Friday, September 19, 2014

Blonde Venus



TCM's Friday pre-Code marathon for this week includes several movies from Paramount, including a couple from the beginning of Cary Grant's career. One that seems to be coming up tonight and not again soon is Blonde Venus, at 8:00 PM.

Cary Grant only gets third billing, as the star is the woman who's pictured above, Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich plays Helen, who at one time in her life was a showgirl in glamorous nightclubs. But then she met research chemist Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) and they fell in love and got married. It wouldn't do for the wife of a respectable chemist to be doing her showgirl thing, so Helen settles down and becomes a respetable housewife and mother.

And then Ned gets sick with radiation poisoning, and needs to go off to Europe for the only treatment possible that will save his life. However, that's going to take money that the Faradays just don't have. Well, Helen could fairly quickly get the money if she went back to being a showgirl, but Ned obviously isn't happy about that. Still, Helen isn't about to let her husband die, so she goes to work at a club, which is where she meets Cary Grant, who this time is another wealthy playboy, named Nick Townsend. Nick gives Helen the money Ned needs for his treatment, and Ned goes off to Europe. Helen, meanwhile, stays home to work, as well as to spend some quality time with Nick.

All's well, more or less, until Ned gets cured early and comes home before everybody expects him, which is how he finds out what Helen's been doing with Nick. As the wronged husband, Ned is unsurprisingly unhappy, and wants to divorce Helen and take custody of the kid. It also shouldn't be a surprise that he wins the custody case, considering that he did nothing wrong here. But Helen doesn't want to give up her son, so she runs off with the kids, performing in less glamorous joints across the country until the law finally catches up with her, and she's forced to go off to Paris to work, which is where she becomes a true sensation. It's in Paris that she meets Nick again....

As I wrote the plot down, I noticed that it's all a bit nuts. And yet, the movie works well beyond the point that you'd notice that there's something not quite right with the plot. That, of course, is down to Marlene Dietrich, who is in her charismatic form here, helped out in part by a couple of riveting outfits. One, pictured above, is a dazzling sequined suit with leotard and tights that she wears in Paris and must have been even more dazzling on the big screen. The other is a more absurd gorilla number. But hey, it's Marlene Dietrich. She alone would be worth watching. But you've got a young and dashing Cary Grant showing up, as well as Herbert Marshall to provide the serious groiunding for the movie. The ultimate effect is a movie that's quite a bit better than it probably ought to be.

TCM lists Blonde Venus as being available from the TCM Shop.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Frankie Avalon turns 75


Frankie Avalon holding Annette Funicello

Singer-turned-actor Frankie Avalon turns 75 years old today. Although Avalon is nowadays best remembered for those beach movies he mae with Annette Funicello, that's not how he started off in Hollywood, and the beach movie phase really only lasted a couple of years for him. Avalon was brought into the cast of John Wayne's The Alamo back in 1960, presumably to bring in teen viewers the way Fabian had, or Elvis Presley before them. Other movies that were intended to be serious followed, such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Panic in Year Zero!, before the first of the beach movies in 1963.

Like the other teen idols of the late 50s, Avalon didn't have a terribly successful Hollywood career, if you consider success to be good roles and staying power. Avalon's career more or less petered out after Skidoo in 1968, until the nostalgia craze came around in the mid-1970s, allowing him to more or less play himself in a scene in Grease, and then reunite with Annette for a couple of TV movies until Annette's multiple sclerosis cut her career short.

If you like authentic 60s movies instead of the recent-day stuff that looks back at the 60s, then one or another of the beach movies is worth a watch, although I wouldn't watch them all together, the way TCM sometimes programs them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Postmark for Danger

I briefly mentioned Postmark for Danger just about two years ago, when it aired on TCM instead of the previously-schedule The Secret Fury. Postmark for Danger is back on the TCM schedule this afternoon at 2:30, so you have another chance to catch it.

The plot is a mess, although that isn't apparent at first. Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) is an artist living in London, who gets the news that his brother Lewis died in a car crash in Italy, with an actress friend in the car with him. That's a shame, but matters get worse when Scotland Yard informs him the case was likely murder. Lewis was an investigative journalist, and was working on a case of international jewel smugglers, so it would make sense to think that they killed him. And then Tim hears that just before he died, Lewis sent him a postcard that's bound to be a vital clue in the case.

