Monday, December 19, 2005

One more thing

I've created a "virtual cemetery" at Find A Grave of all my famous character actors; you can pay your respects here.

In the Christmas Mood

The title has nothing really to do with the movie I watched today, The Glenn Miller Story. It's just that now I'm mini-obsessed with Miller, and I'm listening to In the Christmas Mood, Vol. 1 while I type this. And I've added a book about him to my Amazon wish list, which I'll delete in a week when my interest wanes back to normal levels (I've loved Miller's brand of big band music for awhile now).

So, the movie. I liked it. I love Jimmy Stewart in pretty much everything I've ever seen him do, even the cheese (read: Airport '77). Bonus points for appearances by George Tobias and Harry "Col. Potter" Morgan. I didn't recognize him until I heard him talk. Coincidentally, I had seen another minor player, Sig Ruman, in another film this weekend, To Be or Not To Be, which we'll get to in a minute. Now, back to Glenn...

I don't know anything about Glenn Miller's life, so I can't say how much is fictionalized or prettied up, but I still enjoyed the film. I read on IMDB that he never actually saw his adopted daughter; she was adopted while he was overseas, and he died only days afterwards, never having seen her. In the film, she's adopted as an infant while he's still in the States, and is about 2-3 when he leaves on his band tour; there's a sweet little scene where he sees her for the first time and gives her a bottle. The music, of course, was a delight -- I enjoyed the way they portrayed him composing his best known pieces (especially "Moonlight Serenade"); although I realize that may not be how it happened at all, the music wove its way into the movie very nicely.

As I mentioned, I also watched To Be Or Not To Be this weekend. Carole Lombard and Jack Benny: now that's an interesting combination. The movie is ostensibly about a group of Polish actors rebelling against the Germans, but of course the cast couldn't be more American. Robert Stack as a character named Stanislav Sobinski? Yeah, don't expect to be dazzled by that performance. I mean, he was good; everyone was. Carole was a delight, as always, and Benny was a big ham, again as always. The plot reminded me a bit of the Joan Crawford movie Reunion in France, which is even more ridiculous, plot-wise. Having glamorous Hollywood starlets, dressed to the nines, playing Europeans oppressed by the Nazis just never flies, at least not in any of the movies I've seen. Now, let one of them strip off the make-up and dress down like Norma Shearer did at the end of Marie Antoinette, and I'll be more inclined to suspend my disbelief. But you don't look terribly downtrodden when your lashes are three inches long. I'm just saying.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

As you can see...

...I have been shamefully lax about updating this blog. Part of the reason is that I took a vacation from classic movies to watch most of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was recently released on DVD. I also plowed my way through all six seasons of Sex and the City, which I became addicted to instantly once I started watching. I also rented a few SNL "Best of" discs, namely John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd ("You're spending the night with Fred Garvin, male prostitute!"). I will also admit, with much shame, that I rented Batman & Robin. Okay, don't judge me! I was curious to see the crazy villains. I didn't know the whole movie was going to be a big ball of cheese!

There have been a few classic movies scattered in there, though. (I had to stop taping them from Comcast for awhile as I was gathering more than I could possibly watch, and using up all the space on my dad's DVR.) As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I did rent Airport '77, if only to see how aging Hollywood legends would survive trapped in a plane at the bottom of the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle. Dun dun dun! I'm happy to report that Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotton and Jimmy Stewart all survived (well, especially Jimmy, since he wasn't even on the plane). Sadly, Christopher Lee did not make it, but he sacrificed his life for the greater good.

Back in October I watched Kim, mostly because it had Errol Flynn in it. Not as much Flynn as I was expecting, though, and I've never been a huge fan of curly-headed moppets, although Dean Stockwell did a fine job.

After that came Sin Takes a Holiday, which lasted only about five minutes, as it was a very poor transfer to DVD. I'm beginning to realize a lot of these old, old movies are in the public domain, which allows any rinky-dink production company (Macady, I'm looking in your direction) to slap them onto to a DVD. Which is a shame, because I think there should be some kind of studio control over how their movies are released. Then again, they probably wouldn't put the effort into restoring and/or releasing copies of every old movie they find in the vaults, so maybe it's a draw.

January 21, 2006 will be my third anniversary with Netflix. In honor of that, I'd mention every movie I've rented, but the list is so long it would bore you to tears. One early rental I will mention is The Cat's Meow, about the mysterious death of Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924. Because if there's anything that fascinates me more than classic films, it's modern movies about classic film stars.

Monday, September 05, 2005

I Heart Comcast

And their digital cable with DVR. Now I can easily pluck movies from Turner Classic Movies with the onscreen guide and record them with a click of a button! No more painstaking calculations of how long the movie's really going to run, with introductions by Robert Osborne and whatnot. (My last attempt to tape several movies in one week was a miserable failure, as I missed the last 5-10 minutes of each movie.) I was on my own for the holiday weekend, so I settled down to watch a bunch I had taped (and one from Netflix today).

First up was Suzy, with Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone (and can he rock an Irish brogue), and Cary Grant. Rounding out the cast was character actress Inez Courtney as Maisie (who looked familiar to me because she played another Mazie in one of my favorite Jean movies, Hold Your Man), Una O'Connor, and Lewis Stone. I don't think this was oneof Harlow's more popular movies, and I suppose I can see one reason why...her devotion to Cary Grant is incomprehensible to me, after all the dirty tricks he plays on her. Plus he was just all-around not a nice guy. I mean, who doesn't write to his ailing father when he goes off to war? I thought Suzy's devotion to the Baron was very touching, however. I was hoping for a nice romantic reunion with Terry at the end of the film, not Suzy and Terry dragging Andre's body out to the plane so France will think he died a hero. I say, let him die as what he was -- a philandering playboy pilot who was duped and shot by a spy. Oh, well. I guess Suzy is a bigger person than I.

Next was The Unknown, with Lon Chaney and a very young and almost unrecognizable Joan Crawford. Silent films are a taste recently acquired, and I liked this one. The soundtrack was gorgeous. Lon Chaney was delightfully creepy as "Alonzo the Armless." Joan was very pretty, but didn't have the usual "face" that I think most fans associate with her. If I hadn't know ahead of time it was her, I'm not sure I would have known her. Her famous beautiful eyes are rather unremarkable here. And here's an interesting bit of trivia from IMDB: For many years, this film only existed in murky 9.5mm dupes on the black market. In March 1973, at a screening of this film at George Eastman House, archivist James Card said that Henri Langlois and his staff at the Cinematheque Francais discovered The Unknown in 1968 among other miscellaneous cans of film marked "l'inconnu" (films "unknown" due to missing titles, etc.). I could tell that the titles were of a modern era, but I'm not sure about the music. I guess, looking back on it, that it did have an electronic quality to it that would indicate it's not original to the film.

I made it a Joan Crawford double feature with the next movie, The Story of Esther Costello. It was heavy-handed in parts, and of course Joan chews her share of the scenery in places. Overall, though, I enjoyed her performance, and the movie as a whole, very much. Heather Sears was excellent as Esther, and Rossano Brazzi appropriately slimy as Joan's estranged husband. The ending is a little abrupt, with the eventual fate of Joan and her dastardly husband relayed in one sentence, and the last shot of Esther walking away to, I assumed, speak to a crowd gathered for an Esther Costello Fund benefit. (There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-her appearance by Bessie Love, she of Broadway Melody fame, as "Matron in Art Gallery.")

Last on the bill was Beau Geste, which I had a hankering to see after watching Lawrence of Arabia last weekend (which I know is this great epic, but to me it was just...okay). Gary Cooper and Ray Milland together was quite a lot of eye candy to handle at once. I thought Robert Preston was an odd choice as the third brother; he'll always be Professor Harold Hill to me, and the pencil mustache didn't suit him at all. It made him look rather sleazy, I thought. I'll admit that I didn't see the ending coming at all, specifically the last scene at the house with Aunt Pat reads the letter. Look closely and you'll see a very young Donald O'Connor playing Beau Geste as a young boy. This was the first Gary Cooper movie I'd ever seen, and I liked him enough that I think I'll be adding some of his movies to my Netflix queue, along with some more Ray Milland. I could listen to Ray just read the phone book -- a lovely, cultured voice.

