Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #141: Underdogs

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 underdogs. I being a fan of old movies have once again picked three older movies:

National Velvet (1944). Elizabeth Taylor plays Velvet Brown (Velvet is a girl, not a horse), an English girl with a beautiful horse that she thinks is fast, and can jump. So she gets the idea of entering it into the Grand National, the big British steeplechase. Mickey Rooney plays Mi Taylor, a former jockey who helps train the horse as well as getting the horse into the race. It's an absurd dream, but this is a Hollywood movie, so of course little Velvet is able to ride the horse in the race. Actually, this is a pretty good family movie, and the Technicolor cinematography is gorgeous.

The 300 Spartans (1962). The legend of the 300 Spartans who held the pass at Thermopylae long enough to allow the Greeks behind it to build up adequate defenses against the Persians is one of the underdog stories of all time. In this "sword and sandal" version of the story, before special effects and impossibly buff men, Richard Egan plays King Leonidas, who leads the 300. There's some location shooting, which is a plus.

Marie: a True Story (1985). I thought I had done a full-length post on this one, but apparently not. Sissy Spacek stars as Marie Ragghinatti, a single mother who got a job in Tennessee's Parole Bureau, only to find that there was corruption going on as the governor was selling pardons to politically favored people. Marie tried to expose this, and of course the government (including her boss, played by Jeff Daniels who is pretty good here) goes after her. Fred Thompson plays Fred Thompson, the lawyer who took Marie's case in the wrongful-termination suit. (Yes, Thompson plays himself.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Week End in Hollywood

It's only Wednesday, but I see TCM is running a new-to-me short, Week End in Hollywood, today a little following 1:30 PM, or just after Gaslight. This one was apparently originally produced back in the late 1940s as a tourist promotion to get people to visit the place, what with tourism becoming rather more common as the economy improved after World War II.

I don't think I've seen this one before. I've seen a whole bunch of shorts, and I know in some movies such as Bette Davis' The Star, there are scenes doing the the tour of actors' homes. But this title sounds unfamiliar to me, but the actual name and the brief IMDb synopsis.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Every Day's a Holiday

If the introduction of the Production Code in 1934 affected anybody, Mae West would probably be near the top. A good example of this can be seen in Every Day's a Holiday. It's part of that nine-film box set I've mentioned a couple of times, so you should be able to pick up a copy fairly cheaply.

West plays Peaches O'Day, who is expected to show up in New York City on December 31, 1899 as the movie opens because she's got a repuation. Not that the police want her there, since she's somewhat of a con artist. Indeed, she sells the Brooklyn Bridge to Fritz (Herman Bing). Police Chief Quade (Lloyd Nolan) tells Capt. McCarey (Edmund Lowe) to arrest Peaches and makes certain McCarey has a warrant to do so.

Meanwhile, Peaches passes by Lamadou Graves (Charles Butterworth), who happens to be a butler but isn't letting that on. Graves invites Peaches to "his" house (really his boss' house of course), where a committe for clean government just happens to be meeting, led by Graves' boss Van Reighle Van Pelter Van Doon (Charles Winninger). Graves and Van Doon, like every other man in New York, is taken with Peaches' charm. Even McCarey is, as though even though he's supposedly an honest cop, he pays Fritz out of his own pocket so that there's no longer a charge against Peaches.

The political machine intends to run Quade for mayor, and the reform committee eventually gets the idea of running McCarey, but that comes later. McCarey finds Peaches and politely suggests she get out of town, which gives her, Graves, and her partner in crime Nifty an idea: pass her off as Mademoiselle Fifi, the great French actress and put her in a show. The show is a success, but of course McCarey recognizes Fifi (in a dark wig) as Peaches. Quade doesn't and starts a vendetta against Fifi when she doesn't want to meet him, which ultimately leads to McCarey's running for mayor.

