Saturday, December 1, 2007

You say it's your birthday...


Happy birthday, Erica!

The clock is ticking…

It’s the first of December, and we’re taking bets right now to see how many days will pass before the panic sets in. (I’ve mentioned previously than the game plan is for us to be out by the 31st.) I’ve spent the past few days piling up some DVDs and OTR cassette/CD sets to sell on eBay, so if you’re interested in anything the place to go is here. (And again, I apologize for being such a hard case when it comes to shipping to Canada and elsewhere, but it’s just too much of a hassle for me to trot down to the post office and donate an organ just to ship a DVD. I’ve already heard from one individual who’s just incensed about this, protesting that “My money is just as good.” I e-mailed him back and informed him that with the dollar tanking like it is, his money is actually better.)

First Generation Radio Archives is ringing in the holiday season with a brand-new Premier Collection; a rare series of syndicated quarter-hours entitled The Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors. Recorded between 1931 and 1934 at the famous nightclub by Transco (the Transcription Company of America) in the style of the live remote broadcasts popular at that time, the Ambassadors programs give you a chance to listen to four of the premier bandleaders and their orchestras from that era: Gus Arnheim, Jimmie Greer, Phil Harris and Ted Fio Rito. These fifteen-minute programs were culled from the original 16” shellac Transco transcriptions, so you’ll be afforded the opportunity to listen to some exceptionally fine audio instead of the scratchy 78 r.p.m. records from that time. These shows are extremely rare and nearly impossible to find, so why not add them to your collection (along with FGRA’s previous Big Band releases) or get them as a Christmas gift for the music fan in your family?

And don’t forget, First Generation also has the brand-new Cinnamon Bear storybook, The Adventure of the Silver Star available for the tiny tyke on your gift-giving list…but get a copy while you can because supplies are limited. The Archives is also offering three new Radio Legends sets this month, spotlighting the Adventures of Sam Spade, Escape and a second volume of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. (I’ve chosen to highlight the Escape collection on the right hand side of the blog because…well, because I wrote the liner notes. It’s good to be the king.) Don’t be surprised when you’re browsing the Radio Legends offerings if you’ll stumble on a few bonus collections as well. (You can imagine how tickled I was to learn that FGRA major domo Harlan Zinck’s middle name is actually “Bonus.”)

Well, I’ve got some more clutter to sort through—but in-between those activities, I’ve been spending what free time I have watching a few selected episodes from the new Man With a Camera collection available from Infinity Entertainment. So until I can get that review up, take a gander at the box art for the fourth and final season of The Wild, Wild West, courtesy of TVShowsOnDVD.com.

I have a dream, Part 2...


Thursday, November 29, 2007

All I want for Christmas...

Posting is going to be light for the next day or two, since I'm in the process of putting together some clutter...er, items to sell on eBay.

In the meantime, if you've been racking your brains to get an idea of a Christmas gift for me, here's the first place you should shop.

"Rosebud..."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Go West, young man


No sooner does the third season box set of The Wild, Wild West arrive at Rancho Yesteryear when TVShowsOnDVD.com proudly announces that the fourth and final season of the cult espionage Western will be released to DVD March 18th. The details are still sketchy at this time, but several of the denizens at the Home Theater Forum are curious as to whether the final set will contain the two reunion TV-movies, The Wild, Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild, Wild West (1980). (One HTF wag cracked that the two reunion movies will only be available when CBS-Paramount inevitably releases The Complete Wild, Wild West—a box set containing all four seasons…and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he’s not too far from the truth.) Nevertheless, it’s nice to see the studio completing a series (*cough* Have Gun, Will Travel *cough*) so I’ll keep the nitpicking to a minimum.

Last week, I announced a 40% off special that would take place online at VCI Entertainment’s website and that all you had to do was enter a special discount code and you’d be in like Flynn. Unfortunately, many individuals attempted this feat and found themselves thoroughly rebuffed. In the Balcony’s Laughing Gravy dashed off some e-mails to some VCI VIP’s to find out the skinny and learned that in the process of renovating their website, there was a glitch in the system that informed potential purchasers (with visions of 40% off in their heads) the coupon had expired. Not to worry: VCI will make good on any purchases affected by the snafu and is also redeeming itself with a 50% off sale now in progress until December 2, 2007. Several of the Balconeers have used the code and have pronounced it copasetic, so if you want to buy some primo VCI merchandise, just enter XDNIVM when you’re ready to complete your order. The coupon will expire December 2 at 11:59 CDT. Shop til’ you drop!

Because I made a complete pig of myself during DeepDiscount.com’s semi-annual 20% sale (which not only netted me the Wild, Wild West set but also The Doris Day Show: Season 5, Mission: Impossible: Season 3, Tales of Tomorrow: Volume 3 and Man With a Camera: The Complete Collection), I will not be participating in the big VCI deal—in fact, the influx of DVDs added to the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives has gradually slowed down to a trickle, what with the move and all. However, I have pre-ordered Gomer Pyle, USMC: The Third Season and found the first season of Peter Gunn available on Region 2 at Amazon.co.uk for £13.59 (about 65% off). The second season is also available but I think I can wait for that one (the price is £39.99, which is what the first season cost when it was released). Why fight it—A&E seems to have abandoned their Gunn releases…and they couldn’t even finish the first season (Sets 1 and 2 combined have thirty-two episodes, six shy of the season total).

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sull-IVAN's Travels

Once again, Project Clutter took up most of my spare time today...so I'll resort to what so many other bloggers do and link to better posts than what you can read here.

Jaime Weinman at TV Guidance has a nice obit up for Mel Tolkin, one-time head writer for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows (and Caesar's Hour), who's gone to his rich reward at the age of 94. R.I.P. to one of classic television's great comedy scribes.

And Stacia at She Blogged by Night (love that title, by the way) has an interesting take on the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan's Travels (1942). I don't agree with her overall assessment (Travels is one of my very favorite films) but she certainly makes some salient points with her essay. That's why I enjoy reading her posts so much; even when I disagree I'm always a better person for taking the effort to have perused them in the first place.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thoroughly Modern Mollie


Sorry about not getting the opportunity to post anything of substance today—as if this blog actually has substance—but TVShowsOnDVD.com has an announcement I thought I would pass along to the Britcom fans of TDOY’s readership (both of whom could fit in a phone booth and have room left over for Mo’nique).

VEI of Toronto is bringing the Mollie Sugden sitcom That’s My Boy (1981-87) to DVD in 2008, though a release date hasn’t been announced at this time. Sugden, as you well know, is an actress beloved by Britcom fans for her portrayal of Betty Slocombe in the Energizer Bunny of UK sitcoms (it just keeps going and going and going…), Are You Being Served? and its follow-up series, Grace and Favour. In Boy, Sugden plays a housekeeper named Ida Willis who enters the employ of young doctor Robert Price (Christopher Blake) and wife Angie (Jennifer Lonsdale)—and soon discovers that Price is the son she gave up for adoption so many years ago. (Let the wacky complications ensue!) Created and written by Pam Valentine and Michael Ashton, it was a highly successful ITV sitcom (produced for Yorkshire Television) which ran for five series (a total of thirty-seven episodes) that also crossed the pond to the U.S. in the wake of Served’s cult following among American audiences, and was even available at one time on VHS. (I know that West Virginia Public Television had Boy on their Saturday morning Britcom schedule some time back; I’ve only seen one episode—a Christmas outing entitled “Cold Turkey” that’s available on a Network DVD Region 2 release entitled Classic ITV Christmas Comedy.)

Scribes Valentine and Ashton were later responsible for another project with Sugden entitled My Husband and I (1987-88), a domestic comedy featuring Mollie and William Moore as a married couple employed at the same advertising firm. Husband, unfortunately, did not achieve the success of Boy—but again, with Sugden in the cast it didn’t much matter because the sitcom also played here in the States (and again, was featured on West Virginia Public Television for a brief time on Saturday mornings). A Christmas-themed Husband episode, “No Place Like Home,” is also available on the ITV Christmas Comedy box set.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

It’s good to be the Queen


So Mom makes a trip to Target (pronounced TAR-ZHAY) to secure a copy of Ratatouille for my niece for Christmas…and upon noticing that it had taken up temporary residence on the kitchen counter, I glanced at it casually, curious as to why the DVD case seemed smaller than regulation. As it turns out, she’s picked up a Blu-Ray disc by mistake, and when I informed her of this, she responded with a word that rhymes with “wit.”

My father maintains that she never used words like that until she got into retail. But that’s a story for another day.

