Friday, September 30, 2016

The Return of the Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™!

Thanks to loyal member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful Barry, who was gracious enough to alert me to DISH Network’s new Flex Channel package, Tee Cee Em has made a triumphant return to The House of Yesteryear.  There are not enough words to adequately express my joy at this turn of events.

The way the Flex package works, you start with a basic tier of fifty channels—one of which is my beloved Turner Classic Movies.  You can then add additional packages according to your whims…or the whims of your family, as the case may be.  (If it were solely my decision, I’d be Encore Channeling and Movie Plexing all up in this bitch.)  “This is the closest thing to à la carte so far,” Barry explained in a follow-up comment.  “I could cut my bill by more than half: just add the News Pack (FBN and Bloomberg for wife), Encore (westerns for me), and dump the locals (I have an antenna and Windows Media Center).  I only wish AMC were in an extra package so I could have the satisfaction of dumping them too!”  The way this deal worked out for Rancho Yesteryear almost makes me regret the terrible things I’ve said about DISH in the past.  (Almost, that is.)

I had to add the Locals package to ensure we’d still receive our local channel lineup (my father has somehow convinced himself that if he watches WSB-TV’s newscasts at noon, four, and six o’clock there will be a tremendous change in the content), and the News package (also for Dear Old Dad) because he needs the newsreaders at MSDNC—or to use the longer nomenclature, the Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Politburo—to continually convince him HRC is not a terrible candidate.  Finally, as a nod toward mi madre, I added the Regional Action Network package—which carries both the SEC and Fox Sports South channels—so that she never goes hungry again (as God as her witness) missing out on her beloved Braves, Hawks, and Georgia Bulldog games.  (When I presented this proposal to Mumsy, she picked up her cellphone and threw it at me—yelling “Call them!  Now!” A day after we initially whittled down the package, Mom had more regrets than a Brexit voter.)

The package isn’t perfect.  I’m still out GetTV, and I lost RT America, the channel that carries my favorite satirical political comedy show, Redacted Tonight.  (This last one is no biggie; I can watch the episodes online via YouTube.)  When I sat down in Count Comfy von Chair to explain the new setup to the Laird and Master, my Mom started waving me off like I was trying to steal home.  I waited until Father had to answer the call of nature, and then I asked her: “Why don’t you want me to tell him about this?”

“He’ll figure it out sooner or later,” she replied.  I then pointed out that he’ll certainly notice it when we get the cable-internet bill but she was way ahead of me: “He’s not going to see it,” she assured me as she tented her fingers while a white cat leapt into her lap.  Twisted and evil!

Will the return of TCM affect the new direction of the blog?  I’m determined that it will not.  Thanks again to Barry for having my back, and I hope all you cartooners have a wonderful weekend.

Forgotten Noir Fridays: The Man from Cairo (1953)

During World War II, the French government apparently shipped a ginormous amount of gold out of the country before those pesky Nazis got their bratwurst-and-sauerkraut-stained fingers on it.  The gold was shipped to various locales throughout Northern Africa…but one consignment valued at $100 million was “liberated” by a contingent of soldiers and, since it has not turned up after all these years, is very much in demand by French Intelligence.  Things have become so dire that an American detective named Charles Stark (Richard McNamara) has been persuaded to do a little digging into the matter…beginning with locating and interrogating one of the only surviving members of that gang of thieves, a man named Emile Touchard (Guido Celano).

I don’t know how Stark got to be a detective…but I suspect it has something to do with the phrase “mail order correspondence.”  You see, Stark proves to be completely useless in The Singular Affair of the Going, Going, Gone Gold.  It’s a friend of Charlie’s, tourist Mike Canelli (George Raft), who will provide the solution to this case—because the Algerian gendarmes mistake him for Stark.  Canelli finds himself up to his neck in intrigue and double crosses during his stay in Algiers, getting involved with femme fatale Lorraine Beloyan (Gianna Maria Canale) and her saloon proprietor boyfriend Basil Constantine (Massimo Serato), not to mention a mysterious professor (Alfredo Varelli) and a transport tycoon.  The local police captain, Akhim Bey (Leon Lenoir), doesn’t seem to be on the up-and-up either.

This is about as much of The Man from Cairo (1953) that I remember; I nodded off a few times as I was watching the DVD so I can’t completely vouch for my ability for total recall where the plot is concerned.  All I could think about while the movie was in progress was “Why the heck is this thing called The Man from Cairo when it takes place in Algiers?”  (It kind of reminded me of 1953’s Abbott & Costello Go to Mars; Bud and Lou actually land on Venus in that film…though one critic was unable to resist ad-libbing in his review: “…and not a moment too soon.”)

