Sunday, March 30, 2014

DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-alert!

Yesterday morning, I happened to be watching towards the end of the proto-Mexican Spitfire series film, The Girl from Mexico (1939), when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ ran one of their “filler” shorts—a little musical two-reeler called Rhumba Rhythm at the Hollywood La Conga (1939).  The (always reliable) IMDb lists the two actresses featured in the short’s opening credits—one of them a very young Mary Treen—and a few of the celebrities that have cameos—George Murphy, Lana Turner, Chester Morris—but one individual who doesn’t get mentioned is J. Scott Smart, who demonstrates that despite his girth he was quite limber on his feet; he, in fact, leads a conga line at one point in the short that’s loads of fun to watch.  (Mr. Smart, for those of you in the dark, was best known as radio’s The Fat Man—though he worked on a goodly number of other programs, notably TDOY comedy idol Fred Allen’s show [he played “Senator Bloat” in the early days of “Allen’s Alley”].)

I started out with this mention of this two-reeler partly because it amused the heck out of me and partly because someone at the Charley Chase Facebook page noticed that Tee Cee Em has three scheduled comedy shorts featuring Ballimer’s Baltimore’s favorite son:

High C’s (1930; March 30 @1:21am) – This three-reel Chase comedy (which will be shown right after the Silent Sunday Nights feature The First Auto) stars our hero as a soldier in France during WWI who’d much rather harmonize in a quartet than do any shootin’ and fightin’—he also makes the acquaintance of a lovely French maiden, played by TDOY goddess Thelma Todd.  As a rule, I’m not a big fan of the three-reel shorts that were produced around this time at Hal Roach (many of them suffer from a lot of noticeable padding) but this effort is a few notches above the usual efforts.  While I wasn’t completely bowled over by it, it does have a number of vociferous defenders; check out what my Facebook compadre Yair Solan has to say at his invaluable website, The World of Charley Chase.

The Tabasco Kid (1932; March 31 @1:36pm) – Charley tackles dual roles in this Western spoof; hizzownself and the Zorro-like titular bandit.  I watched this one when TCM had their Roach festival back in January 2011…and I may have to see it again because quite honestly, I don’t remember it well enough to remember if it was good or bad.  Another one of my Facebook acquaintances, Jim Neibaur, gives it a good recommendation in his reference book The Charley Chase Talkies: 1929-1940…so I’ll take that as a “watch this one if you can.”

Now We’ll Tell One (1932; April 6 @11:27pm) – This is the only short of the three here that I’ve not yet seen…the plot synopsis from Jim’s book describes it as a science fiction comedy in which a scientist invents a belt that allows the wearer to transmit his/her personality to another person wearing the same belt from up to ten miles away.  All right then.  I’ve already got this programmed on the (I really should be getting a check for this) AT&T U-Verse Total DVR for Life©, so I’ll get a gander at it when I can.

Because I made all those upcoming blogathon announcements on Friday before Fritzi at Movies, Silently announced the sequel to her successful Sleuthathon, I promised to mention that June 1-3 will see the unveiling of a similar event…only the concentration will be on spies and espionage, and the ‘thon has been affectionately dubbed The Snoopathon.  Once again, the temptation to participate proved hard to resist, and so I told her she can count on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (weather permitting, of course) to examine of my favorite Bob Hope comedies, My Favorite Spy (1951).  Skate on over if you’d like to join in, too.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guest Review: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)

By Philip Schweier

Ivan’s note: Riders of Death Valley (1941) returns next week to Serial Saturdays.  I promise.

By the time Republic rolled out Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. in 1941, the property had strayed far afield from its comic strip roots. All of the supporting characters were gone, even those who had appeared in previous outings. The sole remaining consistency was Ralph Byrd in the title role, still playing famed G-man Dick Tracy.

This time, Tracy squares off against a masked villain known as The Ghost, so called for his power to become invisible. Thanks to inventive genius of his henchman Lucifer (John Davidson), The Ghost possesses an amulet (it looks like an oversized peace sign from the 1960s), and in conjunction with a special ray projector, it renders its wearer invisible. However, the power comes with a whining sound, alerting our heroes that The Ghost is near.

To conceal his true identity when not invisible, The Ghost wears a black face-mask (or a black-face mask, if you will; he looks as dark as Bill Duke). It soon becomes apparent that The Ghost is a member of the Council of Eight, a secret enclave tasked by the authorities with rooting out crime. As a member of the council, The Ghost managed to hinder the capture of his own brother, Rackets Regan. But the law eventually caught up with Regan, and now The Ghost seeks revenge on the council for sending his brother to the electric chair.

Tracy is joined in his investigation by his assistant Billy Carr (Michael Owen) and June Chandler (Jan Wiley), whose father was the first of The Ghost’s victims. One by one, the council members are eliminated, until only two remain. Even so, it’s not until the absolute last minute of the final chapter that The Ghost’s identity is revealed, almost as it the writers weren’t sure themselves.

