Sunday, February 1, 2015

Oscar-nominated shorts again

Now that we've reached February 1 and the beginning of TCM's annual 31 Days of Oscar, we get a bunch of movies that were nominated for at least one Oscar. The same is true of many of the shorts, although TCM's schedule page often includes featurettes on movies under the rubtic of "shorts"; most of those, I think, wouldn't have been nominated for any awards.

Unfortunately, they still don't hav the rights to the animated shorts, which as I understand it reside with with Time Warner's corporate cousin Cartoon Network/Boomerang. So we're left with the live action shorts, which are interesting if a bit tedious after a while because the selection of shorts available for 31 Days of Oscar is even more limited than the feautres. I don't think any of the Traveltalks shorts was ever nominated for an Oscar, so all of those are out. Offhand, I think the closest we're liable to get to a Traveltalks short is Calgary Stampede, which will be coming up at the weekend, and which I've mentioned in three previous Februaries.

Two shorts I briefly mentioned in the same blog post last year show up in the next 24 hours. First up, at 9:50 PM after the documentary And the Oscar Goes To..., is You Can't Win, a Pete Smith short (boy does Pete Smith show up a lot; MGM obviously pushed him in the one-reel shorts category since he and the Traveltalks shorts were the two prominent series of one-reelers they had at the time. Tomorrow morning we get another Pete Smith short, Romance of Radium, at about 7:04 AM.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

An end, and some beginnings

Today is January 31, the last day before another year of 31 Days of Oscar on TCM. It being a Saturday, we get one more Essential on TCM, that being Twentieth Century with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. It's also the last of the Essentials with Drew Barrymore. After three years, she's being replaced come March with Sally Field, something which I know will please a lot of people, albiet not the ones who think TCM shouldn't have The Essentials at all, and should just cater to me me me!!! Not that they enjoy 31 Days of Oscar, either.

TCM has been running the British Carry On series in the 10:30 AM Saturday time slot. That takes a break for 31 Days of Oscar, but does not end yet. When it returns in March, however, we'll also be getting a Batman serial from 1943 joining it at 10:00 AM and running for several weeks.

February 1 also brings some movies out of the Fox vault that haven't been seen in some time, and brings them to FXM Retro for multiple airings. I blogged about Blue Denim, which comes on at 9:50 AM tomorrow, back in May of 2011. Teenage Rebel, which was also the subject of a full-length post back in May 2011, follows at 11:25 AM tomorrow. Both of them will also show up in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Enjoy your February!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Briefs for January 30, 2015

I'm sorry to say that there were a couple of things I saw on TCM yesterday that don't seem to be available on DVD. I had turned on the TV at the dinner hour, waiting for the 6:15 PM start of The Secret Partner, a movie that was new to me and sounded like it had an interesting premise. It turned out to be quite entertaining, if nothing particularly great. Stewart Granger plays a junior executive at a shipping company who's being blackmailed, and then the safe at the shipping company is robbed, making it look like Granger did it. Bernard Lee, who would soon go on to play M in the James Bond movies, plays the police detective who's investigating and wants to wrap up the case before his pending retirement. The direction, by Basil Dearden who also did the recently recommended League of Gentlemen, deftly handles the plot twists.

Before The Secret Partner came on, however, there was the RKO Screenliner short White Peril, about men who work for the US Geologic Survey and go into the Cascade Mountains of Washington in the winter to determine how much snow pack there is and, by extension, how much water will be available to the residents of the cities who depend on this snow pack for their water supply. It's one of the better entries in the series, I think; certainly the straight news Screenliners are better than the Sportscopes.

I'm not into Mario Lanza movies, so I had no desire to see That Midnight Kiss, which was on when I turned the TV on first thing this morning to switch the channel to the Australian Open tennis. The voice of Ethel Barrymore was unmistakeable, however, even under a hat and glasses.

