Friday, March 31, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Sky Liner (1949)

State Department official George Eakins (John McGuire), scheduled to leave for a conference in L.A., receives a sealed envelope containing his orders by courier.  Eakins will never get on that plane to the Coast, however; a shadowy figure enters the office and pistol whips him, rendering him quite dead.  His secretary, Amy Winthrop (Rochelle Hudson), immediately emerges as a “person of interest” because her seatmate (Steve Pendleton) on that plane—identified only as “Mr. Smith”—has told the airline people he’s Eakins.

" The Whistler..."

Steven Geray
Smith has another confederate on the same flight—foreign agent Bokejian (Steven Geray), who trades the sealed envelope originally handed to the real Eakins for five large.  Opening the envelope, Bokejian finds its contents consist of several blank sheets of State Department stationery…and because he believes “caveat emptor” to be a steaming pile of bovine excrement, he dispatches his ex-friend Smith to The Happy Haunting Ground with curare concealed in his fountain pen.  (This is not spoiling anything, by the way.  It’s obvious Bokejian is the murderer.)  Fortunately for the remaining passengers, there’s a Fed on board—Steve Blair, who takes quick control of the situation even though he’s played by the same actor (Richard Travis) who was Inspector Bruger in last week’s movie, Roaring City (1951).

Where to begin with Sky Liner (1949)?  I’ll say this for it—it makes Motor Patrol (1950) look like La règle du jeu (1939).  The tagline for this programmer reads “a fast paced and different kind of mystery thriller,” but there’s nothing remotely “fast paced” about Liner, and as for “different”—well, it would be unfair of me to say, “What makes it ‘different’ is that there’s nothing ‘thrilling’ about it” because it wouldn’t be the first movie I’ve watched that promised excitement and suspense and delivered neither.  It’s a static, talky B that keeps an unblinking eye on a stopwatch until its 61 minutes is up, and then announces it’s time for the wrap party.

Even then, the version of Sky Liner on the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collection Vol. 4 set (available at The Sprocket Vault) is a truncated version of the film, running at 49 minutes (DVD Talk’s Stuart Galbraith IV speculates it might be either a shorter UK release version or a TV cut).  The info on the movie at the American Film Institute mentions there’s an “obnoxious child singer” among the passengers…so it sounds like I lucked out here, because the kid in the print I watched does no singing.  “Amazingly, Sid Melton isn’t in this one,” observes Galbraith…but I was so bored watching the thing I kept hoping Sid would emerge from the plane’s washroom at some point.  Speaking of which:

Richard Travis
That washroom is larger than one we have here at the house.  There a lot of familiar Lippert faces in Sky Liner—Travis, Pendleton, Pamela Blake (as the stewardess), Michael Whalen, etc. (Margia Dean must have been furious with her agent)—and Robert L. stalwart William Berke (or “Wm.,” as it says in the opening credits) handles the directing chores (with a screenplay by the ubiquitous Maurice Tombragel).  I can’t in good conscience recommend you stop what you’re doing to sit down with this one, but if you’re trapped in a waiting room with fifty minutes to kill…you could do worse.

Next week: the return of Crime Does Not Pay!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Buried Treasures: Behind the Door (1919)

Last week, I climbed this blog’s highest rooftop to announce that Thrilling Days of Yesteryear had agreed to co-host a giveaway sponsored by Flicker Alley: they are going to hand out a Blu-ray/DVD combo copy of their upcoming April 4th release of Behind the Door (1919), a World War I drama recently restored as a collaborative effort by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.  Memorably described by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow as “the most outspoken of all the vengeance films,” Door stars Hobart Bosworth, Jane Novak, and Wallace Beery in a movie that blends romance, action, and suspense.

Jane Novak, Hobart Bosworth
Flicker Alley’s Sarah Bastin was kind enough to provide me with access to an online screener of Behind the Door as a “thank ye” for helping to spread the word about this release…and I’m going to tell you right now if you haven’t yet signed up for the giveaway you need to get there fastest with the mostest.  The film, though set shortly before America entered World War I, begins in 1925 with the return of veteran seaman Oscar Krug (Bosworth) to his home in a small Maine seaport village.  He then flashes back to 1917, when he operated a prosperous taxidermy business…and was engaged to lovely Alice Morse (Novak).  Alice’s father (J.P. Lockney), the local banker and town bigwig, disapproves highly of Krug as a prospective son-in-law (he’s saving Alice for his associate, played by Otto Hoffman).

James Gordon, Bosworth
When news of the United States’ declaration of war against “the Hun” spreads through the village, Mr. Morse stirs up a little anti-German sentiment towards Oscar; he’s of German heritage, but he’s determined to fight for his country as an American…and he’s ready to lick anyone who says otherwise.  Jim MacTavish (James Gordon) is game, and after receiving a beatdown from Krug he’s man enough to declare Oscar his friend.  The two chums are even stationed on the same naval vessel once they sign up, with Oscar as captain and Jim his first mate.

Before his stint with the Navy, however, Oscar secretly weds Alice…and when her father discovers this, he arranges for her belongings to be stored at curbside.  Alice joins Oscar on the “Perth” (his ship) despite a no-civilians rule on the government ship through a bit o’ chicanery (she poses as a nurse) …yet thanks to an unscrupulous U-boat commander (Wallace Beery), the future of our couple soon heads toward tragedy.

