Sunday, August 31, 2008

“Give us a kiss…”

With it being Labor Day weekend and all, I’ve been shuttling back and forth between my and sister Kat’s digs for various food-type invites. Last night, Mom and Dad had me over for cheeseburgers, and then tomorrow, we’ll hold our traditional Labor Day cookout…where we’ll shake things up by having hot dogs. (I hear some representatives from the American Meat Industry will be on hand to present us with some special commendations, including the coveted Golden Clogged Artery Trophy.) Tuesday, a certain blogger will make another hash mark in the birthday column, and the menu is supposed to include a little surf and turf.

Anyway, I was trying to show Dad how Kat’s DirecTV system does pick up local channels, because he and Mom were sort of distressed at not being able to watch GPTV’s Saturday night Britcom lineup. In finding the channel, I learned that GPTV didn’t remove Last of the Summer Wine from their schedule—they just moved it to an 11:00pm time slot. The program guide said that the episode would be “Just a Small Funeral,” prompting me to make a mental note to watch it later on…which I did, despite the fact that I had to abandon The African Queen (1951) midway on TCM.

British character great Bill Owen found the role of a lifetime in William “Compo” Simmonite, a scruffy, retired vagabond with no visible means of support other than a reservoir of likeability and endearing charm. Compo comprised 1/3 of an elderly trio that roamed around a Northern England village making of the most of their twilight years...a pilgrimmage that continues still today, as Summer Wine is not only the longest-running British situation comedy but the longest-running sitcom period. It took some time to convince Summer Wine creator Roy Clarke to cast Owen, but Clarke finally relented and the Compo character was one of the delights of the series…with Owen playing him from the program’s debut in November 1973 until April 2000 (his last episode was “Magic and the Morris Minor,” though the actor himself had passed on nearly a year earlier). Clarke decided that the character of Compo would expire on Summer Wine as well, and in “Elegy for Fallen Wellies,” we learn that Compo died as a result of seeing the object of his affection, Nora Batty (Kathy Staff), in a chorus girl costume…and keeled over, with a smile on his face.

“Just a Small Funeral” is the episode of Compo’s official send-off, and after watching it last night there wasn’t a dry eye at Rancho Yesteryear (well, there’s only me here, but still). It’s one of the best send-offs of a television character I’ve ever seen, and Clarke’s script—while tender and bittersweet—doesn’t skimp on the laughs, either. In one scene, Nora Batty nervously discusses with café owner Ivy (Jane Freeman) the possibility that Compo may still have that smile on his face; Ivy dismisses Nora’s apprehensions, telling her she ought to be proud since it was no doubt the last thing he remembered before shuffling off this mortal coil. So when Ivy and Nora pay their respects to the open coffin, Nora looks over and then wails: “He’s doing it deliberately!

There are so many memorable bits in this episode—Wesley (Gordon Wharmby), the village’s resident grease monkey, actually puts on a suit to attend the funeral. Auntie Wainwright (Jean Alexander), the penurious owner of the town’s thrift store, agrees to close her establishment in Compo’s honor…but puts a sign on the window that gives out her cell phone number in case of “emergency sales.” The funniest is probably how the hapless lothario Howard (Robert Fyfe), who has enough problems juggling his wife Pearl (Juliette Kaplan) and mistress Marina (Jean Ferguson)—now has to “entertain” a third woman, Reggie Answorth (Liz Fraser), who appeared in the episode before “Funeral” as the person Compo to which he willed his beloved ferrets…and a romantic “conquest” that he saw on the side every Thursday for most of his life. There are two things about this episode that really put a lump in my throat. The first is a wordless scene (the lyrics to the series’ theme song the only accompaniment) in which Ivy, dressed for the funeral, searches for a suitable handbag and, finding one in her wardrobe, pulls it out and discovers a photograph inside: a picture of her late husband Sid, who was featured in Summer Wine’s early years and played by the marvelous John Comer. The other is watching Compo’s coffin being carried out of the church, festooned with flowers…and his prized “wellies” (boots) riding on top.

Here’s part 1 of “Just a Small Funeral”:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

and Part 5:

Now all of his summer's gone

Those urgent days when he was young

Those girls he loved but soon moved on

To drink his summer wine

Now perfumes of earth and vine

Of meadows when the rain has gone

These friends with their black armbands on

Salute his summer wine

The memories he left to me, here in my cup,

Of sweet short days, bitter days, now all drunk up

The fullness of the life that slipped

The other day all mortal pain

Free now to roam fresh hills and lanes

And taste eternal wine.

R.I.P., Compo.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Daniel was a witness

Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is currently offering up another round of cinematic posers in his ongoing series of “Movie Quizzes,” and while I always tell myself that should take a crack at one (actually, I think I may have on one occasion) I usually opt out when I see a question like this:

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

Yeah…check please! Oddly enough, the question that stumped me on this particular occasion was “Favorite Sidney Lumet Movie.”

I just couldn’t be satisfied with my answer. My gut says go with The Verdict (1982)…but I’m not certain if that’s my true favorite or just one of the privileged films with the ability to stop my remote control (others, of course, include Winchester ’73 [1950] and The Glass Key [1942]) in a nanosecond. There are just too many great Lumet films to consider: 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1972), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), etc. So, with Lumet obviously on my mind, I decided to watch one of his lesser-known films purchased recently at the Legend Films sale held by Daniel (1983), the film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (his fourth novel, published in 1971).

Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton) is the son of Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and Rochelle Isaacson (Lindsay Crouse), a left-wing couple (modeled after the real-life Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) tried and executed by the U.S. in the 1950s on charges of allegedly conspiring to provide atomic bomb information to the Soviets. The experience has taken its toll on the jaded and cynical Daniel, who nevertheless is spurred to investigate the case further after his sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) attempts suicide and is placed in a mental hospital.

Because I’ve always been fascinated by that period of the late 1940s/early 1950s when cold war paranoia was at its height, I went into Daniel with very high expectations…and emerged somewhat disappointed. It’s a thought-provoking film, to be sure—and it’s a nice evocation of that era (the story is told back-and-forth via flashbacks, allowing the viewer to witness the meeting of Paul and Rochelle and the development of their political consciousness) when lefty politics were in vogue, complete with Paul Robeson songs on the soundtrack. But because Lumet and Doctorow (who also wrote the screenplay) make no attempt to establish any point-of-view (other than an anti-death penalty polemic that creeps into the film in its last third) it leaves the viewer a bit unsatisfied. What exactly did the Isaacsons/Rosenbergs do?

I did enjoy how Lumet approaches Daniel as a pseudo-suspense thriller, having the film’s protagonist interview people involved with the case in an attempt to get at the truth. But in the film, Daniel constantly finds himself running down blind alleys into stone walls: the people he confronts all have their own agendas and are ultimately of little help to him. A reporter (Lee Richardson) who wrote sympathetic articles on the case tells Daniel that he knows first-hand his parents were railroaded—but he’s still not convinced of their innocence, observing “They must have been guilty of something.” The wife of the now deceased defense attorney (Ed Asner) blames the couple for her husband’s ill health and ultimate passing, and refuses to provide any additional information (after first being so hospitable and cordial). Even Daniel’s foster parents (John Rubinstein, Maria Tucci) are close-lipped about the case, convinced that it was in the best interests of both Daniel and his sister Susan never to discuss the details. Finally, Daniel confronts the daughter (Tovah Feldshuh) of the man (Joseph Leon) whose testimony convicted his parents after learning that the father may have lied to protect his own family. In the assisted living home where the man resides, Daniel finds an individual whose mind has clearly been ravaged by age and senile dementia—and he makes the decision that some ghosts are best left unchased.

