Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From the DVR: Convicts 4 (1962)

This month, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ is offering “Stars Behind Bars” as the focus of their “Spotlight” series (it concludes tonight, coincidentally).  It's allowed Tee Cee Em to run some excellent slammah flicks, one of which was Convicts 4 (1962)—a fictionalized presentation of the prison life of real-life ex-con John Resko.  Resko, a Death Row inmate sentenced to be executed for killing a shopkeeper during a robbery gone awry in 1930, had been spared his date with “Old Sparky” previously in order to testify as a witness in another case.  His second reprieve would eventually come courtesy of then-Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt (perhaps you’ve heard of him), and John’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.  Resko was later paroled and in 1958 he wrote Reprieve: The Testament of John Resko…which became the basis of the film released four years later.

Convicts 4 was the sole directorial effort of Millard Kaufman, a screenwriter whose resume includes such classics as Take the High Ground! (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), and Raintree County (1957—on which he also served as associate producer).  Kaufman also acted as a “front” for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo on Gun Crazy (1949) …but perhaps the most interesting item on Millard’s C.V. (Andrew Leal would give me endless grief if I didn’t mention this) is that he was the scribe whose story for the 1949 U-P-A cartoon short Ragtime Bear gave us the nearsighted Quincy Magoo.

Kaufman’s Convicts 4 is equally noteworthy for its eclectic cast, which could almost be the lineup for a Bob Hope special.  You’ll get Stuart Whitman, Ray Walston, Vincent Price (appropriately playing an art critic), Rod Steiger, Broderick Crawford, Dodie “Pink Shoe Laces” Stevens, Jack Kruschen, Sammy Davis, Jr. (as an inmate named “Wino”), Naomi “Juanita” Stevens, Jack Albertson…and as the cherry on this sundae, Timothy Carey (“I’ve got ideas…and they’re all vile, Bubie…”).  The star of Convicts is Ben Gazzara, an interesting choice when you consider that throughout his film career Ben played a lot of wankers, as witnessed in such vehicles as The Strange One (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  Even when Gazzara played “good” guys in TV series like Arrest and Trial and Run for Your Life, you were never entirely certain whether to root for him or not.

Casting Gazzara as Resko is fascinating because the actor imbues in the character enough interest in his plight (the circumstances surrounding his crime don’t arguably seem to justify his severe sentence) without going overboard with the sentiment.  Resko earns allies for various reasons: for example, the sympathetic guard played by Whitman becomes his friend only because he’s convinced there’s a better way to deal with inmates than the sadistic cruelty exhibited by the keeper portrayed by Steiger.  (I kind of chuckled seeing both Stu and Rod in this film, remembering their wonderful give-and-take in the movie that earned Whitman an Oscar nomination, The Mark [1961].  Curiously, Steiger’s “Tiptoes” doesn’t stick around for much of the film; as critic David Kalat humorously observes: “Chekhov would have been appalled.  Convicts 4 introduces more than one shiv in its early reels, yet not one person gets stabbed.”)

TV favorite Walston generates a laugh or two as Iggy, an inmate who run-ins with Resko lead to him being introduced to the business end of a billy club…twice.  (He later becomes a chum of John’s; his escape tunnel attempt is an amusing highlight.)  What puts in motion Resko’s eventual release from the joint is his admirable aptitude for art; his paintings attract the interest of an expert (this is where Vincent Price’s character comes in) even though several years pass before John finally achieves freedom.  While I liked Convicts 4, it’s this aspect of the movie that kind of gave me pause: does a man who displays artistic talent deserve different consideration than the rest of the prison population?  In his time in prison, Resko executes two escape attempts—I think that would weigh a little heavy on any decision to turn him loose (though this might explain why he doesn't receive his parole until 1949, according the movie's timeline).

Convicts 4 suffers from occasional dramatic unevenness: I think the flashback to Resko’s crime (character great Arthur Malet plays the poor sap he kills) fails to convince, and the scene where Mrs. Resko (Carmen Phillips) gives her jailbird hubby The Big Kiss-Off also might have been better served off-screen (it’s awkward, to say the least).  Still, I’d highly recommend the movie for the cast and for its refusal to lard its presentation with the standard prison film clichés; as Kalat correctly notes in his article on the film at the TCM website: “In shoving all the obvious and familiar prison-movie conflicts off the stage, Kaufman sacrifices cheap drama in favor of something more interesting.  The conventional thrust of a prison story is a litany of complaints: the death penalty is inhuman, the guards are sadists, inmates are treated cruelly... in other words, the injustices of the justice system are problems demanding to be fixed.”  Millard Kaufman later regretted that Convicts was his only turn in the director’s chair, and I empathize: he did admirable work that makes you yearn for more.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar…

The gratuitous back-patting known as the Academy Awards will get underway in less than a month (February 26th this year), and though I haven’t really given the ceremony that much thought, a stray comment from my fellow classic movie pal ClassicBecky on my recent The Long Walk Home review set in motion an idea for a post:

I was particularly interested in your view of actors winning Oscars for the wrong movies. Made me think of Russell Crowe winning the Oscar for "Gladiator", in which his predominant line of dialogue was the monotonal "I am Maximus." Then the very next year, losing the Oscar for his truly remarkable performance in "A Beautiful Mind." Huh?

