Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Well, we’re nearing the end of 2008 and I guess for all intents and purposes this will be my final post of the year. Looking back at the archives, I’m amazed that this was the busiest month with 98 posts…compared to only three posts in April. (In my defense, April was crunch time at the former Castle Yesteryear, with Operations Clutter and Relocation in full swing.)

I’m hoping that 2009 will tell a different story—not because I don’t enjoy writing the blog, I very much do…but sooner or later I’m going to have to find something in the line of permanent work, and it will have to be soon. But since that sort of thinking on this New Year’s Eve is guaranteed to take the bubbles out of everyone’s champagne, I thought I’d introduce a few “Best of 2008” lists.

These are not my lists, by the way. I don’t listen to a lot of new music or watch new TV shows…and the only movie I saw this year in the theater was the colossal stinkeroo Get Smart (2008). I did manage to watch a lot of old movies and DVDs this year…but since I’m clearly too lazy to write down my own list, I thought I’d let a few notables do the heavy lifting.

Laughing Gravy over In the Balcony has been choosing the Amazing Colossal In the Balcony DVD of the Year Awards since 2001, and this year the coveted trophy goes to Fox’s Mornau, Borzage, and Fox box set. (He would pick the one set that’s out of my price range.) But he’s also chosen some dandy runners-up and honorable mentions that I was pleased to add to my collection this year; among them American Slapstick Volume 2, Budd Boetticher Box Set and the Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition. Gravy and I watch a lot of the same old movies (though we’re not always in simpatico with their merits—can you believe this mook doesn’t like Charlie Chan films?) and even when I disagree, I enjoy getting his take…check out his list here.

Gravy also pointed me towards two other important sources of classic-movies-on-DVD criticism: Dave Kehr, the renowned NYT film critic who has a nice article here on how DVD is practically the only medium keeping classic films alive (you’ll rarely find any more late, late shows on local TV—thanks to informercials—and with the notable exception of TCM—and even it’s a bit suspect—very few cable channels to program them). He also has a listing of some of the top classic film DVD releases for ’08, including Easy Living (1937) and Man of the West (1958).

The other source is DVD Savant’s Glenn Erickson, whose “best” list overlaps many of Dave and Gravy’s choices but still manages to include the Criterion DVD of The Furies (1950) and Fox’s Western Classics Collection.

So until we hook up again in 2009, I want to sincerely thank all the people—regulars and drive-bys—who encouraged my behavior this year. I wish each and everyone of you the happiest of New Years!

A marriage of philately and nostalgia

That fine broth of a blogger Toby O’Brien at Inner Toob mentioned this news a week or two back in December, and I was a little put out by the fact that after seeing I went to the USPS website and couldn’t find them online to order:

Postal Service lifts curtain on next year’s stamps
WASHINGTON (AP) — Lucy and Ethel lose their struggle with a chocolate assembly line. Joe Friday demands "just the facts" with a penetrating gaze. A secret word brings Groucho a visit from a duck.

Folks who grew up as television came of age will delight in a 20-stamp set included in the Postal Service's plans for 2009 recalling early memories of the medium.

(snip)

Most of the commemorative stamps are priced at 42 cents, the current first-class rate. However, a rate increase is scheduled in May and the size will depend on the consumer price index.

The Early TV Memories stamp set is scheduled for release Aug. 11 in Los Angeles.

One recalls the quiz show "You Bet Your Life," on which the unflappable Groucho Marx awarded prizes to contestants who answered questions. If they said a secret word, a toy duck dropped down with a cash reward.

In a memorable scene from "I Love Lucy," Lucille Ball and sidekick Ethel Mertz work at an assembly line that speeds up and they can't wrap the candy quickly enough, causing panic.

In the stamp commemorating the cop show "Dragnet," star Jack Webb as detective Joe Friday gives his "just the facts, ma'am," stare, while on another stamp sweetheart singer Dinah Shore throws the audience a kiss.

Other shows featured are "Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Ed Sullivan Show," "George Burns & Gracie Allen Show," "Hopalong Cassidy," "The Honeymooners," "Howdy Doody," "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," "Lassie," "The Lone Ranger," "Perry Mason," "Phil Silvers Show," "Red Skelton," "Texaco Star Theater," "Tonight Show" and "Twilight Zone."

So I jumped the gun on this. Rest assured, I will have this set in my hot little hands come August of 2009.

I've been known to do this in real life...


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Advance and be recognized

Courtesy of “Uncle” Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70: A Wide World of Cinema, the Library of Congress has announced the twenty-five films that were named to the National Film Registry in 2008:

1. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
2. Deliverance (1972)
3. Disneyland Dream (1956)
4. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
5. Flower Drum Song (1961)
6. Foolish Wives (1922)
7. Free Radicals (1979)
8. Hallelujah (1929)
9. In Cold Blood (1967)
10. The Invisible Man (1933)
11. Johnny Guitar (1954)
12. The Killers (1946)
13. The March (1964)
14. No Lies (1973)
15. On the Bowery (1957)
16. One Week (1920)
17. The Pawnbroker (1965)
18. The Perils of Pauline (1914)
19. Sergeant York (1941)
20. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
21. So’s Your Old Man (1926)
22. George Stevens WW2 Footage (1943-46)
23. The Terminator (1984)
24. Water and Power (1989)
25. White Fawn’s Devotion (1910)

All-in-all, not a bad list…though there are one or two movies on this list that give me pause (and not the one that refreshes…). I agree with Sam about Hallelujah in that it should have been appointed to the Registry a long time ago, and it’s refreshing to see several films that I have been championing for years (namely Crowd, Blood, Guitar and Pawnbroker) make the cut. (Kudos to Asphalt and Killers, too.) But what cheers me most is seeing many of the great movie comedians make the list—Buster Keaton for One Week (another film that should have gotten the tap years ago), W.C. Fields for So’s Your Old Man and Arnold Schwarzenegger for…wait a sec…I think that was a misnomer.

Comments? Dissenting opinions? TDOY operators are standing by.

It’s great just to be nominated (2008 edition)

If you click here you will be whisked away to the list of finalists for the 2008 Weblog Awards, a celebration of gratuitous back-patting that comes and goes every year which I would normally shun like the proverbial plague were it not for the fact that conservative blogger extraordinaire Jon Swift has made the cut of the ten nominees in the category of Best Humor Blog. (I’m not entirely certain how this happened, by the way…I think it may be an oversight, since Jon—in a saner world—should have been included among the Best Conservative Blog nominees.) As a left-wing troublemaker, I read Jon on a regular basis and find him devastatingly witty (maybe that explains the “Best Humor Blog” nod) despite his politics. I realize this isn’t being fair, since Jon has never passed judgment on me and in fact, was kind and courteous enough to include me in a post which lists various bloggers and what they felt was their best post in 2008. (I went with the Gale Storm material only because…when you break it all down…most of what I write is hack work anyway.) I’m ashamed to be in such heady company.

I don’t know who these people are running these “Weblog Awards” but I have a feeling that their methods are somewhat suspect because I actually received a nomination early on in the process. Yes, that’s right. Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, mongrel blog. (The “Old Yeller” of pop culture blogs.) To the unknown individual who put my name in the early nomination pool, I offer you my heartiest thanks. But I could have told you it was simply not to be. In a post I wrote last year, facetiously describing these Weblog Awards people, I described them thusly:

The Weblog Awards are plenty big stuff, Kemosabe—it’s like playing in the “show.” Mink keyboards, all the Reese’s Pieces you can eat, servants to wait on you hand and foot—it’s the life, as Rush Gook would say. Wilder knows this blog won’t ever amount to anything, but I’d sure like to see one of its supporters/friends crash the big time.

I still cling to that last supposition—my manner towards the Weblog Awards has only become jaundiced because…well, if they even remotely consider allowing unwashed blogs like this one to join the ranks, where will it all end? Come January 5th, however, we will be afforded the opportunity to vote for Jon Swift…and since he’s a three-time nominee, I say we band together and make this one “the charm.”

