Monday, August 31, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Last Thursday, when TCM was running their Summer Under the Stars salute to Ida Lupino, I posted a quick comment on Facebook about Ida…well, more like a timeworn joke that I’ve been using since this blog’s been in operation, and I don’t intend to stop now. (It goes: “Ida Lupino was fond of calling herself ‘the poor man’s Bette Davis.’ Thank heavens I’m a poor man!”) Peter Nellhaus of Coffee coffee and more coffee also contributed some trivia that Lupino wrote off her directorial skills by remarking she was “the poor man’s Don Siegel” at a time “when Siegel was hardly raking in the dough.” What I’m trying to say in a typically longwinded and roundabout fashion is that Peter’s observation made me curious to sit down with a Siegel film and his 1954 prison exploitation vehicle Riot in Cell Block 11 got the nod. (Warning: the following review does contain spoilers.)

Technically, it’s more Walter Wanger’s exploitation film that Siegel’s; the independent producer was inspired to make the film after being appalled by the conditions in prison while serving a four-month stretch in a minimum security facility for shooting Jennings Lang, the agent—and lover—of his wife Joan Bennett. With a story and screenplay by HUAC fink Richard Collins, Wanger and Siegel create a “message film” that’s fairly effective despite its low-budget; it was filmed at Allied Artists (formerly Monogram), better known in the movie biz as the stomping grounds of the Bowery Boys and Bomba the Jungle Boy.

The film starts out with a documentary feel as it briefly outlines the problem of prison riots breaking out in various penitentiaries across the nation, accompanied by the stentorian tones of narrator James Matthews; there’s even a brief commentary by Richard A. McGee—spokesman for the American Prison Association—who, when asked about the cause of such riots responds that it’s the “short-sighted neglect of our penal institutions, mounting to almost criminal negligence,” Then, taking a Best-Western-Central approach (“There’s plenty of blame to go around!”) to those who must shoulder the blame for such demonstrations, McGee tabs “public leaders” (governors, legislators, etc.) and even the general public as those responsible. (This is your first clue that this is not a major studio production—they probably would have excised McGee’s opinion from the final cut—Allied Artists was only concerned about the bottom line, and was handsomely rewarded since Riot was a huge hit at the box office.) “I abhor riot and disorder,” he intones seriously, “but until something is done to correct the situation, we will not see the end of prison troubles.”

Having established McGee’s anti-riot stance, the action then switches to a facility that chooses to remain nameless (although I’ll be more than happy to tell you it was filmed at Folsom State Prison in California); the prisoners in Cell Block 11 (notorious for its population of inmates who have gone a “little funny in the head,” to use a Strangelovian expression) have just been fed and are being locked down for the night when a rookie guard named Monroe (Paul Frees) is overcome by one prisoner (Alvy Moore, a.k.a. Hank-friggin’-Kimball— ferchrissake, how did he get locked up in there? Run over a kid with a tractor?) and the remaining screws (there are only four assigned to that section that evening, due to a manpower shortage) are quickly rounded up by a gang under the command of the ringleader, James Dunn (Neville Brand). The prison warden, Reynolds (Emile Meyer), is anxious to prevent any of the guards from being killed and he agrees to negotiate with Dunn and listen to the inmates’ demands (inhumane living conditions, deplorable food, brutal treatment by guards), a list composed by a prisoner known as “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh). The negotiations undergo further problems when other cells begin riots in solidarity (Dunn has shrewdly pled the inmates’ cause to the media) and Reynolds finds himself having to call in the militia, which results in the shooting death of a prisoner. After successfully putting down an insurrection fostered by an inmate (Leo Gordon) who’s seeks to usurp control from Dunn, the inmates are informed that the governor has acquiesced to their demands and signed an agreement as such. Though Reynolds is sympathetic with many of the inmates’ grievances (he’s been talking himself blue in the face for years trying to get many of the listed complaints changed), he warns Dunn that these problems won’t be addressed overnight…and is proved right in the film’s ironic conclusion.

Riot boasts a cast that only a B-movie fan could love; in addition to those already named the players include Frank Faylen (as a career politician/commissioner who’d rather hose the prisoners down and be done with it—how anyone thought the man who played Herbert T. Gillis [“I gotta kill that boy…I just gotta!”] could be an effective negotiator is a new one on me), Don Keefer, Dabbs Greer, Whit Bissell, Carleton Young, Roy Glenn and TDOY fave William Schallert. Brand leads the acting honors as the dedicated Dunn—though you sort of have to wonder why a group would allow him to handle things, unless they were absent the night they showed D.O.A. to the prisoners. Gordon’s character is named “Crazy” Mike Carnie, and an unknown guard plays him a compliment when he remarks “’Crazy’ is the nicest thing you can say about him.” (It must have been “Old Home Week” for Gordon working on this film; he served a stretch at Folsom one time for armed robbery.) Collins’ script is very well-written; it doesn’t take sides, for one thing—demonstrating not only the tension between the authorities and inmates but the exacerbations between the inmates themselves. Siegel, in rising above the budget limitations (it’s a little difficult to pick out who’s who in the opening scenes because the cell block seems to be lit with matches—but this works to the movie’s benefit when one of the inmates’ grievances is the lack of adequate light in the corridors) demonstrates why he would soon develop a cult of admirers…and why producer Wanger tabbed him to direct his production of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). (The production assistant on Riot was a then-unknown Sam Peckinpah—who was able to use a little clout with his old man, a respected law-and-order judge in northern California, in greasing the wheels and allowing the movie to filmed at Folsom.)

