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Ghost Story (1981)
Last Fred Astaire Movie
It is surprising that you can include Fred Astaire and horror in a sentence about a movie. Astaire was one of the great musical icons of the 1930s and 1940s. However, late in his life he made a little horror movie that is worth reviewing. Any horror movie is worth revisiting during the month of October. What is Halloween without a scary movie. Although the movie Ghost Story is not a movie that will keep you up after you watch it, it is pretty good and has some twists and turns. Ghost Story is a 1981 American horror film directed by John Irvin and based on the book of the same name by Peter Straub. It stars Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Craig Wasson (in a dual role). It was the last film to feature Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas, and the first film to feature Michael O'Neill. The film was shot in Woodstock, VT, Saratoga Springs, NY and at Stetson University in Deland, FL.
In a small New England town, four elderly friends form what they call the Chowder Society, an informal club where they regale each other with scary stories. Membership in the club, in fact, requires that one present such a story. The four friends are Ricky Hawthorne, a business owner, Sears James, a Lawyer, along with Dr. John Jaffrey and Edward Charles Wanderley, the Mayor. When Edward's son, David, living in New York, falls from a window after the girl he's sleeping with turns suddenly into a demon, Edward grieves. His other son, Don, a college professor who's fallen on hard times, shows up in town, not getting a great reception from Edward, who always preferred the other, more ambitious son. But now the four elderly gentlemen are unsettled and have nightmares. Clearly, something is bothering them.
Edward becomes so distraught that he wanders across a bridge in the snow. When he sees the same female apparition that caused his son to fall to his death, Edward, too, falls to his death from the bridge. Although his death is ruled a suicide, his son Don and Edward's three remaining elderly friends doubt it. Don approaches the remaining three friends, requests membership in their group and offers up a bizarre "ghost" story of his own.
It is great to see movie icons like Fred Astaire, Melvin Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr at least one more time on the screen. The movie for me sort of drags in the end and loses steam, but the ending is gratifying enough. Throughout the year I like to watch Astaire movies like Follow The Fleet, The Bandwagon, and Silk Stockings, but I reserve the month of October to watch him in Ghost Story. It's a movie that won't really disappoint...
Nothing in Common (1986)
Underrated Last Film of Jackie Gleason
Nothing In Common is one of those underrated 80s films that is forgotten but had plenty of heart. It is a favorite movie of mine.
The film, released in 1986, was not a great financial success, but it became more popular as Hanks's fame grew. It is considered by some to be a pivotal role in Hanks's career because it marked his transition from less developed comedic roles to becoming a leading actor in more serious stories, while many critics also praised Gleason's performance, which was his last movie. The original music score was composed by Patrick Leonard. The film was marketed with the tagline "On his way up the corporate ladder, David Basner confronts his greatest challenge: his father." Happy-go-lucky advertising executive David Basner, who recently got a promotion at his Chicago ad agency, returns to work from a vacation. He is utterly carefree until his parents split up after 36 years of marriage.
Out of the blue, he must care for his aging, bitter father Max (played by Gleason), as well as be there for his emotionally fragile mother, Lorraine (played by Eva Marie Saint). To add insult to injury, Max has just been fired from his 35-year career in the garment industry.
At work, David is developing a commercial for Colonial Airlines, owned by the rich and eccentric Andrew Woolridge. A successful ad campaign would likely promote David to partner in his company. David develops a relationship with Woolridge's daughter, no-nonsense Cheryl Ann Wayne. His father is well aware of David's playboy nature. Asking at one point if his son is in bed with a woman, Max adds: "Anybody you know?" The parents begin to rely more and more on David, calling him on the phone constantly. His mother needs help moving to a new apartment. His father needs to be driven to an eye doctor. Lorraine needs to be rescued in a bar after going out on a date with another man, having become frightened when he tried to kiss her goodnight.
David's mother then confides to him that Max cheated on her and humiliated her. An enraged David goes to confront Max. Their argument ends with David saying: "Tomorrow I'm shooting a commercial about a family who loves each other, who cares about each other. I'm fakin' it." The next day, David is distracted by the deteriorating relationship with his dad and it affects his work. As a peace offering, David offers to take Max to a nightclub to hear some of the jazz music Max likes. It is there that David accidentally discovers a secret Max has been hiding: diabetes. His foot is gangrened.
Max must go to the hospital. While awaiting surgery, he and Lorraine share their thoughts about their life together, with Lorraine condemning him for doing what he did to himself and to her. Max sobs over his mistakes once he is alone.
At the agency, Andrew Woolridge insists that David go to New York with him to promote his new ad campaign. David refuses, saying he wants to stay with his sick father. Woolridge complains that it's unnecessary. David tells him off and is fired.
The next day, David accompanies his dad to the operating room. His boss Charlie assures him that he will personally smooth things over with Woolridge, so David should take some time off.
Max loses two toes. When he goes home from the hospital, David pushes his wheelchair. Max admits to his son: "You were the last person I thought would come through for me." Even though I consider this film forgotten and underrated, it is available on DVD. It is worth the $5 for the DVD just to see the genius of Jackie Gleason one more time...