As the last of the Dick Tracy serials, it becomes readily apparent the series has run out of steam. Many of the more exciting cliffhangers are lifted in their entirety from previous Dick Tracy serials. It may have been less noticeable when originally released, but today, after watching all four serials within a matter of months, it’s pretty obvious.

The serial also makes use of footage from the RKO Pictures film Deluge (1933), in which a massive tidal wave strikes New York City. Regardless of how hokey it may appear today, it certainly raised a bar by 1941 standards. The thrills and action come fast and furious in true serial tradition. For an old-fashioned crime buster adventure, one could do a lot worse.

Though this would be the last of the Dick Tracy serials, it was by no means the end of Ralph Byrd as Dick Tracy. For the next several years he continued in various bit parts, while two new productions, Dick Tracy (1945) and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), featured Morgan Conway in the role. The legend is that exhibitors complained; to them, Byrd was Dick Tracy. RKO accepted this and hired him to finish the series, beginning with Dick Tracy’s Dilemma in 1947, followed by Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome in 1948.

These stories, only an hour in length, were much closer to the comic strip version, featuring familiar faces such as Pat Patton, Tess Trueheart and Vitamin Flintheart.

Byrd would later star in a Dick Tracy TV series beginning in 1951 until his untimely death from a heart attack a year later.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Of previews and blogathons

Last time on the blog, I highlighted a few of the movies that I was able to watch during a Starz/Encore preview weekend AT&T U-Verse was kind enough to offer us this past March 21-23…something that I’m sure came as a surprise to some who were no doubt thinking: “Doesn’t he ever watch anything from the 21st century?”  Well, I did some more snooping on the U-Verse Messaging Center and learned that the upcoming weekend of April 4-7 will bestow upon us an embarrassment of riches in a gratis HBO/Cinemax preview…so if I find anything there that I’ve been anxious to see, it will no doubt be the subject of a blog post coming soon.  I mentioned the free HBO/Max news to the ‘rents, and joked to Dad that he would be able to catch up on Game of Thrones via On Demand.  Stony silence followed…which I sort of expected, since I have yet to install the new Hip Parents software update.

I know I’ve been meaning to post more regularly but I’ve been working on a couple of Radio Spirits projects…and since they’re responsible for groceries on the table now and then they get to be at the head of the line.  Believe you me, no one is more anxious than I to open up some of the DVDs and Blu-rays that I’ve recently purchased because when Mom sees them lying around in an unopened state she starts singing a little ditty we call “Dem Ol’ eBay Blues.”  (I shudder to think of the consequences.)

The Classic Movie Blog Association—or as we informally refer to it, the CMBA—has the first of two yearly blogathons scheduled for this May 22-26 (sorry about the lack of a link—they’ve only got as far as the above banner) that will spotlight Fabulous Films of the 50s.  Yours truly has already RSVP’d to official blogathon coordinator Page, so Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is going to tackle one of its all-time favorite cult films, Johnny Guitar (1954).  Son of a gun, we have big fun on the bayou.

In other blogathon news, Margaret Perry will host a tribute to four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn from May 10-12, in the appropriately titled The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon.  (As opposed to the Not-So-Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, which was such a dismal failure I’ve been asked not to talk about it.  Look, I just don’t think it was a good idea for everybody to write about Dragon Seed [1944], that’s all I’m saying.)  TDOY will be participating in this event as well (Margaret asked me, and I said yes) and have chosen my favorite Kate-Cary Grant feature, Holiday (1938) as the entry.  (I considered doing Sylvia Scarlett [1935]…but I wasn’t certain I could locate my copy, which is somewhere lurking in Entertainment Centerland.  Don’t ask me to explain this joke.)

And just this morning, I received word that The Lady Eve’s Reel Life (positively the same dame!) and They Don’t Make ‘em Like They Used To are joining forces (Patty and Patti, which amuses me because stuff like that just does) to host Power-Mad, a celebration of actor Tyrone Power on what will be his centennial birthday May 5.  TDOY has asked to be dealt in, and will discuss Nightmare Alley (1947) for the blogathon…only because I knocked over a few women and children to be the first to do so.  (I’m not proud of this…but I do love that movie.)

To the many reader who inquired as to whether or not I ever plan to get back to Panamint and wrap up Riders of Death Valley (1941)…the answer is yes; Chapter 14 will be discussed not this Saturday but the next (the plan is to watch it before the free HBO/Max weekend), and if you’re especially good and keep mum about how I let you eat ice cream in the car I’ll jump-start Doris Day(s) the following Monday.  As always…thanks for encouraging my behavior.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Don’t let the Starz! get in your eyes…

Thanks to my curiosity regarding the U-Verse message system—not to mention a heads-up from Barry, a longstanding member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful—the ‘rents and I were treated to a free preview of the Starz and Encore channels this weekend here at Rancho Yesteryear.   Barry brought particular attention to a six feature Lash LaRue marathon that was airing Sunday on Encore Westerns; I grabbed Border Feud (1947) with the DVR, the only one of the LaRues that I hadn’t already recorded during those halcyon days when I had the Encore package at my former bachelor digs.

