Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Happy birthday, Gloria McMillan!

Though you can’t say I didn’t give it the old college try—I just couldn’t find a way to work the subject of today’s birthday greeting into the ClassicFlix natal anniversary shout-outs appearing on a Facebook post or Twitter tweet near you.  Actress Gloria McMillan, beloved by OTR devotees as Harriet Conklin—daughter of Madison High School martinet Principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon) on Our Miss Brooks—is celebrating her 77th birthday today…and apart from three seasons on the TV version of the radio sitcom and the 1956 movie based on both, McMillan’s film/TV resume was a bit scanty.  But I suppose that’s just as well, since that means she gets a blog post to herself (well…almost—you’ll find out in the third paragraph).

Radio was a different story—McMillan started emoting over the ether at the age of 4 (which means she began work on OMB when she was twelve) and in addition to Brooks, made the rounds on such programs as The Adventures of the Saint, The Eddie Bracken Show, Family Theatre, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Halls of Ivy, The Lux Radio Theatre, Meet Mr. McNutley, The NBC University Theatre, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show and Romance.  McMillan did some later TV work (Dr. Kildare, Centennial, Perfect Strangers) and the occasional movie (Smile) after her stint on Brooks but devoted most of her time to running a performing arts school in California with her husband.  Through the magic of YouTube, here’s a TV episode of Our Miss Brooks with all the regulars (and Paula Winslowe’s in this one, too, as Mrs. Conklin) from May 20, 1955: “Madison Mascot.”

The purpose of today’s post is not only just to give Gloria a birthday hug—yesterday, when I was working on the TV-on-DVD info, I was also going to mention a few upcoming blogathons that I thought might be of interest to the TDOY faithful.  Only when I got to the end of writing the darn thing that I realized I omitted this info, and so decided to save it for another day when I was able to keep my eyes open.  And so it goes.

I’ve already previously mentioned The James Cagney Blogathon that will be hosted by my friend and fellow CMBA member in good standing, R.D. Finch of The Movie Projector—that will get underway from April 8-12, and a look at the schedule here indicates that this is going to be a really great ‘thon.  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (that would be me) is going to cover the 1950 Cagney film Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (I’m slotted for Thursday, April 11) and though you may find this hard to believe…I actually located the DVD on one of the miles and miles of shelves here at Rancho Yesteryear.

But Mr. Finch is adding a little inducement for Cagneython—he’ll be giving away a copy of the 2-disc Special Edition of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the film that won Cagney his Best Actor Oscar.  All you have to do to enter is to send an e-mail at cagneygiveaway(at)gmail(dot)com with “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in the subject line before midnight PDT on April 14, 2013…and the winner of this free swag will be chosen by random drawing.  (R.D. does ask for just one entry per person…and since we are on the honor system here in the Blogistan Territory, I’m sure you will comply with his request.)

Also in April: good TDOY chums Page of My Love of Old Hollywood (now with 37% more Shirley Temple!) and Rich of Wide Screen World will be hosting Terrorthon! (Filmed in 3-D!) from the 20th to the 24th—an event spotlighting those horror movies from our childhood that gave us the willies and made us double check that there were no monsters under bed or in closet before settling in for the night.  I kind of went with an odd choice for the movie I’m going to cover in the Terrorthon!—when I was a kid, there really weren’t too many movies that gave me nightmares but I remember watching a 1965 Amicus production entitled The Skull, directed by Freddie Francis and starring Mr. Peter Cushing hizzownself.  Scared.  The.  Piss.  Out.  Of.  Me.  I haven’t seen the movie since that time (probably because I’d find it lame and end up disgusted with myself) but I invested in a copy of the DVD from Amazon to rectify this situation (hey—it cost me $2.25, and I’m sure I can write it off on my taxes next year) and will watch it for this ‘thon.  It’s either going to dredge up sweat-inducing childhood memories…or it’s really going to suck.  We shall see what we shall see.

