Saturday, November 18, 2017

30 years before Scooby-Doo

Last night I watched The Cat and the Canary since it's available on DVD and since it's short enough I could watch in one sitting in the evening before going to bed. Longer movies will have to wait until the mornings.

The lawyer Crosby is making his way to a house somewhere in the Louisiana bayous; it turns out that a rich, eccentric old man died there ten years ago with his housekeeper, Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard) staying to maintain the place. According to the terms of the dead man's will, the rest of the will wasn't going to be read until ten years after his death or some nonsense that I don't think would be legal and doesn't need to make much sense for the rest of the movie anyway. Anyhow, the lawyer is here for that will reading; a bunch of relatives who are cousins of each other show up in ones and twos.

Among them are vaudevillean Wally (Bob Hope); the lovely Joyce (Paulette Goddard); the young men Fred (John Beal) and Charlie (Douglass Montgomery); and a couple of older aunt types. The old man's will specifies that one and only one of the assembled is going to inherit the money, but with the caveat that if that person dies or is found insane within a month of the will reading, than a second relative, whose identity is kept secret in a separate codicil, will inherit that money. The first in line to get all the money is... Joyce!

Naturally, everybody tries to start getting Joyce to crack up mentally, except possibly Wally, who seems almost romantically attracted to the lovely Joyce and wants to protect her even though he's a coward at heart. And then word comes that "the Cat" has escaped from a local asylum and there's an officer who's reached the island where the house is looking for the Cat. Strange things start to happen, with eyes looking through the cut out eyes of a painting, and secret passages.

As I was watching The Cat and the Canary, I couldn't help but think of the Scooby Doo cartoons from the 1970s, where there was always a bad guy in a mask trying to scare the bejeezus out of everybody in order to get some financial gain down the line, and things like eyes looking through a painting and secret passages. And, of course, the climax with Fred pulling the mask off the guilty party, who informs us that he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids. Of course, there are no meddling kids here, and the movie is supposed to be a straight-up comedy with a few horror elements, being a parody of the "old dark house" genre.

The Cat and the Canary does mostly work, although I have to admit that I wouldn't give it quite as high a rating as most other commenters seem to do. Part of that probably has to do with Bob Hope's humor not really being my thing; another part might have to do with my being reminded of Scooby Doo. At least there's no Scrappy here. Still, I'm sure that most people will enjoy this one, and many of you will probably enjoy it even more than I did.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Half-watched movies

So TCM is sitting down with the writer behind Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick, tonight. Apparently, the movie has stories set in both the 1920s and the 1970s, so Selznick is going to be presenting three movies from those eras and discuss how they influenced Wonderstruck. Or something like that. The night starts off at 8:00 PM with The Wind, a really good Lillian Gish.

Something that I thought was part of the night's programming, but apparently doesn't have Selznick presenting it, is McCabe and Mrs. Miller at 2:30 AM. I had that one on the DVR and with it coming up on the schedule, I made a point to try to watch it so I could do a full-length review on the movie. But I only got part of the way through before something came up -- a live sporting event I had wanted to watch or somesuch. I never got around to watching the rest of it, thanks to my hectic work schedule. The one thing I did notice, however, was the very 1970s cinematography.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller isn't the only movie I only got halfway through. The other one is Looking for Mr. Goodbar, although at least there there's a good excuse. I think I'm most decidedly not in the target demographic for the movie. It's one of those that reminded me of An Unmarried Woman in that it deals with adult topics of the era, but seems targeted at women. Maybe not quite as much as An Unmarried Woman, but definitely not to my taste. And Looking for Mr. Goodbar, as far as I know, is out-of-print on DVD.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #175: Movies with Strong Female Characters

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is movies with strong female characters, and it should come as no surprise that my selections include three of the toughest women (in real life) in Hollywood's golden age:

Mildred Pierce (1945). Joan Crawford plays the title character who, finding out that her husband (Bruce Bennett) has been unfaithful, divorces him and goes to work, working her way up to a chain of restaurants. But she's got an ingrateful daughter (Ann Blythe) who wants the better things in life, so Mildred spoils her rotten. This was Crawford's first picture at Warner Bros. after 18 years at MGM, and it starts the going over the top part of Crawford's career, as she was determined to make the movie a success. Crawford did win the Oscar.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Bette Davis plays England's Queen Elizabeth I, who had to be tough as nails to keep her throne and to keep foreigners from harming the country in the form of the Spanish Armada. This movie, however, is set toward the end of Elizabeth's life. She's felt love for any number of noblemen but was never able to marry them because of her perceived duty to the state. This time around, it's the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn); Elizabeth eventually sacrifices him.