Produced by the legendary Thomas H. Ince, Behind the Door had its origins in a Gouverneur Morris short story, “Behind the Door,” published in McClure’s in July of 1918.  Ince paid $10,000 for the rights to the tale (even though the war ended in November, Tom found the tale most compelling) and assigned his colleague Irvin V. Willat to direct the adaptation (from a script by Luther Reed).  Ince and Willat had known one another since their days at Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), and Irv would later help the producer work out the technical kinks on Ince’s box office hit Civilization (1916)—it would be the film that started Willat’s directorial career.  (Later collaborations between the two men include False Faces [1919—with Lon Chaney] and Below the Surface [1920—another submarine saga starring Hobart Bosworth].  Willat’s The Grim Game [1919], starring Harry Houdini, was showcased on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ last year.)

Bosworth, Novak
Behind the Door was released in 1919 to boffo box office and glowing reviews…though some have speculated that had Door been released while World War I was still in progress, the financial take might have been even greater.  Though Door doesn’t skimp on the melodrama (or propaganda—though you’d be amazed how it echoes a lot of today’s political sentiment), it’s a most entertaining movie that showcases Willat’s stylish direction (friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts notes that Willat “pioneered the creation and use of the ‘art-card’ subtitle [or illustrated subtitle]”), evident in a nicely-executed sequence which finds Oscar and Alice, stranded in a lifeboat, idyllically daydreaming about returning home to their village after escaping their present predicament.  They enter the backyard behind Oscar’s shop, and generously help themselves to water from a well.  There is then a cut to the two of them back in the lifeboat, and Oscar is draining the last of their drinking H2O into a tin cup.

Wallace Beery, Bosworth
His appearance as a vicious villain in 1919’s The Unpardonable Sin (you might remember that he also played a particularly odious individual in Victory [1919], a Flicker Alley MOD release reviewed on the blog) no doubt inspired Wallace Beery’s casting as the schweinhundt Lieutenant Brant in Behind the Door.  The future Academy Award winner is a most unrepentant scoundrel, and he meets a particularly nasty fate (I won’t reveal what happens…but if you’re familiar with director Willat’s other films it wouldn’t be the first time Irv went to that well).  Bosworth is a hero who properly elicits the audience’s sympathy, and Novak (TDOY commenter Agnes notes that she appeared with Harold Lloyd in Just Nuts [1915], but she also graced Wagon Tracks [1919], which I also reviewed on the blog) is an ethereal presence and most effective.

No complete copy of Behind the Door is known to have survived.  This restoration, a partnership between the LOC, Gosfilmofond of Russia, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, was pieced together from an incomplete 35mm print, a separate roll of shots preserved at the LOC’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (from Hobart Bosworth’s estate), and an edited 35mm print from the Gosfilmofond.  There are two noticeable gaps in the film that have been reconstructed with still images, and the completion in continuity comes from the late Bob Birchard, who loaned out director Willat’s original script.  Despite the heavy traces of decomposition, this version of Behind the Door looks positively splendid in many sequences, with first-rate tinting of scenes and an exquisite musical score provided by Stephen Horne.

I have to share this with you with regards to director Irvin Willat, courtesy of an e-mail exchange with Richard M. Roberts: “His sound career petered out by the late 1930's, but he was in a sound financial place partially due to the loss of his once-wife Billie Dove to Howard Hughes, who stole her away, but was nice enough to send a package of cash containing $325,000 to Willat as an apology.  Willat said he first thought he'd go confront Hughes and shove the money down his throat, but after a few drinks decided Dove wasn't worth the fuss nor the cash, so he invested it in real estate.”  Way to go, Irv!  Remember: the deadline on the Beyond the Door giveaway is April 12—so be sure to check out this post for details on how to enter.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“You’re durn tootin’, Hoppy!”

Of the numerous movies to which I helped myself from Vault on Demand during our recent Epix freeview, a little over a dozen of these features were B-westerns starring William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.  Cassidy was a cowpoke created by Clarence Mulford in a series of popular short stories—a whiskey drinkin’, tobacco-chawin’, rough-talkin’ hombre whose wooden leg caused him to walk with a noticeable limp, earning him the nickname “Hop-A-Long.”  Movie producer Harry Sherman negotiated a deal with Mulford to bring his literary creation to the silver screen (beginning in 1935 with Hop-A-Long Cassidy) but a few cosmetic changes were made to the movie Hoppy: his beverage of choice was now sarsaparilla, the wooden leg was downgraded to an injury from a bullet wound, and he was so squeaky clean (honest, forthright, kind to kids and animals, etc.) he threatened to make Gene Autry look like one of the Dead End Kids.  There would be a total of sixty-six Hopalong Cassidy oaters produced between 1935 and 1948, and Boyd’s Cassidy would become not only one of the motion picture industry’s highly bankable box office mainstays but a real hero to the Saturday matinee crowd (despite that Hoppy was often clad in black…white was the sartorial choice of the good guys in westerns as a rule).