Coming attractions include a double feature of Airport '77 and The Concorde: Airport '79, two of those movies in a category I like to call "disaster movies featuring aging Hollywood legends." Hey, I rented Airport 1975 for the sole purpose of seeing Myrna Loy, who did not disappoint as a sensible, calm but cute little old lady. Let's see how Olivia de Havilland handles being trapped in a plane at *snicker* the bottom of the ocean, in the Bermuda triangle! *cue dramatic music*

Also, arriving in the mail this week is The Bela Lugosi Collection on DVD. Yay!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Clark and Olive

I know, a random pairing. It's just what I've been watching lately.

I’ve read in several books that Clark Gable was never the same after the death of Carole Lombard. Well, who would be. It was evident, the various authors said, by comparing his films before and after 1942. Again, I thought: of course he’s going to be different, he lost his wife in a fiery plane crash and then joined the army and flew bomber missions! Jimmy Stewart did more or less the same, and came back with slightly thinner and grayer hair, maybe, but nothing drastic. How much worse could Gable look?

I found out the other day, when I watched Teacher’s Pet. Okay, granted, this movie was made in 1958, so it was only two years before Gable died and over ten since the war had ended. But yikes, he did not age well. The only other “late Gable” movie I’d seen was Run Silent, Run Deep, and yes he looks old, but you kind of expect the grimness, seeing as how it’s a WWII submarine movie. Teacher’s Pet is a romantic comedy; in brief, Gable the journalist goes undercover to Doris Day’s journalism class to disprove its usefulness, and they fall in love. His character is a crusty sort of newshound, but not overly so. But there’s none of the joy or daffy romance with which Gable would have played this character in say, the 1930’s. I’m reminded of one his own quotes (which I’ve cadged from IMDB): "The only reason they come to see me is that I know that life is great -- and they know I know it." I didn’t get any of that feeling in Teacher’s Pet.

I've also recently watched Forsaking All Others, which is a wonderful light comedy written by Joseph Mankiewicz, which also stars Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Billie Burke, Rosalind Russell, and Charles Butterworth. The dialogue is full of zingers and the action often borders on the goofy. Gable is smooth and urbane yet also happy and full of boyish mischief, always ready with a wisecrack and a hearty laugh. In comparing these two performances, Teacher’s Pet comes off the worse. (Probably not helped by the fact that Gable seems old enough to be Day’s father.)

Thinking it over, though, it’s not really a good comparison. I suppose to be really fair, I should watch Somewhere I’ll Find You, the movie he was filming when Carole was killed (or maybe Honky Tonk, the one before that), and then Adventure, his first movie after the war (Gable’s back and Garson’s got him, so on and so forth).

Next up was the wee little Olive Thomas Collection, which consisted of a documentary (Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart) and a film (The Flapper). I had heard of Olive before, primarily through (I’m ashamed to admit) Hollywood Babylon. That picture of her in the straw hat, with big eyes and long curls down her shoulders, is so lovely. When Netflix suggested the DVD, I went ahead and bumped it to the top of my queue.

The documentary was good, augmented by the inclusion of several of Olive’s family members. Frankly, though, I thought Olive’s many sketches (at the hands of Christie and Vargas, among other illustrators) were more beautiful than Olive herself. In some of her photos, she was very pretty. When I saw her in The Flapper, she was pretty, but not what I would label “the most beautiful girl in New York.” I guess it’s all a matter of what was in vogue at the time, though. Which was not, apparently, perfect teeth. (Okay, I said it. And not to be mean to poor Olive, but I just couldn’t help noticing it through out The Flapper.) I thought she was cute, and enjoyed the movie. I’ve never been a huge fan of the silents, although they’re starting to grow on me.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Turner Classic Movies stole my idea!

Or, um, I inadvertantly stole theirs. I caught the end of Now, Voyager over the weekend (which I also just bought on DVD) and afterwards they had a brief biography of Guy Kibbee. I only caught the tail end of that as I was still flipping channels. I think it's a series TCM does, and I'm assuming it's called "What A Character" since that was the tag line they ended the piece with.

Anyhow, I have somehow tragically overlooked Guy when doing my little "Character Actors I Love" profiles (and TCM's name is much better, damn it) so he's up next, I have decided. I've really liked him since I first saw him in Laughing Sinners. Which is odd when you think about it, because he plays a somewhat sleazy traveling salesman in that film. I've seen him in other, much more sympathetic roles. But we'll talk more about that next time...

Friday, July 22, 2005

Movies are the best medicine

Nothing like being sick and missing almost a whole week of work to allow one to get caught up on their classic movie viewing. Thank God for Netflix, because I didn't have the energy to go out and rent movies.

Anyhow, my most recent movie was Lady for a Day, and oh, I loved this movie! First off, it was full of character-actory goodness: May Robson, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Walter Connolly, and Nat Pendleton. Bonanza!

The scene when Apple Annie is about to confess her true identity to Count Romero, and then the party guests finally arrive, including the mayor and governor...I cried at the look on her face. And I don't usually cry at movies. But I'm a little choked up just talking about it now. May was just wonderful. So touching when she sees her daughter again for the first time.

I was so rooting for Annie and the Judge to fall in love and get married...they were so cute together. The look on the Judge's face when he sees her as "Mrs. E. Worthington Manville" for the first time was just adorable. From what I could tell, Guy did his own trick pool shots. At least, I'm fairly sure he did. Very impressive. The one thing I would have changed was the casting of Walter Connolly as a Spanish count. Just...no. His nasal squeak of a voice and a "Spanish accent" are two things that should be kept as far apart as possible. He did not work at all in that part. He's better playing father to society girls or frustrated bosses, as we've discussed before.

Plus you have to love a movie with a character named "Dave the Dude." Heh.

Next up was The Damned Don't Cry!, one of the new Joan Crawford DVD releases. Joan's Warner Brothers films are on the edge of an era I don't like in her work. I much prefer her as a 30's shopgirl to the 40's hardened dames with rapidly thickening eyebrows. I'll go as far as Mildred Pierce, which I love, but that's about it. And the 60's scream films...no, we'll not speak of those.

Damned was all right. Joan's character makes an interesting transition from poor but hard-working mother to tough dress model/gangster's moll. Maybe a bit too quick of a transition. The men in film were no one I had ever really heard of before; definitely not the A-listers than Joan had been partnered with in the past. Kent Smith was good, but the rest didn't do much for me. I suppose Warners was trying to boost their careers by putting them in a Joan movie, but it doesn't seem to have done much, in my (albeit limited) opinion.

Next was a double feature of sorts: The Aviator and Hell's Angels. As you know, I'm not much for modern movies, but I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was good as Howard Hughes (he got that creepy, beetling brow stare down, all right) and Cate Blanchett was unbelievably great as Kate Hepburn. I'd give her another Oscar if I could. The special effects were quite nifty, and hey, look! Hawkeye plays a sleazy senator. Aviator qualifies as a classic movie in a "by association" way. It's about classic movie stars and making classic movies, so I'll allow it in. ;)

After seeing that, of course I was curious about the original Hell's Angels, so I gave that a look. Good drama, amazing flight scenes, and Jean Harlow in color was a treat. With natural eyebrows, too! That's not a look you saw often. I thought James Hall looked familiar, and I was right; he also played Jack Maitland in Millie. The character of Monte constantly got on my nerves, and I wanted to smack him, Roy's goodness kind of balanced him out.

We wound up with a encore presentation of an old favorite, Objective, Burma! I would follow Errol Flynn into the jungle in a heartbeat. Yum. Such a great WWII film. After seeing brave and handsomely sweaty Errol lead his troops through the steamy jungles of Burma, I was well enough to go back to work, and so I did.

Up for this weekend: the 1932 Little Women, Teacher's Pet (yay, Gable!), and Olive Thomas: The Flapper and Everybody's Sweetheart.

Old favorites

A favorite movie is like a warm bath. I have different movies for different moods. The ones I’ve seen a frillion times I’ll sometimes put on just for company/background noise while I’m cooking or doing other things around the house, kind of like listening to baseball on the radio, which I also do. Of course, I often sit down just to watch them, too; a good movie can be background noise, but it is of course much more than just that. It’s an entertaining old pal.

Yesterday I was feeling under the weather, so when I finally dragged myself from bed I popped in "The Women," a tried and true favorite. I rented it one day a few years back out of curiosity, after seeing the DVD case on the shelf at TLA, and after I saw it could not believe I had been without this delicious film in my head up to that point.

