Friday, June 13, 2008

After the Fox

So I spent the past two days over at sister Kat’s again to keep an eye on her menagerie while she was out of town…and that means, of course, that I get to catch up with whatever movies I DVR’d from the Fox Music Channel. I’m not always successful with this; in the past she has been known to erase movies I have painstakingly taken the time to program. Charred-her offers FMC on their cable system, but you have to pay extra for the privilege…and my Dad and I are still trying to figure out what they’re charging me now.

I kicked off the mini-FMC festival with 1931’s Ambassador Bill, a Will Rogers vehicle that I hadn’t seen (it is available on the Will Rogers Collection: Volume 2 box set) and while I can’t rate the movie anything above average it does earn a couple of points for placing the story and characters in a background nominally different from the usual small-town milieu of Rogers’ films. Still, Bill ends up hewing to the familiar homespun-wisdom-and-common-sense formula; Rogers plays a U.S. Ambassador assigned to the war-torn nation of Sylvania (whether this is the same country that later warred with Freedonia I don’t know, since I didn’t see Louis Calhern anywhere in sight) who teaches its boy-king (Tad Alexander) how to play baseball and be a regular red-blooded "American" lad, while at the same time helping the real monarch (Ray Milland) regain his throne and reunite with his Queen (played by Marguerite Churchill).

The movie gives Rogers ample opportunity to crack wise on politics and other social mores, but it only really comes to life in a hilarious sequence that finds “Ambassador Bill” holding up a reception for a U.S. Senator (Ferdinand Munier) by participating in a spirited poker game with members of Sylvania’s royal court. A funny cameo from Ben Turpin and an engaging scene where Will teaches young Alexander some rope tricks round out a pleasant if unremarkable little film.

The Raid, a 1954 film based on true-life events that occurred during the Civil War, was next on the list and it’s a dandy little sleeper that deserves to be better known. A group of Confederate officers (led by Major Van Heflin) escapes from a Union stockade and makes their way to St. Albans, Vermont where the plan is to pillage and loot the jernt and then beat a hasty retreat to do the same to other small villages in General Sherman-style. Complicating this plan are two faux pas committed by Heflin: he foolishly allows Rebel hothead Lee Marvin to participate (Marvin comes close to botching the entire operation) and he falls for a young Union widow (Anne Bancroft), who unknowingly becomes an impediment to his loyalty for the Confederate cause. Directed by Hugo Fregonese (Black Tuesday) with story and screenplay by Francis M. Cockrell and Sydney Boehm, this movie doesn’t skimp on the suspense and is choc-a-block with familiar character actors and TV faces: Tommy Rettig (who plays Bancroft’s son), Richard Boone, Peter Graves, Douglas Spencer, Paul Cavanagh, Will Wright, James Best and Claude Akins, to name but a few. Try and catch this one the next time it’s scheduled.

Finally, I wound things up with Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941)—a movie that I had previously seen but was curious to revisit; it was originally supposed to be on the first Fox Horror Classics box set (I know, I know…it’s not really a horror film) but got bumped for The Undying Monster (1942). (Fox’s classic movies website reveals that plans to release it on DVD are still in the pipeline, but details are sketchy as of this posting.)

Anyway, Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is captured by the Gestapo while vacationing in Bavaria, accused of plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Nazi officer George Sanders puts the screws to Pidgeon, trying to elicit a confession, but the resourceful Walter manages to escape his clutches and high-tail it back to England (with the cooperation of ship’s cabin boy Roddy McDowall)…and finds he’s no safer there than he was in Deutschland. Pidgeon is able to get help from Joan Bennett—demonstrating that Audrey Hepburn isn’t the only actress unconvincing as a Cockney—and elude his pursuers, culminating in a nail-biting climax in which he confronts Sanders in a final showdown. Man Hunt is a first-rate if very farfetched suspenser (no true assassin will get a bead on his target without having a bullet in the chamber), with outstanding support from John Carradine (who dies a memorable death in the London underground), Ludwig Stossel, Heather Thatcher, Frederick Worlock and Roger Imhof.

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