While the ‘rents have fully embraced the HD capabilities of the AT&T U-Verse, getting them to sample some of the other sweet benefits of the system has been a chore on my part.  I mentioned to Mom that there were quite a few movies available for the taking on both Starz and Encore on Demand, but I think the only one they eventually sat down with was The Legend of Zorro (2005)…and this was because (I swear I am not making this up, good people) my father wanted to watch something where he “didn’t have to think.”  (Anyone who’d like to adopt me…drop me an e-mail.)

While the movies I watched this weekend—some good, some…well, not-so-good—might not have all been winners, I believe only one of them qualifies as “non-think entertainment”…and even that’s not accurate, because the entire time I watched it I was thinking.  (Something along the lines of “Why the hell did I agree to watch this again?”)  Behold:

The Incredibles (2004) – The 2005 Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature (it also won the Best Achievement in Sound Editing prize, too) has eluded yours truly for a good many years but having taken the time to sit down and watch it this weekend I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t do this sooner.  This inventive and thoroughly entertaining flick tells the story of a family of “supers” (superheroes) who are living in a sort of witness relocation program when a supervillain rears his ugly head and springs into action to—dare I say?—rule the world.  Naturally, the family must band together to defeat the forces of ee-vill.

What impressed me so much about The Incredibles is that it was more than just an enjoyable cartoon; the voice work was outstanding (I’ll single out Holly Hunter, whom I dearly love, because her performance in this went beyond plain ol’ stunt casting) and the visuals pleasantly eye-popping.  My only quibble is that it could have used a little trimming here and there (I’ve noticed this a lot in modern movies; how they have difficulty wrapping things up without tacking on an extra climax or two), but I’m in firm agreement with the folks who consider this one of Pixar’s finest releases.  (I thoroughly adored the Edith Head-inspired Edna Mode character, voiced by the film’s director, Brad Bird.)

Ladder 49 (2004) – This one was the surprise of the weekend because I looked at the stars—Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta—and almost bailed on it before it started.  But I did like Phoenix in We Own the Night (2007), and he was even better in this drama about a Ballimer Baltimore firefighter who’s trapped and injured in a burning warehouse.  He flashes back to significant events in his life (well, he’s got the time) in a Le Jour Se Lève fashion: his first day on the job, his courtship and marriage to his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett), etc. as his fellow firemen attempt to reach and rescue him.

Travolta is Joaquin’s mentor, and he’s equally good in his role…this was, of course, before he had that tragic plastic surgery that rendered him from being able to pronounce “Idina Menzel” at the Oscars this year.  In keeping with the nature of the movie, there are of course a good deal of stunts and explodiations but beyond the pyrotechnics is a wonderful tale of camaraderie among those who work in a dangerous profession.  Plus, I think the relationship between Phoenix and Barrett is sweet as well.  Also with Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley in his mayoral days.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006) – One I probably should have bailed on.  The events in IRS auditor Harold Click’s (Will Ferrell) rather humdrum life are commented upon by a female narrator (Emma Thompson)—who is actually an author writing a novel in which Crick is the main character.  Complications arise when Harold starts to hear the narration, which has tipped him off that he’s merely a fictional person and an unlikely candidate to make it to the end of the book.

My sister Kat—a lovely gal, generous to a fault and kind to animals—convinced herself long ago (based on such films as Superstar and Elf) that Will Ferrell is the comedy epicenter of the universe.  I do not share this worldview…but I thought the premise of Stranger Than Fiction was interesting, and I’m always up to watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Ferrell’s love interest (an anarchic restaurateur whom Ferrell’s auditing for non-payment of taxes).  I don’t want to give people the impression that this is an awful movie because it does have some enjoyable moments; I just found it a little too pretentious for my tastes (it’s one of those films that’s convinced if it cloaks itself in intelligent trappings people will ignore the fact that there’s an emptiness at its core).  Oh, and this is just a petty gripe of mine…but the two co-workers who interact with Ferrell’s character are the same two mooks from those annoying Sonic Drive-In commercials which will be banned from television should I ever be elected to public office.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) – My blogging compadre ClassicBecky and frequent TDOY commenter grouchomarxist both recommended this cinematic nugget in comments on a recent post; two hapless hayseeds (Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk) from the wilds of West Virginny have a run-in with some vacationing college students after the two yokels rescue one of the group’s friends (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) from a potential drowning.  A series of darkly comic accidents befall the students, racking up a large body count and wrongly pinning blame on the titular characters in a witty spoof of teen horror-slasher films.

