Wednesday, August 24, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957)

Hey, the last time I did one of these was back in June of 2012…I don’t know how long the second feature oaters will last, but let’s give one a try for old time’s sake.

There are two reasons why I decided to sit down and watch Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957).  First, the one and only MISTER John Dehner receives top billing—something mighty unusual for a thespian who was mostly practiced in the art of character acting.  The second reason was the title; future Perry Mason star Raymond Burr starred in a short-lived radio western entitled Fort Laramie, but the actor who played Burr’s role as Cavalry Captain Lee Quince in the show’s audition was…you guessed it, John Dehner.  So a Western entitled Revolt at Fort Laramie is bound to make me smile; I had a mental picture of Dehner and Burr duking it out in front of a microphone as Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, and Jack Moyles looked on.

As I have said so often ‘round these parts—I’m simply not that lucky.  In Revolt, Dehner plays Major Seth Bradner—the commander of the titular fort, and a native son of The Old Dominion.  Bradner has pressing issues to deal with: one, he’s trying to negotiate a peace treaty with Sioux chief Red Cloud (Eddie Little Sky).  There is mutual distrust between the two men, and matters aren’t helped when a few of Red Cloud’s warriors attack a supply wagon en route to the fort; Bradner’s second-in-command, Captain James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer), is convinced that Red Cloud wants to steal a gold shipment on the wagon so that Red Cloud can fortify his tribe without having to deal with all that bothersome red tape that accompanies treaties.

But the largest item in Bradner’s inbox is that talk of a war between the North and South is brewing; in fact, during a dance at the fort where the Major is set to announce that his niece Melissa (Frances Helm) will be pledging her troth to Tenslip, he is sidetracked with a bulletin that Fort Sumter has been fired upon.  A number of Johnny Rebs plan to resign their Cavalry commissions to join up with the Confederate cause…and they announce these plans to Major Bradner.  They’d also like to take along that gold shipment and deliver it to a Confederate fort in Texas to ensure the South has adequate capital to fight “the war of Northern aggression.”

The Civil War subplot of Revolt at Fort Laramie is an intriguing one, and I kind of wish writer Robert C, Dennis (who later enjoyed a prolific career scripting small screen fare like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, and Perry Mason) had explored it in a bit more detail.  But there’s no room for any of that boring character development; this is a Western, damn it, and it’s far more important to concentrate on the skirmishes between the Cavalry soldiers and the Sioux…and later on in Revolt, a tense situation in which Bradner (who announces to any soldier hailing from the South that they will receive honorable discharges so that they can fight for the Confederacy) and some of the soldiers have to hold off Sioux warriors with a dwindling ammunition supply.  All in all, Revolt boils down to 73 minutes of typical "cowboys-vs.-injuns" shoot-'em-up.

My admiration for Dehner knows no bounds…but unfortunately in this oater, he’s got precious little to work with.  There are a few familiar faces here and there: Don Gordon is a half-breed Indian scout named Jean Salignac, and either his ma or pa was French because he uses a Gallic accent throughout the movie.  Kenne Duncan is also on hand, and (Harry) Dean Stanton has one of his earliest motion picture roles as a Southern recruit named “Rinty.”  The majority of the cast manages to say their lines and refrain from bumping into the furniture—there aren’t too many standout performances here.  There is, however, an interesting continuity boo-boo: another Southerner (Bill Barker) answering to “Hendrey” lets Tenslip in on the soldier’s plans…and when he returns to his bunk, he finds the others lying in wait for him.  They quickly dispatch him to the Happy Hunting Ground to a chorus of “Dixie” (a bloody knife is wiped clean on the blanket of one of the bunks); later in the movie, it’s reported that Hendrey’s dead body has been found outside the fort…he’s been scalped to make it appear he was killed by the Sioux.  Tenslip tells Bradner that he suspects Hendrey was killed because he knew too much, and Major Seth says he’ll look into it.  The investigation goes no further.

Directed by journeyman Lesley Selander (who helmed many of the Hopalong Cassidy programmers in the 30s/40s), Revolt at Fort Laramie was an independent effort of Bel-Air Productions (the company produced one of my favorite B-pictures, Big House U.S.A.) and distributed through United Artists.  Bel-Air later teamed Dehner with a cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Mamie Van Doren, and Marie Windsor in a classic piece of WTF cinema, The Girl in Black Stockings (1957) …which is available on MOD DVD.  (Sadly, Revolt at Fort Laramie is not—I caught this one on MGM HD.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

“Want to get away from it all? We offer you…Escape!”