Russell 'Lucky' Hayden and William Boyd
Law of the Pampas (1939) and Riders of the Deadline (1943) are the only two programmers of the fourteen I downloaded that I’ve yet to watch—the remaining movies are nevertheless remarkably entertaining, and I can see why the Hopalong Cassidy series was so popular.  The plots may not be original (there’s only so much you can do with westerns) but the strength of the Cassidy films lie in the characters; Hoppy himself, as played by the prematurely graying Boyd, comes across as a father figure—he didn’t engage much in the arena of romance (though more than I had been led to believe), preferring to leave “the wimmin stuff” to the youngest member of his “trio,” Johnny Nelson (played by James Ellison).  Ellison portrayed Johnny up until the ninth of the Hoppys, Borderland (1937), and was then replaced by Russell Hayden as ‘Lucky’ Jenkins.  (Hayden became so identified with Jenkins that he was often billed as “Russell ‘Lucky’ Hayden” in his later films…and many of the characters he played, particularly alongside Charles Starrett [like in Riders of the Badlands], were named ‘Lucky’ as well.)

Hayden, Boyd, and George 'Gabby' Hayes
Flanking Hopalong Cassidy on the opposite side was an older, cantankerous sidekick in ‘Windy’ Halliday (though he also went by other surnames, depending on the movie)—portrayed by the Patron Saint of Garrulous Cinema Codgers, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes.  Hayes was in the first two Hopalong Cassidy pictures, but didn’t begin playing Windy until the third, Bar 20 Rides Again (1935).  Throughout the series, Windy and Johnny (and later Lucky) quarreled with and cussed at one another (Windy thought both “whippersnappers” despite the mutual affection), often requiring Cassidy to play mediator.  Hayes was with the Hoppy features until Renegade Trail (1939) and then, unable to come to terms with producer Sherman over his salary, switched to riding alongside Roy Rogers in a successful series of films at Republic (this is where he acquired the “Gabby” nickname).

Since the earliest of the Hopalong Cassidy films on Epix’s On Demand was Partners of the Plains (1938), I haven’t been afforded the opportunity yet to see any of the James Ellison films.  Plains is a very good introduction to the Hoppy features…even though ‘Gabby’ Hayes is absent from this one (he’s replaced by Harvey Clark as ‘Baldy’ Morton) it’s still business as usual: Hoppy and his friends work on a ranch where Britisher Lorna Drake (Gwen Gaze) has acquired a controlling interest, and Lorna—described by her Aunt Martha (Hilda Plowright) as being “a little willful and spoiled”—clashes almost immediately with foreman Cassidy.  But she’s carrying a torch for our hero (despite bristling at being told what to do); when Hoppy quits as foreman, she has the sheriff (Earle Hodgins) arrest him for “stealing” his beloved horse Topper!  (Hoppy doesn’t have a bill of sale…so in the eyes of the law, he’s a hoss thief.)

Lorna’s romantic designs on Hoppy do not go unnoticed by her fiancé, Ronald Harwood (John Warburton) …who accepts that Cassidy is the better man by taking bad advice from ex-convict Scar Lewis (character great Al Bridge)—great name, by the way—to remove Hoppy as his competition…permanently.  Everything comes out in the wash eventually, with a suspenseful forest fire climax and Lorna’s transformation from spirited filly to meek and docile submissive.

The young ingenue in Doomed Caravan (1941) is billed as “Georgia Hawkins” …but old-time radio fans know her as Georgia Ellis, whose best-remembered role is that of “Kitty Russell” on Gunsmoke.
Female characterizations don’t often fare well in the Hopalong Cassidy films…but I was pleasantly surprised by some of the portrayals, since many of the women are not content to just stand around looking helpless (in Doomed Caravan [1941], one of the top Hoppys, Minna Gombell’s freight owner is locked, loaded, and ready to tangle with the bad guys).  This is occasionally played for laughs; in Range War (1939), Ellen Marlow (Betty Moran) chafes at the thought of having to stay behind while the menfolk go after the outlaws.  She decides to avail herself of the only mode of transportation accessible to her: a broken-down mule who, alas, does not share Ellen’s zeal for her law and order mission.

Russell Hopton, Charlotte Wynters
A good example of a positive female character can be found in the last of the ‘Gabby’ Hayes Hoppys: in Renegade Trail, widow Mary Joyce (Charlotte Wynters) has had her hands full running one of the most prosperous ranches in Cactus Springs—the Circle J.  She accomplished this after the death of her husband, whom she’s told her son Joey (Sonny Bupp) over the years died a hero.  Surprise!  Hubby Bob ‘Smoky’ Joslin (Russell Hopton) has actually been serving a lengthy prison sentence…and now that he’s escaped, he’s threatening to reveal the truth to young Joseph—necessitating the need for many years of therapy in the young lad’s future, no doubt.  Mary agrees to provide cover for Smoky’s illegal activities in exchange for his silence (she tells everyone he’s her brother) …but she’s not particularly wild about the notion of his rustling her cattle, and neither are Hoppy and Lucky—who are in Cactus Springs to visit their old pal Windy (now the town marshal).

Roy Barcroft tangles with Hoppy in a lobby card for Renegade Trail (1939) as John Merton looks on (dis)approvingly.
The material has been done to death, I know…but the reason why I got such a kick out of Trail is that The Baddest Serial Villain of Them All, Roy Barcroft, is the wicked hombre in cahoots with Joslin (Roy’s character is called ‘Stiff Hat’ Bailey…and he not only gives Joey a smack in the kisser but kicks a dog for good measure) …and “Everyhench” John Merton is the chief goon.  It’s solidly paced, and well-directed by Lesley Selander…who directed a metric ton of the entries in the Hopalong Cassidy franchise.

