Thursday, December 29, 2016

Roll Yuletide!

Merrrrrrrrry Christmas, cartooners!  Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays to every member of the TDOY faithful!  I had hoped to get back into the blogging habit by Wednesday of this week…but I’m having too much fun spending quality time with the family (both the ‘rents and sisters Kat and Debbie), so I’ve decided to extend my holiday vacation through the rest of this week.  (Plus, I’m trying to shake off a really wicked cold, an extra Christmas gift from Kat.)

The ‘rents and I joined Kat and her partner’s family for a sabbatical in a big honkin’ cabin located in beautiful downtown Lake Lure, NC.  Now…I must admit that I shed my country boy origins many years ago—but the retreat was rather sweet, and everyone ended up having a swell time.  (Particularly Mom and Dad, who don’t get out of the house much.)  The food was fantastic (we had the traditional Roast Beast, and it was amazing), the company most pleasurable…and I got the opportunity to meet-and-greet with a cousin whom I have not seen in over thirty years.  I was also amused by the antics of my nephew Davis, who plays Monopoly as if he were auditioning to be the Mini-Me version of Donald J. Trump.  (I’m not making this up.  He kept running around, holding a wad of Monopoly cash and singing out “I’m really rich!”)

We returned to Rancho Yesteryear just in time to greet sister Debbie and her family, who’ll be staying with us until Sunday; they gifted me with some Amazon gift cash that I have socked away for blank DVD-R emergencies.  I’d like to send out a special “You’re good people” to Todd, who also bestowed me with a gift card—this one of the Barnes & Noble variety (it was put to good use purchasing the third season DVD release of Lou Grant).  Sister Kat got me some goodies for a stocking, including some antique collectables of two of my personal heroes, pictured below:

I mostly received presents of the “spanking new duds” variety, but I did splurge a bit and took advantage of a couple of Blu-ray sets that were on sale at for one day only: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection and The Honeymooners “Classic 39” Episodes.  (I told Rick “Cultureshark” Brooks about this last one, and he, too, was able to capitalize on the sale price.  Fa la la la la la la la la…)  I feel kind of bad that I wasn’t able to mail out the traditional custom-made TDOY Christmas cards (I had a last minute medical matter that gobbled up the Shutterfly funds I had set aside for that cause) but I do want to thank everyone who sent a bit of holiday cheer in card form to the House of Yesteryear—I promise there will be cards sent out in 2017.

I hope everyone had as splendiferous a Yuletide as I did…and since this looks like the last post in 2016, I want to extend a hearty handclasp to one and all as we roll in 2017.  (I have a feeling we’re going to need all the luck that’s available.)  Auld Lang Syne, cartooners!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: The Case of the Baby Sitter (1947)

In 1947, movie mogul Robert L. Lippert decided to “liberate” Hal Roach’s “streamliner” concept—very short features running anywhere from 40-50 minutes—by producing a pair of detective films starring Tom Neal, the doomed protagonist of the B-noir classic Detour (1945).  Neal played would-be gumshoe Russ Ashton, who takes over an investigative agency that’s down on its uppers, hiring Howard “Harvard” Quinlan (Allen Jenkins) as his partner (though “Harvard” seems to be around mostly for sh*ts and giggles) and Susie Hart (Pamela Blake) as his gal Friday.  Susie is the focus of the first entry, The Hat Box Mystery (1947), in which she’s hired to take a candid of a philandering wife…and winds up involved in murderHat Box also introduced Harvard’s girlfriend, Veronica Hoopler (Virginia Sale), who runs a nearby diner and feeds our sleuthing trio until they can make their bidness a resounding success.

The quartet returned that same year in The Case of the Baby Sitter, which finds Ashton and Company hired to look after the infant scion of the Duke and Duchess of Leradia (George Meeker, Rebel Randall) while the royals attend a function.  The task of keeping an eye on the nipper falls on the dimwitted Harvard…but what our detective heroes do not know is that a) there is no such place as Leradia, and b) the Duke and Mrs. Duke are actually a pair of jewel thieves, Phil and Mamie.  They’ve pulled a double-cross on a safecracker named Silk (Keith Richards—and no, not the Rolling Stones guy) in a heist involving the famous LaPaz diamond…and now Silk, with the help of his moll Maxine (Lona Andre), is going to retrieve the stolen gem while double-crossing his boss”—a gangster appropriately nicknamed “Diamonds” (Ed Kane).

This kid gets his own credit, by the way.  I wish I had his agent.

“Murder Stalked the Nursery...With Diamonds as the Pay-Off!” the promotional material for The Case of the Baby Sitter hyperbolizes, because there isn’t any murderer…and even the (always reliable) IMDb credits the child thespian pictured above as “The Kidnapped Baby”—the little rugrat never leaves his freakin’ crib, ferchrissake.  There isn’t any time in Baby Sitter for this kind of interesting plot development, because most of its 40 minutes has been assigned to the comic relief provided by Jenkins, who is apparently in this vehicle only because Sid Melton had not yet been invented.  The rounding up of the jewel scofflaws is very quick—it’s almost like the filmmakers looked at their watches and remarked: “Geez, this thing is about over…we need to wrap this up pronto.”