There was a time (don’t be frightened by the wavy lines—it’s just a flashback) when I would await the arrival of the Academy Awards with eager anticipation.  That enthusiasm disappeared in 1995, when the Best Picture Oscar went to Forrest Gump, a film that beat out far superior movies like Quiz Show and Pulp Fiction for the top prize.  (I apologize to any Gump fans out there…but that odious piece of fromage gets the 1960s counterculture so wrong it elevates my blood pressure just thinking about it.  Hell, even the other two features nominated—the romantic comedy trifle Four Weddings and a Funeral and the so-popular-it’s-stupefying The Shawshank Redemption—would have been better choices.)  To add insult to injury, Tom Hanks won a second Best Actor Oscar for that travesty; I always think of that purported observation by Alma Reville to her husband Alfred Hitchcock that Oscars weren’t too much of a big deal because “after all, Luise Rainer won two of them.”

It wasn’t long after this that I purchased and read with delight film historian Danny Peary’s wonderful book Alternate Oscars.  Published in 1993, Peary argues that throughout the history of Academy Awards, the films that should have been recognized aren’t for a variety of reasons—mostly having to do with Hollywood politics.  (Look, I love How Green Was My Valley as much as the next person…but is it really a better film than Citizen Kane—despite Orson Welles’ on-the-record reverence for John Ford?)  Danny attempts to rectify the many mistakes Oscar has made throughout its history; sometimes he’s okay with the choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…other times he questions as to whether its membership was passing around a crack pipe.  If you don’t have this invaluable reference on your movie bookshelf, you need to do so at your earliest opportunity; it’s available from a number of used bookstore both online and off (it’s OOP, sadly—Peary seems to be more comfortable writing sports books these days) but in case you’re curious about its contents, you can find the complete list from the book at one of my favorite movie sites: FilmFanatic.org.

In Alternate Oscars, Danny advocates the taking of many of the trophies from those individuals who won Academy Awards and reallocating those prizes to actors/actresses more deserving.  I agree with many of his choices: how thesps like Clark Gable (a particular bête noire of mine), Paul Lukas, and Broderick Crawford ever won Oscars is a mystery to me.  (And I say this as someone who loves All the King’s Men.)  In other instances, Peary argues that actors frequently receive Oscars for the wrong movies.  A great example of this is Mary Pickford, the best actress winner in 1928/29 for Coquette.  You people know the story: they gave “America’s Sweetheart” the acting prize because she wanted one (the Academy was an organization created to bust unions—you know this as well).  Mary is much better in My Best Girl (1927), and Danny argues she should have had a statuette for what was her final silent film.

The chief culprit to consider when you say to yourself out loud during an Oscar telecast—“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—surely they’re not giving him/her an award for that?”—is that these honors are often handed out for an outstanding body of work…not because they were really, really good in a particular film.  Even people who defend the Academy Awards will cop to that.  There’s no greater example of this than Henry Fonda, who finally nabbed a Best Actor trophy in 1982 for playing the “get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids” crank in On Golden Pond (1981)—then Hank went on to an even greater reward a few months after (when he snuffed it).  I don’t think Fonda ever gave a better performance onscreen than as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) …but they didn’t give him that Oscar because they were too busy giving his bosom buddy James Stewart the Best Actor prize for The Philadelphia Story (1940).  The general agreement was that Stewart got his Oscar that year for being ignored previously for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

I’m not a fan of The Philadelphia Story, chiefly because the romantic problems of rich people rarely register high on my personal Give-a-Damn-O-Meter.  I’d argue that Jimmy is much better in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946—this gets Stewart his “Alternate Oscar” in Peary’s book) and if he was shut out that year by The Best Years of Our Lives juggernaut, the Academy could have always waited for Vertigo (1958) or Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  By that same token, Henry Fonda gave first-rate performances in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Wrong Man (1956), Fail-Safe (1964), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  My personal Fonda fave is Fort Apache (1948); a journalist once asked Hank’s son Peter what his famous dad was like off-screen and Pete asked him if he’d ever seen Fort Apache.  When the reporter applied in the affirmative, Fonda remarked: “That’s what he was like off-screen.”