There are some genuinely funny gags in this one; my favorite is the parody of the “chainsaw dance” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but I also choked on my ice tea when Tucker, helping Dale carry the corpse of a man who threw himself into a wood chipper, remarks “He’s heavy for half a guy.”  I liked the movie’s premise (even though it can’t completely sustain itself to the end) but as a native of the Mountain State I need to point out that a) West Virginians do not have the same affinity for Pabst Blue Ribbon as do Seattle hipsters (“That’s a thing of beauty”), and b) Alberta, Canada (where Evil was filmed) does not look anything remotely like West Virginia.  Thanks to both Becko and Groucho for the recommendation.

Smashed (2012) – Hands down, my favorite of the movies I watched this weekend.  Schoolteacher Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) likes to throw back a few with husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) but after a series of embarrassing incidents both in school (hung-over in front of her elementary class) and out (she wakes up on the street the next morning after smoking crack with a barfly she gave a lift home to from a bar), she has that “moment of clarity” oft-discussed by alcoholics and decides to swear off booze and attend AA meetings.  For Kate, simply not drinking is not an option for her; her sobriety is challenged by continuing to stay with her irresponsible husband until she realizes it simply cannot work.  “I can’t stay sober and live with you,” she screams at him during a fight the two have after she’s been fired from her job and experienced a relapse.

My attention to this movie was stoked when I saw Nick Offerman in the cast; the actor best known as Ron Swanson on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation is the vice-principal at Kate’s school—he’s an alcoholic himself, and attempts to help her even though he’s also a little on the creepy side.  (Offerman’s real-life spouse, Megan Mullally, plays the principal at Kate’s school.)  His character in Smashed is just one of several reasons why I was taken with the movie; all of the characters are funny, well-written and three-dimensional, with special nods to Octavia Spencer as Kate’s sponsor and Mary Kay Place as Kate’s bitter mother—who demonstrates in a painfully awkward but funny sequence why Kate has taken to booze…and whose life foreshadows what will eventually happen to her daughter.  Smashed tackles the issue of alcoholism in a fashion that neatly blends humor and sadness, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is just fabulously perfect—the only other thing I’ve seen her in (some folks know her from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and if you had told me she’d be capable of work like that in Smashed I might have suggested a refill on the medication.  (How she got overlooked for an Oscar nomination that year is a mystery even Sherlock Holmes can’t solve.)

West of Memphis (2012) – In 1993, a trio of West Memphis, MO teens (Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin) are arrested for the murders of three eight-year-olds in what the constabulary deem ritualistic Satanic killings; amid a background of community hysteria, the young men are convicted of the murders, with one sentenced to die and the other two enjoying the hospitality of the state for a lifelong stay in the Grey Bar Hotel.  Further investigation lends credence that the teens may have been railroaded for a crime they did not commit—the amount of police incompetence and prosecutorial misconduct present transforms the case into a cause célèbre that attracts the attention of notable musicians as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines.

The circumstances surrounding the “West Memphis Three” has been previously addressed in three HBO documentaries (beginning in 1996 with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), but I agree with the late Roger Ebert that West of Memphis is the one to go with, “because it has the benefit of hindsight.”  I was curious as to how a film that runs close to two-and-a-half hours would be able to hold my attention for that amount of time but Memphis gets the job done and is a first-rate example of a riveting, compelling documentary.  (I never cease to be amazed at how those in authority can continue to maintain “everything was above board” even when confronted with such obvious examples of miscarriage of justice.)

Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012) – I’ll bet you MPAAS people are regretting in hindsight that Best Screenplay Oscar you gave Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade (1996)…particularly if you were brave enough to sit through this film.  Thornton co-wrote, directed and co-starred in this mellerdrammer about a Georgia family who come into contact with a clan from the other side of the pond after a family member dies.  (This individual was played by ‘Tippi’ Hedren, whose scenes wound up on the cutting room floor…though if I were Hedren, I would have played the lottery that day as well.)  The Peach State conclave, collectively known as the Caldwells, puts the “function” in dysfunctional but once this bad Tennessee Williams knock-off is finished they’ll learn that they have a great deal in common with the visitors from the UK (the family Bedford).

Thornton plays a shell-shocked WW2 vet who at one point in the movie asks one of the Bedfords, a woman played by Francis O’Connor, to recite The Charge of the Light Brigade naked while he masturbates (he’s turned on by her accent); later, the Caldwell family patriarch (Robert Duvall) trips out when his grandson slips a little lysergic acid diethylamide into his sweet tea.  (Just an indication of what’s in store, folks.)  I certainly won’t begrudge Thornton’s right to make awful movies but if you’re going to cast Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and other respected thesps in your productions you might at least have the decency to give them something to work with.  Comedian Ron “Tater Salad” White has some amusing scenes as an obnoxious in-law (a former pro football player in the mold of the main character in Frank Deford’s Everybody’s All-American) who inelegantly tells Ray Stevenson what he thinks of England (“You can't get so much as one good meal over there…boil everything.  They'd boil a goddamn Clark bar.”).  (The guy later admits he’d live in West Virginia before putting down stakes in England, at which point I had to unfriend him.)

