Friday, May 25, 2018

Elizabeth Taylor calls the sandtune

Another recent movie viewing off my DVR was The Sandpiper, which TCM ran when Elizabeth Taylor was Star of the Month in March. It's available on the four-movie box set of Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movies, since both are in it.

Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, an artist living in a beach house (or at least, for what passes for a beach) in California's Big Sur. She lives with her son Danny (played by James Mason's son Morgan) and no father in sight. Laura home-schools Danny, so although he's bright, he's got some problems with society. It's caused a few run-ins with the law, and this time the judge has decided he's had enough. Danny is going to be put in a boarding school, an Episcopal school run by Rev. Dr. Hewitt (Richard Burton).

Laura is unhappy with this, but the alternative is the boy going into reform school, so she reluctantly decides to send Danny there. She's afraid that Danny is going to develop "conventional" values which won't serve him well as an adult and that he won't be able to reason for himself. Danny isn't happy either at first, but when he recites Chaucer -- in Middle English, no less -- to Hewitt's assistant Claire (Eva Marie Saint), she sees the potential in him.

Oh, Claire is Mrs. Hewitt, too; remember that Dr. Hewitt is Episcopalian and they have no qualms about married ministers. This is going to be a problem for reasons you can probably figure. Dr. Hewitt has to deal with Laura both for the practical purposes of getting legal paperwork done, but also to try convince her that his school really is best for the kid. But while doing so, it opens up a whole new world to him, as he gets to see the real Laura and her bohemian artist friends Cos (Charles Bronson) and Larry (James Edwards). And slowly Dr. Hewitt begins to fall in love with Laura.

That is a huge problem for a man who is supposed to be a moral pillar, never mind what it's going to do to his wife should she find out about the relationship. Meanwhile, Laura's theories are beginning to make Dr. Hewitt question whether he should be raigins money for a new chapel for the school....

The Sandpiper is clearly a star vehicle for Taylor and Burton, who were a hot pair after their romance started a few years earlier (I think on the set of Cleopatra). It's too bad that the story is pedestrian, and director Vincente Minnelli couldn't be bothered to rein in Taylor. She takes every opportunity she can to chew the scenery and make the whole movie faintly ridiculous. If you like watching Taylor chew the scenery, you'll love this one. If not, unfortunately The Sandpiper isn't even bad in a fun way like X, Y, and Zee.

The Sandpiper also won an for its original song "The Shadow of a Smile", heard in instrumental throughout the movie and then with lyrics in a horrible MOR arrangment over the closing credits. It's a terrible song, and only makes the movie more aggravating.

Then again, I always say that you should probably judge for yourself. The TCM four-film box sets are always moderately priced, so if you don't like The Sandpiper, you might still like one of the other movies.

Memorial Day weekend is here again

This coming Monday is the Memorial Day holiday in the US, which is the unofficial start of the summer but of course has its origins in remembering the dead of the US Civil War. Apparently "Memorial Day" as a term started being used all the way back in the 1880s but didn't become the official name until the 1960s. Anyhow, TCM is showing a bunch of war movies as usual, but focusing on World War II probably because Hollywood was around during that war and with the conflict being a total war, lots and lots of movies about it were made.

This time around, the marathon starts at 8:00 tonight, and runs for 3-1/2 days until the start of the Tuesday morning schedule (a Bob Hope birthday salute). We get another airing of Fox's Twelve O'Clock High tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM, two Noir Alley airings of the war noir The Clay Pigeon at the traditional times for Noir Alley.

I thought I mentioned William Wyler's Memphis Belle before, and it turns out I did back in September 2015 when TCM had the spotlight on the book about the directors who went off to World War II. That one's going to be on early tomorrow morning at 4:00 AM, and is probably the highlight of the first day of the marathon. Well, up until December 7 (ooh, another film I blogged about during the Five Came Back spotlight) at 6:30 PM tomorrow.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #202: Friendship



This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week, the theme is movies about friendship. I suppose there are a lot of buddy comedies out there, so coming up with three movies shouldn't be so difficult. So without further ado, here are my three selections for this week:

Two Arabian Knights (1927). Louis Wolheim and William Boyd play a pair of World War I soldiers who get captured by the Germans, escape from a POW camp, and make their way to Arabia, where they get in a series of adventures, albeit without T.E. Lawrence. They meet a beautiful princess (Mary Astor) and fall in love with her, although she's already betrothed to an Arab nobleman, causing further dander for them.