Speaking of John Wayne (well, he’s in Fort Apache as well)—the Duke got his “Atta boy” from his peers for True Grit (1969) …even though he was just being John Wayne in an eyepatch.  To be frank, John Wayne pretty much played John Wayne in every movie he was in…but he could occasionally step up to the place and hit one out of the thespic park.  It’s no coinky-dink that these performances were in films directed by the aforementioned Mr. Ford: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949—my personal favorite), The Quiet Man (1952—Peary’s pick in AO), The Searchers (1956) …and even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (I always forget how splendid that movie is until I take the time to sit down with it again.)

Here’s a short list of some more actors who won Oscars for the wrong movies.  I didn’t include actresses on this list—not because I’m being chauvinistic, but because I was racing a deadline for this post and decided it would be better tackled in a follow-up next week.

Humphrey Bogart – Despite my love for Bogart, most of his movie roles were, like John Wayne, variations on his established persona—including The African Queen (1951), the one that earned him his Oscar.  But Bogie gives much more interesting (and in my opinion, better) performances in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950).  My sentimental favorites are Deadline – U.S.A. (1952) and Humphrey’s swan song, The Harder They Fall (1956).

Rod Steiger – Speaking of The Harder They Fall, I think Steiger’s turn as the autocratic mobster Nick Benko is sensational; Steiger is a difficult guy to pin down because…well, let’s not mince words: he could chew up the scenery when inclined (which is why his serial killer in 1968’s No Way to Treat a Lady should have been Academy Award-worthy—it plays perfectly to this handicap).  Rod got his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967), but my personal pick is his role in The Pawnbroker (1964).  (I would also have accepted his psychiatrist in The Mark [1961] as an answer.)

Sidney Poitier – I truly think Poitier gives the better performance in In the Heat of the Night as Virgil Tibbs, but the Academy had already given Sidney honors for 1963’s Lillies of the Field.  I have never been able to understand why this great actor got overlooked for A Raisin in the Sun (1961—my choice).  Other outstanding Poitier choices include Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Edge of the City (1957), and Something of Value (1957).

Burt Lancaster – I’ve said it many times in the past: Burt Lancaster’s acting got better and better with age.  You can see the genesis of this in my favorite of his films, The Swimmer (1968) …but he was really on fire by the time he made Atlantic City (1980—this is the one I’d hand him an Oscar for), Local Hero (1983), and Field of Dreams (1989).  Peary takes Burt’s trophy for Elmer Gantry (1960) and gives it to Anthony Perkins for Psycho (ignoring the fact that Perkins played variations on Norman Bates pretty much the entirety of his career).  Not even an honorable mention for Sweet Smell of Success (1957—maybe he thought Burt was a supporting actor in this one)!

Charlton Heston – You might have seen the gag in Wayne’s World 2 (1992); an inconsequential bit player (Al Hansen) finds himself switched out with a “better actor”—none other than Heston himself.  I probably laughed harder at the irony of Charlton being considered a good actor because…I don’t think he was all that and a bag of chips.  Heston won for Ben-Hur (1959), but if we consult The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ he was at his very best for the titular role of Will Penny (1968).  (I once had a dream where I was trapped in an elevator with Charlton Heston, and all I could do was mock him at every turn: “Get your stinking paws off me—you damn dirty ape!”)

Paul Newman – Newman was nominated for an Oscar six times before the Academy decided to give him a special trophy…and then the following year, he got the Best Actor prize for The Color of Money (1986).  Paul would score two more nominations following this (one of them a favorite of mine, 1994’s Nobody’s Fool) …but how he got overlooked for The Hustler (1961—Peary’s choice), Hud (1963), or The Verdict (1982—this is for me his Oscar-winning performance) is a mystery for the old man on the mountain.

Jack Lemmon – Lemmon already had a Best Supporting Actor Oscar on the mantelpiece for Mister Roberts (1955) when his peers decided to throw a Best Actor prize his way for Save the Tiger (1973).  No, sir.  I don’t like it.  If he was going to win a Best Actor Oscar it should have been for either Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The China Syndrome (1979), or Missing (1982—my personal favorite).  Jack received nominations for all three of those films, not to mention Some Like it Hot (1959—picked in AO) and The Apartment (1960).  (He’s also first-rate in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross—though this might be considered a supporting turn.)

Jack Nicholson – Another multiple winner, Nicholson got his first Oscar for 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a movie I revisited not too long ago, and was disappointed that it has not aged well.  (Danny Peary has a dissenting opinion…but he also argues that Jack’s comic turn in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) should have been honored, and I side with him on this completely.)  I can’t believe Jack got ignored for three better performances (all of them nominated): Five Easy Pieces (1970—Peary’s pick), The Last Detail (1973), and Chinatown (1974—my choice…though it was a tough year with all that Godfather II-ing going on).  (Nicholson later won a Best Supporting for Terms of Endearment [1983] and a second Best Actor trophy for 1997’s As Good As It Gets.)

