Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

I felt the need to include the year in the title this time, because there are, according to IMDB, fifteen film versions of this Dickens classic, including a 2000 German version titled Eine Erzählung von zwei Städten. I recently saw the David O. Selznick production starring Ronald Colman, Reginald Owen, Edna May Oliver, and Basil Rathbone.

Basil is at his evil best here as Marquis St. Evremonde, your sterotypical (but deliciously so) cruel and unfeeling French aristocrat. After his coach runs over a small boy, his response is to complain about the inconvenience to himself, so you know he's not going to last very long in a movie about the French revolution, and he doesn't. 

"Sure, I seem like a drunken jerk now, but just you wait..."

I don't think I'd ever seen Ronald Colman in a movie before, and he was just great as Sydney Carton, the world-weary, alcoholic lawyer who in the end does a "far, far better thing than [he] has ever done..." The role is tragic, of course, but Colman also managed to find the bits of humor in it, such as the scene when he is writing notes in the courtroom for Stryver to read outloud, sometimes with unintentionally hilarious consequences. He also portrays Sydney as more than just a cad; even when he's at his most obnoxious, he still manages to be sympathetic.

The movie is famous for its scene of the peasants storming the Bastille, and rightly so. It's very well done, considering the only special effects they had were the set and the people. Selznick may have been an obsessive compulsive control freak, but you have to admit he achieved quite the result.

I just bought the book yesterday, and I'm looking forward to seeing if it lives up to the movie, instead of the other way around.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Dispatch from Reuters

I think I have a new favorite classic film sub-genre: biographical films starring Edward G. Robinson. Yesterday I saw A Dispatch from Reuters, the story of Paul Julius Reuter and how he started the famous news wire service with some passenger pigeons. I'm beginning to think I love Eddie G. in these kinds of roles more than the gangster films. Although Johnny Rocco is hard to top. 

The real Julius Reuter, also
well known for his sideburns.

Like another Eddie G. biopic I love, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, Robinson here plays a character completely unlike any of his gangsters: an industrious, hard working man who wants to speed up the dissemination of news not for any profit, but because "the news belongs to everyone." He starts out providing stock prices via carrier pigeons, and just to be as fair as possible, he locks the subscribers in the room while he reads the prices, and then lets them out all at once so no one has an advantage over anyone else. This leads to some hijinks where one banker tries to cheat by tossing the prices out the window to his office boy; Reuter notices this and next time, gives the wrong prices and doesn't correct himself until he sees the office boy run away.

The story reaches its climax when Reuter is the first, by over 7 hours (because he has built his own telegraph line from Ireland to England), to get the news of Lincoln's assassination. He won't hold it back, not even to save his best friend from losing a bundle in the stock market. The news starts a panic, but when no other source can confirm it, the brokers decide Reuter made it up to crash the market, and that leads to a session of Parliament where the members argue about whether Reuter can or should be punished. Right when it gets the most tense, however, a messenger comes in with the news that Lincoln has, in fact, been murdered. All the MPs have egg on their faces, but they do apologize to Reuter, and the movies ends on this great triumph.

Sadly, Robinson did not grow
similar sideburns for the movie.
One person I felt was kind of unnecessary to the film was Eddie Albert, who plays Reuter's friend Max. They're in business together from the start (back in the days when the local village children call Reuter "the pigeon fool" and throw rocks at him), but Max is lazy and irresponsible, at one point letting all the pigeons get away. He does provide contrast by making Reuter/Robinson look all that more industrious, but I don't think he brought much else to the film, and Reuter looks hardworking enough on his own.

As always at Warner Bros, there is all kind of character actor goodness to be found in this film, including Otto Kruger (Reuter's father-in-law), Albert Basserman (Reuter's partner Geller), Nigel Bruce (Sir Randolph), Montagu Love (John Delane, head of The Times), and Gene Lockhart (Bauer the banker).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sporting Blood

Comcast description of movie: Racetrack yarn with Clark Gable as a gambler who saves a horse from mistreatment.

My description of movie: The life and times of a horse named Tommy Boy. Clark Gable shows up half way through.

I was a little wary of watching this movie during the first couple minutes, because it has animals in it and I know the studios did not treat them well back then, and thus today we have the disclaimer "no animals were harmed..." (dear God, 20th Century Fox, you rode a blindfolded horse off a cliff to its death?).