The ‘Gabby’ Hayes deficit was made up in a few Hopalong Cassidy films by a character named ‘Speedy’ McGinnis (comically played by Britt Wood); I’ve only seen Wood in Range War, so I can’t really give you a full appraisal of what his character added to the series (a lot of Hoppy fans feel mostly “meh” about Speedy).  With Three Men in Texas (1940), the Hoppy franchise introduced my favorite of the elderly sidekicks in ‘California’ Jack Carson, played by veteran comedian Andy Clyde.  The fact that I’m such a huge fan of Andy’s admittedly colors my assessment of his contribution to the movie series…but Texas is a first-rate oater, and a beloved favorite among Cassidy fans.

TDOY fave Andy Clyde joins Boyd and Hayden.
The best of the Hoppy features that I’ve watched (so far, of course) is Pirates on Horseback (1941), which finds Hoppy, Lucky, and California on the hunt for a gold mine discovered by Carson’s distant cousin (very distant—like 42nd), Ben Pendleton (played by Britt Wood!).  Upon arriving at Pendleton’s shack, the trio meet his niece Trudy (Eleanor Stewart) …and agree to help her locate the mine, the location of which is gradually revealed via cryptic clues throughout Horseback’s running time.  Trudy is convinced by Ace Gibson (Morris Ankrum) that Hoppy and Company are working against her best interests…unaware that Gibson wants to get his grimy mitts on the mine himself!  Character veteran Ankrum was in a buttload of Hoppy westerns (the [always] reliable IMDb credits him with a baker’s dozen), and I got so used to seeing him play the villain that when he portrayed a good guy in Wide Open Town (1941) I kept suspecting it would eventually be revealed he was up to something criminal.

Years before starring opposite Richard Denning on TV/radio's Mr. and Mrs. North, Barbara Britton was paying her sagebrush dues.  In Secret of the Wastelands (1941), she plays an archaeologist who literally has to remove her glasses and let down her hair before Hayden's 'Lucky' realizes she's beautiful.

Wide Open Town was Russell Hayden’s swan song (after 27 films) with the Hopalong Cassidy franchise; his ‘Lucky’ Jenkins would be replaced by Brad King as “Johnny Nelson.”  (When the Hoppy films resumed in 1946—after star Boyd purchased both his old films and the rights to make more—the ‘Lucky’ character returned to the fold, portrayed by Rand Brooks.)  After King, the Cassidy series then showcased several rotating young sidekicks including Jay Kirby and Jimmy Rogers—in Bar 20 (1943), the sidekick is played by future TV Superman George Reeves!  The presence of the bland Kirby (as “Johnny Travers”) in Border Patrol (1943) didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this film; Hoppy and his crew match wits against an autocratic judge in Orestes Krebs (Russell Simpson), who’s been using kidnapped Mexicans as forced labor in his silver mine.  Judge Krebs puts the three comrades on trial that brings new meaning to the term “kangaroo court”—with Robert Mitchum (billed as Bob) as the foreman!  (Big Bad Bob appeared in several Hoppy westerns, notably 1943’s Hoppy Serves a Writ [which I haven’t seen] and Leather Burners [which I have].)  Patrol was my second favorite among the Epix Hoppys, with fine support from familiar faces like Claudia Drake, Duncan Renaldo, and Pierce Lyden.

The only gripe—and I’ll be honest, it’s a major one—is that the Epix prints of these movies have, to use the horse parlance, been rode hard and put up wet.  Two of the titles, Doomed Caravan and Wide Open Town, have running times of fifty-four minutes (most disappointing, since these are two of the best movies in the series) …leading me to suspect that these versions were the ones that were cut-up for television by NBC when Hoppy’s adventures came to small screens in 1949.  (Bar 20 Justice [1938] was missing its opening credits.)  A complete collection of the Hopalong Cassidy films was released to DVD by Echo Bridge in 2009 with restored prints, and that set, Hopalong Cassidy Ultimate Collector's Edition, was reissued in 2015 (sans collective lunchbox) …so I’m entertaining thoughts of grabbing one of these once the financial picture is a bit rosier here at Rancho Yesteryear.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Buried Treasures: Breakfast in Hollywood (1946)

One day on Facebook, my chum Jason Togyer—editor of the online Tube City Almanac, The Voice of McKeesport, PA—asked me if I knew the origin of a gag he had heard the great comedy duo of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding do in a routine: “You win my orchid for today.”  Fortunately for Jase, my synapses were firing on all cylinders (to mix a metaphor) and I recognized it from Breakfast in Hollywood, a popular daytime radio program that premiered on January 13, 1941 on local L.A. station KFWB (The Voice of Warner Bros.) as Breakfast on the Boulevard.  When it went national over the Blue Network in August of 1942, the name was changed to Breakfast at Sardi’s…and in March of 1943, it started answering to Breakfast in Hollywood (it was also called Breakfast with Breneman—after the show’s host, Tom Breneman).  (They stopped referring to the program as Breakfast at Sardi’s to avoid confusion with the famed eatery in New York.)