“Escape” is what I planned to offer you as this week’s entry of Overlooked Films on Tuesday; I had selected the 1948 feature starring Rex Harrison and Peggy Cummins, because I recently purchased a DVD copy from my very good friend Martin Grams, Jr. at his Finders Keepers website.  I have not seen the film—I’m not all that familiar with the movies that have aired on FXM/The Fox Movie Channel, so it might have turned up there at one time.  I did see it listed once among the offerings on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, but we didn’t have TCM then.

Saturday morning, I popped the DVD into the player…and the first thing I see is Leo the Lion, growling as though he missed breakfast.  Which I thought sort of odd, because I knew that Escape was a 20th Century-Fox release.  As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now…this Escape was the 1940 motion picture based on the best-selling book by The Bitter Tea of General Yen author Grace Zaring Stone (under her nom de plume Ethel Vance…which she used in order to protect relatives still living in Germany).  In the distance, I could hear a faint chortling…as if the Classic Movie Gods were suffering from a severe case of having their sides split as a result of enjoying my experience.  (They’re a regular riot, Alice.)

Before I venture into this any further…I need to let you know that I e-mailed Martin about this snafu, and because he’s a stand-up amigo he is rectifying this error as you read this.  (We will visit with the 1948 Escape another Tuesday.)  But I thought: well, I’ve already rented the hall, and the motto on the coat of arms for Castle Yesteryear reads (from the French): “Quand la vie vous donne des citrons, faire de la limonade.”  And it’s a good thing I like limon…er, lemonade because two of my classic film bête noires are in Escape (1940): Robert Taylor and Norma Shearer.

In the case of Mr. Taylor, he portrays Mark Preysing, who journeys to pre-World War II Germany (the time is 1936, and the place is the Bavarian Alps) in search of his mother, renowned actress Emmy Ritter (Nazimova).  Madame Ritter is in a concentration camp; she was pronounced guilty of treason after trying to smuggle money out of the country after the sale of her husband’s estate (strictly verboten) and she’s sentenced to be executed.  An understanding doctor at the camp, Ditten (Phillip Dorn), has promised Emmy that he will get a letter out to her son…but only after she’s shuffled off this mortal coil.  (Compassion only goes so far whenever Nazis are involved.)

Preysing isn’t able to get any answers as to his mother’s whereabouts, and he keeps running into walls where the bureaucracy is concerned.  Even the old family retainer, Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart), claims not to know Preysing; he attacks him with a whip when Mark stops him on the road.  The only person to offer a sympathetic ear is Ruby von Treck (Shearer), an American-born woman who married German nobility (she’s a countess) and now runs a finishing school out of her home.  Yet Ruby demonstrates the same willingness to help Mark as does Fritz and his handy horsewhip.

There’s a reason for Ruby’s reticence.  She’s heavily involved in a romantical way with General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), a top Nazi officer who spills the beans to his paramour that Madame Ritter is languishing in a concentration camp…but not for long.  Ruby’s loyalty to her adopted country will be tested when she finally agrees to help Mark and his mother…and the wheels are set in motion for the titular crashout with a chance meeting between Ruby, Mark, and Dr. Ditten at a concert.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Escape.  Here’s the irony: I actually DVR’d this one when we still had TCM…and then for some reason deleted it.  So it’s as if I got a reprieve from the Governor.  Escape was one of M-G-M’s first anti-Nazi films, and it was a gutsy move for the studio whose most daring attempt to tackle social commentary at that time was the never-released Andy Hardy Gets a Cold Sore.  The reason why the major studios were reluctant to make these kind of motion pictures is because they didn’t want to miss out on that sweet, sweet overseas box office money.  As you can predict, Escape was banned in Germany…and other anti-Nazi efforts from M-G-M (The Mortal Storm) would soon receive the same cold shoulder.

I have to be honest: Escape has not made me a Robert Taylor convert (I’m sure, with application of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™, there must be one movie he was in that I like—Devil’s Doorway is pretty good, so maybe I just answered my own query)—I’ve just always found him a bit too stiff and wooden.  But he’s fairly decent in this (even if he is wearing the moustache that normally belongs to Conrad Veidt), and Shearer gives an equally solid performance as the woman who slowly starts to realize that Veidt’s Nazi is not the man for her (many Shearer fans consider her turn as the Countess one of her finest performances).  (I like a lot of Shearer’s silent films, but for some odd reason I’m not nearly as wild about her “talkies.”)