It’s so delightfully witty; I think the humor holds up even by today’s standards. If the rumors are correct and they are going to remake the movie (which is a bad idea, but you know how the studios are), they could use all the same dialogue, and it would still be funny. Of course they’ll sex it up a lot, but hopefully they’ll keep the gold standard of not having any men in the movie. No, really. None whatsoever. Even the dogs were all female. That was Cukor’s idea, I heard. The movie’s tag line may be "It’s all about men!" but you won’t see one here. Not everyone notices this, and I love to point it out afterwards. "There must be at least one man," people say, "A butler, something." Nope, nary a man in sight throughout.

I’ve read the play, and it’s equally good. The character of Mary Haines is a little less sunshiny-sweet than she is in the movie, which makes it more balanced. It’s a fast and amusing read. I still think Crystal Allen has the best exit line ever: "There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society...outside of a kennel." I want that on a bumper sticker.

Later in the day I watched "Chained," which I think may be the first Joan Crawford/Clark Gable movie I ever saw. My local TLA had a decent collection of them, and they comprised most of my early classic movie viewing. I wish they didn’t tease out Joan’s hair quite so much, but she is just adorable as she walks the ship’s deck with Clark, or swims in the pool with a wee Mickey Rooney (in an unbilled cameo role). Watching her devour roast chicken and milk for lunch with Clark and Stu Erwin always makes me hungry for a good, home-cooked meal.

Food in old movies seems so much more wholesome than today, doesn’t it? No strategically placed cans of Pepsi or bags of Doritos. No, it’s big homey meals (with no preservatives!), or the blue plate special in a diner (and even that seems appetizing) or maybe hors d’oeuvres at a swanky cocktail party. Whatever the occasion, the eating is usually good. And most movie stars ate in what I call the "European" style, which means they use both knife and fork, keep the fork in the left hand, and keep the tines pointed downwards. It looks so elegant. I’ve tried it, but I usually end up dropping food all over my lap. I do eat with my left hand, though.

[I just found this post in the drafts folder. It was originally dated 6/29 but I'm posting it with today's date so it floats to the top.]

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Either I'm psychic...

...or someone up there is listening to me, because I just found out a Bela Lugosi DVD collection is being released this September. And it contains all of the movies I picked in my previous entry.

Spooky...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Pre-Code-Dependence Day

It was a pre-code extravaganza this 4th of July, as my dad (who was over for a picnic) got interested in my Pre Code Hollywood: The Risqué Years DVD set, and we watched Kept Husbands and Millie back to back. I hadn’t seen them since I rented them from Netflix a few months back (which made me decide to buy them), and I’d forgotten how much I liked them, especially Millie.

After each movie, my dad would ask me, "Okay, what was wrong with that one?" Meaning, why would it not have passed the Hays Office Production Code, which began in 1934. Well, the whole idea of a "kept husband," for one. The broad hints at (and sometimes outright portrayals of) adultery. The fact that Mille dates Tommy Rock, the reporter, for four years, implying they’ve slept together (and may have lived together) without being married. In fact, Millie’s whole fall from grace, from her divorce from Jack Maitland to her murder trial at the end of the film, was too racy for a post-code Hollywood. Today, of course, it seems sweetly tame, which is why he had to ask, I suppose.

I have three Joan Crawford movies that are also pre-code: Laughing Sinners, in which she plays a night club singer who has a two year affair with a traveling salesman, before he leaves her to marry a "respectable" woman; Possessed, in which she plays Clark Gable’s mistress (he’s been hurt in the past and doesn’t want to marry; she doesn’t mind), and Rain, in which she played the prostitute Sadie Thompson. I know Joan made more movies before the code set in, but I haven’t seen any of them.

[I take that back; I have seen Grand Hotel (in which it’s implied Flaemmchen is a loose girl), and Dance, Fools, Dance, where she "tries love out on approval" and goes swimming in her lingerie. ]

Truth be told, I find these movies more interesting than some of her post-code movies I own, which include Love on the Run, Forsaking All Others, and The Women. In The Women she’s a mistress, but she clearly gets her comeuppance at the end. In Possessed, the mistress gets her man, when he gives up his chance at a political career to be with her, scandal be damned. Love on the Run is a fluffy confection containing a runaway bride and a reporter who in the end can’t bring himself to go on lying and taking advantage of her (no, not that way, but by using her story to sell papers). Laughing Sinners, by contrast, has Ivy repent at the end by sticking with the Salvation Army, but in between she works in a nightclub, has an affair with Howard Palmer, and later spends the night with him when, now as a Salvation Army girl, she sees him again for the first time after being dumped by him.

None of it is completely true to life, of course, being Hollywood, but the pre-code movies are a lot closer. Which is what makes them interesting, and also what started the Catholic League of Decency on the code in the first place.

But I started out talking about Kept Husbands and Millie. Thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you? I like Millie better, because the "one woman’s story" angle is more appealing to me than watching Joel McCrea slowly struggle (then fail, but later succeed) to not become a "kept husband." He’s kind of a weenie at first, letting Dot order him around and taking a cushy job (which mostly entails learning how to play bridge) at his father-in-law’s construction firm. It obviously bothers him, but not enough to do anything about it until near the end of the film. He takes the St. Louis job, Dot comes to her senses and promises from then on to live on his salary and keep him with love, not her family’s money. On a side note, the actress who plays his mother, Mary Carr, was just adorable. (I like her even more since I just discovered she was born in Philadelphia and lived to be 99, bless her heart.)

Mille, as I said, was my favorite of the two. Her downfall comes in subtle and realistic steps, occurring gradually over the course of the movie. If you looked only at the beginning and then the end, you’d wonder how she could have fallen so far. The rest of the movie shows you. She marries young and has a child; a few years later, she discovers her husband is cheating on her and divorces him, leaving baby Connie with her father so the child can have the wealthy life he can provide.

Millie’s not down and out yet, though. She gets a job selling cigarettes in a hotel concession stand and seems content with her simpler life. She starts dating Tommy Rock, local boy reporter, but tells him marriage isn’t for her. After four years together (during which Millie starts her own concession business) she finds out he’s cheating on her. Now the slide down picks up speed, as Millie’s drinking increases; a title card tells us eight years go by, and "Millie’s still the red-headed girl...but no one cares anymore." I’ve spoiled most of the plot points, I see, so I’ll just sum up the ending by saying there’s a murder trial, and Millie’s long estranged daughter makes an appearance.

It’s a sad story, all the more touching because it’s believable. At least, I feel it is, for the times in which it was made. Not having lived in those times, obviously, I can’t completely vouch for its authenticity, and of course I’m viewing the movies through the "lens" of my time and experiences. Still, I think people then, and probably even now, can relate to Millie’s story, and understand her pain, and the choices she makes. It’s a genuine human story...why did there need to be a code against things like that?

Thursday, June 30, 2005

"Mister, your climate's bum."

Read the W. Somerset Maugham story "Rain" upon which the Joan Crawford movie of the same name is based. It's a fabulous read.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

We're having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave

Pretty darn close; it's been over 90 almost every day for the past week and a half. But it was purely by coincidence that my latest movie, Only Angels Have Wings, was set in the steamy jungles of Panama, where if it's not cinematically pouring rain, it will be any second. Luckily, I was able to cuddle up with my air conditioner and enjoy the film.

I had never seen Jean Arthur in anything before, and I liked her well enough, although after awhile her voice kind of got to me. Not to be mean or anything, because she was a fine actress, but it sounded sort of squeaky to me. I could believe her as a chorus girl, though, so it worked in its own way. I'd rented the movie promarily because of Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth (who had a smaller role and lower hairline than I'd anticipated); as an added bonus there was also Thomas Mitchell, perhaps best known as the beloved Gerald O'Hara. Movies with pilots always have the best character (nick)names: Kid Dabb, Bat McPherson, Dutchy, Sparks, Tex, and Gent. Heh.

I don't think I'd buy it or rent it again, but I was well worth the Netflix rental.

After that, I was in the mood for another movie in a rainy, tropical setting, so I popped in my copy of Rain. While it may sound like a big cliche to say so, every time I see this movie I am astounded all over again. It is so beautifully and, in places, cleverly shot, it's amazing for its time, I think. Right from the beginning, where the rain starts to fall on different areas of the beach, I'm hooked.