When I grabbed The Man from Cairo from the “VCI Forgotten Noir” pile, I became a little excited because…well, this is going to take explanation.  Old-time radio fans will remember a series entitled Rocky Jordan, a program that aired over CBS Radio between 1948 and 1950 and starring Jack Moyles as the proprietor of the Café Tambourine in Cairo—a slightly shady dive that attracted a most disreputable criminal element.  Moyles’ Jordan played amateur sleuth and matched wits with black marketers, murderers, desert raiders, con artists, ex-Nazis, etc. while trying to stay one step ahead of the local constabulary, represented by Captain Sam Sabaaya (Jay Novello), the prefect of police.

Unless you lived in the West Coast listening area, chances are you didn’t hear Rocky Jordan until June of 1951, when the Tiffany network resurrected the show on both coasts as a summer replacement for Mr. Chameleon.  That incarnation, which ended August 22, 1951, replaced Moyles with the man currently being discussed in this blog post: George Raft hisself.  So I was kinda sorta hoping The Man from Cairo would be adapted from the Jordan series…but I guess into everyone’s life a little rain must fall.

My Rocky Jordan hopes dashed to the ground, I sought solace in the suggestion that Cairo might be good for a few chuckles, beginning with its Theremin-laced theme that runs over the opening credits.  (“They’re trying to hypnotize me into watching this thing!” I thought to myself.)  There’s also some unintentional hilarity in an establishing scene where you see the Eiffel Tower, and then “Paris” is superimposed over it.  But you see “Paris” for maybe two seconds, as if someone in the editing room realized “Hell, they know where they are…”  (It’s Kings Island, Lurlene!)  Admittedly, I did laugh out loud when Raft’s Canelli suggests to the Algiers police—after they keep rifling through the suitcases/trunks in his hotel room—that he’ll keep his luggage in the lobby from now on, to save them having to walk upstairs.

Most of time during Cairo, however, I snored out loud.  I’ve stated previously in this space (when I reviewed I’ll Get You [1952]—which looks a heck of a lot better in retrospect compared to this fromage) that Raft was a rather limited actor; he was very good as a bad guy in vehicles like Scarface (1932) and Each Dawn I Die (1940) …but in many of the good movies he appeared in, the heavy lifting was done by others in the cast.  (Sure, They Drive by Night [1940] is a great movie…but if Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino weren’t in it no one would remember the darn thing.)  Raft does not—as he did in the superior Loan Shark (1952)—receive any help from Cairo’s supporting cast; the only bright spot is an appearance from Irene Papas (to whom I pledged my devotion ever since I saw her in Tribute to a Bad Man [1956]), and she doesn’t even make it to the end of the film.  George’s co-star, Gianna Maria Canale, enjoyed a prosperous career as an Italian film star (she’s in Lust of the Vampire and Hercules) but she not only has a significant height advantage over her leading man…I worried she might step on him.

The Man from Cairo spots a dominant Italian cast (whose voices are very badly dubbed); the Italian version of the film (Dramma nella Kasbah/Avventura ad Algeri) was directed by Edoardo Anton (he also co-wrote the script) while the U.S. edition was the directorial swan song of Ray Enright—a former Mack Sennett gag writer who rode herd on a number of Warner Brothers features including Alibi Ike (1935), Hard to Get (1938), and The Wagons Roll at Night (1941).  Enright handles things fairly competently—it’s the dull script that really does Cairo in (from Eugene Ling and Philip & Janet Stevenson); I’m starting to understand why Mark Thomas McGee’s book on Robert L. Lippert (available from BearManor Media) is titled Talk’s Cheap, Action’s Expensive.  Andrew “Grover” Leal and I were discussing on Facebook the other day how some motion picture celebrities often take toxic gigs for a free vacation.  I hope George’s Algerian holiday was a pleasant one.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Trailin’ West (1936)

It is 1864.  The Civil War is taking its toll, pitting brother against brother.  (And in some cases, sister against sister.  Truth be told, a lot of sibling rivalry went on.)  This is quite evident in the weary demeanor of The Great Emancipator himself, President Abraham Lincoln (Robert Barrat), who has been briefed by Union Army officers that the situation in Kent City is quite serious if not hopeless.  All attempts to send in an undercover man have been thwarted, so Lincoln gambles on one last roll of the dice.  Hearing Lt. Red Colton (Dick Foran) entertaining White House guests in an adjoining room with a song, Honest Abe likes the cut of Colton’s jib; he assigns Red the task of ferreting out the enemy activity in Kent City before it erupts into guerilla warfare.

Arriving in Kent City, Colton—masquerading as a gambler named “John Madison”—is a babe in the woods; on his journey there, he was waylaid by a pair of goons in his hotel room…who absconded with his credentials and handed them off to Jefferson Duane (Bill Elliott), the scoundrel behind all of the Kent City subterfuge.  Duane is also working in tandem with the sebaceous Curley Thorne (Addison Richards), the owner of Kent City’s center of night life in The Little Nugget, a saloon/casino.  To bring the evildoers to justice, Colton will have to depend on a newly-acquired sidekick in Happy Simpson (Eddie Schubert) and “dance hall girl” Lucy Blake (Paula Stone)—the Union must survive…at any cost!