I think the problem with Every Day's a Holiday is that it's all over the place. The plot swings wildly from the Peaches as con artist part to Fifi to the mayoral election, and I can't help but think a lot of that is due to having to obey the strictures of the Production Code. Crime isn't supposed to pay, and yet it does seem to pay for Peaches. I also found some of the humor a bit too over the top. But everybody gives it a good shot, which ultimately does make up for the movie's flaws. It's also very interesting to see a young Lloyd Nolan with hair. I saw his name in the opening credits, and didn't recognize him at first.

As I said in the opening, the Mae West box set I have this one on is cheap and has nine movies, some of which are better and are alone worth the price of admission. Every Day's a Holiday isn't bad, but it's not nearly as good as some of West's earlier stuff.

Monday, March 20, 2017

March Malice

I think I posted some years back that there aren't that many classic movies with basketball scenes, mostly because basketball was invented later than football and baseball so it would have taken time for the sport to be enough a part of the culture to show up in movies. But with the big basketball tournament, known as "March Madness" being on now, some programmer at TCM decided to riff off of that with "March Malice".

Starting tonight in prime time and going straight through for five and a half days until the end of TCM Underground, TCM is running 64 movies, grouped into 32 double bills, each given a different theme, and all more or less in the area of villains. There's nothing mentioned about a guest host, so I'd assume it's Ben Mankiewicz, or possibly whoever this month's regular guest host is.

Tonight, for example, starts off with "Psycho Killers", which come at us in the form of Psycho (8:00 PM) followed by Peeping Tom (10:00 PM). Of course, some of the pairings seem a bit similar, such as "Aliens Among Us" and "Space Monsters". But that's a quibble. I've always kind of liked the idea of double-bills in terms of TCM programming, since it's a lot easier to come up with just two films that fit a creative theme, and because there's a natural time slot for them on Sunday evenings just before Silent Sunday Nights.

There's nothing really new in terms of the movies running, but a lot that's worth watching especially if you haven't seen it before.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Both on, not together

Back in 2008, I made mention of ho Alfred Hitchcock made two short films with exiled French actors in London during World War II. Aventure Malgache was on at that time; the other one, Bon Voyage, wasn't, and I wouldn't get to mention it again until last October.

Now, they're both on the TCM schedule. Aventure Malgache is showing up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, while Bon Voyage will be on tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 PM. They did get released to DVD at one point, but that DVD is out of print. They deserve another release, either together on one standalone DVD or as an extra somewhere else. But I have no idea what the rights situation is with these.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Taiga Road Truckers

The low-budget B movie Alaska Passage is coming up on FXM Retro again tomorrow at 4:45 AM and again on Monday at 7:25 AM, so I made it a point to watch the copy on my DVR to be able to do a full-length post on it.

The movie starts off with an opening title card that mentions it's in "Regalscope", although of course FXM are running this one panned and scanned down to 4:3. After the credits, full of a bunch of names you've probably never heard of, we get a brief scene that would have fit in a Traveltalks short if it were in color and made over at MGM. US Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and, as the movie opens, it's recently become the 49th state. Alaska isn't contiguous with the rest of the US, which wasn't that big a deal until World War II, when the US was worried about the sealanes getting cut off, at which point a road connection was deemed vital. So the US and Canada got together and made what would become the Alaska Highway, stretching well over 1,000 miles from eastern British Columbia through Yukon and eventually to just southeast of Fairbanks Alaska. (I'm not giving the exact length because many curvy sections have been straightened out over the years, reducing the length of the highway.)

A documentary about the building of the highway would be interesting, but of course that's not what we get. Al (Bill Williams) runs the local business side of Northern Transport in Alaska, often driving the trucks as well. He's currently on a run with Pete (Nick Dennis), who for whatever reason has a Greek accent. On this trip, an airplane pilot helpfully informs them that the road ahead has been washed out by the spring thaws and snowmelt runoff. So, on the way back to their base in Tanana, they run across... a hitchhiker! Really. Her name is Tina (Nora Hayden), and somebody down in Washington state had offered her a job in Fairbanks, but he was enough of a jerk that she ran off. Tanana is short of women, especially ones as good-looking as Tina, so she'll have no problem getting a job.