It's about here that the movie starts to get convoluted. Lots of movies have Macguffins, and if that's all the postcard were, a plot about Tim trying to get the postcard and people trying to keep the postcard from him could be a moderately enjoyable movie. But in all of this, Tim gets a call from a strange guy who wants him to do a portrait of the guy's daughter. And then a model whom Tim had been wortking with at the beginning of the movie winds up dead in his apartment! And to make things even more complicated, another woman shows up, claiming to be Alison Ford (Terry Moore), who was the woman named as the charred-beyond-recognition body in the car with Lewis back in Italy! Together, the two try to solve the mystery.

It's an interesting premise, but I have to admit that I found the movie less than exciitng. The moviemakers put too much into the movie in too short a time, with the result that the plot it a bit too much of a mess. I also didn't find the characters particularly interesting. Still, being an American, it's nice to see something authentically British and not so well-knwon show up on TCM. I think Postmark for Danger still isn't on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing to judge for yourself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Purple Hills

Earlier this year, when I blogged about Big Jim McLain, I suggested that it played out more like a TV episode than a movie. Some of the later B movies from after TV got up and going in a big way also play out that way, such as the western The Purple Hills, which is getting another airing on FXM tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM.

The movie starts off intriguingly. Out somewhere in the old west, a guy with dirty blond hair arrives at a bridge, which he uses to stalk another, dark-haird man, who is down in the dry riverbed below. The two get in a gun fight, with the blondish man killing the dark-haired guy, putting the dead man on his horse to take him back to town. But the horse winds up lame, so the man has to shoot the horse and bury the man. Cut to two other men, Barnes (Kent Taylor) and Chito (Danny Zapien). They're watching a figure coming toward them, thinking it's a man they're supposed to meet, named Beaumont. But they spot vultures, come up on a grave, and find that it's Beaumont who's been killed, at which point the Apaches, who were friends of Beaumont, arrive. Barnes tells them that the other guy killed Beaumont, and they'll go fetch him so that the Apaches can mete out justice.

Cut to town, where the blondish man arrives and goes to the marshal's (Russ Bender) office. There, we find out that the man is named Gil Shepard (played by Gene Nelson), and he's looking for the reward on Beaumont's head, which amounts to somthing a bit over $8,000, which was a substantial sum back in the 1870s. The only thing is, Shepard doesn't have the body, which you really need to claim the reward. However, he has the next best thing, which is Beaumont's holster and bandolier. Or, it would be the next best thing if Barnes hadn't beaten Shepard back to town to try to claim the reward for himself, providing Beaumont's belt buckle as evidence of having killed him. And since he saw the dead body and dead horse, he knows just as much about Beaumont as Shepard does. The marshal has a bright idea: since Shepard only uses a rifle and Barnes only uses a six-shooter, they'll go out to Beaumont's grave together, exhume the body, and find out what kind of bullets killed Beaumont, and therefore who gets the reward.

Into all of this walks Beaumont's long-lost brother Martin (Jerry Summers). He's an orphan, and since they couldn't find big brother when the parents died, Martin was sent to live with the closest thing to relatives, that being one Amy Carter (Joanna Barnes). The two of them have come out to this God-forsaken little town to identify the dead body. Marin, meanwhile, has come with another motive: he plans to kill whoever killed his brother! So all five of these souls make their way out the grave, which provides the drama for the second half of the movie. However, it's in Apache country, so they're also going to have to deal with the Apaches eventually, after a twist or two. It all leads to an ending that at least resolves everything, if it doesn't quite feel like everybody is in character.

It's fairly unoriginal material, although there's nothing particularly wrong with it. It's just that the acting, writing, and direction make the movie look more like it would have been suited to one of those TV westers: either cut it down from the hour to the 45 minutes or so that a one-hour TV western would be minus the commercials, or pad it a bit to fit into a 90-minute TV slot. The cinematography looks like it wouldn't be bad if FXM could be bothered to find a print in the original Cinemascope aspect ratio instead of 4:3. If you like westerns, The Purple Hills fits in reasonably well with all those other B westerns made over the years, entertaining for the 60 minutes that it's on but providing no particular staying power. If you're not necessarily a fan of westerns, I'd start with some of the more well-known stuff.