Of Mice and Men (1939). George (Burgess Meredith) and Lenny (Lon Chaney Jr.) are itinerant farmhands going from place to place in California trying to save up the money to buy a place of their own. George always helps Lenny out of jams because Lenny is mentally slow. Eventually they work for a sadistic boss which results in Lenny getting into trouble George may not be able to help him out of. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

Less than Zero (1987). Andrew McCarthy is a kid from the LA suburbs who goes east to college, and returns home for the holidays to find out that friend Robert Downey Jr. has gotten himself addicted to cocaine, this being Robert Downey Jr. and the 1980s. McCarthy and hot Jami Gertz try to help Downey out of his predicament. This one is hilariously awful, but a guilty pleasure for me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Lots and lots of shorts, May 23-24, 2018

TCM's Spotlight this month is on movie series, with this week looking at detectives. By the time you read this, they're either just finishing or will already have finished the Miss Marple movies, moving on to Torchy Blane. Anyhow, I was looking at the schedule and surprised by the volume of shorts that TCM scheduled between the movies.

Just before the first of the Torchy Blane movies, Hot News Margie gets another airing, or about 8:35 AM this morning. (So you'll probably have missed it.)

For those of you who like the Robert Benchley shorts, there are two this afternoon, How to Vote around 5:15 PM and How to Be a Detective at about 7:50 PM.

Movies on Sundays will be on a little after 8:00 AM tomorrow morning, just after the first of the Perry Mason movies that TCM is showing on Thursday.

And it's not a short, but the recently deceased Patricia Morrison was in Song of the Thin Man, the last of the Thin Man movies, which will be on TCM early tomorrow morning at 5:15 AM. (TCM is unsurprisingly running all six Thin Man movies in prime time tonight.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

No Questions Asked

Several weeks ago, TCM's Noir Alley ran a movie that was new to me: No Questions Asked. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so I finally got around to watching it to do a post on it here.

Barry Sullivan plays Steve Keiver, who at the beginning of the movie is running from both the police and some underworld types. Flash back to how he got into this situation.... Some time back Steve was a lawyer for an insurance company, handling the legal niceties of paying out claims. The latest claim is on a bunch of furs that were stolen, and Steve's boss Henry Manston (Moroni Olsen) is none too pleased about having to pay out on the claim. Indeed, he says he'd be willing to pay, no questions asked, to get the furs back. This gives Steve an idea....

Steve's fiancée Ellen (Arlene Dahl) is sick and tired of Steve's lack of advancement. She wants some of the better things in life, and feels she can't get them on an insurance lawyer's income, which is why Steve is trying to get a raise. But what Steve doesn't know is that Ellen has already gotten married -- way to break off the engagment, baby, and wait until Steve finds out! Anyhow, Steve, in an attempt to make more money, decides he'll arrange to be a go-between for the return of those furs. He and Henry are able to recover the furs, but there's a cost.

Steve decides to become a go-between full time (there's a brilliant idea), which unsurprisingly leads to a sudden crime wave, which the police, in the form of Inspector Duggan (George Murphy) and Detective O'Bannion (Richard Anderson) don't like. They're looking to nail Steve, and when the next heist hits they plan to stop everybody who talks to Steve.

That heist occurs in the ladies' powder room during the intermission of a stage play. Two women come into the powder room and hold everybody up. However, when I was watching, one of the women sounded suspiciously like a man in falsetto, and I had read before watching the movie that it had a twist, so I figured the twist was that it was Ellen and her husband doing the heist. It turns out that that is not the case, although Ellen and her husband are in town, with Ellen claiming she still loves Steve and only married her husband for his money. Meanwhile, the attempt to get the ladies' jewelry back is hitting quite the snag....

I personally found No Questions Asked to be well-enough made, although it's also one of those movies that I don't think will stand out to me as being a particularly memorable part of the noir cycle. It's not that it's bad by any means, just that it's serviceable and not a whole lot more. Fans of noir who haven't seen it will certainly like it, while if I were introducing noir to people who had never seen a noir movie, I'd start with something else.

A couple more obituaries

Actress Patricia Morison died on Sunday at the ripe old age of 103. Morison had a more substantial career on Broadway where she originated the lead in Kiss Me, Kate. Among her films were playing the French Empress Eugenie in The Song of Bernadette, and the lower-budget (but still quite good) story of the Reinhard Heydrich assassination Hitler's Madman. One role that wound up on the cutting room floor was as Victor Mature's wife in Kiss of Death. The story called for the character to commit suicide while Mature's character was in prison, and that apparently was too much for the Production Code. So the scenes were deleted and the suicide was only referenced.