Finally, Dorian (or “Dor,” as I get to call her) of Tales of the Easily Distracted and R.A. Kerr at Silver Screenings have joined forces to host The Mary Astor Blogathon from May 3-10, which will honor the Academy Award-winning actress’ 98th birthday (May 3)…and all interested bloggers are encouraged to participate.  Though there are no rules barring folks from covering the same film, I had to resort to Plan B when I learned that someone had already called dibsies on the Astor film I wanted to review—Act of Violence (1949).  (So I’m going to do Smart Woman [1931]—I only hope I can find my copy.  But if that doesn’t work, I have a Plan C, too—I’ll teach Dor that I’m a force to be reckoned with!)  As you can see: there’ll be no shortage of blogathon fun in the next couple of months…and if you’d like to get in on the action skate on over to the host blogs to sign up.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Coming soon to a DVD player near you

Over at the Radio Spirits blog this morning, my bosses have passed the hat for funds to get cake and ice cream for today’s birthday celebrant—radio actress Georgia Ellis, who celebrates what would have been her ninety-sixth birthday today.  Georgia only made a handful of movie and TV appearances, but her radio work was phenomenal—and of course, every OTR fan worth his or her salt knows that she was the original Miss Kitty on the audio version of the classic western Gunsmoke.

Also celebrating OTR birthdays today are Fibber McGee & Molly-Suspense announcer Harlow “Waxy” Wilcox (born on this date in 1900) and the last of the Johnny Dollars, Mandel Kramer (b. 1916).  If I can find a way to slip them in, I always like to give OTR favorites a shout-out when I’m posting birthday tributes on Facebook/Twitter for the other paying gig, ClassicFlix…but the movie and TV appearances of these three were so scanty they just didn’t make the cut.  (For those who did, follow @ClassicFlix on that there Twitter machine and you’ll find out.)

It’s been a while since we made some classic TV-on-DVD announcements on the blog, so I figured I’d take a quick time out from my duties to run through a few numbers.  Back in July 2012, got a heads-up from an eagle-eyed follower that Shout! Factory was planning on releasing a DVD collection entitled The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes—I even made a big to-do about it here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  Then the word came down that the listing for this set was a bit premature and that it was still undergoing work at the Factory (don’t think I can’t hear you groaning out there).  Well, good news came in my e-mailbox the other day (seriously—the subject header was “Could you use some good news?”) from Laura Leff, president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club…who says the collection is a go, and will be released on July 23rd.  From Laura’s e-mail:

I can assure you with complete confidence that it will be an absolute MUST HAVE for every single member of the IJBFC, and almost certainly has at least one episode that inspired you to think, “Wow, I wish I could see THAT show!”

Laura also confers that if this set sells well, future collections will follow—and I don’t have to tell the TDOY faithful how the DVD bidness works…money talks and you know the rest.  They will definitely be selling a copy of the collection to the occupants here at Rancho Yesteryear, and if you’re an OTR fan or just a devotee of one of the funniest men to ever walk the planet you’ll start throwing your spare change into the glass receptacle of your choice and save up.  (And check the IJBFC site for updates and stuff.)

Shout! Factory’s subsidiary, Timeless Media Group, is announcing that the eighth and final season of the classic TV oater Wagon Train will be pulling out from St. Joseph, MO on June 11th in an eight-disc collector’s tin (SRP $59.97) containing the final twenty-six episodes of the series.  One of these days when I’m betrothed to Dora Standpipe (how I love her…father’s money) I’ll start picking up these Wagon Train sets—I do have the seventh season (the color one) and I’ve recorded a lot of the shows from Encore Westerns but I wouldn’t object to spending the extra scratch for good copies of the program.

Also in the hopper from Timeless Factory Video is a stand-alone second season release of Peter Gunnwhich will be made available on June 25 in a 4-DVD collection (SRP $29.93).  This confirms my hypothesis (science!) that a stand-alone third season set will not be far behind, which is the only season I have left to collect…owing to my purchase of the first two seasons in their Region 2 incarnation.  (Of course, if Shout!/Timeless decides to pull the rug out from under me, it will be Katy Bar the Door.)

TSOD has the press release up for the March 12 release of the second season of The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp, which will be released by Inception Media in a 5-disc set containing all 39 episodes from the show’s sophomore season.  I had originally planned to let this one go for a bit but I got a great deal on the collection over at…so into the shopping cart it went.