Tonight's Israeli cinema

The "Jewish Experience in Film" series of The Projected Image continues with a couple of movies that are completely new to me, in the sense that I hadn't heard of them before seeing the month's schedule. The night deals more or less with the founding of Israel in 1947/8, although of course it was more of a process than one day there not being a state of Israel, and the next day the partitioning of the British mandate in Palestine being complete. Before that there were the migrations of Jews from Europe back to Israel, which we saw earlier in the Dolores Hart movie Lisa, which is unfortunately not on this month's schedule. Instead, the European migration to Palestine is dealt with in Exodus, which is coming up overnight at 2:15 AM (and is not among the new-to-me movies, of course).

It's the movies made in Israel that look interesting, and that I didn't know about before. First up, at 8:00, is Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, which according to the blurb is about several people who fought in the Israeli war of independence that followed the partitioning of the mandate, and how the members of unit that's focussed on came to be fighting the war.

The other of the Israeli movies is Sallah, at 10:00, which is listed as a comic movie about an immigrant to Israeli in 1948 and the difficulties he faces supporting his family. The title character is played by Haym Topol, who is the same Topol who would go on to play Tevye in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof several years later. Topol turned 79 last week.

For the record, the other movie, at 12:15 AM, is the Hollywood film Sword in the Desert, a Universal-International feature starring Dana Andrews as a ship's captain smuggling Jews into Palestine who winds up getting more involved in the independence struggle.

Monday, September 15, 2014

TCM's Lauren Bacall tribute



Tuesday, September 16 would have been Lauren Bacall's 90th birthday if she hadn't died last month. When TCM originally made up the September schedule, they had a morning and afternoon of films planned for the day, leading into the third night of this year's "Projected Image" series. So when TCM decided to do a 24-hour tribute to Bacall, they had to ditch the Sept. 15 prime time schedule instead, so the tribute begins at 8:00 PM tonight. TCM is showing 11 of Bacall's movies, along with two airings of the Private Screenings interview she did with Robert Osborne back in 2005:

The first airing of the Private Screenings interview kicks off the tribute at 8:00 PM;
Bacall sings and teaches Humphrey Bogart how to whistle in To Have and Have Not at 9:00 PM;
Bacall gets involved in a convoluted mystery that Bogart tries to solve in The Big Sleep at 11:00 PM;
We learn from Bacall How to Marry a Millionaire overnight at 1:00 AM;
You'll have that second chance to catch the Private Screenings interview at 2:45 AM;
Bacall hires private detective Paul Newman in Harper at 3:45 AM;
Bacall helps Gary Cooper complete a business deal in Bright Leaf, tomorrow at 6:00 AM;
Bacall is one of the love interests for Kirk Douglas' Young Man With a Horn at 8:00 AM;
Bacall protects escaped convict Bogart as he tries to solve the crime for which he was falsely accused in Dark Passage at 10:00 AM;
Bacall meets old friend Bogart at Key Largo, at noon;
Bacall is on a slow boat from China with John Wayne in Blood Alley at 2:00 PM;
Bacall is in a supporting role to Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl at 4;00 PM; and
Bacall and Gregory Peck go at it in Designing Woman at 6:00 PM.

There's also one Lauren Bacall movie that shows up over on FXM: The Gift of Love, today at 1:00 PM. This one has Bacall as the wife of Robert Stack, who discovers that she's got a heart condition that's going to cause her death at an early age, so she goes and adopts a daughter in order that her husband won't be left alone after she dies. It's a remake of the movie Sentimental Journey which some of you may have seen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Shorts report for September 14, 2014

Somebody at TCM has decided to be nice to us by having all the shorts listed on the schedule for a good week in advnace. Not only that, but it looks as though there are going to be quite a few shorts coming up this week. As always when I mention upcoming shorts, though, I'll only be mentioning stuff coming up in the next 36 hours or so.