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) – Maybe I’m a little more charitable with regards to this film because I didn’t pay to see it in a movie theater…but I found it a pleasantly entertaining romp.  It’s the origin story of how the Wizard of Oz became the whiz of a wiz he was; a carnival huckster (James Franco) finds himself in the Merry Ol’ Land of Oz after riding a balloon straight into a twister—he then takes on the responsibility of liberating the inhabitants of this faraway land from the control of a wicked witch.  There are three candidates as to the identity of the Wicked One, by the way, played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams.

The behind-the-scenes story of Great and Powerful is in some ways more amusing than some of its content; Disney apparently went to great lengths to keep the identity of the sorceress who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West a secret…but released a collectible mug outing W-cubed a few months before the film was released.  (Entertainment Weakly Weekly also gave the game away on a cover of an issue, once again, published before the movie hit the theaters.)  If you go into the film with the expectation that it will in no way come to close to the majesty and wonderment of the 1939 classic I think you might enjoy it; the only flaws in the film are a somewhat thin storyline (again, someone should have spent a little more time at the editing console) and the miscasting of Franco, who just didn’t work for me.  They offered the part to Johnny Depp—who turned it down to do The Lone Ranger (2013), ferchrissakes—but I wish Robert Downey, Jr. had accepted it because I think he would have been more believable.  And speaking of Mr. Downey…

Iron Man 3 (2013) – I went into this movie not having seen either Iron Man 1 or 2 (not even The Avengers) but I boned up on the plots of all three previous films so I could be assured of at least the illusion of being able to follow the plot.  After the events in Avengers, iron man Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) suffers from panic attacks and PTSD but he’s going to have to snap out of it, damnit, because the world needs him again: he’s challenged by a terrorist (Ben Kingsley) known as The Mandarin and an evil genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who might not have had reason to challenge I.M. if Stark hadn’t been such a dick to him at a 1999 New Year’s conference in Switzerland.

Iron Man 3 is little more than a popcorn movie, but I actually found a lot of it entertaining (despite the usual stunts-and-explodiation nonsense), particularly Downey’s unusual take on superhero-dom (he’s really a flake) and the plot was better than I expected (if noisy).  The movie also features Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall and Jon Favreau (who turned over directing chores to Shane Black)…and unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow is on hand as well (incoming scolding from Bill Crider in five…four…three…).  Stick around till the end credits for a funny cameo, and despite seemingly wrapping up the saga we’re told that Tony Stark will return (like a bad check).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guest Review: Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)

By Philip Schweier

Ivan’s note: I’m still having trouble jumpstarting Riders of Death Valley (1941) for Serial Saturdays…so for the next two weeks, we’ll hear from Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s utility reviewer, Mr. Schweier…who’s finished watching all of the Republic Dick Tracy chapter plays that he won in the blog’s giveaway back in November of 2012.

Once more, Ralph Byrd takes to the silver screen in the 15-chapter serial, Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939). In my opinion, it’s a weaker outing than its predecessor, Dick Tracy Returns (1938), but one thing in its favor is it does away with the character of Junior, who in the Republic serials has become a bit of a twerp.

Tracy’s nemesis this time out is Zarnoff, a foreign spy whose capture by Tracy is recounted via newsreel in the opening chapter. However, he manages to escape the death penalty (how? By dying!) and carry on his fifth columnist activities.

Zarnoff is played by Irving Pichel, who in his Van Dyke beard and bouffant hair style comes across as a cheap imitation of Paul Muni as Emile Zola (I’ll confess, I’ve never actually seen that movie, so your mileage may vary). Zarnoff’s senior henchman, Robal, is played by Walter Miller, his swan song as an actor, as he died shortly afterwards.

Tracy’s assistants, agents Steve Lockwood and Gwen Andrews, are once again re-cast. Pearson plays Tracy’s #2 man, Lockwood. Gwen Andrews, seen in previous Dick Tracy serials, returns also, her role progressively being diminished to that of a mere secretary. However, this time she is played by Phyllis Isley, who would later change her name to Jennifer Jones before winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette.

Zarnoff works for the “the Three Powers,” a thinly veiled reference to the Axis, and spends his screen time attempting to steal formulas, assassinate dignitaries and cause other forms of political mayhem, all under the nose of uber-cop, Tracy.

As serials go, it is full of the typical last-moment escapes one might expect, but with three of them under my belt in recent months, it’s clear to me the writers went the extra mile to create more imaginative death traps. The first chapter ("The Master Spy") features Dick Tracy descending from an airplane onto a boatload of explosives in effort to keep the craft from blowing up a nearby dam. Later, Chapter 9 (“Flames of Jeopardy”) incorporates footage from the Hindenburg disaster.