Al Pacino – The Rod Steiger of his era.  I paid good money to see the film for which they finally gave Pacino an Oscar, Scent of a Woman (1992).  (The only positive thing to come out of that experience was that I spotted soap stars Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes in the theatre lobby.)  Any of the 70s films that Al received noms for—The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, …and justice for all (my favorite)—would have been better choices.  (Future nominations stopped with his Scent Oscar, yet despite his propensity for scenery chewing, Al’s given some wonderful performances in the twilight of his career: Donnie Brasco [1997], The Insider [1999], Insomnia [2002], etc.)

Denzel Washington – They passed on giving Denzel a second Oscar (he had won a Best Supporting for 1989’s Glory) in 1993 because everybody liked the way Pacino constantly hollered “Hoo-hah!” in the previously mentioned Scent of a Woman.  Denzel should have been the winner that year, but he’d have to wait until his name was called for a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day (2001).  (He even got snubbed for the excellent For Queen and Country [1988].)

Disclaimer: the preceding were my opinions and mine alone—if you disagree with me, I welcome your input in the comments section.  (All that I ask is that you remember that my parents are married.)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

“I’m a mad dog whose only concern is winning.” – Charles Barkley

The Random.org gods have spoken!  With the generous assistance of their random number generator, two individuals were selected to receive copies of the Radio Spirits Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy CD release Smile a While.  Loyal members of the TDOY faithful Amanda C. (from the wilds of Minnesota) and Roger S. (a Massachusetts boy) will soon be doubled over in laughter listening to these vintage broadcasts—my only regret is that I’m not able to hand out sets to all who entered, because the participation was most encouraging.  (I need to raise some money around this joint.  Maybe a Pay Pal button?)

Next Saturday, I’ll have one more contest planned for the expressed purpose of gifting TDOY readers with some bodacious old-time radio swag.  It’s is going to be a fantabulous “bundle” giveaway, so stay tuned for further details and remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Radar Secret Service (1950)

As the third-place winner in the “Reed Hadley Sound-a-Like Contest” intones off-screen that we couldn’t have won the Second World War without RAdio Detection And Ranging (radar to you laypeople), we learn that the Radar Secret Service in the nation’s capital is doing swell things with the technology.  Why, RSS Agent Bill Travis (John Howard) and his sidekick Static (Ralph Byrd)—no, not the character on The Space Kiddettes—are able to close the unsolved Allen murder case by locating the missing gun!  (I wonder if the Radar Secret Service ever had cause to work alongside the United States Counterspies?)

But Bill and Static have bigger fish to fry: hoodlum Mickey Moran (Tom Neal) has received word of a valuable shipment of U-238 in transit…and his henchmen Blackie (Riley Hill) and Benson (Robert Kent) manage to “liberate” those goods before the uranium reaches its destination.  The Radar Secret Service swings into action with the help of a “Tele-Meter”—a surveillance device that acts like…well, if this motion picture is to be believed, like there’s a friggin’ camera on every street corner, triggered by the very presence of the U-238.  Moran certainly has his hands full staying one step ahead of the RSS…but the mobster has bigger problems: his moll Lila (Adele Jergens) is two-timing him with the real head of the ring, a sebaceous sort who answers to Michael (Tristram Coffin).

The working title of Radar Secret Service (1950) was Radar Patrol (the organization is repeatedly referred to by that name in the film), but I suspect they changed the name because of fears there’d be confusion with a Republic serial released a year earlier, Radar Patrol vs. Spy King.  With the supporting cast in Service, it could very well be a chapter play: Ralph Byrd, Tris Coffin (oddly, he’s in Radar Patrol vs. Spy King), Pierre Watkin (billed here as “Watkins”), Robert Kent, and Kenne Duncan—just to name a few.  Here’s what handicaps Service in the cliffhanger department: it is deadly dull to sit through, despite its 57-minute running time.  (Even the fistfights are uninspired.)

We can probably blame B-picture king Sam Newfield for the leaden pace of this one, since he sat in the director’s chair (his brother Sigmund was absent from this snooze fest—the producer on Radar Secret Service was the prolific Barney Sarecky) …but the sluggish screenplay by Beryl Sachs (an East Side Kids veteran) doesn’t do Service any favors, either.  Robert L. Lippert “good luck charm” Sid Melton is also around for this programmer (as a hypochrondriacal henchman named “Pill Box”), but when Ralph Byrd manages to get bigger laughs than Sid something has gone seriously awry.  (In fairness to Sid, I choked on my Crystal Light when Byrd’s character remarks about radar: “Dick Tracy used it years before it was invented.”  The in-joke, of course, is that Ralph played the legendary comic strip detective in four Republic serials, two entries in the brief RKO franchise, and on TV from 1950-52 [Byrd passed away at the age of 43 in 1952]).

Agents Byrd and Howard tool around in a vehicle that looks like they're delivering hair dryers.