The Face Behind the Mask (1941)
One Of Peter Lorre's Best Films
When I first started really collecting movies, back in the day of Beta and VHS tapes, I managed to tape a short movie that was long forgotten. I think it was actually on Cinemax at the time.
The movie is not even 90 minutes long, but this little movie has been one of my favorite movies all these years. The Face Behind the Mask is a minor B-movie crime-drama released by Columbia Pictures in 1941. It starred Peter Lorre and Evelyn Keyes and was directed by Robert Florey and Wallace MacDonald. To date, it has never been released on DVD or video.
Based on the radio play by Thomas Edward O'Connell, The Face Behind the Mask was not a film that Lorre held in high esteem. His co-star Don Beddoe, who plays the police officer who befriends Janos in the film, once said, "I don't think Peter was very much impressed with The Face Behind the Mask. His other successes, such as M, made him pretty blasé about this particular venture." The film is the story of a hopeful new immigrant, Janos Szaby (Peter Lorre), who, on his first day in New York City, is trapped in a hotel fire that leaves his face hideously scarred. Refused employment due to his appearance although he possesses tremendous skill as a watchmaker, the only way he can survive is by turning to theft, using his skilled hands to disable alarms. Eventually he becomes the leader of a gang of thieves, and raises enough money to commission and wear a realistic latex mask of his own face.
Janos then falls in love with Helen (Evelyn Keyes) a blind woman who sees only the good in him, and attempts to leave his life of crime behind him. Unfortunately, his gang come to believe that he has betrayed them to the police, and attempt to kill him by car bomb, an attempt on his life that he survives but that Helen does not. In retaliation, Janos disguises himself as the pilot of the private plane the gang is flying out of the city with, which he lands in the Arizona Desert and lets out the fuel, suicidally stranding both the gang and himself without food or water, dooming them all to a slow death. At the film's end, Janos's body and that of his enemies are discovered by the police. The climax, set in a desolate stretch of desert with Janos tied to an abandoned plane, is a bleak counterpoint to the immigrant's hopeful beginnings. More than anything, The Face Behind the Mask is a vision of the American dream gone horribly wrong but under the artful direction of Robert Florey along with Franz F. Planer's atmospheric cinematography and Lorre's sensitive performance, it becomes a rich, multi-layered character study, a gem among the Columbia Pictures programmers of the forties.
If you are a fan of Peter Lorre or the understated performances of Evelyn Keyes, then I recommend The Face Behind The Mask. This movie deserves to be remembered and preserved on DVD. I was lucky to catch an airing of the forgotten film on TCM, and my copy is one of my prized possessions in my movie collection. This fine character study is not one that should be missed...
Anything Goes (1956)
Bing's Swan Song At Paramount
The musical Anything Goes was a superb Cole Porter Broadway show when it opened in the 1930s. Since its 1934 debut at the Neil Simon Theatre (at the time known as the Alvin) on Broadway, the musical has been revived several times in the United States and Britain and has been filmed twice. The musical had a tryout in Boston, before opening on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on November 21, 1934. It ran for 420 performances, becoming the fourth longest-running musical of the 1930s, despite the impact of the Great Depression on Broadway patrons' disposable income.
The movie was first filmed in 1936 with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman, but it bared little resemblance to the Broadway show. Twenty years later, Bing was ending his contract with Paramount Studios after twenty four years with the studio. His last movie for Paramount would be an updated version of Anything Goes in 1956. Though this film again starred Bing Crosby (whose character was once more renamed), Donald O'Connor, and comedian Phil Harris in a cameo, the new film almost completely excised the rest of the characters in favor of a totally new plot. The film features almost no similarities to the play or 1936 film, apart from some songs and the title.
I have always enjoyed this 1956 swan song Bing made for Paramount. However, this movie could have been a great movie and not just a good or fair movie. I think my biggest problem with the film was Bing's co-star Zizi Jeanmaire. She was a popular French ballet dancer, who was married to the choreographer of the movie Roland Petit. Whether she got him his job on the film or visa versa, I don't know. However, she was totally wrong as Bing's love interest. Bing and Jeanmaire just did not have the chemistry. She was a fine dancer, but the Cole Porter song "I Get A Kick Out Of You" was wasted on her limited vocal ability.
Speaking of the Cole Porter score, Paramount did a grave injustice by tearing apart the great Broadway score. The primary musical numbers ("Anything Goes", "You're the Top", "I Get a Kick Out of You", "It's De-Lovely" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow") with updated arrangements appear in the film, while the lesser-known Porter songs were cut completely, and new songs, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, were substituted. I enjoy the music of Cahn and Van Heusen, and they wrote some of the great songs in Frank Sinatra's songbook. However, when they wrote for Bing in the 1950s, the songs sounded tired and corny. The two songs they wrote for Bing were "Ya Gotta Give the People Hoke" and "A Second Hand Turbin". Bing deserved better songs than this.
One more thing I would have done differently with the film is the use of Phil Harris. Harris not only was a great personality and singer but also a personal friend of Bing. In the movie he played the father of Mitzi Gaynor. He had a good role in the film, but Harris did not have much interaction with Bing. I think that was a wasted opportunity for a musical number between the two. It would have made for some great cinema.