Carmen Miranda with Tom Breneman
The “orchid” referred to in the preceding paragraph was a daily segment on the Breneman program, in which he handed out that flower (courtesy of “Joe the Express Boy”) to the oldest member (usually female) of the studio audience as…well, I guess as a prize for growing so old.  Breakfast in Hollywood thrived on participation of women willing to be up at the butt-crack of dawn (they started seating the audience at 7:30am) for a chance to be on the show; the “Wishing Ring” segment handed out the titular jewelry (from Joseff’s of Hollywood!) to lucky ladies who only had to reveal their hopes and dreams in return, and “Beauty Kit” auctioned off a collection of cosmetics to one fortunate matron.  If it all sounds silly, keep in mind that mind-numbing small screen fromage like Dr. Phil and Judge Judy inexplicably racks up big ratings today; Breakfast in Hollywood had at the peak of its popularity a nationwide audience of ten million loyal listeners, second only to the granddaddy of all “breakfast” programs, The Breakfast Club.

Tom Breneman, an ex-vaudevillian and radio station manager, saw his radio show balloon in popularity to the point where the West Coast Sardi’s could no longer accommodate the large crowds for the program…and he eventually opened his own Vine Street eatery in March of 1945, allowing Breakfast in Hollywood to comfortably resume broadcasting.  The story goes that producer Robert S. Golden was taking a stroll by Breneman’s joint one day and had his gob completely smacked at the sight of a line of women lined up around the block to get into the show. (Bob didn’t know anything about the program.)  Cartoon dollar signs no doubt appeared in Golden’s eyes, and he set up his own production outfit which executed a deal with United Artists to release a silver screen version of Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) that got underway in the fall of 1945.  Screenwriter Earl Baldwin put together a script that spotlighted four tales of woe and non-woe among different characters attending a Breneman broadcast, described by Hal Erickson in From Radio to the Big Screen as “a 1946 version of the 2004 Oscar-winner Crash, in which a number of disparate lives are woven together by a single traffic incident.”

Bonita Granville
Serial philanderer Richard Cartwright (Raymond Walburn) plows into 82-year-old widow Annie Reed (played by the 56-year-old Beulah Bondi) with his car as the Widder Reed is on her way to attend a broadcast of Breakfast in Hollywood.  Octogenarians don’t normally walk away from that kind of traffic mishap as a rule, but Annie is so determined to see the show that she soldiers on (and winds up winning the orchid) … only to collapse after the show’s sign-off.  Also in Breneman’s audience are Dorothy Larsen (Bonita Granville), a young girl who hails from the wilds of Minnesota, who’s in town to meet up with her fiancé and winds up the recipient of the “Wishing Ring”; as good movie plotting would have it, her beau’s best buddy from the Navy, Ken Smith (Edward Ryan), is also in attendance…but he’s got some unpleasant news to relay to Dottie.

Rounding out the Breakfast in Hollywood crowd are Frances Cartwright (Billie Burke)—and yes, she’s married to the aforementioned Richard—who emerges victorious in the “Beauty Kit” segment; she uses her cosmetics prize as an incentive for a complete makeover…and then coincidentally runs into her husband in the beauty salon/barber shop, where he’s found boasting of his latest romantic conquest with a pair of chippies.  (I predict he’s going to be subletting a doghouse soon.)  Finally, we have Elvira Spriggens (ZaSu Pitts)—who’s sporting millinery so hideous she’s hoping host Breneman will try it on.  The “goofy hats” worn by female audience members—which host Breneman would “test drive” to appreciative laughter and applause—were a trademark of Breakfast in Hollywood; odds are in your favor that if you were to pick out any random publicity photo of the show from a pile, Tom will be sporting a woman’s comical chapeau.  (Elvira finally gets her heart’s desire in Hollywood’s closing gag, when Tom agrees to try on another hideous hat she’s acquired—from the queen of outrageous hat accessories, Hedda Hopper [playing herself]—to discourage her from continuously stalking him.)

Because it’s languishing in retirement at the Old Public Domain Home, Breakfast in Hollywood can be easily located in any number of venues, including YouTube and inexpensive DVDs like Alpha Video.  I downloaded the movie from Vault on Demand during our Epix freeview…and to be honest, I was initially reluctant to watch the film because of the poor write-up (one-and-a-half stars) it received in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide (Len calls it “uninspired”).  (Life’s too short to intentionally watch bad movies, though it has paid off handsomely for some.)  Here’s the thing: there are a lot of classic movies in that book that are in dire need of revisiting, and after reading about Hollywood in Hal Erickson’s book I decided to take a chance.  (Plus, I’m a sucker for ZaSu and Billie.)

Breneman comforts Beulah Bondi.
“Director Harold D. Schuster of My Friend Flicka fame handles the contrivances of Breakfast with Hollywood so adroitly that it seldom enters one’s consciousness that Real Life never works out this conveniently,” notes Erickson.  Movies are magic, baby; I know that I can’t take any frame of the film too seriously (particularly when I spot familiar character faces like Robert “Weenie King” Dudley, Minerva Urecal, and Byron Foulger as the “radio” audience) but Hollywood is such a charming, unpretentious romp I didn’t mind a bit.  Granted, the romantic subplot between Granville and Ryan isn’t much to write home about, but the musical interludes from the (Nat) King Cole Trio (they perform separately—all the better to snip their numbers so as not to enrage the segregation-minded South) and Spike Jones and His City Slickers help smooth out the rough spots.  (I know all this musical talent and star cameos might seem like “stunt casting” …but in all honesty, Hollywood would frequently play host to “surprise” celebrity guests [Jimmy Durante, Orson Welles, etc.] throughout its run.)  Moreover, I can see why Breneman had such a fan base—he’s a most gregarious and engaging presence, and I couldn’t help but grin when the subplots take him outside of his radio show environs so he can get personally involved in the lives of the character played by Bondi and young lovers Bonita and Edward.  (Mr. Anthony should have filed a lawsuit against this guy.)

