Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Don't make a fuss, dear...I'll have your spam...I love it...I'm having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam and spam...”

The old spam filter here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has really been earning its keep the past day or so thanks to the tenacious individual above, who answers to “llq” and has been commenting up a storm on past posts, trying to turn my pretty head with blatantly shameless flattery like “Possibly the most amazing blog I read all year!” (you really need to get around the Internets more) and “Vivacious Blog – Full life and energy” (odd…I’m still experiencing a tired, rundown feeling).  The one comment that Mr. or Mrs. llq keeps posting that has me a bit stumped reads “You have some sth~~”—and if anyone out there in Blogland can explain to me what the hell that means, I welcome your interpretation.  (I mean, if this “sth” is on my shirt I should probably go and put on a clean one.)

So you may be wondering “What have I…what have I…what have I done to deserve this?”  (Although that could be Dusty Springfield and the Pet Shop Boys playing on my Winamp.)  Well, this devoted fandom from my latest groupie apparently involves a little quid pro quo—after each one of these stirring blog testimonials llq clumsily inserts links to merchandise: “vintage” wedding dresses with “lace sleeves,” Christian Louboutin fur boots (I don’t even known who in blue blazes Louboutin is…I’m wearing a Daffy Duck T-shirt with "sth" on it, ferchrissake), cheap mobile phones, etc.  There’s even a link in their comments to “mermaid wedding dresses” and, again, because I am fashion-impaired the only motivation for me to be interested in something like that would be if the contents of the dress contained Glynis Johns (Miranda, Mad About Men).

I just thought I’d take a minute or two out of my frightfully busy schedule to poke merciless fun at this bananahead and to simply say “Knock it off.”  I admire your persistent attempts to hawk your spam-encrusted line of clothing here at TDOY, but not all of your adulation for my blog is caught by Blogger’s filter…and because I have to physically delete it myself it’s really getting on my wick.  If you’re harboring the delusion that I’m going to eventually throw my hands up in surrender and say “Oh, what’s the harm in letting poor llq tout a bridal jacket or two?” you need to ask your nurse for a little extra medication.

As llq might say: “I agree with many points.  But in some areas, I feel we need to be more aggressive.  Just my opinion.  Love ya.”  Right back atcha, babe.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“It's a good story today…tomorrow they'll wrap a fish in it…”

Spectacle and sensationalism as presented by the media—be it print, broadcast or online—is certainly nothing new throughout recorded history but to make a motion picture that portrayed the fourth estate is a less than flattering light got director Billy Wilder in trouble sixty years ago on this date in theaters.  Wilder followed up his corrosive exposé on Hollywood, Sunset Blvd. (1950), with an equally pungent glimpse at a reporter who risks the life of an individual trapped in a cave-in in order to exploit the man’s predicament in front page headlines and secure his ticket back to the newspaper equivalent of “the big leagues.”  The movie is Ace in the Hole (1951), and before its release on DVD by Criterion in 2007 tracking it down was indeed a Herculean chore.  AMC showed the film a few times back in its glory days—under the nom de cinema “The Big Carnival,” which is what Paramount re-titled it in an effort to get the public to see something they already peeped and had exercised their moviegoers veto (Hole was a huge critical and financial flop for Wilder, who had been hitting nothing but home runs since his directorial debut in 1942)—but unless you were lucky to see it then your only option was a repertory theatre or to find somebody who had had the foresight to grab it with their VCR (because it simply wasn’t available on VHS).

Ace in the Hole is one of my favorites in the voluminous oeuvre of Wilder’s, and I worked up a little tribute to the movie over at Edward Copeland on Film…and More.  That will probably have to do everybody for the next couple of days or so because I’ve got a deadline with an outside project and I’m a bit behind (and shouldn’t be).  But if you’re standing by a Netflix queue or see this title at the next online Criterion sale I can’t urge you enough to snap up a copy—I put it on for the ‘rents the other night and they even gave it a hearty thumbs up…though my Mom said: “I knew what the outcome of this was going to be.”  (If you haven’t seen it, you’ll probably need to hold off reading my ECOF piece until you do because I do sort of give the ending away.)

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I KNEW there was a reason why I haven’t stepped inside a multiplex for three years now…

Faithful TDOY readers are aware of this but for those of you just joining us…I am woefully behind in catching up with recently-released movies.  Granted, it’s not something that keeps me awake at night because I’ve rationalized that there are too many older and classic films still on my “Must-See” list but occasionally it does cause me a teensy bit of embarrassment because…well, you know how Dennis Cozzalio always has a question on his Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule quizzes as to what the last film was you watched in a movie theater?  The answer in my case—and has been for the last three years—is the horrible 2008 reboot of Get Smart, which I discussed at length here.  (And because I've become so self-conscious answering that question the same way every time the last assignment I purposely left it blank.)

When I was getting Showtime/The Movie Channel/Flix/Encore over at the former location of Rancho Yesteryear I certainly had access to newer movies…but for some reason I never exercised the option of watching many of them, choosing instead to record the occasional cult movie that Showtime or TMC presented in a widescreen format like The Honeymoon Killers (1970) or Smithereens (1982).  I think the most recent films I caught on Showtime were Adventureland (2009)—which I actually enjoyed, and particularly because much of the movie was filmed at the Kennywood amusement park just up the road from my former exile stomping grounds in Morgantown, WV—and Youth in Revolt (2009), which I’ve only seen the first half of so technically I can’t make a complete judgment call on the film.  (Both of these, of course, star box office sensation Michael Cera and…um...half a tick…I’m now being told that Adventureland’s leading man is in fact Jesse Eisenberg, who’s merely impersonating Cera.)  I’ve also caught The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Inglourious Basterds (2009)—the first deserving of its controversial buzz and the second a tad overrated though I didn’t completely dislike it (to be honest, I haven’t really connected with a Quentin Tarantino film since Jackie Brown [1997].).  The most recent movie that I caught on Encore—which sometimes shows the big Starz premieres several months after Starz is through with them—was the 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three…which is by my count the second classic movie Denzel Washington has managed to desecrate during his prolific film career (the other being The Manchurian Candidate).  Hold up...I just remembered he's in that Bishop's Wife redo as well.

