I was looking at the TCM schedule, and I saw that the afternoon lineup concludes with a short, Souvenirs of Death, at about 7:49 PM after Bend of the River. It's an interesting idea, and I wasn't certain if I had mentioned it before, but as you can see from the link, I have. Basically, somebody captures a gun off a Nazi in World War II and brings it home, but the bad guys wind up getting it.

Tonight's prime time lineup is dedicated to actor Dana Andrews. Interestingly, TCM is able to get in four movies before going to TCM Underground. First up, at 8:00 PM, is Boomerang!, in which Andrews plays a prosecutor who comes to believe the guy he's supposed to be prosecuting is in fact innocent. It's based on a real-life story in which the prosecutor in question wound up becoming Attorney General in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, although the movie is set in the "modern" day, that of the late 1940s instead of the late 1920s.

Next up, at 9:45 PM, is Fallen Angel at 9:45 PM. I don't think I watched the 2011 TCM airing, and I'm pretty certain I haven't seen it since, so this is one that it's definitely been ages since I've seen.

Then come a pair of movies from a bit later in Andrews' career. At 11:30 PM is While the City Sleeps , a mystery set against the backdrop of a power struggle at a news empire and the various fiefdoms there trying to solve the mystery. It's a lot of fun, and incredibly cynical.

Finally, at 1:15 AM, there's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which has Andrews as a journalist who gets into an audacious story with his boss (Sidney Blackmer): frame himself as a murderer, and reveal the evidence only after he's been sentenced to the death penalty! Of course, there are complications, such as the boss dying in a car crash and the evidence going missing with his death.

All four of the Andrews movies are well worth watching.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Briefs for January 20-21, 2016

I probably should have mentioned the marathon of Saint movies airing in prime time tonight on TCM. Simon Templar was played by several actors over the course of the series, and we get entries from Louis Hawyard, George Sanders, and Hugh Sinclair during the evening and overnight. I'm not certain which of them I've seen; I'm probably getting the Saint movies mixed up with the Lone Wolf movies. Ah yes, Melvyn Douglas played the Lone Wolf in a movie. And Louis Hayward would play him on TV. No wonder it's so darn easy to get the series mixed up.

Much has been made of the fact that TCM just happened to have A Face in the Crowd on today's schedule, what with the presidential inauguration. People of a certain political stripe want to compare Donald Trump with Lonesome Rhodes, something I thought I mentioned here once before during the campaign. I would have compared Trump with a character in a different movie on today's schedule: Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead. I've long believed that Ayn Rand's characters work better when considered as archetypes. Wynand and Trump both come across as people who say what they think the people want to hear, but when it comes to having something for themselves, what do they really want?

I should probably also mention the death of actor Miguel Ferrer, at the young age of 61. Ferrer, son of José Ferrer, was in Robocop, a bunch of TV shows, anddid a fair amount of voice work.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #132: Featuring Actors/Actresses Who Passed Away in 2016

This being Thursday, it's time for another Thursday Movie Picks, run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week's theme is actors and actresses who died in 2016, and of course as a lover of old movies, I'm picking some slightly older movies.

First up is Strait-Jacket, from 1964. This one is in honor of George Kennedy, although he only has a small role. The star here is Joan Crawford, playing a woman who axe-murdered her husband decades ago and spent a long time in a mental institution as a result. She's out now and living with her adult daughter (Diane Baker), but odd things start happening that bring Crawford's sanity back into question, especially when somebody gets axed to death. Kennedy's small part includes a memorable scene of him having to axe a chicken to death:

This was made by William Castle, known for his gimmicks; I guess the gimmick here is starring Joan Crawford.

Next we get the 1962 two-reeler Happy Anniversary. This was made by and stars Pierre Étaix, a French clown who made several movies in the 1960s, all known for their inventive visual humor. This short has Étaix playing a husband who is trying to buy a gift for his wife on her anniversary, only to have anything that can go wrong actually go wrong: there's traffic, he has trouble fitting a gift in his tiny car, and so on. Meanwhile, the wife is back at their apartment having made a nice dinner for her husband; they being French, she's also opened a nice bottle of wine. And she waits... and waits... and waits....