Back when TDOY was involved in the Mayberry Mondays project, I made special note of how actor Dick Foran received a “Special Guest Star” credit on an episode entitled “Palm Springs Cowboy”—highly unusual in that there were only two other actors on Mayberry R.F.D. to receive this accolade, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, which makes sense because they were both Andy Griffith Show alumni.  I reasoned at the time that since “Cowboy” was Foran’s show business swan song that might have been the reason he was singled out for this honor.

Dick was Warner Brothers’ reigning cowboy star during the 1930s—and not just a cowboy star: “the singing cowboy,” as he was frequently billed in the credits of his starring series of B-Westerns.  The studio’s production supervisor, Bryan Foy, made the decision to get back in the oater game in 1935 and according to western film historian Boyd Magers, Foy had originally asked Lyle Talbot to saddle up (Talbot had a fine singing voice though he didn’t get the opportunity to use it much) but Talbot’s attitude was “Find yourself another guy” because he did not like horses.  So Foran and his pipes got the tap.  “Although the Foran westerns have solid production values and the benefit of strong casts,” writes Magers, “what Warner Bros. never got right was what historian Les Adams called ‘that self-taught, down-home, Mama-and-all-them brand of Americana so easily and naturally projected by Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers among the singers, and John Wayne, Buck Jones, Bill Elliott and Johnny Mack Brown among the straight action performers.’”

I think Brother Boyd speaks the truth on this: the Foran westerns are pleasant enough (and barely run over an hour, so it’s not like you make a costly time investment by sitting down with one) and while I have a tendency to joke about Dick’s sagebrush career, Foran was actually an underrated actor.  I caught him in a Warner’s B a while back called Gentleman Are Born (1934—he was still being billed as “Nick Foran”) in which he sympathetically played a college graduate having difficulty landing a job (sounds kind of relevant today).  Foran wasn’t just limited to oaters while he was at Warner’s: he turns up in films like The Petrified Forest (1936—where he loses Bette Davis to Leslie Howard, fercrissake), Black Legion (1937), and Four Daughters (1938).  But leave us not make any bones about it—there’s a reason Dick was known as “the matinee idol of B pictures.”

Magers gives Trailin’ West (1936) four stars at Western Clippings.  I don’t think it’s a terrible Western, but I don’t think it’s anything to miss Dancing with the Stars about, either.  (Note: I have not and will not ever watch Dancing with the Stars…I reference it only to seem hipper than I actually am.)  West does have a pretty good supporting cast: the presence of future Saturday afternoon cowboy Bill Elliott (billed here as Gordon Elliott) as a bad guy might generate a few chuckles amongst western fans, and co-bad guy Addison Richards is always welcome company.  (Richards’ character is named “Curley,” which is kind of a tip-off he’s up to no good; unless a movie character named “Curley” has “Nyuk nyuk nyuk” and “I’m a victim of coicumstance!” in his vocabulary, bet on him being a villain.)  Eddie Schubert plays it straight as Dick’s buddy, and I was quite taken with Paula Stone as the woman who becomes Mrs. Red Colton at West’s conclusion (she’s a bit too demure to be a “dance hall girl” but there’s a reason for that, as you might guess).  Other familiar faces include the ubiquitous Joseph Crehan, Carlyle Moore, Jr., and Jim Thorpe (All American); you might also spot stuntman Yakima Canutt and Gunsmoke bartender Glenn Strange as well.

Trailin’ West is well-directed by B-picture veteran Noel M. Smith (he also co-helmed 1942’s Gang Busters, one of my favorite serials) and scripted by Anthony Coldeway; one of the highlights of the picture is a spirited donnybrook between Foran and Richards’ characters (well, their stuntmen if you want to be picky).  But the film’s lasting contribution is a sequence that’s technically not in the film: one of the outtakes appears in the short Breakdowns of 1937, in which Foran tries to mount his faithful steed “Smoke” …and fails miserably in the attempt (“I can't raise my ass off the ground!”).  (This hilarious blooper would become a “Breakdowns” tradition.)  Trailin’ West makes the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time (that’s where I caught it), but you can also check it out on the Warner Archive’s Dick Foran Western Collection.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: From Radio to the Big Screen

So let’s get the full disclosure portion of this post out of the way.  In Harold “Hal” Erickson’s From Radio to the Big Screen: Hollywood Films Featuring Broadcast Personalities and Programs, I’m listed in the Acknowledgments…and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is mentioned in the Bibliography section (under “Frequently Referenced Websites”).  I cannot, however, hammer home enough the point that I would have gravitated to this book regardless of my miniscule participation.  (I even paid for the Kindle copy—thanks to some generous Amazon gift card largesse I received from Facebook compadres and fellow bloggers Brandie and Christopher for my natal anniversary earlier this month.)  Hal is also one of the many Facebook denizens with whom I interact with on a frequent basis, since we share a mutual mania for classic movies and other forms of nostalgia.

