Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #2

I know, I know—there was precious little Alpo on the blog yesterday (more like a hell of a lot of meat by-product, to be honest)…but it’s not like anybody ever reads it on the weekend anyway. Instead, I spent a good bit of time working on putting together a little inventory to hawk on eBay, as you may have noticed by glancing at that little button marked “eBay” to your right. So with that out of the way, a few capsule reviews of what I managed to watch while in a seated position on the trusty TDOY sofa:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – TCM let famed science-fiction/fantasy writer Ray Bradbury program last Thursday evening’s film lineup…and I’m not just chastising Mr. B, but every other notable invited to pick their favorites for the classic movie cable channel. Is everybody’s favorite film Citizen Kane? I mean, I adore Kane as much as the next film geek but couldn’t we declare a moratorium on choosing “the greatest film of all time” any time celebrities play Program Director? Bradbury bragged during his interview with Robert Osborne that he’d seen “every movie ever made” (talk about hyperbole) but pushing aside that hot air and accepting that Ray has logged in quite a few hours in a front-row theater seat he must have seen a film at one time or another that was offbeat or unique enough to break the Kane/Rebecca mold. (On a related note, TCM needs to get over this obsession with scheduling friggin’ Cleopatra [1963] every single month. It’s a guess on my part, but I think they’re just too lazy to put two or three movies together and instead opt for this phenomenally boring four-hour epic, taking the rest of the day off to play golf or something.)

Still, it’s always encouraging to see TCM unspool a silent film in prime-time (rather than stay up God-knows-how-late to catch them in their imposed Sunday night ghetto) and since Ray’s a Lon Chaney partisan, he selected Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) to kick things off, back-to-back. I opted out of Hunchback because my eyelids were getting heavy but Phantom is still worth the effort: it was the Brownlow-Gill presentation of the restored 1929 re-release version (with the early Technicolor masked ball sequence), complete with that wonderful Carl Davis score. Opera still stands the test of time; a silent film of such grandeur and majesty that no self-respecting film buff should ever admit never having seen it.

They Made Me a Criminal (1939) – Why do I like this movie so much? Let’s face it, it’s a Warners B-programmer tarted up to look like an A-picture, Claude Rains is woefully miscast as a Dick Tracy-type flatfoot, and it sticks the Dead End Kids—the friggin’ Dead End Kids ferchrissake!—in the middle of dusty Arizona. But Criminal is redeemed with just one word, and it’s spelled G-A-R-F-I-E-L-D…and I’m not referring to that fershlugginer fat-ass cat from the comics, either. Julie’s a champion boxer who pretends to be the All-American Boy…but he drunkenly passes out during a wing-ding in his apartment as his sleazeball manager (Robert Gleckler) puts a nosy reporter’s lights out with the help of a bottle of booze, and leaves Julie behind to take the rap while he and Garfield’s girl (Ann Sheridan) take it on the lam. Sheridan and Gleckler later crack up Julie’s car to the point where they’re both burned beyond recognition…the cops find Garfield’s wristwatch on Gleckler’s corpse and, assuming it’s Julie’s, pronounce the whole sordid affair case closed. But Det. Monty Phelan (Rains), a veteran cop doing penance for sending an innocent man to the chair by pulling permanent morgue duty, is convinced that Garfield is still breathing and gets the okay from his skeptical superior (William Davidson) to investigate.

