Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spence and Bogie…or is that Bogie and Spence?

Finally got the opportunity today to see a pair of films that have been on my “must-see” list for sometime now, starting with Up the River (1930)—a John Ford prison “comedy” that is noteworthy as the only screen “teaming” of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Both actors were the best of friends in real life but outside of this movie they never got another chance to co-star together, primarily because of Bogart’s lengthy association with Warner Brothers and Tracy’s slog at 20th Century-Fox (and more famously, at MGM). If the opportunity ever did present itself, it’s likely there would have been a squabble over billing: Spence many have been the more respected screen veteran but Bogie was the bigger of the two stars…but after all those MGM films where he played second fiddle to Clark Gable it’s likely that Tracy would have insisted on top billing or nothing.

As for the film itself…well, I’ve seen quite a few Ford movies and while Ford prided himself on the comedic elements in many of his classics, his straight comedies—with the exception of the Will Rogers vehicles and The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)—aren’t all that funny…though it is possible that I just haven’t yet stumbled onto the one to prove me wrong. Tracy and Warren Hymer (in a role that has Victor McLaglen’s name all over it) are a pair of convicts who bust out of Sing Sing to come to the aid of recently released prisoner Bogart (who strikes a middle ground between his tough guy and “Tennis, anyone?” juvenile personas), who’s being blackmailed by a hood who also sent Bogie’s girlfriend (Claire Luce) to the Big House as well. It’s no great shakes but worth a look if you’re a Bogart fan; the film was released on the Ford at Fox DVD box set and while I haven’t seen the DVD print if it’s anything like the one shown on Fox Movie Channel it’ll be a tough slog because it’s heavily damaged.

I taped Atlantic Adventure (1935) off of TCM this morning (and then stared at it while eating dinner) because several movie reference books (including Leonard Maltin’s The Great Movie Comedians) have singled out Harry Langdon’s performance as Snapper McGillicuddy, the chowhound photographer sidekick to Lloyd Nolan’s hard-boiled reporter Dan Miller. As it turns out, Langdon is very good—he may be the best thing in the movie—but the film as a whole was a little disappointing; Nolan is too obnoxious to be likeable and Nancy Carroll (who plays Nolan’s socialite girlfriend), while utterly engaging and charming, has precious little to do. The plot finds the previously mentioned trio on board a steamship chasing down jewel thieves in the hopes of getting Nolan his job back from his irascible editor (Thurston Hall), and there are sprightly supporting performances from the likes of Arthur Hohl, Robert Middlemass, E.E. Clive, Dwight “Renfield” Frye and Nana Bryant. TCM followed the movie with a breezily entertaining Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts two-reeler, Sneak Easily (1932), in which juror Pitts accidentally swallows a “time bomb pill” in a murder trial where Todd is defending the murderer (Bobby Burns). (Hey, Turner Classic Movies: more like this, please!)

Sydney Pollack passes on at age 73

Well, the first obituary courtesy of the weasels at Charter.net made its appearance on my homepage this morning. Actor-director-producer Sydney Pollack, who made a name for himself in cinema with films like The Way We Were (1973), Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985; for which he won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director) and The Firm (1993), has died from cancer. He was 73 years old.

Pollack rightly received accolades for the films he directed throughout his career, though to be honest I can’t say I was a huge fan of his work. Before his theatrical film debut with The Slender Thread in 1965, Pollack was best known for acting (The Twilight Zone, Have Gun—Will Travel) and directing (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey) in television. (Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.) Several of Pollack’s films, however, do snap to attention as among my favorites: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Yakuza (1974) and Absence of Malice (1981). (Another one of my favorites, Three Days of the Condor [1975], will be shown on TCM at 1:30am early Wednesday morning, so I’ve made plans to tape it and look at it later.)

Glancing at a list of his credits on the IMDb, I was intrigued to learn that Pollack had a finger in the movie pie known as The Swimmer (1968), which I retrieved from the newly-relocated (but still dusty) Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives and watched last week. Swimmer’s credited director, Frank Perry, didn’t finish the film due to creative conflicts and so Pollack was brought in to finish the job…supervising the scenes between stars Burt Lancaster and Janice Rule.