Speaking of Veidt—this is how I like my Conrad, cartooners; he’s at his nasty “Major Strasser” best and provides the movie much needed menace (the only nitpick I have is that they saddle him with a heart condition…which they have to do in order for this film to have a somewhat happy ending).  Director Mervyn LeRoy wanted Veidt from the get-go, but when the actor was unavailable LeRoy had to go with Plan B and Paul Lukas.  Lukas lasted a week as von Kolb; he wasn’t terrible but he just wasn’t interpreting the role the way Mervyn had envisioned…and once Lukas was out, Veidt was then available.

Felix Bressart is also first-rate as a sniveling coward who finally does what’s right at the risk of his own life.  In addition, you not only get Albert Bassermann in this picture (a small role, but a most effective turn) but Mrs. B as well—Elsa Bassermann, in her film debut, plays the wife of Bassermann’s character, a lawyer.  Bonita Granville is great as a cute little Nazi-in-training ready to rat out any of her fellow finishing schoolmates who refuse to toe the line, and OTR veteran Edgar Barrier appears in one of his earliest film roles as a German official who is of little help to Taylor in his desperate inquiries to locate his mama.

Purportedly, producer Leonard Weingarten wanted Alfred Hitchcock to sit in Escape’s director chair…and though the Master of Suspense was intrigued with the idea of working with Shearer he ultimately took a pass (I’d gamble he wasn’t too keen on having to deal with the M-G-M style of moviemaking).  Mervyn LeRoy got the tap (he also got the producer credit), and while it would have been interesting to see a Hitch version of Escape I can’t deny that Merv does right by the material; the last half of the film is nail-bitingly suspenseful.  The script was co-written by Lights Out maven Arch Oboler, who sneaks in a little propagandistic speechifying in Nazimova’s character at the very beginning before wisely tapering off and letting the film continue its gripping premise by its lonesome.

I chose to scrap the original title for this post—“Grey Market Cinema: Escape (1940)”—in favor of an old-time radio pun because Escape is available as a MOD DVD from the folks at the Warner Archive.  Of course, it also makes the occasional rounds at TCM.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Review: Lame Brains & Lunatics

It’s been said confession is good for the soul.  So here’s mine: I purchased a Kindle edition of my Facebook amigo Steve Massa’s Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy on August 9, 2013—if what says is true, and I have no reason to believe they would ever lie to me…he said, rather unconvincingly.  As you can see by the date of this blog post, it’s been three years since I’ve gotten around to devouring its contents.  So I’ll state up front: this is no reflection on Steve’s indispensable reference book.  I’m just lazy.

Not that I’m unfamiliar with Steve’s exemplary silent film comedy scholarship.  He’s one the very best, and if you’ve been thinking about investing in any of the Accidentally Preserved DVDs (collections of previously thought one- and two-reel comedies) from Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions, you’ll want to pony up the additional scratch (only $5.95—a mere bag of shells, as The Great One would say) for the companion guide, also co-written by Massa.  He put together a similar guide for The Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVDs, too.  (Some of the material in Lame Brains & Lunatics overlaps with the information provided in these guides, but that’s certainly understandable.)

Let me approach this from the viewpoint of someone who’s just been introduced to the wonders of silent movie comedy.  Steve’s Lame Brains & Lunatics goes beyond the parameters of what film historian and friend of TDOY Richard M. Roberts (and others) often calls “the big three”: Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  There were a number of unsung clowns who diligently worked hard to make audiences laugh in the silent era, and for various reasons (chiefly the inconvenient truth that a lot of their work has been lost to time and neglect) they’re not well remembered today.  You can make a strong argument that some of them are well-deserving of their obscurity (that’s whom Steve refers to with the “Bad” in the book’s sub-title) but too many of them were talented practitioners in the art of mirthmaking, and Massa has made it his mission to chronicle their careers in a respectful fashion.

Ever hear of Billie Ritchie?  Truth be told, I wasn’t well acquainted with him either until I picked up Steve’s book; I probably had him confused with Chaplin imitator Billy West.  Ritchie is often classified as in the same Chaplin-aping league as West, but as Massa observes “Billie had a long stage career before Charlie became famous.”  Ritchie was once a member of the Fred Karno company (as was Chaplin), and even claimed to have originated Charlie’s Tramp character.  “I was amazed to discover that not only is Ritchie different from Chaplin,” Steve writes, “but also that he deserves his own place in silent comedy history for presenting possibly the most low-down, despicable, and unlikable character ever seen on the screen.”  This is saying a lot: Billie Ritchie even outdoes well-known misanthropes as W.C. Fields (who at least had a twinkle in his eye when he was conniving and scheming).  Massa generously provides a filmography for Ritchie (in addition to other select funsters) toward the end of the book; I glanced at the titles and didn’t see anything I recognized other than Live Wires and Love Sparks (1916) so it’s clear I need to track down more of his films.

