Sunday, March 30, 2014

Coming distractions: April 2014 on TCM

Big doin’s in the month of April on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™…and as always, I was given a most enthusiastic heads-up on the tentative schedule by none other than my fellow film scribe at ClassicFlix, Laura of Miscellaneous Musings fame.  (Yes, I know there was a time when I did this feature a month or two in advance…but I kind of got weary of Tee Cee Em changing things at the last minute.)  April will be bringing us many exciting features: there’ll be anniversaries, fan programmers…and a new wrinkle on the channel’s Star of the Month.

Rather than showcase movies featuring the Star of the Month on select nights in April—TCM is going to go for broke with a gi-normous tribute to the one and only John Wayne beginning April 21 at 8pm and continuing all week until the early Saturday morning hours of April 26th.  The reason for this change I’ll get to in a minute, but what this basically means for Tee Cee Em devotes is that if you tune into the channel at any time of the day during that period you’ll stumble across one of 55 films (plus 2 documentaries and an episode of Screen Director’s Playhouse) featuring the man born Marion Robert Morrison.  (In other words, you might think you turned into AMC by mistake.  I’m only half-kidding about that, by the way.)  When I told my father of this momentous event—and keep in mind, this is a man who shuns black-and-white films the way a vampire shuns direct sunlight—I think there was a tear in his eye.  There’ll be films of the Duke’s that I haven’t seen in ages—notably The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)—and some of them aren’t technically John Wayne starrers (*cough* I Married a Woman *cough*) but for your edification, here’s what’s on tap:

April 21, Monday
08:00pm The Big Trail (1930)
10:30pm Sea Spoilers (1936)
12:00am Haunted Gold (1932)
01:15am Somewhere in Sonora (1933)
02:30am Baby Face (1933)
04:00am Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (2008)
05:30am The Telegraph Trail (1933)

April 22, Tuesday
07:00am The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933)
08:30am Ride Him, Cowboy (1932)
09:45am The Big Stampede (1932)
11:00am The Man from Monterey (1933)
12:15pm Sagebrush Trail (1934)
01:30pm Randy Rides Alone (1934)
02:45pm The Star Packer (1934)
03:45pm The Lawless Frontier (1935)
05:00pm Allegheny Uprising (1939)
06:30pm 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year (2009)
08:00pm Stagecoach (1939)
10:00pm The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
12:15am Fort Apache (1948)
02:30am The Searchers (1956)
04:45am The Long Voyage Home (1940)

April 23, Wednesday
06:45am 3 Godfathers (1948)
08:30am She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
10:45am Rio Grande (1950)
12:30pm The Quiet Man (1952)
02:45pm The Wings of Eagles (1957)
04:45pm How the West Was Won (1962)
07:30pm Screen Directors Playhouse: “Rookie of the Year” (12/07/55)
08:00pm They Were Expendable (1945)
10:45pm Operation Pacific (1951)
01:00am The Fighting Seabees (1944)
03:00am Back To Bataan (1945)
04:45am The Green Berets (1968)

April 24, Thursday
07:15am Reunion in France (1942)
09:15am Flying Tigers (1942)
11:15am Flying Leathernecks (1951)
01:15pm The Sea Chase (1955)
03:15pm Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)
06:00pm Blood Alley (1955)
08:00pm Red River (1948)
10:45pm The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)
12:45am Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
03:15am The Spoilers (1942)
04:45am I Married a Woman (1958)

April 25, Friday
06:15am Tall in the Saddle (1944)
07:45am Without Reservations (1946)
09:45am Tycoon (1947)
12:00pm Angel and the Badman (1947)
01:45pm Trouble Along the Way (1953)
03:45pm Big Jim McLain (1952)
05:15pm Rio Bravo (1959)
08:00pm North to Alaska (1960)
10:15pm McLintock! (1963)
12:45am The Shootist (1976)
02:30am The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
04:45am The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

April 26, Saturday
08:15am Big Jake (1971)

From April 7 through April 11, TCM will offer up a grab bag of “fan favorites”; movies selected by the Tee Cee Em faithful in conjunction with both the annual TCM Classic Film Festival (which will take place from April 10-13) and the channel’s recent Ultimate Fan Contest, in which the winner (Tiffany Vasquez, come on down!) will not only introduce a film at the Classic Film Festival…but will co-host a film on air with Bobby Osbo on the channel—and let me just say, I don’t know Ms. Vasquez…but she can’t be any worse than some of those other mooks doing intros there now (*cough* Drew Barrymore *cough*).  Yours truly will not be attending the festivities because my charity work in finding homes for orphan DVDs runs into quite a bit of money…but some of my other classic film blogger brethren and sistren will be writing about the fun, and I cannot stress enough the importance of checking out their reportage during the event.