Bill Gold, a name I'd never heard of, also died on Sunday, at the age of 97. Gold wasn't seen on screen, because his work was well away from the studio, instead designing posters for movies. Among the posters are for Casablanca at the beginning of his career, Strangers on a Train, A Clockwork Orange, and a whole slew of movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Gold's is one of those jobs we don't normally think about when we think about the movies, but that in some ways are almost as important as the ones we see on screen. Not to denigrate the work of a Saul Bass, but why for example is his name better remembered just because his art design is actually in the movie?

Monday, May 21, 2018

One Third of a Nation

Tomorrow morning TCM is running some Sylvia Sidney films, including one I've only briefly mentioned before, One Third of a Nation, at 9:15 AM.

Sidney plays Mary Rogers, who lives in a New York tenement with her kid brother Joey, played by a 14-year-old Sidney Lumet (yes, that Sidney Lumet who would go on to become a renowned director). When there's a fire in the building, rich benefactor Peter (Leif Erickson) happens to be there and offers to pay for Joey's medical bills. Peter and Mary fall in love.

There's a catch, however. Everybody in the tenements hate the slumlords who own the buildings and let them deteriorate the way they have. And it just so happens to be Peter's family that owns the building where Mary and Joey live. Boy is Mary going to be pissed when she finds this out. Mary and the other tenants want improvements to be made to the building, but can this happen before disaster befalls the people living there?

One Third of a Nation is hilariously awful propaganda. It was produced under auspices of the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal scheme that was instituted in no small part to produce propaganda favoring the ideas of the New Deal. (Even if this wasn't the express purpose, it doesn't take a genius to understand it was going to be taken over by people who wanted to use it to produce their own brand of propaganda.) Everything is the fault of the tenement owners, and all the problems are going to be resolved by destroying the buildings and building government housing projects that are going to be perfect. In fact, we've seen over the past 60 years how perfect government housing programs are. And never mind what's going to happen to the people while those projects are being built.

It's hard to judge the acting when the actors are being asked to spew agitprop, although honors have to go to young Sidney. (Sidney's father Baruch, a mainstay of the Yiddish theater, has a role as Mr. Rosen.) It's not Sidney's fault, though. His standout scene involves a fever dream in which the tenement talks to him, and shows him how tenement life has always been thus, and always will be unless the government takes over. It was the cinema's great gain that Sidney took up directing.

One Third of a Nation deserves to be seen once, for how awful the propaganda is. The movie did get a DVD release, although it's out of stock at Amazon and the TCM Shop. However, the DVD was put out by Alpha Video, and they still have it at their site, oldies.com.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Evil Angels

Another recent viewing off my DVR was A Cry in the Dark, which was released in Australia (where it was made) as Evil Angels. This is one of those odd movies that seems to be available on DVD (and in print) at Amazon, and also available on streaming video

A Cry in the Dark tells the story of the family of Azaria Chamberlain. Azaria's father Michael (Sam Neill) was a Seventh-Day Adventist minister in Queensland, Australia, living with his wife Lindy (Meryl Streep borrowing the wig Robert Wagner wore in Prince Valiant), their two sons, and infant daughter Azaria in 1980. The family goes for a vacation to Ayers Rock, and we see in a bit of foreshadowing as the film shows us a dingo looking down on everybody that the Outback can be a dangerous place.



At night, Lindy and Mike are talking with some of the other campers assembled at the popular tourist spot, when Lindy decides to go back into the tent, only to discover that the baby is missing. Lindy then sees a dingo darting off into the night, so she reaches the obvious conclusion: "The dingo took my baby!", a line that has been parodied ever since. A large search is conducted, and eventually all that's found is a bloody onesie; a jacket Azaria had on over it isn't found, which will be important later in the story.

The family eventually goes home to suffer the death of their baby alone, except that the incident has become a national case. The Chamberlains are weirdo Seventh-Day Adventists, after all, and their faith in God means that they don't show the sort of repulsive emotion that the media engendered after Princess Diana died because she was too stupid to wear a seat belt. So the media decide to start a campaign against her, but for a while the law is on the Chamberlains' side. The coroners' inquest backs up the Chamberlains' story that the baby was most likely taken by a dingo, and the judge presiding has a blistering attack on the media's handling of the case.

Somewhere along the way, however, the Chamberlains must have made some powerful enemies, because the authorities decide to reopen the case based on circumstantial forensic evidence, allowing the media to resume their Two Minutes' Hate against the Chamberlains as Lindy is put on trial for murdering Azaria. The amount of prosecutorial grandstanding during the trial is also shocking. All of this also puts a huge strain on Michael and Lindy's marriage. (They divorced in 1991, a few years after the film was released.)