My esteemed ClassicFlix colleague—and the man who makes doubly certain the boxes of Goobers and Raisinettes are stacked neat and pretty at In the Balcony—Cliff Weimer has a slightly higher opinion of The Case of the Baby Sitter than I do…though having Allen around is always a plus (he gets more screen time than “star” Tom Neal, interestingly enough) as is the small contribution of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear fave Tom Kennedy as a dumb cop (there’s a stretch) and easy-on-the-eyes Rebel Randall as one of the baddies.  (Kennedy was also present and accounted for in The Hat Box Mystery—though I don’t know if he played the same character he did in Baby Sitter; I haven’t seen Hat Box yet.)  The mercifully short running time of this movie is its chief saving grace, because the script is pedestrian and the production values slightly above that of a set for a dinner theater production.  (Cliff wonders if these two films were planned as episodes for early television…though I tend to agree with him that since they were produced in 1947 that seems awfully early for TV.)

The Case of the Baby Sitter is the second “co-hit” on VCI’s Forgotten Noir Volume 9 set…and at the risk of going off on a rant, there’s nothing remotely “noir” about this entry (though its “Forgotten” status is never without question).  The debate about what constitutes “film noir” rages on in salons and saloons even today; my definition is not unlike that of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s explanation on what defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

But with Baby Sitter, that’s the last of the Forgotten Noir releases from the dusty TDOY archives—this feature will continue on Fridays for a couple more months (because I rented some of the later volumes from ClassicFlix), and when I’m done with that—I’ll re-launch the snarky Crime Does Not Pay write-ups that I did previously on an intermittent basis.  If I’m absent from the blog for a couple of days next week, it’s because I will probably be performing in the annual Christmas with the ‘Rents here at Rancho Yesteryear (with special guest stars Sisters Kat and Debbie) …but I’ll try to check in to make sure those dang neighborhood kids haven’t swiped the wreath off the front door.  Happy Holidays, cartooners!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

“You never dreamed a film could be so funny!”

Filmmaker Robert Youngson considered 1960’s When Comedy Was King his personal favorite of all his feature-length film compilations showcasing classic footage from silent movies (with a heavy concentration on those immortal mirthmakers from that era).  Historian Richard M. Roberts isn’t bashful about saying it’s Youngson’s best work, either, and his commentary for the recent Sprocket Vault release of WCWK (restored from “full-frame 35mm fine grains”) is a valentine to the man who can accept the responsibility for stoking the interest of future movie collectors and buffs in “The Golden Age of Comedy” (the title of Youngson’s 1957 feature).  As you may have surmised from frequent visits to this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere, I owe Mr. Youngson a debt of gratitude as well; his 1967 compilation The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy*, as well as exposure to the Columbia two-reel comedies that ran like tap water on WCHS-TV (in Charleston, WV) in my youth, were the stepping stones to the movie mania that has thankfully dominated my very existence to this day.

When Comedy Was King highlights some truly classic comedy from its most accomplished practitioners.  Charlie Chapin is well-represented with clips from several of his Keystone comedies (The Masquerader [1914], His Trysting Place [1914], etc.) and a generous portion of Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922) is also featured.  (As Richard explains in WCWK’s commentary track, Cops was in the public domain—allowing Youngson to use the footage without having to make any deals with Satan incarnate, Raymond Rohauer.**  I’m not joking about this last part.  Roberts spits out Rohauer’s name in the same disdainful manner with which people say “Nazi Germany.”  If you’d like to learn more about the man who’s currently watching Dippy-Doo-Dads comedies for the rest of eternity in Movie Hell, Google “Raymond Rohauer.”)  Harold Lloyd is absent from WCWK because Lloyd still owned most of his oeuvre; he's also MIA in The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

You’ll also find footage from funsters such as Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (with Mabel Normand and Al St. John in the classic Fatty and Mabel Adrift [1916]), ‘Snub’ Pollard (It’s a Gift [1923]), Ben Turpin (Yukon Jake [1924]), and Billy Bevan (several comedies including 1925’s Super Duper Dyne Lizzies and Wandering Willies [1926]).  The opening credits of WCWK are run over Charley Chase’s last silent short, Movie Night (1929), and the film concludes with a truncated version of one of the most hilarious of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy shorts, Big Business (1929—the perfect example of what historian John McCabe once called The Boys’ “reciprocal destruction”).  (Richard observes of Business that there’s more truth in those two reels “than in Intolerance or any one reel of any Carl Dreyer film.”)  Highlights from one of the most gut-bustingly funny two-reel comedies I’ve ever watched (and which I wrote about here), A Pair of Tights (1928—with the female comedy team of Anita Garvin and Marion “Peanuts” Byron), is also included in WCWK, as is a portion of Teddy at the Throttle (1917)***, a vintage Mack Sennett treat featuring Bobby Vernon, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and “Teddy the Dog.”

I’ve reviewed two Youngson collaborations previously at TDOY: Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and 4 Clowns (1970).  In my piece on Laughter, I noted that Richard and I had an e-mail conversation on the importance of these features that many consider “old-hat” and “corny” today.  RMR couldn’t emphasize enough that in instance after instance, Youngson’s movies often contained the only extant footage of classic silent film comedies; an excellent example in When Comedy Was King is Harry Langdon’s The First 100 Years (1924).  The footage of that short that you see in WCWK: that’s all that survives, brother.  (There was an attempt to track down this two-reel comedy at the time the All-Day Entertainment project Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection was being put together…and every possible lead turned up bupkis.)  Footage from another comedy featured in WCWK, Bevan’s Wall Street Blues (1924), was reconstructed by British collector Dave Glass using the footage from this movie and other sources, and a complete version of the comedy premiered at Slapstickcon in 2013.  (“You can now find it on YouTube,” deadpans RMR.)