Again, while the 1956 version of Anything Goes is no Singin' In The Rain, it is not a bad movie. It was one of the first Bing movies I remember watching and despite what I would change, I think the pairing of Bing and Donald O'Connor was great. Also the finale of "Blow Gabriel Blow" is a fitting end to Bing's association with Paramount. He helped to save the studio from bankruptcy in 1932, and Bing was one of the studio's biggest stars for the next two decades...
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
The Best Of The Ziegfeld Movies
I am a sucker for those all-star movies of classic Hollywood. Where the whole studio would appear in a single movie. A lot of times the talent is merely used to make a cameo appearance in the movie. I enjoy those appearances as well, but a movie that uses the talent effectively in great roles is really a gem of celluloid. One such movie that uses all of the stars in great roles is Ziegfeld Girl (1941).
Set in the 1920s, the film tells the parallel stories of three women who become performers in the renowned Broadway show the Ziegfeld Follies. It was intended to be a 1938 sequel to the 1936 hit The Great Ziegfeld, and even recycled some footage from the earlier film - however the movie underwent many changes in its plot before it was released.
The story here follows three young women who get into the Ziegfeld chorus line.
Lana Turner is an elevator operator in a department store who is seen by the showman and hired by his right hand man (Edward Everett Horton). She is seeing a truck driver (Jimmy Stewart). Turner likes the more lucrative and glamorous lifestyle she is entering (especialy the relationship she picks up with wealthy Ian Hunter). Stewart gradually gets disgusted by the change in her, and turns to "easy, big money" of his own - working as a driver and lieutenant of a bootlegger.
The second follows Hedy Lamarr, the wife of violinist Philip Dorn. Dorn has been struggling (with the help of friend Felix Bressart) to get into public notice as a great classical violinist. While accompanying him to an audition for a violinist at the New Amsterdam Theater, Lamarr is hired for the chorus. Dorn does not want his wife to be a possible sex object for lascivious males. When Hedy refuses to give up a good job, Dorn walks out on her (although he keeps an eye on her career and relationships, especially with the male singer star of the show Tony Martin).
Finally we see Judy acting with her father Charles Winninger at a vaudeville theater in Harlem (this is about 1920 or so). He is "Pop" Gallagher, a tried-and-true old vaudeville comedian and song and dance man. Judy is hired also for the chorus (the one failure of the plot: Judy is still an adorable young woman like "Dorothy" in the Wizard Of Oz, but is outclassed by Turner and Lamarr or even fellow chorus girl Eve Arden as a statuesque looker), but we see her pushed onto Horton and show director Paul Kelly as a singer by Turner and Lamarr. But her singing is not how Winninger trained her, and he feels he has to let her go off on her own. Instead he meets an old friend, Al Shean (here playing himself), and they go off into the vaudeville hinterlands to perfect an act together.
Judy Garland had the best numbers with the sentimental "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and the bouncy "Minnie From Trinidad", but Tony Martin nearly stole the show with his signature number "You Stepped Out Of A Dream". The story of the three Ziegfeld hopefuls was interesting and compelling. One of the girls gained fame being a Ziegfeld girl, one Ziegfeld girl decided that family was her best bet, and one Ziegfeld girl went down the wrong path to self-destruction. Everything about this movie I enjoyed, and it a shame that this film is not remembered more. Florence Ziegfeld sure could put on a show, and even a movie about him was no different...
The Star Maker (1939)
Bing As Gus Edwards
1939 is often cited as the greatest year for movies of all-time. Some of the most beloved movies like GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ were released in that year. Paramount did not have the output that MGM had in the 1930s, but they did have a secret weapon in the form of Bing Crosby. Even though Bing was not yet considered an Oscar winning actor in 1939, he was making Paramount a lot of money. One of his best movies of 1939 was THE STAR MAKER which was directed by Roy Del Ruth.
The movie is based very loosely on the life of entertainer Gus Edwards. Edwards in the turn of the century discovered such future talent as Eddie Cantor, Walter Winchell, and George Jessel - just to name a few. The names were changed for the film and Bing starred as Larry Earl, an unsuccessful songwriter who decides to settle down with his new bride, Mary (Louise Campbell) and take a 9 to 5 job, only to realize that his true calling is show business. On his way home, he comes across some urchins singing and dancing on the streets for pennies, nickels and dimes, and decides to take these street kids to turn them into professional entertainers. With the assistance of his loving wife, who also contributes to her husband's plans, Larry's troupe of children grows and grows, making the use of their talents in vaudeville and later, after child labor laws step in, presenting them on radio and still succeeding into making them world famous.
When THE STAR MAKER used to make frequent television revivals on the late-late show some 20 years or so ago, TV Guide used to present it in its listing with its brief synopsis as a biography on pioneer showman Gus Edwards. While not really a biography on Edwards, it is probably suggested on the impresario's life and career. As usual, Bing Crosby's pleasing personality, singing and chemistry with the young kids makes this worthy family entertainment.