The performances in Daniel are outstanding for the most part (Crouse, Asner, Plummer and Rubinstein are superb); I like Timothy Hutton but his turn as the title character can’t quite match the individual depicted in Doctorow’s novel (a real tool who does endearing things like torturing his wife—played by a young Ellen Barkin in the film—with a cigarette lighter)—as Daniel he seems to be more in a perpetual snit, as if he’s just found out he’ll get no pudding for dessert. Even Mandy Patinkin, whom I normally loathe, does well as the brilliant but cocky Paul Isaacson—his scene where he visits his children while in prison is as uncomfortable as it is unforgettable; a man whose attempts to fake hysterical good cheer can’t quite mask his fear and suffering. The only discordant note in the casting—and it’s really a product of my being a pop-culture sponge than anything else—is that I recognized Sesame Street’s Will Lee as the presiding trial judge…and it was a mite difficult getting a certain gargantuan yellow bird’s voice saying “Judge Looper” out of my head after that.

Friday, August 29, 2008

You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse

This item over at about the upcoming release of 6-DVD box set of Studio One kinescopes almost slipped past me…but since it didn’t, I thought I’d pass it on to some of the more “highbrow” visitors to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. (I am, of course, referring to the gentleman and gentlewoman eating the sandwiches over the sink.) Koch Vision will release this set on November 11th, and it will contain seventeen classic dramas like “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” “Dark Possession,” “The Arena” and “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners.” The Emmy Award-winning “Twelve Angry Men” is also included; this landmark 1954 production written by Reginald Rose garnered three statuettes for writing (Rose), direction (Franklin J. Schaffner) and performance by an actor in a drama (Bob Cummings…Bob Cummings?)

Studio One began life as a short-lived CBS radio series first broadcast on April 29, 1947…but its brief run had nothing to do with its quality (it was critically lauded as “the most ambitious new series in radio”) insomuch as it was scheduled opposite Fibber McGee & Molly and The Bob Hope Show. (Not a particularly good sign.) Also, Studio wasn’t heard on the West Coast for at least six months after its premiere—which also put a small crimp in whatever ratings aspirations the series had. The program was placed in the custody of a twenty-six-year-old wunderkind named Fletcher Markle, who had earned a reputation at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as another Orson Welles.

Markle’s plan for the show in the beginning was to shape the series into a sort of showcase for the top radio actors in New York—names like Everett Sloane, Robert Dryden, Paul McGrath, Mercedes McCambridge, etc. Fletch wasn’t enamored of the big “star system” in radio (“Americans have been educated to think that a program is not a major program without stars; in Canadian and British radio, there are no stars, yet every performer is a star”) and supported his “repertory company” policy with a novel system in which his actors and actresses would step up to the mike and announce the name of their characters at the conclusion of that evening’s production. (Markle would follow up by identifying each performer with his/her real name.) But by 1948, under pressure from the network to lift Studio’s ratings out of the cellar, Markle compromised by including high-wattage names like Charles Laughton, Robert Young and Marlene Dietrich, among many others.

Markle was also insistent that the productions on Studio One be culled from lesser-known works of prestigious authors, illustrated by the fact that the program’s debut show was an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Fletch insisted that each work be presented as close to the author’s original intent as possible—taking liberties with books or short stories was verboten. In later years, Markle looked back and marveled at how cheaply material for the show could be obtained. “We even got Hemingway,” he recalled in an interview, “I believe, for a hundred dollars.”

Studio One left the radio airwaves on July 27, 1948—only to turn up on CBS’ fledgling television network months later (November 7, 1948) with an adaptation of the mystery play “The Storm,” starring stage and screen star Margaret Sullavan (quite a coup in those days, since movie stars who agreed to appear on television were often dismissed as “slumming”). Markle had departed the show by then (though he did return to the series briefly as a producer in 1953); expressing a desire to direct films (Night Into Morning, The Man With a Cloak) and the producer’s reins were turned over to Worthington Miner. Under Miner’s stewardship, Studio One became one of the longest-running—and critically acclaimed—anthology series of its era, finally closing its television doors on September 29, 1958.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

That darn cat

Multi-millionaire Thaddeus J. (“TJ”) Banner is enjoying watching the antics of a mangy alley cat who delights in swiping golf balls off a country club golf course, and instructs his press agent Eric Yeager (Ray Milland) to capture the feline because he thinks the animal is full of spirit and spunk—unlike the broken-down ball team he owns, the Brooklyn Loons. After a few agonizing attempts, Yeager succeeds in putting the snatch on the tabby, whom Banner names “Rhubarb” after the term used to describe a fight that’s broken out on the baseball field. When Banner passes on, his will stipulates that the team and all his other enterprises are to be left to the cat…with Yeager as legal guardian. This turn of events doesn’t sit well with the team’s players (who have to be convinced that Rhubarb is a “good luck charm”), Banner’s daughter Elsie (understandably put out about being left out of the will) or Yeager’s fiancée Polly Sickles (Jan Sterling)…who soon discovers she’s allergic to Eric’s “ward.”

This 1951 film adaptation of American journalist-humorist H. Allen Smith’s bestselling novel (published in 1946, with two sequels in 1967 and 1971) has just been released to DVD by Legend Films, who announces with a big gold sticker on the front that it’s the movie’s “first time on DVD.” To be more accurate, I don’t believe Rhubarb has ever been made available in any home video format (not even videocassette); I’d only seen the picture on one other occasion and that was during the early days of The Comedy Channel—when it was possible to catch comedy rarities like It Ain’t Hay (see below post) and Bob Hope’s Nothing But the Truth (1941). Hopefully its DVD debut will find an audience, particularly among kids since it’s a great example of a film that’s “fun for the whole family.” I can’t believe that the Disney people never thought of updating this one (as they did with a similar baseball comedy-fantasy, Angels in the Outfield [1951]); perhaps its inaccessibility over these many years has something to do with it.

Even though I’m not overly fond of felines (if you ever see any instances of “Friday Cat Blogging” at TDOY, call the authorities because the blog’s been hijacked) it’s mighty hard to resist Rhubarb…particularly since the plot takes some definitely wacky turns—my favorite involves the “seeding” of a cloud in order to create a rain delay during the baseball championship series. (Author Smith was a crony of Fred Allen’s—Allen wrote the foreword to Smith’s successful Low Man on a Totem Pole—and several of the offbeat bits in the film could have been lifted from some of Fred’s radio scripts.) The script, written by Francis M. Cockrell and Dorothy Davenport, contains some choice one-liners and pot shots at television (an identified cop can be heard muttering: “I hope you look good on television, ‘cause the Senator is gonna ask you a few questions”) and overall the picture is so well cast, featuring TDOY faves Jan Sterling and William Frawley—even Ray Milland isn’t bad (though I think Milland’s other baseball comedy, It Happens Every Spring [1949] is much funnier.) There are the usual fine supporting performances from Gene Lockhart (as Banner), Elsie Holmes, Taylor Holmes (no relation to Elsie; he plays a funny Brooklynese butler), Donald McBride and Willard Waterman (The Great Gildersleeve!) as an opportunistic lawyer, and uncredited bits from the likes of Billie Bird, Madge Blake, Tristram Coffin, Sandra Gould, Paul Maxey, Frank Sully and Ben Welden. Strother Martin and Leonard Nimoy can be seen as two of the ball team’s players…and there’s a great gag cameo at the film’s conclusion that I won’t give away for those who haven’t seen it (but trust me, it’s a pip).

Abbott and Costello Meet the Weasels at MCA-Universal

I guess they’ve finally worked out the legal complexities regarding It Ain’t Hay (1943), a Bud Abbott/Lou Costello romp based on Damon Runyon’s Princess O’Hara, because DVD Times announces that it will be available on Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection come this October 28th. For those of you thinking: “Gosh all fishhooks—this will be a simply grand opportunity to complete my A&C collection because certainly they’ll make Hay available in a single disc release” I’m going to have to cut you off with a John McLaughlin-like WRONG! In order to obtain Hay, you have to buy every friggin’ Bud & Lou movie all over again.

You know, I’m sort of used to this “Hey, there’s Joe Consumer—let’s screw him till he can’t walk upright” attitude, particularly in the area of TV shows on DVD and with CBS DVD-Paramount as Public Enemy Numero Uno. But when studios that release classic films to disc (assuming that they do so to begin with) engage in these sorts of practices, it’s downright frustrating. Particularly when this time spent “upgrading” and “ultimate editioning” could be better rationed to—oh, let’s say…releasing the !@#$%ing films you haven’t gotten around to yet on DVD, for example. The Shelf had a post recently announcing another Casablanca (1942) upgrade and as much as I adore the film (it is my favorite, as you well know) do I really need to purchase another copy? (What’s on this one that’s not on the others—the director’s cut, where Ilsa doesn’t get on the plane?)