Also in April: The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (Rick Brooks will be able to take the kids to McDonald’s every day this week!) will celebrate its twentieth anniversary the day after the closing of the Festival (April 14)…and it’s funny; it seems like it was only yesterday that I received my first copy of the channel’s program guide, and walked over to my TV set…and started bitching to anyone within earshot that our cable company didn't carry TCM.  (You just don’t forget good times like that.)  The channel will celebrate their birthday with an hour-long special, Twenty Classic Moments, a repeat of the Private Screenings outing that features angerbear Alec Baldwin interviewing Uncle Bobby…and the following:

05:00am Mildred Pierce (1945)
07:00am The Maltese Falcon (1941)
09:00am The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
11:00am Gaslight (1944)
01:00pm Citizen Kane (1941)
03:00pm Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
05:00pm Casablanca (1942)
07:00pm Twenty Classic Moments (2014)
08:00pm Gone With the Wind (1939)
12:00am Private Screenings: Robert Osborne (2014)
01:30am Singin' in the Rain (1952)
03:30am It Happened One Night (1934)
05:30am The Petrified Forest (1936)

On Thursday, Tee Cee Em commemorates another milestone: the ninetieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the motion picture studio without whom there’d be no classic movie programming on TCM, and it would wind up like AMC.  (Shh…don’t cry…Uncle Ivan didn’t mean it…shh…that couldn’t really happen…it was just a bad dream…)  Here’s what’s in store during the two-day fete of MGM:

April 17, Thursday          
05:00am The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Story (1950)
06:00am Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
08:30am Dinner at Eight (1933)
10:30am The Thin Man (1934)
12:15pm The Good Earth (1937)
02:45pm Boys Town (1938)
04:30pm Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
06:30pm Lassie Come Home (1943)
08:00pm Flesh and the Devil (1926)
10:00pm Grand Hotel (1932)
12:00am Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
02:15am Ninotchka (1939)
04:15am Marie Antoinette (1938)
April 18, Friday
07:00am The Philadelphia Story (1940)
09:00am The Band Wagon (1953)
11:00am North by Northwest (1959)
01:30pm How the West Was Won (1962)
04:15pm Doctor Zhivago (1965)
08:00pm Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
10:00pm The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
12:00am Singin' in the Rain (1952)
02:00am Ben-Hur (1959)

While I thought it was novel that they’re bookending the event with the sound and silent versions of Ben-Hur…you really should watch how many times you scheduled Meet Me in St. Louis, TCM.  (Anything more than three times in a month and you’re liable to summon forth a demon.)

Well, that should be enough to hold…what’s that you say?  You’d like more?  Ah, there’s no satisfying you people…

April 1, Tuesday – There’s no better way to celebrate April Fool’s Day than an all-day classic comedy celebration that will bring on the “lovers, liars and clowns”…of special interest in the House of Yesteryear are Safety Last! (1923; 6am), The Nitwits (1935; 10:30am), The Yellow Cab Man (1950; 12pm), The Disorderly Orderly (1964; 8pm), Sleeper (1973; 9:45pm), Way Out West (1937; 11:15pm) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928; 12:30am).  Also rounding out the day of fun are At the Circus (1939; 7:30am), Abbott & Costello in Hollywood (1945; 9am), The Pink Panther (1964; 1:30pm), The Twelve Chairs (1970; 3:30pm), The Great Race (1965; 5:15pm), The Kid (1921; 1:45am), The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963; 2:45am) and The Long, Long Trailer (1954; 4:30am).

April 2, Wednesday – TCM rolls out a big honkin’ sheet cake in honor of Sir Alec Guinness’ centennial birthday!  The tribute kicks off at 6:15am with To Paris with Love (1955), then it’s The Swan (1956; 8am), Great Expectations (1946; 10am), The Scapegoat (1959; 12noon), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949; 1:45pm), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951; 3:45pm), The Comedians (1967; 5:15pm), The Ladykillers (1955; 8pm), Lawrence of Arabia (1962; 9:45pm), A Majority of One (1961; 1:45am) and All at Sea (1958; 4:30am).

April 3, Thursday – The entertainment legend whose terrible 1968-73 sitcom is examined under a microscope as part of TDOY’s Doris Day(s) celebrates her ninetieth birthday today (knock wood).  It’s a day of Day with I'll See You in My Dreams (1951; 6am), Lover Come Back (1961; 8am), Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962; 10am), Love Me or Leave Me (1955; 12:15pm), April in Paris (1952; 2:30pm), Calamity Jane (1953; 4:15pm), The Tunnel of Love (1958; 6pm), The Thrill of It All (1963; 8pm), Move Over, Darling (1963; 10pm), Send Me No Flowers (1964; 12mid), With Six You Get Eggroll (1968; 2am) and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960; 4am).

April 4, Friday – A week before the U.S. Postal Service issues a commemorative stamp honoring Charlton Heston (April 11), the channel recognizes the occasion with an evening of Chuck’s films.  (I asked Mom if she would be interested in my obtaining some of these stamps for her, punctuating it with a “Get your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”  Stony silence.)  Ruby Gentry (1952) kicks off the evening at 8pm, followed by The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965; 9:30pm), 55 Days at Peking (1955; 12mid), Soylent Green (1973; 3am) and Skyjacked (1972; 4:45am).

April 5, Saturday – TCM continues its 10:30am showcase of movies from the Mexican Spitfire series, with Mexican Spitfire (1940—the first official Spitfire) on tap this morning…followed by Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940; April 12), Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941; April 19) and Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942; April 26).  Following the Spitfire films on April 5, 12 and 19 are the 1992 documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars (it’s split up into three parts, just as it originally was during its public television run).

TCM’s Essentials kicks off an evening of “fantasy baseball” films with the beloved classic Field of Dreams (1989) at 8pm, followed by two TDOY favorites: Angels in the Outfield (1951; 10pm—yeah, I love it even if it is the Pittsburgh Pirates) and It Happens Every Spring (1949; 12mid).  TCM Underground originally had Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) on its schedule at 2am, but they’ve called an audible and replaced it with Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973).  (Now you know why I’ve been waiting until the end of the month to do these things.)