I purchased this DVD last year from Xploited Cinema (it was released on disc in July 2007 by our old friends Suevia Films, as Motín en el Pabellón 11: “4000 hombres enjaulados!” screams the cover), a great place to find Region 2 discs—I had heard that they were going out of business, but was surprised to find they were still keeping the doors open since my recent eBay purchase of The Mob (1951) came from there as well. A quick e-mail to inquire about the health of the business produced an equally rapid reply from Tony, who told me that they are indeed folding up shop but not until they liquidate their inventory. Sadly, Riot is no longer available for purchase but if you do a little looking around you might find something to take home with you. Riot has been released on VHS by Republic Home Video, and I’m sure Paramount (who now owns the Republic catalog) will get around to releasing it on Region 1 DVD about the time they release the Republic serials as well.

The wonderful world of Facebook #15

Sunday, August 30, 2009

DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-alert!

Many apologies for the short notice on this one, but I just got a heads-up from Yair Solan (who, when not participating in the production of the DVD Becoming Charley Chase, sweeps up the floors at The World of Charley Chase) that TCM is rolling out the 1937 Technicolor short Hollywood Party (not to be confused with the 1934 feature film of the same name) that features our man Chase as the master of ceremonies (and for those with P.C. sensibilities, I’m going to warn you that he plays a stereotypical character dubbed “Charley Chan Chase”) of a fun two-reeler with appearances by Leon Errol, Clark Gable, Joan Bennett, Joe E. Brown, Anna May Wong and Freddie Bartholomew. I’ve not seen this short, but I do remember reading about its “discovery” in the TCM archives in 2001, so I’ve programmed the ol’ Toshiba and if Providence is on my side (we’ve had a bit of rain owing to the recent tropical storm action) I’ll be previewing it for the first time tomorrow morning. Wish me luck!

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #33 (Ida Lupino edition)

(Note: I usually try not to reveal the endings of the movies I review, but sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men, yadda yadda yadda. In a nutshell—there are spoilers ahead.)

Out of the Fog (1941) – To me, it’s a testament to the talent of John Garfield that even though he plays a totally unrepentant heel in this film (I don’t know if you’d consider him the main character, but he does get top billing) he’s so gosh-darned charming you can’t really be too pissed at him. (Humphrey Bogart lobbied for this role but Warners went with the red-hot and bankable Garfield instead.) Julie’s Harold Goff, a two-bit hood who’s shaking down the residents of the Brooklyn waterfront (Sheepshead Bay, stomping grounds of TDOY/Facebook pal Erica Sherman) and his latest victims are tailor Jonah Goodwin (Thomas Mitchell) and short-order cook Olaf Johnson (John Qualen), two working stiffs whose only pleasure away from their menial nine-to-fives is getting out on their fishing boat for a little recreational trawling. Jonah’s daughter Stella (Ida), though sweet on poor-but-honest George Watkins (Eddie Albert), has fallen for the charismatic Goff—and even begins to adopt his life’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest”: the strong prey on the weak, and never the twain shall meet. Unbeknownst to her, Goff is squeezing the two old men for five clams a week in “protection” money, and when he finds out from Stella that her pop has $190 saved up to buy a bigger boat he decides he’ll take that, too to give Stella a nice little vacation in Cuba.

Robert Rossen, Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay had to put in a lot of overtime to make Irwin Shaw’s hit play The Gentle People palatable to the Hollywood censors, but it’s still an interesting film in that the characters played by Mitchell and Qualen escape the repercussions as accessories in Goff’s “untimely passing.” Lots of interesting character actor action in this one: Leo Gorcey (as the smart-alecky cashier in the dump where Qualen works), his father Bernard “Louie Dumbrowski” Gorcey as a kvetching customer, George Tobias, Aline MacMahon, Jerome Cowan and Paul Harvey—with bits contributed by Frank Coughlan, Jr., Jimmy Conlin, Charles Drake , Barbara Pepper and Walter “Leeeeroy!” Tetley as the kid who cashes in at the pinball machine. Photographed by the legendary James Wong Howe, Hal Erickson observes that Out of the Fog was “film noir before the term was even invented.”

Ladies in Retirement (1941) – Ida Lupino went on the record to say that the role of Ellen Creed in this film was the favorite of all her film appearances, and though Retirement hasn’t dated particularly well (its notions of “horror” have been unfortunately replaced by more graphic and less-genteel productions) it’s still a winner in my book. Ellen Creed works as a housemaid/companion to wealthy Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom)—though I should point out that Fiske’s largess depends a lot on the “kindness of strangers.” Ellen’s sisters, Emily (Elsa Lanchester) and Louisa (Edith Barrett), have been asked by their landlady to leave their current address—and while Ellen is able to talk Ms. Fiske into letting them stay with her they soon become such a burden to her and housekeeper Emily (Evelyn Keyes) that Fiske demands they vacate the premises tuit suite. Since Ellen is the only family member able to take care of the troublesome sisters, she has no other choice but to dispose of Ms. Fiske (and that means precisely what you think it means)—but complications arise when distant relative (and charming rogue) Albert Feather (Louis Hayward) arrives on the scene and begins to put two and two together like an amateur sleuth/professional cad is wont to do.

At the time of Retirement’s filming, both Lupino and Hayward were married to one another off-screen—and in fact, it would be the only production on which they worked as a married couple. (Rosalind Russell had originally been slated to play the lead role, but wiser heads prevailed.) While I haven’t seen every film in Lupino’s catalog, I have to admit that she was incredibly good as Ellen (surprisingly she received no Academy Award nomination, though the film did get nods for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture and Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White); the chief quality I’ve always admired about the actress is that she wasn’t afraid to “deglamorize” herself for a role (she reminds me a lot of Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper in The Heiress in this one). The whole cast here is really first-rate, particularly Lanchester and Barrett as the dotty siblings (Lanchester has a nice throwaway bit in which she takes a vase and grinds it up and down along a table in defiance of Elsom’s complaint that they’re “marking up the furniture”), and I also enjoyed the quiet understatement of the film’s conclusion as Lupino’s character exits the house (leaving her sisters behind), resigned to the fate that awaits her outside. This film was remade in 1969 with Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters as The Mad Room —but you’re much better off with the original even if Room does feature Severn Darden, Beverly Garland and Lloyd Haynes.