Naughty but ice

On the holiday quiz that’s posted at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, there’s a bonus question that asks: “What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift that you received this year?” It was supposed to be answered after December 25th—but I sort of jumped the gun with my answer (Amazon.co.uk had a sale on their Region 2 DVD W.C. Fields Collection, and so I bought a copy for myself.)

As a rule, my family and friends shy away from movie-related gifts—particularly DVDs, since they’re usually afraid I might already have what they’ve bought me…and I’m afraid I usually do. I tried to rectify this by starting a wish list over at Amazon.com but to no avail: the ‘rents still haven’t got their computer up and running and sister Kat is usually tending to other things. I don’t want to sell them short, however; Kat got me a cute gift—a director’s megaphone—and Mom sprung for a DVD recorder so I no longer have to stay up at an ungodly hour to watch certain movies. A doff of the TDOY chapeau goes to my other sister Debbie, who did look at the wish list and purchased for me two books that came highly recommended from my fellow cineaste Vince Keenan: John DiLeo’s 100 Great Performances You Should Remember--But Probably Don't and Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery. (I’m in the middle of Screen Savers right now and if you’re looking for a crackling good film reference, you really should pick up a copy.)

So, I’m over at sister Kat’s for Christmas Eve—and there’s this gi-normous wrapped gift under the tree, which my Mom informs me is mine, all mine. I ask her what it is, and she coyly responds—in a way that would suggest I’m still eight years old—that I have to wait ‘til Christmas to find out. Well…okay, I said—and though I made a few random jokes about the package, I pretty much moved on from that point.

Christmas Day, the next morning. Or I should say afternoon—we had planned to open up gifts that morning, but Kat came down with the vapors or something (I believe she diagnosed it as a migraine) and so we didn’t start unwrapping the loot until we finished dinner. But in that time, Kat asks me what I think is in the package.

A sane person would have excused himself and made a quick exit out the back door—but because I’m an idiot by trade, I decided to guess what it was. It was about the size of a computer printer…or more specifically, a printer with a scanner, copier, fax, etc. attached. So that was my guesstimate on the Showcase Showdown, Bob…and upon seeing the impression on my sister’s face, I know that not only am I not anywhere near the ballpark—I have seriously committed a major Christmas gift fox paw.

So then I start getting the third degree. “Did you want a printer/copier/scanner/fax, etc. for Christmas?” Kat asks.

Boy, I was blowing this big time. “Well, I have a printer at the apartment,” I stammered. “Although it’s not really mine—it’s Dad’s—he just lets me borrow it. But yes, I could use a printer/copier/scanner/fax, etc…of course, I’ll certainly understand if that’s not what’s in the package.”

At this point in time, I’ve pretty much flunked the exam and will no doubt be spending time in summer school next year. As it turned out, it was not a printer/copier/scanner/fax, etc…but an ice-maker.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, it was a very thoughtful gift and I’m pleased to have received it…in fact, I set it up this morning and as I type this, it’s on its way to making lots of lovely ice because—to be honest—I’m a man who likes a lot of ice in whatever I’m drinking. I’m not British. Back in 1979, when Hurricane David kissed the city of Savannah, my grandfather wasn’t concerned about the damage Dave did to his swimming pool (though it did prove a bit costly)…he was pissed because he couldn’t get any ice.

It’s just that…well, kitcheney and household items are usually the last on my list whenever anyone asks what I want for Christmas. When I was living in Morgantown, Kat paid me a visit and for one reason or another decided to cook something in my kitchen (a risky prospect at best, since I believe the Board of Heath had came and went...and they weren't smiling) and she asks me: “Where is your garlic press?”

“What the !@#$% is a garlic press?” I responded. She went out and bought me a garlic press as a result. I don’t think I ever used the damned thing again in the time between her visit and when I eventually moved back to Savannah.

I just went and checked on the ice. It’s coming along slowly and surely, which is a very good sign because only one of two things was destined to happen once I turned it on: 1) it would make ice, or 2) it would burn down my apartment. There’s an indicator on the machine that you can set to make small ice (my very favorite, the kind you get in motels—one of the few perks at my former La Quinta job, I might add), medium ice or large ice (probably won’t be using this option too often—I hate big ice). In the long run, I’m not certain the ice maker can measure up to an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle…but then again, I’m not eight years old any more, either. Thanks ever so for the gift, sis.

Post-holiday depression


Monday, December 29, 2008

Saturday night is Flix night

Well, another Saturday night went by and there wasn’t much to stare at, TCM-wise, so I utilized Plan B and had a glance at Flix on Demand menu. The nice thing about Flix is that they stagger their schedule so as a rule you can find something on nearly every week…

A Taste of Honey (1961) – British filmmaker Tony Richardson was renowned in the 1960s for his “kitchen sink” dramas (Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) and this movie (the film debut of actress Rita Tushingham) not only stands tall with his previous work but remains one of his all-time best films. Rita’s a working class girl whose mum (music hall institution Dora Bryan) abandons her to marry a sharpie (Robert Stephens); she then becomes pregnant by a sailor (Paul Danquah) and allows her gay roommate (Murray Melvin) to take care of her when Sailor Sam takes a powder. Those people who are familiar with Richardson’s raucous comedies like Tom Jones (1963) and The Loved One (1965) will be genuinely surprised by Honey; it has its share of light moments but all-in-all it’s a very serious and heartbreaking film about a girl’s coming of age…and its ending is particularly painful but thankfully doesn’t take the easy way out. I was particularly entranced by Tushingham’s performance: I’ve seen her in other films (notably The Leather Boys and The Knack…and How to Get It) but she was truly remarkable in this (she and co-star Melvin took home acting awards from the Cannes Film Festival in 1962)—she’s still working but I can’t honestly tell you the last time I saw her in anything. I was also impressed with Bryan’s turn as her irresponsible mother; most of what I’ve watched Bryan in is episodes of the BBC sitcom warhorse Last of the Summer Wine. If you are unfortunate and subscribe to CharredHer Cable like me, try and catch this when it’s on (I just wish the print had been a bit better).

Farewell, My Lovely (1975) – Ambitious remake of Murder, My Sweet (1944) stars Robert Mitchum as shamus Philip Marlowe, who because of changing attitudes in movies is allowed to swear and be injected with drugs at a cathouse (and not the sanitarium featured in Sweet). The credits in this film go to Big Bad Bob (he makes a credible Marlowe, even though he’s a bit long in the tooth) and some first-rate performances from the supporting actors: John Ireland (as Marlowe’s nemesis on the force), Sylvia Miles, TDOY fave Anthony Zerbe, Harry Dean Stanton (as Ireland’s sidekick), Jack O’Halloran (the Superman villain plays Moose Malloy—though he’s no Mike Mazurki) and Kate Murtagh as the Hope Emerson-like madam running the whorehouse. The major debit in Lovely is Charlotte Rampling (who made a lot of the Best Actress lists in that meme that went around a few weeks back, to my head-scratching puzzlement) who just doesn’t convince me of her bad girl status…in fact, she doesn’t convince me of anything. As far as adaptations go, the 1944 version with Dick Powell is still the one to beat—but you might get a kick out seeing pulp fiction giant Jim Thompson as Rampling’s cuckolded husband and a young Sylvester Stallone, who plays one of Murtagh’s goons. (And, of course, I spotted Joan Shawlee right off the bat as the frowsy old dame who dances with Mitchum/Marlowe and talks incessantly about her husband “Harry.”)

I know SOMEONE who got coal in his stocking...


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Doctor, doctor…give me the news…

TCM finished up their Crime Doctor movie festival yesterday with two entries from 1947: The Millerson Case and Crime Doctor’s Gamble. One of them features a promising start which unfortunately doesn’t pan out, and the other is my candidate for worst entry of the series. Plus—the two Crime Doctor opuses (opi?) that TCM didn’t get around to showing.