This past weekend, while the ‘rents attended ShreveFest (our annual family reunion in WV which, in the past, I’ve always referred to as “the driest weekend of the year”…but judging from the reports I’ve received that my mother and Aunt Jane were the life of the party thanks to some peach moonshine it has apparently become a bit wetter) our CharredHer cable service bestowed upon us a free weekend of HBO and Cinemax…and the nice thing about CharredHer is that I don’t have to plan my schedule watching bad movies on these two channels—I can pull these stinkers up via their “On Demand” feature at my leisure.  So I got the opportunity to catch up on some films released during this century (I have defibrillators at the ready for those of you who don’t believe this) and let me tell you…the current state of cinema could certainly use some defib itself.

Date Night (2010) – New Jersey couple Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) celebrate the titular ritual by setting their sights on a swanky seafood restaurant (“Claw”) in NYC for dinner.  They’re informed at the front door that they need reservations on a Friday night…and to add insult to injury, they need them well in advance because of the joint’s popularity.  So when Phil seizes the opportunity to steal someone’s reservation (thinking they failed to show) he and the missus are plunged into a night of intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay involving corrupt cops (Jimmy Simpson, Common) a mobster (Ray Liotta) and a “flash drive” containing incriminating evidence against the D.A. (William Fichtner).  (Wacky!)

There used to be a stigma in show business that if you worked in TV it was considered slumming because movies were where the money and prestige were located…and to some extent it still exists today except that the irony is the shows on the boob tube are far and away superior to the stuff they’re cranking out to lure people into the googolplexes.  At least that was my reaction to Date Night, a comedy that left me stone-faced throughout (I started to be convinced I was Buster Keaton—rimshot!) because I couldn’t help but think that I have laughed more at a half hour of 30 Rock (Fey’s sitcom) and The Office (well, Carell used to work there—and if he left that show to make these types of films God have mercy on his soul) than I did this turkey.  Since comedy is always subjective, I’m not sure if I should say “This movie isn’t funny” so much as affirm that the film is one of the laziest comedies I’ve ever watched.  For example: the filmmakers use Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher over the end credits (wow…that’s original… wouldn’t it be interesting if someone went with Rita Coolidge’s hit 1977 cover of that tune as a change of pace?) while running clips of the stars and members of the cast breaking each other up with bloopers and ad-libs to show the audience how much fun they had making the film.  (Me, to the TV set: “Well, of course you had fun making this film…you didn’t have to watch it!”)

There are one or two nuggets among the dross: I think Fey is wonderful even when her material is not (“If we are going to pay this much for crab it better sing and dance and introduce us to the Little Mermaid!”) and Mila Kunis made me smile when she explained to Carell that she goes by “Whippit” not because of the dog breed but because she gets high on whipped cream aerosol.  Oh, and unlike some of the indeterminably long opuses directed by Judd Apatow (“Longer running times equals funnier…”) Date Night is fairly short (just not sweet), running just under ninety minutes.  But I hope that Liotta hung on to some of his Goodfellas money and the only time I laughed out loud at Carell was when he told Mark Wahlberg’s character (who spends the entirety of the movie stripped to the waist) to “shirt yourself up.”  Final rating: *

Knight and Day (2010) – June Havens (Cameron Diaz) and Roy Miller’s (Tom Cruise) “meet cute” at a Wichita airport snowballs into several days of intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay when she learns that he’s a spy who claims to be protecting a perpetual power battery source (the “Zephyr”) from one of his colleagues (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s apparently switched allegiances from the U.S. to a terrorist drug lord (Jordi Mollà). But the head of the CIA (Viola Davis) asserts that it’s Miller who’s gone rogue—who can June believe and trust?  (Also just plain wacky!)

Okay, I know what you’re saying.  “Iv…why for the love of Mike would you punish yourself by sitting down with a Tom Cruise movie when you yourself have been preaching lo these many years that the man is an unrepentant wanker who’s a taco shy of a combination platter?”  Well, you may not believe this…but I actually liked Valkyrie (2008)—which I also caught on Showtime—even though I’ll sign an affidavit swearing the movie would have been much, much better had Cruise not been in the cast.  I thought that the presence of Diaz in Knight might mitigate having to sit through nearly two hours of the irritating smugness (and Tom thinks Matt Lauer is glib—physician, heal thyself) that is Cruise but sometimes life is a gamble and you wind up with nothing but free drinks at the bar.  I did think Diaz was charming in this one, particularly in the movie’s highlight where she’s been given a “truth serum” by drug lord Mollà and her thoughts start to spill forth like water gushing from a garden hose.  Final rating: *1/2

Public Enemies (2009) – It’s 1933, and the Great Depression is made somewhat more tolerable because gangsters like John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) are engaged in bank robbing intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay.  G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, with one of the most atrocious Southern accents to ever befall my ears) has been given the authority by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to go after these bad guys with any means at his disposal…and all three of them eventually meet their maker, with Dillinger gunned down in a sequence that is so Sam Peckinpah-slow I could have watched Manhattan Melodrama (1934) in its entirety while waiting for him to die.