But back to that “old-hat” and “corny” thing.  It’s important to note that even when the Youngson movies got maudlin (the chief culprit is that “Bring Back the Laughter” song from 1963’s 30 Years of Fun) they were always made with the utmost reverence for the comedians and personalities featured in those movies.  Robert’s features laid the groundwork for a renewed interest in silent movie comedy, and that’s why listening to Richard’s commentary on this DVD release is such a delight (I watched the movie sans commentary at first, and then ran it a second time).  I enjoy hearing how Youngson’s releases inspired RMR to not only collect these films but also to pursue a career writing about these classics; Roberts leaves no detail unturned as he meticulously documents Youngson’s career (covering his various productions and the people who worked with him) while making pointed and pertinent remarks on how these classics were previously presented pre-Youngson.  (RMR can add “impressionist” to his thespic resume when he channels Pete Smith—“Oh, my…”)  By the time Roberts reminisces about his budding collector days by being seduced by Blackhawk Films, I was saying out loud: “That could have been me…if I had been able to buy a home movie projector.”  (I remember salivating over each Blackhawk catalog—I started getting them because I purchased a few “Radio Reruns” cassettes from the company—and reading the descriptions on the Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase shorts for sale with something I can only describe as sheer rapture.)

Richard Roberts’ lifelong acquisition of silent comedies is an added benefit due to the bonus material on the When Comedy Was King DVD: there are three comedies from his collection included, notably the Ton of Fun romp Heavy Love (1926—reviewed here).  I got a real kick out of Lige Conley’s Fast and Furious (1924), and enjoyed Hughie Mack and Dot Farley in An Elephant on His Hands (1920) …even if it did leave me a little bewildered.  (As I suspected, Richard’s print of Heavy Love is a vast improvement over the one featured on the Alpha Video DVD.)  If you are a silent comedy maven like I am, you need to add this edition of WCWK to your DVD library; and if you need to toss out your old Televista copy (gleaned from an inferior 16mm print) I will not judge you.  To the good people at The Sprocket Vault: more like this, please!

*The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy was my introduction to one of The Boys’ oddest two-reel comedies, Early to Bed (1928).  When I finally got the opportunity to see Bed in its entirety many, many years later…I noticed it didn’t play as well as when I first saw it in Further Perils.  So I was pleased to learn while listening to RMR’s commentary that it wasn’t just me; he believes Youngson’s editing of the short for his feature improved the material substantially.

**Blame Raymond Rohauer for the reason why a DVD release of 4 Clowns may never come to fruition.  The movie concludes with a thirty-five-minute version of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), and was licensed for use in Clowns for only a brief period.  (Rohauer was a first-rate swine…even if we grudgingly owe him for preserving the cinematic legacy of The Great Stone Face.)

***I can’t remember the name of the ABC-TV special in the 1970s (it was a salute to the movies—perhaps someone out there in YesteryearLand can help me out) but it’s on that telecast that I first saw (an excerpt, I’m sure) Teddy at the Throttle.  It was probably the oldest movie (outside of the Chaplin Mutuals) that I had viewed at that time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Partners of the Sunset (1948)

Rancher Bill Thompson (Steve Darrell) returns from a business trip to Tucson…and boy, does he have some swell news for his son Dan (Jay Kirby)!  Janice (Christine Larson), the pretty little gal at his side, is now his new mom…and no one should be surprised that Dan takes this bulletin with all the enthusiasm of a proctology exam.  It’s mostly due to Janice being old enough to be his younger sister, but that don’t make no never mind to Bill: they’re married, and if Dan doesn’t like it he can lump it.

Dan doesn’t like it, and so he vamooses from the ranch—bitter about the fact that his pop has reneged on his promise to bequeath him some of the horses they raise on their spread.  Ranch foreman Jimmy Wakely (himself) and chief-cook-and-bottle-washer “Cannonball” (Dub Taylor) ride into town in an attempt to patch things up between father and son.  Actively working against this reunion is stepmother Janice, who’s really a conniving little rhymes-with-witch out to take Bill’s fortune.  She’s assisted in this endeavor by her brother Les (Leonard Penn) …who isn’t her brother at all!  (Quel plot twist!)  The scheming pair cleverly frame Dan for his father’s murder, and it’s Jimmy (once again) to the rescue.

The fifty-three-minute length of Partners of the Sunset (1948)—and if you can figure out how that title connects with the plot of this movie, the phone lines are open—makes it just slightly longer than your run-of-the-mill episode of a typical TV western.  This doesn’t make it a terrible movie, you understand—it’s just that the overall presentation covers a lot of all-too-familiar territory.  Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives this Jimmy Wakely programmer two stars, which seems about right…maybe I would bump it up half-a-star.  It’s painless to take, and Jimmy sings a couple of nice up-tempo ditties in It’s a Beautiful Day (Wakely sings and curries his horse as his bandmates accompany him on fiddle, guitar, and steel guitar—the way country music should be) and Press Along to the Big Corral.

