Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Winning of Barbara Worth

It's amazing how many love stories are set against the backdrop of disasters, and possibly more amazing how blatantly Hollywood movies foreshadow some of those disasters. A good example of this is The Winning of Barbara Worth.

The movie starts off with an introductory sequence that's a good fifteen minutes. Jefferson Worth (silent actor Charles Lane, not to be confused with the character actor from movies like It's a Wonderful Life who is a different Charles Lane) is leading a group of people through the desert looking for a place to settle. They come across young Barbara, who has been orphaned when her father died in the desert and then Mom was killed in a sandstorm. So Jefferson takes Barbara and treats her as an adopted daughter.

Fast forward about 20 years. Barbara (Vilma Banky) is all grown up and Jefferson wants to irrigate the portion of the desert he's living in, to turn it into a paradise by damming the Colorado River and diverting some of the water. So he hires an engineering firm, led by James Greenfield and junior partner Willard Holmes (Ronald Colman). Willard sees Barbara and immediately falls in love with her. But Barbara insists that she's a product of the desert, and that the big city isn't for her. Plus, if she loves anybody it's Jefferson's surveyor Abe Lee (a very young Gary Cooper).

The irrigation scheme gets built, but Jefferson and a bunch of his employees point out that the dam isn't big enough, and when the big rains come closer to the source of the Colorado, the dam isn't going to hold. So we know that there's going to be a failure of the dam. In addition, Greenfield decides he's going to fire anybody who disagrees with him. Worse, he's going to bankrupt them.

Worth and his men decide to start a new town, another company town in which Worth runs everything. Greenfield makes certain none of his banker friends will extend credit to Worth. And when one does, Greenfield sends his henchmen to shoot Abe and Willard who are transporting the cash for the payroll back to Worth's town. Willard makes it back to town just in time, as well as just in time to learn that the dam is in fact bursting and threatening Greenfield's town....

The Winning of Barbara Worth is a beautiful movie to watch. I was very impressed by the quality of the print I saw on the TCM recording. Daytime desert scenes are tinted yellow, while nighttime scenes have a blue tint. All three leads are photogenic, depending on what you're looking for in an actor. There are numerous plot holes, mostly centering around the time it takes to cover various distances. When Jefferson Worth gets the line of credit, for example, it's supposed to take 20 hours to transport the money back to Worth's town. However, the information somehow reaches Greenfield instantly. And how were they able to get from Worth's town back to Greenfield's to warn of the impending deluge when the journey in the reverse direction was shown to be gruelling?

Plot holes aside, The Winning of Barbara Worth is an entertaining silent. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, too, although that of course means it's a bit pricey.

Friday, September 22, 2017

That list again

A month ago, I mentioned the BBC list of 100 greatest comedies that had made the news in the past few days. Somebody obviously gave an advance copy of that list to the folks at TCM. (Well, to be fair, Ben Mankiewicz was one of the people polled.) Tonight's prime time lineup on TCM is five of the top movies from that list. Even if you're not a fan of everybody on that list -- I'm not the biggest Charlie Chaplin fan and I was curious to see somebody pick a Marx Brothers movie for yesterdays "Thursday Movie Picks" blogathon -- there should be something for your liking. But TCM normally comes up with these schedules a couple of months in advance, before the BBC list was made public. (As I understand it, the monthly spotlights and Stars of the Month are planned out up to a year in advance while they try to secure the rights to needed movies.)

Saturday morning starts off with something that clearly isn't on BBC's list of 100 great comedies: Zombies on Broadway, at 6:00 AM. This RKO B movie shows up surprisingly infrequently considering it's part of the old Turner library. But I suppose there's a reason why the RKO B's show up less than those from Warner Bros. or MGM. Still, Zombies on Broadway is fun but silly even if it's not that good.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #167: Just Not Funny Comedies



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 "Just Not Funny" Comedies, and the ones I've picked aren't quite as old as my normal picks. (Well, I suppose I could have gone with the Ritz Brothers.)

