Monday, January 30, 2017

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar…

The gratuitous back-patting known as the Academy Awards will get underway in less than a month (February 26th this year), and though I haven’t really given the ceremony that much thought, a stray comment from my fellow classic movie pal ClassicBecky on my recent The Long Walk Home review set in motion an idea for a post:

I was particularly interested in your view of actors winning Oscars for the wrong movies. Made me think of Russell Crowe winning the Oscar for "Gladiator", in which his predominant line of dialogue was the monotonal "I am Maximus." Then the very next year, losing the Oscar for his truly remarkable performance in "A Beautiful Mind." Huh?

There was a time (don’t be frightened by the wavy lines—it’s just a flashback) when I would await the arrival of the Academy Awards with eager anticipation.  That enthusiasm disappeared in 1995, when the Best Picture Oscar went to Forrest Gump, a film that beat out far superior movies like Quiz Show and Pulp Fiction for the top prize.  (I apologize to any Gump fans out there…but that odious piece of fromage gets the 1960s counterculture so wrong it elevates my blood pressure just thinking about it.  Hell, even the other two features nominated—the romantic comedy trifle Four Weddings and a Funeral and the so-popular-it’s-stupefying The Shawshank Redemption—would have been better choices.)  To add insult to injury, Tom Hanks won a second Best Actor Oscar for that travesty; I always think of that purported observation by Alma Reville to her husband Alfred Hitchcock that Oscars weren’t too much of a big deal because “after all, Luise Rainer won two of them.”

It wasn’t long after this that I purchased and read with delight film historian Danny Peary’s wonderful book Alternate Oscars.  Published in 1993, Peary argues that throughout the history of Academy Awards, the films that should have been recognized aren’t for a variety of reasons—mostly having to do with Hollywood politics.  (Look, I love How Green Was My Valley as much as the next person…but is it really a better film than Citizen Kane—despite Orson Welles’ on-the-record reverence for John Ford?)  Danny attempts to rectify the many mistakes Oscar has made throughout its history; sometimes he’s okay with the choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…other times he questions as to whether its membership was passing around a crack pipe.  If you don’t have this invaluable reference on your movie bookshelf, you need to do so at your earliest opportunity; it’s available from a number of used bookstore both online and off (it’s OOP, sadly—Peary seems to be more comfortable writing sports books these days) but in case you’re curious about its contents, you can find the complete list from the book at one of my favorite movie sites:

In Alternate Oscars, Danny advocates the taking of many of the trophies from those individuals who won Academy Awards and reallocating those prizes to actors/actresses more deserving.  I agree with many of his choices: how thesps like Clark Gable (a particular bête noire of mine), Paul Lukas, and Broderick Crawford ever won Oscars is a mystery to me.  (And I say this as someone who loves All the King’s Men.)  In other instances, Peary argues that actors frequently receive Oscars for the wrong movies.  A great example of this is Mary Pickford, the best actress winner in 1928/29 for Coquette.  You people know the story: they gave “America’s Sweetheart” the acting prize because she wanted one (the Academy was an organization created to bust unions—you know this as well).  Mary is much better in My Best Girl (1927), and Danny argues she should have had a statuette for what was her final silent film.

The chief culprit to consider when you say to yourself out loud during an Oscar telecast—“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—surely they’re not giving him/her an award for that?”—is that these honors are often handed out for an outstanding body of work…not because they were really, really good in a particular film.  Even people who defend the Academy Awards will cop to that.  There’s no greater example of this than Henry Fonda, who finally nabbed a Best Actor trophy in 1982 for playing the “get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids” crank in On Golden Pond (1981)—then Hank went on to an even greater reward a few months after (when he snuffed it).  I don’t think Fonda ever gave a better performance onscreen than as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) …but they didn’t give him that Oscar because they were too busy giving his bosom buddy James Stewart the Best Actor prize for The Philadelphia Story (1940).  The general agreement was that Stewart got his Oscar that year for being ignored previously for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

I’m not a fan of The Philadelphia Story, chiefly because the romantic problems of rich people rarely register high on my personal Give-a-Damn-O-Meter.  I’d argue that Jimmy is much better in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946—this gets Stewart his “Alternate Oscar” in Peary’s book) and if he was shut out that year by The Best Years of Our Lives juggernaut, the Academy could have always waited for Vertigo (1958) or Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  By that same token, Henry Fonda gave first-rate performances in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Wrong Man (1956), Fail-Safe (1964), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  My personal Fonda fave is Fort Apache (1948); a journalist once asked Hank’s son Peter what his famous dad was like off-screen and Pete asked him if he’d ever seen Fort Apache.  When the reporter applied in the affirmative, Fonda remarked: “That’s what he was like off-screen.”

Speaking of John Wayne (well, he’s in Fort Apache as well)—the Duke got his “Atta boy” from his peers for True Grit (1969) …even though he was just being John Wayne in an eyepatch.  To be frank, John Wayne pretty much played John Wayne in every movie he was in…but he could occasionally step up to the place and hit one out of the thespic park.  It’s no coinky-dink that these performances were in films directed by the aforementioned Mr. Ford: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949—my personal favorite), The Quiet Man (1952—Peary’s pick in AO), The Searchers (1956) …and even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (I always forget how splendid that movie is until I take the time to sit down with it again.)