It’s a shame that Radar Secret Service fails so miserably because it’s got a halfway decent cast: Tom “Detour” Neal is properly snarly, and my favorite B-movie bad blonde Adele Jergens is suitably slinky as the dame what double-crosses him.  Byrd provides scattered chuckles (his explanation of how he found the picture of Blackie’s girlfriend [Myrna Dell] is a hoot), and the always dependable Coffin and Watkin lend solid support.  If there’s a discordant note in this affair, it’s star John Howard…who may be the exception to my long-held theory that even bad actors can get better with age.  (I suspect my animosity towards Howard might have something to do with the fact that he’s the wanker who talks Ronald Colman into leaving Shangri-La in Lost Horizon [1937].)

I feel terrible that I’m going to beat my blogging compadre Scott Clevenger to the punch on this one…but, yes. Radar Secret Service received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment (in December 1993).  Paired with a railroad safety short, Last Clear Chance (1959), the MST3K sendup of Service has its mad scientists (Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff) boasting that the flick contains “Hypno-Helio Static Stasis (containing X-4)” (in layperson’s terms—this turkey is a cure for insomnia).  The MST3K version is available on YouTube, which I strongly endorse watching…but for the more masochistic among you, the director’s cut is available for rental from ClassicFlix.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cheer up, Charlie…

Just wanted to give the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful a reminder that if you want to enter our latest giveaway you need to get your entry in before 11:59pm EST this Saturday, January 28th.  What is the prize, I hear you asking?  Well, I have two copies of the Radio Spirits release Smile a While (valued at $31.95) to hand out to two lucky cartooners—Smile being a bodacious 8-CD set containing sixteen rare and vintage broadcasts of The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show.  If you’re a U.S. resident and/or have a U.S. mailing address, just drop me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Smile a While” in the subject header and you just might be the recipient of one of these sets if the Random.org gods will it to be so.  The response has been very healthy so far, so get your entry in if you want a chance to win!

On the Grapevine: Paths to Paradise (1925)

In The Silent Clowns, his seminal tome on those wonderful practitioners of silver screen mirth, Walter Kerr had this to say about Raymond Griffith: “Griffith seems to me to occupy a handsome fifth place—after Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon—in the silent comedy pantheon, a place that is his by right of his refusal to ape his contemporaries and his insistence on following the devious curve of an entirely idiosyncratic eye.”  A “forgotten clown” whose trademark was the donning of a silk hat, white tie, and tails, Raymond Griffith was “the personification of cool,” observes Leonard Maltin in The Great Movie Comedians.  “In the midst of comic chaos, he never loses his poise.”

The very first feature of Griffith’s that I saw was Hands Up! (1926)—his best-known film, and one that a stray detractor or two has wrongly charged inflates the comedian’s reputation.  (Hands Up! was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2005.)  I’ll concede that basing one’s opinion of an artist on just one movie can be fraught with pitfalls…but fortunately, more and more of Griffith’s work has started to resurface over the years (though not as much on home video as a silent comedy fan like myself would like, obviously). (And let’s be honest—Hands Up! is an outstanding comedy feature film.)  Grapevine Video not only has Hands Up! available on DVD (I can’t swear to it, but I think this may have been the very first disc I purchased from them) but Open All Night (1924), Miss Bluebeard (1925—reviewed on the blog in October 2014), and You’d Be Surprised (1926).  Grapevine also has what some people—notably my good Facebook chum Bruce Calvert and friend of the blog/capo di tutti capi of the Silent Comedy Mafia Richard M. Roberts—consider to be Ray’s finest film, Paths to Paradise (1925).

In Paradise, Griffith is “The Dude from Duluth”—a confidence man who has his eye on a diamond that a wealthy man (Bert Woodruff) is planning to gift his daughter for her wedding.  “Duluth” has some competition, however, in Molly (Betty Compson)—“Queen of the Counterfeiters”—who’s managed to infiltrate the millionaire’s residence posing as a domestic; the Dude himself is incognito as a private detective.  Much hilarity results from the pair’s efforts to “liberate” the gem from the household; though the couple is loath to work as a team as first (both declare during the film that whenever they work with a partner trouble invariably results) they eventually join forces both to take the diamond and experience a little happy-ever-aftering as well.

I’m going to assume it’s a safe bet Compson and Griffith’s characters wind up together—the Grapevine DVD of Paths to Paradise comes to an abrupt conclusion, but that’s because there doesn’t appear to be a surviving print that has the last reel intact.  (The Wikipedia entry on Paradise notes it’s “usually filled in with synopsis by historians and film fans.”  My historian was still at the cleaners.)  The missing content will not, however, detract from your enjoyment in watching the movie; I was thoroughly entertained by Paradise—it’s an amazingly well-constructed comedy, with not one moment dedicated to filler (the Grapevine edition runs 65 minutes) and it moves lickety-split with many hysterical moments along the way.

