Friday, September 15, 2017

Holding pattern


Since I’m at the halfway point before Thrilling Days of Yesteryear makes its official move to the brand-spanking-new WordPress blog in October, I thought I’d post this to let you know why TDOY went silent this week.

I had planned to have a few reviews up but the post I penciled in for Monday got pushed to the side due to a Radio Spirits liner notes project I was trying to complete.  That activity took place all weekend, the time I utilize to plan what will go up on the blog for the week.  With my RS assignment completed, I had to further postpone posts because of that Irma thing (we were a lot luckier than some of our fellow Georgians in that our electricity didn’t go on vacation during the storm…but it did come and go a few times, interfering with the movie I was trying to watch) …and then a pair of doctor appointments (for the patriarch of Rancho Yesteryear, mi padre) ate up some more time.  I finally said ta heck wid it and vowed to get back to the blogging thing Monday.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a little hammering-and-nailing at the new site; there are close to 300 classic TDOY posts up there now, some with new photos added and a few tweaks and edits here and there.  I’ve also been doing a little pruning here at the old blog; I’ve made some editorial decisions about what to transfer and what to destroy—so if it looks as if the old blog has lost a little weight that’s the reason.  It’s simply going to be too Herculean a task to transfer everything to the new site, and some past posts will have to sit in the waiting room (most appropriate in light of the medical appointments this week) while others will simply vanish into the blogosphere, accessible only for those patient to sift through archive.org.

So that’s how things stand—come back by next week and I’ll have a thing or two to bend your ear about.  Have a great weekend, cartooners!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

So this is Harris


Alpha Video’s Brian Krey—the individual who should take a bow for providing a lot of the product that I review on this here blog—mentioned to me in an e-mail a while back that the company was preparing a collection of two-reel shorts along the lines of their successful “Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies” releases.  The kicker was that since the two-reelers to be included in this set were going to be some released between 1936 and 1938, Alpha Video couldn’t exactly call them “pre-Code.”  (“I don't think ‘Ultra Rare POST-CODE Comedies’ would get anyone excited,” Brian joked.)

Well, this new collection was released in August…and if you’re an old-time radio fan like me, there’s plenty be excited about Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  It’s one of the strongest and most entertaining DVDs released by Alpha, because the first two shorts on the disc spotlight two solid radio favorites.  Rare Shorts kicks things off with Harris in the Spring (1937), a wonderful little musical outing starring Phil Harris—then making a name for himself as the lovable bandleader-comedian on The Jack Benny Program, and later star of his own successful situation comedy, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

“Then making a name for himself” isn’t really accurate, however; Harris was already wowing audiences with a musical aggregation that played to SRO crowds at the famous Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel during the early 1930s.  (Harris co-starred in the 1933 RKO feature film Melody Cruise, and a three-reel short released the same year, So This is Harris, would win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject.)  It’s fitting, then, that “Curly” plays himself in Harris in the Spring (the “Club Ambassador” where he works is a nod to his earlier Cocoanut Grove gig) and because he’s mobbed by female admirers everywhere he goes, he asks his pal George (played by Jack Rice, the brother-in-law in the RKO Edgar Kennedy shorts) to help him hide to avoid some enthusiastic fans.

Phil ends up in George’s office…where he’s given the onceover by socialite Betty Randolph (Ruth Robbins), and once she deems him “acceptable” she invites him out for the evening.  That’s when George informs Phil that Betty is looking for an escort (why Harris’ best friend is in this business goes unexplained) …and that’s jake with Philsie, provided Betty doesn’t learn who he is really is.  I’ll give you three guesses where the couple winds up on their date…the first two do not count.

Ruth Robbins and Phil Harris in Harris in the Spring (1937)
Harris in the Spring is a real delight, with its star performing several numbers (Sweet Like You, Parchesi) and two duets with Robbins in the same lyric-exchanging style Harris did professionally with vocalist Leah Ray (and that Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard also imitated).  (The couple’s rendition of The Woman Who Pays is performed in the back of a taxicab, and they’re joined at the end of the song by cabbie Jack Carson—also a later radio star—who belts out musically “You said it, sister!”)  But the highlight of Spring is Phil’s rendition of his signature tune, That’s What I Like About the South; in later years (on his own series and Benny’s program), Harris raced through the number like he was double-parked—the tempo of South is slowed considerably in Spring, giving it a kind of loping, barrelhouse piano feel.

Goodman and Jane Ace: "The Easy Aces"
On radio, Goodman Ace and his wife Jane were known as the Easy Aces—the stars of a popular radio comedy serial that had its origins on local KMBC in Kansas City in 1930 before moving to CBS a year later and bouncing back-and-forth from the Tiffany network and NBC until 1945.  (The show later became a syndicated series from 1945 to 1947, recycling earlier scripts, and then a half-hour program for CBS from February to December 1948 as mr. ace & JANEEasy Aces had what one would call a cult following—it was never really a ratings smash—but that following did get the duo a series of movie shorts, “first for Vitaphone and then, on a more regular basis, for Van Beuren” as Leonard Maltin relates in The Great Movie Shorts.

Dumb Luck (1935) was a short Goodman and Jane made for Educational…additional two-reelers were planned, but never got off the ground.  Jane has a winning sweepstakes ticket worth $50, but after a literal game of “telephone” (talking to her girlfriends on the Ameche) the word gets out that the Aces are sitting on a nice little nest egg of $50,000.  Two hoodlums (Richard Cramer, George Shelton) put the snatch on Mrs. A and demand a ransom of $25,000 for her safe return…but the demand gets smaller and smaller the longer the kidnappers spend with the scatterbrained Jane.