The Purchase Price (1932). Barbara Stanwyck plays a nightclub singer and gangster's moll who wants to get away from her boyfriend (Lyle Talbot). So she flees to Montreal and then offers to switch places with her maid, who was planning on quitting to become... a mail-order bride! So Stanywck goes off to North Dakota where she meets her new husband (George Brent) and tries to make the best of it. It's not easy, and then complicating matters is that her old boyfriend finds her again. (To be honest, I really would have preferred to use Night Nurse or Baby Face for Stanwyck, but of course I've already used both of them.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tulips Shall Grow

So I watched The Puppetoon Movie off my DVR, from TCM's recent two-night salute to animator George Pal. The programming block was with Arnold Leibovit, who produced and directed the wraparounds for the movie and has gotten a DVD and Blu-ray of the movie released. It was the latter release which obviously spurred the programming: a little bit of advertising in exchange for the rights to run at least that movie; TCM probably had a much easier time getting the rights to some of Pal's later stuff.

The Puppetoon Movie is really nothing more than a bunch of Pal's animated (with puppets, of course) shorts from the 1930s and 1940s, together with that wraparound involving Gumby, Pokey, and Arnie the Dinosaur. The Puppetoons are, I think, a bit of an acquired taste, especially because a couple of the shorts are even shorter on plot and even more so sight gags than most of the traditionally animated shorts of the era. I think the best of them was Tulips Shall Grow, from 1942.

Jan and Janette are two lovers in Holland; Jan romantically pursuing Janette who lives in a windmill. Their idyllic lives are upended one day when the screwballs (obviously a stand-in for the Nazis although they're just screws with bolts for heads) invade, and overrun the whole countryside. But the screwballs never considered the possibilty of rust, much the same way the invaders in War of the Worlds never considered human viruses might lay them low. Jan and Janette are able to live happily ever after, as an end title reminds us that "tulips shall always grow".

Overall, the Puppetoon shorts would be best served as extras on various DVDs, but there's the usual problem of rights. The 40s Puppetoon shorts were distributed by Paramount, but Paramount is not listed in the IMDb production companies. Besides, a couple of the shorts are from the 1930s and were done in the Netherlands; Philips distributed those. No regular studio is going to license the shorts just to include them on a DVD with one of their own classics, and you can't blame them. The result is a standalone DVD, and a Blu-ray with a lot of extras, but which is extremely pricey by DVD and Blu-ray standards.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

More on TCM's James Stewart programming

I mentioned two weeks ago -- are we almost halfway through the month already? -- that TCM was starting its programming of James Stewart's movies on Wednesday mornings and continuing through prime time Wednesday.

What I didn't notice, because I have a tendency not to look that far ahead, is that the programming isn't beginning at 6:00 AM every Wednesday. Tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM is Citizen Kane. Alan Ladd has a bit part, as one of the reporters at the end, I believe, but certainly no James Stewart, who was already too famous for a small part. Besides, at 8:15 AM, there's Gun Crazy, another movie that absolutely doesn't have Stewart in it.

Indeed, Gun Crazy is pretty clearly where it is on the lineup because Dalton Trumbo liked the right kind of dictator. The original screenplay was apparently written by him but had somebody else's name on it.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Five Gates to Hell

A few weeks back I mentioned the movie Five Gates to Hell that was completely new to me. I made it a point to watch it since it's coming up again on FXM Retro tomorrow morning at 9:20 AM and then again Wednesday morning at 8:35 AM.

The movie didn't start off promising, since the opening credits were both letterboxed and pillarboxed. That's a pretty good sign that FXM is only going to show the credits in Cinemascope and then pan-and-scan the rest of the movie. Sure enough that's what happened. On to the story, Athena (Dolores Michaels) is a Red Cross nurse at a field hospital in French Indochina in 1950. The Vietnamese were of course fighting for their independence from the French, but the disparate staff at the hospital try to be neutral in whom they treat. Athena is American and the daughter of a diplomat in Hanoi; there's a French head nurse, a Brit, a German, a Japanese, a nun and a couple of American doctors.