Beginning with Rudy Vallee’s The Vagabond Lover in 1929 (though it’s more accurate to mention that the first “broadcast personality,” “Radio Girl” Ann Howe, was appearing in silent films beginning in 1926) and concluding with the silver screen take on A Prairie Home Companion (2006), author Erickson treats us to a staggeringly comprehensive look at how the motion picture industry mined a rich vein of film fodder making movies based on the popular radio programs of the day.  The material is presented in a chronological fashion, delving into films from the 1930s (Check and Double Check, Paramount’s “Big Broadcast” franchise), the 1940s (most of Columbia’s B-picture series, like Crime Doctor and The Whistler), and the 1950s (The Fat Man, Pete Kelly’s Blues).  The end of the road is arrived at with sections on the aforementioned Companion and Private Parts (1997); admittedly, I skipped over the chapter on the Howard Stern movie because a) I’d already seen it, and b) still don’t know what all the fuss was about.

What won’t you find in From Radio to the Big Screen?  Well, talents like Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope have been excised; Cantor was actually well-known as a stage personality and film star (Whoopee!, Palmy Days) before his appearance on the Rudy Vallee series and subsequent Chase and Sanborn Program in 1931.  The same applies for Hope, who had already established his Broadway bona fides before his successful show for Pepsodent debuted in the fall of 1938 (Hope had appeared in two-reelers as early as 1934, and his prolific film career was technically not jumpstarted by his radio show, but by his star-making role in The Big Broadcast of 1938).  (If you’re curious to examine the cinematic oeuvre of Hope in more detail, I highly recommend my Facebook amigo Jim Neibaur’s The Bob Hope Films—not available for Kindle, unfortunately.)  With rare exceptions (Hope’s in-joke joshing with Bing Crosby in the “Road” films, Cantor in Thank Your Lucky Stars), both comedians took special care to separate their cinematic vehicles from their radio shows by playing different characters in their films.  You will, however, find entries on Cantor stooges Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein and Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon, and the cinematic oeuvre of Hope regulars like Jerry Colonna, Brenda & Cobina (Elvia Allman & Blanche Stewart), and Vera Vague (Barbara Jo Allen) are also discussed.

The same Cantor-Hope principle is applied to aural medium funsters like Red Skelton and Abbott & Costello (who would have succeeded in the movies, Erickson argues, regardless of radio), plus you won’t find films in such franchises as The Falcon or Boston Blackie because they were already well-established literary properties and/or movies before they branched out to the airwaves.  Hal makes exceptions for series like Henry Aldrich (he had his origins on the Broadway stage, with What a Life!) and Scattergood Baines (whose short stories began publication in 1917) with the reasoning that those movies sprung from the success of their respective radio programs.  Hal isn’t quite as appreciative of the Aldrich films as I am, though he does note that “the films provide a farcical antidote to the sickly wholesomeness of MGM’s concurrently produced Andy Hardy films” (starring, of course, TDOY bête noire Mickey Rooney).  I’d be curious to check out some of the Scattergood Baines entries; if The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ does own the R-K-O library, it’s a shame they don’t feature one or two these whenever they have a “Guy Kibbee Day.”  Serials based on characters like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet get the nod for this volume…other chapter plays featuring Buck Rogers or Terry and the Pirates (both well-established comic strip properties) do not.

Hal does present sections on Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (even though Bergen was making shorts for Vitaphone before his radio program), Jack Benny (limiting those movie mentions to when Benny performed in his radio persona, such as Buck Benny Rides Again), and Fred Allen.  This is from the “Acknowledgements” in his book: “After screening my copy of the Fred Allen movie vehicle It’s in the Bag (1945) for an old-time radio fan club, I was surprised that the picture elicited very few laughs, and was blown off as a waste of time once the screening ended.”  (I don’t want to meet any of these people…ever!)  Erickson continues: “However, these same radio aficionados have no problem listening to radio adaptations of popular Hollywood films on such anthologies of the 1930s and 1940s as Lux Radio Theater and Screen Director’s Playhouse.  The only explanation I can come up with for this paradox is that fans of classic radio (or even modern-day radio) prefer to exercise their imaginations and conjure up images of their favorite stars and programs, and feel a bit resentful when these ‘word pictures’ are literalized on film by others, almost as if some enemy force had invaded their minds and imposed an alien set of images.”  I might also add here that while these same people might have little difficulty listening to these radio adaptations buying them is an entirely different matter, if what some folks who sell OTR for a living tell me is true about sluggish sales.