April 12, Saturday – Another example of “now we plan it, now we don’t”: the original April schedule had the last of the three Michael Caine “Harry Palmer” films from the 1960s, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), slotted at 8:15am…now California Suite (1978) has been substituted in its place.  (I think Brain has only been released as a Region 2 DVD due to some sticky copyright issues.)

On The Essentials, Osborne and Barrymore have pretty much decided that the titular definition applies to How to Marry a Millionaire (1953; 8pm).  I’m not sure I’d agree with that (it’s a fun movie, but hardly essential), but be that as it may—it gives the channel a reason to run two more movies featuring Marilyn Monroe, The Misfits (1961) at 9:45pm and Bus Stop (1956) at 12:15am.

April 13, Sunday – In the primetime hours, the channel schedules Boys Town (1938; 8pm) and Men of Boys Town (1941; 10pm) as a back-to-back double feature.  Since both of these movies featured Mickey Rooney, I believe this is an example of what the Bush administration referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

April 15, Tuesday – The fleet is officially in beginning at 7am with Joe E. Brown’s Son of a Sailor (1933)—which ushers in other films of a Naval bent: On an Island with You (1948; 8:15am), The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945; 10:15am), Follow the Boys (1963; 12noon), Mister Roberts (1955; 1:45pm), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957; 4pm) and Kiss Them for Me (1957; 6pm).

Come nightfall, the focus of the filmage turns to “Rock Stars”—yes, rock ‘n’ roll-themed films beginning at 8pm with Bye Bye Birdie (1963), followed by Jailhouse Rock (1957; 10pm), Go, Johnny, Go! (1959; 12mid), The Buddy Holly Story (1978; 1:30am), Jamboree (1957; 3:30am) and Elvis: That's The Way It Is (1970; 5am).  (Damn skippy, King.)

April 16, Wednesday – My BBFF Stacia has asked me to let everyone know that she will not be accepting any calls or e-mails or text messages on this date…because TCM will be hosting their very own Marie Prevost Project.  Here’s the lineup: The Racket (1928; 7am), Paid (1930; 8:30am), War Nurse (1930; 10am), Gentleman's Fate (1931; 11:30am), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931; 1:15pm), Sporting Blood (1931; 2:45pm), Carnival Boat (1932; 4:15pm) and Hell Divers (1932; 5:30pm).

The primetime theme reminds me of an anecdote in which a phellow philm phanatic, having not seen The Remains of the Day (1993), asked me what it was about.  I told her it was a love story without any love in it.  Remains airs at 8pm as part of “Butlers in Love” (I could have sworn that was a Jackson Browne hit), and is followed by If You Could Only Cook (1935; 10:30pm), My Man Godfrey (1936; 12mid), Merrily We Live (1938; 1:45am) and English Without Tears (1944; 3:30am).

April 19, Saturday – The film noir classic Laura (1944) is in the Essentials spotlight at 8pm, and as an encore, two more features starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews: TDOY fave Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950; 9:45am) and one I haven’t seen in ages, The Iron Curtain (1949; 11:30am).

April 20, Sunday – The Easter Sunday tribute gets underway earlier with the infamous film that actor Paul Newman once took out a trade ad asking people not to see (which inspired one wag to dub it Paul Newman and the Holy Grail), The Silver Chalice (1954), which airs at 5:45am.  Barabbas (1962) follows at 8am, then The Big Fisherman (1959; 10:30am), King of Kings (1961; 1:30pm) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965; 4:30pm—starring John Wayne!).

With the airing of Easter Parade (1948) at 8pm, the channel pairs it with another Irving Berlin musical, Annie Get Your Gun (1950) at 10…and in the Silent Sunday Nights spotlight it’s Fritz Lang’s Spione (1928) at midnight.  That’s followed by two must-see movie classics: Lola Montes (1955; 2:30am) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942; 4:30am).

April 21, Monday – Before the Wayneathon begins in primetime, TCM bids a fond farewell to spring break with a day of beach party-themed movies…although the first of the bunch, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) is really a James Bond spoof that features my man Vincent Price (it’s derpy as hell, but I love it).  Following Bikini Machine is Ski Party (1965; 7:30am), Beach Party (1963; 9:15am), Muscle Beach Party (1963; 11am), Bikini Beach (1964; 12:45pm), Pajama Party (1964; 2:30pm), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965; 4pm) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965; 6pm).

April 26, Saturday – The 1946 Jean Cocteau classic Beauty and the Beast is scheduled for 8pm on The Essentials, and that’s the channel’s cue to offer up two more “fairy tale” films in The Glass Slipper (1955; 10pm) and Hans Christian Andersen (1952; 12mid).  Later, on TCM Underground, the moody cult offering Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) will run at 3:45am.

April 28, Monday – The silver screen’s most lovable wheelchaired curmudgeon, Oscar-winning actor Lionel Barrymore, was born on this date in 1878…and TCM schedules a day of Barrymore features including Night Flight (1933; 3:30pm), which I have missed every time it’s been on in the past.  (Not this time, my friends.  Oh, and I’m not sure you can call 1930’s Free and Easy—airing at 9:30am—a Barrymore film but whatever.)  Rounding out the lineup are West of Zanzibar (1928; 6:15am), The Unholy Night (1929; 7:45am), Guilty Hands (1931; 11:15am), Arsene Lupin (1932; 12:30pm), Looking Forward (1933; 2pm), Should Ladies Behave? (1933; 5pm) and Sweepings (1933; 6:30am).