A few A&C fans have spoke up in favor of the new box set, mentioning that the twenty-nine discs aren’t double-sided as they were in the previous collections (there were reports of freezing on the two-sided discs, a problem that I never personally encountered); Rodney Bowcock tells me that he finds Hay one of Bud and Lou’s weaker vehicles (despite it being produced during their peak Universal years) and that he’ll make do with his copy (which is the one that I currently own; Rodney’s pal Martin sent it to me as a freebie). As for myself, I genuinely enjoy Hay (though I tend to fast-forward through the musical numbers) but I’m definitely not going to pony up what MCA-Universal is asking for the “revised” box set. For those who held off on buying the complete oeuvre of Abbott & Costello, however…October 28 will be your lucky day.

Yo ho Rinty!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Rolls Royce of Country Music

So I’m skimming CharredHer’s homepage last night and I come across this little blurb about country rocker Marty Stuart, who’s announcing his plans to headline a country music TV show Sunday nights on cable’s RFD-TV. Stuart, who once played alongside both Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt, is known for his hits like Tempted and Little Things, and says that the show will be in tradition of such classic programs like Hee Haw and The Porter Wagoner Show.

Sister Kat gets RFD on her DirecTV system, and I remember channel surfing around RFD’s neighborhood one day, finally landing on the cable network where they were showing a rerun of The Wilburn Brothers Show. For those of you not familiar with Doyle and Teddy, they were a popular country act in the 1950s/1960s who started out as backup singers for Webb Pierce (they’re featured on In the Jailhouse Now) and Ernest Tubb (Mister Love) before racking up a good many solo hits (Which One is to Blame, Trouble’s Back in Town, Hurt Her Once for Me)—and parlayed this success into a syndicated television series from 1963-74 that featured a female vocalist named Loretta Lynn. (Whatever became of her, anyway?)

So I read this news about Stuart’s show, and that’s all well and good—and then I come to this part: “Each episode will feature music by Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, as well as his wife, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, and guests.”

Connie Smith? Connie Smith of Once a Day fame? Cincinnati, Ohio? Ain’t Had No Lovin’? And other assorted country smashes? The pride of Hinton, West Virginia?

Sure enough, the two of them were betrothed eleven years ago in 1997—twenty-seven years after they first met when Stuart was an 11-year-old kid who got his mom to buy him a screamin’ yellow shirt so Smith would notice him during her concert.

The Internets is an amazing thing. I learn something new every day.

“Hollywood’s often tried to mix/show business with politics…”

Once again, Bill Crider leads the way in pointing me toward a recent blurb at the San Francisco Chronicle online that chooses the Top 10 political campaign films…and does so without the spurious help of Diebold, I might add. You should go read it for a more in-depth view, but for those of you who don’t have the time (the half-eaten bagel clenched between your teeth is a dead giveaway) here are the picks, in alphabetical order:

1) All the King’s Men (1949)
2) The Best Man (1964)
3) Blaze (1989)
4) Bob Roberts (1992)
5) Bulworth (1998)
6) The Candidate (1972)
7) The Last Hurrah (1958)
8) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
9) Primary Colors (1998)
10) Speechless (1994)

I’ve seen nine of the ten flicks on SFGate’s list (Speechless is the odd film out, on account of the fact that I lost interest in Michael Keaton’s career about the time he convinced himself he was Batman) and of those the only one I’d be hesitant to recommend would be Blaze, only because Paul Newman never truly convinced me he was Earl Long (and besides that, the film could have used a little trimming). The other eight are all superb examples of the political process (warts and all), particularly King’s Men, Best Man, Bob Roberts, Candidate and Last Hurrah.

This seems as good a time as any to note that Turner Classic Movies will be saluting politically-themed films with a twenty-one gun, er, movie salute on Wednesday nights in September. Candidate, Best Man, Mr. Smith, King’s Men and Hurrah are all scheduled to be shown—and if you’ve never seen any of these, you owe it to yourself to give them the once-over. I’m looking forward to seeing a few of my old favorites (The Great McGinty, The Glass Key) again as well as a few rarities: The Dark Horse, Gabriel Over the White House, The President’s Analyst (Godfrey Cambridge alert!) and The Boss—which has been on my must-see list for some time now. Here’s the lineup:

3 Wednesday
08:00 PM Last Hurrah, The (1958)
10:15 PM Candidate, The (1972)
12:15 AM Best Man, The (1964)
02:00 AM Nashville (1975)
04:45 AM Dark Horse, The (1932)

10 Wednesday
08:00 PM Advise And Consent (1962)
10:30 PM Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
12:45 AM Farmer's Daughter, The (1947)
02:30 AM Washington Story (1952)
04:00 AM Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932)

17 Wednesday
08:00 PM Abe Lincoln In Illinois (1940)
10:00 PM Tennessee Johnson (1942)
12:00 AM Gabriel Over The White House (1933)
01:30 AM President's Analyst, The (1967)
03:30 AM Four Days In November (1964)
05:45 AM Gorgeous Hussy, The (1936)

24 Wednesday
08:00 PM All the King's Men (1949)
10:00 PM Great McGinty, The (1940)
11:30 PM Glass Key, The (1942)
01:00 AM Boss, The (1956)
02:45 AM Flamingo Road (1949)

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The plot against Harry

If announcer/second banana Harry Von Zell is to be immortalized for anything during his lengthy career in radio, movies and TV, it will probably be for his long-running role as sidekick/whipping boy to George Burns and Gracie Allen in their successful television sitcom that ran on CBS-TV from 1950 to 1958. (Von Zell also appeared in the short-lived The George Burns Show that ran for a single season following Gracie's retirement.) Harry came a little late to the Burns and Allen program (he started in the fall of 1952), but since very few of the syndicated episodes featured kinescopes of the live years (1950-52), it was almost like he had been with the program from the get-go.

Radio was really Von Zell’s métier; he worked on numerous shows as announcer and foil to radio greats like Fred Allen (Town Hall Tonight), Eddie Cantor (It’s Time to Smile), Dinah Shore (Birds Eye Open House) and Joan Davis. He was with Cantor the longest, having signed an exclusive contract with “Banjo Eyes” and was pretty much with him the entire forties (until Cantor agreed to host the quiz show Take It or Leave It in the fall of 1949). Harry also made a reach for the brass ring of stardom on two occasions: a self-titled sitcom (that exists in an audition show recorded March 18, 1946) written by the future Leave It to Beaver team of Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, and the lead role in a syndicated sitcom, The Smiths of Hollywood, in 1947. The list of Von Zell’s radio credits is endless…and yet his best-known contribution to Radio’s Golden Age might be the occasion when he mangled the name of the 31st President of the United States as “Hoobert Heever.”

Often on the radio shows in which he appeared, Harry would be called upon to support the stars in small comedic parts, which helped him immeasurably in getting outside work in the “flickers” as a character actor. Though he had already made appearances in films like It’s in the Bag! (1945; with his old boss, Fred Allen) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), 1946 could be considered the year in which he made his big break into movies—having been hired by Columbia Shorts Department head Jules White to appear in a series of comedy two-reelers. As he relates in Ted Okuda and Ed Watz’s excellent compendium, The Columbia Comedy Shorts:

[White] had heard me on the air and had a proposal to make. His idea was to produce a series based on the experiences encountered by a well-known radio personality, and [he] wished to place me under contract to play the role. I was not enthused by the idea, but when he explained that he was prepared to assign me a staff of expert comedy writers and $500 per subject, I changed my mind.