The pluses in Sunset include a very good performance from Christine Larson, who’s a cut-above your usual B-Western ingénue—particularly when she’s fluctuating back-and-forth between sweet-as-apple-pie wifey and wicked stepmother.  She’s joined in her villainy by Leonard Penn (as Les, the “brother” who has difficulty keeping his hands off his sis), and between the two of them they are ruthless in their intentions to make sure Dan swings for fratricide (Les is really responsible for the vile deed, hitting Bill with one of those figurines that folks used to keep around the house for just such occasions).

You also can’t go wrong with having Dub Taylor as your sidekick if you find yourself in the occupation of singing cowboy; there’s a running gag throughout Sunset where “Cannonball” is desperately trying to catch an elusive fish (“Ol’ Smokey”) that will produce a stray chuckle or two, and Cannonball also gets some funny lines. (Jimmy: “What’s with the funny look?” Cannonball: “I always look this way!”)  The rest of the cast is dependable if not remarkable; the only name I recognized other than Wakely’s and Taylor’s was Marshall Reed, who was a regular on TV’s The Lineup (a.k.a. San Francisco Beat).  Marsh plays a bad hombre who agrees to help young Dan swipe those horses from his pa’s ranch, and winds up in a well-shot saloon donnybrook with Jimmy (well…more like Jimmy’s stuntman, Bob Woodward).  (Reed’s character connects right on Wakely’s button in one scene, which made me laugh out loud.)

Directed by master journeyman Lambert Hillyer (who helmed a previous Wakely vehicle covered in this space, 1949’s Gun Law Justice) and scripted by B-Western veteran J. Benton Cheney (I see Cheney’s credit on a lot of episodes of The Cisco Kid before I watch those Trackdown episodes I DVR off of Heroes & Icons), Partners of the Sunset is little more than a passable time-killer from one of the silver screen’s most engaging sagebrush presences...but that don’t make it all bad, as a cowpoke once explained to me.  It’s on DVD, available for purchase or rent on the Warner Archive MOD set Monogram Cowboy Collection: Volume 1.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Well, I like it—I don't dig it...but I like it."

In Guide for the Film Fanatic, movie historian Danny Peary describes the 1978 biopic American Hot Wax thusly: “Floyd Mutrux's affectionate facts-out-the-window tribute to the late Alan Freed, regarded as the first white deejay to play black music, has as flimsy a storyline as those fifties "B" rock 'n roll movies in which Freed appeared.”  Go, Johnny, Go! (1959) was the last of those B-pictures to feature “Mr. Rock ‘n Roll,” just before his career came crashing down due to the early 60s “payola” scandal in the radio industry.  Freed, who demonstrated admirable integrity by refusing to commit perjury by denying he had ever participated in “payola,” lost his New York broadcasting license (in addition to paying a hefty fine) and finished out his career with stations on the West Coast and Florida before his death (cirrhosis of the liver and uremia) on January 20, 1965.

Freed plays himself in Go, Johnny, Go! in a story centering on a publicity stunt cooked up by his publicist (played by veteran character great Herb Vigran!) in which Freed is looking to discover a dynamic new singing talent.  His discovery will be dubbed “Johnny Melody” and promoted as a rock ‘n roll sensation as only the popular rock ‘n roll deejay can.  A young orphan (Jimmy Clanton) whose actual name is Johnny (we never learn his real last name, because orphan) believes he’s just the artist Freed is looking for, and during the movie’s running time employs every trick at his disposal to get to “Moondog.”  When a demo cut by Johnny and played by Alan on his radio show becomes a smash, the search for “Johnny Melody” intensifies; with the help of Johnny’s girl Julie (Sandy Stewart), Freed and Melody are brought together and Johnny’s future career in the music business is solidified.  (Well, for a while I’m guessing.  Until he winds up having to play one of those “garden parties” that Rick Nelson memorably bitched about in song.)

Go, Johnny, Go! has been remastered and restored in High-Definition for the first time on DVD…and that disc has been released by The Sprocket Vault, the new distribution arm of Kit Parker Films which I previously mentioned in a November blog post.  (The Johnny DVD is an Amazon exclusive.)  It’s a nice little nostalgic wallow back to those halcyon days when, as the press release for the DVD states, “Rock & Roll changed 1950s America at 45 revolutions per minute.”  It’s not great art by any stretch of the imagination: the acting is amateurish, the scripting merely standard, and the cost of the entire production was likely generated from the change for a five-dollar bill.  Still, it’s impossible to dislike the movie, and there’s enough novelty in the finished product to appeal to diehard rock ‘n roll fans and classic movie buffs (there’s an overlap on the Venn diagram, natch).

Chiefly of interest to your humble narrator was the presence of the legendary Chuck Berry, who as of this writing is still “reelin’ and rockin’” at the age of 90.  Chuck not only performs some classic tunes (Memphis, Tennessee and Little Queenie—plus Johnny B. Goode is played over the opening credits) but he displays some impressive thespic chops despite his amateur status.  Berry plays Alan’s “sidekick,” unusual for the time in that in most movies from that era Chuck would likely be assigned the role of the janitor (played by William Fawcett in this one).  (Chuck comes off a lot better than Freed, who’s stiff as a board, and Jimmy Clanton, who’s white bread bland.  The individuals on the DVD’s commentary track jokingly suggest that Berry is the movie’s Hoagy Carmichael, which cracked me up.)  This was Chuck’s third time appearing with the man to whom he credited for his career (despite their later squabbles); Berry can also be seen in Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Mister Rock and Roll (1957).  Berry and Clanton are pretty much the only performers required to do any acting in Go, Johnny, Go!—the other acts do whatever musical numbers they’ve been assigned, and then quickly exit stage left.