Dondi (1961). David Janssen plays a World War II soldier who takes pity on an Italian orphan and wants to adopt him. Of course, bringing him back to America in the first place is going to be a problem. The kid playing the orphan is monstrously obnoxious and unfunny, and the story isn't particularly good either. This was based on a popular comic strip.

The Party (1968). Peter Sellers plays a Hollywood extra who is supposed to be blacklisted for incompetence, but accidentally winds up on the list for the swankiest Hollywood part ever. At some point around Dr. Strangelove (excluding some of the Pink Panther films), Sellers became almost unwatchable and cringe-inducingly unfunny. The bizarre party he attends here is apparently supposed to be hippie-inspired or something, but it's just tedious.

Neighbors (1981). John Belushi's final film has him as a suburbanite with a wife (Kathryn Walker) whose lives get turned upside down when a new neighbor (Dan Aykroyd) moves in. IMDb opinion is sharply divided, but I fall into the negative side, finding it stupid. It probably doesn't help that the first time I watched it I was probably too young: there's a joke about edible underwear that I was definitely not mature enough to get back then. (This was in the VHS era; I was only nine years old when it was released and did not go to see it in the theater. I think we got a copy from my movie-theater manager uncle.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Klute

Some weeks back I mentioned by surprise that the Oscar-winning movie Klute was out of print on DVD. It's coming on TCM overnight tonight (or early tomorrow morning depending on your perspective and time zone) at 4:00 AM, so now is a good time to do a post about it.

The movie starts off with what looks like a big family dinner, followed by a sudden cut and just a couple of people left at the table. It's some months later, and one of the people who was at that table has disappeared. Now, the authorities are talking the the disappeared man's wife as well as local policeman John Klute (Donald Sutherland). More worrying, it sounds as though the disappeared man had a double life, as he was writing extremely dirty letters to a call gilr in New York City, where he also took some business trips and where he disappeared.

People want to find the disappeared man, to Klute starts working as a sort of private detective to find out what happened to him. Obviously, a good place to start would be with that call girl. So Klute goes to New York and looks up Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda, who won the Oscar) and finds that she's no longer living the good life of a high-priced call girl. Instead, she's in much shabbier surroundings, a couple of floors above a funeral home in a building that looks like it could use some work. Bree, for a whole bunch of reasons, doesn't want to talk about the disappeared man, the letters, or her life as a prostitute at all. In fact, she'd like to get away from it if she could, but it pays the bills and she's good at it.

Klute tries to get to Bree, and he's straight-arrow to the point that you wonder whether Bree has ever met a man like this. Eventually, she gives in to Klute's persistence, in part because she needs help. Somebody has been stalking her, making obscene phone calls and making her feel like she's constantly being watched. If this weren't a movie, we'd understand it could be entirely coincidental considering how many clients Bree had. But it is a movie, so we can guess from the emphasis placed on it that yeah, it has something to do with the guy's disappearance.

Klute and Bree go around the seedier parts of early 1970s New York, eventually finding... well, I'm not about to give that away. Klute is a well-made movie, doing a good job of depicting the New York of that era as the unromantic, falling-apart place it was becoming, the whole "Ford to city: drop dead" thing I've mentioned in relation to several other movies from the era. It's most definitely a grown-up story for intelligent, thinking people. Fonda does a good job, although I can't help but wonder that the Oscar is in part down to playing the sort of character that hadn't much made to the screen before, at least not in this gritty way. Sutherland is good too, although as always he got overlooked. Roy Scheider plays a pimp for whom Bree used to work, and Edith Bunker (er, Jean Stapleton) has a one-scene role as a secretary to one of Bree's elderly clients.

It's a shame that Klute seems to be out of print on DVD, because it's really worth seeing. It would also be good as part of a spotlight on New York of that time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Silents update, September 19, 2017

So I don't particularly care for any of tonight's Jennifer Jones movies, and I haven't sat through any of the recent TCM airings of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to do a full-length review of it. Instead, I should mention a few things I learned over the weekend while looking for movies on my DVR that are available on DVD.