Eventually, a group Vietnamese decide to attack the hospital. Led by Chen Pamok (Neville Brand), the attack isn't a terrorist attack, but one with a more serious purpose. He needs doctors and nurses, because the ultimate commander of his group of guerrillas is sick and, in all likelihood terminally ill. But Chen wants to get the man medical care, even if he has to kidnap doctors and nurses to do so.

Chen and his fighters take the medical staff to a castle high atop a hill. The doctors and nurses would like to escape, but that's going to be extremely difficult because the journey to and from the castle has a number of bottlenecks that are the only way through -- the "gates" from the title. Chen, for his part, wants Athena for his wife, not that she's going to accept that proposal. Still, with a heavily fortified fortress, how are they going to escape?

Five Gates to Hell is a movie that has a good premise, but it's a movie that winds up being less than the sum of its parts. Part of that has to do with looks like a low budget to me; watching the movie I couldn't help but get the feeling something was missing. A bigger problem, I think, is the script, which gives some of the women motivations for the actions that aren't quite believable. Worse is the dialogue it gives poor Neville Brand. The writers at least explained away having a white guy play Vietnamese by saying that his mother was a westerner who died in childbirth, but he's given a command of English that's only slightly above "Me Tarzan, you Jane". Every time Brand opens his mouth the movie comes to a screeching halt.

Still, Five Gates to Hell isn't as bad as some of the IMDb reviewers make it out to be. It's more mediocre through and through than anything else. The movie is, in fact, available on DVD courtesy of the Fox MOD scheme.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Best Men

I had the movie Best Men on my DVR for quite some time, not realizing that it is in fact available on DVD courtesy of MGM's MOD scheme. So now I finally feel comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

The movie starts off with four men going through their morning routine and getting dressed in tuxedos. They get in a car and go to... a prison? Well, there's a good reason for that, which is that they're about to pick up their friend Jesse (Luke Wilson) who is about to be released from that prison. And they're dressed in tuxes because now that Jesse is out of prison he can get married to his fiancée Hope (Drew Barrymore). The other guys are obviously the groomsmen. On the way to the church, however, one of the groomsmen, Billy (Sean Patrick Flannery), says he needs to get a little cash, so they make a stop at the bank along the way.

What Billy didn't tell them is that he was planning to hold up the bank. Billy, as it turns out, is a notorious serial bank robber nicknamed "Hamlet" because of his tendency to quote the works of Shakespeare. Anyhow, Billy goes in the bank with none of his friends knowing his real plans. Robbing the bank takes more time than just making a simple withdrawal (for which he could have used the ATM anyway), so eventually the friends start to wonder what's taking Billy so long. Especially Jesse, since he's nervous about getting to the wedding on time.

So one by one, the friends go into the bank, and find out that it's being held up -- by their other best friend! Buzz (Dean Cain) is ex-military; Teddy (Andy Dick) is a bit of a nerd; and Sol (Mitchell Whitfield) is Jesse's former defense attorney, who clearly doesn't want to take part in a bank robbery. Jesse, given a choice, would prefer to go stratight. The other friends however, find themselves getting caught up in the robbery.

Things get even more complicated when the sheriff and a hostage negotiator get to the bank. The feds are portrayed as buffoonish, while the sheriff (Fred Ward) is actually Billy's father! Oh, and there's also the poor bride. She winds up at the bank, and is willing to support her fiancé in whatever choice he ultimately makes. And there are a lot of people in the bank who have support for Billy and his accomplices, notably "The Vet" (Brad Dourif) who, like Buzz, is also ex-military.

Best Men is mostly a comedy, although there is enough drama in it that people expecting a straight-up comedy might be in for a bit of a surprise. The characters are, after all, committing a serious crime and you'd expect them to get caught and punished for it even though we're clearly meant to have sympathy for them. And, despite the title, it is most definitely not a romantic comedy in the sense that most people would think of it. Not that it's a bad movie by any means. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and can recommend it to anybody looking for something a bit offbeat.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


About a month ago TCM ran Sissi, the first of three movies in a trilogy about Austro-Hungarian Empress Elizabeth; actually they ran the whole trilogy although I haven't gotten around to seeing the second and third movies yet. The trilogy, along with a condensed and dubbed version, have been released together in a box set, so I'm OK doing a full length post on the movie.