Meanwhile, Julie’s trekked out to Arizona by thumb, foot and rail—and faints dead away from hunger when he reaches some sort of camp for delinquents (enter the Dead End Kids). Take-no-guff blonde Gloria Dickson and feisty old Irish grandma May Robson take Garfield in, even though he’s kind of a bad influence on the kids (the highlight of the movie is a harrowing sequence where John and the Bowery Boys go swimming in a water tank and almost end up drowning when a hayseed decides to irrigate his fields). Inspired by an idea hatched by Dead Ender Billy Halop, Garfield decides to participate in a $500 a round exhibition against a fellow pugilist by going the distance and raising enough scratch to invest in a gas station. Wouldn’t you know it—one of the kids takes Julie’s picture for a newspaper photo contest…and that same Arizona paper just happens to wind up in the hands of Supercop Rains in New York City. Tipped off that Rains is on his trail, Garfield abandons his trademark punching style to throw off suspicion…but in the end, he puts Dickson, Robson and the kids first to win the prize money. Criminal is sloppy and sentimental—and the ending will have you saying “What the f**k?”—but I’m such a huge Garfield fan I’ll watch him in anything (and that includes Flowing Gold). Bonus: TCM followed Criminal with their documentary The John Garfield Story—a luscious cherry for any hot-fudge sundae.

Boomerang! (1947) – I can’t remember the last time I saw this one—I’m guessing it might have been during the time that AMC showcased a film noir festival (yes, I know, it’s hard to believe) but it still holds up fairly well despite some dated elements. A small-town Connecticut priest (Wyrley Burch) is murdered, and when the cops (represented by Lee J. Cobb and an uncredited Karl Malden) are stymied by the lack of leads in the case it turns into a political football between the two main parties in town, with State’s Attorney Dana Andrews as the poor schmoe forced to play quarterback under pressure from ward heelers Robert Keith and Ed Begley. A vagrant (Arthur Kennedy) is picked up by the authorities, who keep him awake until he signs a confession…but after talking with Kennedy, Andrews isn’t convinced the guy is guilty and risks a chance of becoming governor (plus future luncheons with the Rotarians) to prove his innocence.

The argument over whether or not Boomerang! is a legitimate film noir will rage on until eternity (just from where I’m sitting, any turn of events that involves railroading a guy for a crime he didn’t commit is pretty noirish to me) but you can’t deny the film isn’t competently directed (by Elia Kazan) or features a top-notch supporting cast that includes the previously named performers plus Sam Levene (as a cynical, smart-assed newspaper reporter), Jane Wyatt (as Andrews’ supportive spouse—poor Jane has bupkiss to do), Cara Williams (I always forget she’s in this film, she’s so young), Taylor Holmes and Philip Coolidge. There are also brief cameos and bits from Walter Greaza, Brian Keith, Arthur Miller (as a line-up suspect), Frank Overton, Anthony Ross, Edgar Stehli…and heavy-handed narration from Reed “Racket Squad” Hadley.


Rick Brooks said...

You just gave me a new TCM programming idea: "Stump Ray Bradbury." One evening each month, the schedulers pick a handful of obscurities to unveil on the channel. Bobby Osbo and Bradbury sit in the studio and after each movie, Ray goes, "Eh, I've seen it," or, "Hey, that's a new one on me!"

Viewers get rare movies AND a fun new game. Everybody wins!

Pam said...

The More the Merrier! How do I bid??

Doghouse Riley said...

Kane's not even my favorite Welles film--that'd be The Magnificent Ambersons, despite the shearing it took in the second half and the tacked-on ending. Such a remarkably human-hearted film from a guy, uh, not particularly known for it (and still only 26!). I have to chuckle nowadays when the tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil gets praised so highly (particularly since I remember when almost no one remembered the film) when it's the long static shot of Agnes Morehead (what a performance!) going slowly insane that is truly one of the most harrowing things in all of cinema. Not saying I necessarily rate Ambersons higher, mind you, since I try to avoid that sort of thing; just that what he did with the material astonishes me every time I see it.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

The More the Merrier! How do I bid??

With confidence, baby...with confidence.

You remember how to bid, don't you, Pammy? You should put your lips together and...whoops! Wrong movie...

Kane's not even my favorite Welles film--that'd be The Magnificent Ambersons, despite the shearing it took in the second half and the tacked-on ending.

I've always said that when presented a choice between seeing a lost silent film classic and Welles' version of Ambersons (before RKO chopped it up for kindling) it would be Welles hands down. No contest.