In other TV western news, CBS DVD-Paramount has announced the upcoming release of the sixth season of Rawhide—two split-season sets (priced at $42.99 each SRP) that will be released on the same date, June 4.  The Rawhide sets also had to be put into limbo (I’m up to the third season) like the Perry Mason collections because…well, I promised myself I wouldn’t rant about this.  But I didn’t promise that I would avoid the topic in this brief dramatic skit:

FIRST EXEC: Whaddya readin’?
SECOND EXEC: The Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blog…Shreve’s on a tear about our split-season sets again…
FIRST EXEC: I don’t even know why you read that junk…he’s always pissing and moaning…it’s not our fault that we’re a rapacious pack of jackals who’d sell our mothers for change…
SECOND EXEC: I don’t either…though I do get a kick out of the R.F.D. write-ups…

From here on out—it’s all about the Warner Archive, baby.  Though I do have a small bone to pick with the Archive in that they conveniently decided to celebrate their 4th anniversary (this all ties into the birthday theme) by having a 4-for-$44 sale…and the next thing I knew I had copies of Three Strangers (1946), The Breaking Point (1950), Stars in My Crown (1950) and The Underworld Story (1950) in my cart.  (They were aided and abetted by ninja blogger Brandie of True Classics fame, who mentioned the sale as I was walking into the Twitter Saloon last Friday night.  Coincidence?  And do Brandie and Laura receive commissions on these sales?  Ultimately you must decide.)

Anyway, the great news is that WA is rolling out Daktari: The Complete Second Season on March 19th—a collection of twenty-nine episodes from the 1966-69 family adventure series that I was very fond of as a kidlet.  There isn’t any information on how many discs are in this MOD set at the Warner site (only that you can pre-order it for $49.95)—and there’s no photo of the collection at the listing either (the picture on your left came from a pre-order lookup) but it looks as if they’re just charging the one price for a set that comes in two volumes (like they did with the recent fourth season release of The F.B.I.).  (Not that it matters in the long run—I’ll have to get it another time when Mrs. Hemoglobin accepts my proposal of marriage.)

The Archive also released the fifth season of classic TV oater Cheyenne to MOD last Tuesday (March 5), a series that I’ve only purchased the first season so far (Season 1 wasn’t a MOD release and I found it on sale somewhere) because I managed to grab every episode (save one, “A Man Called Regan”—which was shown at the end of Cheyenne’s sixth season as a pilot for The Dakotas; I guess it’s not in the Cheyenne syndication package) from Encore Westerns.  But the set does contain “Duel at Judas Basin” (01/30/61), the classic episode in which all three stars from Cheyenne, Sugarfoot (Will Hutchins) and Bronco (Ty Hardin) appear in the same outing.  (Sugarfoot and Bronco rotated with Cheyenne for a time back in those days.)

Warner Archive has also announced that it will finally bring the TV version of Dr. Kildare (with Richard Chamberlain and Lew Ayres) to DVD sometime this year (the details haven’t been finalized yet)—also in two volumes for one price (with the first 33 episodes from Season 1).  And for shows that are a bit out of TDOY’s bailiwick—but I thought I’d toss them in anyway—the third season of hardy sitcom perennial Alice is headed for MOD DVD on March 19th in a 3-DVD set (SRP $29.95) containing all twenty-four episodes.  (TSOD also has a blurb that the third season of Falcon Crest is going to be made available on MOD soon but the details are still being hammered out at this time.)

The Warner Archive has got it going on all over the cold-cereal-and-footy-pajamas front.  Plans for Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch and The Roman Holidays have been announced at TSOD—if I had a bit more disposable income I’d invest in the Hair Bear Bunch because it had such a kickin’ theme song and vocal contributions from Daws Butler, Paul Winchell, John Stephenson and Joe E. “Ooh! Ooh!” Ross.  I have only a vague memory of Roman Holidays (all I really remember is that Butler played a lion named Brutus who said “Chuckle…chuckle” a lot) but the talent on that show was nothing to sneeze at—OTR veterans Dave “Tugwell” Willock and Shirley Mitchell, and familiar TV faces Stanley “Chip” Livingston, Pamelyn Ferdin, Hal “Otis” Smith and Judy Strangis.  There are also plans in the pipeline for the Archive to release some of the made-for-TV Popeye cartoons cranked out from 1960-63 as part of 1960s Classics: Volume 1.  (I’ll stick to my black-and-white Popeye cartoon sets, thank ye kindly.)

