Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #154: The Woods

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "The Woods". As a fan of older movies, I've picked three older (well, at least this time one of them was released after I was born) movies that fit the theme:

Brainstorm (1983). The final film of actress Natalie Wood; she drowned in an incident unrelated to the movie halfway through production. Wood plays Karen, the estranged wife of Michael (Christopher Walken), who is developing a sort of virtual reality device. The other inventor of the device (Beatrice Straight) dies suddenly, but not before hooking herself up to the device to record her thoughts as she's dying. Michael knows he just has to see that recording. Karen and Michael also record their own perspectives, which enables them to see the marriage from each other's point of view and save the marriage.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Ed Wood directed this hilariously awful movie about aliens trying to resurrect dead humans as zombies so that the zombies will take over Earth. Or something; the plot is such a mess as is the directing and the production values. But it's one of those movies that fails so spectacularly that it winds up being a blast to watch.

Fog Over Frisco (1934). Donald Woods plays Tony, a reporter pursuing socialite Val (Margaret Lindsay). Val's half-sister Arlene is a bad girl of sorts, hobnobbing with gangsters but engaged to a stockbroker. When Arlene gets her fiancé mixed up in a stock swindle, Arlene goes missing and Tony gets his chance to crack the case wide open. This is, unsurprisingly, Bette Davis' movie, even though she disappears for much of the movie. It's one of those really zippy Warner Bros. programmers; they always seemed to be better at that style of film-making than any of the other studios.

I hope I understood this week's theme correctly....

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sea Spiders

Another short I'm looking forward to on the TCM schedule is Sea Spiders, a little after 11:30 PM, just after This Is Spinal Tap (10:00 PM, 83 min). The listing says 1932 and a look at the lives of Tahitians.

My first thought when I saw that was another Pete Smith short, but looking at the IMDb page, it isn't. In fact, the IMDb page doesn't mention that it's part of any particular series of shorts, which rather surprises me. And speaking of Pete Smith, one short I wouldn't mind seeing on the TCM schedule is one also from 1932 called Color Scales. It's just a trip to an aquarium, but it was done in two-strip Technicolor which looks surprisingly good.

I'm sure some of the Pete Smith shorts have been released on extras of various movies by Warner Home Video, but there doesn't seem to be any box set the way there is with the Traveltalks shorts. I'd guess the interest isn't there; I know I'm generally far more interested in the Traveltalks shorts than the Pete Smith shorts.

I can't find wither Sea Spiders or Color Scales as an extra, either, although that may have something to do with Amazon's search function.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Louis Wolheim night, and a few other things

One of the things I like about TCM is when they have programming blocks dedicated to people who might have been a reasonably big thing back in the day, but who are little remembered now. Star of the Month Audrey Hepburn is well-known, but how many people remember Louis Wolheim? And so TCM is showing a bunch of Wolheim's movies tonight.

I've blogged about three of them before:

The Racket, a silent in which Wolheim plays a gang boss protective of his kid brother, is on at 9:45 PM;
Two Arabian Knights, a silent comedy set in World War I and long thought lost, will be on overnight at 2:30 AM; and
The Silver Horde, with a very young Joel McCrea, finished up the night at 4:15 AM.

For some reason, I thought I had blogged about Danger Lights (11:30 PM) before, but it looks like I'm mixing up a bunch of railroad-themed movies; specifically this one and Other Men's Women, an interesting movie with a young James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Danger Lights is interesting in its own right, with a young Jean Arthur. The climax is a high-speed rail journey to the big city to save an injured man (Wolheim).

I'd also like to mention the short that follows The Silver Horde: Roseland, a little after 5:30 AM. This one stars Ruth Etting, a popular singer of the 1920s and early 1930s who tried her hand at acting thanks to her gangster husband; all of this was the subject of the excellent James Cagney movie Love Me or Leave Me, which I've also blogged about before. Ruth sings here, and if circa-1930 music is your thing it's good. Circa-1930 music isn't really my thing, however.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Secret Agent (1936)

Some years back I bought an ultra-cheap box set of Alfred Hitchcock movies. One of the only sound movies on the set that I hadn't seen before was Secret Agent, so I finally got around to watching it.

The movie starts off in 1916 with a funeral for the author Brodie. The only thing is, we learn after all the people leave the bier that the coffin is, in fact, quite empty. Brodie is not dead, but somebody wants it known that Brodie is dead. That somebody is His Majesty's Secret Service, who have a job for Brodie (John Gielgud). They tell him that there's a problem with the troops on the eastern front, which in this case means the Middle East. The Germans are trying to agitate against the British forces in the region, and are going to send a secret agent from Switzerland to do so. So it's Brodie's job to go to Switzerland, find that agent, and prevent him from getting to the Middle East.