There are going to be Easy Aces purists who will decry Dumb Luck as not faithfully adhering to the radio show…and I shan’t disagree with them, but I enjoyed the two-reeler tremendously for novelty’s sake.  Jane is…well, Jane; telling one of her friends on the phone of Goody’s frugality she cracks “he's such a tightrope when it comes to things like that” …and later, when she demands her husband allow her to get a dog with her winnings:

ACE: A dog?
JANE: Yes, it's nice to walk down the street with a little dog...
ACE: On a leash, I suppose...
JANE: On a leash?  Oh, no--I thought I'd buy him outright...

I also got a kick out seeing Richard Cramer (billed as “Kramer”)—a character veteran I always remember as the “Constable” in W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)—and George Shelton as the luckless kidnappers.  (To keep the OTR connection going, Shelton was later one of the three panelists on It Pays to Be Ignorant, a radio favorite from 1942 to 1951—“I used to woik in dat town!”)

Jack Norton poses with radio's "Brenda and Cobina"
(Elvia Allman and Blanche Stewart) in the 1940
feature film A Night at Earl Carroll's.
Jack Norton, the silver screen’s favorite inebriate, is stone cold sober in two of the entries on Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood; the closest he comes to imbibing is having a mint julep in Who’s Looney Now (1936), in which he plays a henpecked husband whose next-door neighbor (Jack Good) gives him advice on how to win sympathy from his family—fake a heart attack.  The problem is, Jack’s family is anything but sympathetic…and they eventually become convinced that he’s a toy short of a Happy Meal.  So, the clan calls in a psychiatrist portrayed by Billy Gilbert…and any time you must rely on Billy’s expertise in the science of the mind—the results are not going to be pretty.  Looney manages to deliver the goods despite its timeworn premise; both Norton and Gilbert cannot not be funny, and there’s solid support from future Edgar Kennedy spouse Vivien Oakland (she’s married to Jack), Tempe Pigott (as the mother-in-law), and Dickie Jones—later both the voice of Pinocchio and Henry Aldrich on radio—as the obnoxious son.

Tom Kennedy in the "Torchy Blane"
feature Blondes at Work (1938).
Fight is Right (1936) is another short with a premise you’ve seen before—Norton convinces pal Tom Kennedy to accompany him ringside by snowing the wife (Maxine Jennings) into thinking Tom is sick (and Jack is the faux physician who’ll treat him).  It’s been done to death in every TV sitcom, of course (both Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone went to town with it) but if you execute it right and include some first-rate supporting players (Edgar Dearing plays—and I know this will surprise you—a cop who gets involved after pulling Norton over for speeding) you can always get a chuckle or two out of the finished product (I particularly enjoyed Fight’s windup gag).  Fight (and Looney) was directed by Leslie Goodwins (the later auteur of the Mexican Spitfire franchise), and Goodwins co-wrote Fight with comedian Monte (billed as “Monty”) Collins…which allows me to neatly segueway into…

…the fifth two-reeler on Rare Shorts, a 1935 comedy entitled Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!).  This short was a promotional gimmick funded by B.F. Goodrich, who wanted to alert the public on the dangers of reckless driving.  Monte is pal to Harry Langdon, who’s planning on wedding Diana Lewis…but Collins is really trying to sabotage the nuptials so he can have Diana and hug her and squeeze her and pet her and call her “George”; her father has warned Harry that if he gets one more traffic ticket the wedding is RIGHT OUT!—and of course, Monte is only too happy to get Harry in dutch with the police.  I was not a stranger to this short; it’s on the All Day Entertainment release of Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and I think I said at the time “it’s not a bad little two-reeler.”  I’m still a fan—it’s got some inventive, Langdon-like gags (the bit with the four top hats produced a hearty chuckle) and as Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde note in Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon, “the film is on par with Langdon’s Educational shorts”—because it was produced by one of Educational’s units (I laughed more during Love than I have during some of Harry’s Roach shorts—that much I know).  Harter and Hayde note that Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!) was filmed before Langdon’s Columbia two-reeler His Bridal Sweet (1935) but released afterward; Sweet is my favorite of the comedian’s efforts for that studio.

Harry Gribbon
The final effort on the Rare Shorts DVD is unquestionably the weakest—Cactus Caballeros (1938), in which Harry Gribbon and Joey Faye (billed as “Fay”) play unemployed actors attempting to capture a notorious bandit in a Western town.  I’ve seen Gribbon in any number of Vitaphone shorts and he can make me laugh (though he’s usually outgunned by Shemp Howard, his frequent co-star) so I didn’t have a problem with Harry…but Faye’s character is so obnoxious, with a collection of verbal and facial tics that get on your nerves within the first five minutes of the short, that you soon start wishing for interactive TV so you can strangle him.  This was one of Faye’s first forays into film (love that alliteration); he made his name as a top “second banana” in burlesque and long claimed that he originated several of the routines popularized by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello including “Slowly I Turn” and “Who’s on First?”  Faye got better in movies and TV with each subsequent appearance…but in Caballeros, he’ll make you wish you were watching Ben Blue in a Taxi Boys comedy…and I do not make this statement in jest lightly.

Thanks again to Brian for providing the screener—Rare Shorts From the Golden Age of Hollywood is a keeper for fans of comedy and OTR (or both).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mr. Bojangles


Southerner Jean Stratton (Anise Boyer) is willing to go to any lengths to find work in Harlem—even making a wish under the legendary “Tree of Hope” (the story goes that an actor did this under the same tree and learned upon returning to his boarding house a producer had a part for him).  Unfortunately, a few innocent inquiries to male passersby about how long she must wait for this job leads to a mix-up with the law, convinced that “going to any lengths” part involves the world’s oldest profession.  Jean is rescued by an observer in the crowd, “Money” Johnson (James Baskett), who offers her a position as a showgirl at his Acme Theatre (though he has ulterior motives, natch).