The Millerson Case (1947) – As the film begins, our hero, Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), is leaving for a “long deserved vacation” (his words, not mine) and traveling to the bucolic community of Brook Falls (some wag at the IMDb says it’s located “in the Blue Ridge Mountains district of West Virginia” but it looks a little Pine Ridge-ish to me) where he hopes to get in a little hunting and fishing. Unfortunately, he arrives in the tiny town only to discover that an outbreak of “summer complaint” has befallen some of the townsfolk—at least that’s the diagnosis of town doctor Sam Millerson (Griff Barnett), a medico set in his country ways and who doesn’t believe in that “big city doctorin’.” As colorful as ol’ Doc Millerson can be, he’s dead wrong on the diagnosis; it’s actually a spate of typhoid fever gripping the town—and Ordway is asked to suspend his vacation to assist the doctors (among them Addison Richards) in stamping out the epidemic. In examining the patients who have succumbed to the typhoid, however, Ordway finds that the town barber (Trevor Bardette) may have had typhoid-like symptoms…but that his death was actually due to poison!

Case starts out with a real wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am premise that creates enough suspense for two Crime Doctor outings: the only problem is that once it’s been established that the barber was poisoned, the typhoid fever plot comes to a quick stop (you see cops pulling down quarantine signs and relieved townsfolk planning their “Summer Festival”) and Case’s story returns to the traditional whodunit format of the Crime Doctor films. Nearly every actor in Hollywood who specialized in hillbilly roles appears in this entry: Clem Bevans, Paul Guilfoyle, James Bell, Ernie Adams, Walter Baldwin, Russell Simpson and Sarah Padden, to name but a few. While I was disappointed with the direction Case took it’s still a better-than-average entry in the series; Barbara “Doris Ziffel” Pepper plays a slutty housewife who’s still sexy as all-get-out despite her zaftig proportions (she even engages in a sprightly catfight with Frances Morris…for those of you heartened by that sort of thing), and Three Stooges nemesis Dick Wessel has a fairly substantial part as Brook Falls’ blacksmith. The funniest part in the film occurs after the murderer has been captured; the guilty party tries to make Ordway and the authorities think he’s a sandwich shy of a picnic so our hero tells his colleagues that the sure way to prove his sanity is to hand him a newspaper on fire—an insane person will allow it to continue to burn despite the pain, a sane person will put it out. When Mr. Looney Bin Candidate refuses to drop the newspaper, Ordway reveals that he’s fallen for his little trap—an insane person cannot reason, and would have dropped the paper at the first sensation of pain! (At the half, it’s Ordway 7…Dumbass Criminal zip.)

Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947) – Hands down, the most sluggish (and probably the worst) entry in Columbia’s ten-film series. We are taken via stock footage to the city of lights—gay Paree, where Ordway is finishing up a speech to a board of psychiatric colleagues…and then it’s off to the local constabulary, where C.D. is reunited with his old friend Inspector Jacques Morrell (Marcel Journet), who promises to show him a big night on the town. Ordway tells his friend that under no circumstances will he be dragged into any mysteries (something that obviously worked so well for him in Millerson) but you know that’s not going to happen because there’s an hour and two minutes left in the movie to kill. Indeed, Morrell asks for his friend’s assistance in cracking a murder case—apparently young Henri Jardin (Roger Dann) is accused of taking his father’s life after informing Papa that he’s married Mignon Duval (Micheline Cheirel), daughter of Jardin’s nemesis, knife-thrower Maurice Duval (Eduardo Ciannelli)...and the old fart ends up dead not long after the son's departure. What starts off as a crime of passion soon blossoms into an art forgery racket, something Ordway takes advantage of to get his murderer eventually.

The Gallic accents fly thick and fast in Gamble—so much so that I couldn’t help thinking about that joke in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Of course we are French! Why do you think we have these outrageous accents?”). But what hurts Gamble is the fact that the first half of the story is basically talk-talk-talk; none of the characters are particularly interesting (although Cheirel’s a nice bit of pastry…if you know what I mean...and I think you do) and the shift in storyline doesn’t help much either. (I will admit that the villain’s identity through me for a loop…but when you’re bored, anything is bound to do that.)

Shadows in the Night (1944) – According to the IMDb, this is the only entry in the Crime Doctor series that has yet to make an appearance on TCM (and we all know the percentage of accuracy concerning IMDb). If this is true, it’s a shame because Shadows is one of the better Crime Doctor vehicles: a young woman named Lois Garland (Nina Foch) tells Ordway of some vivid nightmares she’s been experiencing (that of being visited by a ghostly apparition) that she fears will lead her to commit suicide. Ordway is skeptical, of course, but agrees to amble on out to the girl’s estate…and ends up meeting the apparition himself! He follows the spirit while in a hypnotic trance and awakens on a nearby beach—where he is brought to by “mad scientist” Frank Swift (George Zucco). Returning to the house, he discovers a dead body in the hallway on the second floor and awakens Garland to his discovery…but by the time she gets there, the body has vanished. The corpse, however, makes a return appearance on the beach as Ordway is enjoying his morning constitutional—and the victim is identified as Raymond Shields, the senior partner at the firm where Garland works.

There’s a tiny flaw in Shadows that drives me to distraction in other movies: the whole supernatural aspect turns out to be nothing but bunk (yes, the old Scooby-Doo “I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling medico” ploy). But for some reason, it doesn’t bother me here as it does in other films; I think I make allowances for it because of Shadows’ spooky atmosphere and first-rate supporting cast. I will tell you off the bat that Zucco’s character is nothing more than a red herring (though I do enjoy watching him so), but there are plenty of suspects here including Edward Norris, Lester Matthews, Jeanne Bates, Arthur Hohl and Minor Watson. Ben Welden, a character tough usually associated with gangster roles (particularly on TV’s The Adventures of Superman) acquits himself nicely as Foch’s chief cook and bottle washer, as does Charles Halton, who's sort of semi-comic relief as the county coroner. So this entry (if the IMDb info is correct) may be a bit hard to track down…but it’s definitely worth it.

The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949) – By 1949, most of Columbia’s series films were ready to leave the tables and cash in; it was the year that the last Boston Blackie (Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture [1949]) and Lone Wolf (The Lone Wolf and His Lady [1949]) films were released, and the Whistler had wrapped up things a year before (The Return of the Whistler [1948]). Interestingly, the Crime Doctor series went out on a high note (at least to me; Diary’s a much better film than Gamble), with this entertaining entry involving a parolee named Steve Carter (Stephen Dunne) who still insists he was framed for arson and very much wants Ordway to help prove his innocence. Ordway doesn’t want to get involved but has no choice when the sales manager (George Meeker) of a call-in jukebox service is found dead…and the witness, the half-wit brother (Whit Bissell) of the company’s president (Don Beddoe), identifies Carter as the man who entered the building shortly before the sales manager’s death. Carter’s ex-girlfriend (Lois “Moneypenny” Maxwell) tries to shield him from capture by the cops while Ordway starts barging into offices and homes conducting one of his typical investigations.

As frequent TDOY commenter Mike Doran pointed out last week, TCM’s dereliction of leaving Diary off its schedule (understandable though it may be, as they could only show eight) denies viewers the opportunity to check out the singular song stylings of B-movie great Whit Bissell, whose song about tooting a French horn is so grating that…well, let me put it this way: Bissell’s subsequent record album (inspired by his role here)—The Mellow Moods of Bissell—later resulted in quite a few eardrum-puncture incidents in emergency rooms across this great nation. (Okay, I made that last part up.) All seriousness aside, I have to say I was pretty amused by Whit’s uncharacteristic warbling (most of the movies I’ve seen him in he’s either a government bureaucrat or dotty mad scientist)—not to mention Maxwell’s change-of-pace turn. Bush league femme fatale Adele Jergens (from films like Blues Busters [1950] and Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man [1951]) is on hand here as a slinky dame who once dated Carter and King Kong’s own “Carl Denham,” Robert Armstrong, is her boss—a rival jukebox service owner. Other familiar faces include TDOY fave Claire Carleton (as Armstrong’s receptionist) and Cliff Clark (as Ordway’s cop nemesis). I don’t like giving away the endings to films but I’ll tell you right now that the denouement of Diary is a real pip.