This will necessitate a trip back to Target, and if you know me well enough by now, you also know that I rarely walk by the dollar section without looking to see if they have some cheap DVDs. Which they have—Laughing Gravy at In the Balcony.com notes that he picked up a few goodies: a pair of discs with some Davey & Goliath adventures (“Garsh, Davey…”), and two other DVDs, Classic Television: 1960’s Blooper Bonanza and Classic Television: Game Show Classics. All four of these discs are manufactured by a Michigan-based outfit called PC Treasures. I picked up the bloopers and game shows DVDs, but opted out of the Davey & Goliath collections; if I wanted to hear Claymation figures proselytizing about religion I would have supported Gumby’s ambition to join the priesthood.

The bloopers disc is fun; though most of its humor depends on your tolerance for watching actors repeatedly blow their lines, and unfortunately the words that follow (most of which rhyme with “wit”) have been bleeped out. There are three shows that are represented here: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Star Trek and McHale’s Navy—the first two apparently culled from “stag reels,” those collections that are shown at cast parties, Christmas gatherings, etc. I liked the McHale’s Navy bloopers segment the best, particularly because when Joe Flynn flubs a line, he invariably refers to someone as a “horse’s ass.” Most of these scenes have Archie Andrews’ own Bob Hastings at Flynn’s side, and when Flynn hurls this epithet Hastings registers genuine shock—I don’t know if he’s staying in character (as Lt. Elroy Carpenter) or if he’s genuinely surprised that Flynn uses that kind of language. The funniest Flynn boner has him drinking what appears to be wine out of a glass, then remarking: “That was a good year for that shit.” (Well, it made me laugh fit to beat the band…parts of it, anyway.)

But the really sweet deal is the Game Show Classics DVD, which contains six programs from the 1950s. Two of the shows, a February 5, 1956 telecast of What’s My Line? and a February 8, 1956 presentation of I’ve Got a Secret, share a commonality in that Desi Arnaz appears on both programs—he and Lucy were heavily plugging their MGM film Forever, Darling (1956) at the time. Desi fills in for vacationing Bennett Cerf on the Line telecast, and the show was a real treat for your humble narrator because my comedy idol Fred Allen was still working as one of its panelists (unfortunately, Allen would pass away about a little more than a month later). The first guest isn’t technically the mystery guest (that honor belongs to Kim Novak, plugging the heck out of Picnic [1956]), but the panel is blindfolded anyway because they would no doubt recognize British foreign correspondent Randolph Churchill, son of former Prime Minster Winston. It’s Allen who guesses Randy’s identity, mentioning that the two met previously (Allen: “He may not remember—no one ever remembers meeting me...”) when radio’s The Big Show was engaged in its jaunt around Europe during its final season. (In one of his famous “letters,” Allen once mused to a friend about the competitiveness between panelists Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen on Line, remarking “they really want to win this thing.” He also tagged Cerf with the memorable description: “a tweed wastebasket.”)

On Secret, Desi again makes a guest appearance but it’s Lucy who’s the guest panelist, and both provide a great deal of laughter—particularly when Lucy has to guess (along with Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Jayne Meadows) what Desi’s “secret” is. In one of television’s more remarkable displays of ingenuity, the Cuban bandleader’s skeleton in the cupboard is that “he loves Lucy,” which probably required the program’s creative element to do a lot of skulling. (It reminds me of Monty Woolley’s legendary Secret appearance, in which his “secret” was that he slept with his beard outside the bedcovers. When asked why, Woolley responded: “As a matter of fact, I don’t. That’s merely the secret they decided upon for me.”) It might just be me, but I sensed a bit of tenseness between the Arnazes, maybe a foreshadowing of their marital troubles to come. Both of these shows, by the way, are watchable but are not in the best visual quality (they’re hideously washed-out, as if someone set the dial on the klieg lights to “German POW camp”); the Secret telecast, however, is available on an Alpha DVD release that’s in considerably better shape.

The other programs on this disc include Tic Tac Dough, To Tell the Truth (with panelists Betsy Palmer, Don Ameche, Kitty Carlisle and columnist Hy Gardner) and Twenty-One, best remembered as the program ensnarled in the great “quiz show scandals” of the 1950s and wonderfully documented (the authenticity is amazing) in Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show. In watching this telecast, it appeared to me that both its contestants were aware that the fix was in; their attempts to convey anguish and dismay at the difficulty of having to dig through their mental Rolodexes for the answers were laughable and pathetic, to say the least. But I’ve saved the best program for last: the jaw-droppingly awful Queen for a Day, a telecast that I’m guessing is from 1958 (since there’s a plug for Paramount Pictures’ Desire Under the Elms).

Now, when I say “awful”—I don’t mean from a competence standpoint; the program is professionally produced and packaged to a glistening sheen. I mean awful in a content sense. I was familiar with the program (though this is the first example I’ve watched) and its premise: five women with hard-luck stories compete for the show’s title, aided and abetted by down-home host Jack Bailey (who reminded me so much of Tennessee Ernie Ford—even though Bailey hailed from Hampton, Iowa—I kept expecting him to look into the camera and intone: “Martha White’s Self-Risin’ Flour…it’s pea-pickin’ good!”), by requesting some small service or item to make their pathetic lives a little cheerier.

To give you an example of how the show worked, let’s use the contestants from the telecast on the DVD:

· Dorothy Lacy – Wants building material and four mattresses to build two sets of bunk beds for her four girls (the family lives in a trailer).
· Rose Ann Burns – Wants a hospital gurney so that her polio-stricken son can go outside for some fresh air, and a transistor radio to brighten his drab existence. (Host Bailey mistakenly thinks the contestant wants a “Guernsey”…as in cow.)
· Ruth Klakowski (sp?) – Lost her husband in a hunting accident (he was killed by his best friend) and is stranded in California with her two little girls. Wants to learn a trade in a beauty school because she can’t find work and hopes to move back to Toledo.
· Marsha Moore – Pregnant wife who requests “stock” for the grocery store run by she and her husband (it’s apparently uncontaminated by groceries). Bailey asks her if either of them had any previous experience in the grocery bidness and when she answers “no,” cracks: “That’s what I figured.” (In his defense, he does a quick whip-round among the show’s crew and raises about five bucks to help her out.)
· Mildred Rogers – Her eighteen-year-old son has been sidelined with rheumatic fever and needs an encyclopedia to help him with his studies so he can graduate this year. She also requests that his room be renovated because it’s a pretty dismal affair—though “he don’t never complain,” she assures Bailey.

The audience decides on who will be coronated through the time-honored “applause meter,” and Klakowski wins with a 7.5 (followed by Rogers with a 6 and Burns to show with a 5—Moore and Lacy wind up with scores of 3.5 and 2, respectively). Queen Ruth then gets enough loot to fill up a small warehouse: an automatic ironer, china dishes, a dryer, a hot water heater, a sewing machine, a dinette set, a stove, a freezer chest—the works! The show also lards up Her Majesty with a Las Vegas vacation, dinner and dancing, a visit to the Paramount Studios, etc. and, of course, her two children get in on the action with gifts of dresses, Betsy Wetsy dolls…and a puppy! And what do the remaining four women who have stooped to debase themselves on national TV receive? Bupkis! (Well, that’s not entirely true—they make do with some perfume, a box of Dash detergent, cheap Rubbermaid kitchenware and a steam-and-drive iron from Hoover.) I truly felt sorry for the remaining quartet of these miserable souls; as a famous spinach-eating sailor once observed, “This is embarrasking…”

Queen’s origins were in radio (it was originally titled Queen for Today), premiering over Mutual on April 30, 1945…and not, incidentally, with Bailey as the master of ceremonies, but Dud (Dudley) Williamson, who was one of the fathers present at the show’s birth. According to Jim Cox’s invaluable reference The Great Audience Participation Shows, Williamson (who also hosted the popular What’s the Name of That Song?) passed away in 1948, but Cox doesn’t make clear whether Bailey either took over the show from that point or had landed the Queen job before Williamson's demise. (Nevertheless, I can’t recommend Jim’s book highly enough: it is essential for the shelf of any OTR, classic television or game-show fan.) Bailey, whose jack-of-all-trades (no pun intended) resume included stints as a carnival barker and providing the voices of Donald Duck and Goofy in Disney cartoons, had by that time established a reputation as a talented M.C., hosting radio series like Meet the Missus and Stop That Villain. (He also replaced Ralph Edwards in the TV version of Truth or Consequences in May 1954, and would remain with the show until its cancellation in the fall of 1956.)