In later years, Pollack became more prominent in the public eye with a recurring role on TV sitcom Will & Grace (as Will’s dad) and cherce acting assignments in films like Husbands and Wives (1992), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Changing Lanes (2002). (He also did a brief stint as the host of “The Essentials,” a showcase for classic movies on—where else?—TCM.)

R.I.P., Sydney. You will be missed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A revoltin’ development

Bill Johnson (William Bendix), ex-baseball player and current working stiff, is such a baseball fanatic that he’s constantly on the unemployment line due to his predilection for skipping work and sneaking out to ballgames. Mrs. Johnson (Una Merkel) is ready to walk out on her hubby when her father (Ray Collins), a retired umpire, suggests the perfect solution: his son-in-law should follow in his footsteps and become “the most hated man in baseball.” Johnson could have the best of all possible worlds: he’ll get to watch ballgames and be paid for the privilege to boot.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the plot of Kill the Umpire (1950); an easy-to-take comedy directed by journeyman Lloyd Bacon with a screenplay by Frank Tashlin—who at this point in his career still hadn’t been entrusted with the director’s reins on a feature film (that would come later with The First Time [1952] even though he did direct most of Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid [1951] uncredited). Umpire follows the same blueprint as many of the other Bacon-Tashlin collaborations (The Good Humor Man, The Fuller Brush Girl): a likeable if slightly wacky protagonist trying to function against a background of menace, supplied with outrageous physical gags and a wild-and-wooly slapstick climax. Umpire is equipped with all this and more, including a first-rate supporting cast that includes Gloria Henry, William Frawley, Connie Marshall, Richard Taylor and Tom D’Andrea.

Seeing D’Andrea in this film was a real treat because he later appeared as neighbor Jim Gillis on Bendix’s TV version of The Life of Riley, and you look fast you’ll also spot Emory Parnell (who played Bendix’s boss) and Henry Kulky (as Riley’s thick-as-a-plank pal Otto Schmidlap), two additional Riley regulars. (Kulky later had supporting roles on series as diverse as Hennesey and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) As this was a Columbia picture, many members of Columbia’s short subject department’s stock company also make appearances, including Stanley Blystone, Heinie Conklin, Vernon Dent, Dudley Dickerson, Johnny Kascier, Matt McHugh, Emil Sitka, Dick Wessel and Jean Willes. (I also recognized the man who plays the Texas baseball announcer as OTR vet John Wald, who did the announcing chores on shows like The Great Gildersleeve and Fibber McGee & Molly [the fifteen-minute weekday version].)

Just to make sure you’re aware that I’ve not completely reverted to my lowbrow roots, I also viewed Au revoir les enfants (1987), Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about a French boarding school that serves as a temporary hiding place for a trio of Jewish students on the lam from the Germans during World War II. I’ve been meaning to see this for a long time and it was worth the wait; it’s a profoundly sad film that does contain moments of joy and delight (my favorite is the scene where the students and teachers treat themselves to a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant [1917]…and in watching the Little Tramp all their disagreements and differences disappear). I caught this movie on IFC, and it made me a little nostalgically wistful in that I wish I could revisit this fine cable channel more often.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Life is brief

Yesterday and today found me in highbrow movie mode: watching a bunch of films that I had been meaning to get around to viewing but have not been afforded the time. I suppose I should amend that slightly—the first film, John (spelled Jhon in the credits) Huston’s Wise Blood (1979), has been looked at previously…but it’s been so long that I decided to give it a second glance. I had the foresight to DVR this one, since it’s not available on DVD and finding it on VHS is even more difficult; based on author Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic novel of Southern grotesques (perfect material for Huston), Blood tells the tale of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif)—a peculiar young man just released from the service who decides to start his own church, the Church of Christ Without Christ (“Where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way”). This movie isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea (sister Kat is a fan because O’Connor is her favorite author) but it’s got great performances from Harry Dean Stanton (as a con man…er, preacher), Ned Beatty (another preacher) and Amy Wright (as Stanton’s daughter).