A Cry in the Dark is an excellent study in the media circus that forms around prominent events and how mob mentality can doom people. It's helped in part by being based on a real case, and in part on using more of a docudrama style of filming than what had been done back in the Hollywood studio days. Films like Spencer Tracy's Fury are well-made looks at the same sort of mob mentality that surrounded the Chamberlain case, but they, and even a relevant Fox docudrama from the 1940s like Boomerang! seem to be too Hollywood-bound. A Cry in the Dark has an ugly underside that's needed to make the movie work.

It's also a big plus that the two leads, Streep and Neill, both give excellent performances in difficult roles. Streep has a difficult task, both in seeming emotionless and then having to stand up for herself when both her husband and her attorneys are trying to get her to act in a stereotypical way. Neill's character has to break down on the stand, not in a crying way, but in a way that he's not mentally able to handle questioning that's designed to be deliberately confusing and catch him in a trap. This too is a difficult portrayal that Neill pulls off well.

A Cry in the Dark is strongly recommended.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Seven Sinners

A good two years ago, I recorded a movie called Doomed Cargo on TCM and watched it. For some reason I thought it wasn't on DVD so I never did a post on it. It turns out I was wrong and that the movie is on DVD under its original title, Seven Sinners. So I watched it again last night to be able to do a post on it.

Edmund Lowe plays John Harwood, who in the opening of the movie is on vacation on the French Riviera. He meets another man and, when he later goes to that man's room, he finds the man dead! Fortunately, Harwood is a detective, so he could work on the case if need be. But he's more needed by the American insurance company he works for, who have snet Fenton (Constance Cummings) to fetch him. In the meantime, the body Harwood saw has disappeared!

Anyhow, Harwood and Fenton take the overnight train to Calais to get to England where the insurance company wants him for that job. The train, however, gets in a crash, and it turns out that the signals were deliberately swtiched to cause the crash! Much more interesting is that Harwood swears he sees among the dead bodies the guy who he had seen in the hotel. He concludes that apparently somebody killed the guy down in Nice, and then disposed of the body by staging a train crash.

It's a bizarre idea, and Harwood's investigation takes him first to Paris, and then to London where he investigates a "peace" group that may or may not be on the level. Since the original killing took place in France, there's also a French investigator Turbé (Thomy Bourdelle) on the case. There's another train crash that kills a key witness, and then the possibility of a third crash, leading up to the climax and the reveal of who's behind these train crashes and why.

The screenplay for Seven Sinners/Doomed Cargo was written by Launder and Gilliat from a 1920s play; they're the same writing team that did Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. So it's not surprising that watching Seven Sinners that one notices a lot of things that make the movie look as though Hitchcock could have directed it. It plays out in many ways like The 39 Steps, which is really more about the various set pieces than the plot of what those steps are. Seven Sinners is even more confusing, however, and more abrupt in its ending.

Still, I'd say that Seven Sinners is entertaining enough for a 1930s programmer. I think that anybody who's interested in movies of the era, and especially pre-war British movies, would enjoy Seven Sinners.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Briefs for May 18-19, 2018

Actor Joseph Campanella died on Wednesday at the age of 93. He was mostly a TV actor, but he made some movies sprinkled throughout, including quite a few 70s and 80s things I've never heard of. I'd guess his most notable movie appearance is as the police detective investigating in Ben, which is a terrible movie, but not because of Campanella. There's also The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which is certainly worth a watch.

Tonight's prime time lineup on TCM is devoted to Alastair Sim, best remembered for playing Scrooge in the early 1950s version of A Christmas Carol. The night begins with what I think is the TCM premiere of School for Scoundrels at 8:00 PM. There's also Laughter in Paradise at midnight.

A few months back I mentioned a two-reeler whose title I couldn't recall about a girls' school where the administrators were virulently opposed to the new jazz dancing styles. Looking through the past posts, it was called Somewhat Secret. (Shows how memorable the short was.) Tomorrow morning at around 7:36 AM TCM is showing the short Public Jitterbug No. 1, which is obviously a different short, but another one with an anti-dancing theme. Then in the 8:00 AM to 9:30 AM slot, one of the shorts TCM is running is Desi Arnaz and his orchestra, one of the Vitaphone shorts highlighting various bandleaders of the 1940s. Desi had already married Lucy by the time this was made, but this was also well before I Love Lucy.