“Erickson is one of those select few writers who can always be counted on to produce a quality book,” writes a reviewer at Classic Images.  “His writing is informative, breezy, and most entertaining.  I never have to worry about the information contained in one of his books; in fact, I learn a great deal from his impeccable research…he also sprinkles his text with interesting tidbits.”  CI is pretty spot-on in their review of Hal’s book—I love what he writes and how he writes, and sorely miss his entertaining capsule reviews at AllMovie (he was a Senior Editor at that site for 15 years—when it was still—and seemed to be one of the few individuals who had actually seen the films he wrote about).  From Radio to the Big Screen isn’t completely error-free: Hal states that the December 30, 1936 broadcast of Town Hall Tonight—the spark that ignited the Jack Benny-Fred Allen “feud”—doesn’t exist but you’ll find the entire broadcast on the Radio Spirits collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud (little shout-out to my employers there).  This is just a pin prick of a nitpick; the entries in his book are a delight to read, and he generously calls attention to movies that should be better known and appreciated (he and I share a mutual affection for 1952’s Here Come the Nelsons).

If you’re as ga-ga about old-time radio as your humble narrator, I would beseech you to walk, don’t run, to Amazon and pick up a copy of this pleasurable book.  Kindlemaniacs like myself can take solace that a number of Hal’s previous tomes are also available in e-book form, notably From Beautiful Downtown Burbank (a look at Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) and Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Children's Television, 1969-1993.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Without winners, there wouldn’t even be any civilization.” – Woody Hayes

Gosh all fishhooks!  The number of entries in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s latest giveaway—a chance to win one of two Radio Spirits sets of Escape: The Hunted and the Haunted—was most encouraging, and I’m pleased to be able to thank everyone who sent me an e-mail to participate.  Sadly, I’m never jazzed at having to announce just two winners because in a perfect and saner world, I’d be able to pass along a set to everyone who sent me e-mails in the first place.  (Perhaps my ship will come in one of these days, and we’ll party like rock stars as a result.)

The winners in the giveaway are TDOY faithful members Patrick F. and Jim H.; I have already e-mailed them to let them know of their good fortune, and that I will get their swag out to them sometime this week.  Keep an eye peeled on the blog because within the next two weeks, I’ll loot the TDOY prize closet for more goodies!  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: Johnny Guitar (1954)

This past Tuesday (September 20), Olive Films rolled out their “Olive Signature” series with a re-release of the 1952 classic High Noon…but what distinguishes this Blu-ray (and DVD) from past incarnations is its amazing new video/audio transfer, not to mention some bodacious bonuses and extras to enhance the home video experience.  In addition to High Noon, the company has afforded the same blue ribbon treatment to another oater that’s held in high esteem here in the House of Yesteryear: Johnny Guitar (1954), which director Bernardo Bertolucci once described as “the first of the baroque westerns.”

Danny Peary’s essay on Guitar in Cult Movies inarguably whetted my appetite to initially see this film, and my first opportunity arrived when it turned up on Cinemax in the 1990s (along with Pursued and Force of Evil), where it was introduced by director/movie buff Martin Scorsese.  (Scorsese’s introduction to Guitar is one of several extras on the Olive Signature Blu-ray.)  It’s a Western unlike any other, loaded with subversive, radical content (it’s even more of an indictment of the political climate in Hollywood than High Noon) and sexual imagery that gives it a most contemporary feel.  Guitar is also an example of what critic Andrew Sarris labeled “Freudian feminism”; it’s unavoidable noticing that the two female characters in the movie are far more “tougher” than their male counterparts.

The plot involves a saloonkeeper named Vienna (Joan Crawford), who is not held in particularly high regard by her fellow townsfolk, a mob headed up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and wealthy rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond).  Emma condemns Vienna for consorting with a group of outlaws led by “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), a man for whom she secretly has strong feelings herself.  This alleged collusion with the Kid and his gang is really just a smokescreen for the fact that Vienna’s establishment lies in close proximity to a transcontinental railroad being constructed in the area; if Vienna goes through with her plans to build a rail station she will be a very wealthy woman indeed.

Conflict arises when Vienna hires an old flame (Sterling Hayden) who calls himself “Johnny Guitar” to protect her interests; unbeknownst to anyone else, Johnny is actually an ex-gunslinger named Johnny Logan.  During the course of the movie, Vienna finds herself accused of helping the Kid stage a bank robbery (one of the Kid’s minions lies about her participation in a futile attempt to escape a lynch mob) and is forced to take it “on the lam” with Johnny.  Johnny Guitar concludes with the anticipated showdown between Vienna and Emma, and presumably Vienna and her Guitar man will be free to pursue a life of marital fulfillment.

My enthusiasm for Johnny Guitar is such that I selected it as the topic of my sermon during the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 50s blogathon in May of 2014…so if you want a more thorough examination of this fascinating film, I implore you to click here.  It’s a movie that without question demands multiple viewings in order to take in all of its sly subtext (for example, the way the various characters’ wardrobe colors comment on their motivations).  It also helps to know the fascinating production history of the film; sure, Joan Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma square off against one another in Guitar…but the two actresses tangled off-screen as well (Joanie was jealous of her younger co-star—a sentiment expressed to any ingénue who appeared in a movie with Joan).  There was no love lost between the male (Hayden) and female (La Joan) stars, either: “There’s is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford,” Hayden purportedly remarked after his experience.  “And I like money.”