The Crime Doctor series, as a whole, never really matched similar Columbia series like The Whistler or Boston Blackie—but as the studio’s bread-and-butter, they certainly did okay for themselves…and seen today, even the worst of them has some content worth watching. Next Saturday, TCM returns to the joy of cliffhangers with Zorro Rides Again, the classic chapter-play released by Republic in 1937. Here’s hoping the great cable channel starts up another festival devoted to series films real soon.

Never ending song of love for you…both of you…

From my CharredHer.net home page comes the sad news of the passing of rock/folk songwriter Delaney Bramlett, who’s gone on to his rich reward at the age of 69.

Bramlett’s compositions include Let it Rain, Superstar and Never Ending Song of Love—a tune that I can proudly boast I knew all the words to at the age of 8, thanks to country singer Dickey “Patches” Lee’s Top Ten cover. Bramlett had a Top 20 hit of the same song, along with other pop hits (with then-wife Bonnie) like Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way and Only You Know and I Know.

Bramlett also flexed his acting muscles a tad in a few feature films—his best known role is that of the lead singer of the J. Hovah’s, a religious cult featured in the 1971 need-for-speed classic Vanishing Point.

I was also devastated to learn that B-movie veteran Ann Savage has also left us at the age of 87. Savage, whose speciality was playing bad, bad, BAD girls is best-known as the predatory femme fatale in Edgar G. Ulmer’s noir classic Detour (1946)—a film that some say is the best B-movie of all time. Savage also made appearances in One Dangerous Night (1943; her debut film), After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943), Passport to Suez (1943), Footlight Glamour (1943), Fire with Fire (1986) and My Winnipeg (2007).

Savage’s incredible story of her career in the movie business (and beyond) is told in an amazing book written by film noir historian Eddie Muller, Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. In addition to Savage, actresses Coleen Gray, Audrey Totter, Jane Greer, Marie Windsor and Evelyn Keyes were all interviewed for the book.

R.I.P. to two very unique and talented artists. They will both be missed.

Every time a bell rings, Bruce Willis blows the !@#$% out of a bad guy...


Saturday, December 27, 2008

“I’ll be seein’ you boys…prob’ly…”

Dennis Cozzalio at the critically-acclaimed Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has put up another one of his brain-bending movie quizzes, and believe you me, I was just as surprised as you’ll be to hear that I actually sat down and answered the questionnaire to the best of my ability. (In the past, I’ve been thrown by questions that are designed to generate a lot of rumination…but this time I figured I’d adopt a Governor Gidget defense and just not answer those, you betcha.)

One of the questions on Dennis’ “test” reads like this: “Holiday movies—Do you like them naughty or nice?” My response was “nice,” seeing as how most of my favorite Yuletide-themed films bring out the rank sentimentalist in me. I’m not saying that I can’t enjoy holiday films with a little roughage; there’s something about movies like The Ref (1994) and Bad Santa (2003) that appeal to my cynical side, sure—but rarely do I watch these movies during the holidays. They play better (to me, anyway) outside the season.

Bill at Piddleville raises the issue of Christmas movies in this post, even listing some of his favorites which jibe with mine—but he argues that films like Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) should not be included because of their lack of sentiment. I think both movies do have sentiment—otherwise why would I start crying the moment they start? (For a dissenting opinion, Vince Keenan embraces both movies, as well as stirring seasonal favorites like The Ice Harvest, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. I will admit that I wasn’t aware of the Christmassy goodness of Blast of Silence…but that’s only because I’ve not gotten around to opening and watching my copy yet.) Okay, I might be joking here a bit—but my criteria for holiday films is fairly loose; if the movie’s proceedings involve Christmas at some point, it can be considered a Christmas film. For example (using Bill’s list): The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) features a Christmas celebration even though it’s only one specific part of the film’s entire plot—but since no one has ever sang Adeste Fideles like the Old Groaner himself, as far as I’m concerned it’s a Christmas movie (one that I revisited last Saturday, as a matter of fact). The same goes for that other Der Bingle Yuletide classic, Holiday Inn (1942).

Over at Mondo 70: A Wide World of Cinema (a new addition to TDOY’s blogroll, I might add), “Uncle” Samuel Wilson has a list of his five holiday favorites, which include traditional classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and eclectic mavericks like Batman Returns (1992). He also lists Holiday Affair (1949)—which I watched in its entirety for the first time this year—and one that I caught on TCM Monday, 3 Godfathers (1948). I’ve been a fan of Godfathers for many years now, and when it’s showing I’ll usually be in sitting in front of it; it’s based on the famous story by Peter B. Kyne and was filmed in at least three silent versions and countless sound versions after that. The 1948 version was directed by John Ford and stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey, Jr. as three bank robbers stranded in the desert after a holdup; while looking for water, they find a stranded woman (Mildred Natwick) in a covered wagon and pledge to look after her newborn son—earning a great deal of redemption in the process. For sheer breathtaking cinematography (Winton C. Hoch, back in Monument Valley again) Ford’s Godfathers is hard to beat—plus his “stock company” really delivers the goods: Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Dorothy Ford, Ben Johnson, Charles Halton, Hank Worden and brother Francis Ford. Godfathers features one of my favorite Ward Bond performances; he abandons his usual bluster to play a character who has a bit more on the uptake than the average lawman…and I love how he doesn’t even mind when Wayne lays into him about his nick and surnames (“Pearly” Sweet). (He does get the last laugh when he learns that the Duke’s character’s middle name is “Marmaduke.”)

Two days later, TCM ran the previous version, Three Godfathers (1936)…which I also watched for the first time (I had only seen Ford’s take and the 1929 William Wyler adaptation, Hell’s Heroes) and I have to say, in many ways it impressed me more than Ford’s picture. In the 1936 version (directed by Richard Boleslawski), the bandits are played by Chester Morris, Lewis Stone (and it’s not easy picturing Judge Hardy as a cowboy) and Walter Brennan. (There’s a fourth member of this posse in Joseph Marievsky—but he doesn’t get much screen time, and pretty much draws his rations before the others can ride out of town.) Boleslawski’s version is much more grittier than Ford’s (though Heroes is by far the roughest of them all) and I think the acting talent lined up here is first-rate, particularly Stone as the philosophical “Doc” and Brennan as the half-witted “Gus.” (I also enjoy Boleslawski’s incredible use of close-ups.) An eclectic bunch of character actors were assembled for the supporting roles including Irene Hervey, Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan as a huckster dentist), Dorothy Tree, Roger Imhof, Willard Robertson and Robert Livingston, to name a few.

So all this Christmas movie watching got me to thinking…what are my top ten seasonal cinematic favorites?

10) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – Okay, this might be cheating a tad because the season doesn’t really show its face until the end of the picture. But hey…there’s decoration of a tree, so it counts. Of course, I don’t restrict watching this Sturges classic just during the holidays; it’s fine for any time of the year.

9) The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) – I think this is a rare example of a sequel that’s actually better than the original (Going My Way). Part of the reason I love this movie so much is that Ingrid Bergman is the sexiest nun to come along until Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947) and bumbling Henry Travers is not a goody-goody angel but a greedy, grasping capitalist porker who wants to throw Ingrid and her fellow sisters out on the street. (Oh, and when Bing adds “Won’t you ring dem bells” to the nuns’ choir number…beautiful!)

8) Scrooged (1988) – Don’t even begin to try and analyze why I enjoy this movie so because I’ve been doing it for twenty years and still haven’t come up with an answer. The most unlikely Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Bill Murray as a TV executive who, in true Dickensian fashion, must be shown the error of his ways. Murray actually does a bang-up job blending comedy and tragedy in this one (though he sort of blows it in the end with the “breaking the fourth wall” bit) but overall the gags and jokes are pretty funny (particularly the "Lee Majors saves Christmas" special).

7) Stalag 17 (1953) – Again, a movie that can be enjoyed any time of the year—but the poignant celebration of Christmas by the movie’s POW’s really hits me where I live.

6) Remember the Night (1940) – I saw this for the first time this holiday season and it’s definitely a film I’ll be returning to in Christmases to come. One of Barbara Stanwyck’s best performances and a fine, sentimental movie all around.

5) 3 Godfathers (1948)…or any other version – I think we covered this already.