I followed that up with Let Him Have It (1991), a searing drama based on the true-life events surrounding Derek Bentley (Christopher Eccleston), a slow-witted British epileptic who was executed for his participation in a 1952 shootout with the police in a case that became the yardstick for “travesty of justice.” Eccleston is good as the doomed youth, but it’s Tom Courtenay who really shines as the boy’s anguished father; the movie itself admirably manages to keep things on a calm keel and resists over-the-top outbursts about the problems inherent with the death penalty. The only flaw in Have It is that it repeats much of the same ground covered in the similar Dance with a Stranger (1985); you would have thought director Peter Medak could have found a different way to tell his story. Still, I enjoyed this one; I own it on DVD but because I have a stack of unwatched discs that rivals the height of the Sears Tower it’s taken me a while to get around to seeing it.

This morning, I DVR’d three films that I knew I wouldn’t be up and conscious to see—beginning with Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (1952). Now, I’ll be only too quick to acknowledge that when it comes to foreign cinema, my expertise could use a lot of beefing up…and while I’m not sorry I watched Ikiru it ran a tad long for me. In the movie, a dull bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) discovers that he’s dying from stomach cancer, and after taking stock of his accomplishments in life realizes he’d like to shuffle off this mortal coil having done something…in this case, using the powers of his office to close down a poisonous cesspool and construct a park for children.

What I liked about Ikiru is the fact that no character in the film can be considered sympathetic; the loving relatives (his son and daughter-in-law, as well as uncle and aunt) are most appealing. and his fellow bureaucrats are a bunch of ass-kissers to the ward-heelers in power. Even the dying bureaucrat comes off a bit creepy at times, particularly when he strikes up a friendship with a female employee (Miki Odagiri) who quit her job because she had the foresight to see that there’s no future in it. (On the other hand, these scenes are among the best in the film; I love Odagiri’s 100,000-watt smile and her infectious zeal for living life to the fullest.) A few film buff acquaintances of mine have been after me to catch Ikiru for some time now, and while I didn’t dislike the film I’m not sure I’d be up for a second showing without a coffee urn handy.

Following Ikiru was the equally depressing Umberto D. (1953), the neo-Realist Italian classic directed by Vittorio de Sica about an elderly pensioner (Carlo Battisti) struggling to survive in postwar Italy…with only a small dog as his loyal companion. While this film is living testament to the maxim that dog is man’s best friend, Umberto D. is even more depressing than Ikiru: Umberto’s landlady is trying to kick him out of his apartment, his friends have deserted him…he’s even forced to finagle his way into a hospital stay in order to stave off eviction. Again, the highlight of this film is the warm friendship between the main character and a maid named Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) who has problems of her own (she’s pregnant but is uncertain who the father is). There’s no happy ending attached to this movie; just the reaffirmation of the bond between man and dog. (I guess what I’m trying to say is Umberto D. is not a date movie.)

So I decided to end things on a lighter note with The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)…okay, I’m kidding about the “lighter note” stuff. I don’t think Assassination is a particularly great film but it is certainly interesting: Sean Penn plays a real loser named Samuel J. Bicke whose failure at his job, marriage and everything else in his life (truly, everything he does turns to shit) leads him to believe that forces beyond his control are responsible for his luckless existence and he makes plans (laughingly inept, I might add) to kill Tricky Dick. It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by Penn’s performance (with the moustache, he looks like Rupert Pupkin) as a man clearly clutching at straws, and he is ably supported by fine turns from Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts (as his ex-wife) and Jack Thompson (letter-perfect as Penn’s “good ol’ boy” boss). Loosely based on real-life events, the same material was also used in the TV-movie The Plot to Kill Nixon (2005).

Overheard at Rancho Yesteryear...


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Weasel while I work

Sunday night, I was enjoying (via my DVD player) the 1983 documentary Unknown Chaplin—which, if my memory hasn’t been playing tricks on me, I hadn’t seen since its appearance on PBS’ American Masters back in the 1980s. I had just finished a delicious bachelor dinner of bacon and frozen waffles…and life couldn’t possibly better be.