Because Johnny Guitar was filmed in what Republic Pictures labeled “Trucolor”—a more economical alternative to Technicolor—the movie was the victim of severe fading over the years until it underwent significant repair in the 1990s.  The new 4k restoration featured on the Olive Signature Blu-ray only highlights the film’s dazzling color scheme, making it sparkly as all get out.  Accompanying the disc is a first-rate essay (“Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western”) contributed by film critic/author Jonathan Rosenbaum (who included Guitar on his list of the 100 best American films in a 1998 Chicago Reader column in response to the American Film Institute’s Top 100), and an audio commentary track from Geoff Andrew (author of The Films of Nicholas Ray).

Of the Blu-ray’s supplementary material, my fascination with movies that either deal directly or indirectly with the Hollywood blacklist made me gravitate toward “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar.”  Historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Front) encore on this (they do a similar mini-feature for High Noon).  Film critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich are featured on “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (an overview of the movie) and “Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?”—which offers some lively give-and-take on “questioning the canon.”  Rounding out the bonuses are reminiscences from Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich on working with director Ray (“My Friend, the American Friend”—which references the 1977 Wim Wenders movie) and another one I enjoyed (I only wish it had been longer), “Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures,” from archivist Marc Wanamaker (author of Early Poverty Row Studios).

“Coveted editions of the films you know and love, Olive Signature is our gift to the many fans, aficionados, and cinephiles who hold these films near and dear,” a press release from Olive Films boldly states.  In the case of both Johnny Guitar and High Noon, they are among my favorite films and most worthy of rediscovery time and time again.  (Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the Johnny Guitar screener.)

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Shadow Man (1953)

He’s known simply as “Luigi” (Cesar Romero), the owner and operator of a Soho “pin table saloon.”  (“Pin table” is British slang for a pinball table, and Luigi’s joint features not only liquor but arcade games—kind of an early Dave & Buster’s.)  He’s also committing adultery with Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall), a dissatisfied socialite who has the misfortune of being married to a real wanker (John Penrose).  Complicating their affair is Angele Abbé (Simone Silva), an old flame of Luigi’s who apparently did not receive the memo that Luigi doesn’t want to ever, ever, ever see her again.  Angele is leading Luigi’s employee “Limpy” (Victor Maddern) along only because she’s convinced that he’s the ticket to a continuation of her pretend relationship with Luigi.

Angele is found murdered in Luigi’s apartment, and here’s our hero’s dilemma: he’s on record as having earlier beaten up a Merchant Seaman (Michael Kelly) when the swabbie forced his unwanted attentions on Angele, so the police single Luigi out as a “person of interest” in the murder.  Luigi knows he’s not responsible for his ex-girlfriend’s killing…the trouble is, he spotted his new girlfriend leaving his flat shortly before he stumbled across Angele’s body.

I don’t know why they decided to retitle this week’s “Forgotten Noir” Shadow Man (1953) for U.S. audiences; star Cesar Romero certainly hasn’t been hired to trail anyone.  Its original British title, Street of Shadows, makes a lot more sense; fortunately, the print of Man featured on the 2006 VCI release is the original U.K. version…which was seven minutes longer than the print that ultimately unspooled in American theaters.  (All I can say is: I have the utmost sympathy for those British audiences that had to endure that extra seven minutes.)

Beginning with his motion picture debut in The Shadow Laughs (1933), Romero was one of the silver screen’s most dependable second leads, and also demonstrated a nice flair for lighter assignments (one of my favorite Cesar movies is 1941’s Tall, Dark and Handsome).  Cesar Romero’s contract with 20th Century-Fox expired in 1950, and from that moment on he did a good deal of movie freelancing; Robert L. Lippert availed himself of the actor’s services with such productions as Lost Continent (1951), The Jungle (1952), and Scotland Yard Inspector (1952).  From 1947 (the year he had one of his best film roles in Captain from Castile) to 1993, Romero appeared in at least one movie or TV show every year until his passing in 1994 at the age of 86…and he was even working beyond that, with his last credit being 1998’s The Right Way (okay, it was filmed a few years before its 1998 release—are you happy now?).

Before the doctors explained to my parents that there was no cure for my classic film obsession, I knew Cesar Romero for two things.  One, his various guest appearances as The Joker on TV’s Batman (1966-68).  The other was his turn as the villainous A.J. Arno in Walt Disney’s “Dexter Riley” trilogy—The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).  I thought Romero was quite good in Shadow Man…it’s a shame he was saddled with such a deadly dull production.

That’s what kept Shadow Man from being a winner for me; its sluggish pace (director Richard Vernon also adapted Laurence Meynell’s novel The Creaking ChairMan was his only turn in the director’s chair) and the fact that for a mystery film there’s not much of a mystery—the killer is pretty obvious from the start.  Nothing really happens in the movie until about 45 minutes in; most of what transpires before is character creation…and I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, it’s just that you need to go somewhere after you’ve taken the time to tell us who’s who.  (They take so much time establishing that Luigi is a right guy despite his sleazy occupation I thought for a brief moment Romero was auditioning for Casablanca.)  The tragic part of all this is that Man does a fairly good job in creating a properly seedy atmosphere (very similar to the celebrated Night and the City) but neglects to pack a plot in its suitcase.