Danger comes in various forms, but never as often as it does when involving Ralph Byrd getting wet. Dumped in the harbor, squeezed into a diving helmet, fighting the enemy on the shore of the lake, Byrd ends up almost as waterlogged as Jack Larson would later become in The Adventures of Superman.

Speaking of kid sidekicks, while Junior is absent, the audience is forced to endure the brief (two chapters) appearance of Sammy (Sam McKim), a young cowpoke with all the sophistication of a pre-adolescent Jimmy Dean. When Tracy determines Zarnoff’s radio transmissions are originating in a ghost town, Sammy and his invalid grandpa (George Cleveland), lend assistance.

Overall, Dick Tracy’s G-Men lacks the punch of Dick Tracy Returns, but one might argue that that serial’s villain, played by Charles Middleton, is a hard act to follow.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon – Gunsmoke: “The Jailer” (10/01/66)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at How Sweet it Was this March 20th and 21st.  For more information on the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.

Situations wanted—women artists: Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway).

The above was an ad placed by two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis in a September 1962 edition of Variety…an announcement that Davis later confessed was meant to be a joke.  Rib-tickler or no, although Davis wasn’t completely absent from movie screens at this juncture of her career, most of her films were concentrated in the area of cinematic horror.  Her success in the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (for which she netted a sweet ten percent of the box-office hit’s worldwide gross profits) led to other campy excursions like Dead Ringer (1964), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) and The Nanny (1965).  Other films from that era that prominently featured Davis include Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Where Love Has Gone (1964).

But there’s always been a streak of cruelty in Hollywood, where there’s a sell-by date on many of its silver screen legends.  Actors and actresses adapted in many ways: some returned to the stage, others drifted into character roles.  Still others made concessions into (gulp) television.  Robert Montgomery and Loretta Young are just two examples of classic movie stars who headlined successful boob tube shows.

And thus it was decreed that Bette Davis, the Best Actress Oscar winner of 1935 (Dangerous) and 1938 (Jezebel), would make the inevitable dramatic pilgrimage to home audiences as well.  La Bette actually started doing this as far back as the 1950s, with guest roles on anthology favorites as The 20th Century-Fox Hour, Schlitz Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, General Electric Theater and The DuPont Show with June Allyson (another refugee from the big screen, though her show came courtesy of her husband, budding TV mogul Dick Powell).  Davis also seemed quite fond of the Western anthology Wagon Train; she appeared in three episodes of that long-running series, as well as a memorable Alfred Hitchcock Presents outing and an episode of The Virginian that we mentioned on the blog back in December of 2010. 

One of Bette’s most noteworthy small screen appearances was on an episode of Perry Mason; when star Raymond Burr had to sit out four episodes of his popular series due to surgery (he was reduced to cameo appearances), Davis filled in on one installment as the titular attorney of “The Case of Constant Doyle.” But my favorite Davis television work remains an episode of a series that I have never been shy about plugging here at TDOY in the past.  In “The Jailer,” the third episode of the twelfth season of Gunsmoke—the dean of television westerns—(Miss) Bette Davis plays a woman named Etta Stone; a hardened harridan who has sworn to avenge the hanging of her husband by kidnapping Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) and marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness).

A 1971 TV Guide listing for a repeat showing of "The Jailer."

Ma Stone and her boys: (l-r) Robert Sorrells, Davis, Bruce Dern, Zalman King, Tom Skerritt.
Etta accomplishes her mission with the help of three sons that have just finished a six-year hitch in the sneezer; we see them—Lou (Bruce Dern), Mike (Robert Sorrells), and Jack (Zalman King)—getting off a wagon operated by three prison officials (one for each brother, I’m guessing) at the beginning of the episode.  The trio of outlaws go right to work, putting the snatch on Kitty just as she’s closing up…and they take her to the Stone homestead, where they are given an “attaboy” from their mother.  Etta has an additional son in Ben (Tom Skerritt), who has become quite chummy with Lou’s wife Sara (Julie Sommars) while Lou has been subsisting on the bounty of the county.  Despite his objections, it’s Lou who’s sent into town to inform Dillon that the Stone clan have Kitty in their clutches (he shows Matt a ring from Kitty’s finger to prove he’s not talking smack) and that he needs to follow, saying nothing to anyone.  If you have only a passing acquaintance with Gunsmoke, you know that while things were always a bit romantically chaste between Dodge City’s peacekeeper and the owner of the Long Branch, the surest way to cheese ol’ Matt Dillon off was to kidnap his woman.

Wardrobe from the Die! Die! My Darling collection.

Etta informs Matt that he’s to be executed in the same manner as her husband—he was strung up on the morning of his second day of incarceration.  Matt tries to explain to the gal with the crazy “Bette Davis Eyes” that it was the state of Kansas who ordered Mr. Stone to be put to death…he just works there.  That don’t matter no never mind to Etta; she keeps Dillon under lock-and-key in a tack room and allows him ten minutes of “conjugal visit” with Kitty before he’s marched off to the gallows.  In the meantime, Kitty tries every method at the disposal of her feminine wiles to escape the Stones…and just about has son Jack on board with helping her and Matt out when Ma Stone discovers them trying to make a break for it in the barn…and she shoots and kills Jack.