Come nightfall, TDOY fave Robert Mitchum is in the spotlight with The Sundowners (1960) at 8pm…then it’s The Wonderful Country (1959; 10:30pm), The Racket (1951; 12:15am), Ryan’s Daughter (1970; 2am) and Angel Face (1953; 5:30am).

April 29, Tuesday – I recently got the opportunity to watch Samuel Fuller’s oddball war film Verboten! (1959) and have reviewed it over at ClassicFlix; you’ll get the opportunity to see it (it airs at 1:30pm) today along with a slew of other Fuller flicks: I Shot Jesse James (1949; 7:15am), The Baron of Arizona (1950; 8:45am), The Steel Helmet (1951; 10:30am), Run of the Arrow (1957; 12noon), Merrill's Marauders (1962; 3pm), Shock Corridor (1963; 4:45pm) and The Naked Kiss (1964; 6:30pm).

In primetime, movies adapted from novels and short stories by author Irwin Shaw rap the podium for attention beginning at 8pm with The Young Lions (1958), followed by Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957; 11pm), Three (1969; 1am—based on “Then We Were Three”) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) at 3am.

April 30, Wednesday – Did you really think we’d close out the month without sitting down with TCM oracle Robert Osborne to watch a few of his “picks”?  (Oh, the naiveté of some.)  Bob’s got the Bette Davis classic The Letter (1940) on tap at 8pm, followed by one of my faves, Man Hunt (1941) at 10pm.  Holiday in Mexico (1946; 12mid) and the Deanna Durbin film (there’s always a Durbin film) It’s a Date (1940; 2:15am) bring the evening (and month) to a close.  And this post, come to think of it.  Happy viewing, cartooners!

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

Yesterday morning, I happened to be watching towards the end of the proto-Mexican Spitfire series film, The Girl from Mexico (1939), when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ ran one of their “filler” shorts—a little musical two-reeler called Rhumba Rhythm at the Hollywood La Conga (1939).  The (always reliable) IMDb lists the two actresses featured in the short’s opening credits—one of them a very young Mary Treen—and a few of the celebrities that have cameos—George Murphy, Lana Turner, Chester Morris—but one individual who doesn’t get mentioned is J. Scott Smart, who demonstrates that despite his girth he was quite limber on his feet; he, in fact, leads a conga line at one point in the short that’s loads of fun to watch.  (Mr. Smart, for those of you in the dark, was best known as radio’s The Fat Man—though he worked on a goodly number of other programs, notably TDOY comedy idol Fred Allen’s show [he played “Senator Bloat” in the early days of “Allen’s Alley”].)

I started out with this mention of this two-reeler partly because it amused the heck out of me and partly because someone at the Charley Chase Facebook page noticed that Tee Cee Em has three scheduled comedy shorts featuring Ballimer’s Baltimore’s favorite son:

High C’s (1930; March 30 @1:21am) – This three-reel Chase comedy (which will be shown right after the Silent Sunday Nights feature The First Auto) stars our hero as a soldier in France during WWI who’d much rather harmonize in a quartet than do any shootin’ and fightin’—he also makes the acquaintance of a lovely French maiden, played by TDOY goddess Thelma Todd.  As a rule, I’m not a big fan of the three-reel shorts that were produced around this time at Hal Roach (many of them suffer from a lot of noticeable padding) but this effort is a few notches above the usual efforts.  While I wasn’t completely bowled over by it, it does have a number of vociferous defenders; check out what my Facebook compadre Yair Solan has to say at his invaluable website, The World of Charley Chase.

The Tabasco Kid (1932; March 31 @1:36pm) – Charley tackles dual roles in this Western spoof; hizzownself and the Zorro-like titular bandit.  I watched this one when TCM had their Roach festival back in January 2011…and I may have to see it again because quite honestly, I don’t remember it well enough to remember if it was good or bad.  Another one of my Facebook acquaintances, Jim Neibaur, gives it a good recommendation in his reference book The Charley Chase Talkies: 1929-1940…so I’ll take that as a “watch this one if you can.”

Now We’ll Tell One (1932; April 6 @11:27pm) – This is the only short of the three here that I’ve not yet seen…the plot synopsis from Jim’s book describes it as a science fiction comedy in which a scientist invents a belt that allows the wearer to transmit his/her personality to another person wearing the same belt from up to ten miles away.  All right then.  I’ve already got this programmed on the (I really should be getting a check for this) AT&T U-Verse Total DVR for Life©, so I’ll get a gander at it when I can.

Because I made all those upcoming blogathon announcements on Friday before Fritzi at Movies, Silently announced the sequel to her successful Sleuthathon, I promised to mention that June 1-3 will see the unveiling of a similar event…only the concentration will be on spies and espionage, and the ‘thon has been affectionately dubbed The Snoopathon.  Once again, the temptation to participate proved hard to resist, and so I told her she can count on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (weather permitting, of course) to examine of my favorite Bob Hope comedies, My Favorite Spy (1951).  Skate on over if you’d like to join in, too.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guest Review: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)

By Philip Schweier

Ivan’s note: Riders of Death Valley (1941) returns next week to Serial Saturdays.  I promise.