Owing to the fact that it’s been some time since I paid the Columbia shorts a visit, I sat down with half-a-dozen of the Von Zell comedies last night. Two of the shorts—all of which were purchased from Greg Hilbrich at The Shorts Department—I had not previously seen, including Harry’s debut two-reeler, So’s Your Antenna (1946). Unfortunately, even though the studio gave Von Zell special consideration (all of his shorts have an opening title card with his picture and the words “Harry Von Zell in”; I think the only stars at Columbia that received the same treatment were the Stooges) in his new series, Antenna was not an auspicious debut. It’s not only the worst Von Zell short I’ve ever sat through (I’ve yet to see two other shorts, Radio Riot [1949] and Microspook [1949]) it’s one of the worst Columbia shorts period. Harry plays a radio personality hired by a pair of goons to help them rob a bank on the basis of hearing Harry emote as “Hoodlum Harry”; most of the short focuses on a lengthy and painfully unfunny sequence with Von Zell menaced by a deranged ex-con (Ton Kennedy) who sees pink elephants when he’s tipsy. Avoid this one at all costs.

Von Zell’s follow-up, Meet Mr. Mischief (1947), was a much-improved effort; while there are better shorts in Harry’s series I sort of have a soft spot for this one because it contains some amusing OTR references. Harry, an announcer with an annoying penchant for practical jokes, is being stalked by a fanatic (Ralf Harolde) who claims to represent a cult that worships the head of a long-since-departed ruler…who bears a strong resemblance to Von Zell. As Harry runs down hallways, trying to escape his headhunting pursuer, he opens one door looking for a place to hide and is nearly hit by an avalanche of pots, pans and assorted bric-a-brac. “Doggone that Fibber McGee!” he wails in frustration. He then turns a corner and notices a large photo of Eddie Cantor set up as a display, and begins to furiously salaam the picture of his boss until Harolde arrives. “Hey! You’re always running around, looking for heads—why don’t you take that one!” pleads Harry, pointing to the display.

Okuda and Watz have heady praise for the Von Zell shorts, referring to them as “one of the best series the department produced in the 1940s.” They illustrate this by opining that the Von Zell vehicle Rolling Down to Reno (1947) is a more entertaining short than the original, Pardon My Berth Marks (1940), which starred Buster Keaton. (They’re certainly not saying that Harry was the superior comedian of the two, only that the Columbia style fit him far better than Keaton. Personally, I think Berth Marks is just a wee bit funnier, and one of Buster’s better Columbias.) Reno is good fun, it’s just that the flaw with the Von Zell series is that they have a tendency to parrot the same shorts Hugh Herbert was cranking out for the studio at the same time (the marital-misunderstanding plots were also being beaten to death at RKO by Leon Errol). Fortunately, Columbia had people like director-writer Edward Bernds on board, who was able to take typical shenanigans like The Sheepish Wolf (1948) and make them stand out via first-rate direction and scripting. (Wolf is notable for some “high and dizzy” hi-jinks along the ledge of an apartment building between Harry and a jealous, sword-wielding husband played by serials veteran George Lewis…not to mention the incomparable Vernon Dent as a gendarme who utters the falling-down funny line: “I don’t have to use common sense—I’m a policeman!”)

Of the Von Zell shorts I’ve seen, the top honors go to Radio Romeo (1947), another jealous-wife-misunderstands outing that, once again, rises above its clichéd plot with a fresh-and-funny approach to the material courtesy of writer-director Bernds. (Harry, who broadcasts an “Advice to the Lovelorn” program, is asked by listener Lynne Lyons for advice on how to keep her husband home at nights. After giving her the once-over, Harry cracks: “If your husband won’t stay home nights, he needs more help than you do.”) The final short among the ones I purchased was also Harry’s final Columbia two-reeler, His Baiting Beauty (1950); it, too, goes back to the marital-mix-ups well and the results are pleasant if not too inspired. I did enjoy seeing Emil Sitka play a normal character (or what passes for normal in a Columbia short) instead of an elderly eccentric for a change, and Dick Wessel also scores as Harry’s oafish brother-in-law/wrestler (and believe me, Wessel cornered the market on oafs) who mistakes Emil for Harry and gives him “the business,” believing that he’s cheating on his sister (Christine McIntyre).

Harry Von Zell’s brief stint at Columbia no doubt laid the groundwork for future employment in motion pictures, with critically-lauded performances in films like The Saxon Charm (1948) and For Heaven’s Sake (1950), as well as roles in the Bob Hope vehicles Where There’s Life (1947) and Son of Paleface (1952). His distinctive voice was always hard to disguise; he was the narrator of such box-office bombs like Boy. Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz (1968; both of these turkeys were directed by George Marshall), and he’s in a particularly memorable scene (his voice, that is) in the underrated Judy Holliday film The Marrying Kind (1952). I will say that I’ve been on the lookout for several years trying to track down How Doooo You Do!!! (1945), a PRC cheapie that features him and Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon on vacation from the Cantor program and investigating a murder of an agent with a cast that includes Ella Mae Morse, Cheryl Walker, Claire Windsor, Frank Albertson, Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton, Matt McHugh, Keye Luke and Fred Kelsey in what was surely The Busy Body of its day.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Region 2 Cinema: The Fugitive (1947)

(Warning: There’s a spoiler in this first paragraph.)

An unidentified priest/revolutionary (Henry Fonda) finds himself on the run in a nameless Latin American country where members of the clergy are hunted down and summarily executed. His encounters with various societal outcasts—an unwed mother (Dolores Del Rio), a slimy police informer (J. Carrol Naish, channeling his inner Peter Lorre) and another fugitive known simply as “El Gringo” (Ward Bond)—are outlined in a series of vignettes through the film, which culminates in his capture and execution, As his parishioners mourn his death, another priest enters their church and announces that he is “the fugitive’s” replacement…demonstrating the truth of Paul Heinreid’s observation in Casablanca that (and I’ve paraphrased this for the sake of brevity) “if you kill these men, hundreds would rise up to take their places.”

By the merest of coincidences (well…maybe not that mere), John Ford’s The Fugitive, a 1947 film adaptation of author Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory received a workout on TCM’s Summer of Stars Festival last night—and while it’s not currently available in this country on DVD, it can be purchased across the pond (the details of which I’ll get after a long-winded paragraph or two). It’s an essential component of any serious Ford buff’s movie collection, though some fans of the director might find it a bit slow going. Time Out remarks that it’s “one of Ford’s most turgid efforts…with an annoying tendency toward obvious religious symbolism.” My response to this is if you’re truly taken back that a director with Ford’s Catholic background would resort to “obvious religious symbolism” (think 3 Godfathers [1948]) you’ll be positively gobsmacked to learn that there’s gambling going in Rick’s (and that’s the last of the Casablanca references, I promise).

From a review of The Fugitive on The Stop Button:

While filming Citizen Kane, Orson Welles screened John Ford’s Stagecoach every night. He said everything one could do in film was done in Stagecoach. Maybe Ford heard about it, because The Fugitive looks like an Orson Welles film… and it’s not just the foreign (Mexico) shooting location with American actors surrounded by non-English speaking extras. The Fugitive is Ford’s oddest sound picture. Large portions of it don’t even need sound, just ambient music and noises. There are long sequences without any necessary speech, there’s even moments where dialogue is muted, overpowered by street music. During the scenes filmed in the Mexican city… you’d think it was Touch of Evil.

However, Ford is not the same kind of director as Welles. What works for Welles does not work for Ford. The Fugitive is arranged as a series of vignettes, but Ford can’t get enough oomph going to distinguish one from the other. Sure, there’s the change in sound design, but the storytelling focus doesn’t change. It’s easily Ford’s most experimental work–it’s easily one of the most experimental works I’ve seen from a Hollywood director–but the script works against it, particularly in the end, when the film’s finally turning around.

I was tickled to discover that I wasn’t the only one to detect a slight Wellesian flavor in Fugitive…I even felt that many of the scenes inside the church were reminiscent of Welles’ Othello (1952), with its shadowy, somewhat fog-misty interiors. Ford’s film can also be compared to The Trial (1962), a Welles concoction that ultimately rewards the patient viewer who has an urn of coffee brewed and at the ready. (I wouldn’t classify Fugitive as “turgid” or boring…but a strong argument could be made that if you added a one-armed man to the ’47 version it might grab people’s attentions more.)