Chuck, Alan, and Company jam on Little Queenie. (Spoiler warning: Freed is faking the drum-playing.)

Still, there’s one heck of a lineup here: Ritchie Valens, in his only feature film appearance, performs Ooh My Head, and the great Eddie Cochran (in his third and final film appearance) rocks out on Teenage Heaven.  (It’s a shame that we couldn’t have performances of Valens’ Donna or La Bamba—or in Cochran’s case, Summertime Blues or C’mon Everybody—but at the time movies like Go, Johnny, Go! were released the songs in those films were intended to promote current singles…and not classic ones.  Sucks for posterity, unfortunately.)  Jackie Wilson—“Mr. Excitement” himself—is one of the movie’s highlights, with an energetic version of You’d Better Know It (Jackie’s moves were later “liberated” by James Brown, I noticed), and The Flamingos (in a far cry from their better known doo-wop ballads like I Only Have Eyes For You) demonstrate some bodacious Nicholas Brothers-like dance executions while performing the rousing Jump Children.  The Cadillacs (“They often call me Speedo…”) also contribute to the fun with the Coasters-like Jay Walker and Please Mr. Johnson; rounding out the musical acts are Harvey Fuqua (formerly of The Moonglows) and Jo Ann Campbell.

Jo Ann Campbell channels her inner Brenda Lee for Mama, Can I Go Out (written by Bo Diddley!). Jo Ann's biggest pop success was I'm the Girl From Wolverton Mountain, an "answer song" to Claude King's 1962 country-pop smash.

Jimmy Clanton performs four songs in Go, Johnny, Go! and a duet with Sandy Stewart (she also gets a pair of numbers), Once Again…and I should be honest—Clanton’s the weakest thing in the movie.  (The title of the film might have inspired Clanton’s Top Ten single Go Jimmy Go, released later that year.)  Jimmy would appear in one more film, Teenage Millionaire (1961) …and though I probably shouldn’t say this since I haven’t seen Millionaire, it’s a good thing Jimmy kept his day job.  (If given the opportunity, I’d watch Millionaire; with a cast consisting of Rocky Graziano, Zasu Pitts, and Maurice Gosfield—and musical numbers from Jackie Wilson, Chubby Checker, and Dion—it would be worth a flutter.)  The romance between Clanton and Stewart will produce a lot of wristwatch-glancing…but fortunately, there’s always a musical number waiting in the wings to break that monotony.

C'mon everybody!

Shot in five days (gosh—you’d never be able to tell!) as the last film to come out of the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA (it would be released by the ill-fated Valiant Films, who were also responsible for Terror is a Man [1959] and The Flesh and the Fiends [1960]), Go, Johnny, Go! was written by Gary Alexander (his only feature film credit, according to the [always reliable] IMDb) and directed by Paul Landres.  Early Landres efforts like Square Dance Jubilee (1949) and Hollywood Varieties (1950) have been made available on a series of VCI “Showtime USA” releases…and on some of those same discs, film historians Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt, and Brent Walker provided audio commentary.  Well, they’ve got the band back together: RMR, Randy, and Brent are also on the commentary track of Go, Johnny, Go! and are the primary reason why you should be putting this disc in your Amazon shopping cart right now.  (Full disclosure: Rich graciously arranged for the Johnny screener, and both Randy and Brent are Facebook chums.)

Play it again!  (And again!  And again!)

Because of their expertise—Roberts is the author of Smileage Guaranteed, Skretvedt’s latest book is a revised “ultimate” edition of his previous Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, and Walker is the author of the indispensable Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory—all three men provide fascinating tidbits of trivia on both the performers and the production history of Go, Johnny, Go!  This might only be amusing to a character actor devotee like myself—but when an uncredited Dick Elliott turns up as the man impatiently waiting for Clanton to finish a call in a telephone booth, Brent points out that Elliott played “Mike Clancy” in several Bowery Boys films (Walker is the co-author of a favorite movie reference book of mine, The Films of the Bowery Boys).  (Richard sings out: “It’s the Mayor of Mayberry!”)  There are any number of familiar character faces in this feature film guaranteed to delight classic movie fans including Milton Frome, Frank Wilcox, Martha Wentworth, Phil Arnold, and Joe Flynn (uncredited as the guy who gives Clanton his walking papers at his usher job).

Movies like Go, Johnny, Go! were produced at a time when disapproving bluenoses were convinced “that crazy rock ‘n roll music” was just a passing fad, and yet they were going to make a buck from the phenomenon while it was still popular.  (Milton Frome’s character in the film, a choir director who kicks Johnny out because Mr. Melody is caught singing an up-tempo member, represents the “tsk-tsk” contingent…until he gets rock ‘n roll religion at the end.)  Grab a copy of this DVD and enjoy a perfectly preserved time capsule of performances from some of the best artists rock ‘n roll had to offer.