By the time Republic rolled out Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. in 1941, the property had strayed far afield from its comic strip roots. All of the supporting characters were gone, even those who had appeared in previous outings. The sole remaining consistency was Ralph Byrd in the title role, still playing famed G-man Dick Tracy.

This time, Tracy squares off against a masked villain known as The Ghost, so called for his power to become invisible. Thanks to inventive genius of his henchman Lucifer (John Davidson), The Ghost possesses an amulet (it looks like an oversized peace sign from the 1960s), and in conjunction with a special ray projector, it renders its wearer invisible. However, the power comes with a whining sound, alerting our heroes that The Ghost is near.

To conceal his true identity when not invisible, The Ghost wears a black face-mask (or a black-face mask, if you will; he looks as dark as Bill Duke). It soon becomes apparent that The Ghost is a member of the Council of Eight, a secret enclave tasked by the authorities with rooting out crime. As a member of the council, The Ghost managed to hinder the capture of his own brother, Rackets Regan. But the law eventually caught up with Regan, and now The Ghost seeks revenge on the council for sending his brother to the electric chair.

Tracy is joined in his investigation by his assistant Billy Carr (Michael Owen) and June Chandler (Jan Wiley), whose father was the first of The Ghost’s victims. One by one, the council members are eliminated, until only two remain. Even so, it’s not until the absolute last minute of the final chapter that The Ghost’s identity is revealed, almost as it the writers weren’t sure themselves.

As the last of the Dick Tracy serials, it becomes readily apparent the series has run out of steam. Many of the more exciting cliffhangers are lifted in their entirety from previous Dick Tracy serials. It may have been less noticeable when originally released, but today, after watching all four serials within a matter of months, it’s pretty obvious.

The serial also makes use of footage from the RKO Pictures film Deluge (1933), in which a massive tidal wave strikes New York City. Regardless of how hokey it may appear today, it certainly raised a bar by 1941 standards. The thrills and action come fast and furious in true serial tradition. For an old-fashioned crime buster adventure, one could do a lot worse.

Though this would be the last of the Dick Tracy serials, it was by no means the end of Ralph Byrd as Dick Tracy. For the next several years he continued in various bit parts, while two new productions, Dick Tracy (1945) and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), featured Morgan Conway in the role. The legend is that exhibitors complained; to them, Byrd was Dick Tracy. RKO accepted this and hired him to finish the series, beginning with Dick Tracy’s Dilemma in 1947, followed by Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome in 1948.

These stories, only an hour in length, were much closer to the comic strip version, featuring familiar faces such as Pat Patton, Tess Trueheart and Vitamin Flintheart.

Byrd would later star in a Dick Tracy TV series beginning in 1951 until his untimely death from a heart attack a year later.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Of previews and blogathons

Last time on the blog, I highlighted a few of the movies that I was able to watch during a Starz/Encore preview weekend AT&T U-Verse was kind enough to offer us this past March 21-23…something that I’m sure came as a surprise to some who were no doubt thinking: “Doesn’t he ever watch anything from the 21st century?”  Well, I did some more snooping on the U-Verse Messaging Center and learned that the upcoming weekend of April 4-7 will bestow upon us an embarrassment of riches in a gratis HBO/Cinemax preview…so if I find anything there that I’ve been anxious to see, it will no doubt be the subject of a blog post coming soon.  I mentioned the free HBO/Max news to the ‘rents, and joked to Dad that he would be able to catch up on Game of Thrones via On Demand.  Stony silence followed…which I sort of expected, since I have yet to install the new Hip Parents software update.

I know I’ve been meaning to post more regularly but I’ve been working on a couple of Radio Spirits projects…and since they’re responsible for groceries on the table now and then they get to be at the head of the line.  Believe you me, no one is more anxious than I to open up some of the DVDs and Blu-rays that I’ve recently purchased because when Mom sees them lying around in an unopened state she starts singing a little ditty we call “Dem Ol’ eBay Blues.”  (I shudder to think of the consequences.)

The Classic Movie Blog Association—or as we informally refer to it, the CMBA—has the first of two yearly blogathons scheduled for this May 22-26 (sorry about the lack of a link—they’ve only got as far as the above banner) that will spotlight Fabulous Films of the 50s.  Yours truly has already RSVP’d to official blogathon coordinator Page, so Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is going to tackle one of its all-time favorite cult films, Johnny Guitar (1954).  Son of a gun, we have big fun on the bayou.

In other blogathon news, Margaret Perry will host a tribute to four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn from May 10-12, in the appropriately titled The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon.  (As opposed to the Not-So-Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, which was such a dismal failure I’ve been asked not to talk about it.  Look, I just don’t think it was a good idea for everybody to write about Dragon Seed [1944], that’s all I’m saying.)  TDOY will be participating in this event as well (Margaret asked me, and I said yes) and have chosen my favorite Kate-Cary Grant feature, Holiday (1938) as the entry.  (I considered doing Sylvia Scarlett [1935]…but I wasn’t certain I could locate my copy, which is somewhere lurking in Entertainment Centerland.  Don’t ask me to explain this joke.)

And just this morning, I received word that The Lady Eve’s Reel Life (positively the same dame!) and They Don’t Make ‘em Like They Used To are joining forces (Patty and Patti, which amuses me because stuff like that just does) to host Power-Mad, a celebration of actor Tyrone Power on what will be his centennial birthday May 5.  TDOY has asked to be dealt in, and will discuss Nightmare Alley (1947) for the blogathon…only because I knocked over a few women and children to be the first to do so.  (I’m not proud of this…but I do love that movie.)