Anise Boyer and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
in Harlem is Heaven (1932)
More than just a Harlem impresario, Johnson has also done very well for himself in the “policy racket”…which provides the fundage to run the Acme and several other shady enterprises.  The history of show business is dotted with racketeers like Money (the start-up cash must come from somewhere), and as such it shouldn’t be surprising (though it certainly is disappointing) that “the world’s greatest tap dancer,” Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, is in Johnson’s employ.  (Robinson, God love him, has a gambling problem that causes him to go through greenbacks like eggs through a hen.)  Bill eventually comes to realize that he needs to run fast, run far where Johnson is concerned; he’s very impressed with Jean’s talents, and after a slight misunderstanding (he thinks she’s carrying a torch for him) gives his “copacetic” stamp of approval to her budding romance with his pal “Chummy” Walker (Henri Wessell).  You sharper members of the TDOY faithful can see where this is headed; Money is miffed when Jean spurns his amorous advances, and plots to make Chummy the fall guy by putting him in charge of one of his disreputable businesses (this one involves a fraudulent “hair straightener”).

While I would certainly not dispute that Harlem is Heaven, this 1932 musical of the same name—the first release from independent Lincoln Pictures, a studio that specialized in making motion pictures for African-American audiences despite being owned and operated by whites—is anything but Paradise.  Made for $50,000, it’s an incredibly inept production; the sound is sub-standard (it sounds like someone’s smacking their gum in the background during one scene) and the abysmal direction rarely rises above resembling capturing a dinner theatre presentation on film.  Irwin (R.) Franklyn is credited as director (he also wrote the script), and while I have not seen the other film he helmed, 1938’s Gone Harlem, I can only assume he got better on his second try.  (Franklyn did pen several later movie screenplays, including Minstrel Man [1944] and The Woman from Tangier [1948].)

Harlem is Heaven is a terrible film…but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit.  The (always reliable) IMDb notes that this is the film debut of Bill Robinson, but this is simply not true…unless that tap-dancing gentleman in Dixiana (1930) appropriated Bojangles’ name for his own nefarious purposes.  I’ve stated a previous criticism that the direction in Dixiana does Robinson a tremendous disservice but it’s freaking Orson Welles compared to Harlem is Heaven.  The only bright spot with Robinson’s footwork in Harlem (and a rare departure from Franklyn’s “I’ll-just-point-this-camera-at-the-stage” style) is an amazing staircase dance executed by Bill, which is some ways a blueprint for the later number he did with TDOY bête noire Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935).  The World Cinema Review blog notes: “[I]n the original the simple set consisting of a small staircase of five steps up and five steps down better reveals his amazing footwork, and stunningly points up his simple but graceful dancing. And unlike the second ‘Step Dance,’ he does not have to play an old ‘darky’ to get the opportunity to strut his stuff.”

What I enjoyed most about Robinson’s performance in Heaven is seeing how the performer became more and more confident in front of a motion picture camera with each subsequent appearance.  He only had to dance in Dixiana…but Bill’s got to sing and act in Heaven, and he does a most impressive job despite his inexperience.  (In one scene, he reacts to Baskett’s Money Johnson referring to Boyer’s Jean as his “protégé” with this flawless retort: "You sure gotta a lot of funny names for it, Money...")  By the time of his next onscreen appearance, a great musical two-reeler called King for a Day (1934—I caught this sometime back when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ had their Vitaphone shorts salute), Bill overwhelms the screen with his charm.  Robinson is the true strength of Harlem, he performs two musical numbers that are first-rate, The Bill Robinson Stomp and Is You or Is You Ain’t (with John “Spider Bruce” Mason).

Yes, it's TDOY fave Juano Hernandez in an uncredited bit as the cop who tries to run Anise Boyer's Jean in.

The opening cast credits of Harlem is Heaven note “The Following Players By Special Arrangement With ‘The Cotton Club’.”  Bob Sawyer and Alma Smith (as Johnson’s spurned girlfriend) don’t get much of an opportunity to make an impression, but James Baskett (billed as “Jimmy Baskette”) went on to a not-too-shabby movie career, culminating with winning a special Oscar for his performance as “Uncle Remus” in Walt Disney’s still controversial Song of the South (1946).  (Baskett passed away in 1948.)   I don’t know what Henri Wassell did after Harlem (this was his only film) but I hope he was able to make a living at something other than acting because he’s weak and embarrassing as Chummy.  Anise Boyer, on the other hand, continued her singing and dancing career and can be glimpsed in later films plying her trade including Stormy Weather (1943—which also features Robinson) and Carolina Blues (1944).  An IMDb commenter notes that there were people who thought Boyer was even more of a knockout than Lena Horne.  (I don’t wish to live in a world where the majority thinks this, by the way.  But it’s a shame Anise never made it into mainstream films since she’s very, very good here…though I strongly suspect she would have been saddled with a lot of “domestics” roles in a studio system.)