Then came a clap o’thunder…and a flash of lightning. I look over at the big honkin’ black box on the wall that provides my phone and internet access, and it starts giving off sparks. Then it makes a noise that I was not aware of outside of MAD Magazine:

BZZZAP!!!

Thus my box (and not long after that, the cable modem that I stupidly purchased from Charter.net for $49.95) expired and trotted off into the great unknown. The ironic thing was that my cable television connection emerged from the BZZZAPness completely unscathed. A bit of a setback to be sure, but I figured it would be sorted out easily enough. Alas, I had severely underestimated the powers of incompetency possessed by my new cable/phone/internet provider.

As much as I have maligned Bombast in the past, I will say this for them: any time I experienced downtime from not being able to access the Internet; they would bust their tuchuses (a word I picked up from Mr. Elisson) to make sure things were up and running ASAP. Charter, unfortunately, does not share this work ethic. I called Monday morning to report the problem and they were able to send someone out around 4:30 to look at the problem; he was able to restore the phone service but was stymied by the fact that I couldn’t connect to the Internet. He said the trouble was in the main line, and when he returned the next morning with a laptop it appeared his guess was on the money since he couldn’t connect with that computer either. He then tells me he’s going back to inform the supervisor of the trouble, and…that’s the last I hear from him.

Wednesday afternoon, I call Charter again…and when I’m finally able to reach a human being, she informs me there are no outages in the area. Since neither I nor the last technician can access the Internet from my humble domain, I ask her to check on this. She then proceeds to do the same troubleshooting the technician did previously, and when I point this out to her in the interest of saving time, she pointedly tells me she has to do this to eliminate any possible problems. Satisfied that all the I’s have been crossed and the T’s dotted, she says she can have a guy out on Friday morning between 8 and 10am.

At 10:45am Friday, another technician and a trainee show up. The tech tells me that what Charter did was make adjustments to the system Sunday and apparently what resulted was a snafu that knocked out a goodly percentage of their customers’ computers. (So much for the “we have no outages in the area” theory.) What it did was mess with the DHCP protocol, preventing the computer from obtaining an IP address. He says a third guy is outside fixing the problem, and finally, he is able to get his laptop to connect. My computer, however (a desktop), still stubbornly refuses to cooperate.

So it is decided that the trouble is in my computer, or, as a friend of my sister's remarks: “Loosely translated, this means ‘We can’t locate the problem, and we’re too lazy to look for it.’” I have been informed that the tech and the trainee’s supervisor will call me later this week to see if he can be any assistance…but it looks like I might have to consult an outside party who, oh, I don’t know, knows something about computers. To say that I’m a bit put out by all this would be the mildest of understatements; I’m a patient man as a rule but a) I don’t like being lied to and b) I don’t like being dicked around. The most aggravating part of this scenario was that I had to use my sister’s laptop and Net access to finish an FGRA project today…and I hate using a laptop.

So, here’s where we stand: I’ll be “dog sitting” for Kat until Wednesday or so which means I’ll have plenty of free time to watch a few movies on her satellite system (she gets the Fox Movie Channel, which is showing both Blood Money [1933] and Up the River [1930] this week) and discuss my viewing experiences. I got around to seeing Clerks II (2006) last night and while there were some engaging moments (actress Rosario Dawson, who plays the love interest, was stupendously good) a lot of the movie fell flat (the film’s climax—if you’ll pardon the pun—is shoehorned into the plot to provide an outrageous “shock” moment like the dead guy in the convenience store bathroom in the first movie) and had none of the first Clerks’ gleefully profane hilarity.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

“Drink your coffee.”