Monday, December 19, 2016

From the DVR: Honeysuckle Rose (1980)

My most vivid memory of when Urban Cowboy played in theaters in the summer of 1980…is not seeing Urban Cowboy when it played in theaters in the summer of 1980.  (This is going to require a long-winded explanation, now that I think about it.)  It was the transition period between my junior and senior year at my alma mater, Ravenswood Penitentiary High School, and that summer found me, my faithful sidekick The Duchess, and two other classmates attending a “journalism camp” at Ohio University in Athens, OH.  We were there to learn how to better our high school newspaper and yearbook…which, in retrospect, was a complete freaking waste of time because when we tried to apply what we learned our faculty advisor vetoed every bit of the helpful advice we received.  That advisor, Clara Belle Denning, had wanted to send the four of us to a similar “camp” at Marshall University in Huntington, WV…but when Marshall announced that they weren’t hosting the event that summer, CBD reluctantly settled for second place OU.  I was jazzed about checking out OU because my dream was to study broadcasting there upon graduating from RHS…but the out-of-state tuition would have laid waste to the Shreve family finances.  The irony is: I ended up at Marshall.  (I did not get a scholarship, because my grades could not pass the minimum requirements to receive one.  Let this be a lesson to the younger kids out there in YesteryearLand.)

While we were at OU, the four of us decided to take in a movie one evening…and we wound up seeing Bronco Billy (1980), the Clint Eastwood film.  Billy has many admirers, but our quartet was not among them at the time we screened it.  (I believe the consensus among my comrades went along the lines of “It stinks!”)  Three of the members in our group laid the blame squarely on my shoulders because I apparently persuaded them to see Billy over Urban Cowboy.  I maintain to this day that I am not responsible; yes, I did want to see Bronco Billy (I had listened to both the Billy and Cowboy soundtrack albums and thought the music in Billy was a better representative of country music) but I didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head and force them to accompany me—furthermore, if my powers of persuasion were truly that potent, we’d be counting the days until President-elect Bernie Sanders takes office.  (That’s a Facebook joke, son.)

So why am I prattling on about Urban Cowboy and Bronco Billy when the title of this post refers to the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose?  Mostly because I tend to remember these three films (along with 9 to 5, Any Which Way You Can, and several others) as Hollywood’s cashing-in on a public fascination with country music in the early 80s.  The Powers That Be referred to this as “the Urban Cowboy craze” …but truth be told, it went back further than that—with the box office success of Every Which Way But Loose (1978), which generated several hit singles for the likes of Charlie Rich, Mel Tillis, and Eddie Rabbitt (his title track went to #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart and cracked the Pop Top 30).  (You can even make a strong argument that it goes back to several films from the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings [1975], Smokey and the Bandit [1977], etc.)

In Honeysuckle Rose, country music legend Willie Nelson essays a role not unlike his real-life self: musician Buck Bonham, who, despite his deep love for his wife Viv (Dyan Cannon) and son Jamie (Joey Floyd), seemingly prefers the life of the open road—playing one-night stands in various honky-tonks and nightclubs with the loyal members of his celebrated country music band.  One of those members, guitarist Garland Ramsey (Slim Pickens), has told Buck he’s quitting “the road” (at the request of his wife) and so Buck and his manager Sid (Charles Levin) scramble to find a replacement.

The musician hired to replace Garland has a previous commitment and won’t be able to join the band for three weeks…but the solution to this scheduling conflict arrives in Garland’s daughter Lily (Amy Irving), who demonstrates she’s just as proficient as her gitar-pickin’ pop during an impromptu performance at a family reunion.  In fact, it’s Viv who recommends Lily join her husband’s musical aggregation (Garland isn’t sold on the idea…but relents when he realizes that it’s only temporary), and this helpful suggestion will come back to bite her in the derriere when Buck and Lily move beyond an innocent mentor-protégé relationship into a tongue-wagging romantic one.

As you may have guessed, Honeysuckle Rose is a slight tweaking of the film classic Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939).  And to be forthright about this, the first time I saw Rose I didn’t care for the movie (I didn’t see this one in theaters—more likely I caught it on HBO).  But I spotted it on the schedule of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ a month or so back, and I thought that a second look might change my opinion.  I couldn’t warm up to it the first time around because it’s a character-driven film (I was all about cleverly-plotted movies at that point in my cinematic education) and I thought with maturity, maybe it plays a little better.  (Don’t think I can’t hear you snickering out there.)

“A little better” is the operative phrase here.  Honeysuckle Rose is not as bad as I remembered, but I remain unconvinced it hasn’t been overrated by a lot of critics.  The Los Angeles Times succinctly summed up Rose as “a concert film with a plot.”  The music in Honeysuckle Rose is undeniably its greatest strength; the movie’s soundtrack album shot to the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums (#11 on the Top 200 Albums) and generated two country chart-toppers for Willie Nelson, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground and On the Road Again.  (The Grammy Award-winning On the Road Again also reached #20 on the Hot 100 and would later be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Original Song.)  The album is mostly a collection of performances by Willie & Family (with additional contributions from folks like Johnny Gimble, Hank Cochran, and “Heaven is a girl named” Emmylou Harris) reprising past Nelson triumphs like Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Whiskey River, and If You Could Touch Her at All.