Spencer Williams and Edward Thompson in The Melancholy Dame (1929)

Alpha Video has just released Harlem is Heaven to DVD, and has paired the feature (it runs short…I’m convinced their available print was a truncated one) with a most amusing two-reeler, The Melancholy Dame (1929).  Real-life spouses Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer play Permanent and Jonquil Williams in one of producer Al Christie’s “Darktown Birmingham” shorts (a series of early talkie shorts featuring African-American performers); Permanent runs a café where the featured attraction is dancing by—I swear I’m not making this up—Sappho Dill (Roberta Hyson).  (Sappho’s husband-pianist is played by Spencer Williams, later a director of Black Cinema in his own right and recognizable as “Andy” on the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy.)  This production is a bit more polished (Christie was a well-known producer of shorts, many of which were released through Paramount) and the performances more professional—I didn’t even mind that I saw the punchline coming from a mile away (though the closing credits appear to be missing).  According to the IMDb, this one was remade as a Vitaphone short—The Black Network (1936)—that I’m curiously to track down if it turns up on TCM; TDOY fave Nina Mae McKinney plays the Hyson role, and fellow birthday celebrant Amanda Randolph essays the Preer-like “Mezzanine Johnson.”  (You would-be Moms out there—why not try to catapult “Jonquil” or “Mezzanine” onto the top baby name lists, huh?)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

“…timber!”


Lumber baron Thomas De Quincey (James Gordon) is excited to welcome home his son Jack (Kenneth Harlan)—newly graduated from Oxford, you know—because he needs a man to ride herd at his lumber camps and apparently De Quincey’s outfit is not a meritocracy.  “Bootleggers, bullies, and bolsheviks [sic] have about disorganized my camps!” he wails to Jack in a title card that made me giggle.  Jack is not entirely certain he has the right stuff to take on the family business…but one thing he does know is that he doesn’t want preferential treatment because his lineage.  His old man decrees that Jack won’t last a week without his protection, and the two men wager $10,000 on that outcome.

Viola Dana and Kenneth Harlan
Arriving at one of the camps, Jack soon becomes smitten with Marie O’Neill (Viola Dana), the daughter of the camp superintendent (DeWitt Jennings).  He’ll also run afoul of the bullying Pete (Frank Hagney), the self-proclaimed “boss” of the camp, and the two men eventually come to blows in a display of fisticuffs at a camp dance, which erupts after Jack commits a social fox paw by daring to dance with Marie even though Pete called first dibs.  Pete and his toady, “Dumb Danny” (Norman Deming), later attempt to bump off Jack but our hero is made of sterner stuff.  Yet Jack not only has to foil the misguided scheme of these two ineffectual villains…he must rescue Marie, who’s tied up in a boat that’s directly in the path of…The Ice Flood (1926).

Author Johnston McCulley cranked out hundreds of stories—not to mention fifty novels and an impressive outlay of movie and TV screenplays—during his lengthy literary career, and is perhaps best known for creating the masked avenger known as Zorro…who appeared in feature films, serials, and TV series on his journey to becoming a pop culture icon.  McCulley’s 1918 novelette, The Brute Breaker (published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly), was adapted for the silver screen a year later in a Universal film starring Frank Mayo and Harry Northrup.  Because Hollywood loves to “adapt, adopt, and improve” its releases from the past, Universal decided to remake Breaker seven years later as The Ice FloodFlood was one of the studio’s “Jewel” productions—the name they gave their prestige product, for which they charged roadshow ticket prices to compensate for the bigger budget.  Universal’s Carl Laemmle apparently believed that the stature of a “Jewel” would invite SRO crowds to movie palaces…but it turned out to be a complete bust, and the studio abandoned “Jewels” in 1929.

Viola Dana
The Ice Flood isn’t a great silent film, but I cannot deny it’s not an entertaining one.  It’s simple and straightforward mellerdrammer, with a two-fisted he-man and starry-eyed ingenue predictably getting together by the time the closing credits roll.  The characters are drawn in broad strokes; for example, we know Pete is a complete potzer because in one scene he’s riding a seesaw with camp mascot Billy (played by Billy Kent Schaefer) and he allows the handicapped youngster to fall to the ground by quickly getting off his end.  (Later, Pete steps on Billy’s injured foot, complicating things further for the innocent tyke.)  Kenneth Harlan is the dependable leading man of Flood, with a long movie career (he appears in such films as The Penalty [1920] and The Toll of the Sea [1922] that began in silents and ended up in B-westerns and serials (he did a ton of chapter plays) before hanging it up to become an agent and restauranteur.  Viola Dana, last seen here on the blog in Open All Night (1924), is serviceable as Harlan’s love interest…though she seems a little subdued during Flood’s exciting climax (girlfriend, get your ass out of that boat!).

My Facebook compadre and fellow classic movie blogger Chris Edwards did a nice write-up of this movie on his Silent Volume blog in 2013, observing: “The Ice Flood packs a lot of action into sixty minutes.  Exuberant, if not breathless, action.”  (Chris also mentions a similar film, The White Desert [1925], that I’ll need to track down one of these days.)  It was co-scripted and directed by George B. Seitz, a veteran known for serials during the silent era (The Exploits of Elaine, The Lightning Raider) and with the advent of talkies helmed a substantial number of the Crime Does Not Pay shorts and features in the Andy Hardy franchise.  Seitz is not a showman, but he adds some nice touches to the narrative—particularly in the beginning; the elder De Quincey is bragging to his bidness associates that his son will soon be running things and one of them asks if that’s the one who “writes poetry.”  De Quincey replies in the affirmative, and above the heads of the two men is an image of a Nancy boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy clothing, dancing about with wild abandon.  (Seitz also does some effective cross-cutting between the impending ice flood disaster and the action at Harlan’s camp, commenting on the action with risible title cards like “A resistless, mighty monster straining at its Wintry leash!”)