The scene where the drunken quartermaster is trying to find the door, and instead keeps circling the table saying, "Goodbye, Mr. Davidson," as the camera pans around the table right along with him, is just wonderful. I imagine that must have been quite a difficult shot back in 1932. The scene of Davidson saving Sadie's soul as he stands on the steps and she kneels at the bottom, is amazing, too. Some of the long pans up and out of the rooms bring so much to the story and the mood of a particular moment. And the shots of Joan as Sadie, after she's been saved and is waiting to go back to San Francisco...I don't think she's ever looked more beautiful on film. Just breathtaking. Davidson's last scene, as he's standing on the porch listening to the native drums and trying to overcome temptation...when he opens his eyes after that brief prayer, and you can tell by the look on his face he's going into Sadie's room...I involuntarily back away a little, every time, even though I know by now it's coming. Well done, Walter Huston.

It would be interesting to see this movie remade today, but it would also be a shame, because you know that scene when Davidson goes to Sadie wouldn't end with him going around the corner, her door creaking, and a fade to black. No, today we'd probably have to have screams and heaving bosoms and furniture overturned. I think the way it's filmed is much more shocking, because it leaves it up to the viewer's imagination. When Sadie comes out the next day and she's back in her old clothes and makeup, you don't have to have seen what happened, what Davidson did to her. You just know.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Return of the Box Set

I had so much fun last time creating my own box sets, I decided to have another go. As an aside, imagine how much money the studios could make if they made their movies -- all their movies, including the old ones, whether released on VHS but not DVD, or not ever released commercially at all -- available for download to burn to DVD, a la Napster. I would be downloading black and white movies until the cows came home. Ted Turner, call me! I’ll let you have the idea for a modest fee. ;)

So, next up is...

Flynn and Hale: The Buddy Movie Collection
  1. Adventures of Don Juan
  2. Dodge City
  3. Adventures of Robin Hood
  4. Desperate Journey
  5. Footsteps in the Dark
  6. Gentleman Jim
  7. Prince and the Pauper
  8. Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
  9. Santa Fe Trail
  10. Sea Hawk
  11. The Sisters
  12. Virginia City

I would have sworn Alan was also in Captain Blood. My bad. Anyhow, some of these movies I’ve never seen, and some I’ve seen where Alan has the bittiest of bit parts (Prince & Pauper, for example) but any pairing of Alan and Errol (yeah, we’re all on a first name basis) is full of buddy goodness. These guys started the genre. Well, as far as I’m concerned. Okay, I guess technically Laurel & Hardy came earlier, and others before that, but I’m talking action buddy, not comedy buddy. Although Alan can be very droll.

Bela Lugosi: Only the Good Movies (or ones I’ve heard are good)
  1. Dracula
  2. Murders in the Rue Morgue
  3. White Zombie
  4. The Black Cat (1934)
  5. The Raven
  6. Black Friday
  7. Son of Frankenstein
  8. Ghost of Frankenstein
Poor Bela. So underrated, so typecast. So delicious with the haunting eyes and exotic accent. I’m tentative on Rue Morgue because I’ve heard good and bad about it. So we could trim that one and leave it at seven. Ed Wood would make kind of a nifty addition, though, now that it’s finally released on DVD. For real. Not to be withdrawn later. Sheesh.

You could do a Lugosi and Karloff "good movies" set, which would have maybe four of five movies (IMHO). If that sounds slim, keep in mind that James Dean’s collection is only three. The...only three movies he ever made (or at least the only ones he made in which he wasn’t an uncredited extra). Now that’s fame.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Make your own box set!

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. Well, actually, Borders thought of it already; I think it was last summer. Buy 3 DVDs, get the 4th one free, and you got a handy little sleeve that you could color yourself. I checked it out, but none of the movies appealed to me. Mostly action, sci-fi, that kind of stuff. I’m going to pretend I have the power to release movies on DVD, and create a few box sets that need to be created, posthaste. Major studios and Ted Turner, are you listening? Here we go...

Joan Crawford: The Best of the 1930s

  1. Dance, Fools, Dance
  2. Laughing Sinners
  3. Possessed (1931, obviously)
  4. Rain
  5. Dancing Lady
  6. Sadie McKee
  7. Chained
  8. Forsaking All Others
  9. Love on the Run

Okay, this would obviously be a rather hefty box set**, but I would totally buy it. The new Garbo one coming out this fall has seven sound movies (eight if you count both the German and English versions of Anna Christie) plus three silents and a documentary on ten discs for $69.94 (Amazon price). So how about nine Crawford movies for, say, $49.95? There are more good movies of hers from the 1930s, I just picked my favorites. You could also toss in Letty Lynton, I Live My Life, Gorgeous Hussy, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, or The Bride Wore Red.


**Pausing to look over some of the other "signature collection" box sets, I see that 9 movies in a set wouldn’t be outrageous at all. Here’s how many movies are in various other box sets:
Cary Grant – 5
Judy Garland – 7
Hitchcock – 9
Errol Flynn – 5, plus a documentary
John Wayne – 4
Hepburn & Tracy – 3, plus a documentary
Elizabeth Taylor – 4

So the bigger, the better is now my motto!

Moving on, let’s take a look at Jean Harlow, who should have had a box set long ago.

Jean Harlow: The Signature Collection
  1. Hell’s Angels
  2. The Public Enemy
  3. Platinum Blonde
  4. Red-Headed Woman
  5. Red Dust
  6. Hold Your Man
  7. Dinner at Eight
  8. Bombshell
  9. China Seas
  10. Wife vs. Secretary
  11. Libeled Lady
  12. Saratoga

I think that would about do it. Most people would probably take out Hold Your Man as it’s not one of her better known films, but I included it because I adore it. Also Saratoga could go, because it is kind of morbid to play "spot the body double." So that would make it an even ten. There’s room to fiddle – I could easily take out China Seas and put in The Girl from Missouri. I find myself inexplicably fascinated with Reckless, but that was pretty much a bomb, so we’ll skip it.

How about...

Judy and Mickey: The Collection

  1. Babes in Arms
  2. Babes on Broadway
  3. Strike Up the Band
  4. Love Finds Andy Hardy
  5. Life Begins for Andy Hardy
  6. Andy Hardy Meets Debutante
  7. Girl Crazy

Or you could just whip up an Andy Hardy box set, although the last one, Andy Hardy Comes Home, has always seemed like a depressing idea to me.

Oh! How could I have almost neglected to mention...

Clark Gable: The Signature Collection

  1. Red Dust
  2. It Happened One Night
  3. Manhattan Melodrama
  4. Mutiny on the Bounty
  5. Test Pilot
  6. Idiot’s Delight
  7. Mogambo
  8. Run Silent, Run Deep
  9. The Misfits

I know I’m missing a lot here, because there are quite a few of his films I haven’t seen. I know there’s one or several documentaries out there, so toss your favorite in. Another idea would be a Clark Gable and Joan Crawford collection.

Norma Shearer: The Signature Collection

  1. The Divorcee
  2. A Free Soul
  3. Private Lives
  4. Strange Interlude
  5. Riptide
  6. The Barretts of Wimpole Street
  7. Romeo and Juliet
  8. Marie Antoinette
  9. Idiot’s Delight

I skipped The Women because it’s been released by itself as well as part of Joan’s new box set. Marie Antoinette should be released on DVD right now, just by itself, because it is a wonderful film, and Norma is fabulous in it.

Other random films that I’d love to see on DVD, not necessarily as part of a box set:

Jane Eyre
No Man of Her Own
I Love You Again
To Each His Own
Love Crazy
The Raven
The Black Cat (1934)

Okay, whoever owns the distributions rights to these movies, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Get cracking!

Friday, June 24, 2005

I hate bootlegs

I knew bootlegs existed, of course. I didn’t see the appeal, personally. If I want to own a movie, I want to own it, with box art and inserts and a real case. I am a movie consumer in every sense of the word.

So last year when I saw a listing on eBay for a "rare!" Joan Crawford movie, you would think all my alarms and sirens would have gone off. But no, I was in the throes of discovering both eBay (it was my second auction) and a passion for collecting Joan Crawford memorabilia (save your wire hanger comments). My collection has since expanded to an entire shelf, but at the time I was just starting out, and I was dazzled by the listing. Crawford! Franchot Tone! Robert Montgomery! All in the same movie! And it’s rare!

So I bid. And won. Promptly paid, promptly got the movie. Promptly left feedback – my first mistake. The movie had looked kind of dodgy to me right out of the package. No cover art – a clear plastic box. Well, I’d seen that mentioned in the listing. Label on the tape itself that looked suspiciously homemade. Hmmm. Well, it’s not like it was written in crayon, so maybe I was just being suspicious for no reason. Still, I had what I’d paid for, so I left positive feedback: fast shipping, glad to have hard to find movie, blah blee blah.