Sissi (Romy Schneider) is the 16-year-old daughter of a Bavarian Duke Max, living an idyllic life at the family castle in southern Bavaria. Her mother Ludovika (played by Romy's real-life mother Magda) is worried about what will happen to her daughters since Sissi and older sister Helene, nicknamed Nene, are of the age where they should start being looked at as marriageable and should be married to good royalty. Anyhow, they're in luck as they receive a letter from Aunt Sophie in Vienna that her son Austrian Emperor Franz Josef (Karlheinz Böhm) will be visiting Ischl (not far from southeastern Bavaria), and she might be able to work an arranged marriage between him and Nene. But Mom is worried about Dad screwing things up, so Mom decides to take Sissi along with Nene to Ischl.

All Sissi really wants to do is go hunting and fisching, but her mom doesn't think that's appropriate for a lady; besides, Sisi is really too young for all the courtly engagements Nene and Mom will have to take part in. So they lock Sissi in her room! She climbs out the window to go fishing, and that's how she meets Franz Josef. (A humorous subplot in the first half of the movie involves a policeman trying to stop assassination attempts against the Emperor, and thinking that Sissi is an assassin.) Of course, the two fall in love, knowing that they can never have each other. Sissi doesn't realize that he his supposed to get engaged to her sister, while Franz Josef doesn't realize that he's talking to Nene's sister. Sparks fly when they meet in their royal capacities.

The story presented in Sissi is impossibly romantic and rose-colored. But damn if the movie isn't just gorgeous to watch. It was filmed in lush Agfacolor, which makes the already good-looking backdrops of the Austrian Alps look even better. Having access to real European castles also helps, and the sets and costumes are beautiful as well. The actors, for the most part, do a reasonably good job, so the end result is that even though you should dismiss the material as treacle, the movie as a whole entertains. (They had the good sense not to make it a musical.)

As with foreign films, the DVD box set is a bit pricier than I'd like to pay. But the restoration is beautiful; I can't stress that enough.

Friday, November 10, 2017

John Hillerman, 1932-2017

John Hillerman (r.) and Tom Selleck in a promotional still from the "Magnum PI" era

Actor John Hillerman, who is probably best remembered for playing Magnum's (Tom Selleck) boss Higgins on the very 80s TV show Magnum, PI, has died aged 84.

Hillerman's movie career started in the 1970s, and he's in quite a few interesting movies, including several of which I've recommended. He's the intermediary in the interesting and not very well remembered The Nickel Ride; a hotel manager in What's Up, Doc?; Howard Johnson in Blazing Saddles; and has roles in movies such as Chinatown, Paper Moon, and The Last Picture Show.

Unsurprisingly, of course, it's Higgins that all the obituaries are mentioning.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #174: Adaptations I'd like to see

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is adaptations you'd like to see, and this one is difficult for me since I was having trouble thinking of things I'd like to see turned into movies. In fact, I found out that one of the books I thought about was in fact turned into a movie that's been doing the festival circuit in 2017. Anyhow, I've got two serious ideas, and one frivolous remake/reworking:

Five Days in June. This 1974 novel by German writer Stefan Heym is a dramatization of the June 1953 uprising in East Germany that, unsurprisingly, was brutally put down. I actually had to read this one in German back in college. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 has featured in at least one Hollywood movie (The Journey from 1959, re-teaming Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr), and of course the Berlin Wall has, but I don't know about the 1953 uprising.

Shattered. I'm having trouble imagining Hollywood doing an honest look at the 2016 presidential election, and the mistakes Hillary Clinton's campaign made to lose what should have been a fairly easy victory. But we're probably going to get a lot of stuff about alleged Russian collusion.

And, I'd like to see a reworking of Gone With the Wind focusing on the wild miscegenation between Clark Gable's and Hattie McDaniel's characters. Mammy and the Bachelor. Of course, the book has already been lampooned before in the form of The Wind Done Gone, which engendered a legal case over copyright infringement.

I told you I was having trouble coming up with stuff.