Louise Campbell (1911-1998) was very likable in the movie, and she had a huge resemblance to Mary Martin. Campbell was perfect as Crosby's Southern wife. Also there is that deadpan character actor Ned Sparks (1883-1957) playing agent "Speed" King, who not only partakes in Earl's theatrical troupe, but the old grouch must deal with these restless and sometimes rowdy children. Amusing moments include having him surrounded by the kids and reading to them a kiddie story and constantly getting interrupted by questions, and another having Speed finding himself quarantined in a train compartment full of kids for ten days after being exposed with one with the chickenpox.
THE STAR MAKER features a handful of old song standards, many written by Gus Edwards himself, sung mostly by Crosby, including: "Here Comes Jimmy Valentine"; "A Man and His Dream" (nice new song by Johnny Burke and James V. Monaco); "East Side, West Side" (instrumental); "If I Was a Millionaire"; "Go Fly a Kite"; "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?"; "Sunbonnet Sue" (sung by children); "I Can't Tell Why I Love You," "He's Me Pal," "In My Merry Oldsmobile"; Ludwig Von Beethoven's "Symphony # 5 in B Minor" (sung by Linda Ware); "The Darktown Stutters Ball" (sung by Ware); "An Apple For the Teacher"; "School Days"; "The Waltz of the Flowers" by Peter Tchaikovsky (sung by Ware at Carnegie Hall); and "Still the Blue Birds Sing" (new song by Burke and Monaco, sung by Crosby and children). Of all the songs sung in the movie, I think Bing's best number was "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?", which Bing did not record commercially - but a young fellow crooner by the name of Perry Como did.
THE STAR MAKER gives special screen billing to 14-year-old Linda Ware (1925-1975), making her movie debut, possibly Paramount's answer to Universal's singing sensation, Deanna Durbin. A good singer but not a convincing actress, Ware's career sadly didn't go very far after this. Also featured in the cast are Laura Hope Crews, Walter Damrosch as himself; Thurston Hall, Billy Gilbert and a very young Darryl Hickman as one of the dancing kids.
Long on songs and production numbers, and light on plot, THE STAR MAKER, while not as famous and popular as Crosby's other musical flicks, is still worth seeing, and then to sit back to wonder how good the movie itself would have been had it been a bio-pic on Gus Edwards himself, and the use of actual future performers he discovered appearing as themselves in songs and sketches that made them famous. In THE STAR MAKER, Bing was not kissing Vivien Leigh or dancing down the yellow brick road, but his journey in this film was enjoyable nevertheless...
The Music Man (1962)
A Musical Delight
I remember in junior high school, we had a music teacher who spent the whole semester reviewing and analyzing THE MUSIC MAN. I have to admit, it was one of my greatest classes of all-time, and years later I still remember it. So I have always had a soft spot for Meredith Wilson's THE MUSIC MAN. It is one of my personal favorite movie musicals, and definitely my favorite one from the 1960s.
The 1962 film is based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name by Meredith Willson. The film was one of the biggest hits of the year and highly acclaimed critically.
Set in July 1912, a traveling salesman, "Professor" Harold Hill (Robert Preston), arrives in River City, Iowa, intrigued by the challenge of swindling the famously stubborn natives of Iowa ("Iowa Stubborn"). Masquerading as a traveling band instructor, Professor Hill plans to con the citizens of River City into paying him to create a boys' marching band, including instruments, uniforms, and music instruction. Once he has collected the money and the instruments and uniforms have arrived, he will hop the next train out of town leaving them without their money or a band.
With help from his associate Marcellus (Buddy Hackett), Professor Hill incites mass concern among the parents of River City that their young boys are being seduced into a world of sin and vice by the new pool table in town ("Ya Got Trouble"). He convinces them that a boys' marching band is the only way to keep the boys of the town pure and out of trouble, and begins collecting their money ("76 Trombones"). Hill anticipates that Marian (Shirley Jones), the town's librarian and piano instructor, will attempt to discredit him, so he sets out to seduce her into silence. Also in opposition to Hill is the town's Mayor Shinn, who orders the school board to obtain Hill's credentials. When they attempt to do so, Hill avoids their questions by teaching them to sing as a barbershop quartet via "sustained talking." They are thereafter easily tricked by Hill into breaking into song whenever they ask for his credentials.
Meanwhile, Hill attempts to win the heart of Marian the librarian, who has an extreme distrust of men. His charms have little effect upon Marian ("Marian the Librarian") until he wins the admiration of both her mother and her withdrawn and unhappy younger brother Winthrop (Ron Howard) ("Gary, Indiana"). Marian falls in love with Hill, and subsequently hides evidence she has proving he is a fraud ("Till There Was You"). The band's instruments arrive ("Wells Fargo Wagon") and Hill tells the boys to learn to play via the "Think System," in which they simply have to think of a tune over and over and will know how to play it without ever touching their instruments.