But what makes Fugitive such compelling viewing is the positively breathtaking black-and-white cinematography courtesy of Gabriel Figueroa (who worked alongside Luis Bunuel on many of his classic films) and the performances of the largely Latino supporting cast—including Del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz and Leo Carrillo. It’s gratifying to see these talented thespians transcend the usual Hispanic stereotypes dictated by Hollywood; the only weakness is that this principle wasn’t applied to the lead because I truly believe Fonda was miscast. Members of Ford’s stock company—Bond and John Qualen—also deliver the goods, but I was really surprised by Robert Armstrong. Armstrong achieved silver screen immortality as filmmaker/showman Carl Denham in the original King Kong (1933) but most of his career he was hampered by one-note performances. Suffice it to say, he rises to the occasion here in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as a police sergeant.

Universal Pictures UK released The Fugitive on a Region 2 DVD in May of this year, and it’s available from for the nominal sum of £5.95 (about $11 American)—a much better deal than the earlier edition (Dieu Est Mort) brought out by Editions Montparnasse in 2005 and still available at for €9.99 ($15 American). Whichever one you decide to get, I believe you’ll be mesmerized by this beautiful film (assuming you haven’t already seen it); though its performance at the box office was nothing short of dismal, director Ford often considered the movie as his personal favorite.

Mr. McCain Builds His Dream House(s)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Belated blogiversary announcement

You know, one of these days I’m going to have to take the time to write down all the blogiversary dates of all of the fine web logs that dare risk being taunted by the neighborhood kids by putting Thrilling Days of Yesteryear on their blogrolls. Because once again, I have forgotten a web log birthday—and it’s not just any anniversary…it just so happens to be the fifth anniversary of the blog that served as the inspiration for my own: World O’Crap.

Now, before you go running over there to pelt Scott and S.Z. with rotten tomatoes and eggs, I should say in their defense that at the time they were just crazy kids out looking for thrills and they had no idea that when an impressionable young man named Ivan (okay, so I was forty—do I have to start taking down names?) read their blog that he would be inspired to start one of his own. Since that time, World O’Crap has provided me with more hours of tears-down-my-cheeks hilarity than I could possibly count; it’s truly the gold yardstick for which all political humor blogs should be measured.

Happy belated blogiversary, you two…sorry I forgot the date again, but it’s hell getting old sometimes.

Update: I neglected to acknowledge that Toby O'Brien at Inner Toob also celebrated a blogiversary: number four, as of yesterday. I think senility is starting to kick in; I'm not even sure how many houses I own anymore.

Updated update: I checked with my staff. I don't own any houses, but I am renting one.

Tonight the bottle let me down

From, the news that Sony will be releasing I Dream of Jeannie: The Complete Series to stores on November 4th isn’t all that surprising. Once again, the studios—simply not satisfied with stuffing their gullets with all the cash they made from the individual season sets—are heckbent on asking Joe Consumer to bend over while they drive, flashing their “extras” like a hooker with her goodies.

Unfortunately, Sony hasn’t had the experience that CBS DVD/Paramount has with these practices. They’re offering the set in special “bottle packaging” which looks positively unattractive and cumbersome (and if they have the postal persons that I have it’ll be a miracle if it arrives in anybody’s mailbox intact); plus the 1985 TV-movie I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later will be included. I’ve seen it…didn’t like it (Wayne Rogers replaces Larry Hagman as Major Nelson, for starters)—in fact, the only redeeming feature of this feature was seeing Hayden Rorke reprise his role as Dr. Bellows.

TVShows’ David Lambert does raise an interesting point, however: will the first season discs contain the original black-and-white Jeannie episodes or the colorized versions that Sony apparently had to offer to reluctant buyers (they did the same thing with Bewitched’s freshman and sophomore years, too). I will never understand why the studios had to colorize vintage TV shows like McHale’s Navy and the first season of Gilligan’s Island in syndication. (“Hey! Gilligan’s wearing a red shirt in this one!”)

Nice try, Sony. Now get back to work and finish out those Hazel and The Flying Nun sets like I asked you to.

Update: has the official press release from Sony and neither made-for-TV I Dream of Jeannie movie is mentioned as being on the set. And the first season episodes? Colorized. Bwhahahahahahahaha...!

What becomes a Legend most?

Mark Evanier recently posted to his newsfromme blog a review of With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), a comedy romp starring Doris Day and Brian Keith and directed by the late, great Howard Morris. Evanier observes: “Howie did some wonderful things as a director—if you ever get the chance to see Who’s Minding the Mint?, don’t miss it…” Now, I may be stretching this coincidence a tad, but as it so happens I just finished watching a comedy similar to Mint (in fact, the two movies and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming [1966] attempted to cash in on the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World phenomenon of featuring big-name comedians in their casts), 1967’s The Busy Body.

Body, Mint, World and Russians were movies I watched quite frequently on television during my youth; of the three, however, I consider Mint to be the funniest (even more so than World, which has lot a bit of its luster despite its cult following). I had hoped that revisiting Body (it’s been a long while since I’ve seen it) would reveal a long lost comedic find but apart from its cast (clearly the main draw) the film is only sporadically funny, and suffers from the indignity of gathering this incredible gallery of players…and leaving them very little to work with.

Mob gopher George Norton (Sid Caesar) has just been promoted to “the board of directors” by his boss, Charley Barker (Robert Ryan)…but his climb up the corporate ladder is stalled when board member Archie Brody (Bill Dana) perishes in a freak outdoor barbecue grill incident. George, undeniably a snappy dresser (his mother [Kay Medford] always wanted him to be a haberdasher), is assigned the task of selecting a suit for the late Archie to be buried in—and after the funeral is over, George is asked to dig Archie up. It appears that in the lining of Brody’s suit was $1,000,000 in cash…but a check of his coffin reveals no Archie…no suit…and thus, no dinero. George is then put in charge of tracking down the missing corpse (leaving a trail of bodies along the way) lest he soon join his dear, departed friend six feet under courtesy of Ryan and the other board members.

With a screenplay by Ben Starr (from a Donald E. Westlake novel!), direction by B-movie showman/schlockmeister William Castle and a sprightly cast that includes Anne Baxter, Arlene Golonka, Richard Pryor (in his feature film debut) and more Borscht Belt comedians (Jan Murray, George Jessel, etc.) than you can shake a stick at, it’s discouraging that Body never reaches its full potential. There are some scattered yuks here and there (Caesar gets the lion’s share…but then it’s impossible for Sid not to be funny), and inspired contributions by Ben Blue (memorable as a truck dispatcher who keeps fainting and is revived by emptying a bottle of Coca-Cola on his face), Dom DeLuise and the “team” of Marty Ingels and Godfrey Cambridge (Cambridge just has to show up in a movie to guarantee it’ll be worth my time). However, when Charles McGraw gets more laughs than Pryor—you know the movie’s taken the wrong turn at Albuquerque. (In Pryor’s defense, he’s woefully miscast as an authority figure…a chief of detectives, no less.)

I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing this film because, despite its shortcomings, it’s definitely worth a look-see (and besides, it’s miles-and-away better than Caesar-Castle’s follow-up collaboration, The Spirit is Willing). Body has been released on DVD by a company called Legend Films, and some of their eclectic product (leased to them via Paramount, and containing movies that the studio would never get around to releasing in a million years) is currently on sale (select titles, I should add) at Deep Rhubarb (1951), Money from Home (1953), Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963), Serial (1980) and Baby It’s You (1983). I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t mention that Legend has apparently fallen in with bad companions and insists on releasing some of its product (comedies featuring Abbott & Costello, Our Gang and the Three Stooges) in colorized form…which is a no-no in Uncle Ivan’s book. But life isn’t always black-and-white (even though I’d like it to be), and sometimes you have to wonder if a DVD copy of Phase IV (1974) or Mandingo (1975) is worth the sacrifice of a principle or two.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Back to basic(s)

Honest to my grandma, this post started out to be a positive assessment of my cable television service—known here on the blog as CharredHer—because as Sam Johnson, convalescing blogger and feuding partner of your humble narrator, once complained in a post that all I ever do is complain about the cable service. Allow me to elucidate:

I’ve got one of those digital cable boxes, and every time there’s a red light on it means I’ve got some mail I need to peruse. Usually it’s some promo announcement for a Pay-Per-View boxing match, but a few days ago it was actually something of interest: a heads-up that the FLIX channel was going to be made available gratis to expanded basic subscribers.