The Hard Way (1943) – During his remarks before and after this film Thursday night, TCM’s resident oracle “Bobby Osbo” opined that Lupino’s performance in this hokey-but-entertaining flick—in which she plays a woman determined at all costs to promote sister Joan Leslie as a Broadway sensation (and that requires a leap of faith even Superman couldn’t do in a single bound)—was probably the best she ever gave while under contract at Warners. Personally, I think Osborne’s time would be better spent watching movies rather than pontificating about them because I can think of two films right off the bat—The Man I Love (1946) and Deep Valley (1947)—in which Lupino has superior showcases. (I guess that will take care of all those invitations he's been sending to my e-mail address.) Still, this doesn’t mean you should avoid Hard Way; it’s your typical girl-with-a-teensy-modicum-of-talent-makes-the-big-time-thanks-to-her-ruthless-sister tale: Ida and Joan hail from a steel town and make their getaway on the coattails of vaudevillians Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan (in their first teaming) and from that point on, Ida will stop at nothing to promote her sister’s career. Truth be told, I kind of watched this for the Carson-Morgan antics, and was surprised that they not only match Ida’s performance step-for-step but Carson—who usually plays the oafish buffoon—is actually the more sympathetic of the two; it’s Morgan who’s a tad too obnoxious. The film almost holds up until the ridiculous finale, and it bears repeating that while Leslie is not without talent (she’s fantastic in Yankee Doodle Dandy) she’s just not convincing enough to pull off a performance that should leave the audience completely speechless. The supporting cast in Hard Way includes Gladys George (as a past-her-prime diva who Lupino gets schnockered in order to get Leslie a tryout), Faye Emerson and Paul Cavanaugh; the guy playing the vaudevillian “Frenchy” is Lou Lubin, better known as “Shorty the Barber” on radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy and Jack Carson’s real-life vaudeville partner (who later played nephew “Tugwell” on Carson’s radio show) Dave Willock can be seen as a hotel bellboy.

Women's Prison (1955) – It’s been a long time since I sat down with this one—and the fact that it ran letterboxed was the cherry on top of the sundae. Behind the stone walls of Co-Ed Penitentiary, only a concrete partition separates the men from the women; the men are supervised by warden Brock (Barry Kelley, whose demeanor suggests he’s not far removed from the inmates he oversees) and the distaff side by the sadistic Amelia van Zandt (Ida!). Van Zandt, who possesses all the warmth of a king cobra, finds herself butting heads with the prison’s psychiatrist—none other than real-life hubby and “the greatest radio detective of them all,” Howard Duff (as Dr. Crane). Crane’s a tad put out over Van Zandt’s treatment of new fish Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter); Helene is doing a stretch in the pen for vehicular homicide (she hit a child while speeding) and isn’t taking prison life too well; Van Zandt’s method of dealing with Helene’s squeamishness is placing her in a strait-jacket and locking her up in isolation. (Crane: “She’s suffering from a guilt complex bordering on madness.” Thank you, Dr. Spade!)

The interesting thing about Women’s Prison is that it starts out focusing on Helene’s story and then—as if authors Crane Wilbur and Jack DeWitt realized that this was previously covered in the superior chicks-in-chains outing Caged (1950)—shifts to the plight of inmate Joan Burton (the incomparable Audrey Totter), who, after receiving an unauthorized “conjugal visit” from husband Glen (Warren Stevens; he’s conveniently marking his time in the all-male section next door) in a room located just off from the laundry facilities, finds herself “great with child” (yes, I found it difficult to keep a straight face by this time). Joan has no idea how Glen “crossed over” (and I suspect the writers couldn’t think of a way either) but Brock leans heavily on Van Zandt to extract the information, forcing the female warden to slap Joan around—and resulting in her eventual demise. By this time, several of Joan’s “sorority sisters”—Brenda (TDOY fave Jan “Smoochie” Sterling), Mae (Cleo Moore) and impressionist Dottie (Vivian Marshall, whose Lupino impression comes in handy even it’s just the real Ida dubbing her lines)—confront Van Zandt and hold her hostage, resulting in the inevitable altercation in which tear gas bombs are released to keep the female inmates in check…and Van Zandt finally goes completely bat-shit crazy (ironically trapped in a padded room and needing a strait-jacket…stat!).

I need to warn you right off the bat—if you go into this “babes behind bars” flick expecting Caged, you’re going to be disappointed; this vehicle has so many implausibilities and over-the-top histrionics it can’t be taken seriously for one instant. But it’s entertaining as all-get-out, and also includes Gertrude Michael and Mae “Grapefruit” Clarke as matrons and Juanita Moore as the prerequisite black inmate. As Sterling says: “At first, you won’t like it—but after you get used to it, you’ll hate it.”

The rules of childhood still apply...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

“Wagon Train's a really cool show, but did you notice they never get anywhere? They just keep wagon training...”

TVShowsOnDVD.com has made the announcement that one of the most elusive of classic television shows, Wagon Train, will see a full season one release on November 10, 2009—courtesy of the good people at Timeless Media Group, who will issue all thirty-nine episodes from the classic western’s inaugural season in a limited edition ten-disc tin. (I should also point out that the magic number here—thirty-nine—already constitutes more installments that are currently owned by RTV, who appear to have only eight programs in their library and endlessly repeat these in their two-hour showcases on Saturday and Sunday mornings beginning at 11am EDT…at least, that’s how they’re shown on the RTV affiliate in Atlanta, WSB-TV DT.)