Funny ladies also receive prominent chapters in Lame Brains: Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Fay Tincher, etc. (which reminds me: Steve's next book will be Slapstick Divas...and it will be due out soon, so keep an eye out for it)—I’ve a passing familiarity with their work since a few of their shorts are spotlighted on the out-of-print Image Entertainment DVD set Slapstick Encyclopedia (released in 2002).  I particularly enjoyed reading a chapter on Marie Dressler, since I had the foresight to DVR a few of her features before Rancho Yesteryear’s DISH austerity program kicked in (I loved Marie in Reducing…Polly Moran—not so much).  In addition, the careers of Roscoe Arbuckle and his nephew Al St. “Fuzzy” John are examined…not to mention Max Linder, Marcel Perez (the subject of another book by Massa, and a companion guide to Undercrank’s The Marcel Perez Collection), and George Rowe.  The title of a section on one of my favorites here at TDOY, Charley Chase, reads “Comedy’s Best-Kept Secret” (so appropriate) …and you’ll not only learn about Our Gang but the myriad of kiddie imitators that attempted to duplicate the troupe’s success.

You know the old cliché about someone “knowing their onions.”  That describes Steve Massa to a “T”; Lame Brains & Lunatics is meticulously researched and sourced (a list of reference works is provided at the conclusion of the book), and Massa’s knowledge of his subject is nothing short of amazing.  I chortled out loud when I read a line attributed to Steve by one of his friends: “You’re more interested in the peel than the fruit.”  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  (I also enjoyed how he described the mantra to his childhood as being “movies, monsters, and comic books.”  That sounds awfully familiar.)

Film historian/archivist Eileen Bowser contributes a  foreword to Lame Brains & Lunatics (as a one-time curator for the Museum of Modern Art, she tells a wonderful anecdote about the first she encountered Steve), while Sam Gill—co-author with Kalton C. Lahue of the seminal silent film comedy reference book Clown Princes and Court Jesters—has the final say.  In between, however, is the sensational work of Steve Massa; this book is essential reading for the silent comedy fan.  I only regret it took me so long to find out.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Those cold-cereal-and-footy-pajamas days

I’ve socked away enough movies and TV reruns on our DISH Hopper that I won’t be starved for entertainment soon…but I’m kind of anal-retentive when it comes to dubbing material to discs.  For example, if I record a movie that’s an hour-and-a-half long…I fret about that extra half-hour going to waste.  Ordinarily, I’d fill up the remaining time with the stray Tee Cee Em one- or two-reeler or TV rerun…but shorts on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ often run few and far between.  So I went looking for an alternative.

I found it in the form of KTV (Kids & Teens TV), a religious-family channel we’re still getting on DISH (Wikipedia says it’s a DISH exclusive).  Now, because I am a practicing heathen (well, technically—I no longer need to practice; I’m pretty darn accomplished at it now) I have little use for roughly 95% of KTV’s content.  But there are nuggets among the dross; I found a few shows that were favorites when I was a youngster, and revisiting them has been a splendid exercise in nostalgia.

But I need to issue a caveat here.  It was Thomas Wolfe who observed, “You can’t go home again,” and I think he hit the nail on the head.  When you’re a kid, you really don’t pay too much attention to the quality of the crappy made-for-TV animation (well, unless you’re Thad Komorowski)—you just want movement, supplemented with explosions if necessary.  As I have gotten older, I’ve looked back on various cartoon shows of yore (I’m talking to you, Cool McCool) and asked myself “Why was I watching this again?”

Here’s a good example: KTV currently offers The Mighty Hercules, a syndicated cartoon series that originally aired between 1963-66.  I talked a little bit about the show when it was announced in 2011 that a DVD release of some of the cartoons was eminent, but here’s all you really to know: the animation on this series was abysmal.  Plus, I never did figure out what the point was of Hercules having that creepy centaur sidekick around; he repeated himself like that mobster in GoodFellas (“I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers”).  The saddest thing about Hercules is that they’ve re-released his show with a brand new set of opening credits and song (despite the plus-side that the cartoons look like they’ve been restored), effectively destroying the only good thing The Mighty Hercules had going for it—the unforgettable Johnny Nash theme (“Hercules/Hero of song and story/Hercules/Winner of ancient glory”).  Let’s venture into the WABAC, shall we?