Brodie has been given a new identity, Ashenden, and a new passport, and in Switzerland he's supposed to look for The General (Peter Lorre), a hired assassin who's actually supposed to do the killing. Oh, and to make Ashenden look innocent, he's in Switzerland on holiday with his wife, who is of course another secret agent real name Elsa (Madeleine Carroll, fresh from The 39 Steps).

Well, wouldn't you know it, but both Elsa and the General reach Switzerland before Ashenden, and when he gets to his hotel room he's surprised to find Elsa with... well, not the General, but with Marvin (Robert Young), an American abroad. Ashenden and the General start to search for the agent, but they're thwarted at various turns. And then Ashenden, and especially Elsa, start to wonder whether killing this guy is really something they can do. They're not secret agents by training the way the General is....

Personally, I found Secret Agent to be one of Hitchcock's weaker efforts in the post-Man Who Knew Too Much era. There are obvious Hitchcock touches, and a whole bunch of nice set pieces (one at a church and another in a chocolate factory), but I found the film dragged despite its shortish running time. And I didn't feel quite the emotional attachment for the characters as I do in other Hitchcock movies. Part of that may be intentional, deliberately showing how dehumanizing spy work can be. But Peter Lorre badly overacts and makes his character irritating. I also didn't like what seemed to be a deus ex machina ending, even if it can be plausibly explained (if, for example, you assume Elsa sent a telegraph to Britain and they were able to notify folks in the east).

Still, Hitchcock completists (now I've got just a bunch of silents to watch) will want to watch it. And as always, judge for yourself.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Something for the Boys

One of my recent DVD purchases was a Carmen Miranda box set, and among the movies on it I hadn't reviewed here before is Something For the Boys.

Carmen here plays Chiquita Hart, a defense plant worker in Indiana at the start of the movie -- you can tell this is one of those World War II movies. She's one of three Hart cousins, the other two being showgirl Blossom (Vivian Blaine) and schemer Harry (Phil Silvers), which makes you wonder about the family tree if these three are married to each other. (Well, they're cousins, so various siblings a generation above could just have married oddly.) Anyhow, the three all find out that their grandfather has died, leaving them an inheritance! Chiquita, for her part, finds out through radio broadcasts she receives because working at the defense plant has left just the right combination of metal residue in her dental work or something; it's a running joke used later in the movie.

Anyhow, the three cousins who don't know each other at the start of the movie have to travel down to Georgia to receive their inheritance, as Grandpa had one of those big old plantation houses. And when I say old, I mean old, as it's fallen on hard times and sorely in need of a renovation. And there's no money for that; they've only inherited the house. But they're in luck. The house is near an army base, and Sgt. Fulton (Michael O'Shea) comes over from the base to visit. Everybody gets the idea that the house would be a perfect place for soldiers' wives to stay so they can be close to their husbands while they're at the base. It's an income stream for the cousins, and a win win for the soldiers and their wives. Plus, the soldiers can do the work fixing up the place. And, unsurprisingly, Sgt. Fulton and Blossom fall in love along the way.

But there are complications. Sgt. Fulton has a girl in his past, Melanie (Sheila Ryan). He's probably willing to dump her, since she seems to be really high-maintenance, but she thinks she's his fiancée, and dammit, she's going to run everything in everybody's life. She gets to the manor and decides it's hers, trying to tell the cousins what they should be doing. Why they don't just throw her out of the place then and there makes no sense, but Melanie does more or less disappear toward the end. The other complication is that the place gets declared off-limits to the soldiers because Harry is running a craps game, and then the army wants to use it for war games.

In and among all this, there are a lot of musical numbers, although they're the sort of songs that for the most part aren't memorable. Perry Como plays one of the singing soldiers, which should tell you something about the songs. And the plot is a bit of a mess too. Finally, it doesn't help that the Phil Silvers character is constantly irritating.

The DVD itself, however, is a lovely transfer, with very nice Technicolor. This particular DVD has a couple of trailers, one with scenes from the movie and one with just title cards. There's also a Carmen Miranda documentary that I haven't watched. The cover art, however, leaves something to be desired, as the blurb on the back mentions a song I didn't hear, and claims that the house is in Texas, when it's clearly in Georgia. One of the songs is even titled "Eighty Miles Outside of Atlanta", for heaven's sake.