A well-received supporting role in The Electric Horseman (1979) inspired director Sydney Pollack to pitch Honeysuckle Rose to Nelson, whose character of Buck Bonham was based a great deal on Willie.  (Pollack was executive producer on Rose, and later served as a producer on the Nelson-Kris Kristofferson collaboration Songwriter, released in 1986.)  In a case of life imitating art, Willie had an affair with co-star Amy Irving during the making of Rose (something that I’m sure went over big with Mrs. Willie).  Nelson demonstrates a commanding onscreen presence in the film (his second feature, and first starring role) and even though his character lets Little Willie do the thinking of Big Willie, Buck Bonham is a sympathetic figure (the filmmakers also resist the temptation to whitewash what Buck has done, instead allowing the audience decide if Nelson’s charisma is sufficient absolution for the sins in his marriage).  Willie would later star in the underrated oater Barbarosa (1982), yet I’ll come clean by admitting that I think Nelson is more effective in smaller, supporting turns—whether it be a standout performance as a convict in 1981’s Thief or country singer “Johnny Dean” in the satirical Wag the Dog (1997).

The problem with Rose is that its female characters don’t fare too well.  Dyan Cannon’s Viv is a little too quick to forgive her husband’s infidelities (a strong woman as portrayed by Viv is would more than likely kick that cheatin’ bastid to the curb); everything is kiss-and-make-up okay once they sing a duet together before the movie’s closing credits.  Granted, Amy Irving’s Lily is not played for major villainy…but the last that we see of her in Rose is in the audience, forlornly looking on at a performance that is part of a celebratory picnic held in Garland’s honor.  Being ostracized from Buck and the rest of “the family” at this point seems to suggest that she’s being held responsible for whatever events took place, and that didn’t sit well with me at all.  To add insult to injury, Irving received a “Razzie” as Worst Supporting Actress for her work in Rose at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Award ceremonies in 1981…and she’s not terrible at all.  (I like the scene where Irving confronts father Pickens over what she’s done…and in a long shot, Slim walks away from her in disapproval before taking a beat and walking back to hug her in support.)  Both actresses did their own singing on the film’s soundtrack, and there’s no need to admonish them not to quit their day jobs.

Character legend Slim Pickens would appear in a few more projects before his passing in 1983 (including 1981’s The Howling, in which he plays “Sam Newfield”—tee hee), but Honeysuckle Rose provides him with one of his stronger showcases as Bonham’s best friend (their drunken antics on Buck’s tour bus are a highlight), and Priscilla Pointer (Amy Irving’s real-life ma) plays Slim’s wife as sort of a sly in-joke (sadly, Pointer doesn’t get much to do).  For country music fans, there are wonderful moments contributed by both Harris and Cochran, who performs a snatch of the Cochran-penned Make the World Go Away with real-life wife Jeannie Seely.  Rose was also the second feature film for Diana Scarwid (I saw her debut, Pretty Baby [1978] a few weeks ago) …and I kind of wish I had been living in Savannah at the time of Rose’s release because I know the newspaper ads would have touted it as “Featuring Savannah’s own Diana Scarwid” like they did with other Scarwid vehicles (Rumble Fish, Silkwood, etc.).  The actor who plays the musician replacing Pickens’ character is none other than Mickey Rooney, Jr…who’s every bit as obnoxious as his old man (though in fairness, the character is written that way) playing a guy who looks like the love child of Porter Wagoner and Alan Jackson.

Director Jerry Schatzberg rode herd on two of my favorite Al “Hoo-hah!” Pacino films, The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973); the adultery angle of Honeysuckle Rose was probably familiar territory for Jer, having helmed a similar film in The Seduction of Joe Tynan a year earlier.  For those of you wanting to know what “Honeysuckle Rose” has to do with the film, the [always reliable] IMDb says it’s the nickname of Willie Nelson’s real-life tour bus.  (So if you were expecting The Red Headed Stranger to do a version of the Fats Waller standard during the film’s running time…sorry to disappoint you.)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Lynch mob*

We had a most excellent response in terms of entries for the latest giveaway here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—a chance to win one of two copies of the Radio Spirits The Couple Next Door collection Merry Mix-Ups.  As always, I wish I could hand out a set to all that entered because as The Great One always said: “Ooooh…you’re a good group.”  Alas, I cannot…but I can pass along Mix-Ups sets to Dan M. of Washington (my sister Kat’s former stomping grounds) and to longtime TDOY supporter and proprietor of Saturday Morning Archives, Monsieur hobbyfan.  (The hobmeister also blogs at The Land of Whatever—didn’t want to leave that out.)  Congratulations to both of you, as the champagne flows freely in your respective neighborhoods in recognition of your triumphs.

The next giveaway on the blog will be after we ring in the new year of 2017 (if my schedule is accurate, it will be announced on January 7) and if you’ve friended me on Facebook you’ve received the news of what OTR collection has been submitted for prizedom.  (If you’re not into the social media phenomenon, I will give you a hint: it involves a ventriloquist’s dummy.)  So keep an eye out for the announcement, and remember—Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

*I did not come up with this one; blame Andrew “Grover” Leal.  Sadly, he doesn’t have an “off” switch.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Pier 23 (1951)

On this week’s edition of Forgotten Noir Fridays, we return to the titular environs of San Francisco private investigator Dennis “Denny” O’Brien (Hugh Beaumont), who puts groceries on the table with a boat rental business when he’s not out shamusing.  (I’ve seen two of these movies so far—the first being the previously discussed Danger Zone [1951]—and I’ve yet to see anyone inquire about renting a boat.)  O’Brien’s first client is kindly Father Donovan (Raymond Greenleaf), a priest who hires Denny (I think O’Brien does this one pro bono, since men of the cloth rarely have any spare change rattling around in their cassocks) to intercept one Joe Harmon (Chris Drake), who’s planning to crash out of “The Rock” later that evening.  (How Harmon endures that lengthy swim goes unexplained, as you might have already guessed.)  If Father Donovan can sit Joe down for a chinwag, he can convince that little lost lamb to return to the incarcerated flock and stay on the straight-and-narrow.