4) A Christmas Story (1983) – Before TBS started beating this one to death every Christmas, I can actually remember when I paid money to see it. I don’t mind the excessive repeats (see #1) because it’s still one of the best “what-it-means-to-be-a-child-at-Christmas” films…and the sequence where Darren McGavin pantomimes putting the BB’s in the gun along with Peter Billingsley just melts my heart every time.

3) Scrooge (1951) – This is my favorite version of the Dickens story, if only because I’ve always considered Alastair Sim to be the epitome of Ebenezer Scrooge. AMC ran this one over the holidays, and I didn’t watch it once—I think I may have to get the definitive VCI version to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

2) Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – I covered this movie earlier back in November, so go here to avoid any redundancy.

1) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Don’t think I haven’t been reading what you naysayers have been gossiping about out there on the Internets. I don’t care if you’re sick of it; I still consider it the best Christmas movie of all.

Webpage of the week

As I continue to hunt online for an old-time radio broadcast of The Man Who Came to Dinner starring Jack Benny for shahn at sixmartinis and the seventh art, I come across this MySpace page that really knocks me for a loop…

Yes, it’s Mary Wickes. The actress who plays the part of the nurse, both on Broadway and in the 1942 film adaptation of Dinner. The same lady who was housekeeper to Sigmund the Sea Monster and Father Dowling (and his mysteries)…and Miss Cathcart on Dennis the Menace.

Now, I looked at this and saw that her age was 98…and yet I could have sworn she had passed on sometime ago (which she did, in 1995). Still, I was spooked there for a sec, picturing a nonagenarian answering e-mails and downloading mp3’s.

But, hey…Norman Corwin is still (thankfully) with us. I guess it doesn’t take that much of a leap of faith.

I'll bet he ordered the chicken fried rice...Athens style


Friday, December 26, 2008

The Plot to Blog About The Plot to Overthrow Christmas

Bill Crider e-mailed me a link to a wonderful piece written by Lou Antonelli (This Way to Texas) about the classic old-time radio play The Plot to Overthrow Christmas—written by Norman Corwin, who’s still taking a licking and keeping on ticking at the ripe ol’ of 98. Well worth a read.

TV-on-DVD corrections and additions

TVShowsOnDVD.com has a last-minute blurb about Timeless Media Group’s final Laredo release (Season 2, Volume 2…due to be released January 6th) insomuch as there’s a bonus interview included on the box set…with Neville Brand! That’s right—they resurrected him from the dead! Head for the hills! Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya—it’s really with Peter Brown…who not only appeared on Laredo from 1965-67, but was also John Russell’s sidekick on The Lawman from 1958 to 1962. In addition, Messrs. Lacey and Lambert point visitors to an interview at On Screen and Beyond with Don Grady; sort of a tie-in with the release of My Three Sons: Season 1, Volume 2 January 20th. (As much as it hurt me to do so, I opted out of collecting this series after learning that CBS-Paramount were back to their old “music substitution” tricks again.)

About two weeks ago, I made mention of the next season release (number three) of the cult TV series Route 66, which was apparently hitting the streets on February 10th. TVShowsOnDVD.com has now corrected that info, announcing that Amazon.com has a new pre-order listing for Route 66: Season 3, Volume 1 with a release date of June 23, 2009…but there will still be a Route 66 release coming out in February—a “best of” collection with the nom de disc of Route 66: Producer’s Picks. I guess you could say it’s similar to that Perry Mason anniversary collection that was released earlier because Producer’s Picks will feature eleven shows starring the likes of Alan Alda, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Peter Lorre, Suzanne Pleshette, James Caan, Stefanie Powers and many others. (Since Karloff, Lorre and Chaney, Jr. have been mentioned it’s a good bet that "Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing" will be on the set.)

In other TV-on-DVD news, Timeless Media Group has another vintage tube favorite scheduled for release on March 10, 2009: The Adventures of Champion, the syndicated 1955-56 TV western adventure produced by Gene Autry (via Flying A Productions) and starring his famous “wonder horse” (though the horse in the television series was not the same one as the stallion in Autry’s B-westerns), along with requisite kid star Barry Curtis, supervising adult Jim (Mr. Bea Benaderet) Bannon…and backup animal Rebel the dog (he was a German Shepherd). Ten episodes of the show will be offered on a 2-disc set with a SRP of $7.98 (which means you’ll probably find it online for a mere bag of shells).

The best TV-on-DVD news, however, is that Season 3 of Barney Miller is on deck and scheduled for release March 17, 2009. And if you’re curious as to whether I’m still bitter about selling my first season set on eBay because I more or less figured Sony had lost interest in the series the answer is yes…yes I am.

Eartha Kitt and Harold Pinter, R.I.P.

I returned home last night from our family feast to see that Eddie Copeland had e-mailed me about the passing of Eartha Kitt at age 81. Eddie posited an interesting question: “How many special guest villains from Batman are left?”

This is a question that I will let TDOY fans answer in their copious free time, because as I type this, I’m currently in negotiations for a DVD recorder/VHS combo player that my mother has graciously agreed to bestow upon me as a Christmas gift. (Needless to say, I’m happy as a clam.)

In all honesty, I’m not sure if I ever saw Kitt as the Catwoman on the popular Batman series—sure, I know there were about three or four actresses to play the role, but the only one I ever remember is Julie Newmar. I can’t recall any movie I ever saw her in…well, I guess Casbah (1948) would qualify, since she was a member of the Katharine Dunham Group at the time. I guess I’m more familiar with the musical side of her career, with hit records like C’est Si Bon and the Christmas classic Santa Baby. Other than this, I’m sort of ashamed to admit that I remember the Kitt persona than anything else—she’s one of the celebrities imitated by Terry Jones (as Mr. Gulliver) in that Monty Python episode about the bicycling tour.

Orson Welles once called Kitt “the most exciting woman in the world.” She will definitely be missed.

British playwright/Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Pinter has also gone on to his rich reward at the age of 78…and like Kitt, my familiarity with the man extends mainly to the movie screenplays he wrote, many based on his critically-lauded plays—The Servant (1963), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1970) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), to name a few of the better-known (aka “the ones I’ve seen.”).

R.I.P., Sir Harold. You will be missed as well.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Half-Assed Gourmand #4 (Christmas edition)

Merry Christmas, everyone! By now, I’m sure you and your families are gathered underneath the Christmas tree, exchanging and unwrapping gifts—probably having a bit of a nosh in the form of danishes or pastries or Christmas cookies or whatever. (If you are…how about passing some over this way?)

The big Shreve family Christmas festivities probably won’t kick off today until 3:30pm—that’s when my father said he’d run by Rancho Yesteryear and transport me to sister Kat’s for the Christmas Day feast. Kat isn’t too gung-ho over turkey so she’s conned Mom into preparing one of her famous standing rib roasts (which we've nicknamed over the years “the roast beast” after How the Grinch Stole Christmas) as the main course…but Mom’s also fixing a small turkey breast as well. A moratorium has been declared on green bean casserole, for which I’m certain Sam Johnson is grateful. (By the way, many thanks for the Christmas card, buddy.)

Last night, I was invited over to Kat’s for some Christmas Eve grub—she and her roommate received a fondue set some time ago, and they cut up pieces of chicken, steak and shrimp (and threw in some lil’ smokies for atmosphere) for us to skewer and cook in oil…marvelous stuff! Veggies were also in the mix—mushrooms and zucchini for the frying—along with pieces of bread (for the cheese portion of the fondue) and they also made homemade wontons, which were positively delightful. (A variety of sauces were also available: barbecue, horseradish, wasabi, peanut and plum—I judged the horseradish best in show.) A great deal of hard work went into the planning of this truly outstanding dinner, so both of them should stand up and take a bow. Afterwards—as A Christmas Story (1983) rolled on in the background—we came to the dessert portion of Fondue Fun Night; a big honkin’ pot of chocolate with strawberries, pound cake, marshmallows, pretzels and bananas for dipping.