The radio Queen would sign off on June 10. 1957, but the TV version (which premiered over NBC on January 3, 1956) would soldier on until October 2, 1964 (having jumped to ABC in September 1960), meaning that this sentimental sap-fest (a precursor to the "reality" shows of today, since you really can't call it a game or a quiz show) was on the air for close to twenty years. The TV version was unusual in that it had a forty-five minute format—which is easily explained because when you factor in all the commercials and plugs the show had to do to get that entire largess, you barely had fifteen minutes left to hear the contestants pleading and begging. In addition, Queen would feature a mini-fashion show of bodacious models showing off the wardrobe that day’s winner would wear, with commentary by Jeanne Cagney Morrison (a one-time actress who, as you’ve probably guessed, was the sister of the better-known Jimmy). Jeanne has quite a bit of airtime in this 1958 episode, talking about her four brothers and noticeably keeping a bun in the oven; a future nephew/niece for brother James. There were quite a few notables and would-be celebrities who also appeared on Queen; two of the models were Marilyn Burtis (who appeared on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life when the duck wasn’t working properly) and Jolene Brand (who appeared on many of Ernie Kovacs’ shows) and one of the “contestant escorts” was Grace Lee Whitney, many years before she achieved cult status as Yeoman Janice Rand on Star Trek.

Queen for a Day later achieved a bit of notoriety as one of the programs listed in Bart Andrews’ 1980 tome The Worst TV Shows Ever, though again, it’s due more to its questionable taste than incompetence. When the show first premiered on NBC, The New York Times’ television critic Jack Gould famously asked: “What hath Sarnoff wrought?” (Gould was referring to Robert Sarnoff, president of NBC’s parent company RCA at the time.) Even Queen producer Howard Blake later admitted that “Queen was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste. That’s why it was so successful: it was exactly what the public wanted.”

This YouTube clip will give you an example of Queen for a Day’s awfulness. And until next time, “I’d like to make EV-ery woman queen for EV-ery day!”


Friday, November 23, 2007

Martian, martian, martian


TVShowsOnDVD.com has cover art for both the fifth-and-final season of Family Affair and Volume 2 of the Color Honeymooners, both which will be released on DVD via MPI Home Video on February 26, 2008. (By the way, I reported in a previous post that TVShows had been mum on the Honeymooners release, but in fact they did mention it in this post on their website back in October. I regret the error.)

They also have an interesting article on the fate of the missing third season release of My Favorite Martian, which Rhino Home Video was originally supposed to have released in August 2005…and then was removed…and was back on the radar again…and finally abandoned by Rhino. Jack Chertok Productions, who owns the rights to Martian, apparently got tired of all the teasing and instead made plans with an Australian outfit called Umbrella Entertainment to release the third and last (in color!) of the fondly-remembered fantasy sitcom.

If you’re a fan of Martian—like I am—this is encouraging news because not only am I a fan but I’m a completist, and the fact that the remaining thirty-two color episodes were unavailable for so long frustrated me to no end. The good thing about the Umbrella release is that it is a region-free, NTSC DVD set so you don’t have to have a region-free DVD player.

The bad news…the price on this set is $69.99, Australian. (Which works out to about $62.78 in American dinero, assuming the dollar doesn’t tank even further.) That’s a pretty steep price tag for this six-disc set…and the representative from Chertok Productions promises that it’s worth it for the extras alone, but with my financial situation being what it is at the present time there’s no way I could pony up that much scratch for a set that under normal circumstances I’d bite the bullet for.

Sooner or later, the Martian set will find its way to the new House of Yesteryear, though it looks like I may have to donate an organ to get the darn thing. But let me leave this post on a positive note: the Chertok rep also mentions that the next DVD project is a boxed set of the thought-to-be-lost fantasy sitcom My Living Doll, starring Robert Cummings and Julie Newmar.

The Long Black Friday


For those of you who haven’t ventured out into the stores yet…and especially for those of you who have the good sense not to (our local J.C. Penney opened its doors this morning at 4:00am…four freakin’ A.M.!), I’d like to pass along some information courtesy of the man who swings the mighty flashlight over at In the Balcony.com, Laughing Gravy his ownself:

BLACK FRIDAY SALE! VCI ENTERTAINMENT is offering 40% off all DVDs, even those already on sale, when you order from their website on Friday, Nov. 23 only! Here's YOUR chance to pick up some GREAT old movies for chump change, including wonderful classic serials, westerns, films noir, comedies, and more! Wow! Visit VCIENT.COM and use code ABTGMPDR when you check out. Tell 'em In the Balcony sent ya! It's THAT easy!

Naturally, I would be among the first wave of individuals to capitalize on this incredible offer, except that a) I’m flat broke, and b) I bought a bunch of stuff from VCI a couple of weeks ago. (Though I am sort of disappointed that I’ll be missing out on picking up their Red Ryder and Three Mesquiteers B-western discs for a mere bag of shells, as The Great One used to say.) They have a lot of great stuff available, including a big honkin’ collection of cliffhanger serials, many of which (Captain Midnight, Jack Armstrong) I’ve talked about previously on this blog. Most of them are priced to move at $14.99…so with 40% off that runs to about $8.99 a pop. To give you some suggestions for stocking stuffers—either for yourself or the classic cliffhanger fan in your immediate family—Gravy, the Wise and Powerful, has compiled a list of chapter-plays to chew over (well, he's named after a dog--what else would you expect?):

Here's a dozen serial favorites you should consider; I love 'em all, and some of 'em have bonus material supplied by your Balcony webmaster, but don't hold that against 'em. At $14.99, the sale price is a penny less than $9 for these, most of which are 2-disc sets and feature the serials in impeccable prints. Yeah, I'm shilling for VCI, but what th' heck: they ain't payin' me nothin', I'm doin' it 'cause I love these things!

Captain Midnight: Stuntman Dave O'Brien (Reefer Madness, The Devil Bat) stars in this adaptation of the radio show. Directed by James W. Horne.

Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere: 1950s sci-fi at its looniest; includes a full-color booklet on the history of Captain Video, written by me. The first TV show to be adapted to the big screen.

Drums of Fu Manchu: Not a great print, but all that's available of a great serial full of treachery, monsters, and arguably the greatest serial villain ever who doesn't live on Mongo.

Holt of the Secret Service: Jack Holt, baby: toughest guy in serial history. Makes Flash Gordon look like a sissy.

Jungle Jim: Grant Withers stars in this oft-overlooked chapterplay; note that the castle from Frankenstein - somehow transplanted to Africa - plays a prominent part in the proceedings. Henry Brandon is the Cobra. Our fave jungle serial.

The Lost City: For years, this was considered one of the worst serials ever. In fact, as a good print shows, it's one of the best serials of the 1930s. Can't argue that it's not, shall we say, a bit over the top, though.

Miracle Rider: The great Tom Mix stars in my favorite cowboy serial.

The Phantom: Tom Tyler stars, and he couldn't look more like the Ghost Who Walks.

S.O.S. Coast Guard: Ralph Byrd gets a vacation from playing Dick Tracy, and matches wits with Bela Lugosi in Bela's best serial. But the chapterplay is stolen by Richard Alexander as Thorg, a massive hulk of a man who wears a thong bikini. Not for the weak-stomached serial fans.

Secret Agent X-9 (1945) Skip the boring 1937 version, even though Lon Chaney, Jr. is in it; this version, with Lloyd Bridges, is one of the best 1940s serials.

Terry and the Pirates: The daffiest of all James Horne serials; plays like a 15-chapter Laurel & Hardy comedy, but don't be fooled: some of the best chapter-ending cliffhangers you'll find. And Dick Curtis is a scream as the villainous "Fang"!

Zorro Cliffhanger Collection: Hey, for nine bucks you get Zorro's Fighting Legion, Zorro's Black Whip, and my favorite, Zorro Rides Again. What more could you want?

Gravy has made some sound choices, with the exception of The Lost City, which I personally would recommend you avoid like intestinal flu (substitute either The Adventures of Red Ryder, King of the Royal Mounted, Overland Mail or Riders of Death Valley instead). But remember—this deal is good for November 23 (that’s today) and the 23rd only…don’t let the bargains pass you by!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Gobble till we wobble

First off, I’d like to give a shout-out to all my family, friends…and individuals who stumbled upon this blog looking for the lyrics to Don’t Squeeze My Sharmon; my fondest wish for each and every one of you is to have the happiest of Thanksgivings. I must admit, in recent years, I haven’t celebrated it much due to the nature of the last couple of jobs at which I was employed. (The hotel bidness is 24/7/365, so the concept of a “day off” for Thanksgiving is a curious one…unless you luck out or have seniority and can manage to avoid working that day.)