Finally, I'll mention another movie where the actor had a small role: Running on Empty. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play a couple of 60s radicals who accidentally killed an innocent janitor when they bombed a napalm factory; they've been on the run ever since with their two children. The elder of the two children, played by River Phoenix, is a piano prodigy, and good enough to go to Juilliard. Except of course that there's a problem, which is that if he were to go off it might reveal his parents' identities, and will also probably mean he's never see his parents again. I'm mentioning this film in honor of actor Steven Hill, perhaps best known from the TV series Law and Order. He plays Christine Lahti's father, and has one memorable scene when he meets his daughter at a restaurant for the first time in ages as she asks him to consider taking custody of her son so he can go to Juilliard.

I thought about using Debbie Reynolds so that I could mention What's the Matter With Helen, which has her and Shelley Winters playing two mothers who have to leave Iowa after their sons commit a notorious Leopold and Loeb-style murder. The mothers' friendship eventually goes downhill....

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

TCM Guest Programmer January 2017: Damien Chazelle

So we're at that time of the month when another famous figure comes on to present four movies. This time, it's Damien Chazelle, the writer/director behind things like La La Land. (I saw the trailer in theater over the summer when I watched Florence Foster Jenkins, and I'm probably the one person who didn't find the movie particularly interesting from the trailer. Although at least not as bad as the second of the Tom Hanks movies trailered that day, which had Capt. Sully cracking the Dante code. People still like the Dan Brown conspiracy stuff?) Anyhow, Chazelle will be on tonight with Ben Mankiewicz to present four of his favorite films. Knowing who Chazelle is, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that three of the movies are musicals:

It's Always Fair Weather at 8:00 PM, a Gene Kelly musical about World War II vets meeting 10 years on;
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at 10:00 PM, a good story slightly marred by the fact that all of the dialog is sung;
Meet Me in St. Louis at midnight, in which we have to put up with the singing of Judy Garland, especially about that expletive-deleted trolley.
And the one non-musical is a movie I personally find overrated, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights at 2:00 AM.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

One-hit wonders

TCM's Spotlight on prison movies continues to night with an early talkie: Weary River, at 9:45 PM.

Richard Barthlemess plays Jerry, a gangster with a heart of gold, at least to his girlfriend Alice (Betty Compson). He likes to play piano sing to her. But of course being a gangster he's got enemies, and some of them have Jerry framed and sent to prison. The warden, however, has a heart of gold too, and he tries to imrpove the lives of his prisoners by letting them perform in the prison band, and even inviting a radio network to do live broadcasts of the prison's concerts. Since it's already been foreshadowed that Jerry can sing, we know he's going to sing backed up by his fellow prisoners; he even writes his own song to sing, one called "Weary River", hence the title of the movie.

The song, of course, becomes a hit on the outside. That, combined with the likelihood that Jerry was framed, causes the warden (played by a silent-era actor named William Holden who is, as far as I can ascertain, no relation of the Holden of Sunset Blvd. fame) to give Jerry another chance on the outside. Jerry even has an obvious life outside of crime to pursue, that of a singer.

Now, you'd think this hook, of the guy who gained his stardom in prison, would be just the thing to jump-start a career. But we wouldn't have much of a plot that way. So instead, Jerry is hounded by his criminal past everywhere he goes. He's also enough of a dipshit that he can't write another song, simply singing "Weary River" again and again wherever he goes. Of course the public wants something new! But Jerry's professional failure is almost enough to send him back to a life of crime. Perhaps Alice -- helped by the warden -- can save him.

Weary River is interesting as an early talkie, but for more modern audiences, a lot of the plot is going to seem not only old-fashioned, but maddening. Some of the reasons for that, I've already alluded to. The two stars, however, carry themselves off well in spite of the material. They were both making the transition from the silents, not particularly successfully as it turned out. Weary River is worth one watch, but there were better movies even in 1929.

Weary River having been released by Warner Bros./First National, has been accorded a DVD release thanks to the Warner Archive, but as far as I can tell it's not part of any of the cheaper box sets Warner Home Video has been putting out.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Shorts I probably should have mentioned this morning

I see that following this afternoon's airing of Cabin in the Sky (or around 6:10 PM), TCM is running the Pete Smith short Studio Visit. Now, I've stated quite a few times that I'm not the biggest fan of the Pete Smith style. This short, however, has some things worth recommending it. The biggest, and the reason it's airing today, is that it contains footage of Lena Horne that was deleted from Cabin in the Sky. The footage has her in a bubble bath singing a musical number, which I suppose is a bit racy for the time. I wonder if somebody either at MGM or in Joe Breen's office found it inappropriate for a feature, but OK for a short. Studio Visit was included as an extra on this pre-Warner Archive DVD of Cabin in the Sky. I'm not certain if it's on the more recent Warner Archive release.