We start off with One For the Book at 7:40 PM tonight, just after With Six You Get Eggroll (6:00 PM, 95 min plus an intro/outro from Ben Mankiewicz). This short from 1940 has characters stepping out of books and performing musical and comedy numbers. It sounds somewhat familiar, although I also seem to remember a similar short that has characters in a toy room doing their thing. This one has a young Betty Hutton as Cinderella doing a couple of songs.

John Nesbitt's Passing Parade teaches us about the dangers of gossip in Whispers, at 9:48 PM tonight, or some time after The Old Maid (8:00, 95 minutes plus an intro/outro). I don't think I've seen this particular entry, and to be honest, I prefer some of the other series from back then to the Passing Parade shorts.

One of the more interesting series involved golfer Bobby Jones, who made eight or nine back in the early 1930s trying to teach people how to be better golfers, in a series called How to Break 90. Technology has made that task quite a bit easier, of course, and that's part of what makes old shorts -- especially these, although a lot of others share the trait -- interesting: they can be a bit of a time capsule. Anyhow, Bobby Jones is going to be teaching us the downswing, tomorrow morning at 8:49 AM, or just after The Unholy Garden (7:30 AM, 75 min).

Finally, we get a 1930s era RKO short, which doesn't seem to happen too often. This one is Neptune Mysteries, part of something called the Struggle to Live series, and is on at 11:34 AM tomorrow morning, after When a Feller Needs a Friend (10:15 AM, 74 min). This short looks at life under the sea, specifically a female octopus and some sea snails. Underwater photography has come a long way in the intervening 80 years.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Frisco Jenny

One of the movies that aired last week in TCM's Friday pre-Code marathon was Frisco Jenny. It's on again overnight tonight at 12:15 AM, or late this evening for those of you in more westerly time zones.

Ruth Chatterton plays Jenny, and we first see her in a sequence captioned, "San Francisco, 1906". So already we know there's going to be an earthquake coming up in the movie and that it's going to be an important plot point. In the case of Jenny, that involves her boyfriend. She's working as a madam at one of the night spots on the Barbary Coast, providing escorts for functions that want to consider themselves high-class, and she's in love with the pianist. In fact, she's planning to get married to the guy, until that earthquake comes, which kills him. That's sad, but more tragic is that the two had already been having sex, as we find that Jenny is with child.

So she does what any self respecting woman would do, which is to have the child, a son named Daniel, and take care of it, with the help of a Chinese nurse named Amah (played in yellowface by Helen Jerome Eddy). Jenny continues her vice work, but serious problems arise when there's a shooting at one of the parties: her business partner Steve (Louis Calhern) shoots the other guy in a struggle, leading Jenny to have to dispose of the gun herself. There are legal questions to be answered, and a woman with a legal cloud over her head is considered by the nanny-staters to be an unfit mother. Why Amah couldn't be the guardian is never really discussed, although I suspect it's just the view of the times that nobody would have thought of sticking a white child with an Asian parent -- it's not as if Amah would provide a father for the child. So the kid gets put with a wealthy family in Oakland. When the time comes for Jenny to reclaim the child after the legal case has been resolved, the kid only knows his foster parents as parents, and doesn't recognize Jenny at all. So she makes the difficult decision to leave the child with them.

Jenny follows Daniel's progress vicariously through newspaper clips, as he grows up, becomes a college football star, goes to law school, and then becomes an assistant DA all by the improbably young age of 26 (the movie ends with an event in early 1933; you do the math). Jenny, meanwhile, never lets on to anybody, not even Daniel, that she's his mother, remaining in the vice business with Steve instead. However, she's planning to retire once she gets her son elected DA, since Daniel (James Murray) is planning to be tough on crime. In fact, Daniel finally catches Steve trying to give him a bribe, complete with witnesses. Steve is done for, except that he has one more ace up his sleeve: he knows that the notorious Frisco Jenny is actually the biological mother of the DA, and is willing to reveal that shameful secret as if it would cause a problem for the DA. So Jenny shoots Steve in the doorway of the DA's office before Steve can tell Dan about it.

There's something about Frisco Jenny that doesn't ring quite true. Perhaps it's the plot that really strains credulity at times, or perhaps it's just that we're looking back 80 years with the values of today and finding things that make little sense. There's nothing bad about the movie; it's just nothing that ever rises to greatness. If you haven't seen Frisco Jenny before, give it a watch. But if I were looking to recommend pre-Codes to people who haven't seen any of them before, there are quite a few I'd recommend before this one.

