Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #4

TCM finally got around to showcasing a film festival in remembrance of the late Anita Page, who passed from the scene in September…and I was anxious to see some of the films showcased, particularly the “Dancing” Trilogy: Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930). I missed them for several reasons: yesterday’s run-off election, errands to run, etc.—but I think the sole responsibility should rest on the shoulders of Julia Roberts, because I stayed up late the previous evening to watch The Pelican Brief (1993) and consequently was too bone-lazy to get up in time to view the early morning offerings. But I did manage to find time for a pair of Page vehicles (though technically she’s more of a supporting actress in them):

Sidewalks of New York (1931) – One of the few Buster Keaton MGM features that has evaded me in the past—though it pains me to say I probably shouldn’t have been in any great hurry to see it. Buster’s a millionaire who owns several tenement buildings on the Lower East Side of Noo Yawk (a stomping ground for any potential Leo Gorceys or Huntz Halls) and who attempts to woo and win Page by cleaning up the streets and establishing a youth center/gymnasium for the misguided “yutes” in the neighborhood. It’s difficult to watch this film for several reasons: one, it’s fairly obvious that Keaton is completely spiffed and feeling no pain and, two, you have to put up with cute kid actors—and the one thing worse than cute kid actors is cute kid actors pretending to be tough mugs. Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards is Buster’s aide de camp and one of the few bright spots, and as always there are flashes of the comedian’s brilliance in some of the gags (my favorite is a short bit with Buster disappearing behind a curtain to evade the bad guys during a chase in his mansion). The film’s real detriment is that it was directed by Zion Myers and Jules White (yes, the future head of the Columbia studios’ comedy shorts department) whose main claim to fame at that particular time at MGM was the creation of those abysmal “Dogville” shorts occasionally shown on TCM in between features. (White’s idea of side-splitting comedy is having the neighborhood kids shovel hot coals down the pants of the bad guys. Oh, Jules—someday the world will recognize your genius.) Anyone familiar with the Three Stooges two-reeler Disorder in the Court (1936) will find much of its genesis in Sidewalks’ courtroom scene.

Skyscraper Souls (1932) – I thought I had already seen this pre-Code goodie—a sort of Grand Hotel played out amongst the background of a 100-story building that ruthless financier Warren William is out to possess at any cost. (William skirts the category of “rat bastards” only because he’s a bit more suave and caddish in the George Sanders mold.) But it turns out that I hadn’t, so here’s the skinny: William enters into a business deal with an associate (Purnell Pratt) to establish a merger with banker George Barbier and run up the price of the bank stock—and then sells out as soon as it peaks, ruining Barbier and everyone else who purchased it as a hot tip. If that’s not enough to keep ol’ War busy, he’s also trying to make time with the secretary (Maureen O’Sullivan) of his assistant (Verree Teasdale)—even though Maureen is seeing a young Norman Foster (who later became a film director, with many of the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan films on his resume). (I liked how O’Sullivan and Teasdale have been re-teamed having previously seen in Payment Deferred, and I also like how quickly O’Sullivan’s character sheds her naivety after spending time with the big, bad wolf Warren.) Page’s character just stops short of being referred to as a prostitute; she loses a fortune in William’s stock scheme but ends up with Jean “Dr. Christian” Hersholt, a jeweler who’s been carrying a torch for her throughout the film. Souls starts out sort of slow, but gains an incredible amount of ground in the backstretch; a most worthwhile feature with plenty of sly humor and melodrama to spare. Gregory Ratoff, Wallace Ford and future gossip maven Hedda Hopper (she plays William’s wife) are also in the cast, as well as cameos from TDOY favorites Edward Brophy, Billy Gilbert and Tom Kennedy. Catch this one the next time it’s on.

Journey Into Fear (1942) – Joseph Cotten is TCM’s flavor of the month each Tuesday, and last night was dedicated to some of his collaborations with Orson Welles; the usual suspects: Kane, Ambersons, Touch of Evil—but no Third Man, although that’s on the schedule for later. This short-but-sweet WW2 thriller often gets lost in the shuffle (in fact, I was tempted to write this up as a Region 2 Cinema post because it’s not available on DVD in the U.S. yet); written by Cotten and Welles from a book by mystery great Eric Ambler, it features many of the Mercury Theater players from Kane (Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane) and from radio (Edgar Barrier, Frank Readick) in a tale about a U.S. Navy engineer, Howard Graham (Cotten), being hunted by Nazi spies and how he’s forced to set sail with a “ship of fools” (leaving wife Warrick behind) in an attempt to elude his pursuers…with no such luck. Welles was originally supposed to play Cotten’s part but instead decided he’d be more comfortable with the smaller supporting role of Turkish Police Chief Colonel Haki (although can you really say “smaller supporting role” and “Welles” in the same sentence?); the Haki character also turns up in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)—and wouldn’t it have been great if Welles could have reprised the role there as well? I like Journey, and I was amazed at how much I had forgotten about the film (I think the last time I saw it was on TNT, pre-TCM) with the exception of the climactic and suspenseful chase on the outside second-story ledge of a hotel building in the pouring rain. The scenes on the boat are wonderfully atmospheric (Bobby Osbo said in his intro to the movie that the aforementioned Norman Foster did this one on his own but there are too many Wellesian camera angles that suggest it had to be collaborative) and Cotten as Graham reminds me a little of the clueless Holly Martins character he would play in Third Man, only not quite as arrogant.

I don’t want to be a noodge here—particularly since getting back TCM after nearly eight years of exile has been nothing but a good thing—but I do have a small beef with the TCM on Demand provided by CharredHer. Why are the Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence interviews considered movies? They run barely a half-hour, so you’d think that they’d classify them under “Shorts and Trailers.” The only reason I point this out is that there are three of them (featuring Edward Norton, Joan Allen and John Leguizamo) taking space that should rightfully be deigned for feature films. (But, in looking at the yang, TCM on Demand is also showcasing the classic Laurel & Hardy short Blotto [1930], which is good news for Hal Roach fans.) Speaking of Roach, TCM has a pair of his “streamliners” scheduled for a showing next Monday beginning at 12:15pm: Brooklyn Orchid (1942) and The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942), both of which star William Bendix (heads up, Erica!) and Joe Sawyer…McGuerins is the film that inspired the late Irving Brecher to cast Bendix in a new radio sitcom entitled The Life of Riley. (The follow-up to these streamliners, Two Knights from Brooklyn [1949] will be shown later at 6:45pm…though I should point out that the feature is a compilation of McGuerins and a third Bendix-Sawyer streamliner, Taxi, Mister [1943])

One more tidbit and then we’re done for today: TCM’s December Guest Programmer is Frank Miller, and he’s not…repeat, not…scheduling Citizen Kane as part of his line-up next week (December 10) beginning at 8:00pm. On the roster will be The Naked City (1948; yes, I know this gets a good workout on the channel but I’m always up for a showing), High Noon (1952—hmm…I wonder why he chose this one?), The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Vince Keenan fave The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Be there or be square.

1 comment:

Erica said...

I don't have cannot possibly understand how much this kills me.