I don’t, as a rule, get sloppy about things like Thanksgiving—but I’ve had a good deal of time to reflect on matters of a slushy, sentimental nature…particularly since my insomnia has been acting up again. I’m thankful I have my health, a roof over my head, three hots and a cot and wonderful family and friends. I have a tendency to take these sorts of things for granted, so maybe the idea of a holiday like Thanksgiving isn’t such a bad one after all.

That having been said, I’d like to take a short bit of bandwidth to let every devoted TDOY reader know that for the next two months or so, there will be big changes at Rancho Yesteryear…and for the blog as well. About two weeks ago, my mother was informed by the company she’s been punching a clock for nigh onto seventeen years that they will be officially out of business by the end of January 2008. Admittedly, she was expecting some bad news re: her position because a frenzied whispering campaign about “changes” had erupted within the confines of the company…but learning that they were completely kaput really through her for a loop. She’s been informed by her boss that she’ll be one of the last ones to leave come January 31st—but has not received any news as to what kind of severance package she’ll receive (if indeed she does get one).

For a long time now, the ‘rents and I have discussed the possibility of kicking the Savannah dust off our feet and moving to Athens to live with my sister Kat—these plans, of course, hinging on how much my mother would receive for taking early retirement. Ultimately, Mom chose to serve out the rest of her sentence at Springmaid-Wamsutta (“Wamsutta” is now an old Indian word meaning “Get your sheets somewhere else, Bunky.”) until that day came…but since that option has been removed from the table, we were forced to revert back to Operation Athens again. Kat came down last Thursday and we had several “family meetings” to discuss the situation: a realtor friend of hers stopped by Friday to discuss what we would need to do to get the House of Yesteryear in shape so that potential buyers would not recoil at the sight of our domicile and run for the safety of their vehicles. As of this writing, we hope to be out of here by January 1st, which is when we’ll list the house for sale—and since homes have a tendency to sell better if they are uncontaminated by people or furniture, we will need to take large steps to get all our crap out of here by the listing date.

My part in this three-act play is that I have been appointed Director of Clutter…and yes, frequent TDOY commenter Pam sustained a major injury falling to the ground while laughing at the irony. Let’s be honest: I have held onto a tremendous pile of crap over the years, though in my defense I don’t have nearly the amount of bric-a-brac as that obtained by Shreve patriarch Ivan, Sr. (We have a garage teeming with…well, anything you could possibly want—it's the Alice's Restaurant of garages and it’s not unlike Nate’s school locker in the comic strip Big Nate. None of the stuff in there works, you understand—but if you’re looking for it, we have it.) My job in this stressful period is to weed through my clutter (I’ve already told Mom that the DVDs will come with me—as far as the records, books, etc. what I can’t sell on eBay I’ll give away) and produce a manageable collection for shipping…and then convince my father to do the same. (I’ve decided to adopt a policy of diplomacy…and if that doesn’t work, I’ll throw shit out while he’s at the flea market.) While this is going on, we’ll also be sprucing up the outside and inside—something that will require a great deal of time and attention.

This brings me to the blog. Naturally, with all the hammering and nailing and painting and de-cluttering I’m just not going to be able to devote the attention necessary to keep posting as regularly as I like. (And just when I was actually managing to keep on top of it for once.) So, there will be long periods when the fields will remain fallow—I’ll make every attempt to drop in and say hi-dy…maybe even fill you in on the status of Operation Get-Out-of-Dodge if I can, but what with the eBaying and project-writing and…yes, de-cluttering, it will be a daunting task at best.

In conclusion, I apologize for my verbosity—I just wanted to make certain that everyone was aware that my absence won’t be due to any medical-related issues…and that when we’re back to a normal schedule (well, as normal as can be for us) I promised to return and stay as long as I can. In the meantime, thanks as always for encouraging my behavior…and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

“The loud, crude, boisterous, brawling days…when the West was a shameless hussy and men fought to win her!”


Joan Walsh—editor-columnist at Salon.com—posted this blurb the other day about a donnybrook raging on at The New York Times’ Op-Ed pages between liberals Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert and conservative David Brooks and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon regarding the interpretation of the infamous 1980 campaign stop near Philadelphia, Mississippi by then-Republican Party presidential nominee Reagan. Reagan, in what was surely the mother of all coinky-dinks, just happened to stump-speech not far from where three young civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney—were murdered in 1964.

Krugman and Herbert charge that Reagan—addled old coot that he was—was adopting Richard Nixon’s famed “Southern strategy” to appeal to Mississippi voters’ inner Klansmen; while Brooks and Cannon argue that, yes, Ronnie was indeed attempting to reach out to white conservatives, but he wasn’t a racist—he was just arguing in favor of “states’ rights.” Now, this post isn’t going to delve into who’s right or wrong in this debate (though if you really want to know, I side with Doghouse Riley) only because I’ll admit up front I can’t be impartial in this matter. Mr. Reagan is a taboo subject here at Rancho Yesteryear because his 1981 recession was responsible for putting the old man out of work. I mention this brouhaha (brouhaha?) only because at the time it started, I had taken the WABAC machine to 1954—just about the time Reagan was stooging for General Electric—to watch one of two double-feature Westerns recently purchased on DVD from VCI: Cattle Queen of Montana.

In Cattle Queen, Barbara Stanwyck plays Sierra Nevada Jones, a feisty, red-headed lass who’s journeyed to the Treasure State with her pop (Morris Ankrum) and comic-relief sidekick Nat Collins (Chubby Johnson). Pop, Sierra and Nat are determined to build a cattle empire in their new surroundings, which doesn’t sit too well with rival rancher Tom McCord (Gene Evans)—who not only hires a gunslinger named Farrell (played by Reagan…who apparently lost his first name in a game of faro) to keep up with the Joneses, but prevails upon a black-sheep Blackfoot Indian named Natchakoa (Anthony Caruso) to conduct a massacre on Camp Jones the very first night they’re there. (A hell of a Welcome Wagon, let me tell you; they kill everybody but Sierra and her stooge Nat, and run off the cattle where Natch and McCord divvy up the livestock.) Plucky heroine that she is, Sierra refuses to allow this indignity to go unchallenged and with the help of Colorados (Lance Fuller), another Blackfoot who plays Gallant to Natchakoa’s Goofus, dusts herself off and continues with her plans (though faithful Nat ends up snuffing it) despite interference from McCord and his men—not to mention the townspeople, whose enmity Babs earns when she’s seen in broad daylight riding through the town’s main drag with Colorados by her side. (“A white woman with an Indian? I can’t believe it!” exclaims one of the town’s bluenoses as she barely makes it to the fainting couch.) Farrell also proves to be an obstacle until the final two reels, when it’s revealed that he’s really an undercover Fed trying to get the goods on McCord. (Reagan, as you may be aware, played a similar role in real life—particularly during the height of the HUAC witch-hunts.)

It’s really hard not to enjoy Cattle Queen: Babs is in rare form as a strong-willed woman not too far removed from that of Victoria Barkley on TV’s The Big Valley, and Reagan is so ineffectual Stanwyck practically out-butches him through out the entire flick. Still, it’s competently made (with direction by veteran Allan Dwan and cinematography from noir master John Alton) and features some rousing action sequences and appearances from character greats like Jack Elam, Myron Healey, Byron Foulger and Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale. Cattle Queen was one of several movies Dwan directed for independent producer Benedict Bogeaus (including the previously discussed Silver Lode), an individual whose name was later satirized for a villain, “Benedict Bogus,” in many of the Three Stooges comic-book stories written and illustrated by Norman Maurer, future son-in-law of Moe Howard.

Dwan, Bogeaus, Alton and star Reagan return in the second feature on this DVD, 1955’s Tennessee’s Partner—based on a story by author Bret Harte. Ronnie is the “partner,” a drifter who goes by “Cowpoke” and who befriends a gambler (John Payne) named after the Volunteer State, who saves his new friend from being bushwhacked by a goon who lost big to Tennessee in a poker game. The two men are accused of murder but are set free once a whorehouse madam known as the Duchess (Rhonda Fleming) arranges for her “girls” to provide them with an alibi. (The “Duchess,” it would seem, is carrying quite the torch for Tennessee.) Cowpoke is in town only to meet his fiancée, a gal named Goldie (played by TDOY fave Coleen Gray)—which doesn’t sit well with his friend who doesn’t think much of women (in fact, their relationship in this movie is a bit too close, especially when Payne has to emote lines like “What if some gal friend of mine came along and busted us up?”)…but he knows a good deal about Goldie’s past (let’s just say she’s not going to be applying for a loan anytime soon) and decides to do the honorable thing by running off with her. This doesn’t sit well with Cowpoke, who vows to kill Tennessee—but the gambler has his own problems, particularly when he’s accused of murdering comic-relief gold miner Grubstake (Chubby Johnson).