I was looking for a DVD of the 1966 Soviet film Wings, which of course shares its title with the first Best Picture Oscar winner. So a search for the Soviet movie is definitely going to yield clases with that, as well as box sets of the 1990s sitcom Wings. But I learned that the 1927 silent is going to be getting a new DVD and Blu-Ray release, coming out at the end of October.

Having thought of that and Gary Cooper's brief role in it, I thought about The Winning of Barbara Worth, which I have on my DVR having recorded it when Ronald Colman was Star of the Month back in July. It turns out that that one is available from the Warner Archive, so it's one that I should probably sit down and watch so that I can do a full-length review on it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Briefs for September 18-19, 2017

Tonight's lineup on TCM is listed as being the 90th anniversary of what used to be Grauman's Chinese Theater, but is now apparently calle the TCL Chinese Theater. I couldn't figure out what movies like Sullivan's Travels were doing tin the salute, but it turns out that there are only three movies in the spotlight, all of which are from the early days of the theater: the first movie to premiere; the first sound movie; and the first Best Picture Oscar winner. That at least makes more sense.

Somebody over on the TCM Message boards posted this Newsweek article decrying how popular streaming services have so few old movies. I'm not certain exactly where I fall on the issue, other than to say I can't help but think that the constant lengthening of copyrights doesn't help. There was a time not too long ago that copyrights were a 28-year term, renewable for another 47. I'd have to look it up again to see if there were two extensions, but definitely by the time the first Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie was nearing 75, there was another push on to lengthen copyrights. Under the old scheme, we'd be getting movies from 1942 entering the public domain this year.

What does Criterion do with some of the movies to which they hold the rights? I was going to watch Look Back in Anger off my DVR just to free up some space, since I didn't think it's in print on DVD. I was mildly surprised just before the opening titles to see the Criterion logo. Having seen recently that the Soviet movie Wings was put on DVD by Criterion, I decided to look on the Criterion site for Look Back in Anger and found... nothing. So do they no longer have the rights to the movie, or just no plans to put it on DVD? To be honest, though, I had to bail on the movie halfway through, in part because I started watching too late in the evening, and in part because I found Richard Burton's character such a jerk that I couldn't get into the picture.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Witchcraft

So I watched Witchcraft on FXM Retro this morning since it's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 7:20 AM.

The movie starts off with a man on a bulldozer grading some land somewhere in the Home Counties of England. The land is a disused cemetery, and descendants of most of the people there have already removed the gravestones. Except for one family, the Whitlocks. And patriarch Morgan Whitlock (Lon Chaney Jr.) is furoius about all this.

Whitlock goes to the developer ultimately responsible for the new housing development, Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley). It turns out that the Whitlocks and the Laniers have a history going back centuries, to the point that Morgan as well as Bill's aunt are both unhappy that Bill's younger brother Todd (David Weston) wants to date Morgan's niece Amy (Diane Clare). We later learn that 300 years ago, the Laniers accused the Whitlocks of witchcraft, and were able to get one of the Whitlocks killed and the rest dispossessed of their land, which now happens to be the Lanier estate. No wonder the Whitlocks are still pissed.

Actually, when I said they got one of the Whitlocks killed for practicing witchcraft, that's not entirely correct. Vanessa Whitlock was put to death by being buried alive, and she was buried in the cemetery that is now being disturbed by the property development. And the work has disturbed Vanessa's grave. We find that Vanessa is still alive, and that she is still more than interested in practicing witchcraft. I suppose you can't blame her after what the Laniers did to her.

Anyhow, she first gets a devil doll placed in the office of Bill's manager, who then drowns in his bathtub although there are signs that he was strangled. That's followed by attempts on the lives of various members of the Lanier family! Are Morgan and Amy involved in this?