This week’s prize for “I-can’t-believe-this-is-coming-to-DVD” goes to a release that I actually got wind of not at TSOD but in an e-mail from Candid Camera: Lost Archives of Candid Camera.  The listing at DD touts that this DVD contains 15 shows from Camera’s first season—which is a little misleading, since Candid Camera actually premiered on TV in 1948 (it was originally a radio program entitled Candid Microphone) and the odds that those fifteen shows were saved on kinescope seem mighty remote to me.  No, if you read on they mention guest performers like Garry Moore, Marion Lorne and Carol Burnett (along with Kurwood Derby—er, Durwood Kirby) and my guess is that these segments were culled from when Camera was a segment of Moore’s variety series in 1959 and 1960 (the fact that it’s a Legendary Entertainment release, which brought some Garry Moore Show material to DVD back in January, only confirms my suspicions).  Be that as it may, it sounds like an interesting 2-disc set to grab hold of if you’re a fan of Allen Funt’s classic series.

Finally, I’ve been a little light with the Britcom-on-DVD announcements of late (most of the time TSOD announces a new Last of the Summer Wine disc and that’s it) so I was intrigued to see that the site has two upcoming Acorn DVD releases for a pair of shows.  First, Simon Callow (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) and Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) headline Chance in a Million: The Complete Collection, all eighteen episodes of the 1984-86 comedy series about a luckless shmoe (Callow) and his girlfriend (Blethyn).  The blurb at TSOD says this one was shown on public television—though how it managed to penetrate the Are You Being Served? blockade goes unanswered.

The other Acorn Britcom release is No Job For a Lady: The Complete Series, all eighteen episodes of the 1990-92 outing starring Penelope Keith as a newly-elected Labour MP constantly at odds with her chauvinistic male peers.  This one was also on public television—I saw one or two episodes during my years in exile in Morgantown, WV—but I never really cottoned to the show: it wasn’t anywhere as good as Yes, Minister (which starred Keith’s former Good Life hub, Paul Eddington)…and I really haven’t enjoyed Keith in anything after Good Life (well, Next of Kin had its moments).  Both of these shows were originally released in Region 2 sets by Network, and will be released in 3-disc sets on March 19th (SRP of $59.99 each).

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Heavenly days!

Among my duties of the new ClassicFlix gig is creating Facebook posts and Twitter tweets (get me—I speak the lingo) commemorating birthdays of classic movie celebrities and premiere dates of well-known films…and because I’m limited to 5-6 a day, a lot of people who carry a great deal of weight here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear get lost in the shuffle if there’s a good many big names observing natal anniversaries.

For example, Walter Long was born on this date in 1879.  Some of you might be saying right now: “Well, who is he and what does he do when he’s not tending bar?”  Long was a character actor whose film career goes all the way back to the teens, and he appeared in several films directed by D.W. Griffith including The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1913), The Avenging Conscience (1914) and The Birth of a Nation (1915).  When talkies came in, Long was still in demand (he played Miles Archer, the partner of Sam Spade, in the original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon) as a heavy…and a great comic villain you’d be hard-pressed to find since he plied that trade in many of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy’s shorts and features (so memorably in Going Bye-Bye! and The Live Ghost).  Sadly, I didn’t have room for him on the list.

I also couldn’t make room for Symona Boniface (1894), the “Margaret Dumont” of Three Stooges comedies—or Virginia Christine (1920), who later achieved TV immortality as the pitchwoman for Folgers’ coffee (as kindly Mrs. Olson).  Joan Shawlee (1926) was also born on this date; she made appearances on such TV programs as The Abbott & Costello Show, The Adventures of Aggie and The Dick Van Dyke Show (as “Pickles,” the rarely-seen spouse of Buddy Sorrell) but is probably best remembered as bandleader Sweet Sue (and her Society Syncopators) in Some Like it Hot (1959).  (“This is Sweet Sue, saying good night, and reminding all you daddies out there—every girl in my band is a virtuoso...and I intend to keep it that way!”)  I also want to give a birthday shout-out to George Meeker (1904)—the oily villain movie audiences loved to hate.  (George usually played the weaselly lawyer or corrupt businessman who’d sell his own mom for change, notably in serials like 1945’s Brenda Starr, Reporter and 1948’s Superman.)