Tom Brenemen's restaurant, circa 1947
After Breakfast in Hollywood ended its theatrical run, Tom Breneman returned to his radio gig and continued successfully broadcasting weekdays until April 28, 1948…when, two hours before he was to go on the air, Breneman collapsed and died at the age of 46.  Garry Moore stepped up to the plate and signed on as Hollywood’s replacement host, but neither him nor a succession of other emcees (including Cliff “Charley Weaver” Arquette) could capture the Breneman magic, and the program left ABC on July 6, 1951.  (A revival attempt ran on NBC from 1952 to 1954…yet it, too, found little success.)  A smattering of the original broadcasts has managed to survive the ravages of time and neglect, and can be found for purchase here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Buried Treasures: Thank You All Very Much (1969)

Of all the premium channel “freeviews” that we received during the latter part of February and early March, I think the one from Epix was my favorite.  There wasn’t too much on the regular schedule that attracted my interest (though the ‘rents enjoyed the multiple showings of the Indiana Jones movies) …but they have a nifty little section called “Vault” in their On Demand offerings, and you can find the occasional little cinematic nugget or two.  (Sadly, more than a few of them are bad public domain prints, as I will discuss in blog posts later this week.)  One of these was a 1969 feature entitled Thank You All Very Much, an adaptation of Margaret Drabble’s 1965 feminist novel The Millstone.

Sandy Dennis
As the opening credits unspool, we learn along with doctorate student Rosamund Stacey (Sandy Dennis) that she is great with child after her first sexual encounter.  This activity did not occur with either of the two men she’s been seeing off and on—Roger Henderson (John Standing) and Joe Hurt (Michael Coles)—but with a television news reader, George Matthews (Ian McKellen), to whom she was introduced by Joe.  Reticent at first to talk about the pregnancy, Rosamund eventually reveals her condition to both Roger and Joe while informing them they are not the father.  Rosamund has made up her mind that she’s going to have the child, despite the efforts of her friend Lydia Reynolds (Eleanor Bron) and her sister Beatrice (Deborah Stanford) to convince her there is an alternative route.

When I saw Sandy Dennis’ name in the cast of this film originally shown to U.K. audiences as A Touch of Love, I knew I had to sit down with it.  I’ve always been a huge Dennis fan, even though I know for many movie mavens she’s an acquired taste (this wag over at TCM refers to her as “Our Lady of the Nervous Tics”).  Dennis, an Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), was an accomplished stage actress (winning back-to-back Tony Awards for A Thousand Clowns [1963] and Any Wednesday [1964]) who made her feature film debut in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and after her Oscar win for Woolf was a leading lady in such movies as Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Fox (1967), Sweet November (1968), and The Out-of-Towners (1970).

Eleanor Bron, Dennis, Sarah Whalley
Sandy’s screen characters always fascinate me with their vulnerability…and yet they often manage to find their inner strength; her idealistic schoolteacher in Staircase—a movie I prefer to the better known To Sir, With Love, released the same year—is a great example of someone who succeeds not through the force of personality but a quiet determination to overcome adversity.  Dennis’ Rosamund Stacey in Thank You All Very Much reminds me a great deal of Staircase’s Sylvia Barrett, in that Rosamund is often unsure of herself with regards to the decision she’s made to keep her baby.  (I find the reactions of several of the supporting characters in Thank You—who have convinced themselves that single motherhood is a crippling societal stigma—quite intriguing.)  But Rosamund is a bright, funny, intelligent woman who realizes that taking the easy way out by settling for either Roger or Joe is not a road she wants to travel; both men are real wankers (particularly Roger, who marries another woman not long after Rosamund has her little girl…yet later hits on Lydia at a party) and it’s a little puzzling as to what attracted our heroine to them in the first place.

Dennis, Ian McKellen
Even more puzzling is Rosamund’s decision not to reveal the truth to George that the girl she eventually names “Octavia” is his daughter—because George seems to be a decent sort and a not-too-shabby candidate for a husband (he’s more sensitive and understanding than her other beaus, for starters).  The audience receives a few hints as to why Rosamund is reluctant to get married; several flashbacks show us her relationship with her mother (Peggy Thorpe-Bates) and father (Kenneth Benda) is a polite but strained one…and she’s realized that the presence of the traditional family unit isn’t necessarily a guarantee for stability and/or happiness.  It could also be that she’s suspected that George is bisexual (hinted at but never explicitly stated…which is why the casting of Ian McKellen—in his feature film debut—is a nice call).  Ultimately, it’s made clear that Rosamund has simply decided, like Garbo, she wants to be alone; as The New York Times review by Roger Greenspun nicely reinforces: “[I]ts particular contribution is in understanding that loneliness is not so much desolation as it is a different set of associations.”