I didn’t enjoy Payne in Partner as much as I did his performance in Silver Lode; but, of course, I’ll watch Gray in anything and Fleming is serviceable despite the fact she’s a bit squeaky-clean to be running a bordello. What I find amusing about these Dwan-Bogeaus productions is that they seemed to have a “stock company” in the tradition of directors like John Ford and Preston Sturges: Johnson, Caruso, Ankrum and Healey all return for this film (and Healey and Ankrum were also in Lode) along with familiar faces like Leo Gordon, Frank Jenks, Pierce Lyden and Jack Mulhall…and an uncredited bit by Angie Dickinson as a saloon gal.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Putting the charm in Charmin


The passing of character actor Dick Wilson at the age of 91—ninety-one!—will no doubt bring back fond memories of the man he’s best remembered for playing; namely, “Mr. Whipple,” the grocery-store manager who was the pitchman for Charmin bathroom tissue from 1964-1985. The tag line for each commercial, “Don’t squeeze the Charmin,” has been indelibly tattooed into the brains of couch potatoed baby boomers, along with the lyrics to the Gilligan’s Island TV series.

Wilson, of course, was able to broaden his acting range with a number of other memorable roles—a recurring part on Bewitched as the drunk who frequented the bar Darrin Stevens (Dick York, Dick Sergeant) inevitably wound up in after a spat with the old broomstick-and-chain, and high-profile guest appearances as varied as The Twilight Zone, My Favorite Martian, McHale’s Navy, Hogan’s Heroes and The Fugitive.

When I learned that Wilson had left us—ostensibly from my Bom…Comcast home page (Bill Crider also has a post up)—for some odd reason an old country song by singer Charlie Walker (Pick Me Up on Your Way Down) popped into my head and now I can’t get rid of it. (This actually made the top 10 in 1967, by the way.) So, as a public service I’ll put it in your head so we can be simpatico:

Did you hear what happened
Last Saturday night
While dancin' and drinkin'
We all got half-tight
This sweet thing named Sharmon
Was dancin' with me
When up jumped her boyfriend
And he hollered at me

Please don't squeeze my Sharmon
Don't hold her so tight
You'd best heed my warnin'
It's the last one tonight
She's soft and she's gentle
And sweet as can be
And if Sharmon needs squeezin'
Then leave that to me

Along about midnight
I was feelin' no pain
And me and Miss Sharmon
Were dancin' ag'in
Then Hank and big Harlan
Got into a fight
And I heard someone holler
As out went the lights

Please don't squeeze my Sharmon
Don't hold her so tight
You'd best heed my warnin'
It's the last one tonight
She's soft and she's gentle
And sweet as can be
And if Sharmon needs squeezin'
Then leave that to me

“Don’t Squeeze My Sharmon” (1967) – written by Carl Belew & Van Givens

R.I.P., Dick. You will be missed.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

“When they grip their guns…you’ll grip your seat!”


A recent sales flier from VCI Entertainment resulted in my purchasing some cherce DVDs on sale…though several of the discs were backordered and so the whole DVD enchilada didn’t arrive at the House of Yesteryear until earlier this week. To be honest, I did not purchase these directly from VCI; I took advantage of the sale and found them priced even lower at one of my favorite online places, DVD Pacific. (Why they call it DVD Pacific—when the company is based out of Florida—is a question inquiring minds would like to know.)

I snapped up some real nice bargains—the best of which was a double feature of Ronald Reagan B-westerns in both Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) and Tennessee’s Partner (1955) for $4.05 (I hope to have a review of this Reagan retrospective up sometime this week). I also bought a movie that I’ve wanted to own for some time now, the 1954 Technicolor RKO western Silver Lode (1954).

In Lode, the titled burg is celebrating the Fourth of July—but in addition to the Glorious Fourth, there’s a wedding taking place between cattle rancher Dan Ballard (John Payne) and Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott), daughter of Zachary Evans (Morris Ankrum), one of the town’s highly-respected citizens. Before the minister (Hugh Sanders) can pronounce the happy couple man and wife, a man named Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) rides into Silver Lode with three men (Harry Carey, Jr., Stuart Whitman and Alan “Skipper” Hale, Jr.), claiming to be a U.S. marshal…and announces to all assembled that he’s got a warrant to take Ballard back to California on charges of murder and theft (there’s also a personal vendetta involved, as the man who Ballard allegedly shot in the back was McCarty’s brother). Ballard insists he’s innocent, but when the town’s judge (Robert Warwick) proves to be little help is issuing a stay of extradition Dan asks for two hours to prove his innocence. As it would happen, Ballard is innocent—but as the two hour sand runs through the hourglass, McCarty is able to sow enough dissension and suspicion throughout the town that cause the good people of Silver Lode to turn on Ballard.

In A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies (1995), the celebrated director uses Lode as an example of “the director as smuggler”; pointing out that director Allan Dwan subverts the traditional conservative Western into an allegory of the anti-Communist witch hunts taking place at the same time of Lode’s release. (To make sure no one misses the point, the villain is named “McCarty.”) Lode isn’t as subtle as a similar picture released at that time (the legendary Johnny Guitar), but it’s still a better-than-average oater and manages to build some impressive tension with a genuinely satisfying climax inside the town church. TDOY fave Duryea is at his reptilian best as the slimy McCarty, and Payne demonstrates how versatile a leading man he could be as the hero (Payne achieved a great deal of fame in many of the 20th Century-Fox musicals featuring Alice Faye and Betty Grable—not to mention the lawyer who tries to make time with Maureen O’Hara in Miracle on 34th Street [1947]—but really shined in some first-rate 50’s noirs directed by Phil Karlson, like Kansas City Confidential [1952] and 99 River Street [1953]). As the heroine, Scott’s character is too mousey to make any kind of impact; I like Delores Moran’s “dance hall girl” better because of her sharp wisecracks and devotion to helping Payne prove his innocence, knowing full well she’s going to end up with “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Plus, Silver Lode is crammed with great character actors: Emile Meyer, Byron Foulger, Myron Healey, I. Stanford Jolley, Burt Mustin, Gene Roth…and the list goes on and on.

“Mom...Dad…I’m home…”


I’m going to have to give Harry Heuser at Broadcastellan another shout-out for passing on the news that Ronnie Burns, the adopted son of George Burns and Gracie Allen, died this November 14th at the age of 72.

I have said this often—perhaps too often—in the past, but I still vociferously argue that George and Gracie’s television show, despite its eight-year run on CBS, wasn’t as good as their radio series. To me, George and Gracie were perfect for radio because they said funny things rather than did them. (Even their Paramount shorts—entertaining though they may be—are sometimes are a bit static from a visual P.O.V.) Nevertheless, the famed comedy couple broke into the new medium with great success—I’ve read where, according to writer-producer Paul Henning, George actually preferred television to radio because (at least in the show’s early, live years) it was just like he was back in vaudeville again.

Ronnie was added to the TV version in the fall of 1955, and for a series that was often a bit off-kilter (George’s continued “breaking the fourth wall,” Gracie’s illogical logic) the addition of their son made things that much weirder. Ronnie, in many ways, seemed older than his famous folks—and it was always difficult for me to think of Gracie (or her character, anyway) as the kind of individual who could raise kids (she sure as heck wasn’t Donna Reed, that’s for sure). It’s been a while since I’ve been able to watch George and Gracie’s TV show (and the guilty parties know who they are) but I remember Ronnie spent most of his time on Burns and Allen studying in college and dating a lot of women, particularly a young ingénue named Judi Meredith who played aspiring actress Bonnie Sue McAfee in the show’s last season. (Meredith went on to have a fair amount of success career in TV and movies—her high-profile film roles include Jack the Giant Killer [1962] and The Night Walker [1964].) When Gracie finally called it quits in 1958, Ronnie joined his pop in the unsuccessful spin-off The George Burns Show, and though he made guest appearances on various other TV programs (Bachelor Father, The Deputy) the only regular gig he landed was a summer replacement sitcom (for The Perry Como Show), Happy, in 1960.