To the many reader who inquired as to whether or not I ever plan to get back to Panamint and wrap up Riders of Death Valley (1941)…the answer is yes; Chapter 14 will be discussed not this Saturday but the next (the plan is to watch it before the free HBO/Max weekend), and if you’re especially good and keep mum about how I let you eat ice cream in the car I’ll jump-start Doris Day(s) the following Monday.  As always…thanks for encouraging my behavior.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Don’t let the Starz! get in your eyes…

Thanks to my curiosity regarding the U-Verse message system—not to mention a heads-up from Barry, a longstanding member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful—the ‘rents and I were treated to a free preview of the Starz and Encore channels this weekend here at Rancho Yesteryear.   Barry brought particular attention to a six feature Lash LaRue marathon that was airing Sunday on Encore Westerns; I grabbed Border Feud (1947) with the DVR, the only one of the LaRues that I hadn’t already recorded during those halcyon days when I had the Encore package at my former bachelor digs.

While the ‘rents have fully embraced the HD capabilities of the AT&T U-Verse, getting them to sample some of the other sweet benefits of the system has been a chore on my part.  I mentioned to Mom that there were quite a few movies available for the taking on both Starz and Encore on Demand, but I think the only one they eventually sat down with was The Legend of Zorro (2005)…and this was because (I swear I am not making this up, good people) my father wanted to watch something where he “didn’t have to think.”  (Anyone who’d like to adopt me…drop me an e-mail.)

While the movies I watched this weekend—some good, some…well, not-so-good—might not have all been winners, I believe only one of them qualifies as “non-think entertainment”…and even that’s not accurate, because the entire time I watched it I was thinking.  (Something along the lines of “Why the hell did I agree to watch this again?”)  Behold:

The Incredibles (2004) – The 2005 Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature (it also won the Best Achievement in Sound Editing prize, too) has eluded yours truly for a good many years but having taken the time to sit down and watch it this weekend I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t do this sooner.  This inventive and thoroughly entertaining flick tells the story of a family of “supers” (superheroes) who are living in a sort of witness relocation program when a supervillain rears his ugly head and springs into action to—dare I say?—rule the world.  Naturally, the family must band together to defeat the forces of ee-vill.

What impressed me so much about The Incredibles is that it was more than just an enjoyable cartoon; the voice work was outstanding (I’ll single out Holly Hunter, whom I dearly love, because her performance in this went beyond plain ol’ stunt casting) and the visuals pleasantly eye-popping.  My only quibble is that it could have used a little trimming here and there (I’ve noticed this a lot in modern movies; how they have difficulty wrapping things up without tacking on an extra climax or two), but I’m in firm agreement with the folks who consider this one of Pixar’s finest releases.  (I thoroughly adored the Edith Head-inspired Edna Mode character, voiced by the film’s director, Brad Bird.)

Ladder 49 (2004) – This one was the surprise of the weekend because I looked at the stars—Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta—and almost bailed on it before it started.  But I did like Phoenix in We Own the Night (2007), and he was even better in this drama about a Ballimer Baltimore firefighter who’s trapped and injured in a burning warehouse.  He flashes back to significant events in his life (well, he’s got the time) in a Le Jour Se Lève fashion: his first day on the job, his courtship and marriage to his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett), etc. as his fellow firemen attempt to reach and rescue him.

Travolta is Joaquin’s mentor, and he’s equally good in his role…this was, of course, before he had that tragic plastic surgery that rendered him from being able to pronounce “Idina Menzel” at the Oscars this year.  In keeping with the nature of the movie, there are of course a good deal of stunts and explodiations but beyond the pyrotechnics is a wonderful tale of camaraderie among those who work in a dangerous profession.  Plus, I think the relationship between Phoenix and Barrett is sweet as well.  Also with Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley in his mayoral days.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006) – One I probably should have bailed on.  The events in IRS auditor Harold Click’s (Will Ferrell) rather humdrum life are commented upon by a female narrator (Emma Thompson)—who is actually an author writing a novel in which Crick is the main character.  Complications arise when Harold starts to hear the narration, which has tipped him off that he’s merely a fictional person and an unlikely candidate to make it to the end of the book.

My sister Kat—a lovely gal, generous to a fault and kind to animals—convinced herself long ago (based on such films as Superstar and Elf) that Will Ferrell is the comedy epicenter of the universe.  I do not share this worldview…but I thought the premise of Stranger Than Fiction was interesting, and I’m always up to watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Ferrell’s love interest (an anarchic restaurateur whom Ferrell’s auditing for non-payment of taxes).  I don’t want to give people the impression that this is an awful movie because it does have some enjoyable moments; I just found it a little too pretentious for my tastes (it’s one of those films that’s convinced if it cloaks itself in intelligent trappings people will ignore the fact that there’s an emptiness at its core).  Oh, and this is just a petty gripe of mine…but the two co-workers who interact with Ferrell’s character are the same two mooks from those annoying Sonic Drive-In commercials which will be banned from television should I ever be elected to public office.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) – My blogging compadre ClassicBecky and frequent TDOY commenter grouchomarxist both recommended this cinematic nugget in comments on a recent post; two hapless hayseeds (Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk) from the wilds of West Virginny have a run-in with some vacationing college students after the two yokels rescue one of the group’s friends (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) from a potential drowning.  A series of darkly comic accidents befall the students, racking up a large body count and wrongly pinning blame on the titular characters in a witty spoof of teen horror-slasher films.