Also back in Tanana, Mason (Leslie Bradley) is waiting for Al. He's the lower-48 half of Northern Transport, the one with the capital but not the know-how. He claims to be fair, although he seems way, way, too obsesed with the bottom line, not realizing that often local goodwill trumps what would be "good" business practices down in the 48. Part of the conflict involves Mason's disputes with Al (who has the know-how but not the capital) over how to run the business.

And then Mrs. Mason shows up. It turns out that she used to be Al's girlfriend, and she still has the hots for him, although the feeling may not be mutual. She's also trying to use her position to get a better financial state for the business, but for which partner? Tina, meanwhile, had been falling for Al, and she's not happy about anything that's going on with Mrs. Mason.

Alaska Passage is an ultra-low budget movie, but as far as such movies go, it's not that bad. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's nowhere near as good as the traditional studios' prestige movies, or even many of their programmers. But when you think extremely low budget and a cast of nobody's, you expect the worst. You don't get that. There's a fair deal of wooden acting, and a plot that meanders for 50 minutes before rushing to a climax in the last 20. But overall it does just about work. Just don't set your expectations very high.

Alaska Passage is, as far as I know, not avaiable on DVD, and wouldn't be worth it if Fox only releases the pan-and-scan version. So you'll have to catch the FXM showing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

TCM's Robert Osborne tribute

As you probably know, long-time TCM host Robert Osborne died last week aged 84. TCM is going to be doing its programming tribute to him this weekend, with a full 48 hours of Osborne related stuff, from 6:00 AM tomorrow to 6:00 AM Monday. For better or worse, there's a lot of stuff that's getting repeated.

If you want to see the Private Screenings interview where Osborne was the interviewee, and Alec Baldwin was asking the questions, you're in luck. It's kicking off the tribute tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, and will be on again at 8:00 PM Saturday, among other times. There's also the 20th anniversary salute to him, done I think at the TCM Film Festival in 2014 and hosted by Alex Trebek; that one will be on at 9:00 AM tomorrow and again at 4:15 PM.

Having said that, IMDb claims that there were 28 Private Screenings done, although they don't give an episode guide. Wikipedia claims 27, although they don't mention the one in which Osborne was the interviewee. Looking through the weekend schedule, however, there are only six (including the one with Osborne as the subject) getting shown:

Norman Jewison
Liza Minnelli
Debbie Reynolds
Betty Hutton
Ernest Borgnine

There are so many more TCM could have dug out, assuming movie rights aren't an issue (and I don't see why they should be when it comes to re-running these). I wouldn't mind seeing the one with Mickey Rooney, or the one with Charlton Heston, again. But nope, just the five stars and Osborne.

TCM is showing most if not all of the program-length interviews Osborne did at the TCM Film Festival throughout the weekend, however, which at least is a bit of solace.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #140: The Ancient World (3600 BC-500 AD)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of the Thursday Movie Picks Blogathon, run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is the ancient world. I being a fan of older movies have selected three older movies:

The Sign of the Cross (1932). Cecil B. DeMille's spectacle showing Christian virtue (in the form of Elissa Landi) triumphing over Roman vice (in the form of legionnaire Fredric March). When Richard Barrios appeared on TCM to discuss gay images in cinema a decade or so ago, he mentioned this movie and how DeMille thought the best way to show Christian virtue triumphing over Roman vice was to show lots and lots of Roman vice. (DeMille was not stupid; he knew the audiences would eat it up.) Nero (Charles Laughton) fiddling while Rome burns is mild; we also get Nero's wife (Claudette Colbert) bathing naked in a bath of goats' milk; a torture scene; and a lesbian dance as Joyzelle tries to woo Landi over to the Roman side. And that's all before the gladiatorial combat at the end.