The American title of the movie references a bit of sarcasm from Rosamund after she’s been poked and prodded by several student doctors who are unable to see past her as a patient; considering the cold bureaucratic treatment she receives at the hands of Great Britain’s National Health Service I’m surprised politicians in this country haven’t seized upon Thank You All Very Much as an argument against us lefties who advocate for a single-payer system (which we ultimately can’t have…because freedom).  One of the highlights of the movie is when Rosamund, fed up with the rules and regulations dictated to her by a Nurse Ratched-like matron (Rachel Kempson—mother to Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave) as to why she can’t see Octavia (the baby’s had to be hospitalized for a congenital heart defect), decides to make a fuss by screaming at the top of her lungs until a sympathetic doctor (played by Maurice Denham) arrives to cut through the hospital’s frustrating red tape.

I love Sandy Dennis (who we lost much too soon) …but having one of my other favorites, Eleanor Bron, in this film as Dennis’ supportive friend was the cherry on top of the sundae; there are also wonderful performances from McKellen, Denham, and Kempson…plus TV veteran Waris Hussein (later an Emmy Award winner for 1985’s Copacabana) shines in his feature film directorial debut (he later went on to helm Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx [1970] and The Possession of Joel Delaney [1972]).  This one hasn’t made it to DVD yet, so if you’re getting Epix on your cable or satellite system and have access to their Vault on Demand, keep an eye peeled.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Roaring City (1951)

“Murdered men flock to you like flies around a molasses jug, O’Brien,” observes San Francisco cop Inspector Bruger (Richard Travis), having discovered his nemesis, private shamus Dennis “Denny” O’Brien (Hugh Beaumont), lying beside a man who appears to be in the advanced stages of death.  “I could get all the killers in this town by just sticking to you and waiting for the bodies to drop into your lap.”

“You’d be one up on the way you do things now,” is O’Brien’s hardboiled reply…and we’re off to the races with Roaring City (1951)—a Robert L. Lippert-produced programmer whose title seems more fitting for a western than a crime picture.

Hugh Beaumont, Richard Travis
Roaring City is a B-quickie made up of two unaired television episodes from an attempt to bring the Jack Webb radio classics Pat Novak…for Hire/Johnny Madero, Pier 23 to the small screen.  The above dialogue exchange is from the second half of the film; Novak Madero O’Brien is hired by a damsel in distress (Joan Valerie) to pose as her stepdaughter Sylvia’s (Wanda McKay) spouse for a C-note.  It seems that Bill Rafferty (Anthony Warde), Sylvie’s old beau, is back in town and Syl is worried that Rafferty might do something terribly dangerous once he finds out about their marriage.  The unfortunate shmoe that winds up dead alongside the unconscious O’Brien was first introduced to Denny as her cousin Steve…but in his attempt to clear himself of a homicide rap, our hero learns that “Steve” is in actuality Sylvia’s husband.

Stanley Price
The first story in City finds O’Brien hired by skeevy fight manager Harry Barton (Stanley Price) to lay down several $1000 bets on a pugilist named Ham Harper—who’s going to win a fight against Barton’s fighter, Vic Lundy (Greg McClure), because Lundy is going to take a dive in the first round.  Things do not go as planned; Lundy ends up winning the bout (Harper was not in fighting trim…and he had a blood clot near his brain) and is rewarded by being murdered not long afterward.  Like bad Kabuki theater, Bruger is convinced O’Brien is responsible, necessitating that Denny follow the clues pointing to a gambler named Ed Gannon (William Tannen).

Hugh Beaumont is not going to play the sap for Rebel Randall; he's slipped some incriminating evidence into her pocket.
DVD Talk’s Stuart Galbraith IV believes Roaring City is the worst film in the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collection Vol. 4 set (available from The Sprocket Vault), forgetting that it has formidable competition with Radar Secret Service (1950) and Motor Patrol (1950), both in the same compendium.  I’m able to cut City a little more slack because I’m so familiar with its source material…while in the same breath recognizing that a TV show based on Jack Webb’s waterfront creations probably wouldn’t have had much success.  The dialogue on Novak/Madero is a hilarious parody of hardboiled detectives…and while City faithfully reproduces this (leafing through a drawer, Beaumont’s O’Brien finds a calendar featuring models “who posed without telling their mothers”), visually there’s very little director William Berke can add to the proceedings.  Seriously, you could close your eyes while this movie is on and miss very little of the action…particularly since O’Brien’s voice-over narration tells you all you need to know (and in more than one instance, is repeated again in dialogue with other characters).

Hugh Beaumont is roughed up by henchman Abner Biberman and serials hoodlum Anthony Warde (the poor man's Ted de Corsia).

Ed Brophy has been given his bottle, and he's ready for bed.
Galbraith disses my man Ed Brophy, whom I have applauded in previous reviews for Danger Zone (1951) and Pier 23 (1951) for attempting to do something out of his wheelhouse in his portrayal of “Professor” Frederick Simpson Schicker, O’Brien’s frequently inebriated confidant:

Brophy's character is a real oddity. The actor had a thick Brooklynese accent that was instantly recognizable; he was short, bald, and bug-eyed - ideally suited for none-too-bright comic henchmen parts. But here someone got the bright idea to cast him as an erudite (if alcoholic) British professor (Red Flag! Red Flag!) who speaks floridly, gesturing like John Barrymore. Brophy plays it with an English accent, but some of the woids don't quite come out right. The effect is bizarre: it's like when Stan Laurel bonked his head in A Chump at Oxford and started talking like C. Aubrey Smith.