R.I.P., Ronnie. You will be missed.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Holding hands and pitching Wu


Michael F. Blake is not only an Emmy award-winning makeup artist, he’s the author of three must-read books on actor Lon Chaney—the “Man of a Thousand Faces”—which can all be found at arm-and-a-leg prices at Amazon.com (since they’re all out-of-print). In addition, he was the go-to guy on TCM’s documentary Lon Chaney: Man of a Thousand Faces, which is available on The Lon Chaney Collection DVD set that I talked about back in September 2004. (To demonstrate that he’s not just a one-trick pony, Mike has written other books—notably his most recent, Hollywood and the O.K. Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp.)

I made Michael’s acquaintance online many years ago in a now-defunct chat room devoted to classic movies. Politically, the two of us are poles apart—but that matters very little, because we’re completely simpatico when it comes to the major issues of the day, like the greatness of both John Ford and Jack Webb. But it was Mike who planted the seed in the fallow mind of your humble narrator that yielded the appreciative fruit of a new-found respect and admiration for Lon Chaney’s talent. I had, of course, seen Lon in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925—many, many Halloweens ago, a friend and I stayed up til’ four in the a.m. to see this movie), but upon reading Blake’s The Films of Lon Chaney, it made me curious to seek out other features (or I should, what was still available) by this amazing actor, which I inevitably ended up doing: The Ace of Hearts (1921), The Unholy Three (both 1925 and 1930 versions), The Unknown (1927), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) and West of Zanzibar (1928). (I still haven’t been able to catch Tell it to the Marines [1927] or While the City Sleeps [1928]—but my luck’s bound to change one of these days.)

The reason for this (typically) long-winded introduction is that I got around to seeing another of Lon’s feature films the other day, thanks to a purchase from Vintage Film Buff.com: the 1927 melodrama Mr. Wu, directed by William Nigh. I don’t think you can call it one of Chaney’s greatest films, but one thing I’ve learned in viewing his movies is that even lesser Lon is better than most anything else—he’s such a screen presence that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. Chaney plays two roles in Wu: the title character, an authoritative Chinese mandarin, and his one-hundred-year-old grandfather—who has raised his grandson to adhere to the strict rules and discipline of their exotic culture…but at the same time has insisted that the younger Wu be schooled in the knowledge of the Western world, tutored by James Muir (Claude King). Wu grows to manhood and is subsequently married to a woman chosen for him practically at birth; his wife dies shortly after the birth of their daughter, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée). When Nang Ping reaches the age of marriage, she, too, will become manacled to a man chosen for her by her father—but when she falls for the very Occidental Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes), complications set in.

I must confess, Mr. Wu starts out in a fairly predictable fashion—I was expecting a sort of Cantonese version of Abie’s Irish Rose. But once Wu learns that Gregory has seduced and abandoned Nang Ping, it sort of shifts into a Fu Manchu-like melodrama, with the doggedly determined Mandarin out to wreak vengeance on the callow young Brit for “defiling his daughter.” I liked how director Nigh handles the scene where Wu learns of his daughter’s perfidy: a tattletale servant gives him the skinny, and he’s punished for this act of dishonor by his master in a sort-of ambiguous hari-kari sequence. Wu kills the servant…but at the same time, it’s like the guy rushes to his doom, like Oscar Homolka in Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936).

Lon Chaney was the consummate professional, taking enormous pride in the creation of each makeup for the characters he played on screen. He’s very convincing as both the aged granddad and the fierce patriarchal aristocrat—the makeup for both took anywhere up to four to six hours to complete. But I also enjoyed Adorée as the daughter, who’s even more convincing than Chaney (well, technically this isn’t true—it’s no doubt based on my familiarity with what Lon looked like in real life and unfamilarity with the actress) and is practically unrecognizable from her role as John Gilbert’s French girlfriend in The Big Parade (1925). Fortunately, there are some real Asian performers in the cast—Anna May Wong appears as Nang Ping’s devoted friend/servant, Loo Song—but because Wu was filmed in less enlightened times there are some unavoidable stereotypes and wince-inducing lines like “Darned if I’ll drink tea with a chink!” Director William Nigh—who would later crank out Monogram quickies featuring the East Side Kids, the Cisco Kid and Mr. Wong—does a pretty good job here (he would later direct Chaney in the now-lost Thunder [1929]) but I couldn’t help but wonder while viewing the film what Tod Browning would have done with this.


Mr. Wu made its auspicious debut on Turner Classic Movies back in 2000 (complete with brand-new musical score), and though I’m not particularly well-versed re: TCM’s schedule (I’ve found that looking at movies I don’t have access to is a bit masochistic) I believe it turns up every now and then (usually in the wee a.m. insomniac hours). If you haven’t caught up with it, I urge to do so at your first opportunity.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Well, whaddya know...it works!


From the Associated Press:

A storm crashed through the Southeast and brought up to an inch of rain in parts of drought-stricken Georgia, but forecasters said the storm likely did little to ease the state's historic drought.

The rain late Wednesday and early Thursday brought some precipitation to the parched hills of northern Georgia. The showers began a day after Gov. Sonny Perdue led a prayer service on the steps of the state Capitol to beg the heavens to end the drought.

"Certainly, we're not gloating about it," Perdue said from a trade mission in Canada. "We're thankful for the rain and hopefully it's the beginning of more. ... Frankly, it's great affirmation of what we asked for."

For his wow finish, Governor Perdue will walk on the water generated by the storm...and then transform it into wine.

Please, Hammett…don’t hurt ‘em


Frequent visitors to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear may be aware of my affection for The Glass Key (1942), the film adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel starring Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy as a pair of corrupt political ward-heelers, and luscious Veronica Lake as the femme fatale who comes between them. In olden days, before the marvelous advent of DVDs, I would generally have to dig through the somewhat smaller (but no less dusty) TDOY archives to find my VHS copy of this movie (I taped it off of AMC before they…well, let’s not get into that—it’s such a nice day) or, if I happened to run across it by accident on the tube, would be forced to watch it because my TV remote would cease to work until it was over. (I know—I can’t explain it, either. “It baffles science!”) Fortunately, I now have Key on a Region 2 DVD release, and all is right in the House of Yesteryear.

Hammett’s novel was published in 1931, and four years later Paramount brought it to the big screen with George Raft and Edward Arnold in the Ladd/Donlevy roles, respectively. The 1935 version isn’t shown on television much (if at all) but I fortunately tracked down a copy—on DVD, no less—and finally got around to watching it last night. I still think the ’42 version is superior (and even that one isn’t really perfect, since it deviates from Hammett’s novel a great deal) but if you can take it upon yourself not to compare the two, the 1935 Key is not a bad little melodrama.

The plot, for those unfamiliar with either the book or the 1942 version, centers around Paul Madvig (Arnold), a powerful “fixer” whose “Voters League” is the main political influence in town. Madvig has put the weight of his machine behind the campaign of Reform Party senator John T. Henry (Charles Richman), ostensibly because he’s quite taken with Henry’s daughter Janet (Claire Dodd) and plans to ask her to marry him. Paul’s support for the Reformers doesn’t sit too well with his right-hand man, Ed Beaumont (Raft), particularly since Madvig’s campaign to “clean up” the town is creating friction amongst Madvig’s “business associates”—namely, an ambitious nightclub racketeer named Shad O’Rory (Robert Gleckler). Things go sour when Janet’s irresponsible brother Taylor (Ray Milland)—in hock to O’Rory and stepping out with Opal Madvig (Rosalind Keith), Paul’s daughter—is found murdered on the streets by Beaumont after an argument with Madvig, and a witness (Harry Tyler) provided by O’Rory fingers Paul as the culprit.

Because actor Arnold had about a quarter-of-a-century on Rosalind Keith, age-wise, I guess it made more sense for her to play his daughter rather than sibling (unlike Bonita Granville’s sisterly turn in the 1942 version,). Apart from the addition of a couple of characters (W.C. Fields cohort Tammany Young as a comic relief mug working for Arnold, and character stalwart Emma Dunn as Arnold’s sainted Irish mother) and the plot point that has Beaumont pursuing Opal rather than Janet Henry, there’s really not a whole lot of difference between the two versions of Key. The 1942 remake is undeniably glossier, with a bit more star power, but at the same time the characters are presented in an edgier fashion; Arnold seems to be more of a benevolent banker proud of his Rotarian status than a seriously threatening machine boss (but you could argue that most roles he tackled utilized that characterization). Character great Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who was usually cast as either a punch-drunk mug or Western hero sidekick, uses this benign façade to play the part of O’Rory’s sadistic henchman Jeff—the role played by William Bendix in the 1942 version. While I thought Williams was good, Bendix is better—particularly that homoerotic fascination he has with “Sock-me-again” Beaumont. Yes, I said I wasn’t going to compare the two versions of Key, and obviously I’m failing miserably—but the 1935 film does feature an eye-popping car crash at the beginning…and if you check out Beaumont’s nurse in the scene where he’s brought into the hospital after taking one of Jeff’s beatings, you’ll be delighted to learn that she’s played by Ann Sheridan, shortly before she went to work for Warner Brothers and became their “Oomph Girl.”