I watched the heck of this when I was a kid—it aired weekday mornings on WHTN (later WOWK) along with long-forgotten cartoon cobwebs like The Adventures of Sinbad, Jr. and the occasional stray Terrytoon (Hector Heathcote, Hashimoto-san, etc.).  I DVR’d one episode from KTV, watched it, and decided that some things are best left in the memory banks.  (Though I had forgotten about Hercules’ cry of “Olympiaaaaa!”—it’s a shame no one signed him up for a beer endorsement.)

But I can’t say that for all of the cartoon shows on KTV.  Case in point: Roger Ramjet, another limited animation classic that plays a lot better in retrospect due to its Rocky and Bullwinkle-like refusal to take things too seriously (I enjoyed the voice work on Roger, too).  KTV also has The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo on its schedule, which still holds up pretty well (it alternates with The Mr. Magoo Show, which I always looked forward to watching whenever I visited my grandparents as a kid).  I have a special affinity for the near-sighted character voiced by Jim Backus because when I was an infant, my grandfather proclaimed to my mother I was the spitting image of Magoo.

KTV runs a few classic shows that I don’t have a particular interest in: The Archie Show, The Secret Life of Waldo Kitty, Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, etc.—though I did DVR an episode of Space Academy for shits and giggles.  I also caught an edition of The Harveytoons Show the other day, which edited the old Paramount Noveltoons into a half-hour presentation that regretfully has removed the opening credits on each short (I hate when that happens).  The show was syndicated in 1998, and while I still think the Harvey characters were better served in comic books (jeez, did I have a lot of those as a kid) it’s a painless way to kill 21 minutes.  (Besides, Jerry Beck was a consultant on this show—it has some modicum of credibility.)

Which is the other benefit of KTV’s cartoon programming: they don’t interrupt these shows for commercials (I had my finger on the DVD Recorder remote, ready to spring into action).  I like that.  I like that a lot.  Though you have to take the bitter with the sweet; they do have that big honkin’ KTV logo superimposed over the cartoons—sometimes it’s so large I mistake it for a billboard in the background of the animation.

Friday, August 19, 2016

From the DVR: Goodbye, My Fancy (1951)

Agatha Reed (Joan Crawford) has capped off her successful career (among her former occupations: war correspondent) with her election to the U.S. House of Representatives (when we first see her, she is exiting a meeting of a committee she chairs).  But when a letter from Dr. James Merrill (Robert Young)—president of Good Hope College (For Women)—requests her acceptance of an honorary degree at the institution’s graduation ceremony, Reed sees it as the culmination of all she’s achieved—she’s even turned down similar requests in the past from loftier institutions of learning like Vassar.  Besides, there’ll be irony in the fact that Good Hope will be paying tribute to a student who was actually expelled before she graduated…a saucy anecdote that does not particularly set well with Claude Griswold (Howard St. John), one of Good Hope’s trustees.

So why was Agatha expelled?  Well, she was caught sneaking back into her dorm room at the butt-crack-of-dawn, and though it takes a little while during Goodbye, My Fancy’s 108-minute running time, we eventually learn that she and Merrill were mahd for one another and had planned to run away to be married.  Agatha, concerned that this little indiscretion would scotch Jim’s career trajectory, nobly fell on the grenade and never revealed this to anyone…allowing Merrill to transform himself over the years from a respected instructor to a stodgy college president who’s little more than a puppet performing at the whims of fatheads like Griswold.

It won’t be until the conclusion of Fancy that Congresswoman Reed realizes this; she’s so overcome with nostalgia meeting up with her former fiancé that she tells her assistant “Woody” Woods (Eve Arden) she’d marry Merrill faster that you can hum “Here Comes the Bride” if he’d only ask her.  Unfortunately, the third member of what forms an awkward love triangle arrives on the scene: Life magazine photographer Matt Cole (Frank Lovejoy), an old flame from her war correspondent days.  (Agatha had once agreed to marry Matt…but left him just like Bergman left Bogie in Paris in Casablanca—though with considerably less drama.)