When Kat called me yesterday to invite me over I think she was a bit concerned that I wasn’t going to like the fondue concept but hey…I am nothing if not adventurous. And with today’s dinner, I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the grub (particularly the rib roast) will be walking me back home to my nostalgia environs—and that’s not a bad thing; it means that my lazy bee-hind won’t have to cook for the next several days. This will probably be the only post for today, so here’s wishing all my friends and fellow bloggers good eats—and if you’re stranded in New York, take comfort in this:

When worlds collide #10 (Christmas edition)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gerry-rigged

Saturday night, I couldn’t find anything decent on television to watch…and I had just achieved a state of comfortability on my couch that precluded my getting up and rummaging through the TDOY archives for a DVD. So I decided to scope out the On Demand channels and see if there was something I hadn’t seen.

Let me state up front that this is the last time I plan on doing this. In fact, last night—due to the cancellation of the Joseph Cotten festival on TCM (in favor of a tribute to the late Van Johnson)—I watched both One, Two, Three (1961) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) rather than taking a chance with On Demand. I also don’t want to disparage the service; I find myself enjoying a lot of the Sundance Channel offerings (particularly if they have a good documentary on I haven’t seen) and occasionally TCM will showcase a short or movie guaranteed to entertain. But some of the others—IFC in particular—are strictly from hunger.

I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I actually sat through Gerry (2002) via IFC On Demand—a film directed by Gus Van Sant that stars Casey Affleck and Matt Damon as a pair of idiots who set out to hike a wilderness trail taking no food, no water, no compass…no anything that might help them should they become lost—which they eventually do. The film—which was written by the two actors and based on a real-life story—ambles on for 103 minutes, allowing the audience to watch the pair slowly succumb to the elements until one is murdered by the other and the killer escapes his fate by miraculously making it to the main highway.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no experience in the Great Outdoors whatsoever. My idea is roughing it is staying at a motel that has no lounge or restaurant attached. But even I’m not so idiotic that I wouldn’t venture off for a wilderness hike without…well, at the very least taking along a first-aid kit. True story or no, this is Gerry’s flaw from the get-go—you see these two morons start off and you think (or in my case, shout at the screen): “Hey! Haven’t you guys forgotten something?”

The film moves at an excruciating pace (by midway, I was jokingly referring to it as “Gus Van Sant’s L’Avventura”) and it’s so frustrating that not even a half-hour has gone by when you’re rooting for the two actors to be eaten by a bear. One particularly infuriating scene has Affleck stranded on stop of a rock with no apparent way of getting down...this wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that the viewer can plainly see there's no way he could have climbed up there in the first place. The banter (if any) between the two actors is the epitome of ennui (so much for writing the screenplay); it might have gone a little better if Ben Affleck had been in this movie—at the very least, he and Damon could have killed time writing a screenplay (except I probably wouldn’t have sat through that one, either) while waiting to die.

I haven’t seen Van Sant’s Milk (2008) yet, and I don’t want to disparage a movie I haven’t experienced…but it’s been on the receiving end of a lot of audience and critics’ love, and I’d just like to remind them—in case they’re thinking about showering Milk with many awards, Academy or otherwise—of Van Sant’s talent by staging a few showings of Gerry. In my honest opinion, I don’t think the guy has made a praiseworthy film since Drugstore Cowboy (1989). As always, your mileage may vary.

You would think after this experience that I would have risen from my sofa and hied myself to bed…but you misunderestimate my gluttony for punishment. I rolled the dice once more and put on Havoc (2005), a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips as a pair of teenage girls who want to join a Latino gang “for kicks.” Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple directed this fictional outing, and while it’s a darn sight better than Gerry I didn’t care much for this one, either...only because I couldn’t relate to twenty-five-year-old women playing teenagers. (Not to mention Hathaway’s attempts to be a “bad” girl; this movie plays more like “The Princess Diareez ‘n the Hood.”) The late Sam Bottoms has a tiny role as a cop in Havoc, and I recognized a few of the grown-up actors (like Michael Biehn and Laura San Giacomo) but I think I’ll stick with Sundance from now on.

Holidays in

Kliph Nesteroff over at the Classic Television Showbiz blog has been diligently scouring the YouTube vaults for television shows with a Yuletide theme, and some of the entries are a lot of fun to watch—particularly a 1952 episode of Racket Squad (with Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock, who in this installment has to bust Santa Claus) and some Hollywood Palace telecasts featuring the Old Groaner himself, Bing Crosby (and various guests). My particular favorite was this Our Miss Brooks outing (dated 1953), which not only had I not seen previously, I wasn’t aware of its existence (I thought the only holiday-themed episode was the one about the “magic Christmas tree,” which they traditionally did on radio each year). Skate on over and have a look; I’m sure you’ll find something of interest.

TVShowsOnDVD.com has some additional information on the upcoming Timeless Media Group release of Laramie (they got some assistance from Bob “Master of His [Public] Domain” Huggins, and bestowed upon him an “attaboy” in the process); the good news is that the release (due out February 10, 2009) will not be one of those loathsome split-season sets (yay) but will feature all twenty-eight episodes of the third season (“in living color,” as they used to say)—which saw the addition to Laramie’s cast (Robert Fuller and John Smith) former December Bride Spring Byington as Daisy Cooper, housekeeper and surrogate mom, and Dennis Holmes as Mike Williams, an orphan who joined the household after his parents were killed by Indians. The only thing that concerns me is that according to the announcement, the set will consist of six discs…and I’m not sure how the quality of the episodes will bear up by cramming twenty-eight into six. Still, if you had asked me a year or two ago the likelihood of seeing a Laramie release I probably would have bruised something laughing out loud in response…so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this set stop by Rancho Yesteryear next February.

Back in June, I wrote a post about a successful 80s Britcom entitled Only When I Laugh, which at the time was seeing its four series run released to Region 2 courtesy of Network DVD. TVShowsOnDVD.com has an announcement up that a 5-disc box set of the entire series (Only When I Laugh: The Ultimate Collection) will be coming out on Region 1 in Canada March 10, 2009…containing all twenty-nine episodes PLUS a bonus pilot entitled Rowan Atkinson Presents…Canned Laughter, which would have starred the Blackadder/Mr. Bean comedian in a series that never got off the ground. The post I composed about Laugh in June came and went without much commentary but for some odd reason a hefty percentage of the search hits for TDOY come from people seeking information on what is a very funny series. I don’t have the entire show collected yet (I bought Series 3 not long after I wrote about it, but I still haven’t gotten ‘round to getting Series 4) but if you’re a Britcom fan and enjoy the work of James Bolam (The Likely Lads, Second Thoughts), Peter Bowles (To the Manor Born, The Bounder) or Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) it’s a must-have for you.

They're not reading this...they're watching the movie...


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #9

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) – After finally getting the opportunity to see the whole enchilada, I discovered that the reason why I had difficulty following the plot of this Disney film wasn’t due to what I missed (everything before Donald Pleasence’s character taking “custody” of Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards and handing them over to weaselly gazillionaire Ray Milland had been erased during to our late arrival in the theatre when this first came out)—it’s because in trying to include everything that was originally in Alexander Key’s book, screenwriter Robert M. Young (not to be confused with the acclaimed director of Short Eyes and Alambrista! [both 1977]) has shoehorned many of the novel’s elements into the film’s dialogue, which has an unfortunate effect of the characters “making it up as they go along.”

In brief, Escape tells the tale of two kids, Tony (Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Richards), who are trundled off to an orphanage (run by Reta Shaw, always a nice surprise) and end up alienating the rest of the children due to the fact that they can communicate telepathically, foretell the future and move items around with their mind. When the telekinetic duo save the life of boot-licking lackey Lucas Deranian (Pleasence), he informs his boss, Aristotle Bolt (Milland), of their incredible powers and the two men fudge a few official documents to gain control of the kids and use them for their own nefarious purposes. (Well, it’s Ray Milland, after all—what do you expect him to do? Try and hock a typewriter for booze?) The kids see through the whole life-of-luxury-free-ice-cream phoniness (they’re not psychic for nothing) and make a break for it—and end up Winnebago-hiking with crusty Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert), who takes them to “Witch Mountain,” a demarcation point for a race of alien invaders (led by Denver “Uncle Jesse” Pyle) who have been waiting for these two delinquents to get their butts in gear and find their way back to their people (they were survivors of a spaceship crash in the ocean ten years earlier). Escape remains good fun for the younger crowd; as for me it was a nice nostalgic visit but it’s time to move on.