Now, in all actuality, most of what I would like to see on FLIX—a Showtime-owned channel that contains a mixture of empty-calorie movie hits and art house classics—is already offered on the On Demand channel, free of charge. Sometimes the selection is pretty spotty but other times they offer an interesting lineup. Currently, I can watch an array of movies that include Bad Boys (1983), Beautiful Girls (1996), Being John Malkovich (1999), Foxes (1980), Hester Street (1975), Smithereens (1982) and The Landlord (1970). Some of these I’ve already seen (Boys, Girls, Malkovich) and some I have wanted to catch (Hester, Landlord) and, again, the great thing about it is I don’t have to pay extra for them. There are also a few movies available from TCM (Captains Courageous, Gilda), IFC, Sundance, etc.

Last Saturday, I watched John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) on FLIX On Demand, a movie that I enjoyed very much. Tom Courtenay plays the title character, a young Northern lad who copes with his mundane existence by living in his own fantasy world—one that requires him to “stretch the truth” from time to time, hence his nickname. I’d previously only been aware of the film because I’ve got the TV series (telecast on ITV from 1973-74) on DVD, which goes mainly for comic situations and avoids much of the bitter sweetness of the movie. (The same material was used for a short-lived CBS sitcom in the 1970s called Billy, which starred Steve Guttenberg. Of this, I will say no more.)

I’m not sure I would call myself a huge fan of Courtenay’s, though I’ve seen a few of his films and have always been impressed as a result—including The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), King & Country (1964) and Let Him Have It (1991). I really did like his portrayal of Billy, a decent sort who you can’t help but root for even though his talent for “expedient exaggeration” lands him in hot water time and time again. He’s aided and abetted by a first-cast in Liar as well: Wilfred Pickles and Mona Washbourne as his long-suffering parents; Ethel Griffies; Finlay Currie; Gwendolyn Watts; Helen Frasier…and the ever-delightful Julie Christie in one of her earliest performances. I was tickled to see several future Britcom stars in Liar: Ernest Clark (Dr. Geoffrey Loftus in Doctor in the House and its related sequels and spin-offs) has a bit part in one of Billy’s daydreams as a prison warden, Rodney Bewes (one of The Likely Lads) plays Billy’s best friend and Leonard Rossiter (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) is Billy’s boss. (I suppose I could include Pickles on this list as well, seeing as he co-starred in the long-running For the Love of Ada.)

So, I turn the TV on this morning to see if they’ve instituted the changes with FLIX, and I’m doomed to disappointment…all I get on the screen is a message saying I don’t receive this channel because I haven’t paid for it. I e-mailed CharredHer about this, and received a reply stating that I can get FLIX…providing I cough up an additional sawbuck.

Since you and I know what the outcome of this is going to be, I guess this is as good a time as any to close the subject. (Rat bastards…)

Home(s) is where the heart is


Friday, August 22, 2008

Here's another nice mess I've gotten myself into

I had planned to post something about TCM's Summer of Stars Festival, which is showcasing tomorrow the most beloved comedy team in the history of cinema.

But Mark Evanier beat me to the punch. So cancel anything and everything you plan to do tomorrow and sit back for some laughs.

I’d buy that for a dollar 2.0

Way back in August of 2004, I stitched together a quick Top Ten list of vintage television programs that, at the time of that posting, had not been released on DVD. Since that first post, I’ve added an additional Top Ten each year (well, except for 2005, which for some unknown reason I skipped). I guess now is as good a time as any to revisit the lists from the past and offer up another brand-spanking-new tally.

But I’m going to do something a little different this time, because of the programs on the original 2004 list, I’m pleased to report that nine out of the ten shows have seen some DVD action:

1) The Rockford Files
2) The Fugitive
3) The Invaders
4) Get Smart
5) The Wild Wild West
6) The Odd Couple
7) St. Elsewhere
8) The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
9) The Phil Silvers Show
10) F Troop

Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, The Odd Couple and F Troop have all gone “the distance” with every one of their seasons released (Couple’s final season will be out in November). Rockford has a season to go, as does The Invaders—and as to the future of The Fugitive, well…CBS-Paramount has pretty much screwed the pooch on that one. St. Elsewhere is, sadly, “one and done”…and while I’m hoping someone at CBS-Paramount will awaken one day from a deep slumber and reach an epiphany that The Phil Silvers Show is so friggin’ funny the entire series needs to be released on disc…I’m not putting any notions like that into my hope chest anytime soon.

So that leaves Dobie as the only series without a DVD release (though, technically, there are a few scattered episodes available at Nostalgia Family Video). Therefore, I’m going to retire the 2004 list (with the exception of Dobie and Maynard) and move on to 2006:

1) My World and Welcome to It
2) Route 66
3) Newhart
4) The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
5) The Patty Duke Show
6) The Real McCoys
7) McHale’s Navy
8) Car 54, Where are You?
9) The John Larroquette Show
10) The Defenders

I’m five out of ten on this one; Route 66, Newhart, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Real McCoys and McHale’s Navy have all been released on DVD in various stages of completion (Navy will see its final season hit the streets on November 18th). So I’ll remove these series from this list and add five more boomer series to be considered:

6) The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – Moved from original 2005 list.

7) Our Miss Brooks – A sitcom that I have mentioned many times on the blog, always with a plea for season sets.

8) The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – This continuation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (from 1962-65) has been getting a lot of play on our RTN affiliate lately, and the show is every bit as memorable as when it was a staple of USA Network’s programming.

9) Bonanza – Why this popular Western—which runs in perpetuity on TVLand—hasn’t been released on DVD (save for the thirty public domain episodes) is still a mystery to me, though I suspect it probably has something to do with DVD’s bête noir, copyright issues. (From what I’ve been told, six or seven seasons’ worth are available on Region 2 in Germany.)

10) Dragnet – With the reemergence of the “hip” 1967-70 version on RTN, it would be good news to hear that Universal decided to continue releasing the rest of the show’s seasons from the 1960s after just a singular “one and done” set. (Hey—they went back to the Adam-12’s, didn’t they?)

This brings me to last year’s list. Since this list is still pretty fresh in everyone’s minds (and besides, only two candidates have been approved for box set releases, My Three Sons and M Squad) I’ll leave this one alone for the time being:

1) Maverick
2) He & She
3) December Bride
4) Dennis the Menace
5) My Three Sons (set due to be released September 30th)
6) Mayberry R.F.D.
7) Twelve O’Clock High
8) Run for Your Life
9) Room 222
10) M Squad (set due to be released November 11th)

And without further ado (which would suggest that this is nothing but ado to start with), the “I’d buy that for a dollar” candidates for August 2008:

1) The Detectives starring Robert Taylor – Confession time: I think Taylor was one of the most wooden actors in the history of the silver screen…but for some reason, TV seemed to work for him. This show, which ran three seasons (1959-62) on both NBC and ABC, occasionally would show up on TVLand but to obtain the copies that I have (and badly blurred ones at that) I had to mingle with the denizens at Still, it’s a good, solid cop show.

2) East Side/West Side – One of the few TV series to challenge FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” observation; it starred George C. Scott (yes, that George C. Scott) as a NYC social worker who dealt with what at the time were controversial issues (which would probably seem tame today). A fascinating television time-capsule (I caught a few episodes when it ran on Trio’s Brilliant But Cancelled) with outstanding supporting work from Elizabeth Wilson and Cicely Tyson.

3) The Farmer’s Daughter – Everybody remembers the 1947 movie comedy that won Loretta Young an Oscar as Best Actress but the television sitcom (1963-66) adapted from that film seems to have fallen by the wayside. I’m a sucker for anything Inger Stevens ever appeared in, and the always reliable William Windom does great work as well. I’d even buy the third season, even though the producers of the show sabotaged the series by marrying the two leads. (This one was a staple of my TV-obsessed childhood…I think it was on more often than The Lucy Show or Hazel.)