In retrospect, I think my comment makes me look like an even bigger rube.

I pop the movie in the VCR, and we’re off. So far, so good. Until about 20 minutes into the movie, when Ted’s TCM logo appears in the bottom right corner of the screen, as it is wont to do. I literally can’t believe my eyes. I end up watching the same scene with Edna Oliver a zillion times because I just could not fathom that I was really seeing that logo.

Then I got mad. Logged back on to eBay, amended my feedback. Emailed the seller and requested a refund, post haste. Fumed for awhile. Watched the scene again. Checked IMDB – this movie has never been commercially released, duh. So "rare" applies in the "rare because it’s an illegal copy" sense. Finally went to bed.

The next morning, I have an email from the seller. He strives for satisfaction, and since I’m not satisfied, here’s my refund. I can keep the movie. (Damn right I’m keeping it! Now it’s evidence!) I also have a PayPal refund. Well, at least it didn’t turn into a bloodbath.

I’m still ticked, though, especially when I check the seller’s listings and see that he has over 200 movies for sale. A cursory check leads me to believe they’re all bootlegs. Fucker. Now I’m ready to bring the pain.

I report him to eBay. They suspend him. He comes back, lists more movies. I report him to eBay again. They suspend him. He comes back, lists more movies. I report him to eBay yet again. They suspend him. He comes back, lists more movies.

(Cutting and pasting was used in creating the above paragraph. Just repeat until you’re dizzy. I reported him 12 times before I stopped counting.)

I see the Joan Crawford movie listed again – by another seller with a suspiciously similar name. Sing it with me: I report him to eBay. They suspend him. He comes back, lists more movies.

I contact TCM. Thanks, they say, they’re always interested in protecting their intellectual property, la la la. I report him to the MPAA. No response. I report him to the FBI, with some embarrassment, because obviously more important things are going on in the world. They thank me, and advise me to contact the MPAA. Hey, what about those warnings at the beginning of movies about ginormous fines and jail time and all that? No public flogging? No arrest in front of a gaggle of TV cameras? Oh, well.

As of this writing, the seller is, of course, still on eBay. However, I haven’t seen him list any movies in a long time. At least not under any IDs that I am aware of. I know he has at least three. I occasionally check for that Crawford title, and nothing comes up. So I suppose some kind of justice did eventually prevail. Just not the publicly humiliating kind I was hoping for. And I learned a lesson, at no cost to myself, which I can now pass along to you.

In case you’re curious, the seller’s ID was besttrader2004. Look at all that positive feedback. Either people are stupid or don’t care that they’re getting illegal copies, that this guy is profiting off of them with blank tapes and his cable hook-up. His other ID was beststuff4, which has since been suspended – yay! I can’t remember the third one, it had the word gift in it. I don’t check every day anymore – I eventually gave that up for the sake of my sanity – but if you ever see him or anyone else selling bootleg movies on eBay, report their asses, won’t you?

Another offender (I somehow find all the Crawford ones) is billiecassin (get it?) who sells "rare" DVDs of Joan Crawford’s television appearances and commercials. I’ve reported her a boatload of times, but the listings keep on coming. Gah, just looking at them again makes me grit my teeth. If I were a vengeful person, or someone who disrespects the law as much as these people do, I would get another eBay ID and start some ridiculous high bidding just to fuck up her auctions. Or win and not pay. But I’m not, so I never would. Plus I’m too much of a weenie.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Only one to report

The movie viewing has kind of slowed down lately, for a variety of reasons. Only one this weekend, That Touch of Mink. I don't usually go for these "watch Doris Day remain a virgin" comedies, although they are cute in their own way. That whole wacky 60's, retina-burning Technicolor, bongo-drum-music movie type is not my style at all, as previously stated. Which is why my definition of "classic" stops around 1960, and also why I was so, so disappointed in Ted Turner the other weekend when a Clint Eastwood/chimp buddy movie was playing. Ted, what have I done to be treated so disrespectfully?

Anyhow, I gave Mink airtime based on that fact that it contained 1: Cary Grant and 2: Audrey Meadows. I would watch Cary read the phone book, and I love (love!) Audrey from The Honeymooners. Looking over her credits, actually, it seems Mink is one of only three movies she made. She had a boatload of guest appearances on TV, though, her last ones being on Dave's World a few months before she died.

So, the movie. I liked it well enough, Audrey was great as the well-meaning best friend who works in an Automat -- why did those go out of style, anyway? I think they're a neat idea. Cary was his usual delicious self, and I liked Doris, even if I don't like the twinkly kind of character she portrayed. Rounding out the cast was Gig Young, who kind of gave me the creeps, knowing how he ended up.

On another note, I got my two boxes from Barnes & Noble today, which contained all kinds of goodies. One DVD, Pre-Code Hollywood: The Risque Years, which contains Millie, Kept Husbands, and Of Human Bondage. I'd rented this from Netflix before and really liked the first two movies -- Human Bondage was just okay. Also, in books: Garbo, by Barry Paris, Evenings with Cary Grant, by Nancy Nelson, Joan Crawford: Her Life in Letters, by Michelle Vogel, Dishing Hollywood, by Laurie Jacobson, and Lion of Hollywood: The Life & Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman. Ooh, which to start first? I can't decide, maybe I'll have to draw numbers. ;)

Recent viewing has been mostly the early seasons of "Cheers" on DVD. I love Nicholas Colasanto, the show was never the same without Coach. I feel sad when they have the little special feature about him, and Ted Danson and George Wendt talk about working him, and what a sweet man he was. I wrote Nick's Find-A-Grave biography, check it out.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Dodge City


Errol Flynn slips into some buckskin for his first (I believe) western, Dodge City, along with a boatload of character actors: Alan Hale (with the biggest part in which I think I've ever seen him), Victor Jory (egad, it's Jonas Wilkerson, the evil overseer of Tara!), Guinn Williams (who appeared in yesterday's movie You'll Never Get Rich), Gloria Holden (it drove me mad trying to recognize her, and I couldn't, I had to look it up -- I saw her in Dracula's Daughter), Henry Travers (hi, Clarence!), and Frank McHugh, who I just adored in the Powell/Loy movie I Love You Again.

I think I prefer Errol when he's buckling swashes (or is it swashing buckles?), but I enjoyed him as a cowboy/cattle herder/reluctant yet effective sherriff, too. Olivia de Havilland is always beautiful and delightful as his love interest; as Robert Osbourne pointed out during the special feature, in most (if not all) of their movies together, their characters hate each at first, then end up falling madly in love. Usually when Errol insists upon it, but who could resist him, anyway?

I was never much for westerns, and I don't think this movie is going to make me run out and start renting them by the wagonload, but I did like it, mostly for the enjoyable performances by all the actors mentioned above. My grandfather was a big western fan, and he and my mom would go to the movies almost every week. I don't know why, they just never grew on me. I'll take a WWII movie for action and adventure over a western.

I have now officially seen all the movies in the Errol Flynn box set. Now I can rest up for the Garbo set coming out in September. ;)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Upcoming DVD goodness

God bless the studios that are deciding to release classic movies on DVD, thereby eliminating my need to feverishly bid for VHS tapes on eBay. Coming up this summer we have:

And so on. I've completely reorganized my Netflix queue to keep up. Yes, I am that nerdy. The first 3 items listed above are already on my wish list at Amazon. I already have Possessed and Humoresque on tape; I liked them okay, but not really enough to rush out and buy the DVD, too. I've never seen The Star, and I don't always like Bette Davis, but I'll give it a test drive.

The most recent movie viewed is You'll Never Get Rich. The verdict: okay. Fred is always good, Rita was lovely as usual, Robert Benchley is cute, and a shout-out to Garry Owen, who was also in Hold Your Man, one of my favorites (although IMDB doesn't even list him in the full cast, the title is listed on his page). I like military movies, and backstage dramas, and I got two for the price of one here.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Happy Memorial Day

Since I had a fun-filled, activity packed holiday weekend, I only got to watch one film. I know, I must be slipping. It was Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, part of TCM's weekend-long war-movie-palooza. Spencer Tracy is okay, not one of my favorites, just a guy. I liked his performance as Doolittle. Van Johnson was also good. I enjoyed watching this one, but I'm not sure I'd go back and rent it to see it again. For war movies, my two favorites are Destination Tokyo and Objective, Burma! (Movies with exclamation points in the title are usually good! Or terribly bad!)