Some collectors out there may be adopting a jaded position on this news because Timeless has already issued forth two previous Wagon Train collections, a 3-DVD collection entitled Wagon Train: Going West that collected a smattering of episodes from all eight seasons of the series save season seven, which got its own release in Wagon Train: The Complete Color Season (and also included selected episodes from previous seasons as well). Timeless’ website still offers the Going West collection (I tried to obtain it from DVD Pacific, which finally got around to telling me it was out-of-stock) but I’ve had more than one person tell me the quality of the shows leave a bit to be desired. I do own the color season collection, and considering both the age of the series and the fact that NBC-Universal has little to no interest in preserving the episodes I thought the set was okay, quality-wise. Wagon Train: The Complete First Season has a hefty price tag on it (SRP: $79.98) so I may wait a bit until this one goes on sale.

Speaking of RTV (formerly RTN, the Retro Television Network) Cultureshark’s own Rick Brooks e-mailed me earlier this week to let me know that they now have their very own Facebook page where participants are allowed to piss-and-moan about their cavalier methods of programming. Not to be outdone, TVShowsOnDVD.com has started up its very own Facebook fan club as well.

In other TV-on-DVD news, CBS-Paramount has announced the release date of The Untouchables: Season 3, Volume 2 as November 10th (I thought I had mentioned this one earlier but I can’t seem to locate it in the blog archives), which is good news to this fan (I plan to snatch up Volume 1 sometime this week, gritting my teeth as I do so *stupid split-season sets*) and also looks that the company will put out the fourth and final season as well…followed by a “complete collection” that will contain “extras not present on the previous releases” if you know how these rat bastards work.

Another release that I’ll have to check out is The Golden Age of Television, which—since it bears the Criterion stamp—looks to be a first-rate collection of the 1981 PBS television series, with presentations of classic dramas that include Marty, Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian, and Days of Wine and Roses. Also on this set, commentaries by directors Daniel Petrie, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Ralph Nelson; interviews with some of the cast and crew from these landmark presentations; and a companion booklet featuring an essay written by Ron Simon, curator of The Paley Center for Media. This set has a street date of November 24th.

Finally—if anyone still cares at this point—Infinity Resources has finally got their collective stuff together and will be sending the corrected Route 66: Season 3 collections to Best Buy stores this week. To make sure customers don’t pick up one of the defective sets in error, the company has wrapped the corrected sets in yellow cellophane. Why they just don’t pull the faulty sets off the shelves is a question they didn’t answer…or maybe nobody bothered to ask.

"She's gifted..."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In the interim

I took a brief holiday off from the blog the past few days (hey, I have the vacation time) to work on an outside project, so I figured I would update you on what’s been going on around Rancho Yesteryear since then.

Much ado about blogging. I know I’ve made some noise in the past about how Facebook is an evil, unavoidable addiction that insists on sucking precious minutes from my daily schedule—but there are some benefits, and one particular delight is that I’ve been able to add a new reader or two to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear in my never-ending quest to add a little respectability to the esoteric minutiae that often comes spilling forth from the ol’ grey matter like a leaky faucet. I’ve also added a few new blogs to the blogroll; people who, once again, risk being asked to resign from country clubs or left off the guest list at parties because they choose to “associate” with my blog. A very good example of this is Davy Crockett’s Almanack, a Western-oriented blog written by Dave Lewis (who, when not blogging, pens mysteries, westerns and historical fiction under the nom de plume of Evan Lewis), who not only added TDOY to his lineup but even gave me a nice shout-out in a quick blurb entitled “The Thrilling Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.” (While I am always flattered when people encourage my behavior, I think the adjective “thrilling” is the last one that comes to mind when describing me, and a sampling of my friends, acquaintances, intimates and family will demonstrate this simultaneous agreement by rushing to the microphones to explain why this is not so.) Dave’s blog is jammed-packed with tidbits on old B-westerns and other television nostalgia; the kind of stuff you’ll eat up with a spork.

Other additions to the blogroll include Bloody Knuckles, Calloused Fingertips, Caffeinated Joe, Calvin’s Canadian Cave of Coolness (love that alliteration!), Coffee coffee and more coffee (a blog that needs no introduction, authored by the one-and-only Peter Nellhaus), Completeist (its author, Jim Hendrickson, is also responsible for the wrestling blog International Object), 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?', Just Another Blog (From L.A.)™ (I like how my blog is listed under the category “May Be Worth a Read, May Not Be Worth a Read…This is America—You Get to Decide”), Motion Picture Gems and Strictly Vintage Hollywood. A final addition to the roll is Robin’s Blog Blather, written by a fellow Ravenswoodian whose sister and my sister (Debbie) were school chums. Lots of independent voices and independent views, so check them out at your first opportunity.

TCM Summer of Stars Festival. I’ve been trying to catch as many of the movies currently showing on the acclaimed classic movies channel as I can, but I have to confess many of the ones I singled out for recording will probably remain on their discs until I find some free time to sit down and enjoy. I did treat myself to a couple of goodies yesterday during the Fredric March salute: the first one, One Foot in Heaven (1941), was a film I hadn’t seen in ages (and from the shape of the print shown, TCM’s kind of neglected this little gem). Based on a book written by Hartzell Spence (who’s played in the film by Peter Caldwell [at age 10] and Frankie Thomas), it tells the story of Spence’s minister father (March) and family as they move from parish to parish in the early 20th century. Spence’s career is examined in episodic form, and the highlight of the film is when the good Reverend is talked into seeing a William S. Hart film (he’s railed against “scandalous” movies from his pulpit) and he relishes the fun of the whole experience. Great cast in this movie: Martha Scott (as his devoted spouse), Beulah Bondi, Gene Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Laura Hope Crews, Grant Mitchell and Moroni Olsen are just a few of the fine character actors who pop up. Heaven would make a sensational double-feature with Joel McCrea’s Stars in My Crown (1950).