To illustrate that the program descriptions on CharredHer’s On Demand offerings are often high hilarity in themselves, the one for Enemies reads something like “Johnny Depp is riveting as notorious bank robber John Dillinger.”  Um…no.  No, he is not.  He’s Johnny Depp pretending to be John Dillinger.  I guess it’s no secret that I’m not a member of Depp’s fan club and the only reason why I’m not going to crack an awful joke like “the man is clearly out of his Depp-th in the role” is that I fear you’ll storm the comments section with pitchforks and torches and threaten my parents.  Michael Mann’s film is actually fairly painless to take (my BFF The Duchess dissents from this, calling it too slow) but would have been a better feature had some of the roles been recast (Depp and the faux Southerner Bale, for starters) and less emphasis placed on the love story between Depp’s Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, whom we will visit again here in a sec) because to be honest, I thought the background material concentrating on the origins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be far more interesting stuff.  TDOY country singer-songwriter fave Ed Bruce has a marvelous bit part as the senator who essentially tells Crudup’s Hoover that he trusts him about as far as he can throw him, and of course it’s always swell to see one of the best character thesps in movies today, Lili Taylor, in a small role as female sheriff Lillian Holley.  Giovanni Ribisi plays Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and while Ribisi is certainly capable of carrying off Al’s nickname he’s much too pretty to play the character—the real-life Karpis looked as if he’d been beaten with an ugly stick.  Final rating: **1/2

Inception (2010) – Wealthy and mysterious businessman Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) for an unusual assignment: planting an idea (the “inception” of the movie title) into the subconscious of the heir (Cillian Murphy) to the fortune of his bidness rival (Pete Postelthwaite) that will cause said heir to bust up his pa’s huge energy conglomerate.  In exchange for this service, Saito promises to use his influence to clear Cobb of a murder charge (he has been accused of croaking his wife, played by Marion Cotillard), thus allowing our hero to return to the U.S. and be reunited with his kids.  Cobb recruits a virtual IMF of Dreamland—including a college student (Ellen Page) who will apparently be the “architect” of the scenarios used to permeate the subconscious of the client; she attends a college of architecture run by Cobb’s father-in-law (Michael Caine, grabbing another paycheck) that I first believed to be some sort of Dream Academy ("Ah hey, ma ma ma...").  I know this all sounds a little complicated, but rest assured the cast experiences no end of intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay when things don’t go quite the way they’re planned.

First things first: I liked Inception, but I’m still not sure I completely understand just what the hell it’s all about—the plot is multi-layered, and there’s at times a confusing back-and-forth between three scenarios (apparently the plan to influence Murphy occupies three “levels” of his subconscious) involving 1) a van about to careen off a bridge and into the water below, 2) a prolonged bit with Gordon-Levitt “swimming” in slow-motion in the lobby of what appears to be a tonier Hampton Inn and 3) an even longer sequence that looks like excised footage and outtakes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Where Eagles Dare.  Fanboys the length and longth of the Internets sang the praises of this movie despite the fact that its ambiguous ending leaves the viewer with a lot of niggling questions including “What is reality?” “Is this a dream or not?” and “Did I honestly part with ten bucks to see what is essentially Dreamscape meets Mission: Impossible…?”  It was also nominated for eight Academy Awards (and won four), prompting even more fanboy pissing and moaning when the film lost to The King’s Speech (2010).  I haven’t seen Speech and probably won’t get the opportunity to do so for a while but I’m just enough of an old fogey to believe that Inception is most assuredly not all that and a bag of chips.  (Nice to see that Tom Berenger is still working, though.)  Final rating: ***

I was fortunate that Cinemax On Demand was running one of my favorite John Sayles films, Sunshine State (2002), and I also re-indulged in the guilty pleasure that is Drag Me to Hell (2009) because even though I had doped out where it was eventually going to go I had a lot of fun watching it the first time despite its excesses (Mom, who watched it with me: “Maybe we should have put this on before dinner.”)  The only other movie I got a gander at was Repo Men (2010)—not to be confused with the 1984 cult film…though I’m sure there were a few people who hoped the projectionist would—which I only got to see half of; from the portion I glimpsed it was a futuristic satire where clients unable to keep up the payments on their artificial body organs find them…yes, you guessed where this is going (the amusing thing is that there was a sketch that covered this concept in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life [1983]…and a short snatch of it can be seen on a TV screen in the film).  The one thing I was able to take away from Repo despite not seeing it in its entirety is that nobody plays ruthless corporate scumbags with more aplomb than Liev Schreiber.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Queer Film Blogathon: Caged (1950)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, being hosted by Garbo Laughs in honor of June being LGBTQ Pride Month.  The full list of participants can be found here.

Nineteen-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is going to be a guest in the Grey Bar Hotel for about one to fifteen years because she happened to be in the company of her husband while he was relieving a gas station of forty bucks through rather unlawful means.  (To add insult to injury, Mr. Allen was croaked by the attendant and because forty dollars was the amount involved in the robbery and not five dollars less the crime falls under the category of a felony.)  Concerned warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) wants to do all she can to help the new inmate, but she’s merely a figurehead in the women’s penitentiary because the real power behind the throne is sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), whose corruption is pervasive throughout and who’s only kept her position due to political patronage.