There are also two OTR veterans celebrating birthdays today…Sam “Schlepperman” Hearn (1888), who played Schlep not only on The Jack Benny Program but on other programs like The Great Gildersleeve, too.  (Hearn later played the guy from Calabasas—“Hiya, rube!”—when he returned to the Benny show in the mid 1940s.)  I also want to give a birthday shout-out to Minerva Pious (1903), whose amazing talent for dialects reached its apex on Fred Allen’s show…playing the role of Jewish housewife Pansy Nussbaum in the comedian’s fabled “Allen’s Alley.”  (I truly regret that I have to leave these wonderful performers off the Facebook/Twitter list…though I do realize that to many they’re not particularly well-known.)

Finally—we celebrate an important anniversary today.  Seventy-three years ago on this date, the hall closet at 79 Wistful Vista (on Fibber McGee & Molly) was opened for the first time…ushering in one of radio’s most beloved running gags.  The subject is broached at the other gig that puts groceries on the table—the Radio Spirits blog—so if you get an opportunity to drop by, tell Fibber & Molly I said hi.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The John Garfield Centennial Blogathon: Force of Evil (1948)

Tomorrow (March 4) marks the occasion of what would have been actor John Garfield’s centennial birthday.  To commemorate this event, Patti at They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To is hosting The John Garfield Centennial Blogathon, a four-day look at the movies and career of—if I may interject a personal note—one of my favorite movie actors.  The films discussed and the participants can be found here…and the following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution.

John Garfield’s contract with Warner Bros. officially came to an end in 1946.  The studio had catapulted the stage actor to silver screen success in films like Four Daughters (1938) and The Sea Wolf (1941), but they also insisted on casting him in B-pictures and potboilers like They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Dust Be My Destiny (1939)…so like his stable mates Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, Garfield fought with the studio constantly over appropriate pictures and roles.  As such, a great deal of Garfy’s time at the studio resulted in suspensions when the two opposing forces (Garfield and WB) could not come to terms.  In that same year, Julie declared his independence (one of the first Hollywood stars to do so) by co-founding The Enterprise Studios with David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld…and their first success was a boxing film starring Garfield called Body and Soul (1947—released by United Artists), directed by Robert Rossen.

The scriptwriter for Body and Soul, Abraham Polonsky, got his chance to sit in the director’s chair with the second of the two films Garfield made for Enterprise: Force of Evil (1948).  Polonsky also co-wrote the screenplay for the film along with Ira Wolfert, who was the author of the novel on which the film was based, Tucker’s PeopleForce of Evil, a box office failure upon its initial release, has since come to be recognized as a film noir classic…and in 1994, was selected the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for those films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  It is also my favorite John Garfield film.

In the movie, Garfield plays Joe Morse—a street-smart attorney who supplies counsel to racketeer Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts).  Both men have been working on a plan to consolidate and control “the numbers racket”—an illegal pari-mutuel system based on racetrack results in New York City—and ambitiously turn it into a legitimate operation much like a lottery or sweepstakes.  To accomplish this, they will arrange for the number 776 to be the winner of a July 4th race, gambling that superstitious players will bet on the significant digits…and when the “banks” (those individuals who take the bets) go belly up because they can’t cover the losses, Tucker and Company will generously offer to make good by taking them over.

Joe’s brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) is the owner of one of these small banks (as Joe explains: “…they were like banks because money was deposited there—they were unlike banks because the chances of getting money out were a thousand-to-one”)…and because Joe owes him a debt of gratitude (Leo put him through law school after their parents died), he’s arranged for his brother’s bank to be spared the fate of the other small timers, who’ll be left to their own devices.  The problem for Joe is that Leo has waved off his offer to join Tucker’s operation—despite the fact that they’re essentially in the same business; Leo has nothing but contempt for Tucker while believing himself a honorable man.  When Leo spurns Joe’s entreaties for the final time, Joe arranges for his brother’s bank to be raided by the police.  The gendarmes round up Leo and his “employees,” including a young woman named Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson), who minutes before gave her notice to Leo but was unlucky to be caught up in the net.  Joe, out of loyalty to his brother and interest in Doris, magnanimously bails them all out in the hopes that Leo will see the light.