I’ll say this much for Georgia Public Broadcasting: you sort of have to keep a close eye on them because sometimes they’ll surprise you and shake up their Saturday night viewing schedule…if only a tad. They’ve removed the Judi Dench-Michael Williams Britcom A Fine Romance (1981-84; a show so boring even my mother hated it…and she’s quite the Dench fan) and replaced it with one of my very favorite Britcoms, Last of the Summer Wine. I’ve talked about Wine on the blog in the past, noting that while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea (no pun intended) I’ve fallen for its irresistible quirky charm. The great thing about this new (well, new to me anyway) run of Wine is that they’ve started with Series 20 (1999), allowing me to get a glimpse of Frank Thornton’s Herbert “Truly” Truelove (Truly of the Yard!), the retired police detective who replaced Brian Wilde’s ex-military codger Walter “Foggy” Dewhurst.

Still, I must confess that I’m also saddened in a way because if GPB follows this with Series 21 that means “Just a Small Funeral”—the farewell to William “Compo” Simmonite, played by Bill Owen—will be in the rotation and I’m certain to have a moistness in the eyes during that episode. (I’ve only seen a few clips of it, spotlighted in the 2003 documentary 30 Years of “Last of the Summer Wine” which is available on the Region 1 DVD Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1995.) I have to say, I’m both puzzled and encouraged by the fact that Warner Home Video has been releasing several series of Wine to Region 1; in addition to Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1976, released this past March, a new collection (Vintage 1977) is scheduled to hit stores in September, according to TVShowsOnDVD.com.

The other nice surprise that I discovered on GPB is that they’ve been showcasing some classic outings of The Jack Benny Program at 11:00pm—many of which have been culled from Jack’s weekly series that ran from 1960-65. Two weeks ago, they showed one of the funniest episodes, “Jack and Bob Hope in Vaudeville” (12/04/62)—and while I knew the punch lines to most of the jokes (the show had been done previously on February 24, 1957—and for that telecast Benny’s writers dusted off a radio script from 01/15/50 that “tells” how Jack and Fred Allen met) watching Jack and Bob perform together (and Hope cracking Benny up with his ad-libs) was like a hot fudge sundae. My favorite exchange: Jack tells secretary Iris Adrian who he and Hope are, asking: “Don’t you recognize us?” Adrian’s acerbic reply: “Why, is there a reward?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Primetime all the time


So I signed up with Charter Communications for a "bundle" deal that is supposed to give me basic cable, internet and phone service for the nominal fee of $69.97 per month for a year. Upon installation, I hook up the TV to discover that instead of basic cable (which, according to the dame that I spoke with on the phone, consists of only twenty channels…half of which appear to be of the home-shopping variety) I am now the recipient of an upgrade…which means I have seventy-some channels, including my beloved TCM. (Further research has turned up the information that the mistake is on their end: I took a gander at my cable bill online and it would appear that I’m in arrears to the tune of eighty-two bucks and change. I’m going to let the old man handle this one, since he made the arrangements for cable/internet/phone service to begin with.)

One channel that has caught my interest, however, is RTN: the Retro Television Network. It’s a system of TV stations that show reruns of old TV shows, and is designed to operate on a digital sub channel for local broadcast stations—allowing channels to expand their programming options. (For Savannahians, RTN is carried through a sub channel of WSAV-TV’s—you’ll find it on channel 29 if you’ve got DirecTV.) In some markets, RTN runs 24/7—but the programming on Atlanta’s RTN (channel 126 on the Charter lineup) airs from 10:00am to 1:00am, with the rest of the broadcast day's schedule occupied by infomercials.

They’ve got some pretty good shows on RTN, which I’d describe as “like TV Land, only better.” That is to say, they don’t squander their broadcast day with non-classic TV crap like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition reruns or movies or “TV Land exclusives” like The Big 4-0. (Though in all fairness, RTN does dedicate a couple of hours to a program entitled Offbeat Cinema on Saturday nights, which does spotlight public-domain cult films.) Granted, many of the shows on RTN are slowly making their way to DVD but it’s nice to be able to watch programs like The Fugitive (weekdays at 2pm), particularly since that program’s DVD releases are moving along with the speed of glaciers. I particularly enjoy kicking back in the evenings for their Hawaii Five-O (9pm) and Mission: Impossible (11pm) reruns—even though they are heavily edited with commercials plugging products that require you to dial a toll-free number. (My new favorite is the one that asks people to put their old or broken gold jewelry in an envelope and mail it to them.)