Kay Kendall—just off her splendid turn in Genevieve (1953), and a year away from Doctor in the House (1954)—has a nice showcase as Romero’s illicit lover, and there are familiar British faces in Bill Travers (the star of Born Free and Ring of Bright Water), Edward Underdown (Beat the Devil), and Victor Maddern (the TV sitcom Fair Exchange)—Maddern’s character’s name is actually “Danny Thomas,” which was good for a snicker.  In the final analysis, however…I’d have to give Shadow Man a thumbs-down.

To cleanse my palate after the disappointment that was Shadow Man, I decided to watch the second feature on Forgotten Noir Volume 3Shoot to Kill (1947), which I covered on the blog previously in May of 2012 (it was one of several movies on the Mill Creek collection Dark Crimes; I may look on this set for future “forgotten” noirs when the VCI entries run out).  The VCI print of Kill is in a heckuva lot better shape than the Mill Creek version, and it’s still a guilty pleasure of mine (Luana Walters and her many turbans; Vince “Elmo” Barnett; that eclectic Chinese joint with Gene Rodgers playing boogie-woogie piannah). 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: High Noon (1952)

This past Tuesday (September 20), Olive Films officially introduced its “Olive Signature” series on Blu-ray and DVD.  “Highlighting cult favorites, time-honored classics, and under-appreciated gems,” the company states in a press release, “each Olive Signature edition boasts a pristine audio and video transfer, newly designed cover art, and an abundance of exciting bonus material.”  (Think of it as a second Criterion for the classic movie fan.)

The inaugural Olive Signature release is High Noon (1952), the Oscar-winning Western (including a second Best Actor trophy for star Gary Cooper and Best Original Song for High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’]) that has been a longtime favorite here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Noon was my contribution to The Chaney Blogathon back in 2013, celebrating the cinematic achievements of Lon, Sr. and Lon, Jr.).  Why, I hear you ask?  (At least…I hope that’s you, and not the little voices returning to cavort inside my head…)  Well, I’ve long had an affinity for those oaters that turn what is an admittedly conservative film genre (rugged individualism, strict adherence to a strong moral code, etc.) on its head with a bit of subversive tongue-in-cheek.  Carl Foreman, who penned Noon’s screenplay, never made any bones about the fact that the movie served as an allegory about Hollywood and the motion picture industry (Foreman would later fall victim to the blacklist) and the result so infuriated director Howard Hawks that he purportedly made Rio Bravo (1959) in response to Fred Zinnemann’s film.  (Bravo’s star, John Wayne, stated in his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy that Noon was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”)

You know the story by heart: on the day of his wedding to Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), ex-Hadleyville marshal Will Kane (Cooper) receives word that convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been paroled and is headed his way…and he’s not bringing a fondue set.  No, Will sent Miller up on a murder charge five years earlier, but apparently Frank has slipped through the cracks of the justice system and is returning to Hadleyville to settle the score.

As his gang (Sheb Wooley, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke) wait at the depot for the train to arrive at noon, Will attempts to round up a posse to help him take care of Miller upon his return.  Kane doesn’t have to do this—and he’s told that by several townspeople, including judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger), who’s already high-tailing it out of town, and mayor Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell).  But Will Kane is a man bound by his sense of duty…and besides, what’s the point of running away?  Miller has all the time in the world to track him down in whatever town he and Mrs. Kane decide to settle.  Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is of no use—he’s upset that Kane didn’t recommend him for Will’s job—and one by one, the townspeople reveal their true colors: they’re either deathly afraid of Miller (and more than a few are worried that the confrontation will give the town a bad name) or welcoming him back (many Hadleyville businesses enjoyed having Frank and Company around—it was good for the economy).

The underlying plot of High Noon—there’s a psychotic killer headed for town and its inhabitants can’t or won’t do anything to stop him—has been one that has fascinated me since the first time I sat down and watched the movie with my father.  (I’ve logged any number of visits with the movie since.)  No one expresses this inaction in the film better than the character of Martin Howe (Lon Chaney, Jr.), the man who was marshal of Hadleyville before Will, and who recommended him for the job.  Howe wants nothing more to help Will in his time of crisis, but reasons that Will would be so worried about protecting him in the fight (Howe’s lawman career has left him with “busted knuckles” and arthritis) that Will would wind up getting killed.  As for the rest of the town?  “It’s all happenin’ too sudden,” observes Martin.  “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it.   Maybe because down deep…they don’t care…they just don’t care.”  It’s a powerful political message that is still frighteningly relevant today.