The raid does nothing to change Leo’s mind, and the next day when 776 is the lucky winner for bettors, his bank has been wiped out.  Leo wearily agrees to become part of Tucker’s “combine” against his better judgment, and his bank in placed in charge of the others.  But there are storm clouds on the horizon: Leo’s bookkeeper Freddie Bauer (Howland Chamberlain) doesn’t like the idea of working with “gangsters”…and when he announces his intention to quit, the combine leans on him to put such silly little notions out of his head.  The governor has also appointed a special prosecutor to crack down on the numbers racket, threatening the future of Tucker’s burgeoning “policy” enterprise.  (Bauer seizes upon this to place a phone call to the police, offering to give them information on the location and make-up of the banks in the hopes that Tucker will be forced to close down his combine soon.)  Joe will later discover that his law partner, Hobe Wheelock (Paul McVey), has been cooperating with the prosecutor by giving him the details of Morse’s involvement with Tucker.

Tucker’s most pressing problem arrives in the form of rival Chicago gangster Bill Ficco (Paul Fix)—who was shut out when Tucker took over the beer concession in New York City during Prohibition, but is determined to get a slice of the numbers pie.  One of his goons (Stanley Prager) asks Bauer to set up a meeting between Leo and Ficco…and at this meeting, Leo is kidnapped and Bauer is shot and killed.  Tucker then informs Joe—who’s furious about the news of his brother—that like it or not, he’s bringing in Ficco to alleviate the eventual heat from the special prosecutor.  That’s when Ficco tells Joe that Leo is dead…and after Morse arranges for the prosecutor’s office to hear all this via a wiretapped telephone, a shootout leaves both Tucker and Ficco in the same place as Leo.

Joe, having learned that Leo’s body was dumped on some rocks by the Hudson River, runs to the spot where Leo’s corpse lies accompanied by Doris.  Seeing his brother’s remains tossed away “like an old dirty rag,” Joe decides he will cooperate with the special prosecutor and take what’s coming to him with Doris providing moral support.

In Body and Soul, John Garfield plays a boxer who sells his soul to become a success by aligning himself with racketeers; in Force of Evil, Julie plays a lawyer who sells his soul to become a success by aligning himself with racketeers.  The two films pretty much act as bookends (so if you haven’t seen either film, you’d be well advised to watch Body before Force) with Force offering what I believe is the quintessential Garfield character—an educated man of the streets who achieves redemption after having to adjust his moral compass.

Body and Soul has probably the bleaker ending of the two films.  The subject matter isn’t particularly daring (corruption in the fight game—quelle surprise!) but at its conclusion, when pugilist Charlie Davis (Garfield) is threatened by his crooked manager (Lloyd Gough) after Davis announces his intention to quit Charlie shoots back: “What are you gonna do?  Kill me? Everybody dies…”  (The implication is, yes, Davis won’t be long for this world after the Sweet Science Powers That Be get through with him.)

Force of Evil has a bit more optimism in its ending, but remains a much more fascinating film because of its bold assertion that there is no discernible difference between legitimate and illegitimate business (the movie even begins with a shot of Wall Street—which in light of recent events over the past several years makes Force quite prescient).  The goon assigned to approach milquetoast bookkeeper Bauer even takes offense when Freddie spits out the word “gangsters” to him.  “What do you mean, 'gangsters'?” the hood asks Bauer. “It’s business!”  It also harkens back to a time when the concept of lotteries wasn’t embraced by as many people today (who justify them by touting the good they do, funding education and the like)—Joe Morse explains that the racket was called “policy” because lower income people used the nickels and dimes to play the numbers rather than putting it toward their insurance (policy) premiums.