I picked up the box set for The Gang's All Here, figuring that everything else would be a bonus. Something for the Boys isn't quite my thing, but people who like World War II musicals will probably enjoy it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Old Glory

The ghost of Uncle Sam about to teach Porky Pig a lesson in Old Glory (1939)

I have a feature to blog about, but not really the time to write a full-length post on it, so I decided to look through the shorts on some of my DVDs to see if I could find anything worth blogging about. It turns out that on the disc of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex that's part of the box set I bought (the same one with Dodge City), there's the interesting animated short Old Glory>

I was surprised that Warner Home Video would include a Porky Pig short on one of these cheap DVDs, but then this isn't a typical short that would have any of the Looney Tunes characters. Porky Pig starts off trying to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance (no Bellamy salute here) but, being bored with it, decides to take a nap.

Porky then has a dream sequence involving a rotoscoped Uncle Sam (voiced by Shepperd Strudwick), who teaches Porky about parts of American history that made America the bastion of liberty it is today (well, the bastion of liberty it was in 1939). All of these scenes are rotoscoped, and feature Patrick Henry (John Litel, who had played Patrick Henry in Give Me Liberty; that earlier short is in fact the source of Litel's audio here), George Washington, Paul Revere, and the Lincoln Memorial.

The rotoscoping is one of the things that makes this a strange short by Warner Bros. standards. None of the standard Chuck Jones stuff we'd see, even though he did direct. Having said that, the rotoscope animation is excellent and makes the short visually arresting to watch.

The other thing about it that's so strange is the utter lack of humor. That's by design; it's not as if the jokes failed as sometimes seems to happen when watching things 70 or 80 years after they were made. This is a straight-up patriotic history lesson, with obvious propaganda overtones.

The final interesting thing is that this came out in 1939. It's the sort of material that would have been extremely obvious to make three years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II. It would fit in with other shorts like MGM's You, John Jones! But this one was released in July 1939, before the war begain in Europe. Granted, there's no open propaganda about any of America's future enemies. But still, this all seemed a bit out of place.

Not that the short is terrible if you know what you're getting into. As I said above, the rotoscoping is excellent. But if you're looking for Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes humor, you're not getting it. Then again, Elizabeth and Essex is worth the price, so this extra is a bonus.

John G. Avildsen, 1935-2017

Director John G. Avildsen, who won an Oscar for directing the 1976 movie Rocky, has died aged 81.

Avildsen started his directorial career in the late 1960s, and quickly made a name for himself by directing Jack Lemmon to a second Oscar in Save the Tiger. (Lemmon won the Best Actor Oscar; he had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mr. Roberts.) In between Save the Tiger and Rocky, there was the quirky little W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, a movie I really enjoyed but which doesn't seem to be very well remembered.

Avildsen would go on to do three of the Karate Kid movies as well as Rocky V, as if there weren't enough Rocky movies. Apparently he also did Neighbors, John Belushi's last movie and one I could never stand. And he was also supposed to direct Saturday Night Fever. There's an interesting set of movies.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Scandal in Paris

Another recent watch off my DVR was A Scandal in Paris. It's available on DVD as part of a two-movie set of early Douglas Sirk movies, the other being the excellent Lured. So I'm OK doing a full-length post on it.

A Scandal in Paris is loosely based on the life of Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857), played here by George Sanders. The real-life Vidocq was a criminal in Napoleonic France who went straight, eventually reforming the Paris police force and starting his own private detective agency. That story is made rather more fanciful in this telling, with the later-life part about the detective agency completely ommitted.

The story begins with an exaggerated introduction with voice-over by Sanders, leading up to Vidocq's escape from jail, which is how he meets Émile (Akim Tamiroff) who becomes his lifelong right-hand man. The two make their way to the south of France to serve in Napoleon's army, which is how Vidocq meets Loretta (Carole Landis). She's the late 18th century equivalent of a nightclub singer, and she's got a garter with precious stones that Vidocq is of course going to steal.

After serving in the military, Vidocq and Émile make their way back north to Paris, meeting the Pierremont family. The father Houdon (Alan Napier) is roughly equivalent to an Attorney-General type or a European Minister of the Interior. The women in the house: the grandmother/marquise (Alma Kruger) and daughter Thérèse (Signe Hasso) have lovely jewels, and Vidocq plans to steal those. The theft creates a scandal, and the Prefect of the Parisian police, Richet (Gene Lockhart), is unable to solve it. Of course, Vidocq can. Riche resigns, and Houdon names Vidocq the new Prefect.

Of course, this was all a ruse for Vidocq, Émile, and Émile's family and friends to rob the vault at the Bank of Paris. Along the way to robbing it, however, a couple of things happen. The first is that Vidocq begins to fall in love with Thérèse. Secondly is that one day, Vidocq runs into Loretta in Paris. That would be bad enough. But far worse is that she's married to Richet! Richet knows that something is up with Loretta, and that she must be seeing another man. He sets out to find out who she's seeing, and that of course threatens to unmask Vidocq.