Lon Chaney gets top billing here, although it's probably the Bill Lanier character that's the real male lead. The movie is understandably put in the horror genre, although it's really not very scary. It's decidedly a programmer, and in that regard it pretty much succeeds even if there's nothing particularly great or memorable about it. It's the sort of movie that would be a great 80-minute watch in the runup to Halloween if you're looking for something you probably haven't seen before.

Witchcraft doesn't seem to be on DVD, although Amazon does do the streaming thing.

Černý Petr

So I was listening to Radio Prague's English-language podcast the other day, and one of the stories was about a restoration of one of Miloš Forman's early movies, Black Peter. It's from even before Loves of a Blonde, and to be honest a movie I hadn't heard of until hearing about the restoration.

Radio Prague has individual pages for most of their current affairs and feature stories, and the one on Black Peter can be found here. As usual, it's more or less a transcript of the report. If you wish to listen to the report, there's a streaming player at the top of the article, as well as a link to the MP3 file (1.5 MB and a little over three minutes).

I always find it interesting to listen about film preservation.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Krylya

I finally got around to watching the 1966 Soviet film Wings off my DVR since I realized that it is in fact available on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection. (It's actuall available as well on the TCM Shop and Amazon, but searching on the title Wings doesn't show it; it helps to search under the name of the director, Larisa Shepitko.)

There's not much of a story here; Wings is really more of a character story. Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova) is the 40-something headmistress of a vocational high school in a provincial Russian city (unnamed, and I couldn't find where the exteriors were shot although I'd guess that was in one of the satellite cities around Moscow). Nadezhda doesn't seem to have much joy in life, as there's work, and not much else. Well, there's a museum director who takes an interest in her, although for her it's really a platonic friendship.

It turns out there's a good reason there's not much joy in her life: Nadezhda was a pilot in World War II, earning the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and worthy of being a museum exhibit. It was there that she met her husband Mitya, who unfortunately died in the war. Nadezhda has flashbacks to the war, which seems to have given her a sense of purpose in life, and with the war long over Nadezhda has lost that purpose in life.

Nadezhda adopted a daughter and obviously told the daughter Tanya that Dad died in the war because Tanya has no idea that she's adopted. Tanya has recently gotten married, and she and Mom are distant enough that Mom has never seen her son-in-law. She goes to visit, and the visit doesn't go so well.

Wings is a very well-made movie, even though there's very little story here. Bulgakova does extremely well as the middle-aged woman has sacrificed for everybody, and there are some fun scenes, such as when Nadezhda has to fill in for a student in a school performance, and one where she commiserates with the owner of a Soviet-style diner for the working class. That scene made me think of Joan Crawford and Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce. The cinematography is also excellent. I did have one lingering question of what Nadezhda did in the 20 years following the war, since you'd think it would have taken her less than 20 years to get used to the war being over. Perhaps she was only more recently retired from the military, although I find that hard to imagine.

As long as you know going into it that you're getting a character study and not a full story, I can strongly recommend Wings.

Harry Dean Stanton, 1926-2017

Veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton, who got a career boost in late middle age when Wim Wenders cast him in Paris, Texas, died yesterday aged 91.

Stanton started his career in the 1950s, often being credited as just Dean Anderson (when he even did get a credit) in movies like The Proud Rebel and Cool Hand Luke. The 70s saw some bigger movies: The Godfather Part II, Kelly's Heroes, The Missouri Breaks, and Alien among others. But it was getting cast in Paris, Texas that really gave Stanton more prominence.

Stanton also did a lot of TV work, with the best known today proabably being the Mormon patriarch who supports polygamy in Big Love. But Stanton's IMDb page lists supporting roles everywhere in the 50s and 60s, including one on The Rifleman. I don't know if MeTV has the ability to change their schedule that quickly to run it this weekend, the way they did with Richard Anderson. But they had more time after Anderson's death and Anderson did multiple episodes of the show anyway.