Later that night, TCM “premiered” the 1935 version of Les misérables—and while I know Victor Hugo’s classic novel has been filmed many times (and was also the basis of a hit Broadway musical) this is really the only one you'll ever need to see, and I’ll sum it up in two words: Charles Laughton. Even now, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t name Laughton as my favorite British actor in Matthew Coniam’s quiz (talk about a massive brain fart) because he was truly an incredible talent, and his performance as the ruthless Inspector Javert is clearly one of his best. My favorite moment of his in the film is at the beginning, when he’s being told by a superior officer why he was passed over for promotion; his lower lip quivers and trembles as he reflects on his checkered past (his mother was a prostitute, father died in jail) and he assures his superior that he is dedicated to the letter of the law. Later, towards the end of the film, he allows Jean Valjean (March) to reconcile with his adopted daughter (Rochelle Hudson) and her fiancé (John Beal) and his lip quivers again as he rationalizes his actions. Very powerful stuff. I was also cheering during the tavern scene because TDOY fave John Carradine has a bit part as a student radical; finding Carradine in any movie is like winning a nice prize with the claw machine—I watched Johnny Guitar (1954) on Saturday as part of the Sterling Hayden tribute and even though I’ve seen Guitar more times than I can count, I always forget Carradine’s in that one, too. (His death scene is one of the most memorable in any movie: “Look...everybody’s looking at me…it’s the first time I ever felt important.”)

Speaking of Sterling Hayden, I managed to catch Manhandled (1949) Saturday night—I’d never seen it, and after having done so I can see why I needn’t have been in such a rush; it’s got a good cast (including Dottie Lamour and TDOY fave Dan Duryea) but ultimately it’s a poky little puppy. Hayden also has a small role in a film called Loving (1970)—from the period where he played a lot of rich or right-wing eccentrics (Winter Kills [1979], Nine to Five [1980])—that focuses on the turbulent relationship between iconoclastic artist George Segal (agonizing over the fact that he’s “sold out” as a commercial illustrator) and wife Eva Marie Saint. I enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would, but Loving’s main problem is that it wants me to “root” for Segal’s character (who’s reminiscent of the poet Sean Connery plays in A Fine Madness [1966]; both films were directed by Irvin Kershner) when I’m sitting there the entire time asking what sort of idiot plays around when he’s married to Eva-Marie-Friggin’-Saint. Oh, well…c’est la guerre.

Life lessons #62

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I guess TCM's looking for a new oracle...

From the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear e-mailbox (Special Spam Edition):

From: Mr. Robert Osborne
Dear Friend,
We write, asking for your indulgence in re-profiling funds to tune of Twenty Million United States Dollars (US$20m) which we want to keep safely overseas under your supervision for investment.
In other words, we would like you to receive the said funds on our behalf. The Funds were derived over time from a project awarded to a foreign firm by my Department, and presently the actual contract cost have been paid to the original project executors, leaving the balance in the tune of the said amount which we have in principle obtained approval to remit overseas.
Currently, I work as a Director of Projects at The Department of Minerals & Energy here in Pretoria South Africa. I have the authority and approval of my partners involved in this transaction to negotiate a suitable compensation for your participation and I propose 30 percent, while we also propose that we receive 60 percent and 10 percent be earmarked for purposes of taxation and transactional expenses that will be involved before and after the funds is approved and remitted into your account.
This endeavor has a minimal risk factor on your part provided you treat it with the utmost discretion. You are advised to reach me through email (roberth.osborne@xpmail.net ) for now if you are interested and as soon as we establish a rapport I will issue you with my tell number. Do please bear with me on that.
I kindly wait to hear from you.
Yours Sincerely,
Mr. Robert Osborne.

Tenure has its privileges...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Straightening out the junque* drawer

*That’s how my father spells “junk” – he’s in the flea market bidness, and he says it gives it a touch of class.

Well, I’ve got a few odds and ends to report and I decided to mix them all up/In one big mish-mush/And what have you got/Hungarian goulash—hey! Okay, now that I’ve dealt with my inner Allan Sherman, allow me to check off a few items of interest:

In the “You like me! You really like me!” department, I learned yesterday that the coveted Honest Scrap trophy has been awarded to myself and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear thanks to X Ray Specs and his porn movie weblog XXX Marks the Plot. (Come on...you know the title's funny.) According to Mr. Specs, TDOY “keeps me up on old movies and TV on DVD,” and I thank him with all sincerity for the award and for encouraging my behavior. I’m in heady company here, good citizens—quirky-but-by-no-means-uninteresting weblogs like M. Bug, 8 Track Journal, The Gore-Gore Girl and Yard Sale Bloodbath were also singled out for this honor. (I have to be sure to mention that last one to my father.)

Ross Freedman posted a funny link on Facebook yesterday; the subject being The 12 Most Annoying Types of Facebookers (via CNN.com). It’s an amusing read, but since I remarked to Hobbyfan in the comments section under the “Two princes” post how absurd it was for CNN to pass off Tom Braden—a former head of the CIA—as a representative of the “left” on Crossfire for so many years I pretty much take anything I read at CNN.com cumo graino salto. (Besides, “The Self Promoter” is not annoying—I like to read about what my friends in the blogosphere are up to and peruse the latest posts or articles they’ve written. I’ve added a few readers to TDOY through Facebook alone, and that’s a pretty big deal when before I had to raffle off a turkey just to get them to visit the jernt.)

A couple of TV-on-DVD announcements from TVShowsOnDVD.com, one demonstrating that even though Mr. Economy may be feeling a bit sluggish and under the weather, he’s still in there giving his all for classic television. Next Tuesday is the scheduled release for Here’s Lucy: Season One from Shout! Factory, and this little blurb announces that the date for the show’s sophomore season has already been set—November 3rd, with a 4-disc set that contains all of Season Two’s twenty-four episodes. And here’s the official press release for the Factory’s release of The Patty Duke Show: Season One, a six-disc collection with thirty-six episodes from the inaugural season beginning in the fall of 1963. (I can only speak for myself on how pleased I am to see this show finally make it to DVD, but In the Balcony’s Laughing Gravy remarked to me that he thought he and I may be the only two fans of this show—so there’s another set guaranteed sold.)