I purchased the 1935 Key from Vintage Film Buff.com, which has more than a few cherce rarities (some of which I was helpless to resist buying, and which I’ll cover in the next few days). It’s part of a double-feature disc (Gangsters, Dicks & Dames #1) that includes the 1931 gangster epic City Streets as a companion feature; a film whose story was also written by Hammett (his only original story for the silver screen, in fact) and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, whom Hal Erickson at allmovie.com describes as “never one to hide his talent under a bushel basket.” Mamoulian’s direction does have a tendency to be a bit too arty, but nevertheless his unique touches make Streets a must-see; Gary Cooper plays a shooting gallery showman (known only as “The Kid”) who falls hard for Nan (Sylvia Sidney, in a role originally intended for Clara Bow), the daughter of mob henchman Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee). Ordered by gang boss “Big Fella” (Paul Lukas) to rub out another goon (Stanley Ridges) so that he can start making time with Ridges’ gal (Wynne Gibson), Pop presses Nan to hide the gun used in Ridges’ murder—but she’s picked up by the police and convicted as an accessory after the fact. When she’s finally sprung from the Big House, Nan is stunned to learn that “The Kid” has followed her earlier advice and joined Pop in the rackets—but she’s had a change of heart, and begs her boyfriend to abandon his new line of work…particularly when “Big Fella” starts getting designs on her.

City Streets is a fascinating early talkie which runs counter to the Warner’s formula displayed in releases like Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), and will surprise those whose “gangster” education consists of those nevertheless important films. (Mamoulian bragged that while there were ten killings in Streets, the audience sees none of them onscreen.) The performances in Streets are also first-rate, with Kibbee and Lukas effectively playing against type and Cooper in a role that he never duplicated again, to my knowledge. Visually stunning (with camerawork by Lee Garmes) and very similar to Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) in its evocation of atmosphere, I’d recommend it in a New York minute.

One thing I wanted to add re: Key and Streets—the cover of the DVD box reads: “Digitally mastered directly from film elements.” My guess is that the source for these movies is of the 16mm variety, and although they’re not pristine (both of them look like they’ve taken a few too many trips through the projector sprockets) they’re in better-than-you’d-imagine shape. I have made similar purchases of hard-to-locate films from Mom-and-Pop places in the past, and with a few exceptions, they’ve either been copied from an old VHS copy (putting things on DVD from VHS does not necessarily look better—as serials expert Ed Hulse is fond of saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”) or taped from TV.

“Kimble!”

TVShowsOnDVD.com has announced that CBS/Paramount hasn’t abandoned plans for more releases of The Fugitive (well…not as of this posting, anyway)—though the company insists on doing it via the loathsome “split season” method. The Fugitive: Season 1, Volume 2 will hit the streets February 26, 2008—and here’s a peek at the box art for the show’s fans (like me).

Toby at INNER TOOB had an interesting heads-up that the BBC has tentative plans to adapt the classic fantasy sitcom Bewitched for British audiences by commissioning a pilot script from writer Paul Mendelson. Mendelson has had experience in fantasy premises before; he’s the creator of the inexplicably popular My Hero series which some of you may have seen on public television from time to time. (I can only speculate that the reason it made it to this side of the pond was that someone thought viewers would embrace it in their bosoms in the same fashion as the cult comedy Red Dwarf.) Toby also mentions that Mendelson had a hand in the creation of May to December, a sitcom that made the rounds on GPTV a good many years back, which starred Anton Rodgers as a solicitor who falls in love with a woman half his age. The curious thing about this show was that the woman—Zoe Angell—was played by Eve Matheson for the first two series, and then was replaced by Lesley Dunlop for the last three. (So Mendelson won’t have any problems in the "two Darrins" area, as you can see.)

Meanwhile, former Will & Grace writer-producer Adam Barr is going to bring the Channel 4 cult comedy series Spaced to these shores in an American version. I wrote about this show back in my Salon period, and I just want to say for the record that this idea—should it ultimately bear fruit—is a really, really, really, really bad one. The evil thing about this is that no one told Spaced creator Edgar Wright about this deal, nor stars Simon (Shaun of the Dead) Pegg (who also co-created) and Jessica Stevenson-Hynes—they ended up hearing about it in the press just like everyone else.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pray harder, Sonny

From the Associated Press:

With a historic drought gripping the Southeast, Georgia farmers are increasingly worried that their needs will be sacrificed to those of Atlanta _ a city of runaway growth and seemingly unquenchable thirst _ or water-guzzling Florida.

"Atlanta needs to take a hard look at what's happening in the metro area," said Bubba Johnson, a 68-year-old farmer who grows cotton and corn on a 500-acre plot. "There's going to be a heck of a battle if they try to come down here to get the water."

Forget it, Jake...it's Chinatown.

Isn’t it iconic…don’t you think?

Orli Sharaby at Media Players sent me an e-mail yesterday with news about the latest TV special cooked up by TV Land and Entertainment Weak…er, Weekly: The 50 Greatest TV Icons, scheduled for a 2-hour time slot on TV Land this Friday, November 16th. (What, they ran out of movies to show?)

First off, much thanks to Ms. Sharaby for passing this along—and rest assured, I’m not trying to shoot the messenger. But my enthusiasm for these sorts of extravaganzas ranks right around the demonstrative fervor I display anytime the AFI trots out one of their “100 Best” lists. With the AFI, they’re usually trying to jack up sales of videocassettes and DVDs—I’m not certain what TV Land/EW’s motives are, though in TV Land’s case it might be a ruse to distract people from discovering that their idea of “classic TV” is Designing Women and Night Court.

My cranky curmudgeonism aside, TV Land and EW have kicked things off with a preliminary list of those icons ranked from #51 to #100. Just a precursory glance at this will tell you that TV Land/EW are smoking cigarettes without a brand name. Bob Hope at #51? He should be ranked much, much higher. So, for that matter, should Don Knotts, Bob Denver, James Garner, Art Carney and Rod Serling. The list of #1 to #50 is even worse: how the f**K does Calista Flockhart make the top 50? What the hell has she done, apart from promoting anorexia nervosa and shacking up with Harrison Ford, who’ll soon be starring in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Polident? Simon Cowell? Please. He couldn’t carry Bob Hope’s jockstrap, much less Jerry Mathers’. (Sorry about burning that image on your retinas, by the way.) And where the hell are people like Phil Silvers and Eve Arden, ferchrissake?

It would appear that the definition of “TV icon” means anyone who’s been on your small screen so often enough that they get points for…well, being on your small screen so often enough. (At least, that’s how I justify the inclusion of people like Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin, not to mention Sarah Jessica Parker.) I’d be curious to learn who did the rankings on this odious piece of fromage—probably the same EW “editors” who are completely unaware that they did make movies before 1975. N-E-wayz, if you’re interested in seeing one of those gratuitous back-patting retrospectives where celebrities say revoltingly nice things to one another, be in front of your set Friday night to watch.

One fine Day


Laughing Gravy mentioned this in a discussion thread over In the Balcony, but it was Harry Heuser at Broadcastellan who provided me with the news that actress Laraine Day has left us at the age of 87. (Check out this version of the obit from a New Zealand paper, which seems to suggest that Day let herself go in later years to the point where she ended up resembling Alfred Hitchcock.) Brother Harry has a nice rundown on Day’s various radio appearances, so take time from your busy web surfing schedule and give it a quick read. The only one I’m familiar with, unfortunately, is her “cameo” appearance on The Big Show from February 4, 1951 in which she appears with then-husband…well, I forget his name right off. I know he used to manage a baseball team that once put down stakes in Brooklyn. (Okay, I’m kidding—it’s Leo “the Lip” Durocher.)

In his post, Harry points out that Day’s long-lasting film legacy was her recurring role as Nurse Molly Lamont in MGM’s Dr. Kildare series from Calling Dr. Kildare (1939) to Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day (1941). Day could never really be considered a big film star, but she was a likable presence in films, and appeared in such gems as Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Mr. Lucky (1943), The High and the Mighty (1954)…and one of your humble narrator’s personal favorites, I Married a Communist (1949, a.k.a. The Woman on Pier 13). She was also one of the first silver screen actresses to dip her toe in the vast body of water we’ll call television; she started a pre-game show on WPIX-TV in 1950 interviewing members of Durocher’s New York Giants, and later tackled a talk show in 1951, Daydreaming with Laraine.