Hill's con is nearly complete and he is about to leave town when a disgruntled competing salesman comes to town and exposes Hill and his plans. Chased by an angry mob and pressed to leave town by Marcellus and Marian, Hill realizes that he is actually in love with Marian too and can't leave River City. He is captured by the mob and brought before a town meeting to be tarred and feathered. Hill is saved by the boys' band who miraculously have learned to play their own instruments (albeit incredibly badly). Hill remains in River City with Marian to conduct the boys' band full time, which eventually becomes properly trained and equipped with better quality instruments and uniforms. ("76 Trombones 2nd Reprise").
The film made Robert Preston into an "A" list star in motion pictures, after years of appearing in supporting roles in famous films and in starring roles in "B" movies. Although Preston scored a great success in the original stage version of the show, he was not first choice for the film version, partly because he was not a box office star. Jack L. Warner, who was notorious for wanting to film stage musicals with stars other than the ones who played the roles onstage, wanted Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby for the role of Professor Harold Hill, but Meredith Willson insisted upon Preston. Cary Grant was also "begged" by Warner to play Hill but he declined, saying "nobody could do that role as well as Bob Preston". Cary Grant was right...
Life of Brian (1979)
Great Piece Of Nonsense
During the Easter season, there are many movies one may watch as a tradition. Movies like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE PASSION OF THE CHRSIT may come to mind. We have a tradition in our family of watching a very unlikely Easter movie - THE LIFE OF BRIAN. Monty Python's LIFE OF BRIAN, also known as THE LIFE OF BRIAN, is a 1979 British comedy film written, directed and largely performed by the Monty Python comedy team. It tells the story of Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman), a young Jewish man who is born on the same day as, and next door to, Jesus Christ, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.
The film contains themes of religious satire which were controversial at the time of its release, drawing accusations of blasphemy and protests from some religious groups. Thirty-nine local authorities in the UK either imposed an outright ban, or imposed an X (18 years) certificate (effectively preventing the film from being shown, as the distributors said the film could not be shown unless it was unedited and carried the original AA (14) certificate). Certain countries banned its showing, with a few of these bans lasting decades. The film makers used such notoriety to benefit their marketing campaign, with posters stating "So funny it was banned in Norway!". By today's standards though the humor is considered fairly tame.
The film was a box-office success, grossing fourth-highest of any film in the UK in 1979 and highest of any British film in the United States that year. It has remained popular since then, receiving positive reviews and being named 'Greatest comedy film of all time' by several magazines and television networks.
Brian Cohen is born in a stable a few doors from the one in which Jesus is born, which initially confuses the three wise men who come to praise the future King of the Jews. Brian grows up an idealistic young man who resents the continuing Roman occupation of Judea. While attending Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Brian becomes infatuated with an attractive young rebel, Judith. His desire for her and hatred for the Romans lead him to join the Peoples' Front of Judea (PFJ), one of many fractious and bickering separatist movements, who spend more time fighting each other rather than the Romans.
After several misadventures (including a brief trip to outer space in an alien spaceship), and escaping from Pontius Pilate, the fugitive winds up in a lineup of wannabe mystics and prophets who harangue the passing crowd in a plaza. Forced to come up with something plausible in order to blend in and keep the guards off his back, Brian babbles pseudo-religious truisms, and quickly attracts a small but intrigued audience. Once the guards have left, Brian tries to put the episode behind him, but he has unintentionally inspired a movement. He grows frantic when he finds that some people have started to follow him around, with even the slightest unusual occurrence being hailed as a "miracle". After slipping away from the mob, Brian runs into Judith, and they spend the night together. In the morning, Brian opens the curtains to discover an enormous mass of people outside his mother's house, all proclaiming him the Messiah. Appalled, Brian is helpless to change their minds, for his every word and action are immediately seized as points of doctrine.
Neither can the hapless Brian find solace back at the PFJ's headquarters, where people fling their afflicted bodies at him demanding miracle cures. After sneaking out the back, Brian finally is captured and scheduled to be crucified. Meanwhile, a huge crowd of natives has assembled outside the palace. Pilate (together with the visiting Biggus Dickus) tries to quell the feeling of revolution by granting them the decision of who should be pardoned. The crowd, however, simply shouts out names containing the letter "R", in order to mock Pilate's mispronunciation. Eventually, Judith appears in the crowd and calls for the release of Brian, which the crowd echoes, since the name contains the letter "R". Pilate then agrees to "welease Bwian".
The order from Pilate is eventually relayed to the guards, but in a moment parodying the climax of the film Spartacus, various crucified people all claim to be "Brian of Nazareth" and the wrong man is released. Various other opportunities for a reprieve for Brian are denied as, one by one, his "allies" (including Judith and his mother) step forward to explain why they are leaving the "noble freedom fighter" hanging in the hot sun. Condemned to a long and painful death, Brian finds his spirits lifted by his fellow sufferers, who break into song with "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"...
The Unguarded Moment (1956)
Best Non Musical Esther Williams Film
I remember seeing the movie THE UNGUARDED MOMENT during my early days of collecting movies when the VCR was just hitting the height of its popularity, so unfortunately I do not have a copy of the film. There has never been a commercial release of this movie on VHS or DVD for that matter. It is surprising because it marks a very different role for Esther Williams. She actually stayed dry in the movie, and the plot which actually was pretty dark and realistic for 1956 audiences.