By the way, here’s an upcoming release from MPI Video that I must have overlooked: on October 13th, the company is bringing the short-lived comedy-variety program Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour to disc—which will make an excellent company to the already-released third season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the soon-to-be-seen second season, which follows a week after on October 20th. The Paulsen collection will contain all thirteen episodes of his summer series for ABC-TV in 1970, and while I have only faint memories of this program I’ll definitely keep it mind for purchase seeing as how I so enjoyed Pat’s segments on the Smothers Brothers third season set. Don’t know how I managed to miss this announcement, but as always—many thanks to Gord Lacey and David Lambert for being the go-to guys when it comes to television favorites from the past and their debuts on DVD.

Finally, I’d like to send out a couple of blogiversary shout-outs: one to The Lightning Bug’s Lair, an eclectic and enjoyable blog devoted to cult, noir and horror movies. The Bug himself reveals on his one-year blogiversary the origin of his namesake (“From the moon, baby!”) but for anyone who’s a fan of J-Men Forever (1979) no further explanation was needed (“Shtay high!”). The really amazing news is that the best darn political satire weblog—with the possible exception of Bats Left, Throws Right—in the blogosphere is celebrating year six of publication since yesterday…I’m speaking, of course, of the ever-popular World O’Crap. The good people at World have always held a special place in my estimation because they were the first “rilly big blog” to link to this one, and I can honestly say it was a post at World that set the wheels in motion for me to create TDOY. So if you’re looking for a scapegoat, form a line (careful with those torches and pitchforks, angry mob!) to the left.

When worlds collide #53

Thursday, August 20, 2009

No question about it—the boy can cipher!

Jethro might buy Nev. casino for Hillbillies plan

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Max Baer Jr. is considering buying a closed hotel-casino in Sparks and turning it into Jethro's Beverly Hillbillies Hotel and Casino based on the television sitcom he co-starred on during the 1960s.

Sparks Mayor Geno Martini confirmed Baer has met with city officials about the possible purchase of the Silver Club.

The former actor and director who has a home at Lake Tahoe already has approval to build his casino next to a retail complex being built in northern Douglas County about 30 miles south of Reno.

But his spokesman Don Smit says he's exploring other options because the construction of that retail complex has stalled.

I wonder if this casino has a cee-ment pond…

Two princes

Don Hewitt, the broadcast journalist who became a pioneer in television news with the creation of 60 Minutes, has shuffled off this mortal coil as many of you are by now aware. He passed away at the age of 86, after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.

From 1968 to 2004, Hewitt produced the most successful prime-time news program in the history of the medium by mixing both hard and soft news stories, combined with a “knights in shining armor” approach to exposing corporate malfeasance. He explained the successful formula of 60 Minutes in a memoir published in 2001, boiling it down to four words: “Tell me a story.”

I have to confess at this point that I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched the program, but in its heyday it made for some truly outstanding television. It premiered in the fall of 1968 as a Tuesday night staple but it wasn’t until the network moved the series to Sunday nights in January of 1972 that the show began to find an audience (and much of that was a spill over from whatever football game was on CBS that afternoon). It was the top-rated series for the 1979-80 season, and would also hit the number one position in the 1982-83 season and from 1991-94.

I don’t, of course, want to box Hewitt in as just the creator of 60 Minutes—he also directed the first network newscast on CBS in 1948, and was a one-time executive producer of The CBS News with Walter Cronkite. He also produced and directed the three networks’ coverage of the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. Don Hewitt was a personal hero to me (though I didn’t always agree with some of the decisions he made while at CBS News) and I am severely devastated by the news of his passing.

Robert Novak has also passed away at the age of 78; a conservative columnist/pundit who wrote for both the now-defunct New York Herald and later the Chicago Sun Times, often in concert with partner Rowland Evans (who died in 2001). The two men joined up with the fledging CNN network in 1980 with a television version of their “Evans & Novak Report”—a popular news-discussion program that later added columnists Al Hunt and Mark Shields to the lineup. Novak also made frequent appearances on the syndicated The McLaughlin Group and CNN’s Capitol Gang as well.

But Novak’s best-remembered television showcase was probably Crossfire, the combative discussion program that originally featured Pat Buchanan as its conservative voice—but Novak replaced him when Buchanan became White House communications director in the Reagan administration. Buchanan later returned to the program but left again in 1991 for an ill-fated presidential bid—he was replaced by John Sununu, who then began alternating his duties when Novak was brought back into the fold.

My admiration for Don Hewitt does not extend to Mr. Novak, unfortunately. But since I promised my mother that I wouldn’t publish anything nasty about “the Prince of Darkness,” here are some people who share far better memories of working with the man.

R.I.P, gentlemen. Your contributions to journalism will not be soon forgotten.

Life lessons #61

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Classic TV at your fingertips

In the past, I’ve mentioned the two online services—Hulu and Fancast—that often present classic movies sometimes too elusive to catch on TCM or FMC, and have also pointed out that they showcase vintage television shows as well. Though I don’t think I’d be willing to part with the voluminous TV-on-DVD collection that comprises a goodly portion of the material stored in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, every now and then it’s nice to catch one of these old programs…particularly if they haven’t made their way to DVD yet.

What put me on this course of thinking was reading a blurb at Rick Brooks’ award-winning* blog Cultureshark, in which he pointed out that the newly titled WGN America offers what the station calls an “Outta Site Retro Night Sunday” on the day of rest, and that they had added Barney Miller reruns to the lineup. (This “Retro” thing, by the way, includes introductory bumpers from DJ/former Solid Gold host Rick Dees, who apparently has stopped getting his Disco Duck royalty checks.**) My father, at a point in his life when he still laughed at sitcoms, was a big fan of the police squad room comedy and since he ruled the prime-time television kingdom with an iron fist back then I would have to pretty much watch what he wanted. (As such, this turned out not to be a bad thing, because I think Miller is a bona fide TV classic.)