If you’re going to seek this one out, I will warn you up front: there’s a sequence at the beginning of Paradise where Molly and her cohorts are shown running scams on tourists in a Frisco dive humorously titled “The Bucket O’Blood.”  Told by a lookout there’s a patsy on the way who wants to visit a place with some Asian atmosphere, the bar’s contingent quickly sets up a pseudo opium den for their visitor (the action while they do this is speeded up, which makes it that much funnier) and don “yellowface” (ouch) to masquerade in front of their mark.  The mark, of course, is Griffith’s “Dude”—who capably (with the help of a stooge played by a recognizable Fred Kelsey) relieves them of some excess weight in their wallets and beats a hasty retreat…seconds before Compson discovers Griffith was using a gas inspector’s badge.

Paths to Paradise was adapted for the screen by Keene Thompson from a 1914 play by Paul Armstrong, The Heart of a Thief.  (It would be reprised as the basis for an Eddie Bracken-Betty Hutton romp released twenty years later, Hold That Blonde!)  It would be the second of three collaborations between Griffith and director Clarence Badger—who supervised the silk-hatted comedian in the earlier Red Lights (a 1923 mystery starring Marie Prevost) and the later Hands Up!  Ray would make only four additional features after Hands Up!; his onscreen career came to an end once the talkie era was ushered in (an injury to his vocal cords rendered him unable to talk above a hoarse whisper) and after a part of sound shorts and an appearance as a dying soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Griffith embarked on a second career behind the scenes as a production manager, associate producer, and producer.

Bruce wrote a wonderfully informative article about Raymond Griffith (“Raymond Griffith: Silk Hat Comedian”) for the February 2005 edition of Classic Images that’s available at his Silent Film Still Archive website, but on a Griffith thread at Silent Comedy Mafia he has this to say about Paths to Paradise: “One big reason that [Paradise] is better is that Betty Compson is a great co-conspirator for the film.  It doesn't hurt to have Edgar Kennedy as a bumbling detective in the film either.”  Asking me to choose between Hands Up! and Paradise would be like asking me to choose my favorite kid (well…if I had kids); I think they’re both exemplary comedies (check them out if you haven’t already) and I’m really looking forward to cracking open my copies of Open All Night and You’d Be Surprised in future.  (Grapevine also has a 1923 film on hand where Griffith plays a dramatic role—White Tiger, directed by Tod Browning.)  “Was he really that big of a deal, or is he an overrated figured foisted by Walter Kerr's fancy in 1975?” asks a silent film comedy historian about the underrated comedian at the beginning of that aforementioned SCM thread.

“Yes, he's that big a deal,” replies Richard M. Roberts, never one to mince words.  And that’s the truth, Ruth.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From the DVR: The Long Walk Home (1990)

On March 25, 1991, Caryn Elaine Johnson—better known to fans (and non-fans) as Whoopi Goldberg—received tribute from her acting industry peers when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a charlatan psychic (who learns to her dismay she really is psychic) in the 1990 romantic tearjerker Ghost.  If you’ve done well playing a comedic part in a film—and Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown was without a doubt a major asset as the comic relief in this box office weepie—fellow members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences will do what they can to see you get a trophy for a supporting role.  (There’s a prejudice in the industry that comedy acting is a breeze…when it’s anything but.)

Goldberg is one of those individuals jokingly known as “EGOTs”: those people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.  To be perfectly frank—I’m not a Whoopi fan (I was always puzzled by the praise for her standup comedy specials, which rarely caused me to let loose with a healthy chuckle), though I cannot deny her talent.  I’ve even enjoyed some of the movies in which she’s appeared: The Color Purple (1984—her big screen breakthrough), Soapdish (1991), The Player (1992), and Corinna, Corinna (1994) are the ones I can name off the top of my head.  But in a saner world, Whoopi would have taken home her Oscar for the performance that I’ve always believed is her finest in films…and one that was released the same year as the mega-hit GhostThe Long Walk Home (1990).

The time is 1955 and the place is Montgomery, Alabama.  Odessa “Dessie” Cotter (Goldberg) works as a domestic in the home of real estate developer Norman Thompson (Dwight Schultz), his wife Miriam (Sissy Spacek), and their seven-year-old daughter Mary Catherine (Lexi Faith Randall).  (The story is narrated by Mary Catherine as an adult, courtesy of Mary Steenburgen.)  The arrest of civil rights activist Rosa Parks sets in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as members of the African-American community declare their intention not to patronize the city’s transit service to protest Montgomery racial segregation policy.