On a completely different topic, have you ever noticed how people are listed on IMDB with a url like this: http://imdb.com/name/nm0000075/? I always wondered who was number 0000001. I found out by accident the other day: Fred Astaire. Now I wonder which movie title would have a URL ending in 0000001? Anyone?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

50's Musicals and Queens of England

In that order. It was a triple feature this weekend...first up was The Band Wagon, something I bumped to the top of my Netflix queue when I got a hankering for some Fred Astaire, after watching Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer. I know, go figure. I also bumped Singin' in the Rain to the top, so that was my Saturday double feature, a pair of 50's musicals.

I like musicals, as a general rule, although I'm not really one of those people who's nuts about them. I'll pick a good weepy 30's drama first. And I prefer my classics in black and white; once the studios went Technicolor, boy, did they go color. Hot pink and neon green and electric blue and that day-glo yellow "Casino number" set from Rain...pass me the sunglasses. Some of the color combos on the costumes, too...no sane human wears those combinations. I prefer a nice, silvery-toned black and white film, thanks. Plus, the dancing they do in some of these musicals is too avant grade for my taste. Give me Astaire and Powell doing a tap to "Begin the Beguine" rather than Gene Kelly slinging Cyd Charisse around while the brass blares. Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of movie, it's just not my first choice.

So, with that in mind, I sat down to watch The Band Wagon and, finally, Singin' in the Rain, one of those movies people always talk about: "You haven't seen it? Ever? What is wrong with you?" I very much enjoyed the premise of Rain, with the story being about the transition from silent movies to sound (although that did make the Casino number seem even more out of place). Fred's starting to look a little creased around the edges in Wagon, but he still can dance, and how. Gene's character of Don Lockwood reminded me of Harry Palmer from For Me and My Gal, one of my all-time favorite movies, ever. And, of course, Gene is extremely easy on the eyes. Especially mine. ;)

Today it was one of the movies from the Errol Flynn box set, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. I've been especially looking forward to this one because I have a great interest in Tudor history, I have a whole shelf of books in my library on the subject. I was impressed by how Bette Davis looked, and also her acting, although I thought there was a bit too much begging for a queen in the scene where she sees Essex for the last time before his execution. Errol Flynn, always good in tights, and an all-around wonderful job as Earl of Essex. I can already tell this is one I'll be watching over again quite often. As in Warner's release of The Adventures of Robin Hood, they put together on the DVD a "Warner night at the movies," with a cartoon, newsreel, preview (of Dark Victory), and a short subject. It really sets the atmosphere of going to the movies, and having it be a whole event, which to me is a part of what watching classic movies is all about.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Playing catch-up

So much for my resolve to update this blog every day, or at least several times a week. I’ve watched a boatload of movies since I last wrote, but I’ve been too lazy to sit down and actually write about them, preferring instead to continue stuffing my gaping maw with popcorn. Well, I have a list, so here goes.

Queen Christina -- Greta, for the love of little apples, stop mumbling. I had the volume on my TV turned way up, and still spent most of the movie thinking, "huh?" A good performance, though, and I liked the story so much I went out and bought a biography of Queen Christina, which is on top of my huge "books to read" pile. (I buy way faster than I could possibly read.) I had never seen John Gilbert in a movie before, and after awhile I could understand why he didn’t make it in talkies; his voice is just a little too high and nasal to be pleasing. All that heavy "Spanish" makeup didn’t help, either. Whether Louis B. Mayer purposely tinkered with the treble on the sound board to purposely ruin Gilbert’s career is a debate for another day.

Romance -- second movie on my Garbo hit parade. The video box made much of the fact that this was Gavin Gordon’s first and only film role! Which turned out to be not true; according to the IMDB, he appeared in 70 movies. Maybe that was his only starring role, which I would be more inclined to believe as his other roles include the likes of "Frisbie the Butler" and "Geoffrey Miles, Costume Director." Anyhow, it was a very nice little love story. Garbo is beautiful, of course. Gordon does much bugging of the eyes and flaring of the nostrils as an aspiring minister who can’t quite believe he’s fallen for this scandalous woman. A very sad and touching ending, without being too gooey.

Mata Hari -- last of the Garbos for now, and also good. Some of those outfits, though...skin tight glittery leggings attached to boots, worn under a dress/cape? Okay, I get that Hollywood is trying to glam it up, but come on. The hats were kind of cool, though. I had never seen Ramon Navarro, and I thought he was great. The scene at the end, after he’s been blinded, when they bring him to the prison to say goodbye to her but tell him it’s a hospital? Ah, so sad. And it’s always good to see Lionel Barrymore.

Strike Up the Band -- after all that gloom and failed romance I needed a peppy movie, and you can’t do better than Mickey and Judy. (And by the way, on the subject of Judy, every time I go to IMDB I'm always surprised again to see that she was only in 35 movies. Doesn't it seem like a lot more?) I own Babes in Arms and have wanted to see the sort-of sequel Babes on Broadway, but this was all TLA had, so it had to suffice. Your usual "let’s put on a show, kids!" movie, with the added bonus of June Preisser, cute little blond rival for Mickey’s affections and a nifty acrobat to boot. It’s such a typical Judy & Mickey musical that I can’t think of anything else distinctive to say about it.

The Adventures of Errol Flynn -- a documentary/biography of the man himself, part of the fabulous box set that was released recently. Comments from Flynn’s daughter Deirdre and Olivia de Havilland (who is beautiful as ever) lend it credibility that many print biographies of Flynn have lacked. Voiceover comments from Flynn himself, culled from radio interviews, are another good addition. I thought this was a very well done biography; the ones produced by TCM always are, in my experience.

In Name Only -- Carole Lombard plays not a screwball, but a widowed young mother who falls in love with "in name only" married Cary Grant in this great romance. Lombard and Grant go together quite well, and she more than proves she can handle drama as well as comedy. She has an earnestness about her that is really quite appealing. You’re totally rooting for them to overcome their obstacles, and when Carole cries that she can’t take it anymore, or Grant ties one on and catches pneumonia in the process, it’s what a good weepy story is all about. Charles Coburn as Grant’s father and Peggy Ann Garner (who played "young Jane" in Jane Eyre) as Carole’s daughter are so much "character actor" gravy.

Stella Dallas -- I caught this during TCM’s Mother Day extravaganza (which featured the mother of all mother movies, Mildred Pierce); I usually don’t stay with movies if I’ve missed the opening (I came in about 15 minutes into the movie) but Alan Hale carousing around caught my eye, and I was hooked from there. It was the first time I’d seen Barbara Stanwyck (a lot of firsts in my recent movies) and I thought she was amazing. I rented the movie from Netflix the next week to see the beginning and find out how Stella and Stephen (John Boles) ended up getting married, because I just didn’t get it. I had the feeling the actress playing Helen Morrison looked familiar, and found out during the end credits that I was right -- hi, Mrs. O’Hara! Now there is an underrated beauty, Barbara O’Neil.

There’s No Business Like Show Business -- which has no business being billed as a Marilyn Monroe movie (it’s part of one of her Diamond collections) because she didn’t show up until about an hour into it. Ethel Merman, though...wowza. I watched it with a friend and we ended up talking like her the rest of the day. And singing the song as we marched to the kitchen for more snacks. I love me some vaudeville, so I was happy.

Arsenic and Old Lace -- last week’s "Essential" on TCM; they rerun the Saturday show on Sunday nights at 6:00, so it’s becoming a tradition for my dad and I to watch it over Sunday dinner. I love Cary Grant (just started reading the Marc Eliot biography) and he is HI-larious in this movie. His multiple takes when he finds the first body in the window seat are too funny. Nobody does comedy like him. I was disappointed to read, in the biography, that this was one of Grant's least favorite performances. Jean Adair and Josephine Hull are just darling as the murderous aunts. Too bad they couldn’t actually get Boris Karloff.

Thank Your Lucky Stars -- I bought a used copy of this, never having seen it before, after seeing a clip of Jack Carson and Alan Hale doing a tap dance together. That was good enough for me; musical numbers by Errol Flynn and Bette Davis were also a big incentive. It wasn’t exactly what I expected; I didn’t anticipate so much of a back story involving Dinah Shore, Eddie Cantor (in a double role -- that’s a lot of Eddie) and a couple of unknown hopefuls. I was hoping we’d cut right to the musical numbers. When they finally did arrive, though, they were worth waiting for. Some of it is not so much singing as "talking to music" (Bette Davis; although she was a good sport to let herself get swung around in that dance step), and some numbers showcased previously unexpected talents (Errol Flynn, who can really sing and dance). Then again, some people were misused to the point of being unrecognizable. During one number, I pointed to the gingham-clad, gum-chomping, tap-dancing, curly-haired, scat-singing gal on the left. "Guess who that is," I said to my dad. He had no idea. "Olivia de Havilland," I said. I don’t think he believed me until he put on his glasses and double-checked for himself. Not the best use of Miss de H, but she seemed to be enjoying herself, and after all, it was for the war effort.