There are some genuinely funny gags in this one; my favorite is the parody of the “chainsaw dance” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but I also choked on my ice tea when Tucker, helping Dale carry the corpse of a man who threw himself into a wood chipper, remarks “He’s heavy for half a guy.”  I liked the movie’s premise (even though it can’t completely sustain itself to the end) but as a native of the Mountain State I need to point out that a) West Virginians do not have the same affinity for Pabst Blue Ribbon as do Seattle hipsters (“That’s a thing of beauty”), and b) Alberta, Canada (where Evil was filmed) does not look anything remotely like West Virginia.  Thanks to both Becko and Groucho for the recommendation.

Smashed (2012) – Hands down, my favorite of the movies I watched this weekend.  Schoolteacher Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) likes to throw back a few with husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) but after a series of embarrassing incidents both in school (hung-over in front of her elementary class) and out (she wakes up on the street the next morning after smoking crack with a barfly she gave a lift home to from a bar), she has that “moment of clarity” oft-discussed by alcoholics and decides to swear off booze and attend AA meetings.  For Kate, simply not drinking is not an option for her; her sobriety is challenged by continuing to stay with her irresponsible husband until she realizes it simply cannot work.  “I can’t stay sober and live with you,” she screams at him during a fight the two have after she’s been fired from her job and experienced a relapse.

My attention to this movie was stoked when I saw Nick Offerman in the cast; the actor best known as Ron Swanson on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation is the vice-principal at Kate’s school—he’s an alcoholic himself, and attempts to help her even though he’s also a little on the creepy side.  (Offerman’s real-life spouse, Megan Mullally, plays the principal at Kate’s school.)  His character in Smashed is just one of several reasons why I was taken with the movie; all of the characters are funny, well-written and three-dimensional, with special nods to Octavia Spencer as Kate’s sponsor and Mary Kay Place as Kate’s bitter mother—who demonstrates in a painfully awkward but funny sequence why Kate has taken to booze…and whose life foreshadows what will eventually happen to her daughter.  Smashed tackles the issue of alcoholism in a fashion that neatly blends humor and sadness, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is just fabulously perfect—the only other thing I’ve seen her in (some folks know her from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and if you had told me she’d be capable of work like that in Smashed I might have suggested a refill on the medication.  (How she got overlooked for an Oscar nomination that year is a mystery even Sherlock Holmes can’t solve.)

West of Memphis (2012) – In 1993, a trio of West Memphis, MO teens (Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin) are arrested for the murders of three eight-year-olds in what the constabulary deem ritualistic Satanic killings; amid a background of community hysteria, the young men are convicted of the murders, with one sentenced to die and the other two enjoying the hospitality of the state for a lifelong stay in the Grey Bar Hotel.  Further investigation lends credence that the teens may have been railroaded for a crime they did not commit—the amount of police incompetence and prosecutorial misconduct present transforms the case into a cause célèbre that attracts the attention of notable musicians as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines.

The circumstances surrounding the “West Memphis Three” has been previously addressed in three HBO documentaries (beginning in 1996 with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), but I agree with the late Roger Ebert that West of Memphis is the one to go with, “because it has the benefit of hindsight.”  I was curious as to how a film that runs close to two-and-a-half hours would be able to hold my attention for that amount of time but Memphis gets the job done and is a first-rate example of a riveting, compelling documentary.  (I never cease to be amazed at how those in authority can continue to maintain “everything was above board” even when confronted with such obvious examples of miscarriage of justice.)

Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012) – I’ll bet you MPAAS people are regretting in hindsight that Best Screenplay Oscar you gave Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade (1996)…particularly if you were brave enough to sit through this film.  Thornton co-wrote, directed and co-starred in this mellerdrammer about a Georgia family who come into contact with a clan from the other side of the pond after a family member dies.  (This individual was played by ‘Tippi’ Hedren, whose scenes wound up on the cutting room floor…though if I were Hedren, I would have played the lottery that day as well.)  The Peach State conclave, collectively known as the Caldwells, puts the “function” in dysfunctional but once this bad Tennessee Williams knock-off is finished they’ll learn that they have a great deal in common with the visitors from the UK (the family Bedford).

Thornton plays a shell-shocked WW2 vet who at one point in the movie asks one of the Bedfords, a woman played by Francis O’Connor, to recite The Charge of the Light Brigade naked while he masturbates (he’s turned on by her accent); later, the Caldwell family patriarch (Robert Duvall) trips out when his grandson slips a little lysergic acid diethylamide into his sweet tea.  (Just an indication of what’s in store, folks.)  I certainly won’t begrudge Thornton’s right to make awful movies but if you’re going to cast Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and other respected thesps in your productions you might at least have the decency to give them something to work with.  Comedian Ron “Tater Salad” White has some amusing scenes as an obnoxious in-law (a former pro football player in the mold of the main character in Frank Deford’s Everybody’s All-American) who inelegantly tells Ray Stevenson what he thinks of England (“You can't get so much as one good meal over there…boil everything.  They'd boil a goddamn Clark bar.”).  (The guy later admits he’d live in West Virginia before putting down stakes in England, at which point I had to unfriend him.)