In the first 10 minutes, Tommy Boy's mother Southern Queen falls down in the mud while trotting back to the stable, and you can see, briefly, that she appears to be tied down by her back leg as she thrashes in the puddle and stuggles to get up. Sadly, her leg is broken, and she has to be shot right there on the spot, leaving our hero, Tommy Boy, an newborn foal without a mother.

The owner of the horse farm, Jim Rellence, (scenes are actually filmed in Kentucky) where Tommy is raised loves him very much, but he eventually has to sell him because he needs the money. The new owner (whose name escapes me) ends up selling Tommy to a spolied rich woman (Marie Prevost) and her husband (Hallam Cooley), who obviously know nothing about taking care of a horse.

"I don't want him anymore. Just shoot him!" (Sadly, an actual quote.)
After Tommy loses a race, they lose interest and sell Tommy to a crooked gambler, Tip Scanlon (Lew Cody) who runs the horse into the ground with doping and too much racing. Before he's killed over a bad bet, he gives the horse to his girlfriend Ruby (Madge Evans) who decides to rehabiliate Tommy, and herself and ends up reforming slightly crooked gambler Rid Riddell (Clark Gable) in the process.

It's one of those feel-good animal movies, and apparently based on a true story of a horse named Sporting Blood and his owner, gangster Arnold Rothstein, who brought us the 1919 Black Sox scandal, so I suppose doping a racehorse and fixing a race should come as no surprise.

Best part of the credits: Tommy Boy played "By Himself." Nothing like starring in the movie of your own inspirational life story. ;)

Cute picture, although this is not actually Tommy Boy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Heat Lightning

The title, Heat Lightning, caught my eye because it's roughly 112 degrees around here (or at least that's what it feels like) and because it listed among the cast members Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak, both great actresses who I think were overlooked in their day. I wasn't expecting a lot out of it (I assumed it was a B picture, as it's only 64 minutes long and has no big stars), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Aline plays Olga, owner of a gas station/lunch counter/auto camp out in the Arizona desert, and as I had guessed, she's the unglamourous sister, spending most of the movie in overalls with a bandanna tied around her head, while Ann Dvorak (Olga's sister, Myra) gets to use all the makeup and wear dresses.

Oh, Warner Bros. Really?
(As an aside, Warners did the same thing to her more than once; in Gold Diggers of 1933, she's the only chorus girl out of the four roommates who didn't wake up in the morning perfectly coiffed and made up. I know she's not what Hollywood would consider a "traditional beauty," but really, did they have to go out of their way to make her the plain Jane all the time?)

Could I at least get some cover-up for my under eye shadows?
Various tourists drop by this desolate place, including two bank robbers on the lam (Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot), two ladies returning from their latest Reno divorce (Ruth Donnelly and Glenda Farrell, both delightfully snooty) and their much put-upon chauffeur, Frank (Frank McHugh).

Olga seems content to be a mechanic; it's her younger sister Myra who longs to get away (preferably with her shady boyfriend Steve) and lead a more exciting life. Olga is very strict with Myra and you gradually realize that Olga is trying to protect her sister from making the same mistakes she did.

Once the two robbers come along, however, it's a different story, because Olga knows one of them from her life "up in Tulsa," where she was a cabaret singer and apparently led a rather unsavory life. He could care less about her, but she obviously still has feelings for him, which he exploits in order to rob the Reno ladies of their jewels. Things don't turn out quite as planned, though. I usually try not to spoil endings, but since the movie poster did it for me, what the hell.

It's still worth a look, though, and happily, it's been released on DVD as part of the Warners archive collection.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Movies that grab me

Following up on Sam's comment about White Heat not really catching his eye anymore, I wanted to talk about a few other movies that, even after repeated viewings, still draw me in and make me want to watch them over and over, even if I've just seen them recently.

Key Largo - I talked about this one just the other day. Eddie G. is just so fabulous in this role, by turns snarky and mean and vulnerable, that I haven't tired of it yet. Like Rocco, I still want more. It's really Eddie G. and Claire Trevor that make this movie for me. I like Bogart and Bacall okay, but I would watch this movie even without them. Without Eddie G., probably not so much.