The Broadway Melody (1929) -- the first musical to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, I’d seen this before and rented it from Netflix again to see if I liked it enough to buy it, since I saw it at Borders when I bought Broadway Melody of 1940 (Astaire and Powell, that one was a no-brainer). The verdict: eh, I’ll rent it if I ever want to see it again. Bessie Love was cute if a little hyper, everyone else was okay. The dancing numbers were good, typical for the day. It's memorable if for no other reason than that the sisters are named Hank and Queenie.

Funny Girl -- I include this on the list not because I consider it a classic movie (my definition of "classic movie" stops around 1960 or so -- I’m referring to an era rather than a film’s endurance or popularity), but because it’s about someone I would consider a classic performer, Fanny Brice. Actually, it’s supposed to be about Fanny, but it’s really yet another movie that proves Barbara Streisand loves no one so much as herself. Not for one second did I get any feeling that I was seeing Fanny Brice up on the screen -- it was always Fanny heavily diluted by Barbara. And I’m not a big Babs fan in the first place, so you know I was watching the DVD player count down the minutes until the movie was over. I’ll be skipping the sequel, Funny Lady, thanks very much.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Character Actors I Love: Ted Healy

If I had to sum up Ted Healy in one sentence, it would be "more than just a Stooge." I don’t care for the Three Stooges at all (don’t email me), but I enjoy the work of their "founding father," Ted Healy. I’ve seen him in 3 movies: Reckless, Dancing Lady, and Bombshell.

Ted was born in Houston in 1896. His real name is a matter of dispute; various sources state it as Ernest Lee Nash, Charles Lee Nash, or Clarence Lee Nash. He gave up the life of a salesman in 1919 and went to work on vaudeville, changing his name to Ted Healy. He and his wife Betty (both his wives were named Betty, so I’m not sure which one it was) had an act called "Ted & Betty Healy: The Flapper and The Philosopher." That must have been interesting, to say the least. In 1923 he founded a stage act with two childhood friends, Moe and Shemp Howard (later joined by Larry Fine) and called it "Ted Healy and His Stooges." Thus a legend was born. Shemp left the act and was replaced by Moe’s brother Jerome, who shaved his head and was known as Curly. The Stooges parted ways with Ted in 1934 when they were offered a contract with Columbia Studios.

Ted and The Stooges were still an act, however, when I first saw him, in Dancing Lady. Ted plays Steve, the assistant to Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable), a Broadway producer. (The Stooges are stagehands who make minor appearances, mainly to tease Joan Crawford.) Steve is not just comic relief but a fairly well-rounded character, somewhat inept on his own but loyal to his boss. In Bombshell, he plays Jean Harlow’s drunken lout of a brother, but doesn’t show up until the second half of the film, just in time to stomp all over her plans to adopt a baby with his bad behavior. In Reckless he’s rather endearing as one of William Powell’s sidekicks, Smiley, another not-too-bright-but-loyal-pal-of-the-leading-man. At the racetrack with a stiff and proper English lady, he’s boorish but funny. I don’t think Ted ever could have been a leading man, but he’s still fun to watch, and gives a good performance. Ted also wrote five films: Nertsery Rhymes, Beer and Pretzels, Hello Pop!, Plane Nuts, and The Big Idea.

Sadly, Ted had a problem with alcohol, which was one of the factors in his split from the Stooges. His only child, John Jacob Nash, was born December 17, 1937, and Ted went out drinking that night to celebrate. He ended up in a bar fight, was found unconscious on the sidewalk, and died on December 21 from his injuries and kidney failure brought on by years of alcoholism. He’s buried in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

I picked Ted as a CAIL mainly because of his performance in Dancing Lady, which is one of my all time favorite classic movies, ever. I can’t really explain why. It’s not a great epic like Gone With the Wind, or even a popular classic like The Women, two of my other favorites. Dancing Lady is the movie equivalent of comfort food to me; I’ll pop it in even when I’m not planning to sit down and watch it all the way through. It serves as background noise while I’m doing chores or cooking, something I can watch in bits and pieces just to unwind, or I’ll actually sit down for another complete viewing of an old favorite. It has quite a cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Winnie Lightner, Robert Benchley, Ted & The Stooges, May Robson, Nelson Eddy, Sterling Holloway (voice of Winnie the Pooh) and Fred Astaire, playing himself in his first movie role. It’s a musical, a backstage story, a comedy, a love story, a drama. The songs are hokey (example: "Let’s Go Bavarian," about the joys of German beer), and not ones anyone remembers fondly today, but I’ll catch myself humming them under my breath. I’ll stop here because I could (and plan to) do a whole separate entry about this movie, and I didn’t mean to get so far off the original topic. (It was Ted Healy, remember?)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Simpler times

Myrna Loy, in her autobiography Being and Becoming, wondered about the modern nostalgia for the war years, as evidenced in both movies, and things people had said to her over the years. Why would people look back fondly on such a time, she wondered, which was full of terrible fears and tragedies. I see her point; I suppose people who look back are seeing those years through rose colored glasses, thinking about (or imagining, if they weren’t there) the good things, and not the bad. Another thing that lends itself to happier memories is the fact that we know now how it turned out -- a happy ending. I love big band music, including WWII songs (and also movies), and one theme that I can see the appeal of is the unity; there were clear cut good guys and bad guys, and from what I can tell, not many people questioned that, especially after Pearl Harbor. Not that people shouldn’t question, but compare our country’s attitude towards that war with, say, Vietnam, or the current war in Iraq. I can’t imagine our country, or at least a good majority of it, throwing itself behind a war like they did in WWII ever again. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

My own nostalgia goes back a decade farther, so the 1930s, when most of my favorite movies were made. I won’t list them all here, because the list is too long, and if I haven’t talked about them already, I soon will. The atmosphere of those movies, besides being so beautiful and glamorous, is one of an age that was sometimes rich and easy, sometimes poor and difficult (but of course not too difficult), but always…simpler. At least that’s how it seems to me. And yes, of course I know that this is Hollywood, and everything is covered with a patina of happiness, whether it’s a slapstick comedy, or a tearjerker that doesn’t seem bright until the end. I do know that life is never so simple as a movie. Yet the innocence that the studios put into their movies must have existed to some extent out in the world, I choose to believe. After all, this was the era when no one locked their doors, or so my grandfather told me.

An example of that very thing is the beginning of the 1933 movie Hold Your Man, which I’ve talked about before. Ruby is in the bath when Eddie bursts into her apartment, on the run from the police (he is a penny ante con man, no one dangerous). Ruby shrieks when Eddie runs into the bathroom, and he immediately goes back out. She comes out in her (ostrich feather trimmed) robe and demands to know what’s going on. Eddie coaxes Ruby to help him, and he hides in her tub (under a layer of suds) eluding the police with her help. Flirtatious banter ensues, Ruby dries his pants in her oven (ha), and Eddie takes off when Ruby’s neighbor comes to call (for a cup of bathtub gin). After realizing he’s sneaked out the bathroom window, Ruby runs to her dresser and shakes her piggy bank, whistling in relief when she finds that Eddie didn’t steal the money.

Now imagine that scene today. Granted, we still have the "encounter a stranger who changes your life for the better" premise in movies, but more it’s more likely that Eddie would be some psycho featured on America’s Most Wanted, and Ruby would be a crack dealing hooker, or worse (rather than just the "good time gal" she is in the movie). Either Eddie would attack her and she’d end up as this week’s victim on Law & Order SVU, or she’d have a gun and blow the intruder’s brains out. Never in a million years would they fall for each other and get married for the sake of their baby and for love, which is how Ruby "holds her man." No, today she’d have to go on Maury to prove paternity, if she ever got the kid back from foster care, since he was born while she was in prison.

See what I mean about simpler times?