For fans of Traveltalks, James FitzPatrick will be going On the Shores of Nova Scotia early tomorrow morning at 4:21 AM. This one came out in June of 1947, about a year before the Nova Scotia-set Johnny Belinda, although that was done at Warner Bros. Sometimes I wonder whether folks at other studios saw a Traveltalks short and decided to set a movie in that exotic location.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

13 Fighting Men

A movie that was new to me when it started showing pu on FXM Retro recently is 13 Fighting Men. I got to see one of the previous showings, and it's coming up again tomorrow morning (January 30) at 6:00 AM. It's decidedly B material, but if you haven't seen it, it is worth a watch.

Grant Williams plays John Forrest, a captain in the Union Army about a day after the Civil War has officially ended: he and his soldiers meet a spy who informs them of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, but Abraham Lincoln has yet to be assassinated. Unfortunately, the spy has instructions for a member of Forrest's group: deliver a bunch of Union gold to somebody. Forrest wants to take his men north out of the technically former Confederate territory and back home, since all of them are sick of fighting a war that's officially over, but orders are orders, and they're going to have to guard the money. At least it's only a day or two out of their way.

Yeah right. Cut to a scene of the spy, who is waylaid by a group of Confederate soldiers, led by Major Boyd (Brad Dexter). The spy tells them the war is over, but Boyd and his men discover a couple of Union coins on him, which means they know he must have done some sort of work for the North. They get the information about the gold shipment out of him and execute him for spying. But they also decide that even though the war is over, they could use that money to start new lives. Besides, they still harbor understandable resentment towards the North. So they're going to try to ambush the Union soldiers and take the money for themselves.

The Union soldiers, meanwhile, stop at a farmhouse. Carole Prescott (Carole Mathews) was running the farm and barely scraping by while her husband was off fighting the war. Although the war is over and her husband has returned, she wants out. He's a pacificst coward, and she wants a better life than trying to farm when they have no money to buy seed. Needless to say, the Confederates find the Union soldiers, which leads to a cat-and-mouse waiting game over who will end up with the money and whether any outside forces will come to save the day -- remember, the war is officially over.

I said at the beginning that 13 Fighting Men is B material, but simply being a B movie doesn't automatically mean a movie is bad. 13 Fighting Men does a reasonably good job, as there is a surprising number of twists and turns along the way, and people acting with believable motivations. You can forgive the Confederates, who probably didn't have much of a choice in the first place, for wanting that money. Some of the Union soldiers also decide they wouldn't mind having that money, and since they just want to get home with the war over, you can't blame them either. There's nothing groundbreaking here and the production values aren't much better than episodic TV, but for a 70-minute movie, it's passable material. I just wish FXM would show the movie in its original aspect ratio.

Watch for future TV star Ted Knight in a small role as one of the Confederate soldiers.

TCM's Rod Taylor Tribute

They didn't have hot tubs in Victorian England
Rod Taylor in The Time Machine (1960)

Rod Taylor died three weeks ago, and TCM is finally getting around to a night where it could ditch the previously scheduled movies. TCM will be running five of Taylor's movies in prime time tonight:

First, at 8:00 PM, is The Time Machine, in whihc Taylor travels 800,000 years into the future and finds that mankind has devolved into two races;
Next, at 10:00 PM, Taylor goes to Bodega Bay, CA, and finds that the birds there don't like him or Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds;
At 12:15 AM, Taylor spends a Sunday in New York with Cliff Robertson and Jane Fonda;
Taylor plays Irish playwright Sean O'Casey under the pen name Cassidy in Young Cassidy, at 2:15 AM; and
Taylor gets to do a comic turn with Doris Day in The Glass-Bottom Boat at 4:15 AM.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The League of (non-extraordinary) Gentlemen

A couple of years ago, when actor-director Bryan Forbes died, I briefly mentioned the movie The League of Gentlemen. It coming up overnight tonight, or early tomorrow morning, at 5:00 AM on TCM as part of a night of films with Richard Attenborough. It's well worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

Jack Hawkins plays Lt. Col. Hyde, now retired from the British Army. Not that it was his choice; he was cashiered aftre reaching his quota of 25 years of service. Hyde is none too happy about it, either. He was a personnel officer, and still seems to have access to the personnel files, because he's able to find the names of other former soldiers who are in a state where they can be bribed to take part in Hyde's revenge plot. Hyde gets up six or seven other names, and sends each of them half of a £5 note, with the message that they'd better come if they want the other half of the note. Considering that £5 was worth a fair amount back then, probably a good $100 US or more what with the exchange rate and inflation. And all of these guys have some reason for needing the money: a high-mainenance girlfriend, failing businesses, debts, or the like. So of course they show up.