RTN’s a little top-heavy with the 70s and 80’s stuff: Knight Rider, Airwolf, Matlock, Magnum, PI, etc.—shows that I wouldn’t watch when they were originally on and have no desire to see in reruns. But some of their offerings offer some particularly pleasing nostalgia: after seeing a Cannon rerun the other day I realized that if I ever had designs on being a private investigator, Frank Cannon would be my role model. The weekend afternoon schedules are similar to the old TV Land/Family Channel/Hallmark lineups: reruns of Bonanza, Rawhide, Gunsmoke…and for added novelty, The Wild, Wild West.

The beauty of RTN is that for each broadcast market that they’re in, they tailor the schedule to insure that there’s no conflict with competing stations showing the same reruns (as if you’d find something like that nowadays) but the downside to this is that many of their programs aren’t available in some markets. I’d like to be able to see The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Have Gun Will Travel, Marshal Dillon (the half-hour Gunsmokes) and Petticoat Junction…but I guess you can’t have everything. (Of course, once I get this cable snafu straightened out I may not have anything.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I should have hired him during my hiatus...


Barefoot in Athens

This is Thursday, May 15th…173 days until the 2008 Presidential Election, as Keith Olbermann might say. I have officially been living in Athens, Georgia for one week.

A lot has happened since I last tackled a post here on the ol’ blog, and as such I regret letting the grass grow up to your kneecaps. Not only have I been engaged in several OTR-related writing projects, but I’ve spent much time packing boxes with the remaining amount of crap that I simply can’t seem to give away, and even more precious moments battling a cold that I brought back to Savannah when the ‘rents and I went up to Athens April 11-15 for a family outing.

It was during that time frame that Dad, Mom and I stumbled onto the princely palace from whence I write this humble blog post. It’s not particularly fancy (then again, I’m not a fancy guy) but the price is right for a two bedroom, one bath duplex that’s less than ten minutes away from sister Kat’s. (In fact, it was sister Kat who remarked upon seeing the place: “This isn’t an apartment, it’s a small house.”) It’s roughly 1,000 square feet, lots of closet space (the hall leading to the bedrooms and bath is large enough to accommodate several shelves of DVDs), close to the main bus line and best of all, I got a discount on the rent for signing a one-year lease. (Now all I have to do is find a job that will pay for this estate, and everything will be cherry.)

I haven’t had an opportunity to go out and explore much of Athens yet—I had to stick close to the house earlier this week waiting for a new lock to be placed on my mailbox (and even then, I had to stop by the rental office to jog a few memories), plus I’ve been trying to make a good deal of progress on unpacking everything from the boxes (when I switched apartments during my exile in Morgantown, WV there were several boxes that never got unpacked). This past Saturday, sister Kat and her roommate Katie showed me the opulence that is J & J’s Flea Market (where my father will be spending many a weekend once he and Mumsy sell the house in Savannah and make the trek up here); we then lunched at famed Athens eatery Loco’s (there’s a Loco’s in Savannah, too…but I don’t think we ever ate there) and had some bodacious hot wings and a waitress who tried to talk us into a big honkin’ chocolate-laced desert. (It was called “Mount Chocsuvius,” and though I told “Sara” we would not be climbing it she was rather persistent.) A trip to Target (pronounced TAR-ZHAY) afterward yielded some sporty Mountain Dew drinking glasses, a case of bottled water and 4 cases of Fresca (on sale for $11).

In the meantime, I still have some projects to complete—but a couple of people (their names, interestingly enough, rhyme with “jam”) have been pressing me to put something up here to let individuals know that I did not drop off the face of the Earth (as enticing a prospect to my enemies that may be). I do want to give a shout out to longtime TDOY reader Mike, who was concerned enough to drop me an e-mail, and Dennis at the Digital Deli Online, who had both heady words of praise for the blog (both this and the Salon versions) and corrected link info for his own truly awesome site. (And for the individual kind enough to send me the Bewitched: The Complete Sixth Season DVD box set as a housewarming gift…many, many thanks.)