The Olive Signature transfer of High Noon (mastered from a new 4K restoration) looks razor-sharp and positively pristine—it’s the best I’ve seen this film looking in years.  The bonus materials are abundant and most entertaining; I never noticed that cinematographer Floyd Crosby paid homage to a shot of a swinging clock pendulum from Noon in his later work on Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961)—a feature with a considerably larger pendulum—until film editor Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) pointed it out in “The Ticking Clock.”  “Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon” is a nice overall look at the making of the film narrated by Anton Yelchin, and I particularly enjoyed “Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon,” which features historian Larry Ceplair and Walter Bernstein, the blacklisted scribe who wrote one of my favorite films on the subject, The Front (1976).

I’ll admit a little bias and confess that my favorite feature on the Noon Signature Blu-ray is “A Stanley Kramer Production,” because my good friend (and Facebook amigo) Michael Schlesinger holds forth on the career of the producer-director.  Because I was watching this with my mother, I said to her: “Mike is going to proclaim It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World the greatest movie of all time at some point during this.”  (He did not disappoint.)  There's also an accompanying original essay, "Uncitizened Kane," contributed by Sight and Sound editor Nick James.

Something else that will not disappoint: a purchase of this Blu-ray for your classic film library.  I know it’s been released several times before, but the transfer in this edition is worth the price of admission; it’s that breathtakingly beautiful.  Tomorrow in this space: I’ll look at the other Olive Signature release from this week—and not coincidentally, another one of my very favorite Westerns.

Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the High Noon screener.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

“Designed to free you from the four walls of today…”

We’re kind of at the halfway point of our latest Thrilling Days of Yesteryear giveaway: a chance to win one of two Radio Spirits sets of Escape: The Hunted and the Haunted.  This 10-CD set, valued at $39.98, contains twenty vintage broadcasts of the CBS Radio series (the shows originally aired between 1948 and 1954) and a liner note booklet composed by your humble narrator.  The response has been very positive; not Johnny Dollar positive, mind you, but encouraging all the same.  You still have an opportunity to enter for a chance to win, simply by sending me an e-mail (with “The Hunted and the Haunted” in the subject header) at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com.  Be sure and get your entry in soon—the deadline is 11:59pm EDT this Saturday, September 24…and two lucky members of the TDOY faithful will be chosen through the magic of the random number generator at

On a more somber note: the old-time radio community received a sign-off from one of The Hobby’s truly “grand old men”—David S. Siegel, who’s moved on to a better studio at the age of 84.  I was positively gobsmacked to get a phone call from him one day while he was conducting research for a book he co-wrote with J. Randolph Cox, Flashgun Casey, Crime Photographer: From the Pulps to Radio and Beyond.  He had read an entry I wrote for TDOY (back in the old Salon days) about the radio Casey, and asked me if I had any additional information on the show.  I sheepishly had to tell him that the content for the blog post came from the Radio Spirits collection booklet that accompanied the CDs to which I listened.  What I remember most about this encounter with Dave was that he was of enormously good spirits about the “dead end”; he explained that he had to explore every avenue when researching his subject, and even graciously sent me a gratis copy of one of his other books (co-written with series creator Alonzo Deen Cole), The Witch’s Tale: Stories of Gothic Horror from the Golden Age of Radio—which sits on my bookshelf even today.

Eventually, I was able to give David an assist on a project: he had been asked by Radio Spirits to write the liner notes for a collection of Witch’s Tale broadcasts, and he called me to ask how he would go about it…so I sent him a sample of notes that I had finished for a previous assignment.  He later asked me in September of 2011 if I’d be interested in contributing to an encyclopedia he and author Jack French were editing on old-time radio western shows.  That book would be published in 2013 as Radio Rides the Range (the chapters on The Roy Rogers Show and Tales of the Texas Rangers were my contributions).  Some of the other books that David wrote without my help include Remembering Radio: An Oral History of Old-Time Radio (available on Kindle) and Radio and the Jews: The Untold Story of How Radio Influenced the Image of Jews (co-written with his wife Susan; the two also collaborated on a number of tomes known as “The Used Book Lover’s Guide” series).

I wasn’t as close to David Siegel as many others in the old-time radio community…but I always enjoyed hearing from him when he called; I remember we once had a conversation in which he expressed his disappointment with some hobbyists as they were convinced that they were sitting on a gold mine when it came to uncirculated transcriptions.  David firmly believed that OTR was to share (I’ve heard a number of stories of how he helped people new to The Hobby with getting collections started) and he said matter-of-factly to me: “Unless it’s something to do with Elvis or The Beatles, you’re not going to make any money off it.”  Dave Siegel was one of the kindest, most generous individuals I’ve known in the old-time radio community; they’ll be laying him to rest Friday (September 23) and fittingly, his wife Susan has asked J. David Goldin—“The Man Who ‘Saved’ Radio”—to deliver the eulogy and Goldin’s CD “Themes Like Old Times” will play at the funeral home as folks gather for his service.  Sadly, I can’t be there…but I’m hoping that when David reaches his final place of rest he’ll get to meet many of the voices that enthralled him in this wonderful hobby.