4) Felony Squad – I wrote an essay on this show back in January 2007 and a commenter remarked how much he’d enjoy seeing it on DVD. I second that emotion; I love watching old pros like Howard Duff and Ben Alexander work together, and it’s a definite relic of its time when cop shows could get the job done in half-an-hour.

5) The Millionaire – Every now and then, some modern TV series will make a reference to “John Beresford Tipton” and it ends up cracking me up. Tipton was a guy loaded with loot who each week instructed flunky Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) to give a selected individual a check for $1,000,000 (places pinky to corner of mouth) provided that lucky duck didn’t reveal where he got it. (I guess Tipton had a printing press in the basement.) In light of Donald Trump’s magnanimous gesture to let Ed McMahon stay in his house (I’m sure Ed’s gonna be doing a bit of yard work, though…heyyyyyo!) wouldn’t it be great to go back to a simpler time and watch a rich guy actually be nice to people?

6) The Mothers-in-Law – A neglected sitcom that run from 1967-69 that lets Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard strut their stuff, Lucy-style (the show was created by longtime Lucy scribes Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Pugh-Davis and produced by Desi Arnaz). (Linda at Yet Another Journal argues that replacing Roger C. Carmel with Richard Deacon in the second season hurt the show, but I love Deac so much I’m willing to overlook it.)

7) Mr. Novak – Here’s one from the memory vaults: James Franciscus plays an idealistic young English teacher learning the ropes in a series that, while it may not have had a lengthy run (1963-65) was popular enough to be spoofed in MAD Magazine. A longtime favorite of television show collectors.

8) N.Y.P.D. - Another half-hour crime drama in the mold of Felony Squad, this gritty, realistic series remains entertaining despite its slightly dated elements. (There are also top-notch performances from leads Jack Warden, Robert Hooks and Frank “Coronet Blue” Converse—in addition to future stars like Al Pacino, whose “Deadly Circle of Violence” remains his only TV series work to date.) I’ve got a bunch of these purchased from various and sundry places and hope to have an essay up on the show very soon.

9) Thriller – Despite its schizophrenic nature (the show’s creators never could decide if it was to be a horror or crime-mystery series), this 1960-62 anthology hosted by TDOY fave Boris Karloff still makes for great viewing. It had a long run on the early days of the Sci-Fi Channel, but it really does deserve the DVD treatment.

10) Wagon Train – Again, its exposure on RTN (we get two episodes back to back, on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 1pm) might mean that one of television’s classiest westerns could come to a DVD box set near you.

As always…comments, observations and plain ol’ “You honestly like that show?” rejoinders are welcome. And as a sidebar, any studio willing to tackle finishing the yet-uncompleted releases of The Flying Nun, Have Gun – Will Travel, Hazel, Leave it to Beaver and Naked City would receive a certificate of undying gratitude from this weblog.

Not only is Georgia leading the's gotten us hopelessly, irretrievably lost...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Yes we can (be ready)

Crossing Jordon

Assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) is drowning his sorrows in the office of investigator chum Miles Scott (Paul Kelly) late one night when he’s approached by a mysterious female (Barbara Stanwyck) pitching a story about a series of robberies that have taken place at her aunt’s estate. The woman, Thelma Jordon, falls in love with the happily-married Marshall and they proceed to have an illicit affair that suddenly goes off the tracks when she reports to Cleve that her aunt (Gertrude Hoffman) has had her safe rifled and some emeralds stolen…and that the thief has croaked Auntie in the process. Thelma has stupidly tampered with the evidence at the scene of the crime, so Cleve helps “restage” the layout…only to have his lady friend arrested and charged with murder. He manages to get the assignment of prosecuting Thelma (by cleverly getting his boss removed due to a conflict of interest) so that he can “throw the case”…but has she been playing him for a sap the entire time?

The answer, of course, is yes—and that pretty much sums up the proceedings of The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), a watered-down Double Indemnity (1944) that features good performances by the leads and expert direction by Robert Siodmak that compensates for its general seen-it-all-before. “No one is as good as Barbara Stanwyck when she’s bad,” observes Hal Erickson at, and while I enjoy Babs’ wickedness as much as the next classic movie buff in vehicles like Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946; her parasitic relationship with wimpy, weak-willed Kirk Douglas totally fascinates me in its perversity), I sometimes think she’s a much better actress when playing the victim (like in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number).

To illustrate this, right after watching Thelma Jordon, I caught Babs in Witness to Murder (1954), a Rear Window-knockoff in which she plays an interior designer who's witnessed writer/ex-Nazi George Sanders murdering a woman in his apartment. Babs tries to get police lieutenant Gary Merrill (along with his partner, Jesse White) to believe that Sanders killed his girlfriend, but Gary's not so quick to buy her story…at first, that is. Stanwyck is in her element here: she plays her usual confident, self-assured professional who’s taken charge of her life and career…but when the axis in her world goes askew because no one will even consider the possibility that Sanders is a bad, bad man (it’s George Sanders, ferchrissake—don’t these people ever go to the movies?) she must undergo a “baptism by fire” in order for the truth to emerge—including a memorable sequence set inside a Casa del Cashew facility in which her roommates are Claire Carleton (who looks like she was rode hard and put up wet) and a blues-singing Juanita Moore. Sure, everything comes out in the wash—but you sort of get the feeling that Babs is not going to ever be the same again. Roy Rowland directed this quick time-killer and while he’s certainly not in Siodmak’s league he does get help from the Master Noir Cinematographer himself, John Alton. (There are also a couple of OTR vets who have choice bit parts: Sam Edwards is a chatty drugstore soda jerk and Helen Kleeb plays the matron supervising Babs’ stay in the wacky place.)

Carl over at Noir of the Week wrote a good piece on Thelma Jordon a couple of years back and it’s worth a glance because he has a better appreciation of the film than I do:

The File on Thelma Jordon isn’t a classic on the level of The Killers or Criss Cross but it’s way too close to be gathering dust in Paramount’s vaults largely unviewed, having never been released on either VHS or DVD to the general public. Worse yet, the film used to get regular airings back in the days when AMC was a legitimate, respectable classic film vehicle but it has completely disappeared from sight in recent years. This is the lamentable shame for many excellent Paramount noirs, but Thelma Jordon just might top the list of the ones that merit mass-market rediscovery, at least among classic film connoisseurs. (Italics mine.)

Overall, Thelma Jordon’s a perfectly serviceable if not particularly outstanding noir: Babs does pretty well by the title character, and Corey gives a good performance as well. I guess the only real problem I had with the movie is that Corey simply doesn’t have the chops to put up much of a struggle when Stanwyck’s character is clearly at the outset arranging for him to take the fall (Robert Mitchum, of course, sees it coming from miles away in Out of the Past but decides to let the chips fall where they may)—but I did enjoy seeing Corey soused in the early parts of the picture only because in later years the actor sort of took the Dana Andrews route and become noticeably spiffed in some of the films he was appearing in, like The Astro-Zombies (1966), his last film. Before Jordon, Corey had worked with Babs in Number and would work with her one last time in The Furies (1950)—his best-known role is probably that of Jimmy Stewart’s detective pal in Rear Window, but I think his best performance is in a little-known but splendid noir, The Killer is Loose (1956).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Breaking news from the Bizarro World...

Toby Keith praises Obama

None of the Dixie Chicks were available for comment at this time.

Somewhere there should be…for all the world to see…

I just realized when I saw this article this morning…

Bronze Fonz now an 'Ayyyy'-list celeb in Milwaukee

...that Jim Leeds at Jim’s Journeys asked me a while back how old the “Fonz” was, and I never got around to responding to his query.

Henry Winkler, the actor who played Arthur Fonzarelli on the long-running sitcom Happy Days, is 62…he’ll turn 63 in October.