Chris had the good fortune to see The Ice Flood at Syracuse’s Cinefest 33 in 2013…whereas I had to settle for sitting down with the just released Alpha Video DVD.  (On the plus side—I didn’t have to share my popcorn with anyone.)  The Ice Flood remains a first-rate example of why I love silent films so—it tells a cracking good story with a happy ending and gets the job done in 70 minutes without overloading my senses with a lot of purposeless CGI.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

My life is a sitcom


Yesterday’s “Overlooked Films on Tuesdays” entry was a little late getting up on the blog…and for that, I apologize for the delay.  As a rule, I try to make a concerted effort to schedule blog entries for 7am on posting days; I’m not sure when I started this practice though I suspect it might be connected to the CMBA Blogathons in which I have participated in the past.  Rick at The Classic Film and TV Café, who generally posts the blogathon links on the CMBA blog, asked those participants to post their entries around that time if they wanted fellow bloggers to be able to access the essays quickly…otherwise they would have to wait until his working day was done.  (I think that’s how I got in the habit.)

I didn’t get around to completing the Danger Street review in the usual time because that Monday, I promised my mother I’d help her with taking my father to a doctor’s appointment that morning.  The Laird and Master of Castle Yesteryear fell victim to a blood clot near his left eye a couple of weeks ago that has robbed him of his eyesight…and because the vision in the other eye has never really been up to snuff he’s living in the same world that Burgess Meredith occupied in that Twilight Zone episode when he breaks his eyeglasses after the nuclear holocaust. 

His appointment was with the Clarke County Medical Oncology Clinic, a place with which I was not completely unfamiliar—having had an appointment there a time or two after my medical incident in 2010.  Mom thought that the building had a 200 address, and I got out of the car when we arrived to see if I could track down a wheelchair for dear ol’ Dad.  I was on my way back to tell the two of them I’d found one when I spotted my father trying to negotiate the slightly steep walkway leading up to the entrance—a sidewalk I even had trouble navigating, and my eyes aren’t nearly as bad.  Before the words “Dad, don’t try to go up that ramp” could come out of my mouth he took a bad tumble, and I rushed down the walkway to help him to his feet.

I helped him back into the car and was just about to tell him to hang tight while I got the wheelchair…and that’s when Mom announces we’re at the wrong building.  We’re supposed to be at the 700 location, so we drive back around because that building is the first one you encounter when you turn into the complex.  I got out of the car again after instructing Dad to wait until I got a wheelchair, and then I wheeled him into the building after securing his “ride.”

I approach the check-in desk and hand one of the employees the paperwork from his primary physician.  I thought Dad had been there before (he mentioned he had, but he was fuzzy on the details), so I figured I’d just spend a couple of minutes filling out an update sheet for his visit.  But, no—the nice receptionist lady hands me a stack of paper the size of a Sears-Roebuck catalog, and asks me to complete it before Dad can see the doctor.  I look around the check-in area for a pen, and not finding what I need ask her if I can borrow one.

She points to a container on the counter that houses a variety of fake-looking flowers.  Now, I saw this as soon as I came in…and two people ahead of me each took a flower after speaking with other employees behind the counter.  I thought, “Well, maybe this is some sort of odd check-in system…and when you’re called to see the doctor, you hand the assistant back the flower.”  I was completely wrong on this score; the flowers are pens.

I’m not normally a cranky person (unless I’m having to deal with someone from Windstream or DISH) but I had rose and shone early that morning (7am) because Mom had originally told me Dad’s appointment was at 8:30am.  She swears she told me 9:30, which makes little difference in the grand scheme of things as we’ll see here in a moment.  Anyway, my slight sleep deprivation didn’t help my disposition any, because I told the receptionist: “I’m not writing with a flower.”  Fortunately for me, my father has been wearing a pocket protector since childhood…and he produced a non-floral writing instrument for my use.  (Note to self: bring a pen next time.)

I quickly scout out the waiting room, and decide to wheel Dad toward the very back where he’ll be out of the way so people won’t step on him when they’re called before us.  (There’s always people being called ahead of us.)  This proved to be a major miscalculation on my part, because the area in which we eventually settled is right next to a big wall-screen TV…that is showing Live with Kelly and Ryan.  Jesus Christ on a morning talk show—I’m officially in hell.  Having to listen to the chirpy Kelly Ripa is bad enough…but she wasn’t on the show that day—she had been replaced for the duration by…wait for it…Kim Kardashian.

If you’ve made regular visits to this blog in the past, you’ll know that I would rather have my nuts trapped in a piece of farm equipment than to be anywhere near Kim or any of her painfully annoying sisters; the popularity of Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a phenomenon I will never comprehend, and I’m completely convinced that it and other reality shows of its ilk will spell the doom and downfall of this great nation.  I’m not kidding; years after Armageddon, there’ll be visitors from other planets surveying the wreck and ruin of Planet Earth, scratching their heads with their tentacles or whatever, puzzled as to why people even watched that shit.  Kim was droning on and on about the old house she used to live in with her reprehensible siblings…while I was contemplating driving Dad’s pen into my forehead.

It took me two years to finish the paperwork, and I ended up handing some of it off to Mom when she joined us after finding a parking place because my hand was starting to resemble Fred Sanford’s “arthuritis.”  (She signed in the places that Dad was supposed to autograph, writing a side note that read “Patient can’t see.”)  I manage to carry the informational tonnage back up to the check-in desk…and then I amble on back to wait with Mom and Dad.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Sweet baby carrots, do I hate doctor appointments and the amount of time spent in waiting rooms to meet them.  I slowly start to get aggravated by two things: 1) I belatedly notice a sign on the TV that read “Please ask receptionist to change the channel” (Me to Mom: “I wish I had seen that before I sat down”) and b) the fact that people who have entered the waiting room after we arrived have already been called for their appointments.  Noticing on her watch that it’s 10:15am, I announce to Mom that I’m going to find out what the holdup is, and all she can tell me is “Please don’t be rude.”  (She’s seen this rerun before, though my sister Kat usually plays my part.)