Jack’s death is a bit of a disappointment for Ben—he’s also entertained ideas of helping Matt and Kitty escape, ostensibly because he’s fallen hard for Sara while Lou was in the pokey; Etta and her boys don’t treat the young girl too kindly, considering her little more than a scullery maid.  Just when all seems hopeless for Matt and Kitty, Sara smuggles a six-shooter on a tray and Dillon does what he does best: he sends Mike, Lou and Ma to The Happy Hunting Ground as the curtain rings down on our play.

Actor Bruce Dern, recently a Best Actor Oscar nominee for his work in Nebraska (2013), was just starting to build a movie and television resume at the time “The Jailer” went before the TV cameras; he had small but noticeable parts in Wild River (1960) and Marnie (1964), and he co-starred with future Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord in the short-lived TV oater Stoney Burke (which also featured Warren Oates) in addition to guest roles on Route 66, Naked City, Thriller and The Outer Limits, to name a few of the many.  In a DVD commentary for “The Jailer”—available on the Gunsmoke: 50th Anniversary, Volume 2 box set—Dern gave generous credit to both Bette and Sir Alfred Hitchcock for investing “themselves in my career and my kind of well-being as an actor...and help[ing] promote me as an actor.”  He goes on to say: “Both for some reason put their arms around me, liked me and thought I was good and gave me tremendous opportunity—although Bette wasn't in a position to cast me in things, she guided me and watched me.”  Both Dern and Davis had appeared in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with Bruce playing the role of Bette’s character’s fiancé in the flashbacks of the early part of the film.

Seeing one of the women for which he had a great deal of admiration doing “episodic television” left a disillusioned impression on Dern at the time:

The first day I worked on this show was the hardest individual day for me, emotionally, that I've ever had in the business...because...I got tears in my eyes when I saw Miss Davis on the set...I was just crushed, I couldn't believe Bette Davis was doing a Gunsmoke...I just couldn't believe it...I mean, she kicked my ass over it...I just said, "Why?"  And she said, "I have to eat! I have to pay for my're always on me about smoking!"

Build my gallows high, baby.

It seems at first glance like Bette might be slumming in this episode…but it doesn’t take long from the moment she makes her entrance before she shows the audience why she’s got a pair of Oscars as bookends.  As Etta Stone (her last name is quite appropriate), she rules the roost in that household; when she confronts the feisty Kitty (as she wrestles to take Kitty’s ring off her finger) she snaps out at her: “Don’t talk flippant—you ain’t in no position!”  She’ll prove to be a formidable match for Dodge City’s marshal; I never cease to be in awe of the Dillon character but I think if I personally came up against Bette Davis (and Bruce Dern, for that matter) I’d be spending the rest of the episode curled up in a fetal position and whimpering (after first wetting myself, of course).

Davis also gives us a brief glance at her character’s softer side; a sequence in which Etta Stone visits the grave of her husband (which is covered with rocks, in keeping with the motif of the family name) finds the woman lamenting about everything in her life has been all about meting out vengeance to Dillon…and after that, she’ll have no further purpose.  We see this sympathetic Etta for only a moment (and tellingly, out of the sight of her sons); she soon snaps back into ball-breaking mode when she catches the traitorous Jack about to head for the tall grass with Kitty and busts a cap in him.  The relationship between Etta and son Lou is an odd one; she refers to him as “my one true son”…which generates speculation that perhaps is best left unexplored.

Hush...hush, sweet Charlotte...

“The Jailer” was one of co-star Amanda Blake’s favorite Gunsmoke episodes, since it allowed her to work with one of the best actresses of that or of any generation…but what remains so amazing is that Davis was also supported by a first-rate supporting cast in Dern, Tom Skerritt (M*A*S*H, Alien) and Zalman King (the writer-director-producer of Red Shoe Diaries).  Both Skerritt and King made multiple appearances on the show in various roles (five each) while Dern graced four installments; Julie Sommars (later of The Governor and J.J. and Matlock) also appeared on the series four times (“The Jailer” would be her last episode) and Robert Sorrells had them all beat, turning up in some fourteen Gunsmoke outings.  Working with the great Bette Davis must have been like paying to attend a party for all involved, and Bruce Dern sums up the experience better than anyone:

I've worked with lots of grand dames, but five or six stand out as just being absolute class...Miss Davis is one, Amanda [Blake] is one, Miss [Olivia] de Havilland is one, Ann-Margret is one, Lee Remick, class by herself...Geraldine Page, class by herself...they're just women who did it all...who had tremendous game as actresses...endured a great deal of both hardship and heartbreak and everything else on the way, the journey through Hollywood...who were told at forty that it would be over...and none of them took that as being over...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Guest Review: Ed McBain Double Feature—Cop Hater (1958) and The Mugger (1959)

By Philip Schweier

Every once in a while, Netflix adds a bunch of old cheapies to its offerings. I doubt very much this is any kind of service to its subscribers, other than to counter the complaints that they don’t offer any classic (i.e. “old”) films. It’s probably a matter of the price being right.