Hey…I’ll admit Brophy is no Tudor Owen—but give the man props for not being afraid to experiment.  Next week on the blog: I’ll wrap up the “Forgotten Noir” series with Sky Liner (1949).  When that’s finished—TDOY will resurrect the long-dormant feature “Crime Does Not Pay (As Well as It Used To).”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

On the Grapevine: The Perfect Clown (1925)

Because I had developed little to no interest in athletics (football, baseball, etc.) in my formative years, my adolescence was occupied by my mania for movies—with a minor in silent film comedy.  As such, my initial education on Larry Semon—who, during his prime, was second only to Chaplin in terms of moviegoer popularity—was fueled by reading reference books penned by Walter Kerr (The Silent Clowns) and Leonard Maltin (The Great Movie Comedians).  Kerr’s recollections of seeing Semon’s feature film The Wizard of Oz (1925) were summed up by this terse statement: “It is a film that ought to have bankrupted everyone associated with it.”

Larry Semon
I didn’t have access to any of Larry’s shorts and features at that stage of my cinema development (the initial run of PBS’ Silent Comedy Film Festival had come and gone), so it wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to sample the comedian’s work with shorts like The Sawmill (1921) and Golf (1922).  Director Norman Taurog, who helmed many of Semon’s comedies (including Sawmill), bluntly assessed Larry’s talent thusly: “He wasn’t funny.  That’s honest.  I loved the man but he wasn’t funny.”  But this does Semon a disservice: I think many of his short comedies have their moments (I like The Sawmill a lot), even though I would agree with Maltin that the comedian was “cold, and his constant use of such stunt men as Bill Haubor kept his comedy at arm's length from the audience.”

Larry Semon has been the subject of reassessment (notably a comprehensive series of Classic Images articles by film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts published in 1999) in recent years—Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen, written by Claudia Sassen, goes a long way towards meticulously chronicling the funster’s “quick rise to film comedy fame, his manic scramble to stay at the top, and his painful decline by the late ’20s,” as my Classic Movie Blog Association colleague Lea relates in her Silent-ology review.  I also think that Steve Massa—author of Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy—has a spot-on take on the onscreen Semon:  “His screen character was pure clown with windup toy movements, chest-high balloon trousers, clodhopper shoes, and a bowler hat, topped off with heavy white make-up on his horse face that made him look like a slapstick version of Nosferatu.”  (I’m not going to lie to you: the Nosferatu reference made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a Larry Semon comedy.)

I’m prefacing this review of The Perfect Clown (1925) with all this critical commentary because I must be brutal in my honest assessment of this film.  It’s not very funny.  The plot, which focuses on young stockbroker Larry Ladd’s (Semon) attempts to protect a satchel containing $10,000 when he’s unable to deposit the contents at the bank in time, is stretched out over 51 minutes…and I have never been so happy to see a movie end in my experience.  This would have made a so-so two-reel comedy (though I probably would have played it safe and cut it by a reel), but the material simply cannot maintain its feature length.

I had two brief periods of amusement: I smiled at a gag in which Larry, tightly clutching his money-filled briefcase, lays the contents down on the running board of an automobile after knocking a woman down, her parcels scattered on the sidewalk.  He gallantly helps her collect her things while the vehicle continues down the street.  Noticing his briefcase is gone, Semon experiences a mild panic attack before realizing what’s happened, and he goes running off in pursuit of the car.

The other bit that produced a more substantial titter is also automobile-related: Larry and his sidekick (Spencer Bell, embarrassingly billed as “G. Howe Black”) have had their car commandeered by a pair of cops looking for two escaped convicts.  (Larry and “Snowball” are wearing those same stripey prison pajamas—how they got into them is a plot point you wouldn’t believe even if I explained it to you with charts and graphs.)  Larry feigns car trouble, so the police appropriate another vehicle…and once they’re gone, the two “convicts” continue their mad dash (Larry is obsessed with getting the money bag back to his boss).  They round a corner…and there are the two cops, experiencing real car trouble.  Seeing as how their first choice of transport is working again, the gendarmes hop back in.

Much of The Perfect Clown is preoccupied with “fright” gags that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Columbia short.  I know that many film fans advocate you shouldn’t watch comedies without an audience, but in the case of this movie I honestly don’t see where it would make a difference.  Clown will generate some slight interest in that Oliver Hardy (billed as O.N. Hardy, which also made me grin) has a small role as “Babe” Mulligan, the son of Semon’s character’s landlady (Kate Price).  Frank “Fatty” Alexander, later a member of the “Ton of Fun” trio, also appears briefly in the beginning as the man with a novel method for rug beating.

I don’t want this review to sour anyone on exploring the surreal comic world of Larry Semon; the straight dope is that feature films were not his strong suit, and after several flops he returned to the two-reeler arena, where as Massa observes he “panicked and began repeating his old gags ad nauseum.  This bankrupted him financially and emotionally, which led to a nervous breakdown and his death from pneumonia in 1928.”  (Most tragic, since Semon showed much potential as a character actor on the strength of a semi-serious turn as “Slippy” in the 1927 gangster film Underworld.)  As such, I’d be most hesitant to recommend a purchase of this film from Grapevine Video…though there is a small saving grace in that The Perfect Clown is paired with a classic Lloyd Hamilton short, Move Along (1926)—which I first saw on the aforementioned Silent Comedy Film Festival in those cherished days of my youth.