Marie makes fast friends in the joint, notably Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), the de facto leader of the female inmates, and June Roberts (Olive Deering)—a young woman who unfortunately commits suicide (hanging) after being turned down for parole.  Marie is hoping to make parole, too, after serving nine months of her sentence but it won’t be easy—she was two months pregnant at the moment of her incarceration and after giving birth inside (her premature labor brought on by June’s suicide) has to give the baby up for adoption because her mother can’t take the infant in under strict orders from her husband (Marie’s stepdad).  Kitty keeps insisting that Marie will never be paroled unless she agrees to become a “booster” (shoplifter) because the people who will employ her in that occupation have enough pull to con the parole board into thinking that she has the means to subsist outside of prison.  Marie is determined to keep her nose clean but her resolve is tested when another felon, Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), is introduced into the cell block—Powell is an old nemesis of Kitty’s, and the opportunistic Harper shifts her allegiance to “Elvy” when the woman promises her large financial benefits in exchange for creature comforts.

On Powell’s orders, Harper arranges for Kitty to be placed into solitary confinement…but only after giving her a beatdown.  Marie ends up in solitary as well after an infraction of the rules (she’s harboring a pet kitten in the block) but the vindictive Harper shaves Marie’s head before throwing her in the cooler.  Out of solitary, Kitty is but a shell of her former self…and an apology from Powell can’t help matron Harper, who is stabbed with a fork and killed in the prison cafeteria shortly afterward.  Marie is now convinced that walking the straight and narrow is not going to be her ticket out of the joint and so she agrees to become one of Powell’s “girls” in order to accelerate her parole.  Her conversion from wide-eyed innocent to hardened recidivist complete, Warden Benton sadly tells her assistant to keep Marie’s file active because “she’ll be back.”

The “women in prison” genre (also known as “chicks in chains”) has been packing audiences into theatres and drive-ins ever since the 1920s, when the first pictures of their type were released, notably Prisoners (1929) and The Godless Girl (1929)—the latter film having been helmed by the greatest exploitation director of them all, Cecil B. DeMille.  Titles include classics like Ladies of the Big House (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933) and The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) up to more modern fare like The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Caged Heat (1974)—but Caged (1950) is considered by many to be the best of them all (the DVD cover for the film trumpets it as a “cult camp classic,” but I think they have it confused with 1955’s Women’s Prison), largely due to its attention on portraying prison life for women in realistic fashion…well, as realistic as the Production Code would allow at the time, anyway.  Screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, who had previously been nominated for an Academy Award for her story contribution to White Heat (1949), was inspired to do a women’s prison picture and conducted research by posing as an inmate at a correctional facility.  (She and co-writer Bernard C. Schoenfeld would garner a second Oscar nom for their Caged screenplay.)

But even when one’s intentions are noble (I’ve always been impressed at how Caged doesn’t pull any punches when it addresses how crappily prisons are run due to under funding and political posturing) it’s not easy excising the elements of exploitation out of films like this…the first heads-up usually occurs just about the time you see the first sequence of women in the showers.  In addition, there’s a fascinating gay subtext that runs rampant throughout Caged’s proceedings, and is unmistakably present in the dialogue spoken by many of its characters.  We get an inkling of this right off the bat when Marie, asking for a comb before her photo is taken during her prison indoctrination, is told snappishly by a matron: “What’s the difference—there’s no men in here.”  (The title of Kellogg’s original story, oddly enough, is Women Without Men.)  Superintendent Moorehead—a sympathetic character, to be sure (she’s a dedicated public servant who fervently believes that the inmates in her care should be treated with dignity and respect)—nevertheless assures new inmate Marie that “I want you to believe that I'd like to be your friend...if you let me...”  Despondent over the fact that she’s going to have to give her newborn up for adoption, Kitty tells Marie: “Think it over, sweetie…but get this through your head—if you stay in here too long, you don't think of guys at all…you just get out of the habit…”

The subtext really gets ramped up with the introduction of Caged’s nastiest piece of work—the enchantingly wicked Evelyn Harper, who stands head and shoulders above all movie villains and would make cartoon mincemeat out of any baddie in any Disney film you’d care to name.  Completely without morals and mean because she wants to be, she establishes her presence by inviting Marie into her den (she remarks to the trustee who delivers Marie “Since you went fancy working upstairs for Benton I kind of missed you”) and showing off the trinkets and treasures bestowed upon her by “her girls”:  “Let's you and me get acquainted, honey,” she purrs to the innocent Marie, “you may be a number to the others but not to me.”

My guess is that the screenwriters may have had a sixth sense that they were in danger of making Harper a little too butch because they later dress her up in feminine finery and have her brag to the other inmates about a date she’s got that evening.  But Harper’s “femme” identity is undercut by a wisecrack from Gita “Smoochie” Kopsky (Jan Sterling): “If that’s what dames are wearing now I’m glad I’m in here.”

With the arrival of a character StinkyLulu once memorably described as “the delightfully dykey” Elvira Powell, the gay titillation in Caged is at full steam.  As Powell is shown around the prison yard by a fawning Harper, “Elvy” takes a shine to young Marie:

POWELL: What’s your name?  How did you hurt your hand?
MARIE: I’m a big girl…and this isn’t my first year away from home…my name is Marie Allen…if I said no to Kitty, I’m sure not going to say ‘yes’ to you…
POWELL (to Harper): She’s a cute trick…

In a later scene, Elvira has arranged for the inmates to receive gifts of lipstick—a major violation of prison policy—but Marie gets a special gift of a compact with her war paint.  Strolling over to Powell, who’s surrounded by her “hive,” Marie returns the gift, telling her “Rhinestones are phony.”  “You can have real ones anytime you change your type,” Powell assures her.