Anyway, the above piece announces the erection of a statue (perhaps I could have phrased that better) in Milwaukee, WI in honor of the famous TV character. It’s the work of the folks at TVLand, and while it’s a nice gesture you’d think they could spend their time much, much better by concentrating on removing those hideous “new” series and movies from their schedule.

Okay. Rant over.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The File on Barbara Stanwyck

TCM has been running Barbara Stanwyck films all day today as part of their Summer of Stars Festival and I was worried about missing some of them because I had some outside projects to complete. Fortunately, the good stuff isn’t on until 9:30pm, when Turner will show The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), a nifty noir directed by Robert Siodmak (he’s everywhere!) that lets Babs be b-b-b-bad to the bone by making a complete doofus out of D.A. Wendell Corey. It’s not available on DVD yet, so I’m definitely got it on my to-watch list; I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it but the ironical thing is I pretty much know the plot because I listened to a radio adaptation (on Screen Director’s Playhouse, from March 15, 1951) on Victor Ives’ Golden Age of Radio Theater back in the early 1980s on Savannah’s WWSA-AM. Playhouse did quite a few radio broadcasts of Stanwyck’s movies during its brief two-year run, including Remember the Night, No Man of Her Own, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and The Lady Gambles. (I haven’t seen GamblesThe Lost Weekend of gambling addiction films—since it was shown briefly on AMC in the 1990s. And people wonder why I’m still holding a grudge.)

Following Jordon is Witness to Murder (1954), another Stanwyck noir that was on a month or two ago but I missed all but the last twenty minutes because that was the day I made the trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new photo I.D. So I’m glad I’m getting a second opportunity to watch it, and I hope to have a pair of mini-reviews for tomorrow. (For those of you who are game, TCM follows Murder with Crime of Passion [1957], another definitely-worth-your-time Babs noir that I’ve already seen…I’ll have probably hit the hay by then.)

While I’m on the subject of Stanwyck, the UPS guy brought me my Criterion Collection copy of The Furies (1950) Monday and I almost needed a truss to get it into the house. You see, included with the restored high-definition digital transfer is a big honkin’ booklet containing a new essay on the film by Robin Wood, a Cahiers du cinéma interview with director Anthony Mann and a new printing of Niven Busch’s original novel. (I snapped this puppy up at Deep when they were having a two-for-one Criterion sale—the other disc I bought is their Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) DVD, which should be arriving some time this week.) Described by Thad K. as “a wonderfully bat-shit crazy movie…like released from the gates of Hell…” David Phelps at The Auteur’s Notebook has a nice piece on the picture, complete with screen caps.

The Complete Frank Ballinger has announced the good news that the missing M Squad episodes actively being sought for a release by Timeless Media Group have been recovered, and so M Squad: The Complete Series will hit the streets on November 11th. The price tag on this baby? $119.98 is the SRP, but even with an online discount that’s a heavy-duty strain on the wallet. I want to support this release, because I had it on my “I’d buy that for a dollar” list back in July (I’ll probably need to update that soon)…so I guess this means I’m going to need to get a paper route.

Also in television-on-disc news—courtesy of Messrs. Lacey and Lambert— has apparently struck a deal with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment that will allow the Internet retailer behemoth to sell Quark: The Complete Series ahead of their competition…they’ll be able to ship it to you on September 2nd (which, by the merest of coinky-dinks, happens to be your humble narrator’s natal anniversary—not that I’m dropping any hints or anything). I have to admit, I was kind of surprised by the positive reaction of several commentators when I posted the Quark news—apparently I’m not the only one who used to watch this funny, woefully short-lived series. (Why is it that the shows that ultimately tanked in the Nielsens turn out to have such a devoted fan base? You don’t suppose this thing is…rigged…do ya?)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Region 2 Cinema: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

Fabric designer Harry Melville Quincey (George Sanders), scion of an aristocratic New England family whose fortunes went south with the stock market crash of 1929, is introduced to sophisticated socialite Deborah Brown (Ella Raines) at the textile mill where he works…and falls madly in love with her, asking for her hand in marriage. This news thrills his chatterbox sister Hester (Moyna MacGill), but his other sibling—the domineering and possessive Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald)—is jealously determined to forestall any potential wedding marches in Harry’s future. When Harry refuses to leave town with Deborah (the couple, frustrated by Lettie’s reluctance to move to other quarters, has decided to travel to New York, with a side stop to their friendly neighborhood Justice of the Peace along the way) after hearing that Lettie has taken ill, Deborah calls it quits, realizing he’ll never break free. On hearing the news that Deborah married Harry’s rival (Craig Reynolds), Lettie suddenly finds herself “cured” and Harry learns he’s been played for a sucker the whole time. He decides to do away with the perfidious Lettie by slipping the same poison she used to put down the family dog in her cocoa…but as a famous cartoon squirrel once observed, “That trick never works.”
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), adapted from Thomas Job’s successful stage melodrama, was the second of two collaborations between producer Joan Harrison and German émigré director Robert Siodmak (though their first film, 1944’s Phantom Lady, gives Harrison an associate producer credit) at Universal Pictures. The talented Siodmak has always been one of my favorite directors, known for his noir output (Lady, The Killers, Cry of the City, Criss Cross) but also flexible enough to tackle assignments in horror (Son of Dracula), adventure (The Crimson Pirate) and full-blown Technicolor WTF wackiness (Cobra Woman). Harrison, a longtime associate of Alfred Hitchcock (who would have been an even better choice to direct Harry than Siodmak), resigned from Universal as a result of the picture’s positively lame ending (which was necessary, unfortunately, to satisfy the Hays Office—Universal had to choose between five contenders) and went to RKO to oversee other noirs like Nocturne (1946) and They Won’t Believe Me (1947). (Harrison would later continue her association with the Master of Suspense as executive producer of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.)

It is the unfortunate The Woman in the Window-like ending of Harry that keeps this film from being a great movie rather than a mildly diverting one. But there are other factors at work here. Actor Sanders—who receives kudos for making a game attempt at escaping his usual caddishness by playing a henpecked sort—can’t quite completely hide his inner essobee in the picture’s early scenes; though I consider myself a huge fan, I always have difficulty in buying into the rare occasions where he plays a decent sort save for his sarcastic sidekick role in Foreign Correspondent (1940). Leading ingénue Raines is also pretty underwhelming; she had the capability to rise to the occasion (particularly as the female lead in Phantom Lady) but more often than not seemed to just be content in her blandness. So it’s pretty much up to Fitzgerald to steal the whole show, and she doesn’t disappoint: her blasé “landed gentry” persona is really just a mask to cover up her invidious, conniving nature. You never really learn why Lettie has such incestuous feelings for brother Harry (and thank the Gods of Cinema that’s one plot point the Hays people couldn’t edit out—just think of the relationship between Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak in Scarface) but she takes hold of Harry like a tigress does her cub. Moyna MacGill (mother of Angela Lansbury) as sister Hester matches Fitzgerald’s first-rate performance, and other familiar character faces—Sara Allgood, Samuel S. Hinds, Harry von Zell (as the comic relief druggist), Ethel Griffies, Will Wright and Barbara “Doris Ziffel” Pepper—step up to the plate as well.

I first watched Harry nearly ten years ago on Encore’s Mystery Channel, and though it was released on videocassette (by Republic Pictures Home Video) at about the same time, I can’t recall the last time I saw it on any cable channel’s schedule since. I purchased my Region 2 DVD copy from DaaVeeDee, a nifty website that specializes in hard-to-find classic film rarities. (DaaVeeDee also peddles its wares on eBay, but I think the prices on the site are a dollar or two cheaper.) The disc itself was released by Suevia Films, and I need to warn you off the bat that the quality of this release is iffy at best—it’s jerky and jumps around in quite a few spots, plus it has some all-too-noticeable scratches and breaks in the print used. I tried my best to keep from revealing the ending of this film (well, it says so at the end: “In order that your friends may enjoy this picture, please do not disclose the ending.”) but here’s a hint: stop your player at the 1:18 mark in order to refrain from shouting “Oh, come on!” when Harry calls it a wrap. To a fan like me, lesser Siodmak is much, much better than a lot of what’s out there—so if you can raise the scratch, it’s worth the investment.