Hyde's plan is to rob a bank! And to that end, the men he's assembled all have one skill or another necessary to pull off the job. But before they can rob that bank, they're going to need some more specialized equipment, of the sort that you can only get at a military base. Which is where everybody being ex-military comes in, at least in part. The other reason for having a bunch of former military men doing the job is because Hyde has worked it out to extreme precision. But to achieve they precision, they have to practice, so the lot of them go off to some isolated but fading country estate for training.

The robbery of the military base to get their weaponry goes well, although there's a portent that something might go wrong -- without that we wouldn't have the requisite suspense, or the foreshadowing that the big job that is the climax of the movie might go wrong, too. After all, even though we're in Britain, there's still a moral code that you're not supposed to get away with bank robbery! As the training goes on out in the country, there's the beginning of dissension. Not everybody wants Hyde to be in command; one of the men wants to see his girlfriend; and so on. That having been said, the bank robbery appears to go off well, and everybody makes it back to that house in the country to split up the loot, only for something to go wrong there. Thanks to the morals, you know something is going to go wrong, but not necessarily what or when.

Jack Hawkins is quite good to watch, and it's fun to see the meticulous planning of a heist even though we know it's going to founder on some minor detail in the end. The panoply of British actors in the supporting roles -- including the aforementioned Attenborough and Forbes, Forbes' there's Roger Livesey, wife Nanette Newman, Kieron Moore, and several others -- also make the movie worthwhile to sit down with. The one other important aspect is the look at Britain as it was circa 1960. I'm All Right Jack explicity mentions the end of an era for Britain as the Empire is about to fail; kitchen-sink movies like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning attack the old notions head-on; The League of Gentlmen only hints by what it's showing that yes, there's a fading glory for Britain, and look what it's done to men like Hyde. But the London of 1960 that it shows along with the cultural values of the time is a great artifact to have on film.

The TCM Shop lists The League of Gentlemen as being available on DVD in a four-movie set.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hold That Co-Ed

I was stuck inside this morning waiting for that blizzard that never really hit the Catskills, and so had the chance to watch Hold That Co-Ed on FXM Retro. It's a charmingly stupid little movie, and is on FXM Retro again early tomorrow morning (January 28) at 4:35 AM if you want to watch it for yourself.

George Murphy (later host of the MGM Parade that shows up on TCM from time to time) plays Rusty, a college football star, although we only know that from a montage of newspaper headlines pointing out his derring-do on the field. Now he's going to be a coach at one of those big midwestern state schools, and shows up to find a beautiful campus with a well-funded football team. The only thing is, he's at the wrong school, Clayton University; the State school is just down the road. When Coach Rusty gets there, he finds that college President Fletcher (Donald Meek) has decided to cancel the football season because they're not getting any funding for a football team from the Governor. Indeed, there's only one football, and no money for equipment.

This being one of those silly college movies from the 1930s, the coach does what any good coach would do: he gets the team to march on the Governor's mansion. Not just the team, but it seems the entire student body, which is entirely too small for a state school, but this is the sort of the movie where you don't worry about minor things like continuity or even a sensible plot. Governor Gaby Harrigan (John Barrymore) stopped funding football because he's on a money-saving drive, trying to show the electorate he's fiscally prudent since he's running for the US Senate. Of course, he's also fiscally imprudent in that one of his campaign planks is to give everybody over 60 free sh*t in the form of a $400 a month pension, but as I said don't expect plot coherence. The college is able to convince the governor to start funding football again on the grounds that he'll lose votes otherwise, and he can speak to captive audiences at each game at the big stadium.