And change her type she does, with a little help from a vengeful Harper…

...but the “butch” look really doesn’t suit our heroine and besides—someone has to play the femme in this roundelay…

Marie even seals the deal by taking the wedding ring she left with the matron on her first day of incarceration and defiantly chucks it at the wastebasket.  She’s taken a walk on the Sapphic side, friends and neighbors…and she’s not coming back.

Okay…maybe I’m reading a little too much into this.  But on the off-chance you haven’t seen Caged, I’d urge you to do so—it made quite an impression on me when I saw it many, many moons ago on TBS (what a memory I have!) and in revisiting it for the blogathon it’s still a pretty potent picture, replete with fine acting and snappy dialogue.  For a film that paints a bleak, unrelenting picture of life behind bars (not as bleak, say, as Brute Force [1947] but it definitely fills a niche in the noir style) it’s actually amusing at times:

FIRST INMATE: So I go on this picnic, see?  Skinny takes me out in a rowboat…begins criticizing my family, though, and to make it worse he slaps me…so I slap him back…
SECOND INMATE: You just slapped him?
FIRST INMATE: Well, I did have an oar in my hand…he kept on hitting me, so I kept on slapping him…
THIRD INMATE: Still with your oar in your hand?  What did you keep on slapping him for?
FIRST INMATE: Well, he kept on coming up…

There are so many wonderful character actresses in this movie, including TDOY goddess Jan Sterling and longtime fave Ellen Corby (the scene where she decides that the judge is at fault for her incarceration for murder because he should have put her away for “practicin’” shooting her husband is hilarious)…but the one I wish had a little more to do in the picture is veteran thesp Gertrude Hoffman, who plays a “lifer” named Millie Lewis.  (Hoffman is best known to legions of couch potatoes as irrepressible neighbor Mrs. Odetts on My Little Margie—so every time I watched Caged I sort of chortle at the idea of Mrs. O in the slammer.)  On Marie’s first day in the joint Harper assigns her to scrub the floor of the cell despite the full knowledge that Marie is great with child—and Millie is able to get word to Warden Benton that Harper is being a bitch.  When Evelyn confronts the septuagenarian Millie she spits out at her: “Lay a hand on me and I’ll put your lights out…I’m in for life—one more like you is just so much velvet.”  Hoffman’s Millie attempts to talk Marie out of joining up with Powell towards the end of the film by urging her to keep a stiff upper lip and doing her time, but her words fall on deaf ears.

Hope Emerson’s portrayal of the vicious matron is one that will be permanently tattooed on your brain—she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn in Caged but lost out (more like robbed, really) to Josephine Hull’s performance in Harvey (1950).  I’ve always thought of Emerson as a “rode-hard-put-up-wet” version of Marjorie Main but whenever they needed an Amazonian-type for films like Adam’s Rib (1949) and The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957) Hope was the go-to gal; she also emoted memorably as nightclub owner “Mother” on Peter Gunn (for which she received an Emmy nom) and as Amelia “Sarge” Sargent on the otherwise forgettable sitcom The Dennis O’Keefe Show.

But to me the individual who really received short shrift was star Eleanor Parker (who coincidentally celebrated birthday #89 yesterday!)—unfortunately nominated as Best Actress in the same year as Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (both for All About Eve), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard) and the eventual victor, Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday).  I’ve made no secret of my love for Judy on the blog in the past but I think in many ways Parker’s work in Caged stands as the best of her career—particularly her amazing transformation from, as Alan K. Rode describes it, “nubile bobby-soxer to steely-eyed hard-case.”  If they knew then what we know now, they’d have handed her a statuette in record time.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Movies that I've stared at recently on FMC #1 (Gotcha!)

Yes, ever since the big move to the new Rancho Yesteryear in May and the discovery that we are now paying for the package that includes the Fox Movie Channel, I have been watching my fair share of classic flicks on the channel that I wish were more like The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (ka-ching!) but sometimes you have to take what you can get, particularly when many of these films don’t often make the rounds on Tee Cee Em.

How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955) – Frenetic farce finds “interpretative dancers” Betty Grable (as “Stormy Tornado”) and Sheree North (“Curly Flagg”) on the lam from a psychopath who’s croaked one of their stripper pals; they wind up at a college administrated by Savannah, GA native Charles Coburn and attended by the likes of Tommy Noonan (groan), Orson Bean (who’s actually been expelled) and Bob Cummings…this last one is explained away that Bob’s uncle insisted in his will that he get a good education and then kicked before specifying how long Bob was supposed to spend in the ivy-covered halls of academia.  Somehow, all this wackiness is revved up by the fact that Noonan has accidentally hypnotized North’s character into doing a striptease at inappropriate moments—the benefit being that it provides the audience with the best moment in the film, North’s frenzied “Shake, Rattle and Roll” dance.