So, Sunday night, I decided to tune into WGN because—let’s face it, TCM fans—there’s only so many Elvis movies a man can take. Both episodes were a genuine surprise in that the series was still as fresh and funny as I remembered. Now, back in January 2004 Columbia/Sony released the first season of Barney Miller to DVD…and then announced that because it didn’t sell like hotcakes, that was pretty much it. The company soon had a change of heart and released the second season to disc four years later in 2008. This, however, didn’t do me a heckuva lot a good because by that time I’d already sold my first season copy on eBay. But since the third season arrived on DVD a year after, it looks as if Sony might make a commitment to putting all of the seasons on disc (give them credit—they went all the way with Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie) and so after seeing the show and enjoying it so much, I made an impulse purchase at Amazon.com and snapped up all three seasons. (Walmart.com actually had the shows priced less, but I was going to have to pay a whopping s&h charge in addition to sales tax so Amazon seemed the smart way to go.)

After making the purchase, I skated over to TV.com to look at what episodes were featured during each season, and I see that the series is available to watch online. How cool is that? So I spent last night—in between TCM’s showing of Portrait of Jennie (1948)—catching up on some of the first season entries, and having an enormously good time in the process.

This experience set me to thinking again. Would it not be helpful if there were someplace…say, for example, a highly-respected weblog that covers classic film, radio and television…where an enterprising young individual (with a bit o’ free time on his hands) could link to the various classic television shows available for online viewing at both Hulu and Fancast? (Strictly as a public service, you understand.) I hope you’ve answered yes, because that is just what I have done—in the sidebar to your right…no, your other right…you’ll find a list of some of the best (as determined by me, naturally) and classic programs the cathode ray tube has to offer. Keep in mind that I’ve merely just tapped the tip of the iceberg—and that some of these shows (Nanny and the Professor being a primary example) aren’t necessarily my cup of Orange Pekoe but I’ve included them because they may not be on DVD as of this writing. In particular, I was jazzed to see that series like Bat Masterson and Sea Hunt are available—selected episodes of these series have appeared on disc but they’re usually those that have achieved public domain status. (The fact that Sea Hunt is online means that the Athens chapter of the Royal Huntation Society™ may start having meetings—for those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, this will explain things more fully.) There are also a few shows of recent vintage that I included only because I consider myself a big fan. In addition, I’m also plan to introduce a section devoted to older movies that are playing on these services, concentrating on those flicks that, once again, don’t show up on television much or just films that I’ve seen and that I’ll think you’ll enjoy. There’s no need to thank me…it’s all in a day’s work for…Bicycle Repairman.

*In all fairness, I don’t think Rick has won any major awards—but his daughter laughs and claps at his blog, and that’s close enough for government work.

**This is also meant to be a joke. Please don’t go on and on about how wonderful a human being Rick Dees is in the comment section. I’m sure he’s a prince of a fellow.

Life lessons #60

Monday, August 17, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: The Saxon Charm (1948)

Theatrical producer Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery) is a temperamental, autocratic bully whose charismatic magnetism (hence the film’s title) keeps individuals in his thrall even though the smarter ones know they’d be better off putting as much distance between themselves and Saxon as possible. The latest victim to fall into Saxon’s web is novelist-turned-playwright Eric Busch (John Payne), whose play The Comic Spirit has Matt positively raving; the producer convinces Busch to let him produce the play, and he’s even got an important (and wealthy) backer, Zack Humber (Harry Von Zell). Eric’s wife Janet (Susan Hayward) has reservations about her husband’s loyalty to Saxon; she finds him demanding and boorish, particularly when he makes an embarrassing spectacle of himself at a restaurant. But Busch is determined to learn about the theater from a pro (Saxon’s fiancée, chanteuse Alma Wragge [Audrey Totter], confides to Janet that even the producer’s enemies cannot deny his brilliance); even one who is so ruthless he sabotages Alma’s budding movie career, insults Humber to the point when he pulls out of the production, and inadvertently causes his ex-wife (Heather Angel) to commit suicide. Busch is finally able to break away from Saxon’s monstrousness—but at the end, Saxon is on the phone with another aspiring playwright and using his “charm” to “seduce” another victim.

Written and directed by Claude Binyon (based on the novel by Frederic Wakeman) for Universal-International, The Saxon Charm (1948) is an interesting little picture in the theatre-people-are-ruthless-but-they-have-to-be-to-make-it-in-this-bidness genre, like The Hard Way (1943) and the grand mommy of them all, All About Eve (1950). It’s a little dramatically uneven (at one point in the picture’s last half Montgomery’s Saxon starts to behave less like Jed Harris—Montgomery’s real-life inspiration—and more like Max Bialystock from The Producers [1968]) but benefits from a great cast—even though many critics then and now feel Montgomery was miscast in the lead role. I didn’t have a problem with Montgomery (his character is like a petulant, spoiled child and the actor’s limited range manages to cover that pretty well) although I can certainly think of another actor who would have hit it out of the park (Paging Mr. Welles…) so much as John Payne, who’s a bit disappointing as Busch (Kirk Douglas would have been ideal).

So the acting honors go to the female contingent: Audrey Totter is great as always as the world-weary Alma (so desperately in love with Montgomery, and yet clear-headed enough to warn Hayward about him—plus she sings a mean version of I’m in the Mood For Love to boot) and Susan Hayward is equally superb as devoted wife Janet Busch—who possesses a admirably strong and independent streak and isn’t afraid to speak her mind as far as Montgomery is concerned. I also like the offbeat choices in the supporting parts: Harry Von Zell (known primarily as announcer-foil to radio stars like Eddie Cantor and Dinah Shore) displays some impressive acting chops; as do Harry Morgan (billed here as “Henry”) as Montgomery’s devoted lackey; a platinum blonde Cara Williams as Von Zell’s ditzy wife; and Chill Wills as the highly-strung skipper of Montgomery’s yacht.