Before you start thinking that I’m on a Joan Crawford kick as of late, I need to explain why I sat down with Goodbye, My Fancy (1951) the other day.  I saw Eve Arden’s name in the cast, and after that it was Katie bar the door.  Maybe this says more about me…but I cannot for the life of me figure out a movie in which Joan Crawford is fighting off two suitors and Eve winds up with none.  Arden gets most of the best lines in this movie (my favorite is “I hate Life photographers...they're always trying to catch you picking your nose”), and she demonstrates that irresistible tart sarcasm displayed in her previous collaboration with La Joan, Mildred Pierce (1945).  Simply put, I’d sweep Miss Brooks off her feet in a New York minute.

The other major handicap of Fancy is that neither gentleman caller is really worthy of Joan’s attention.  It’s a toss-up between the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and an obnoxious photographer…and I say this last part reluctantly, because my admiration for Frank Lovejoy knows no bounds.  But Lovejoy’s a real jerk in this movie; I won’t reveal who Joanie ends up with so as not to spoil it for those who have not watched it…but I couldn’t help wishing (here’s an election metaphor for you) that a giant meteor could have hit the Earth in Fancy, putting me out of my misery.  (Yes, I realize that Crawford—in the same manner of stablemate Bette Davis—had to have George Brentian doormats to romance her in films.  This is why I have such a thing for Eve Arden.)

Goodbye, My Fancy (the title comes from a Walt Whitman poem) was adapted for the big screen (by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts) from the successful Broadway play by Fay Kanin (sister-in-law of Garson), best-known (with her husband Michael) for the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Teacher’s Pet (1958).  Both Fay and Michael were later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the original content of Fancy probably goes a lot toward explaining why: the Reed character has brought an anti-war film she’s produced to be shown at the college during graduation weekend.  The play was originally produced in 1948…but by the time Warner Brothers got hold of it, the Korean War was in full swing and so the decision was made to water down the content (Agatha’s movie now addresses academic freedom under Fascism and Communism).  To his credit, director Vincent Sherman had wanted the movie to focus on the academic fight against loyalty oaths (it’s touched upon briefly, in the matter of a popular instructor [Morgan Farley] who’s being pressured to resign) but the studio would brook none of that nonsense, choosing to emphasize the romantic triangle instead.  Fancy was the third and last collaboration between Sherman and star Crawford; the two had previously worked on Harriet Craig (1950) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950).

Fancy was the first credited film role for actress Janice Rule (she had a bit part in 1951’s Fourteen Hours), who plays Merrill’s daughter Virginia…and her youth, beauty, and talent was not warmly embraced by the film’s star.  (I know this will be hard to believe—but the insecure Crawford was a tad jealous.)  La Joan had Rule rattled to the point where she purportedly told her: “Miss Rule, you'd better enjoy making films while you can.  I doubt that you'll be with us long.”  (Meowr!)  I think Rule does a solid job considering the circumstances, but as is my character actor inclination I gravitated to the smaller-but-no-less-effective performances from Viola Roache, John Qualen, and Ellen Corby (there’s a sweet hint of romance between Qualen and Corby, both playing teachers at the college).  And of course, I found TDOY favorite Lurene Tuttle a delight as St. John’s flibbertigibbet spouse (and Crawford’s old dorm mate) who shows she does have a little Moxie on the ball by film’s end.

I DVR’d Goodbye, My Fancy at a time when the DISH austerity program had not yet taken effect, and while the movie wasn’t my particular meat I can’t complain that I wasted time watching it (unlike 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House, which I also watched this week—my reaction was the same as Emory Parnell’s in It’s in the Bag [1945]: “Stinks!”).  It turns up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time, and is also available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive.  (OTR fans will be interested to know that Young, Lovejoy, and Tuttle reprise their roles in a January 14, 1952 presentation of The Lux Radio Theatre, with Barbara Stanwyck in the Crawford role.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

From the DVR: Chicago Confidential (1957)

Here’s the inconvenient truth about unions.  They have a tendency to attract the wrong element, and by that I mean they are an irresistible temptation for the M-O-B.  That’s the story behind Chicago Confidential (1957): Mickey Partos (John Morley), treasurer of the Workers National Brotherhood, arranges a meeting with Cook County State’s Attorney James Fremont (Brian Keith) to report that the “syndicate” is making inroads into the W.N.B., thanks to the mobbed-up connections of W.N.B. vice-president Ken Harrison (Douglas Kennedy).  There’s a war going on between Harrison and W.N.B. president Artie Lange (Dick Foran) …and it looks as though Harrison has the upper hand (temporarily) when he has Partos rubbed out before Mickey can sit down for a chinwag with Fremont.