20th Century-Fox had assigned Marilyn Monroe to co-star alongside Grable in Popular and when Monroe refused (I don’t think Marilyn was as dumb as her screen image often suggested because she no doubt read this script and could tell it was going to be a stinker), she went off to New York to become an ACT-ress and left the studio to plug in the gap with clone Sheree…sad when you think that North would later become a highly respected stage, film and TV character actress with feature films (she was a favorite of Don Siegel’s) like Madigan (1968), Charley Varrick (1973) and The Shootist (1976) and TV shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld.  Apart from her spotlight dance, North has nothing to do but mimic Marilyn’s mannerisms and breathless baby talk throughout the movie—Grable doesn’t put too much effort into the proceedings, either, because she had pretty much decided at that point that this film was going to be her curtain closer.  I can’t heartily recommend Popular because I’ve seen the film that it’s based on—1934’s She Loves Me Not, with Miriam Hopkins and Bing Crosby—and find it to be superior material; still, there are a few scattered laughs and good moments from Coburn, Bean, Fred Clark and TDOY fave Alice Pearce, who’s a riot as a house mother.

Sitting Pretty (1948) – While I’ve seen both Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951)—the two follow-up vehicles starring Clifton Webb as the persnickety know-it-all who can’t resist sticking his bazoo into other people’s business—the first of the “Belvedere” vehicles had eluded me for many years but I finally got to sit down and watch what is undeniably a sweet little comedy.  Married couple Maureen O’Hara (sigh) and Robert Young (he’s the father…and he most assuredly does not know best) are the parents of three rowdy boys and a dog who hails from Marmaduke’s side of the family; she’s just had a maid walk out on her and finds it a chore locating someone to sit with the children so she places an ad for help…and said ad is answered by Webb, whose character’s moniker of “Lynn Belvedere” provides confusion and amusement for Mo and Bob.  Webb despises children (the scene where he liberally applies oatmeal to the youngest child, who annoyingly pelts his babysitter with the stuff, is a real hoot) but he’s looking for a place where he can…well, he’s pretty secretive about that and as such, the occupants of the neighborhood (led by resident snoop Richard Haydn, who’s in a close race with Webb as to whom is the prissiest) start their tongues a-wagging, particularly when Young is out of town on a bidness trip.

At the risk of drawing ire from the Clifton Webb fans in the blogosphere, the actor took one role—acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944)—and rode variations of it in every movie he did afterward…much in the manner of Broderick Crawford and All the King’s Men (1949).  Which is not to say I don’t like Webb or the Belvedere movies—I very much do (they're miles and away better than the tepid ABC sitcom based on the character in the 1980s), and even though I kept wanting O’Hara to kick Young to the curb permanently the moment he starts behaving like a jackass Sitting Pretty is a harmless and enjoyable little family comedy romp.  Great supporting cast in this one, including those named plus Louise Albritton, Ed Begley and OTR stalwarts Abigail Randolph and Ken Christy.  Andy Griffith Show fans will get a kick out of seeing a young Betty Lynn (“Thelma Lou”) as Ginger the babysitter but my personal laugh-out-loud moment was recognizing John Russell as Young’s fellow law partner (and yes, I did start singing the Lawman theme upon his entrance in the film).

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) – Betty Grable is back in this sadly unsuccessful musical comedy that TDOY fave Preston Sturges wrote and directed; Betty is Winifred “Freddie” Jones, a sharpshootin’ saloon gal who has to amscray usterbay when she takes aim at her cheating boyfriend (Cesar Romero) and winds up hitting the tender posterior of court judge (Sturges regular Porter Hall—the scene where he’s arguing with battleaxe Margaret Hamilton is a comedic gem)…twice.  With her gal pal Olga San Juan (who steals most of the scenes she’s in) in tow, Grable winds up in a jerkwater town whose populace mistakes her for the new schoolmarm, and she’s romanced by dull but wealthy banker Rudy Vallee, once again demonstrating that the only individual capable of making him funny is Preston Sturges.

Upon its release, Sturges’ final American feature film was shat upon by both critics and its star (Grable) and even though it’s not that colossal a turkey it’s a movie that should only be sought out by diehard fans of both Preston and She Blogged by Night mascot El Brendel, who has a bit in the film as the town marshal (I recorded this one for my BBFF Stacia).  I think where Sturges went wrong is that he tried to turn Grable into a Betty Hutton clone and while I’m certainly not one to disparage Grable’s successful career in the flickers (close to twenty-five years or so of hit movie musicals, can’t be bad) I never found her particularly funny or a great actress; the best moments in the film belong to the supporting cast, which include such members of the Sturges’ stock company as Alan Bridge, J. Farrell McDonald, Emory Parnell, Esther Howard, Torbin Meyer and Dewey Robinson.  (There are also a high percentage of folks from the Columbia comedy shorts department in this one, notably Brendel, Sterling Holloway and cinematic toothache Hugh Herbert…who admittedly has one of his better onscreen roles as a near-sighted dentist).  You’ll also spot Marie Windsor in Bend, and Columbia supporting player Dudley Dickerson plays…here’s a stretch...a Pullman porter.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

The passings parade

Last week, I wasn’t able to include (as longtime TDOY chum Brent McKee mentioned in the comments) an obituary for musician Clarence “The Big Man” Clemmons because the renowned tenor saxophonist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band played his last solo shortly after I posted the news of the week’s passings from the areas of music, TV, movies and miscellanea.  Clemmons, who joined “The Boss” in 1972 and played with Springsteen's musical aggregation until his death, also released several solo albums during his musical career…and in 1985 scored a Top 40 duet with Jackson Browne, You’re a Friend of Mine:

Clemmons’ talents didn’t just extend to wailing on the saxophone—he made a number of appearances on episodes of such TV shows as Diff’rent Strokes, Jake and the Fatman and My Wife and Kids; he also had recurring roles on the likes of Nash Bridges, The System and the critically-acclaimed The Wire.  He also landed roles in various films such as New York, New York, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Fatal Instinct.  Clemmons suffered a stroke on June 12 of this year and died six days later at the age of 69.