But I stumbled across two films based on the works of Ed McBain, the pseudonym of Evan Hunter, author of the 87th Precinct novels. They are what is known in the mystery novel genre as “police procedurals.” Instead of a classic whodunit with a drawing room full of suspects, it has more to do with the dogged determination of big city cops.

Cop Hater (1958) stars Robert Loggia as Det. Steve Carelli, in an unnamed city comparable to New York. The story begins with the shooting of a cop, and the case is assigned to Carelli and his partner, Det. Mike Maguire (Gerald O’Loughlin).

Part of the appeal of the 87th Precinct stories is the peek inside the private lives of the cops. Carelli is involved with Teddy Franklin, a deaf mute, but they seem to communicate just fine. Det. and Mrs, Maguire, not so much. It is clear from her introduction theirs is a rockier relationship, largely due to the stress of Mike’s job.

That stress only increases when another cop is gunned down. One theory is it’s some sort of vendetta by the teenage games. A reporter (Gene Miller) follows the lead on his own, but when a patrolman in plain clothes is mistaken for the reporter and beat up, the cops become more involved. They haul in the entire roster of hoodlums, which includes a VERY young Jerry Orbach.

When the same reporter plies him with alcohol, Carelli unwittingly puts himself and Teddy in the crosshairs of the killer. This eventually leads to the capture of the gunman and the source of the killings.

The film was directed by William Berke from a script by Henry Kane. Whether or not it’s a good film is hard to say. Devotees of gritty crime fiction might enjoy it, and it’s relatively condensed so it doesn’t drag. I would compare the film to a hamburger: it does not excel artistically, but satisfies a need quite nicely. As a fan of the 87th Precinct novels, I enjoyed seeing another screen adaptation

The same could not be said of The Mugger (1958), also directed by Berke from a script by Kane, based on a story by McBain. It’s not an 87th Precinct story but it easily could be the same universe.

Kent Smith plays Dr. Peter Graham, a police psychiatrist working to help capture a mugger with a peculiar M.O.: all his victims are female, from whom he takes their purse and then slices their cheek. Indications are the culprit is educated and almost apologetic, leading Graham to believe the crimes are rooted in psychological affliction rather than the need for easy money.

On his way to follow a lead, Graham is waylaid by cab driver buddy Eddie Baxter (James Franciscus). Eddie, who is in pharmacy school by day and driving a cab at night, has a problem in his wife’s 18-year-old sister, Jeannie (Sandra Page), who lives with them. Jeannie has become defiant, and Eddie and his pregnant wife don’t like that she’s taken a job at the Coquette, an old-fashioned dime-a-dance hall.

Coincidentally, Graham’s girl, police officer Claire Townsend (Nan Martin), is working undercover at the same club. Graham asks her to keep an eye on her for the duration of her assignment. Later, Claire is assigned as a decoy in the hope of baiting the mugger. This provides a clue, but Graham and his team (played by Dick O’Neill and Leonard Stone, famous as Violet Beauregard’s father) are sidetracked when Jeannie is found murdered, apparently the first fatality of the Mugger.

Investigating the killing, Graham shares with Eddie vital information withheld from Jeannie’s sister: that Jeannie was three months pregnant. Claire meanwhile remembers seeing Jeannie in the company of a young man, but her description could match that of thousands of people.

Graham & Co. begin to pursue the mugger leads, and the scope of their investigation narrows. But when they finally catch up to the Mugger, he denies any involvement with Jeannie, or knowledge of her murder. While chasing leads together, Graham and Claire (Phil’s note: This scene really bothered me. It was filmed in part on location, a city street, but alternating shots were filmed using rear projection, in which actors are filmed against a screen displaying a “moving backdrop.” Shifting from location to rear projection was rather jarring, especially as it was so inexplicable. But I digress.) come across the near-solution to the crime, and as they follow-up, the culprit becomes clear. Chase, punishment, the end.

As far as mysteries go, The Mugger is mediocre at best, the solution painfully obvious. To me, the most intriguing aspect of the film was Nan Martin, who clearly was a lovely young woman back in the late 1950s. How she came to be cast as department store owner Mrs. Louder on The Drew Carey Show is beyond me.

But perhaps that can be answered in one word: ACTING!

Ivan’s note: Not to steal Mr. Schweier’s thunder…but your humble narrator has penned an essay on the TV series based on McBain’s 87th Precinct franchise, which can be perused here at ClassicFlix.