Let’s take another example: Mary Haines from The Women. Mary finds out her husband Stephen is having an affair (sex is somewhat implied but never addressed directly) with a girl at the perfume counter of a department store, Crystal. They have it out in the fitting room of a boutique after a fashion show. Mary’s pride is hurt, and she goes to Reno and divorces him, making some lovely new girlfriends in the process. Mary suffers no other hardships, presumably living quite well on her alimony. Two years pass, Mary find out her ex is unhappy in his new marriage and that Crystal has a new paramour. She exposes Crystal (with the help of her pals and the friendly neighborhood gossip columnist, played by Hedda Hopper), and ends the movie by rushing back into her husband’s arms. "Pride! That’s something a woman in love can’t afford," she says happily.

Again, set the movie today (and I’ve heard that Hollywood is remaking The Women, which is an appalling idea). Mary, Crystal and Stephen would all end up on Jerry Springer, taking off their clothes and throwing chairs at each other. Mary would be lucky to get child support from Stephen, would have to go back to work, and most likely suffer financial hardships. Or if they were celebrities, their divorce documents would be on The Smoking Gun and tabloid photographers would follow them everywhere. There would be an ugly custody battle, Mary’s friends would talk to the tabloids, and Little Mary would need years of therapy to recover.

I’m sure terrible and painful things like this did happen to people back then, but I don’t imagine them to be as bad as things can get today. Maybe that’s naïve of me, and maybe I am buying too much into the MGM version of the world at that time. Yet I hear stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents, and I think…no, it’s not entirely false. Things were not always hearts and flowers, but they also weren’t as ugly as some things get today, either.

This is not to say that I wish we could, or think we should, go back to those times. As the saying goes, it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. If I had kidney failure like Jean Harlow did, I would want to live in a world where there are transplants and dialysis, not 1937 when my only option would be a slow, painful death. And I may love vintage phones, but I love the Internet more. Still, when the world around me becomes too ugly or scary or annoying to deal with, it’s lovely to know that I can put in a movie and go back to simpler times.

See how I wrapped up the essay with the title? Clever, eh? ;)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Essential? Hardly!

Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by William Schoell and Lawrence Quirk

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

The main problem with this book can be summed up by quoting its own dust jacket: "Schoell and Quirk [the authors] move beyond the myths and misconceptions about Crawford by looking extensively at her film work, which in many respects -- as Crawford herself admitted -- was her life."

And that's it right there: as admirable an actress as Crawford may have been (and I am a huge fan of many her performances), her roles in films cannot provide much of a basis for a biography about her actual life. The line between fantasy and reality is, in this case, not only blurred, but erased almost completely.

I understand that Quirk was a fan and professed confidant of Crawford's (that fact is hard to miss, it's mentioned so many times) and his intentions seem to be to try his best to defend her honor and reveal his version of the truth about her. In doing so, however, Quirk makes several missteps, the most notable among them being his complete and utter of savaging of Christina Crawford because of her allegations of abuse against her mother. He says terrible things; for example, he expresses his opinion that Christina's near fatal stroke in 1981 was "Joan getting revenge beyond the grave." For someone who thinks Christina was wrong to say bad things about her mother, Quirk in turn says even worse things about Christina. In trying to dispute the charges she made in "Mommie Dearest," he protests way, way too much, and stoops even lower than the level he accuses her of sinking to.

Even other friends of Crawford's are criticized for not living up to his exacting standards. For example, in 1984 about 125 friends and family of Crawford took out a tribute ad in the "Daily Variety" to show their support in the wake of the Mommie book and movie. I thought it was a nice gesture, myself, but Quirk says that it was "put together for the wrong reasons by the wrong people." What really seems to be wrong is the fact that he wasn't included, and now he's pouting.

When I got to the "Notes" section at the end of the book, I thought, "okay, now we'll see where he got all this information." I was disappointed to discover that the majority of his sources are "Joan Crawford to Lawrence Quirk." Interviewing the subject of a biography is of course helpful when it's possible to do, but any writer worth his salt knows that it can't be your only, or even your primary, source. People have an impression of themselves they want to perpetuate; this needs to be balanced by opinions and information from others as well. In that regard, this book falls far short.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Captain Blood, redux?

The Master of Ballantrae

starring Errol Flynn, Roger Livesey, Beatrice Campbell, Anthony Steel

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Flynn tries to recapture his Captain Blood days, and does a so-so job. The plot of Master of Ballantrae is somewhat similar to Captain Blood (our hero gets on the wrong side of a tyrant, escapes danger to live the life of a pirate, and returns home and/or to his one true love) but in comparing the two Ballantrae comes off the worse; Flynn looks his age and then some (although he still looks fabulous in tights, even if they are plaid), and his lady love (Beatrice Campbell) is certainly no Olivia de Havilland. On the plus side, Roger Livesey, as Col. Francis Burke, is a suitably entertaining sidekick. I couldn't get into the other characters enough to care what happened to them (the parts of the storyline without Flynn are only average at best), but it's always fun to watch Errol swashbuckling away.

P.S. The Errol Flynn Signature Collection is being released on April 19. Yay!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Character Actors I Love: Charles Butterworth

Before my recent viewing of Love Me Tonight, I had only seen Charles Butterworth in one other movie: Forsaking All Others, in which he’s hilarious. The whole film (starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Billie Burke and Rosalind Russell) is so, so funny, and Butterworth as "Shep" (The IMDB has "Shemp" but trust me, they're wrong) has some of the best lines of all.

Eleanor: [commenting on bachelor parties] I wish I were a man.
Shep: Were, or had?


Sometimes it’s the way he says the lines, rather than the dialogue itself.

Shep: Look, a cow!
Jeff: Yes, Sheppy, a great big moo cow.


He’s so good at playing silly and witty at the same time. Shep’s not dumb, exactly, but definitely rather spacey. Everyone in this film is funny, but because of Butterworth’s delivery and demeanor, the character of Shep makes me laugh the most.

Forsaking All Others is filled with witty banter and amusing one-liners. I've seen the movie dozens of times, and it still makes me laugh every time.

Dill: I don’t need matches, I can start a fire by rubbing two Boy Scouts together!

(I don’t think you could get away with that today.)

Also, watching Eleanor and Shep "tango" is too cute. Butterworth often played the leading man’s daffy sidekick, in fact so well that script writers starting leaving blank chunks in the screenplays, so Butterworth would improvise and fill in with his own well-appreciated wit.

Butterworth graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in law, and also tried his hand at journalism before drifting into acting. He was best friends with Robert Benchley, and I have heard that Butterworth’s death in a car crash wasn’t an accident, but rather a suicide; he was despondent over Benchley’s death seven months before. Butterworth is buried in St. Joseph Valley Cemetery in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Misleading, but still worthwhile

The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy Volume 3

starring Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Jimmy Finlayson, Mae Busch, Charley Chase,

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I think calling this DVD "Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy" is somewhat misleading, because only 3 out of the 6 shorts feature the boys as the pair that most fans are familiar with.

Love 'Em And Weep, for example, has Oliver Hardy, buried under a thick mustache, in a small role as a dinner guest of Jimmy Finlayson, and Stan Laurel as one of Jimmy's employees; the two never meet in the film. In another short, Bromo and Juliet, Hardy shows up for a few minutes as a taxi driver.

In addition, the picture quality is not always good, but that's to be expected in films so old. Also, the same soundtrack is used over and over, which can get a little monotonous after awhile.

Depsite the fact that this DVD wasn't exactly what I expected, however, I still enjoyed it. It was interesting to see Laurel & Hardy in roles other than "the boys" and the rest of the casts (Charley Chase, Mae Busch, Vivian Oakland, to name a few) gave hilarious performances. I recommend it to fans of Laurel & Hardy (and other silent stars as well), but be aware that not all the films may be what you might have expected.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Character Actors I Love: (Sir) C. Aubrey Smith

Three words: tall, craggy, and English. That would be Sir C. Aubrey Smith, character actor I love (and also an excellent cricket player). I first saw Sir Aubrey as Colonel MacFay in Another Thin Man, where his character is vaguely English, rather excitable, somewhat paranoid, and ends up murdered. Not his most distinguished role. Luckily, I’ve also seen him in Little Women (perfectly cast as James Laurence), Rebecca, China Seas, Bombshell, and most recently, Love Me Tonight. He sings a little in LMT, and has a lovely deep singing voice. Take a look at his picture and you’ll probably recognize him immediately, what with the bushy eyebrows and giant mustache and all. He almost always played military officers or English gentlemen, being very suitable for either type of role.

Biographical information is somewhat scarce; he was a champion cricket player, captian of the Hollywood Cricket Club, and was knighted in 1944. He died in 1949 and is buried in St. Lawrence Churchyard in England.