The most notable celebrity passing this week would have to be that of stage, screen and TV legend Peter Falk…a performer who, if he done nothing else in life but the peerless comedic turn alongside Alan Arkin in the 1979 classic The In-Laws (“Jesus!  Pigs!”) would be held in extremely high esteem here in the House of Yesteryear.  But his long-running stint as TV’s Lieutenant Columbo, “everyone’s favorite rumpled detective,” on NBC from 1971-78 and ABC from 1989-03 and his body of both film and stage work signals that we lost an amazing talent Thursday (June 23), when Falk succumbed to complications from both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83.

Falk lost an eye at the age of three due to a retinoblastoma and though the glass eye he wore from that point on certainly didn’t affect his stage career any (appearing in such varied productions over the years as Diary of a Scoundrel, Saint Joan and The Prisoner of Second Avenue) it could have been a setback when he set his cap to conquer movies and TV.  (Columbia studio head Harry “White Fang” Cohn reportedly said to him after he failed a screen test that “for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”)  But Falk persevered and won roles in such films as Wind Across the Everglades, The Bloody Brood and Pretty Boy Floyd.  In 1960, Peter landed the role of gangster Abe “Kid Twist” Robles in the film Murder, Inc., and his performance was singled out not only for critical praise but attention from his peers when his was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he lost to Spartacus’ Peter Ustinov).  The following year, Falk again garnered an Academy Award nom for his performance in director Frank Capra’s cinematic swan song, Pocketful of Miracles and though he lost to George Chakiris his onscreen career was guaranteed at that point, with memorable parts in such films as Pressure Point, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Robin and the 7 Hoods and The Great Race.

Before his big break in Murder, Inc., Peter was a fixture on TV as a guest star on such series as Have Gun – Will Travel, The Law and Mr. Jones, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, Naked City and Wagon Train.  He won the first of his five Emmys (the other four for Columbo) for a 1962 production on the anthology series The Dick Powell Theatre, “The Price of Tomatoes,”—an honor that played an instrumental role in his landing his first starring series in The Trials of O’Brien, a short-lived CBS legal drama that featured him as legal eagle Daniel O’Brien…a whiz of an attorney in the courtroom but a bit of a dud when it came to his personal life.  In hock to gamblers (he had a thing for the ponies) and behind in his alimony payments to his ex-wife (played by Joanna Barnes)—not to mention the rent on his apartment—O’Brien depended on his efficient secretary “Miss G” (played by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch) to rein in his excesses but it was, as William Bendix’s Chester A. Riley often observed, “a losin’ fight.”  Trials garnered much critical praise but its Saturday night time slot (up against Lawrence Welk on ABC and Get Smart on NBC) was a tough row to hoe and a move to Friday nights in December didn’t help much, either—Falk, however, has stated in more than one interview that he actually preferred The Trials of O’Brien to his more celebrated turn on Columbo.

The part that would make Peter famous on TV began in 1968 with a TV-movie entitled Prescription: Murder—Falk played a doggedly determined (if slightly seedy-looking) police detective investigating physician Gene Barry in a part that had originally been played by Thomas Mitchell on stage and Bert Freed in a 1960 episode (“Enough Rope”) of TV’s The Chevy Mystery Show.  Peter got the role that was originally planned for Bing Crosby (who turned down the role because it would interfere with his golf game), and three years later reprised it in a second pilot (directed by Steven Spielberg) entitled “Ransom for a Dead Man” that attracted the attention of NBC, who made the series Colombo part of the original rotation (along with McMillan and Wife and McCloud) of the network’s Sunday Night Mystery Movie

Columbo was a notch above the usual crime drama fare in that the program wasn’t so much a whodunit (we usually knew who the guilty party was, generally seen in the first few minutes of each episode) but a how’s-he-gonna-catch-‘em—with Falk as the raincoat-attired police dick whose rumpled, seedy exterior masked a shrewd investigative mind, a personage the actor himself once described as “an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.”  The character, with his catchphrases of “Pardon me, sir…I hate to bother you” and “…just one more thing,” became a huge hit—cementing Falk’s TV immortality and providing fodder for comedians and parodists for years after.  The NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie was cancelled in 1977 but Falk continued to make several Columbo telefilms after the show got its walking papers and in 1989, Lt. Columbo again walked a beat when ABC resurrected the Mystery Movie concept and made Peter the hub of its new venture.  Falk continued to play the character on the small screen in a number of telefilms produced after ABC shut the doors on its Mystery Movie until 2003.

Though Falk will probably always be remembered as Columbo it would be a disservice not to mention that he was one of my generations’ most brilliant actors, with a film resume that included such hits as Mikey and Nicky, Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, The Brink’s Job, …All the Marbles, Wings of Desire, The Princess Bride, Cookie, Tune in Tomorrow… and Faraway, So Close!; he was also a favorite of actor-director John Cassavetes, who used Peter in such films as Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Big Trouble.  (And if that weren’t enough, he’s also in the funniest of the Muppet movies, The Great Muppet Caper.  He will be sorely missed.)