Harrison’s elaborate plan to frame Lange for Partos’ murder hits a temporary snag when the murder weapon (a Smith & Wesson belonging to Artie) left at the scene of the crime is picked up by rumdum “Candymouth” Duggan (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  The syndicate is able to track down Duggan, and he’s persuaded to tell Fremont he witnessed Lange gun down Partos.  Another witness, Sylvia Clarkson (Beverly Tyler), also perjures herself on the stand and having been convicted of the crime, it looks as if the state is going to offer Artie The Chair.  Only Artie’s fiancée, Laura Barton (Beverly Garland), knows Lange is innocent—but will she able to convince Fremont, who’s benefitting from the notoriety of the case as a stepping stone to higher office?

Chicago Confidential has been described in many reviews as a film noir, and I can only guess it’s because folks often believe “crime picture = noir.”  There’s really not much noir in Confidential (well, some of its delightfully seamy milieu might qualify) …but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.  The B-picture was inspired by a best-selling novel written by Jack Lait (a one-time editor at The New York Daily Mirror) and Lee Mortimer, though little of the book’s actual content made it into the movie.  Lait and Mortimer collaborated on a number of other “Confidential” titles; one of them, New York Confidential, also made it to the big screen in 1955 (a splendid write-up by Our Lady of Great Caftan can be found here), and all that was really used was the title—Lait and Mortimer don’t receive credit on that film.  The screenplay for Confidential is credited to Raymond T. Marcus—the nom de blacklist of writer Bernard Gordon, who also wrote The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), a B-flick that I kept thinking of when I watched Confidential.  (Gordon wasn’t able to use his real name until 1963’s 55 Days at Peking; in 1997, he began to retroactively receive credit for a good many of the films for which he wrote…but he was understandably a mite bitter about the whole experience.)

Chicago Confidential isn’t a particularly inspired film.  It does not break any new ground in the police procedural.  But here’s the thing: while some people are powerless to resist cheesy monster flicks or repetitive B-westerns, if a movie features guns and cops and mob guys—deal me in.  Confidential does have some great things going for it; I loved Brian Keith in this one, as an ambitious D.A. who can ride the Lange case all the way to the Governorship…but his fundamental decency dictates that he do whatever he can to make sure Foran’s union boss doesn’t fry when evidence clearly shows Dick was framed.  (Because real-life public officials rarely act in this fashion, you can tell this is a work of fiction.)  Beverly Garland also turns in sensational work (I ran this again a second time for mi madre, commenting that “her favorite actress” was in it…and she knew right off the bat to whom I was referring) in a role tailor-made for her trademark “take-no-guff” kind of women.

It was nice to see Dick Foran in a part that didn’t require him to sit tall in the saddle while crooning a Western ditty (yes, I know he was capable of other roles…but for some reason the oaters always stick out in my mind)—I just wish he had a bit more time onscreen (and he seems fairly nonchalant for a guy who has an upcoming date with “Ol’ Sparky”).  Elisha Cook, Jr. is in his element as the bum who momentarily cocks up the scheme to frame Foran; Andrew “Grover” Leal will be gobsmacked to learn that Cook manages to stick around for at least four reels in this one.

The rest of the cast appears to be borrowed from a Lone Ranger casting sheet: Douglas Kennedy plays Harrison (though I think he could have put a bit more menace in his portrayal—it might because he has to answer to the real boss, played by Gavin Gordon), and I spotted Ranger regulars Harlan Warde, Dennis Moore (as a jury foreman), Thomas B. Henry (as a judge), and Jim Bannon (as the pilot near the end) as well.  Fans of The Adventures of Superman might also get a giggle seeing Phyllis “Gypsy” Coates (as Keith’s wife) and John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton (a defense attorney).  Other familiar faces include Checkmate’s Anthony George (this was the first movie in which he used “Anthony George,” having previously gone by “Tony George” and “Ott George”), Jack Lambert, Paul Langton, Beverly Tyler, and George “Cyrus Tankersley” Cisar (as the proprietor of a seedy nightclub).