The bleak worldview of Force of Evil is the responsibility of director-writer Abraham Polonsky, who never made any bones about being an avowed Marxist…and that’s what got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.  (Polonsky wouldn’t directed another film until Tell Them Willie Boy is Here in 1969 as a result of being blacklisted.)  For Polonsky, there was no distinction between the two arenas of crime and business—since brothers Joe and Leo Morse have been so poisoned by a money-and-power-driven capitalistic society they have no other recourse but to make crime pay.  Leo (a first-rate performance from character great Gomez) is one of the most fascinating characters of any noir film: a man who truly believes that he’s doing no harm with his small-time numbers racket (he runs the operation, according to Joe, “the way another man runs a restaurant or a bar”) and that he’s far more decent than a shark like Tucker.  His devoted wife Sylvia (Georgia Backus) even insists on referring to him as a “businessman”:

LEO: I’ve been a businessman all my life…and honest—I don’t know what a business is…
SYLVIA: But you had a garage…you had a real estate business…
LEO: A lot you know…real estate business…living from mortgage to mortgage…stealing credit like a thief…and the garage!  That was a business!  Three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas…two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me…penny for one thief, two cents for the other…well, Joe’s here now—I won’t have to steal pennies anymore…I’ll have big crooks to steal dollars for me!

Polonsky often referred to Force of Evil as an “autopsy on capitalism,” and his and Wolfert’s screenplay hasn’t lost any of its audacious Marxist content: that people are the product of their environment (having been born in the slums, both Leo and Joe haven’t really been able to escape; Joe may be a little luckier but he’s still rubbing shoulders with crooks), that capitalism breeds decadence (the interior of the courthouse in certain scenes is practically indistinguishable from those set against the backdrop of Leo’s “bank” in the slums) and that the interaction of different classes ultimately results in conflict.  Polonsky sort of stopped short in addressing a solution to the corruption brought on by the capitalist system, however—preferring to fall back on the old Hollywood maxim of “Don’t sell out.”  (And really…when you think about the film afterward: Garfield’s character agrees to turn informer—which is kind of out-of-step with the actor’s sticky situation when he was called upon to testify before HUAC, too.)

Despite its flaws—I may be alone in this, but I’m not particularly enamored of Beatrice Pearson’s performance as Garfield’s love interest (Pearson made only one additional film, 1949’s Lost Boundaries, before going back to the stage)—Force of Evil remains a captivating film for me, and has been so ever since I was fortunate to catch it on Cinemax one Sunday afternoon back in the late 1990s.  It was preceded by an introduction from director Martin Scorsese (this intro was included on the VHS release of the film), who has long championed the movie and who has never been shy in admitting its influence on his own films (the “counting room” in Leo’s bank foreshadows those featured in Scorsese’s Casino), remarking that it accurately reflected “a world I knew and grew up in.” 

I love the poetry of Polonsky and Wolfert’s script (written in blank verse and choc-a-bloc with Biblical allusions to Cain and Abel, Judas, etc.) and how the crisp, “street” dialogue is delivered by Garfield (“I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption…but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it”), Gomez, Roberts and the other characters to perfection.  I’ll confess that while I’m not quite sure what Marie Windsor was supposed to bring to the film outside of portraying Roberts’ slut-puppy wife (who’s on the make for Garfield) the noir siren is always a welcome presence, and there’s great contributions by character faves Barry Kelly (as a “bus inspector”), Jack Overman, Tim Ryan (surprisingly effective as one of Roberts’ hoods) and Sid Tomack (as the “human calculator” hired to make sure “776” hits).  The cinematography by George Barnes (who was given by Polonsky a book of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to achieve the “look” the director wanted) is quite striking (I also marvel at how Barnes films the characters so that they are dominated by their surroundings) and the score by David Raksin moodily effective.

But at the risk of being a gushing fanboy, Force of Evil is my favorite Garfield film and I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the actor over the many years I’ve been scribbling things down in this little scrap of the blogosphere.  The street background of the characters he played in his many films couldn’t be disguised, and yet Julie always seemed to have a little more Moxie on the ball, coupled with a troubled wonderment as to whether or not he was “doing the right thing.”  In films like Out of the Fog (1941) and Nobody Lives Forever (1946), he made unlikable characters likable with a vulnerability, a boyish charm and an animal magnetism that was attractive to both men and women; in vehicles like The Fallen Sparrow (1943), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Humoresque (1946), Body and Soul, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), We Were Strangers (1949), The Breaking Point (1950) and He Ran All the Way (1951) he literally lights up the screen.  I don’t think there’s a Garfield film I don’t like…well, maybe with the exception of Tortilla Flat (1942).