Lois Conway (played by swimmer Esther Williams) is an attractive high school music teacher who has a 1950s bullet bra figure that attracts the attention of lustful sexual psycho student, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon). At home Leonard's father (Edward Andrews) is a creepy repressive misogynistic who lectures his son about the dangers of all women, like his dirty, dead mother.
Lois begins to receive secret notes slipped into her purse and school papers. Quickly the notes become more obscene, and after receiving one asking her to meet at night in the locker room, she goes, hoping to discourage her admirer. Bad move! In the darkness a flashlight glares in her face and she is sexually molested by her unidentified predator. With the help of police lieutenant Harry Graham (George Nader), Lois does her best to fend off future attacks, while trying to keep from suffering a nervous breakdown herself! Look for 1950s teenage haircuts and clothes. Cool-looking teen hangout, "The Sugar Shop" is where all the cool cats and kittens go to dance to the rock and roll jukebox! Lots of boogie woogie tunes and jiving at the high school dance. It's rare to see a 50's teenage JD film in color! Esther Williams, George Nader, John Saxon, Edward Andrews, Les Tremayne, Jack Albertson, Dani Crayne, John Wilder, Edward Platt, Eleanor Audley, Robert Williams, Diane Jergens.
Esther Williams gets her first post MGM starring role and gets off to a good start. This film is a well acted entertaining suspense with a mature theme that would be repeated a million times more in the future - innocent girl stalked creepy woman hater. Esther looks great and if she wanted to, probably could have gone on to do more and better films but according to her autobiography,pretty much gave up working for marriage. Either way she is so likable and engaging that its fun to see her in a totally different role outside of the 'swimming musical'.
Universal was fabulous for making films with former MGM stars after that studio began dropping its biggest names as it began to slide down hill. Stars like Lana Turner, June Allyson and others got to make quality first rate films at Universal that MGM would not allow them to make. I wish Esther had made more but since she didn't, it makes this one all the more special. The movie really changed my opinion of the acting ability of Esther Williams.If you get the rare chance to see THE UNGUARDED MOMENT, I recommend it...
Beau James (1957)
The Dramatic Side Of Bob Hope
Probably one of Bob Hope's least remembered films, BEAU JAMES (1957) was probably one of Hope's most dramatic efforts. In the forgotten movie, Bob Hope plays Mayor James J. Walker. New York City is known for choosing colorful characters for its mayors. One its most illustrious was the wisecracking, dancing and singing Mayor James J. Walker who helmed the Big Apple in the 1920s. This biopic chronicles his surprising rise to power and is adapted from a book by Gene Fowler. Walker owed his mayoral post to Tammany, a powerful political organization that used its tremendous clout to get him installed. Walker, who never takes his job seriously, then becomes a figurehead for Tammany, and while he is in power, corruption in the police force and other city offices runs rampant. Meanwhile Walker wrangles with his lover, dancer Betty Compton (played by Vera Miles), and his jealous wife (played by Alexis Smith), from whom he is separated.
Hope does very well as Walker. He does have a serious role where his flippant jokes match the character. He also shows the right degree of serious behavior, panicked when Betty is spirited away by Paul Douglas and Tammany Hall, or when he tells off the citizens of New York at Yankee Stadium for electing him. But the gaps in the script - the unwillingness to show the uglier side of the corruption - prevent one from taking it too seriously. Hope deserves recognition for his performance here, but he didn't merit (nor receive) an Oscar nomination for BEAU JAMES.
This is a celluloid version of Gene Fowler's valentine to his old chum Jimmy. It tries to make a case that Walker did not realize his taking the bribes/gifts was wrong. Walker knew it was wrong, but he never admitted it - he had been brought up in a city run by the Hall, and he was doing business there exactly as every boodling Mayor of New York had done since the 19th Century. Walker (a good Catholic, presumably) also knew that he was committing adultery when he took up with Ms Compton. Later, after he left City Hall, he divorced his wife and married Betty. Interestingly that marriage eventually failed, although Jimmy and Betty did adopt a girl. Compton died in 1941. Jimmy died in 1947.There was also terrific cameo appearances by stars that met and knew the real May James Walker including: Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, and George Jessel. American prints of this film are narrated by Walter Winchell; in Britain, the film was narrated by Alistair Cooke. One of the most memorable lines is when Walker is asked at a baseball game of a personal conduct scandal was "my comment, and you can quote me is I hope the Yankees win." While Bob Hope's acting is not really Oscar worthy in this 1957 film, it is his best acting effort. Bob is the star of the film, but he shares the spotlight with the City of New York as well. Jimmie Walker was New York City in the 1920s, and it really comes across here. The movie was not a box office hit, and although Dean Martin recorded the title song, not many people remember this film. It has not been released on video or DVD. Bob Hope, Jimmy Walker, and the City of New York deserve it to be released...
Radio City Revels (1938)
Good Cast But Bad Musical
It has been awhile since I started watching old movies. When I started my love of classic Hollywood, there was no TCM buy luckily I had a dinosaur called the video tape recorder. Before TCM entered the airwaves, its sister channel TNT used to show old movies. It was there that I saw a mediocre musical called Radio City Revels.