We also said goodbye this week to actor Don Diamond, an accomplished character actor whose amazing career during the Golden Age of Radio received short shrift in the obituaries I was able to locate online for him.  Diamond’s versatility could be heard on such classic programs as Escape, Let George Do It, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Night Beat, Suspense, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Dangerous Assignment, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Broadway’s My Beat, Gunsmoke, Rocky Fortune, Fort Laramie, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun – Will Travel plus dramatic anthology series like Family Theatre, The NBC University Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Directors’ Playhouse and The CBS Radio Workshop (Diamond also had roles on the “NTR” series The Sears Radio Theatre).  Diamond’s talents for dialects got their earliest workout in the aural medium, and as an actor he never completely abandoned that knack because he later supplied voices for such theatrical cartoon series as The Tijuana Toads (also known on TV as The Texas Toads) and TV’s The New Adventures of Zorro and The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.

Because Don’s métier would learn toward television, he only made a handful of films but they include the likes of Borderline, The Old Man and the Sea, Irma la Douce, How Sweet it Is, Viva Max and Breezy.  Diamond discovered early on in his career that he was quite proficient with a Spanish dialect, and used it to play characters on episodes of such series as The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Peter Gunn, The Gale Storm Show, 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66, My Favorite Martian and Rawhide.  He sidekicked for actor Bill William’s titular hero on The Adventures of Kit Carson, a syndicated western that ran from 1951-55, and played Corporal Reyes on the Walt Disney-produced Zorro during its run on ABC from 1957-59.  But here at this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere known as Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Don Diamond will be fondly remembered and beloved as Crazy Cat, the questionably loyal subordinate to Chief Wild Eagle (Frank DeKova) on the classic Western sitcom F Troop, which originally aired on ABC from 1965-67.  Crazy Cat—or “Craze,” as O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Agarn (Larry Storch) often referred to him—was an ambitious Hekawi brave constantly angling to take over Wild Eagle’s position as Chief and even got a brief opportunity to do so in an episode entitled “Our Brave in F Troop,” in which O’Rourke and Agarn sneak Wild Eagle into Fort Courage as a soldier in order to get his tooth pulled (“When Wild Eagle away, Crazy Cat play.”)  Crazy Cat was one of the funniest characters on the show; an Indian whose hippie-like demeanor sometimes seemed to suggest that he and the other Hekawis were doing something a little stronger than drinking firewater, if you get my drift.  Diamond was dispatched to the Happy Hunting Ground on June 19 at the ripe old age of 90.

Composer/orchestrator Fred Steiner passed away on the same day as Peter Falk at the age of 88 and like Diamond, honed his chops in radio providing musical compositions for such series as This is Your FBI (on which he was the longtime music director), Suspense, Life with Luigi, On Stage and The CBS Radio Workshop.  He also did quite a bit of film work—one of the films he scored will be shown tonight on TCM at 2:30am EDT, 1956’s Run for the Sun (a remake of The Most Dangerous Game) but he also contributed to such features as The Prowler, Son of Paleface, Casanova’s Big Night, Good Morning, Miss Dove, The Man With the Golden Arm, Time Limit, Saddle the Wind, The Killers (the 1964 version), The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Hallelujah Trail.

Television is where Frederick really made his mark: he scored such classic series as Man Against Crime, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Daniel Boone and Hawaii Five-O.  The most important item on his resume, however, is a little ditty known as Park Avenue Beat…but coach potatoes all over the world know it as the theme to the long-running legal drama Perry Mason.

And a few of the other celebrity notables we bid a fond farewell to this week:

Simon Brint (June 11, 61) – Composer and musician best known as one-half of Raw Sex, the house band for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ comedy-variety series; also contributed musical compositions for such programs as Murder Most Horrid, Coupling, The Smoking Room, Absolutely Fabulous, Monarch of the Glen and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

Robert A. White (June 17, 87) – Veteran film and television scribe who got a foothold in the business writing for radio (Tales of the Texas Rangers) and then went on to pen scripts (often in tandem with his wife Phyllis) for such series as The Real McCoys, My Favorite Martian, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Mission: Impossible, Medical Center and Ironside

Joel Simon (June 19, age unspecified) – Film and television producer who before establishing WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) Films in 2002 produced such features as Married to the Mob, Hard to Kill (the Steven Segal film that I jokingly dubbed “Hard to Watch” in order to piss my mom off), Wild Wild West (the execrable movie version with Will Smith), Looney Tunes: Back in Action and the why-the-hell-was-this-necessary remake of The In-Laws

Ryan Dunn (June 20, 34) – Reality TV personality whose death in a drunk-driving accident shouldn’t be duplicated by impressionable young minds at home…and the fact that he achieved his fame on a show called Jackass just goes to show that irony can be pretty ironic sometimes

David Rayfiel (June 22, 87) – Film and television writer whose best known work was often done in tandem with director Sydney Pollack and star Robert Redford (and often uncredited) in such films as Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor and The Electric Horseman; also penned one of my favorite Night Gallery episodes, “Whisper”

Jared Southwick (June 22, 34) – Rock ‘n’ roll guitarist/musician best known for his work with the band The Dream is Dead

Mike Waterson (June 22, 70) – Longtime British folksinger and musician

Gene Colan (June 23, 84) – Comic book artist best known for his lengthy stint at Marvel Comics, where he worked on such titles as Daredevil, Howard the Duck and The Tomb of Dracula; co-created superheroes The Falcon and vampire hunter Blade

And this one just under the wire—longtime CNN sportscaster Nick Charles passed away today at the age of 64 from complications due to bladder cancer.  The co-host of the network’s Sports Tonight program was one of the first on-air personalities for the fledgling news organization in 1980 (after several years working for local stations in Baltimore and Washington, DC) and was there until 2001 when he went to work for Showtime.  For Nick and all the other talents mentioned in this post…R.I.P.

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