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) – Maybe I’m a little more charitable with regards to this film because I didn’t pay to see it in a movie theater…but I found it a pleasantly entertaining romp.  It’s the origin story of how the Wizard of Oz became the whiz of a wiz he was; a carnival huckster (James Franco) finds himself in the Merry Ol’ Land of Oz after riding a balloon straight into a twister—he then takes on the responsibility of liberating the inhabitants of this faraway land from the control of a wicked witch.  There are three candidates as to the identity of the Wicked One, by the way, played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams.

The behind-the-scenes story of Great and Powerful is in some ways more amusing than some of its content; Disney apparently went to great lengths to keep the identity of the sorceress who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West a secret…but released a collectible mug outing W-cubed a few months before the film was released.  (Entertainment Weakly Weekly also gave the game away on a cover of an issue, once again, published before the movie hit the theaters.)  If you go into the film with the expectation that it will in no way come to close to the majesty and wonderment of the 1939 classic I think you might enjoy it; the only flaws in the film are a somewhat thin storyline (again, someone should have spent a little more time at the editing console) and the miscasting of Franco, who just didn’t work for me.  They offered the part to Johnny Depp—who turned it down to do The Lone Ranger (2013), ferchrissakes—but I wish Robert Downey, Jr. had accepted it because I think he would have been more believable.  And speaking of Mr. Downey…

Iron Man 3 (2013) – I went into this movie not having seen either Iron Man 1 or 2 (not even The Avengers) but I boned up on the plots of all three previous films so I could be assured of at least the illusion of being able to follow the plot.  After the events in Avengers, iron man Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) suffers from panic attacks and PTSD but he’s going to have to snap out of it, damnit, because the world needs him again: he’s challenged by a terrorist (Ben Kingsley) known as The Mandarin and an evil genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who might not have had reason to challenge I.M. if Stark hadn’t been such a dick to him at a 1999 New Year’s conference in Switzerland.

Iron Man 3 is little more than a popcorn movie, but I actually found a lot of it entertaining (despite the usual stunts-and-explodiation nonsense), particularly Downey’s unusual take on superhero-dom (he’s really a flake) and the plot was better than I expected (if noisy).  The movie also features Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall and Jon Favreau (who turned over directing chores to Shane Black)…and unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow is on hand as well (incoming scolding from Bill Crider in five…four…three…).  Stick around till the end credits for a funny cameo, and despite seemingly wrapping up the saga we’re told that Tony Stark will return (like a bad check).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guest Review: Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)

By Philip Schweier

Ivan’s note: I’m still having trouble jumpstarting Riders of Death Valley (1941) for Serial Saturdays…so for the next two weeks, we’ll hear from Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s utility reviewer, Mr. Schweier…who’s finished watching all of the Republic Dick Tracy chapter plays that he won in the blog’s giveaway back in November of 2012.

Once more, Ralph Byrd takes to the silver screen in the 15-chapter serial, Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939). In my opinion, it’s a weaker outing than its predecessor, Dick Tracy Returns (1938), but one thing in its favor is it does away with the character of Junior, who in the Republic serials has become a bit of a twerp.

Tracy’s nemesis this time out is Zarnoff, a foreign spy whose capture by Tracy is recounted via newsreel in the opening chapter. However, he manages to escape the death penalty (how? By dying!) and carry on his fifth columnist activities.

Zarnoff is played by Irving Pichel, who in his Van Dyke beard and bouffant hair style comes across as a cheap imitation of Paul Muni as Emile Zola (I’ll confess, I’ve never actually seen that movie, so your mileage may vary). Zarnoff’s senior henchman, Robal, is played by Walter Miller, his swan song as an actor, as he died shortly afterwards.

Tracy’s assistants, agents Steve Lockwood and Gwen Andrews, are once again re-cast. Pearson plays Tracy’s #2 man, Lockwood. Gwen Andrews, seen in previous Dick Tracy serials, returns also, her role progressively being diminished to that of a mere secretary. However, this time she is played by Phyllis Isley, who would later change her name to Jennifer Jones before winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette.

Zarnoff works for the “the Three Powers,” a thinly veiled reference to the Axis, and spends his screen time attempting to steal formulas, assassinate dignitaries and cause other forms of political mayhem, all under the nose of uber-cop, Tracy.

As serials go, it is full of the typical last-moment escapes one might expect, but with three of them under my belt in recent months, it’s clear to me the writers went the extra mile to create more imaginative death traps. The first chapter ("The Master Spy") features Dick Tracy descending from an airplane onto a boatload of explosives in effort to keep the craft from blowing up a nearby dam. Later, Chapter 9 (“Flames of Jeopardy”) incorporates footage from the Hindenburg disaster.

Danger comes in various forms, but never as often as it does when involving Ralph Byrd getting wet. Dumped in the harbor, squeezed into a diving helmet, fighting the enemy on the shore of the lake, Byrd ends up almost as waterlogged as Jack Larson would later become in The Adventures of Superman.

Speaking of kid sidekicks, while Junior is absent, the audience is forced to endure the brief (two chapters) appearance of Sammy (Sam McKim), a young cowpoke with all the sophistication of a pre-adolescent Jimmy Dean. When Tracy determines Zarnoff’s radio transmissions are originating in a ghost town, Sammy and his invalid grandpa (George Cleveland), lend assistance.

Overall, Dick Tracy’s G-Men lacks the punch of Dick Tracy Returns, but one might argue that that serial’s villain, played by Charles Middleton, is a hard act to follow.