O’Brien meets Harmon at a predestined spot, and the escaped con says he’ll palaver with the good Fadduh once he’s made a stop at an address…where the two men meet up with Joe’s sister Ann (Ann Savage).  Ann introduces Denny’s noggin to the business end of a heavy bit of bric-a-brac, and when our hero comes to…Joe is dead from multiple stab wounds.  The plot thickens when O’Brien learns from Father Donovan that the man he met is not Joe Harmon—but a fellow inmate named Mike Greely!

After O’Brien wraps up the Harmon affair (in less than a half-hour—damn, he’s good) he’s then hired by wrestling referee Mushy Cavelli (Johnny Indrisano) to play courier and pick up an envelope containing mucho dinero after a scheduled bout between grapplers Willie Klingle (Bill Varga) and Ape Danowski (Mike Mazurki).  (Kind of a crappy thing to do to a kid, naming him “Ape.”)  Klingle dies of a heart attack during the match, and Denny is pressed into service to investigate as to why Willie would ever be cleared to climb into the ring when everyone knew the guy had a bum ticker.

"He don't bounce no more." TDOY fave Mike Mazurki gets gumshoe Hugh Beaumont in a headlock as ubiquitous Lippert starlet Margia Dean looks on.
In the review I wrote for Danger Zone, I mentioned that it, Pier 23, and Roaring City (1951) all consisted of non-telecast episodes from a syndicated TV series based on the Jack Webb radio shows Pat Novak…For Hire and Johnny Madero, Pier 23.  (Pier 23 is the third “Denny O’Brien” entry—someone at VCI apparently issued these “co-hits” on their Forgotten Noir DVD releases out of sequence.  Roaring City will be covered in this space in future.)  Hugh Beaumont couldn’t carry Webb’s jockstrap on any given day of the week, but if you’re willing to overlook this handicap you might get a little enjoyment out of Pier 23. 

(Andrew “Grover” Leal pointed out to me on Facebook the other night that I had once written Beaumont played “TV’s saddest excuse for a father on Leave it to Beaver” in an installment of TDOY’s Crime Does Not Pay series [1940’s You, the People].  I didn’t remember being that harsh—and in my defense, Mr. Grover recalled me saying Beaumont was the worst TV dad, which was not quite the way I worded it—but the evidence clearly shows that I voiced a negative opinion of the legendary boob tube pop, and so I have no other recourse but to own it.  For the record, I don’t think Ward Cleaver was the worst—at least not while Mayberry RFD’s Sam Jones is in this contest—but Ward’s reputation as a wise patriarchal sage has been embarrassingly inflated over the years.  On a slightly related note, the Crime Does Not Pay efforts will resurface on the blog sometime next year…because I was finally able to obtain that Warner Archive MOD DVD set.  More on this as it develops.)

The chief asset of these movies is the presence of character great Ed Brophy as Professor Frederick Simpson Schicker (the movie version of Pat Novak’s “Jocko Madigan”), who gets the lion’s share of the best dialogue.  (When O’Brien asks his pal “You gonna stay drunk all your life?” Schick responds “It's all a matter of will power...I'm probably the only man in the world who intends to carry a hangover into eternity...")  Having Mazurki on hand is another check in the “plus” column (Mike kind of combines his characterizations of Moose Malloy from Murder, My Sweet and The Strangler from Night and the City for the Ape), and the movie’s noir bona fides get an assist by casting Ann Savage as a cold-blooded dame in the first of the two stories.  (We all have our favorite femme fatales in noir, but Savage is the probably the only one who could rip out the hero’s heart and munch on it like an apple.)  The supporting cast is filled out with most of the familiar Lippert faces: Richard Travis (as Lt. Bruger), Margia Dean, David Bruce, Raymond Greenleaf, Harry Hayden, etc.  Joi (billed as Joy) Lansing has a brief bit as a cocktail waitress, and the first actor to play “Runt” in the Chester Morris Boston Blackie film franchise, Charles Wagenheim, can be glimpsed as a “policy man.”

When they say "Spartan"...they ain't just whistlin' Dixie.

Lou Morheim and Herbert Margolis, who scripted many a Johnny Madero broadcast, receive story credit on Pier 23 (since most of the Madero episodes are lost to the ravages of time and neglect, I can’t confirm whether or not they recycled these plots from the radio show…though I suspect they probably did) with screenplay honors going to Julian Harmon and Victor West (the dialogue is prime Novak: “The pier was as deserted as a warm bottle of beer…”).  B-picture journeyman William A. Berke sat in the director’s chair on this one, and if you’re curious to have a look you can rent Pier 23 on Forgotten Noir Volume 9 at a ClassicFlix near you.  (Next week: the last of Volume 9’s “co-hits,” 1947’s The Case of the Baby Sitter.)