Do you remember that scene in Lost in America where Albert Brooks is trying to cadge a bridal suite out of the hotel clerk?  (“Listen, I'm not very good at this.  I don't get good seats in shows because of this problem.  I don't get good tables in restaurants.  I've really never been good at this particular kind of exchange of money so, how much do you want?”)  That’s me whenever I have to win friends and influence customer service people—I suck at baksheesh, but I was prepared to offer the receptionist a hefty bribe because the TV was now blaring The Doctors and I was inches away from going postal on all the sick people in the waiting room.  The receptionist was very nice, explaining that the appointment was for 10:15—they just asked my folks to be there at 9:30 for ample time to do the paperwork.  (And she wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie.)  She assures me it won’t be much longer.

They finally call my father’s name.  Mom says to me, “Wheel him up to the physician’s assistant and then come on back.”  Well, apparently the P.A.’s job description does not include being the motor for a wheelchair, because I involuntarily accompanied him when she asked him to step on the scale, took his temperature and blood pressure, and then showed him to an examination room.  I didn’t really mind too much, however, because now I didn’t have to listen to that nonsense blaring from the waiting room TV.  But the doc didn’t come in to see my father until a little after eleven.  (That’s when I knew we’d be stopping by some place with a drive-thru for lunch.)

The doctor was a very nice lady (nice laaaady!) who referred to my father as “my darling”—which meant I had to stifle a snicker because there’s a Publix cashier who says that to Mom all the time.  In retrospect, going along with Dad proved to be a wise decision because once we had returned home (we had McDonald’s) Mom asked him what the doctor had to say and he replies (get this): “Nothing much.”  (Oooh, you big fibber.)  I corrected the record on that score, which ticked him off a little.

So, I spent most of Monday morning enduring the horror that is the U.S. healthcare system, and because we spent more time than we had budgeted (Mom was pissed because the lady at the primary physician’s office told her the appointment was for 9:30—so we were there way too friggin’ early) Mom and I had to venture out a second time to swing by Kroger Nation because she needed a few things.  By the time we finished that errand, it was 2:30pm…and I had decided ta heck wid it, I’d work on Tuesday’s blog entry on Tuesday.

Cue the wacky closing theme.  Seacrest out!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Buried Treasures: Danger Street (1947)


Pat Marvin (Jane Withers) is a shutterbug for Flick (“The magazine that’s there when it happens”) …but she may not be employed there much longer.  Larry Burke (Robert Lowery), the editor of Flick—and Pat’s platonic boyfriend—has received notice from the magazine’s owner, “Muscle-Bustle” Turlock (Paul Harvey), that he’s selling the publication due to poor circulation.  Burke has ambitious ideas to make the mag a success, but they’ve all been dismissed by Turlock as “too lurid” …so when his boss announces he’s got a buyer who’ll give him $26,000 Larry ups the ante to twenty-seven grand.  By pooling his own funds, borrowing from every friend he has, and inviting several Flick employees to join what we might call a “co-op,” Burke is still some $2700 short.  Flick’s accountant, Henry (Lorin Raker), volunteers the rest of the start-up funds provided Larry can pay him back by the first of the month.

Larry and Pat soon learn why Henry requested that specific payback: the bookkeeper gambled that Flick’s books would be audited at the first of the month and so he embezzled the money from the magazine itself…but to his dismay, the auditors will be in to check out the accounts in a couple of days.  No worries, says Larry; he’s assigned a photographer (Eddie Parks…in blackface, sadly) to take a few candids of heiress Cynthia Van Loan (Elaine Riley), a wealthy socialite who’s been quite adept at avoiding the paparazzi.  When Joe returns to Flick with his camera smashed, Larry is forced to revert to Plan B: he and Pat will pose as servants during a swanky reception affair to take covert snaps…and sell the pictures to rival editor Jack Withers for enough money to keep Henry from making new friends in the pokey.

"Don't tell me what to do!"  TDOY fave Will Wright has a meatier part in this "Two Dollar Bills" effort, playing the cop investigating the case.
Larry is successful getting pictures at the party…but during the evening, he snaps a photo of Cynthia’s fiancé, Carl Pauling (Charles Quigley), canoodling with a woman who’s not Ms. Van Loan.  Pauling tries to get the photo back but Burke informs him it’s been sold to Withers.  When Larry and Pat stop by Withers’ office to pick up their check…they find that Jack has succumbed to a severe case of dead, aggravated by lead bullets.

Jane Withers and Robert Lowery in Danger Street (1947)
At the time Danger Street (1947) was released, the publicity department at Paramount proudly promoted the film as the first “grown-up role” for Jane Withers, a child actress whose appearance in a 1934 Shirley Temple vehicle, Bright Eyes, led to subsequent roles in her own starring motion pictures at Fox including Paddy O’Day (1935) and Little Miss Nobody (1936).  Around Rancho Yesteryear, I jokingly refer to Janie as “the poor man’s Shirley Temple” even though I’d rather sit down with a Withers film any day of the week.  (Paramount, by the way, didn’t get the newsletter that Jane’s previous picture, Affairs of Geraldine [1946], had her character sashaying down the matrimonial aisle…and not as a child bride, I hasten to add.)  Withers (who turned 91 this April—way to go, Jane!) later made appearances in such films as Giant (1956) and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) but was primarily a fixture on the small screen in guest-star turns on TV series like Bachelor Father and The Munsters, and as the longtime pitchwoman for Comet cleanser, Josephine the Plumber.