The movie deals with two out-of-work songwriters in New York City, Harry Miller (Jack Oakie) and Teddy (Milton Berle), who live next door to sisters Billie (Ann Miller) and Gertie (Helen Broderick) Shaw, who used to tour in vaudeville and have been left stranded and income-less by its demise. Miller's and Teddy's only source of income is a correspondence course in songwriting that they've sold to exactly one student, Arkansas hillbilly Lester Robin (played by rustic comedian Bob Burns, who had enough of a reputation in 1938 he's actually given top billing).
Robin is frustrated because while he's awake he can only come up with songs other people already wrote (like an hilariously fractured version of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean") but when he's asleep he dreams the most beautiful — and original — melodies and lyrics, only to forget them when he wakes up. Miller and Teddy realize this unique talent and start transcribing Lester's nocturnal emissions, peddling them as their own and becoming star songwriters for the company owned by Paul Plummer (Victor Moore, even more annoyingly whiny than usual). The premise is so weird that at least one critic summed it up by saying it seemed as if the film's writers had been asleep when they came up with it.
The draw of the movie for me was the appearance of singer Jane Froman in a minor role. She played the vocalist for Hal Kemp's band. It is unfortunate that she did not have a bigger role, it might have helped the movie. Froman never had much of a movie career, but her voice was wonderful. Kenny Baker was the male vocalist in this opus. Baker got his start as the comic foil for Jack Benny on his radio show, and he left the Benny organization to make his way in film. Like Froman, Baker did not have much of a movie career either.
RKO spent some serious money on this movie — at least two of the numbers, including "There's a New Moon Over the Old Mill," are staged on splendiferous sets (the "Old Mill" number takes place on a beautiful white, stylized art deco mill and features four mill maids desperately waiting for male mates. Great comic actors like Victor Moore and Helen Broderick were features as second bananas in the film, but with no major stars it was hard to see who they would be second banana to.
It is utterly baffling who they thought the audience for it would be, and as it turned out there wasn't one: RKO spent $810,000 making Radio City Revels and lost $300,000 on it. The movie was not great, and it is mostly forgotten today, but the film is worth watching if it is just for the 1930s stars that the movie spotlighted...
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Hitchcock and Americana
When I first saw the classic SHADOW OF A DOUBT when I was younger, I did not realize it was an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The movie, made in 1943, was unlike any movie Hitchcock had done before or for that matter after. It was Hitchcock's only "purely American" movie, and the movie was years ahead of itself in suspense, intrigue, and dialogue. While many films of the day were musicals about how the boy gets the girl, SHADOW OF A DOUBT truly is a film that has not aged much. Some 67 years after its release the film is still quite watchable and the suspense is more riveting than any 3D or special effects movie.
Starring Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, and MacDonald Carey, SHADOW OF A DOUBT was one of Joseph Cotten's finest roles. Alfred Hitchcock appears about 15 minutes into the film, on the train to Santa Rosa, playing bridge with a man and a woman (Dr and Mrs. Harry). Charlie Oakley is traveling on the train under the assumed name of Otis. Mrs. Harry is eager to help Otis, who is feigning illness in order to avoid meeting fellow passengers, but Dr. Harry is not interested and keeps playing bridge. Hitchcock on his part seems surprised to see that he has somehow been dealt a full suite of spades, a Grand Slam bridge hand.
The plot centers around a bored teenager living in Santa Rosa, California, Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Wright). She is frustrated because nothing seems to be happening in her life and that of her family. Then, she receives wonderful news: her uncle (for whom she was named), Charlie Oakley (Cotten), her mother's brother, is arriving for a visit.
Two men show up pretending to be photographers and journalists working on a national survey of the average American family. One of them speaks to Charlie privately, identifying himself as Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and telling her that her uncle is one of two men who are suspected of being a serial killer known as the "Merry Widow Murderer". This murderer has a modus operandi of seducing, murdering and robbing wealthy widows.
Young Charlie at first refuses to even consider that her uncle could be a murderer, but she cannot help noticing him acting strangely on several occasions. She confirms her suspicions after seeing the initials on the engraving on the ring Uncle Charlie gave her match one of the recent victims of the killer. Particularly chilling is a family dinner conversation during which Uncle Charlie reveals his hatred of rich widows, comparing them to fat animals deserving of slaughter.
Young Charlie's growing suspicion soon becomes apparent to her uncle. He confronts her and admits that he is indeed the man the police are after. He begs her for help; she reluctantly agrees not to say anything, as long as he leaves soon, to avoid a horrible scandal in the town that would destroy her family, especially her mother, who idolizes her younger brother.
Then news breaks that the second suspect was killed fleeing from the police in Portland, Maine, and is assumed to have been the guilty one. The detective Graham leaves after telling Young Charlie that he loves her and would like to marry her someday. Uncle Charlie is delighted at first, until he remembers that Young Charlie fully knows his secret. Soon, the young woman has a couple of near fatal "accidents", falling down some very steep stairs at her home, and being trapped in a closed garage with a car spewing exhaust fumes.