A Scandal in Paris is well-enough made, although it doesn't really seem like what you'd normally think of when you think of Douglas Sirk, that being the combination of lush melodrama and social commentary. This is pretty much a straightforward costume drama. George Sanders is quite good as Vidocq, as the same sort of charm mixed with stealth that he brought to so many roles is something he puts to excellent use here. Everybody else ranges from adequate to the quality you'd expect from the great character actors.

Ultimately, however, there's something I can't quite put my finger on that to me keeps A Scandal in Paris from rising above the good and well-made to the point of greatness. Perhaps Sanders is just a bit too smarmy this time. We're supposed to view him as a hero, and not a threat like his later Addison DeWitt. Hasso is also slightly off. Still, A Scandal in Paris more than succeeds in entertaining and keeping you guessing until the end.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #153: Based on a True Story

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is movies that are based on true stories. Unfortunately, I used They Won't Forget at the beginning of the year, which is based on the trial of Leo Frank. But I've got three (well, technically four since two are based on the same event and came out within a year of each other) other movies that are worth a mention:

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936). Joan Crawford plays Peggy O'Neal, the daughter of a Washington DC innkeeper who meets and marries a naval officer. He dies at sea and Peggy later remarries Senator Eaton (Franchot Tone). Eaton is named to President Jackson's cabinet, but the other Cabinet wives don't like Peggy and this threatens to cause a scandal.

Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Hitler's Madman (1943). Both of these movies are based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Nazi governor of the protectorate of the Czech lands during World War II. The events in these movies might be a bit fresh to fans of more recent movies, because there was another movie Anthropoid released last year about the assassination of Heydrich. Hangmen Also Die! was directed by Fritz Lang, while Hitler's Madman was a low-budget affair directed by Douglas Sirk and released by PRC, the same company that put out Edgar Ulmer's movies.

Compulsion (1959). Based on the thrill killing committed by Leopold and Loeb, the names of the guilty are changed because Leopold was still alive at the time the movie was made. The two killers, college students at the University of Chicago, are played by Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman; they're defended at trial by Orson Welles. In the real case Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney; his name is changed too.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Man of the World

Another of my recent DVD purchases was the ultra-cheap Carole Lombard Glamour Collection, a box set of six movies on two double-sided DVDs. (I said it was cheap; no extras as far as I can tell.) The first of the movies I watched off it was Man of the World.

The movie is old enough that Lombard isn't the star; that honor goes to William Powell who would become Lombard's future husband. He's seen in the opening scene walking along a Paris boulevard, where he's stopped by an American abroad asking him, "I remember you! Aren't you so-and-so?" Powell insists that no, he's actually Michael Trevor, and not this other guy. And Michael actually has the identification papers to prove who he is. But the exchange foreshadows that Michael Trevor isn't all he's cracked up to be.

The next scene confirms it, or should to anybody with normal intelligence, that Michael isn't the best of people. He meets with another American abroad, Harry Taylor (Guy Kibbee). Apparently, Michael knows of a scandal sheet in Paris that prints stuff about Americans for the benefit of those Americans living in the city. They have some information on Harry that Harry wouldn't want to see in print, and Michael can fix it with the publisher that the story won't get printed. It's just going to take a tidy sum of money.

Any sane person would recognize that this is blackmail, and unsurprisingly, we later learn that Michael is one of the publishers of the scandal sheet. Harry seems too stupid to understand this, however. Not yet related, Harry is in Paris with his niece Mary (that's Carole Lombard), who is engaged to Frank (Lawrence Gray). She's lovely, and interested in learning a bit more about Paris from Michael.

Michael, meanwhile, isn't alone at the scandal sheet. He's got two partners in crime in Irene (Wynne Gibson) and Fred (George Chandler). They find out about Mary, and they want Harry to con her, because there's much more money in conning a young woman than in conning her fiftysomething uncle. Michael doesn't want to do it, but eventually does, only to find himself falling in love with her.

Man of the World is in many ways predictable, at least up until the last reel. I don't know if it's fair to call the movie formulaic if only because it was early enough that this was before there would have been a formula to follow. Still, the movie meanders slowly before getting to its destination, which I found a bit of a problem. It just doesn't sparkle the way many of the other early 30s movies about con artists; it feels a bit flat. All of the actors do a professional job, so I'm not quite certain why everything feels a bit off.

Having said that, though, the movie is one of six on a cheap box set. If you don't care for this one, you're probably going to like at least another of the six.