"Lieutenant Jacoby! What the... ?" Character great Herschel Bernardi has a bit role as the guy what monitors the front door to the gambling den.
Maybe Danger Street isn’t Withers’ first “grown-up role” but as Pat Marvin, she’s sensational in this B-picture quickie—another quality production from “The Two Dollar Bills,” William H. Pine and William C. Thomas.  Pat’s plucky and resourceful, as evidenced in the opening minutes of Street where she’s mingling undercover at a notorious gambling den, taking pictures (including that of a respected politician, played by character veteran Harry Cheshire) that will become the basis of a layout for an “exclusive” Flick exposé.  When her cover is blown, she hauls ass and elbows out to her car for a quick getaway…but the mansion in which the gambling takes place is surrounded by a security fence, and the gate is shut tight by the operators of the den.  This does not deter Marvin, as she drives straight through in a manner that would have any male action star remarking: “Hey—run that back again, will ya?!!”

My girl Nina Mae McKinney also appears in Danger Street as a cook...with character fave Guy Wilkerson as a caretaker.
It’s mere coinky-dink that Robert Lowery co-stars in Danger Street—we just heard from him yesterday in Big Town (1947), and he’s still in the publishing game—and I was as surprised as anyone to observe that he’s not only quite good as Larry Burke, his understated romance with Pat is kind of sweet, too.  (You really become concerned about the pair when their backs are up against the wall to replace the funds filched by Henry.)  Because the indefatigable Lyle Talbot also has a small role in this movie, I asked myself at one point: “What is this, a Lippert film?”  The supporting cast in Danger Street may be second-tier but doesn’t disappoint…well, maybe except for Bill Edwards, who plays an ex-lover of Cynthia’s and one of the suspects when her skeevy intended is croaked later in the film.  (How Edwards ever maintained a motion picture career is a mystery to me…though in his defense, he’s not entirely unhandsome.)

With a story and screenplay by Winston Miller and Kae Salkow (and an assist from Maxwell Shane) and direction by one of the true programmer giants, Lew Landers, Danger Street starts out as an engaging romantic comedy-drama and manages to maintain that exciting, enjoyable tone even after the bodies start piling up.   At 64 minutes, it’s breezy entertainment even if the resolution to the mystery (Withers’ Marvin has all the suspects gathered while she announces she’s going to produce a photograph of the guilty party) is a little gimmicky and forced.  Alpha Video released this one to DVD this August (thanks to Brian Krey for the screener) and it’s just how I like my B-movies: unpretentious and highly pleasurable.  Well worth your time, cartooners!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Buried Treasures: Big Town (1947)


Back in April, I did a write-up for Big Town After Dark (1947) as one of the blog’s “Overlooked Films on Tuesdays”—After Dark being the third film in a B-picture franchise lensed by independent producers William Pine and William C. Thomas (a.k.a. “The Two Dollar Bills”) and released through Paramount.  The film series was inspired by the popular radio program Big Town, which originally starred Edward G. Robinson from 1937 to 1942, and resurrected after a season’s hiatus in the fall of 1943 with Edward Pawley in the Eddie G. role.

I caught Big Town After Dark as one of the entries in the “Vault” section of Epix’s On Demand offerings on a “freeview” occasion…the path to seeing the first film in the franchise, Big Town (1947), was a different one.  I splurged on some Alpha Video DVDs from Oldies.com some time back, and one of the discs was Big Town Collection—which not only featured the inaugural film but a pair of “lost” episodes of the TV version of Big Town, viewed over CBS and then NBC between 1950 and 1956.  (Reruns from the CBS run also aired on the DuMont network from February-Jul 1953 under the title City Assignment.)  Since placing that order, Oldies.com has “bundled” Collection with two other DVDs, one with Big Town After Dark and the other Big Town Scandal (1948; though it’s billed by its alternate title, Underworld Scandal).  I should have waited to place my order until the bundle became available from Alpha (it was released in May); I could have purchased this set in lieu of that collection of Bela Lugosi silents that featured the terrible Daughter of the Night (1920).  (As my Facebook compadre Christopher Snowden remarked: “Ah, the price we pay for free shipping...”)
caught

Since Big Town kicks off the four-movie franchise, it functions as sort of an “origin” tale of how Steve Wilson (Philip Terry) came to assume the managing editorship of The Illustrated Press.  Hired by owner Amos Peabody (Charles Arnt) to revive the flagging periodical, Wilson adopts a sensationalistic tone with regards to the Press to boost circulation, taking advantage of such “hot” stories as a shootout at a local theatre (the culprit is a female sharpshooter, played by Veda Ann Borg) and a tragic roller coaster accident at a shoddily-run amusement park.  (The amusement park expose is later “spiked” to appease the park’s owner, a major advertiser—things haven’t changed a great deal in seventy years, as you can see.)  Wilson constantly finds himself at odds with reporter Lorelei Kilbourne (Hillary Brooke), whose idealism envisions a newspaper that crusades on behalf of the public good; she’s furious at Steve when he kills the amusement park story, in addition to an earlier occasion in which he goes behind her back and assigns a story to fellow reporter Pete Ryan (Robert Lowery) because she’s too close to the folks involved (a woman is found dead in a state senator’s hotel room, and Wilson insists on smearing the victim to sell papers).  Finally, a series of “vampire” murders prompts Lorelei and Pete to part ways with the Press when they’re convinced the suspect in the killings (Byron S. Barr) is innocent…and Wilson insists he’s guilty.