Frisco Jenny was released to DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 3. I think it's out of print now, though, since it's not available at the TCM Shop.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bombshell

Sometime a couple of years ago, possibly during Jean Harlow's turn as TCM's Star of the Month in her centenary month of March 2011, I sat down to watch her film Bombshell. I found the characters so irritating that I said the heck with it after a half hour or so. Bombshell came on again last month when Lee Tracy was being honored in Summer Under the Stars, so I figured I'd suck it up and finally watch the movie in full and see if my first impression might have been wrong. No; the characters were still intensely irritating for the most part. Bombshell is on the TCM schedule again this afternoon at 4:45 PM as part of the Friday pre-Code marathon, so you can give it a look and judge for yourself.

Jean Harlow plays the least annoying by far of the main characters. She's the title bombshell, a platinum blonde actress named Lola Burns. She's made it big in Hollywood, enough so that all the gossip magazines want a piece of her and her family has been able to come out to California to live with her. Her family members, combined with her own personal life, have combined to keep her constantly in the 1930s equivalent of TMZ, although of course it was print only back then since there was no TV. Dad (Frank Morgan) and her brother Junior (Ted Healy, here without the Stooges) are layabouts who seem to be living off Lola's money, and getting into some trouble at times. Meanwhile, Lola's love life involves an ex in the form of director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien) and current love the Marquis (Ivan Lebedeff).

So, you can see why Lola would be in the tabloids all the time. She hates it, but the studio publicist/firefighter, Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy) tries to tell Lola it's a good thing. After all, if you're not in the public eye, your fans are going to stop thinking about you, and pretty soon you're not going to have any fans. But it's not just the idea that any publicity is good publicity: Space is deliberately creating many of these situations to make certain Lola's name will be in the news. The first time Lola realizes this, she decides that she'd like to change her image by adopting a baby. Space, for his part, thinks this change of image would be bad for the studio, so he does what he can to sabotage it, and when Lola discovers the sabotage, she runs away from Hollywood entirely.

Lola goes to a desert resort, and while horesback riding, she meets nice Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone). He's wealthy and from a good family (parents played by Mary Forbes and C. Aubrey Smith). Gifford would like to marry Lola, but first he's got to meet her family, which of course poses a bit of a dilemma for Lola. And to make matters more complicated, Space figured out where Lola ran off to, and has showed up himself. Surely he's got to be there for the possibility of publicity. Or is this finally the time Lola can trust him?

The big problem I have with Bombshell, as I stated at the beginning of the post, is that most of the characters are unappealing. Harlow's Lola Burns is the most sympathetic, but she plays the role frenetically. To be fair, I think the script and director (Victor Fleming) must have called for it, because everybody's frenetic. It still makes Lola mildly unappealing. Space is a complete jerk, although I suppose some people will just say he's doing his job. The question is what sort of moral reprobate would take this dishonest publicity job in the first place. Lola's dad and brother are also selfish jerks, and you wonder why Lola doesn't kik at least the brother out of the house. O'Brien isn't too bad as the director ex, although his character isn't given much to work with. He and Lebedeff's marquis both disappear halfway through the movie. C. Aubrey Smith is a bit of a bright spot, although he shows up too late. And then the ending made me want to scream at the TV.

A lot of people like Bombshell, however. So you can watch today and judge for yourself, or get a copy of the movie on DVD from the Warner Archvie.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Richard Kiel, 1939-2014



Richard Kiel, the actor best known for playing Jaws in two of Roger Moore's James Bond films: The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, has died, three days before his 75th birthday. Kiel being 7'1", his towering figure made for a perfect buffoonish baddie for Bond to have to fight in set pieces. As I understand it, he was cast in The Spy Who Loved Me and that was that, but the audiences liked the character enough that the producers decided to bring Jaws back for a second go-round in Moonraker.

Kiel is survived by his wife of 40 years and four children.

Wikipedia claims that a young Kiel is one of the bodybuilders in The Nutty Professor, which is on tonight at 8:00 PM.