To the “first lady of baseball,” we say R.I.P., Ms. Day. You will be missed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A kiss before dying


When I heard the news of country singer Hank Thompson’s passing, I mentioned it to my father who, I was pretty certain, would be familiar as to who Thompson was (in the past, when I’ve informed him of a celebrity obit, it’s not uncommon for him to say: “Huh?”). He shook his head sadly and remarked: “We’re losing way too many of the good ones.”

We’ve just lost another. Ira Levin, the best-selling author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Boys from Brazil, has passed on at the age of 78.

Levin wrote a good many best-selling novels which will be remembered by future generations for the simple reason that that several of them were adapted for the silver screen. In addition to the aforementioned Baby (directed by Roman Polanski in 1968) and Brazil (1978), there were A Kiss Before Dying (in both 1956 and a 1991 remake), The Stepford Wives (1975 and 2004) and Sliver (1993). His long-running stage play, Deathtrap, was also brought to the big screen in 1982, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring the late Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine. His other stage work included the Broadway adaptation of No Time for Sergeants (1955), which made a star out of comedian/actor Andy Griffith (and who starred in the 1958 film version). He also dabbled in television, writing for such Golden Age series as Lights Out and The United States Steel Hour.

Critics were lukewarm as to the merits of Levin’s literary output; a Newsweek reporter once compared his books to a bag of popcorn (“Utterly without nutritive value and probably fattening, yet there’s no way to stop once you’ve started.”). But I think Levin deserves a tremendous amount of credit for Rosemary’s Baby, which is one of the few movies to remain faithful to its literary source…and is one of the damndest scariest films I’ve ever seen.

R.I.P., Ira. You will be missed.

Murder, he watched


“In exactly 55 minutes, I will be dead,” high-powered defense lawyer Craig Carlson (Raymond Burr) intones into a reel-to-reel machine…and he’s not messin’ around, boy—he’s purchased the gun and ammo at a pawnshop before the opening credits of Please Murder Me (1956). Carlson then tells the story of how he had to have “the talk” with best friend/WW2 buddy Joe Leeds (Dick Foran)—no, not that “talk”; the one where he informs his pal that he’s fallen in love with Joe’s wife Myra (Angela Lansbury). Despite the fact that he’s a low-down, despicable wife-snatcher, Craig wants to be fair about this whole thing and asks Joe to give his wife a divorce, something the cuckolded husband tells his former friend he’ll have to think about over the next two days. Upon reaching a decision, Joe confronts Myra in their bedroom one rainy night…and moments later, gets a lead bullet for his trouble.

Craig agrees to defend Myra on a murder charge by pleading self-defense, and even though the prosecution’s case is airtight, the lawyer resorts to a novel defense during his summation by informing the jury that Myra was justified popping a cap in poor Joe because she was in love with another man…namely, Craig Carlson, attorney for the defense. (I’ll bet Perry Mason never thought of that angle!) With Myra acquitted, the future Mr. and Mrs. Carlson celebrate at an intimate party with friends and make plans for both their nuptials and honeymoon—but during the canapés and champagne, a business associate (Robert Griffin) of Joe’s hands Craig a letter that he was supposed to deliver the night of Joe’s murder. Joe warns in his missive that Craig should run fast and run far—“because Myra isn’t a woman, she’s a disease.”

Please Believe Me is one of two shoestring B-melodramas presented as a double feature on an Alpha DVD I recently purchased from Oldies.com. I’ll get to the merits (or dearth of) of the second feature in a sec, but I have to admit I was genuinely surprised by Please, a quickie much better than many of the commenters over at the IMDb would have you believe. (To put things in perspective, I’d say it’s not as good as Woman on the Run but miles and away better than C-Man.) The only real demerits in the film are technical ones, related to the print used for the DVD; there are a number of severe audio problems (dropouts) and an annoying white line than runs down the center of the screen for about 80% of Please’s hour-and-fifteen-minute running time. What amuses me most about Alpha’s release of Please is that they’ve superimposed the company logo on the left side of the screen during the picture’s opening credits—though why anyone would want to duplicate such a clearly crappy print is a question I can’t answer. Oddly enough, Alpha proves its point because forty-seven minutes into the film, there’s a logo on the right side of the screen that reads “Mill Creek Entertainment.” (“Vultures! There are vultures everywhere!”)

It’s the performances in Please that raise it above the average B-noir fodder: Burr is in dress rehearsal for his long-running role on CBS’ Perry Mason, and Lansbury is icy-cold as the conniving femme fatale. You’ll spot some familiar character faces both from the worlds of television (Denver “Uncle Jesse” Pyle is a detective working the murder case, while an uncredited Madge “Aunt Harriet” Blake plays Burr’s housekeeper) and old-time radio (I Love a Mystery’s Russell Thorson is the presiding judge, and Tarzan/future film director Lamont Johnson plays Lansbury’s artist/lover). The smartest bit of casting is John Dehner (or Mister John Dehner, as my musician pal the Chief calls him, in deference to Have Gun, Will Travel billing), who plays the D.A. and, hence, Burr’s courtroom adversary. OTR fans know that Burr played the role of Lee Quince—“captain of cavalry!”—on the underrated Fort Laramie, but it was Dehner who had first crack at it in Laramie’s audition (OTR-speak for “pilot”). In fact, Please has a definite OTR aura all around it: the plot resembles a fleshed-out Suspense story, and when the movie was done I grabbed the Martin Grams book to see if it actually had its origins on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”—but came up with nada.

Lansbury encores as a femme fatale in the second feature on this DVD, A Life at Stake (1954), by playing a kittenish wife who talks a down-and-out architect (Keith Andes) into a real estate/construction partnership. But quicker you can say “Frank Lloyd Wright,” the couple move from partnership to relationship, sneaking around behind the back of Lansbury’s husband, played by Douglass Dumbrille. Dumbrille insists that Andes take out a hefty life insurance policy ($175, 000) as security for his and Lansbury’s business—but when Angie’s little sis (Gloria Barrett) lets slip that Lansbury’s first husband was also larded up with life insurance (and died under mysterious circumstances) Andes begins to think there’s something not quite kosher about the deal. His suspicions multiply when he comes close to checking out of Hotel Earth in not one but two auto-related mishaps.

Stake’s a disappointment when compared to Please—Lansbury is good (maybe even better here than in Please) but having Andes—a graduate from the Guy Madison-George Nader College of Beefcake—as your leading man is a bit of detriment (though if we apply TDOY’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™, he doesn’t stink too bad in Dick Powell’s 1953 nuclear thriller Split Second—a guilty pleasure of your humble narrator's). In general, the characters in Stake are pretty much cardboard caricatures, with Dumbrille practically telegraphing his villainy and Jane Darwell completely wasted in a teensy role as Andes’ landlady. Character great Paul Guilfoyle directed this mess (and would later become a much-in-demand TV director on shows like Science Fiction Theatre and Highway Patrol) and Hank McCune, whose 1950 TV sitcom is the first documented program to make use of the laugh-track, wrote and produced (and composed the theme song…industrious little beaver, wasn’t he?). Stake is recommended only for the indiscriminating insomniac.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Someone keep that fire burning/somebody beat the drum..."

Here's another story about the efforts of the Only Governor We Have to bring a little precipitation to drought-plagued Nawth Jawja by praying like the Baptist he proudly proclaims to be. (Part of his "Sonny-Do" list, I'm assuming.) The article points out that he's not the only crackpot to roll the dice for this meteorological miracle--Alabama Governor Bob Riley called for a "Days of Prayer for Rain" week back in July, as did Australian Prime Minister John Howard in a similar fashion in May.

Ed Buckner, who appears to be the only voice of sanity left in the state, is organizing a protest on behalf of the Atlanta Freethought Society, a secular group which will have a guesstimated 125 members present to watch the Guv, lawmakers and ministers make acomplete horse's hind-ends of themselves. "The governor can pray when he wants to," says Buckner. "What he can't do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia."

How bad is the drought situation in this state? As The Spirit editor Steve Hartley jokes, "It's so dry in Georgia that the Baptists are starting to baptize by sprinkling; the Methodists are using wet-wipes, the Presbyterians are giving out rain-checks, and the Catholics are praying for the wine to turn back into water."