Uncle Charlie soon announces that he is leaving by train for San Francisco, following what is presumably his next victim. As he departs, he contrives for young Charlie to stay on board, planning to kill her by pushing her off as soon as the train gets up to speed. Instead, in the ensuing struggle between them, he falls into the path of an oncoming train. At his funeral Uncle Charlie is highly honored by the townspeople of Santa Rosa, who know nothing of his crimes. Jack has come back to comfort Charlie; she tells him she had withheld from him information about her uncle which would have confirmed him as the murderer, but Jack already knows and accepts that, realizing her difficult situation. They become a couple, and resolve to keep Uncle Charlie's crimes a secret.
If you are looking for one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest masterpieces, do yourself a favor and watch SHADOW OF A DOUBT. It was by far one of the best movies of 1943, and one of the best movies of all time.
The Country Girl (1954)
Excellent Bing Crosby Role
Not only is THE COUNTRY GIRL, released in 1954, one of my favorite dramas, but it is one of my favorite Bing Crosby movies as well. Bing gave the performance of his life in this film. The Country Girl was adapted by George Seaton from a Clifford Odets play of the same name, which tells the story of an alcoholic has-been actor struggling with the one last chance he's been given to resurrect his career. It stars Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden. Seaton, who also directed, won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. It was entered in the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
Kelly won the Oscar for Best Actress for the role, which previously had earned Uta Hagen her first Tony Award in the play's original Broadway production. The role, a non-glamorous departure for Kelly, was as the alcoholic actor's long-suffering wife.
The win was a huge surprise, as most critics and people in the press felt that Judy Garland would win for A Star Is Born. NBC even sent a camera crew to Garland's hospital room, where she was recuperating from the birth to her son, in order to conduct a live interview with her if she won. The win by Kelly instead famously prompted Groucho Marx to send Garland a telegram stating it was "the biggest robbery since Brinks." Given the period of its production, the film is notable for its realistic, frank dialog and honest treatments of the surreptitious side of alcoholism and post-divorce misogyny.
In a theatre where auditions are being held for a new musical production, the director, Bernie Dodd, watches a number performed by fading star Frank Elgin and suggests he be cast. This is met with strong opposition from Cook, the show's producer.
Bernie insists on the down-on-his-luck Elgin, who is living in a modest apartment with his wife Georgie, a cold and bitter woman who has aged far beyond her years. They are grateful, though not entirely certain Elgin can handle the work.
Based on comments Elgin makes about her privately, Bernie assumes that Georgie is the reason for Frank's career decline. He strongly criticizes her, first behind her back and eventually to her face. What he doesn't know is that the real reason Elgin's career has ended is the death of their five-year-old son Johnny, who was hit by a car while in the care of his father.
Mealy-mouthed to the director's face, Elgin is actually a demanding alcoholic who is totally dependent on his wife. Bernie mistakenly blames her for everything that happens during rehearsals, including Elgin's requests for a dresser and a run-of-the-show contract. He believes Georgie to be suicidal and a drunk, when it is actually Frank who is both.
Humiliated when he learns the truth, Bernie realizes that behind his hatred of Georgie was a strong attraction to her. He kisses her and falls in love.
Elgin succeeds in the role on opening night. Afterward he demands respect from the producer that he and his wife had not been given previously. At a party to celebrate, Bernie believes that now that Elgin has recovered his self-respect and stature, Georgie will be free to leave him. But she stands by her husband instead...
One Of Chaplin's Best Films
I am a huge fan of Charles Chaplin. Despite his personal demons he had, he was a wonderful comedian and gifted actor. I managed to catch his film Limelight the other week on TCM, and I was reminded what a great film it was. Limelight is a 1952 comedy-drama film written, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin, co-starring Claire Bloom, with an appearance by Buster Keaton. In dance scenes, Bloom is doubled by Melissa Hayden. The film score is composed by Chaplin and arranged by Ray Rasch.
The film was released amidst scandal, since it was during touring to support the film that Chaplin was refused re-admittance to the United States. The film was subsequently passed over by many theaters. In 1972, the film was given a wide U.S. release and honored at the Academy Awards.
The movie is set in London in 1914, on the eve of World War I. 1914 was the year Chaplin made his first movie. Calvero (Charles Chaplin), once a famous stage clown but now a washed-up drunk, saves a young dancer, Thereza Ambrose, alias Terry (Claire Bloom), from suicide. Nursing her back to health, Calvero helps Terry regain her self-esteem and resume her dancing career. In doing so he regains his own self-confidence, but his attempts to make a comeback are less successful. Terry says she wants to marry Calvero despite their age difference, although she has befriended Neville, a young composer Calvero believes would be better suited to her. In order to give them a chance Calvero leaves home and becomes a street entertainer. Terry, now starring in her own show, eventually finds Calvero and persuades him to return to the stage for a benefit concert. Reunited with an old partner (Keaton), Calvero gives a triumphant comeback performance but immediately suffers a heart attack and dies in the wings while just a few feet away Terry, the second act on the bill, dances on stage...