Of course, that big stadium hasn't been built yet, but with the Governor's help, they're able to build a 100,000 seat stadium in three weeks! And Harrigan is able to pull in some political favors (call it corruption if you'd like) to get the big schools to schedule games against State. Meanwhile, Coach Rusty has fallen in love with the governor's secretary Marjorie (Marjorie Weaver). While the stadium is being built, the governor gets hit in the head with a football. That ball was kicked by Lizzie Olsen (Joan Davis), the daughter of a famous college football star of days gone by. But she can kick the ball, so they put her on the team, along with a pair of wrestler ringers.

Ultimately, the team's season comes down to a big game against the aforemnetioned Clayton, which was obviously only mentioned at the beginning so that we could have this dramatic climax. Making matters more dramatic is tht Harrigan's opponent in the Senate race, Breckenridge (George Barbier), is a regent at Clayton, and the two make a wager that the one whose team loses has to drop out of the Senate race. Really.

There's a lot of dumbness to Hold That Co-Ed. Football fans will cringe at how little of the football resembles anything real, even by 1930s standards. The game has changed a lot in 75 years, but if you score a touchdown, you don't have your opponents kick off an onside kick at you! All the tropes about college life in the 1930s are here as well, with the student body performing a musical number on the way to the Governor's mansion, or every single member of the student body getting the school spirit for the game, yelling "Block that kick!" in a way that sounds exactly the same whether it's the State students or the Clayton students doing it.

John Barrymore was an alcoholic and the booze took a toll on his career and ultimately his life, resulting in his early death a few years after this movie was made. He comes across as a buffoon at times, but that's actually in keeping with the charactre. (His hair, on the other hand, looks terrible.) Overall, though, he winds up more memorable than Murphy. The one other memorable character is the lady place kicker, who incongruously doesn't wear a helmet when she kicks and does this bizarre dance when she comes on the field. They say kickers are squirrely, and Lizzie is too, albeit in a different way.

Overall, Hold That Co-Ed is by no means an award-winner. But if you like vintage movies and don't mind an out-of-place musical number or two, Hold That Co-Ed is also a suitably brief (about 80 minutes) time-passer. As far as I know it's not available on DVD, so you'll have to catch the infrequent FXM showing.

Ross Bagdasarian, 1919-1972


Ross Bagdasrian with Alfred Hitchcock making his cameo in Rear Window (1954)

Today marks the birth anniversary of Ross Bagdasarian. Bagdasarian was a musician/record producer who did a bit of acting in the 1950s. Perhaps Bagdasarian's best-known acting role comes in the movie Rear Window, where he plays the composer trying to come up with a tune who is one of the people James Stewart watches along the way; eventually, the composer winds up with "Miss Lonelyhearts". Bagdasarian also appeared in Destination Gobi, which I blogged about during the last cycle of airings it had on the former Fox Movie Channel four years ago.

Of course, Bagdasarian is known for his work outside of acting. Under the stage name David Seville, he had a #1 hit as a soloist with the novelty hit "Witch Doctor", but is even better-remembered for speeding up some voices under the conceit that they were coming from the animated chipmunks Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. "The Chipmunk Song" became a Christmas classic in 1958 and has remained so ever since, while the Chipmunks got their own animated TV series, and ultimately a movie a few years back.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Belle de jour

TCM is spending this morning and afternoon in Paris; tonight is spent with the films of Spanish-born director Luís Buñuel. The two subjects merge in the night's first movie, Belle de jour, at 8:00 P0.

The movie starts off oddly. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is taking a romantic carriage ride through the woods someplace presumably just outside Paris with her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). All of a sudden, Pierre orders the driver to stop the carriage. At this point, Pierre orders Séverine out of the carriage, and has her whipped by a couple of coachmen! That's bizarre. Of course, it turns out that it's just a dream. Séverine loves her husband, but it her life is a bit boring. He's a doctor, so he works long hours and there's not much time for romance. And when there is, it's not the most exciting, as Séverine apparently wants something a little kinky.

Séverine spends her days doing what a lot of women do: shopping and gossiping with other women. Sorry, women, but it's been a cultural trope for ages, and Buñuel is just following that trope. Of course, he needs to have Séverine be part of the idle upper middle class to drive the plot, too. One day, while taking a taxi home with a friend, Séverine learns that a third friend has been doing some sex work to spice up her life. This, unsurprisingly, gives Séverine idea.