It’s not going to be easy for Odessa.  It’s a good hike from her own home to Casa del Thompson, but Odessa and her family are invested in the civil rights movement (though her daughter Selma, played by Erika Alexander, believes the boycott is silly) even if this means she’s often going to be late for her job at the Thompson’s.  The apolitical Miriam doesn’t quite understand the need for the boycott, either. But because she doesn’t want to lose Odessa, Miriam agrees to pick her up on the days she goes into town to market.  She keeps this secret from Norman, who dismisses the boycott at first…but under pressure from his racist family—particularly his younger brother Tunker (Dylan Baker), a real piece of work—Norman’s animosity starts to match that of the Montgomery community, which is feeling the financial pinch from the decline in bus ridership.  Norman even starts attending “Citizens’ Council” meetings, an outfit whose members, he once told Miriam, “can’t count to ten.”

Norman eventually learns that his wife has been helping Odessa with her transportation problems, and the couple have a particularly ugly fight.  Miriam slowly starts to realize that the boycott is about much more than just a refusal to ride buses…and in solidarity with Odessa, volunteers to participate in a carpool group in support those riders observing the boycott.   At the film’s climax, the viewer witnesses that there’s a long struggle ahead as Miriam, Odessa, and other protestors are confronted by an army of white, male oppressors (including Norman and Tunker) in the parking lot for vehicles used in the carpool.

Roger Ebert was quite effusive in his praise for The Long Walk Home…though he wasn’t particularly wild about the film choosing to tell its story through the adult Mary Catherine’s narration—“[A]pparently to reassure white audiences the movie is ‘really’ intended for them.”  I can understand where Brother Roger is coming from; many an interesting movie detailing this important chapter of history is sabotaged by the insistence of filmmakers to have a “white” hero—the most egregious example of this is Mississippi Burning (1988), where two white FBI agents (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) valiantly come to the rescue of the beleaguered African-American community during the Civil Rights era.  (I’ve done a lot of reading on this subject…and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was anything but heroic.)  Another good example is Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), which Whoopi Goldberg coincidentally appears in (as Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers) and is another of her films I like even though it commits the cardinal sin of making it all about the white guy (a lawyer played by Alec Baldwin).

But I give The Long Walk Home a little bit of leeway on this because of its subtle foreshadowing of the later feminist movement, represented by Spacek’s Miriam Thompson.  A woman whose only dog in the Montgomery Bus Boycott fight is making sure her home continues to function with the help of Odessa, she slowly and admirably develops an awareness that the fight is most importantly about being on the right side of history.  Long Walk focuses on the incredible courage of two women who will make their mark on the movement even if they aren’t Rosa Parks.  (Long Walk gives Spacek one of her finest film turns, particularly in the scene where she nervously tells her wanker husband that she’ll run the household as she sees fit…and if that means giving her housekeeper a ride every now and then, tough titty.)

Whoopi gets second billing in the film, but it’s her Odessa Cotter that leaves the longest-lasting impression as the stoic mother who’s committed to the struggle for justice.  “Miss Thompson,” observes Odessa in a sequence where she and her employer awkwardly attempt to bond, “I don’t want your children to grow up scared of mine.”  There are many powerful moments in The Long Walk Home—and some disturbingly ugly ones as well—but the one that always makes me tear up is a scene where Odessa’s family (her husband is played by Ving Rhames—with hair yet) presents her with two Christmas gifts: a new coat and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.  Richard Pearce not only directed Long Walk but two favorites that rank in my opinion among the most realistic depictions of rural life: Heartland (1979) and Country (1984).

I first saw The Long Walk Home a few years after its theatrical run (I’m guessing it was during my years in exile in Morgantown), and when I saw it scheduled recently on HDNet Movies I was curious to sit down with it again to see if it still held up.  (And it does.)  I don’t see much of Whoopi these days (well, maybe a few seconds of The View as my father switches over to his must-see noon newscast) but she demonstrates here that sometimes people win Oscars for the wrong movies.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The best kind of McCarthyism

In May of last year, I received a plum assignment from Radio Spirits: authoring the liner notes for a collection of Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy broadcasts.  This wasn’t my first rodeo, you understand (I refer you here and here)—but the programs selected for this set would consist of many uncirculated shows, something that makes the heart of any old-time radio fan go pitter-pat.  It certainly did wonders for my cardiac circulation, reveling in the antics of radio’s most popular ventriloquist and his smartassed sidekick as they traded quips with the likes of Paulette Goddard, Bert Lahr, Ida Lupino, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lupe Velez.

This collection is titled Smile a While, and it contains sixteen broadcasts from 1943, when Edgar Bergen and his wooden friends ranked among radio’s top comedy programs—entertaining audiences weekly to relieve the stress and worries resulting from WW2.  I’ve got two of these sets (the SRP is $31.95) to give away to two lucky members of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful; I offer my most profuse mea culpa for not getting this up on the blog as I originally planned…but it took me a lot longer to defeat the Killer Flu Virus from Venus.  As it’s been a little over a month since I handed out some fantabulous swag, even if you made out like a bandit in December’s The Couple Next Door contest you can enter this one if you so desire.