Objective Burma! - Probably my favorite war movie, if I had to narrow it down to just one. It's over two hours long but it never feels like that to me. There is a good variety of adventures (just when you think they've made it to safety, something else happens), and it always keeps me watching until the end.

The Women - This movie is just plain fun. It's totally dated, of course, with women taking the train to Reno to divorce and living on their alimony the rest of their lives, but it still makes me laugh. George Cukor was so right to tell Ros Russell to play Sylvia as completely crazy; that's how she got the part after several audtions. There's some small, mean part of me that enjoys the cattiness, especially when Sylvia and Crystal get their just desserts in the end.

Gold Diggers of 1933 - My favorite of all the Busby Berkley movies, this one not only has several famous musical mumbers ("We're in the Money," "Remember My Forgotten Man") but the best backstage story as well, with Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell as a group of chorus girls entangled in various romances. While Joan and Ruby have "straight" romances, Aline is paried with Guy Kibbee to be the "comedy" couple of the movie, and they are both just so cute and hilarious. Warren William I could live without, but you can't have a BB musical without Dick Powell in some capacity.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

White Heat

According to some of the film historians who commented on this film in the special feature, Cagney wanted to do something "different" playing a gangster this time, and he decided to play Cody Jarrett as a complete lunatic. Congrats, Jim! It worked beautifully.

I love this film in a special kind of way because Cody is so bananas. You get the adventure and suspense of the usual crime movie, but Cagney's performance adds an extra layer of entertainment. He makes you wonder what he's going to do next, and just how far he will go. Oh, the guy he locked in the trunk of his car wants a little air? Cody will give him air -- via the six bullet holes he shoots into the trunk. While casually eating a chicken leg. I often enjoy a little black comedy with my gangsters.

My favorite scene is one of the most famous: Cody is in the prison mess hall, and learns from the grapevine that his mother has been killed. Cue full-on, beserker freak-out. The best part is that none of the extras knew what was coming, so the looks to surprise on their faces are genuine. Edmund O'Brien, who plays Vic Pardo and is sitting directly across from Cagney, has the best "oh my God!" face of them all.

Cagney just told Raoul Walsh, the director, to put the two biggest extras on either side of him (so he could boost himself up on their shoulders) and to keep the cameras rolling, no matter what. When I hear about acting tricks like this, I usually think they're kind of gimmicky, yet with Cagney it seems like a brilliant idea, and he pulled it off beautifully.

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

A Face In The Crowd

I was flipping through TCM's listings the other day, looking for interesting movies to tape. I came across A Face In The Crowd and the cable description intrigued me (something like, "meglomanical performer goes from Arkansas jail to nationwide publicity"), so I taped it. I was looking for something to watch today, and seeing that it was 135 minutes and didn't have any of my favorites in it, I almost deleted it. I am so glad I didn't!

This was Andy Griffith's film debut, and if you've only ever seen him on Matlock and The Andy Griffith Show, as I have, oh my God are you in for a surprise. First off, just look at the DVD cover:

And this doesn't even begin to show you the level of crazy that Andy brings to the role of "Lonesome" Rhodes. He's like a cross between a psychotic Will Rogers and Lex Luthor. You have an idea right from the start that he's not going to really be a good guy (although he is sure good at playing one), since Patricia Neal finds him in a scuzzy country jail, but just wait and see what happens when he gets a little power. One of his trademarks is this big hearty belly laugh that at first just seems a bit overdone. By the end of the movie he might as well be going "mwa ha ha" like the rest of the super villains; this laugh is now one of the creepiest things you've ever heard.

Patricia Neal is wonderful as a woman radio reporter who discovers Lonesome, and is slowly crushed as she comes to realize just what kind of person she has introduced to the world. Walter Matthau plays Mel Miller, a writer for the original "Lonesome Rhodes" show, who is the first to see how truly frightening Lonesome really is, and makes his escape, to eventually pen a tell-all book. The best part is, he doesn't even have to publish it, because Lonesome is exposed in a much more satisfying way, which I won't spoil for you.

The movie makes a statement about the power of celebrity, and just what kind of people we are putting up on these pedestals. I highly recommend it.

How this face ended up becoming the beloved Sherriff Taylor, I have no idea.