Phillip Reed, Hillary Brooke, and Robert Lowery
A movie that packs a good deal of crime action with a small dollop of social commentary, Big Town was every bit as enjoyable as the previously-viewed Big Town After Dark.  I’m not a fan of actor Robert Lowery (even though I’ve seen him in too many venues to count—the latest was a repeat of Tales of Wells Fargo, in which he was older and heavier…and still not resembling Clark Gable in any way possible) but I thought he was pretty damn good as Ryan, a cynic who rises to the occasion and follows Lorelei out the door when he, too, is fed up with Wilson’s handling of the paper. Hillary Brooke is, of course, always welcome in the House of Yesteryear (I particularly like how Lorelei's no longer having to be the Press’ society columnist), and as for Reed…well, I liked him much more in this movie than Big Town than After Dark only because he wasn’t afraid to play a guy who’s a little on the wankerish side.  Producer Thomas directed this one himself, from a screenplay by Geoffrey Holmes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring), who co-wrote the story with Maxwell Shane (Fear in the Night).  It’s a shame these films weren’t better taken care of—the Alpha Video version (under its TV title, Guilty Assignment) looks as if it were rode hard and put up wet.  That’s why this screen capture…


…of MISTER John Dehner (who has a small role as the friend of Wilson’s on the train in the first few minutes of the film) isn’t as pristine as it should be…and why it’s hard to make out at first who this other old-time radio veteran is…


…it’s Will Wright, who has a few lines as a sardonic train employee observing Wilson’s attempts to contact his newspaper.  (Future Pink Panther director Blake Edwards also has a bit in this movie as a reporter named “Nixon.”)

Mark Stevens & Trudy Wroe
While Big Town was still drawing huge radio audiences every week, the decision was made to transition the show to TV screens, and in October of 1950, folks who had invested in those newfangled sets could watch a visual version of Big Town starring Patrick McVey in the Steve Wilson role.  The TV Big Town went through actresses portraying Lorelei like a box of tissues, however; from 1950 to 1954, Mary K. Wells, Julie Stevens, Jane Nigh, and Beverly Tyler all took turns playing Wilson’s girl Friday.  Big Town was telecast live from New York in its first two seasons (1950-52) but a move to Hollywood in April of 1952 prompted a switch to film.  The show moved to NBC in the fall of 1954 with Mark Stevens inheriting the part of Steve from McVey and a new Lorelei in Trudy Wroe; Stevens would play Wilson for two seasons but Wroe’s Lorelei vanished after a year on NBC and was replaced by a new love interest for Steve, a commercial artist named Diane Walker (played by Doe Avedon).  Other regulars on the show at one time included city editor Charlie Anderson (Barry Kelley) and Lt. Tom Gregory (John Docuette).

Stevens, Wroe, and Kelley are in the two episodes that accompany the 1947 film in Big Town Collection (though Wroe is only glimpsed briefly in the first); the first one on the disc, “The Lovers” (02/14/55), has an old high school friend of Steve’s murdered by an intruder in her home…and suspicion pointing to her husband (Willard Sage).  The only item of interest in this flaccid effort is that the episode was directed by Busby Berkeley (yes—that Busby Berkeley), whose trademark overhead musical shots find no purchase in a TV series that by that time was content to imitate the no-nonsense cinematography style of Dragnet.  The close-ups in these two episodes are off the rails, and the overall “true stories” tone of Big Town seems more suited to the radio/TV series The Big Story, with star Stevens intoning at the end of each show: “The story you have just seen is based on factual account…only the names of the people and cities have been changed to protect the right of privacy.”  (This episode was penned by the prolific Alvin Boretz and Wolf Man director george waGGner.)

The second show on the Collection DVD is actually the show from the previous week (02/07/55)—“The Sniper.”  This one is a good little effort (written and directed by waGGner), in which a cop is brought down by a sniper who apparently went after his target from the roof of The Illustrated Press building…and the clues to the culprit’s identity include a broken pair of sunglasses belonging to a commercial artist.  This one is really first-rate because it’s packed to the rafters with TDOY character favorites:


Dabbs Greer as the cop on the case…


Ann Doran as the cop’s widow (she does some outstanding work here)…


Jean Byron as the artist…


…and Keye Luke as the elevator operator.  (You thought I was kidding about the close-ups, didn’t you?)  There’s also this bit of hilarity that, admittedly, I’m probably the only person who’d laugh at it—Wilson pokes through an industrialist’s (Chick Chandler) locker at his golf club…


…and seeing the glass, announces it will be of interest to cop Greer.  (And that bar of Lux soap will be of major interest to the show’s sponsor.)  Lever Brothers continued their radio sponsorship on the TV version (the two shows feature original commercials for Rinso Blue and Good Luck Margarine) with a tag team by AC Spark Plugs (the ads for which feature character veteran Frank Albertson as the Press’ automotive reporter, “Jim Roberts”).  The TV Big Town is certainly nothing to race to the DVR to grab and keep, but I found it an amusing way to kill an hour (though the Steve Wilson character seems more like a cop than a managing editor—that was strange).

Big Town must have had problems with its creditors because in addition to being retitled City Assignment for its DuMont run (the series was still running new shows on CBS at that same time) the show also went by Heart of the City (the McVey episodes), Headline (the 1954-55 Stevens episodes), and Byline Steve Wilson (the 1955-56 Stevens episodes).  When you compound this with the multiple aliases used when the Pine-Thomas movies aired on TV (Big Town went by Guilty Assignment; I Cover Big Town [1947] as I Cover the Underworld; Big Town After Dark as Underworld After Dark, and Big Town Scandal as Underworld Scandal) it makes you a little hesitant to lend any of the Illustrated Press reporters any money till payday (I suspect the titles of the movies were changed to avoid confusion with the still-airing TV series).