TCM isn't running Redd Foxx's Norman, Is That You? for Martin Luther King Day. I wonder why. However, they are re-running the promotional featurette Redd Foxx Becomes a Star at around 9:35 PM, following the first of the night's three documentaries. The featurette does a reasonably good job of illustrating why Foxx had a good deal of popularity, although as I understand it his nightclub act was much more adult in nature, something they couldn't really put on the screen, especially not in a featurette.

TCM already ran A Patch of Blue today. Overnight, around 1:05 AM, they're showing the featurette A Cinderella Named Elizabeth, about the film's star, Elizabeth Hartmann. As with something like All Eyes on Sharon Tate, it's kind of tragic watching this short knowing what would happen to Hartmann.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Princess Tam Tam

I made it a point to watch Princess Tam Tam off my DVR since it's coming up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on TCM as part of the annual Martin Luther King Day salute to black filmmakers. In this case, the person honored is singer/actress/entertainer Josephine Baker.

Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) is a celebrated French writer living not quite happily with his wife Lucie (Germaine Aussey). What makes him unhappy is that she spends so much time with high society types, whom he finds boring, and that makes him unable to write, which in turn ticks off his publisher. Matters come to a head, and he and his assistant Coton (Robert Amoux) go to Tunisia (then a French protectorate) to get away from it all.

It's in Tunisia that Max meets Alwina (Josephine Baker). She's first seen with a flock of sheep, but she doesn't quite seem to be a shepherdess, since she winds up in town stealing oranges and begging for alms. Max first sees her when she's stealing those oranges, and again after she hops on the back of his car to escape the police when she was begging illegally. Max and Coton get the idea of writing a Pygmalion-like story about trying to refine Alwina, whom Max is clearly taken with. Alwina isn't quite certain she likes western culture, but she does like Max.

Matters hit a head when news reaches Max from France that Lucie has been seeing the Maharajah of Datane (Jean Gallard) and is in all likelihood carrying on an affair with him. Max gets the idea of taking Alwina back to France, passing her off as a princess, and making that the subject of his novel. Along the way, he hopes to make Lucie jealous enough to teach her a lesson. Alwina clearly prefers Tunisia, but she loves Max enough to go to France with him.

Alwina is a success as a princess to the point that she's making all the other women jealous. But one night she doesn't want to be in high society, so she goes slumming, which is where she's seen by one of Lucie's friends, who is also slumming. Lucie and the Maharajah devise a plan to show Tam Tam for what she really is. But will the plan succeed?

Princess Tam Tam is clearly a vehicle for Josephine Baker, who milks it for all it's worth. The story is, to be honest, nothing original, what with all those Pygmalion overtones as well as a similarity to a lot of Hollywood comedies about one spouse trying to make the other jealous. But it's still well worth a watch. Baker is quite good, although she only gets two songs and two dances; from what I understand she would have been better served with material that highlighted these talents rather than straight acting. (Not that she's a bad actress.) The second dance, the musical finale, is clearly heavily influenced by Busby Berkeley and is on a par with almost anything Berkeley did from 42nd Street on.

As for the rest of the cast, the ones playing French characters all do well enough; the Maharajah seems miscast but that's probably down to the way the character is written. A good portion of the movie -- the interracial romance aspect as well as the cinematography -- come across as very different from what Hollywood was doing; maybe some of Josef von Sternberg's stuff like The Scarlett Empress could compare. The music, on the other hand, struck me as sounding very conventionally Hollywood. It's 30s style popular band music that fits in perfectly even if it's not particularly memorable. Then again, much of the instrumental popular band music in Hollywood movies from before swing took off is similarly unmemorable. This isn't a criticism of the movie, but a compliment to how well the music fits the movie.

The ending is foreshadowed if you pay close enough attention and is probably appropriate even if it seems like a bit of a cop-out. (I'm trying to avoid revealing exactly what the ending is as I don't want to spoil it.) It doesn't really detract from the rest of the movie, though.

Princess Tam Tam is available on DVD, but as with a lot of foreign films, it's a bit pricier than typical Hollywood movies.