Return from Witch Mountain (1978) – With Escape to Witch Mountain a modest hit, Disney went to the well three years later for this sequel that uses the characters from Alexander Key’s original novel (Eisenmann, Richards and Pyle all appear here) but relies on an original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein. Tony and Tia are on vacation from Mount Witchcraft and are checking out the sights in L.A. (Dick Bakalyan, “Cookie” from the Dexter Riley films is their cabbie) when Tony foolishly decides to save the life of a thug named Sickle (Anthony James)…nephew to Letha Wedge (Bette Davis!), a greedy, grasping old dame who’s hoping her alliance with evil scientist Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee) nets her a nice chunk of change. Gannon is able to plant a thingamabob near Tony’s ear that allows him to control the alien sibling and his special powers; Letha tries using Tony to rob a museum housing an exhibit of gold bars but after that turns to merde, Gannon threatens to have Tony destroy a plutonium plant (and you thought The China Syndrome [1979] was prescient!) unless the powers-that-be pay a hefty ransom.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tia frantically tries to locate her brother and in an indignity that would have made any child actor quit the movies, is forced to interact with four numbskulls in a “gang” that makes the Bowery Boys look like The Warriors. Thankfully, the kid actors (Christian Juttner, Jeffrey Jacquet, Brad Savage and Poindexter [Yothers]) all found other career paths to take (I remember Poindexter from a godawful “kid sitcom” in my youth called The Cliftwood Avenue Kids that at least had the good sense to introduce us to Melora Hardin) but putting up with their antics is a major chore in watching this film…and Jack Soo (the wonderful Nick Yemana on Barney Miller) doesn’t help matters by playing stooge to them as a truant officer. Of the two films, Return is the better of the bunch—only because Davis and Lee’s cartoon villainy is much more entertaining than that of Milland and Pleasence’s.

Freaky Friday (1976) – It’s always disappointing when you revisit a film that you got a big kick out of during your childhood…and then discover it doesn’t hold up as well as you remembered. Were it not for The Parent Trap (1961), Freaky Friday would be the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced so far during TCM’s December Disney Fest. The reason why Friday no longer works for me is that this film is about half-successful; Barbara Harris (who plays a mom who’s had her inner-self placed in her daughter’s body, and vice-versa) is clearly the highlight here—she’s enjoying her role as a woman who appears to be in the throes of arrested development, but I find when I watch this movie that I can’t take my eyes off of her because I’m wondering what she’s going to do next—a testament to her incredible improvisational talents. (This film may be the reason I wish Harris were in so many more movies; my favorites include Family Plot, Peggy Sue Got Married and Grosse Pointe Blank.) Jodie Foster’s turn as the daughter isn’t quite as successful; because Foster started out early in her career as a child actor whose roles often required her to be more adult (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Taxi Driver) she doesn’t really bring anything new to Friday—it’s all a sense of déjà vu. Mary Rodgers, the author of the book on which the film is based, also contributed Friday’s screenplay (she receives kudos for trying to beef up Foster’s mother-as-daughter part; the book concentrates solely on the daughter-as-mother’s point of view) though I’m sure she wasn’t crazy about the slapstick finale. Again, it’s obvious I’ve gotten too old for this kind of entertainment anymore but any movie that features veterans like John Astin, Patsy Kelly, Sorrell Booke, Ruth Buzzi (I have a theory that D-lister Kathy Griffin is Buzzi’s illegitimate daughter that I may get into sometime…then again, maybe I won’t), Kaye Ballard and Marie Windsor can’t be all bad. (I haven’t seen the remake to this and until my allergy to Lindsay Lohan clears up, it’s likely I won’t any time soon.)

Candleshoe (1977) – Again, another Disney vehicle I hadn’t seen in ages…and I was genuinely surprised at how well this one holds up. This might very well be Jodie Foster’s best Disney film (it was certainly her last); she plays a snot-nose street punk who allows shady con man Harry Bundage (the always delightful Leo McKern) to talk her into posing as the long-lost granddaughter to Lady St. Edmund (Helen Hayes) in order to obtain a fortune hidden in the stately manor home known as Candleshoe. Alas, this manor home is stately in name only; the showplace is just barely keeping its head above water, thanks to the machinations of her Ladyship’s butler (David Niven, clearly having the time of his life) and a quartet of orphans (Veronica Quilligan, Ian Sharrock, Sarah Tamakuni and David Samuels) whom Hayes has “adopted.” Adapted from Michael Innes’ book Christmas at Candleshoe, this movie is a real fourteen-karat gem; in order to maintain the prosperous appearance of Candleshoe butler Niven is forced to don several disguises (the gardener, the chauffeur…and a friend of her Ladyship’s, a retired Colonel) which allow the actor to really cut loose—and Foster’s transformation from wiseass street kid to sympathetic heroine is particularly well done…though it can’t match the sentimentality of the scene where Hayes admits to Niven that she knew of his masquerades all along. A great supporting cast of British veterans—Vivian Pickles, John Alderson, Harry Andrews—and a top-notch race against time with a train make Candleshoe a keeper.

When worlds collide #9


Monday, December 22, 2008

To all my Jewish friends and bloggers...Happy Hanukkah!


R.I.P., Robert Mulligan

Faithful online chum and TDOY commenter Pam sent me an e-mail this morning with the news that veteran director Robert Mulligan passed away Saturday at his Connecticut home, at the age of 83.

Among Mulligan’s best-known films were To Kill a Mockingbird (1962; which garnered him an Oscar nom as Best Director the following year), Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Up the Down Staircase (1967), Summer of ’42 (1971) and Same Time, Next Year (1978). Another movie helmed by Mulligan that I enjoyed (that for some reason I haven’t spotted on any of the cable channels in quite a while) was 1971’s The Pursuit of Happiness (not to be confused with the Will Smith movie, which is spelled differently), in which a college malcontent played by Michael Sarrazin is sent to prison mostly because he can’t keep his big bazoo shut.

Mulligan honed his directorial chops in the era known as The Golden Age of Television, where he worked for dramatic anthology shows like Playhouse 90, Studio One, The Philco Television Playhouse and the television version of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense. It was Mulligan who directed the Studio One episode The Defender, which later became the pilot for the critically-acclaimed CBS-TV legal drama starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed from 1961-65.

R.I.P., Robert. You will be missed…and say hi to brother Richard when you get there.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

(Crime) Doctor’s orders

TCM scratched off two more films in Columbia Studios’ popular Crime Doctor series yesterday morning; they ran Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946) at 8:00am followed by Just Before Dawn (1946). The result was a visit with an old favorite…and a first-time glance at a previously unseen little gem.

In Man Hunt, an amnesiac soldier named Philip Armstrong (played by Myron Healey) makes an appointment to see Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), who after briefly talking with his new patient describes his condition as being one of “fugue,” or a sort of “shell-shock” that he apparently contracted during the war. Armstrong leaves and before Ordway can close up The Old Psychiatry Shop for the day, a woman named Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew) urgently needs to see him and asks him for information on the status of his new patient—apparently she’s his fiancée, and she’s concerned that he might be a tad unstable. Ordway can’t reveal what any patient tells him in confidence, of course, and so he gives her the brush-off. But on his way home from a midway’s shooting gallery, Ordway spots two thugs (Frank Sully, Bernard Nedell) roughing up Armstrong—who eventually winds up dead as a doornail—and our hero finds himself embroiled in a web of deceit that would seem to point in the director of Ms. Cotter’s estranged sister Natalie.

Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is considered by many fans to be the best in the series, and while I’ve frequently stated that it’s my favorite I’m not sure I’d award it the top blue ribbon (I think Shadows in the Night and Just Before Dawn are also worthwhile entries as well). But it’s certainly got a lot going for it: a snappy, crackling script by Leigh Brackett; engaging performances; and taut direction by William Castle—who would direct four of the ten Crime Doctor programmers (Crime Doctor’s Courage, Man Hunt, Dawn and Crime Doctor’s Gamble). William Frawley is cast as the top cop in this one (as Inspector Harry B. “Manny” Manning) and of course, his performance alone is worth the price of admission. When Man Hunt calls it a wrap, and the killer is revealed to have had a split personality, there’s this exchange of dialogue shortly before the fade-out:

MANNING: Say, Doctor—I like you to see my wife…
ORDWAY: Split personality?
MANNING: No personality.

One of my favorite actresses to grace many a Columbia comedy two-reeler is also in Man Hunt—Claire Carleton, who plays the owner of a shooting gallery being held as the No. 1 suspect in the Armstrong murder. Claire’s appearances in Hollywood films rarely rose above parts labeled as “waitress” or “switchboard operator”…or my particular favorite, “blonde”—so it’s nice to see get a role with a little meat on it. (She’s really funny as an aspiring actress in a 1948 Schilling & Lane short, Two Nuts in a Rut—in which she tries to land a part in Dick’s new picture by adopting a sexy pose and murmuring “Come wiz me to the casaba…”) Other faces you might recognize in Man Hunt include Jack Lee, Francis Pierlot (the actor who plays firebug Nero Smith in the best of the Henry Aldrich films, Henry Aldrich, Editor [1942]), Olin Howland, Harry Morgan (he’s everywhere!) and Minerva Urecal. Baxter’s Ordway has refined his gourmet tastes somewhat in this entry; inviting Drew to lunch he asks the waiter for Crab Louie for himself and the lady…”and bring some hors d’oeurves.” Oh, and in the Shameless-Self-Promotion Department, Columbia manages to work in a plug for its latest A-picture release, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) when Ordway walks past a poster conveniently plastered near the shooting gallery.

I’ll confess that yesterday was the first opportunity I received to see Just Before Dawn, the sixth of the Crime Doctor sagas, but it was a genuinely nice surprise because this little B-programmer is actually very entertaining. Ordway is relaxing at home (and from the size of the book he’s reading he apparently isn’t asked out much) when his next-door neighbor, Harriet Travers (Mona Barrie), asks for his assistance as one of her party guests has taken ill. Ordway arrives in time to find Walter Foster unconscious on a couch, and diagnoses that all Mr. Foster needs is a shot of insulin—which a guest provides to C.D. from a black bag belonging to the patient. Ordway barely has time to get a cocktail and make conversation with the other guests before Foster is dead—and it looks like Ordway is responsible!

Actually, the audience knows pretty much from the get-go that Ordway is innocent; the first scene in the movie establishes that the persons responsible for Foster’s little poison prescription are the dependably slimy Martin Kosleck (he’s not a Nazi in this one, but he might as well be) and his henchman, Marvin Miller. (Yes, that Marvin Miller—announcer, vocal artist, part-time Whistler and lackey to millionaire John Beresford Tipton. I’ve seen Miller play a bad guy in Blood On the Sun [1945] and a few other pictures; but I really enjoyed seeing him in Dawn.) So Dawn becomes more of a “how’z-he-catch-‘em” than a whodunit—and yet there’s room enough for a surprise at the end, given the large number of suspects. The film also allows Baxter a chance to flex his acting muscles; to get close to Kosleck and Miller he dons a disguise (makeup courtesy of TDOY fave Byron Foulger) as a gangster on the lam. (Ordway is also starting to develop a taste for the good stuff; paying suspect Barrie a visit, she invites him to have a cocktail—even though it would appear to be mid-afternoon.)

The suspects in Dawn include Adele Roberts, Robert Barrat, Charles Arnt, Wilton Graff and Ted Hecht—and you’ll also spot familiar faces in Skelton Knaggs (from the Val Lewton films) and Irene Tedrow (as Ordway’s nurse). Charles D. Brown is the police inspector in this one (he seems to be enjoying the fact that Ordway needs his help to desperately clear his name) and to the age-old question “Did Charles Lane ever play a likable guy in movies?” he does in this one, playing a police coroner who has to pump Ordway’s stomach after C.D. ingests a cocktail laced with poison to trap the killer. “Hurry up, I’ll take out that poison,” Lane assures him, prompting Baxter to respond: “But leave me the drink.”

Next week: TCM wraps up its Crime Doctor salute with The Millerson Case (1947) and The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947). And I’ll also clean up with the two entries they couldn’t find time for: Shadows in the Night (1944) and the final film, The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949).

The day the remake stood still


Saturday, December 20, 2008

The audacity of Hope

I wrote a review a month ago about a Kay Kyser film entitled My Favorite Spy (1942), in which the main wisdom to be imparted was that appointing a popular bandleader to a position as an undercover spy might not have been the best way to win World War II. This morning, TCM showed a Bob Hope film entitled My Favorite Spy (1951), in which the main wisdom to be imparted was that appointing a popular comedian to a position as an undercover spy might not have been the best way to win the Cold War—or whatever conflagration happened to be taking place at the time.

Truthfully, I think My Favorite Spy (the ’51 version) is one of Hope’s better vehicles, employing the successful formula of placing Bob’s comedy against a background of menace as our hero—“Peanuts” White, a burlesque comic who’s a dead ringer for dashing, debonair spy Eric Augustine—is enlisted by the U.S. government to impersonate Augustine and obtain valuable microfilm from a fellow undercover agent (Luis Van Rooten) with a ransom of $1,000,000 (places pinky finger to corner of mouth). Hedy Lamarr is the beautiful femme fatale who’s planning to double-cross Hope, and Francis L. Sullivan (the poor man’s Sydney Greenstreet) a rival spy whose intends to do the same. Also appearing in Spy’s cast are Arnold Moss, John Archer, Morris Ankrum, Iris Adrian, Frank Faylen, Mike Mazurki and Marc Lawrence.

Spy is an unusual Hope film in that not only is it not available on DVD…it was never even released on VHS. Which is a shame, because while it’s not his best comedy it still stands a little taller above some of his other 50s vehicles (Off Limits, Here Come the Girls)—plus it allows him to stretch a bit in that he plays two roles…and his characterization of Augustine sort of telegraphs his later attempts to break out of his “cowardly custard” persona and play real people, as he would in movies like Beau James (1957) and The Facts of Life (1960). He performs one of my favorite songs from a Hope film, I Wind Up Taking a Fall (co-written by Johnny Mercer…okay, all you Savannahians can stop genuflecting now), and even demonstrates during this performance some energetic hoofing (the sequence is marred only by an all-too-obvious stunt double “taking falls”). (Savannah native Hal Kanter also contributed additional dialogue to the movie.) I like Lamarr in this film, too; she works very well opposite Hope and it’s a shame they never got the opportunity to make another film together.

At the recommendation of Cultureshark’s own Rick Brooks, I also made sure that I scheduled a viewing of Holiday Affair (1949) last night—a movie that I didn’t think I was going to like (Robert Mitchum is one of my very favorites, but I just don’t see him in a romantic comedy) but was surprised by the results. War widow Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) works as a comparison shopper for a department store and purchases an electric train set from the toy department where clerk Steve Mason (Mitchum) works; he knows what she does for a living when she returns the item but decides not to turn her in to management—losing his job as a result. Meanwhile, Connie’s kid (Gordon Gebert) is upset because he thought the train set was a gift from his mom; he takes it out on her and her fiancé—a nice guy played by Wendell Corey who’s destined to lose Leigh to Mitchum because…well, because he’s Wendell Corey, that’s all.

Rick suggested I see Affair because of a funny sequence featuring an exasperated Harry Morgan as a police lieutenant trying to sort things out when Mitchum’s character is arrested—and while I’d agree that this is one of the film’s highlights the movie on the whole is certainly worth a glance, seeing that it’s the holidays and all. Big Bad Bob is his usual charming self, Leigh is winsome and perky—and the supporting cast (Corey, Morgan, Griff Barnett, Esther Dale, Henry O’Neill and Larry J. Blake) are all pretty game as well. (TCM is rerunning this on Christmas Eve at 12:45pm in case you missed it the other three million times.)