Force of Evil finally got the DVD treatment in 2004 on a disc released by the now-defunct Artisan company—but last year it was resurrected by Olive Films, who secured the rights to many of the properties owned by Republic Pictures.  Republic obtained the four-picture output of The Enterprise Studios, which soon went out of business due to the bad b.o. for both Force and Joan of Arc (1948); their last release was another underrated noir, Caught in 1949.  I can’t vouch for the Olive Films release but I was kind of hoping they would have included the intro that Scorsese did for the videocassette version (in addition to Pursued, Johnny Guitar and A Double Life) to remind me of when I fell under the spell of my favorite Garfield film so many years ago.

Friday, March 1, 2013

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

On this date in 1941, radio listeners made their first weekly visit to the aural medium’s favorite watering hole, Duffy’s Tavern—“where the elite meet to eat.”  I whipped up a little something to commemorate the occasion over at the Radio Spirits blog, but I figured I’d reminisce in my own fashion here by admitting that Duffy’s was one of the first radio comedies I heard as a mere sprat—so it’s always been a nostalgic favorite with me.  A Marietta, OH station used to play OTR programs on New Year’s Day back in the 70s and one of them—which I later learned was available on a multi-vinyl record set entitled The Great Radio Comedians—was a December 18, 1946 broadcast of Duffy’s; a Christmas show featuring Joan Bennett as guest.  (Archie the manager—the one and only Ed Gardner—is explaining to Duffy over the telephone who Joan is and he name-drops her 1944 film The Woman in the Window.  “A mannequin?” Archie asks his boss.  “On the contrary, Duffy—she’s quite a girlie-quin.”)  I listened to that program so many times I could recite the dialogue by rote—I bet I could still do it today, as a matter of fact.

Regretfully, I wasn’t able to come up with anything for the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon that was held jointly last month by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled and Paula at Cinema Club.  I just couldn’t think of a decent topic that hadn’t already been covered by someone else, and to be kind of honest with you—this whole Oscars thing has me burned out.  (I think it began when they announced that they weren’t going to refer to the annual telecast as the Something-Something Annual Academy Awards but just The Oscars.  Apparently they’re going something more youthful and hip…and then they wonder why this year’s ceremony was a trainwreck for so many.)  So while I may have to do some penance for backing out at the last minute (Aurora has already contacted me about some gutters that need to be cleaned out) I will be able to kick in with my entry at Patti’s John Garfield Blogathon, which begins today and runs until Monday, March 4 at They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To.  (Look for my essay on Sunday.)

Sadly, the weekend activity with the Garfy event and some ClassicFlix duties will keep me from making a pilgrimage to Chapter 7 of Don Winslow of the Navy (1942) on Saturday…but for those of you jonesing for a serial fix, you can satisfy that itch at my BBFF Stacia’s She Blogged by Night—every Thursday, she dissects a chapter of the 1944 Western chapter play Raiders of Ghost City with hilarious results.  Ghost City has a great cast: Dennis “Bland” Moore (the star of the last studio-made serial, 1956’s Blazing the Overland Trail, and TDOY fave The Purple Monster Strikes [1945]), Joe Sawyer, Regis “the Toomster” Toomey, Virginia Christine (Mrs. Olson of Folgers’ coffee fame), Addison Richards and legendary henchmen Jack Ingram, Edmund Cobb and Ernie Adams.  The villain of the piece is none other than Lionel Atwill who, in one of those amazing blogosphere coincidences, was born on this date in 1885.  It would be the second of four serials in which Atwill appeared—the preceding were Junior G-Men of the Air (1942) and Republic’s Captain America (1944; Lionel plays a great villain in “The Scarab”) and the last one was Lost City of the Jungle (1946), where Lionel was working when he snuffed it.

Also celebrating a birthday today is the actor who played fix-it savant Emmett Clark on both The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D., Paul Hartman—and this is as good a time as any to tell you that I probably won’t have a Mayberry Mondays prepared this week, either.  (You only think you’re crushed—this one focuses on Mike the Idiot Boy.)  Hopefully my workload will be a little light next week and we can resume with all the TDOY fun.