The Egyptian (1954). Based on a popular novel by Finnish author Mika Waltari, this one stars Edmund Pudrom as Sinuhe, a doctor who rises to power in ancient Egypt when he unwittingly saves the life of Pharaoh Akhenaton (Michael Wilding). But what it really does is get him trapped in all the palace intrigue, as there are forces who want to assassinate Akhenaton because he's a monotheist, and having Sinuhe poison him would be just the thing. Sinuhe also gets in a love triangle with a tavern owner (Jean Simmons in a decidedly unglamorous role) and wealthy Bella Darvi. Gene Tierney shows up as Akhenaton's sister. It's in nice Fox Cinemascope and Technicolor, too.

Esther and the King (1960). In this loose telling of the Old Testament book of Esther, and the Jewish Purim story, Joan Collins(!) stars as Esther, the Jewish girl who attracts the attention of Persian King Ahaseurus (Richard Egan), who is looking for a new wife. Esther's Uncle Mordechai (Dennis O'Dea) is one of the King's councillors, but has enemies in the palace. And of course the Jews in general have lots of enemies, and seem to have had them for close to six thousand years now. When it comes to light that there may be a slaughter of Jews afoot, Mordechai wants Esther to user her influence to get the king to stop it. It's not as big as the other biblical epics of the era, but it's entertaining enough, and always fun to see a young Joan Collins for those of us who remember her from her days on Dynasty.

Treasures from the Disney Vault, March 2017

Tonight sees another night of the infrequent (well, it seems to be once every three months) series Treasures from the Disney Vault on TCM. This month, most of the movies seem to be about animals, with the exception of Follow Me, Boys! at 8:15 PM. That's one of those movies Fred MacMurray did for Disney after he decided from doing the TV series My Three Sons that he wanted easy, family-friendly stuff to do when the TV show was on hiatus.

Elsewhere in the evening, we get a block of Chip and Dale shorts at 11:30 PM, followed at midnight by The Incredible Journey, in which three pets accidentally get abandoned on vacation in the wilder parts of Canada and have to make their way home. I recall reading the book when I was in elementary school, but can't recall if I saw the movie. The movie probably made it to Disney's TV show at some point, but that's already decades ago too.

For the traditional Disney characters, you've got Donald Duck in Good Scouts at 8:00 PM.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Plane Crazy (1933)

Dorothy Lee in Plane Crazy (1933)

Since I had the Picture Snatcher DVD at hand from last week, I noticed that it had not just a cartoon short, but a Vitaphone Variety two-reeler: Plane Crazy.

Brothers Arthur and Morton Havel, coming over from vaudeville, play pilot brothers Jack and Bill, who aren't as successful as the other pilots. Pert little Dottie (Dorothy Lee from the Wheeler and Woolsey movies), however, likes the danger they present. Anyhow, Jack and Bill are looking for a way to become more famous, so they decide to do a round-the-world flight. Except there's a catch, which is that they're not really going to do it; they're just going to hide out for a few days and then come back, claiming to have done the flight.

Now, even in 1933 there were telegraphy and other technologies that would have made it easy for correspondents halfway around the world to report on the progress of such a flight, and it would have been ridiculously obvious that Jack and Bill were, in fact, not on their flight. But their plot gets foiled in a different way: Dottie claims she's stowing away on the flight, so she obviously has some sort of plan to spill the beans. It doesn't quite work out that way, but that's part of the meager story.

Plane Crazy was one of those shorts where the point wasn't about the story, but about having musical numbers, with a thin-as-gruel story framing the numbers. I didn't really care for the music here, although it was interesting to see that Warner Bros. cribbed the Busby Berkeley style for one of their two reelers. I'm guessing they had the sets from another of Berkeley's movies at Warner Bros. that year, and decided to put their short subject actors on the set to do a number and help amortize the costs.

Plane Crazy isn't particularly good, although it is a good exemplar of the two-reeler musical short from those days. Catch it if it ever shows up on TCM.