Here are the rules:

1) Send me an e-mail with “Smile a While” in the subject header to igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com.  You have until 11:59pm EST on January 28, 2017 (next Saturday) to enter.

2) Make sure you are a U.S. resident or have a U.S. mailing address.

3) Again, since TDOY hosted the last giveaway back in December, the usual request to sit out a contest to allow other cartooners a more sporting chance is kinda null and void.  However…if you still wouldn’t feel right about entering, not only would we understand completely but we would probably write folk songs chronicling your generous nature and have a statue erected in your home town (provided I can sneak this provision in an upcoming Congressional infrastructure bill).

4) I will choose two winners Sunday morning (via the Random Number Generator at Random.com) of January 29th and not only inform the lucky persons of their tremendous good fortune but suggest they have a flutter at buying a lottery ticket.  Keep in mind that when entering, you don’t have to provide a snail-mail address…but I will need it once you receive that “Congratulations!” e-mail.

5) As always…there is no number five.

This is truly an entertaining set (the November 14, 1943 broadcast with guest star Mary Boland is one of the funniest half-hours I’ve ever listened to) and it would look swell on the shelf that houses your OTR collection…or better still, a generous gift for the person in your life who’s not only got a birthday coming up but loves Edgar & Charlie as well.  As always, profuse thanks go out to my employers at Radio Spirits for donating the prizes and remember—Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950)

Old-time radio’s favorite representative from the fictitious “United States Counterspies” agency, David Harding (Howard St. John), returns for his second and final attempt to establish a silver screen franchise in Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950).  This time out, Harding and his agents are examining the “suicide” of one Don Martin (Harry Lauter), an operative who left a message on his boss’ machine announcing a break in the investigation of the leaking of valuable information regarding the government’s guided missile program.  It’s all so simple, really: why would a man take his own life the night he’s about to achieve a breakthrough that will reveal the person responsible for jeopardizing national security?

Harding will get an assist in the Martin matter from Simon Langton (Ron Randell), described by the counterspies as “the British David Harding.”  (Hence the “Scotland Yard” in the film’s title.)  Both men don’t know it yet—though the audience is clued in early, otherwise we’d be bored shitless—but the individual at the center of the leaks is Martin’s secretary (and secret ex-fiancée) Karen Michelle (Amanda Blake).  Karen, however, is unaware that her loose lips have been sinking ships; she’s being pumped for the information (thanks to a dose of sodium pentothal) by Dr. Victor Gilbert (Lewis Martin), who records their sessions and then sends the tape on to higher-ups in the spy ring (represented by the president of a bottled water company, played by Charles Meredith).  Say it with me now: this looks like a job for…David Harding, Counterspy!

The 'rents have heard me sing out "John Doucette!" every time I see him in one of their Lone Ranger reruns they're now able to spot him before I do.  (John plays one of the bad guys.)

Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard is a slight improvement over the original David Harding, Counterspy (1950); it’s shorter, as my Facebook chum Hal Erickson notes in From Radio to the Big Screen, though Hal also opines it’s “perhaps because Seymour Friedman was a better director than Ray Nazarro.”  (Leonard Maltin generously gives it ** ½ in his Classic Movie Guide, calling it a “slick, efficient B yarn.”)  It’s not too hard to suss out, however, why the attempt to continue the Counterspy film franchise fell by the wayside.  Howard St. John was a first-rate character actor (Born Yesterday, Li’l Abner) but he suffers from a serious deficiency in the charisma department when it comes to playing leads.  Ditto his “British counterpart,” Ron Randell, whose previous attempts to keep both the Bulldog Drummond and Lone Wolf movie series chugging along apparently met with much theatergoer malaise.

Legendary TV homewrecker June Vincent channels her inner Nurse Ratched as the henchwoman to the villainous doctor played by Lewis Martin.

So is there anything to recommend about Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard?  Well, the story and screenplay by Harold Greene has some clever moments, particularly the method the spies use to transport Michelle’s recorded babblings back to their lair.  (Erickson: “So cunningly complex is Mr. Miller’s scheme that one is almost pulling for him to get away with it!”)  Speaking of Michelle, the actress playing her will be familiar to legions of Gunsmoke fans as the gal who slaked the thirst of Dodge City’s citizens for nearly the entirety of the television run: Amanda Blake (and she’s quite good, too).  Mister John Dehner returns from the first movie as Agent Bob Reynolds, and future director Fred F. Sears is also back as Agent Harry Peters (special thanks to member of the TDOY faithful rnigma for the first name), Harding’s chief sidekick on the radio version.

I do not own the VCI edition of Forgotten Noir Collection 4 that features Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard…so I had to depend, as I have many times in the past, on the kindness of strangers—in this particular instance, I rented it from ClassicFlix.  Next Friday, I will sample another flick from that same set.