So Séverine goes off to see a Madame Anaïs. Anaïs runs a brothel in an otherwise non-descript apartment building somewhere in Paris; I don't know enough about the city to say whether it's a particularly good or bad area. Eventually, Séverine agrees to work a couple of afternoons a week, but only under specific conditions. She has to get home before Pierre, of course, so that he doesn't suspect what she's doing. And Séverine, never having done this sort of work before, is understandably a bit reluctant at first. But Anaïs gives her the name "Belle de jour", and Séverine turns out to be good at what she does, eventually.

There are going to be some problems, of course. One comes in the form of the young Marcel. He's a thug with flashy gold teeth, working under another thug with more experience. They come to Anaïs now and then for the sex, and Marcel decides that he wants Belle all to himself. Belle doesn't want that, but Anaïs can be discreet about that sort of thing. A bigger problem in the form of another client, a middle-aged man whom Séverine immediately recognizes as Pierre's friend Henri. Needless to say, Henrie recognizes that Belle is actually Séverine.

Belle de jour is an interesting movie, although the ending is one that I found maddening, with two sudden plot twists. The first wasn't so bad, but the second leaves you wondering what part of Séverine's life as displayed in the movie was real, and what was just the fantasy of a bored housewife. Did she even work for Anaïs? What happened to Pierre and Henri? I could accept a lot of different endings. Heck, Pierre informing Séverine that he's into kinky sex, too, and why didn't she tell him would have been an interesting, mind-blowing ending. But the ambiguity of what we get, in my opinion, takes the film down a notch. Oh, it's more than worth a watch. The rest of the movie is a good story, and if you like vintage set design, there's a lot to love here. Plus, Catherine Deneuve looks gorgeous as ever.

Belle de jour is available on DVD, but it's one of those more expensive imports.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Zazie dans le métro

TCM is spending Monday morning and afternoon in Paris. One of the movies that I don't think I've blogged about before is Zazie dans le métro, at 9:45 AM.

Zazie (credited to Catherine Demongeot) is a 10-year-old girl who lives with her divorced mother in some provincial town in France. At least, she does when Mom isn't trying to woo another in a long string of boyfriends that requires Mom needing some time to herself and the boyfriend. The movie opens with another of those times. This time, Mom drops Zazie off with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) for a couple of days. Gabriel works in the show at the nightclub, which you'd think isn't the best place to leave a kid, but then Zazie is no ordinary kid, giving as good as she gets.

Zazie apparently hasn't been to Paris before, because she informs Uncle Gabriel that she wants to ride the métro, or subway. And boy is shoe going to pester him to make certain he eventually takes her on that subway ride! You'd think they'd have to take the subway eventually, like any normal person in a big city with a bunch of subway lines, and so the little girl can just cool her heels for a bit. Zazie apparently just wants to ride the rails for fun, though. So eventually she makes her way to the nearest métro station and learns something shocking: the workers have gone on strike, and the system is hsut down. No subway ride for poor Zazie!

What's a girl to do? Well, Zazie, headstrong thing that she is, decides she's going to turn the city upside down if she can't have her way and get that subway ride. She proceeds to turn the city upside down, leading Gabriel on a series of adventers through markets, through crowded streets, and up and down the Eiffel Tower, among other things. Generally, she spends the day making life a nightmare for her poor uncle who has to take care of her. You can see why Mom would want to drop her off with a relative for a couple of days.

It's all told in a zany style, and that may be a problem for some viewers. Some of the reviews on IMDb say that Zazie dans le métro compares almost to a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life, and that's not such a bad description. There is a lot of humor to be had here, but there are also times when the way in which that humor is presented may be a bit over the top for some viewers because it's so overwhelmingly zany. On the plus side, the zaniness covers up the fact that Zazie, when you get down to it, is a bit of a spoiled brat and the sort of child character one might not like otherwise if the movie weren't as zany as it is.

Ultimately, I think Zazie dans le métro is one of those movies where its better to know what you're getting into when you watch it. If you sit down expecting something absurd, I think you'll really enjoy it. But if one were to watch not knowing the movie was going to turn absurd, I can understand people feeling a bit on edge.