There are a number of offbeat touches in Chicago Confidential: there’s a whisper of a white slavery ring being operated the syndicate (well, maybe not so much a whisper as sotto voce) and part of the plot turns on a nightclub impressionist (Buddy Lewis) who’s used to cast doubt on Foran’s alibi.  The great thing about Confidential is that it’s over and done within 73 minutes; it’s available on MOD DVD, released by MGM as part of their “Limited Edition Collection” in 2011…but since most of those titles have been relocated to Kino-Lorber it’s possible this one may make it to Blu-ray in the future.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: In Search of Lost Films

Even if you only have a passing familiarity with this blog (and I certainly wouldn’t blame you for wanting to keep your distance), you’re no doubt aware that I have had a lifelong love affair with silent cinema.  It began when I was a mere sprat, and our local public television station would entertain me with the Paul Killiam versions of such classics as The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Gold Rush (1925), and The General (1927)—among many others.  Growing up in Ravenswood, WV, my next-door neighbor and I would scour each edition of TV Guide and try to find the oldest movie airing on our local stations that week.  One time, we saw that The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was scheduled for a New Year’s Eve airing (this station traditionally ran horror movies to ring in the new year) and we were anxious to see it despite the fact it was going to be on at 4am.  We arranged for a sleepover, and though we tried our darndest our constitutions were not strong enough to stay awake for the presentation.  (As such, I didn’t see Phantom until many years later.)

The history of silent film preservation is a troubling one.  In 2013, The Library of Congress issued a report that estimated 75 percent of the feature films made in the U.S. during the silent era are now lost to future generations of classic movie lovers.  This depressing news doesn’t even take into consideration the number of vanished short films made at that same time, nor does it address the number of sound movies that have also disappeared.  It can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the gaps in foreign cinema, either.  So when news is reported that a previously lost movie has resurfaced (often in the unlikeliest of places) or I get a heads-up that donations are being requested to bring silent movies to DVD (as in the case of two recent campaigns to make the Marion Davies features When Knighthood Was in Flower [1922] and The Bride’s Play [1922} accessible to home video fans), it brings a smile to my usually stone-faced countenance (something I suspect I inherited from my days of watching Buster Keaton).

That face was the recipient of another ear-to-ear grin when I received an e-mail from Clint Weiler (at CWPR) offering me the opportunity to review a book written by journalist/film critic Phil Hall about the subject of film preservation, In Search of Lost Films.  In Search has just been published by BearManor Media (full disclosure: BMM’s Ben Ohmart and I have been chums for many years), a first-rate history on the subject of just how these cinematic treasures—silent and sound, U.S. and foreign—have turned to dust in what Hall himself describes in one chapter as “the roots of a cultural tragedy.”  Hall, a contributing editor for Film Threat magazine and author of other BearManor releases including The History of Independent Cinema and The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, hits one out of the park with this enjoyable read; at the risk of resorting to cliché, In Search is a real page-turner, one of those books in which you’d be willing to knock someone down just to get to the next chapter.

Phil discusses his subject over a number of fascinating chapters; he provides a history of early movie making in the first section, and how those pioneers weren’t motivated by art but by the pursuit of the almighty dollah (which goes a long way toward explaining why so many of these movies no longer exist—preservation was a move made in hindsight).  “Lost Films, Lost Careers” highlights how the likes of Theda Bara and Lon Chaney (you can imagine my delight that mirthmakers like Lloyd Hamilton and Raymond Griffith are also included) have had their silver screen legacies suffer due to the absence of many of their works.  There are also sections devoted to lists of now-lost and culturally significant silent films (The Great Gatsby, Hats Off) and sound presentations (The Rogue Song, Convention City), with Hall providing extensive background on the production history (when available) of these members of the cinematic “disappeared.”

“In Search of Missing Sequences and Segments” concentrates on indisputable classics (The Wizard of Oz, The Magnificent Ambersons) that were cut down from their original versions…and the extant footage no longer exists.  The last chapter, “The Age of Recovery and Rediscovery,” contains a list of films thankfully revived from their MIA state; I chuckled audibly when I read that John Cassavetes’ original version of Shadows (1959), his debut feature, was discovered in the Lost and Found Department of the New York City subway system.

Naturally, I was a ready-made audience for this book, and I particularly enjoyed how many of the lists of missing silent/sound films don’t duplicate the ones tallied in Frank Thompson’s excellent Lost Films (Thompson steered clear of lost “talkies” in his tome as well).  There are also wonderful quotes from some of the folks I’m proud to share Facebook with—film history experts like Ron Hutchinson, Jim Neibaur, Ben Model (his Accidentally Preserved series gets a nice mention), and Steve Massa (whose book Lame Brains & Maniacs is going to be the next one I tackle, I swear—I have the Kindle edition, so there’s no excuses).  Any classic movie fan who’s ever wiped away a tear—knowing that there are so many wonderful films that have since departed for that Great Movie Palace in the Sky—needs to purchase a copy of In Search of Lost Films…and keep it on hand for reference, to make certain we do what we can to keep another parade from going by.