I purchased Charm (Sed de Dominio) on an all-region DVD (released by Suevia Films in Spain) about three years ago from an eBay seller; all-region means that it’s engineered to play on any type of DVD player…but it’s also recorded in PAL mode, so you’ll need to have a player with a PAL-to-NTSC converter as well. I thought the back of this DVD’s packaging was unusual in that the company includes some of the players with relatively small roles in the production; great character actors (not unfamiliar to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear readers) like Addison Richards and Philip Van Zandt. TDOY fave Kathleen Freeman has a bit in the film’s beginning as a desk nurse, and if you look sharp you’ll spot Barbara Billingsley as one of Hayward’s St. Louis friends in a scene in her apartment toward the end.

The wonderful world of Facebook #13

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pop quiz, hotshot...

My good friend and fellow film blogger Matthew Coniam at Movietone News has dreamed up a nice little quiz in the style of the famous brain-busters created by Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, and while I don’t want to show any favoritism, I sort of like Matthew’s questions a bit better because they’re more geared toward my classic movie sensibilities. I urge every one of my fellow film buffs to take a whack at it, and in the meantime, here are his posers with my responses:

1. Your favourite Humphrey Bogart film in which he doesn't play a gangster or a private eye. (Oh, and not including Casablanca either.)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). “Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean.”

2. Your favourite appearance by a star in drag (boy-girl or girl-boy).

Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

3. Your favourite Laurel & Hardy film; short or feature, or one of each. (This will sort out the men from the boys - or perhaps the men from the girls.)

My favorite feature film is Way Out West (1937). As for short…well, I’ll go with The Music Box (1932).

4. Your favourite appearance by one star in a role strongly associated with another star. (E.g.: Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Grace Kelly as Tracy Lord, Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates...)

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944). (Assuming more people associate Bogart with the role in The Big Sleep [1946].)

5. The thirties or forties star or stars you most think you'd like, but have yet to really get to know.

Jean Arthur.

6. Your favourite pre-Petrified Forest Bette Davis film.

Three on a Match (1932).

7. Your favourite post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford film.

Johnny Guitar (1954).

8. Your favourite film that ends with the main character's death.

Citizen Kane (1941)!

9. Your favourite Chaplin talkie.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

10. Your favourite British actor and actress.

James Mason and Jean Simmons.

11. Your favourite post-1960 appearance by a 1930's star.

I like Bert Lahr’s performance as “Spats” in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968).

12. Dietrich or Garbo?

Depends. I like Dietrich’s sound films and Garbo’s silents.

13. Karloff or Lugosi?

Karloff. (No hesitation on that one.)

14. Chaplin or Keaton? (I know some of you will want to say both for all of the above. Me too. But you can't.)

Keaton. (Didn’t have to hesitate on that one, either.)

15. Your favourite star associated predominantly with the 1950's.

Montgomery Clift.

16. Your favourite Melvyn Douglas movie.

The Candidate (1972). (He plays Redford’s pop, former governor of California.)

17. The box-office failure you most think should have been a success.

The Crowd (1928).

18. Your favourite performance by an actor or actress playing drunk.

Jack Norton. (Was there any doubt?)

19. Your favourite last scene of any thirties movie.

The wrap-up to King Kong (1933).

20. Your favourite American non-comedy silent movie.

Yipes…so many choices. I’ll go The Docks of New York (1928).

21. Your favourite Jean Harlow performance.

I’ll choose Bombshell (1933) only because she has to share Libeled Lady (1936) with Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

22. Your favourite remake. (Quizmaster's definition: second or later version of a work written as a movie, not a later adaptation of the same novel or play.)

You’re Never Too Young (1955), Martin & Lewis’ remake of The Major and the Minor (1942).

23. Your favourite Orson Welles performance in a film he did not direct, not including The Third Man.

Jonathan Wilk in Compulsion (1959). (Thought you had me handcuffed, didn’t ya?)

24. Your favourite non-gangster or musical James Cagney film or performance.

One, Two, Three (1961).

25. Your favourite Lubitsch movie.

To Be or Not to Be (1942).

26. Who would win in a fight: Miriam Hopkins or Barbara Stanwyck? (Both in their prime; say in 1934 or so.)

Oh, no contest—Babs would take her out in the first round with a TKO. (Hopkins is one of those genteel Savannah, GA dames.)

27. Name the two stars you most regret never having co-starred with each other, and - if you want - choose your dream scenario for them. (Quizmaster's qualification: they have to be sufficiently contemporary to make it possible. So, yes to Cary Grant and Lon Chaney Jr as two conmen in a Howard Hawks screwball; no to Clara Bow and Kirsten Dunst as twin sisters on the run from prohibition agents in twenties Chicago, much though that may entice.)

Charley Chase and Buster Keaton. I don’t have a scenario planned, but it’s gonna make a hell of a two-reeler. (And don’t go telling me this answer isn’t kosher because they appear in the Robert Youngson compilation 4 Clowns [1970], among others.)


28. Your favourite Lionel Barrymore performance.

Key Largo (1948).


29. Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard or Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour? (See note on question 14.)

Bob and Dottie. Hands down.

30. You won't want to answer this, but: there's been a terrible fire raging in the film libraries of all the major studios. It's far too late to save everything. All you can do is save as much as you can. You've been assigned the thirties. All you'll have time to drag from the obliterating inferno is one 1930's film each from Paramount, MGM, RKO, Columbia, Universal and Warners. Do you stomp around in a film buff's huff saying 'it's too hard, I can't choose just one' and watch them all go up in smoke? Or do you roll your sleeves up and start saving movies?
But if the latter:
which ones...?

M-G-M: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

R-K-O: Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) (Hey, I like Wheeler & Woolsey—so sue me.)

Columbia: Holiday (1938)

Universal: Destry Rides Again (1939)

Warners: Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)