Here’s a short list of some more actors who won Oscars for the wrong movies.  I didn’t include actresses on this list—not because I’m being chauvinistic, but because I was racing a deadline for this post and decided it would be better tackled in a follow-up next week.

Humphrey Bogart – Despite my love for Bogart, most of his movie roles were, like John Wayne, variations on his established persona—including The African Queen (1951), the one that earned him his Oscar.  But Bogie gives much more interesting (and in my opinion, better) performances in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950).  My sentimental favorites are Deadline – U.S.A. (1952) and Humphrey’s swan song, The Harder They Fall (1956).

Rod Steiger – Speaking of The Harder They Fall, I think Steiger’s turn as the autocratic mobster Nick Benko is sensational; Steiger is a difficult guy to pin down because…well, let’s not mince words: he could chew up the scenery when inclined (which is why his serial killer in 1968’s No Way to Treat a Lady should have been Academy Award-worthy—it plays perfectly to this handicap).  Rod got his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967), but my personal pick is his role in The Pawnbroker (1964).  (I would also have accepted his psychiatrist in The Mark [1961] as an answer.)

Sidney Poitier – I truly think Poitier gives the better performance in In the Heat of the Night as Virgil Tibbs, but the Academy had already given Sidney honors for 1963’s Lillies of the Field.  I have never been able to understand why this great actor got overlooked for A Raisin in the Sun (1961—my choice).  Other outstanding Poitier choices include Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Edge of the City (1957), and Something of Value (1957).

Burt Lancaster – I’ve said it many times in the past: Burt Lancaster’s acting got better and better with age.  You can see the genesis of this in my favorite of his films, The Swimmer (1968) …but he was really on fire by the time he made Atlantic City (1980—this is the one I’d hand him an Oscar for), Local Hero (1983), and Field of Dreams (1989).  Peary takes Burt’s trophy for Elmer Gantry (1960) and gives it to Anthony Perkins for Psycho (ignoring the fact that Perkins played variations on Norman Bates pretty much the entirety of his career).  Not even an honorable mention for Sweet Smell of Success (1957—maybe he thought Burt was a supporting actor in this one)!

Charlton Heston – You might have seen the gag in Wayne’s World 2 (1992); an inconsequential bit player (Al Hansen) finds himself switched out with a “better actor”—none other than Heston himself.  I probably laughed harder at the irony of Charlton being considered a good actor because…I don’t think he was all that and a bag of chips.  Heston won for Ben-Hur (1959), but if we consult The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ he was at his very best for the titular role of Will Penny (1968).  (I once had a dream where I was trapped in an elevator with Charlton Heston, and all I could do was mock him at every turn: “Get your stinking paws off me—you damn dirty ape!”)

Paul Newman – Newman was nominated for an Oscar six times before the Academy decided to give him a special trophy…and then the following year, he got the Best Actor prize for The Color of Money (1986).  Paul would score two more nominations following this (one of them a favorite of mine, 1994’s Nobody’s Fool) …but how he got overlooked for The Hustler (1961—Peary’s choice), Hud (1963), or The Verdict (1982—this is for me his Oscar-winning performance) is a mystery for the old man on the mountain.

Jack Lemmon – Lemmon already had a Best Supporting Actor Oscar on the mantelpiece for Mister Roberts (1955) when his peers decided to throw a Best Actor prize his way for Save the Tiger (1973).  No, sir.  I don’t like it.  If he was going to win a Best Actor Oscar it should have been for either Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The China Syndrome (1979), or Missing (1982—my personal favorite).  Jack received nominations for all three of those films, not to mention Some Like it Hot (1959—picked in AO) and The Apartment (1960).  (He’s also first-rate in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross—though this might be considered a supporting turn.)

Jack Nicholson – Another multiple winner, Nicholson got his first Oscar for 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a movie I revisited not too long ago, and was disappointed that it has not aged well.  (Danny Peary has a dissenting opinion…but he also argues that Jack’s comic turn in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) should have been honored, and I side with him on this completely.)  I can’t believe Jack got ignored for three better performances (all of them nominated): Five Easy Pieces (1970—Peary’s pick), The Last Detail (1973), and Chinatown (1974—my choice…though it was a tough year with all that Godfather II-ing going on).  (Nicholson later won a Best Supporting for Terms of Endearment [1983] and a second Best Actor trophy for 1997’s As Good As It Gets.)

Al Pacino – The Rod Steiger of his era.  I paid good money to see the film for which they finally gave Pacino an Oscar, Scent of a Woman (1992).  (The only positive thing to come out of that experience was that I spotted soap stars Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes in the theatre lobby.)  Any of the 70s films that Al received noms for—The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, …and justice for all (my favorite)—would have been better choices.  (Future nominations stopped with his Scent Oscar, yet despite his propensity for scenery chewing, Al’s given some wonderful performances in the twilight of his career: Donnie Brasco [1997], The Insider [1999], Insomnia [2002], etc.)

Denzel Washington – They passed on giving Denzel a second Oscar (he had won a Best Supporting for 1989’s Glory) in 1993 because everybody liked the way Pacino constantly hollered “Hoo-hah!” in the previously mentioned Scent of a Woman.  Denzel should have been the winner that year, but he’d have to wait until his name was called for a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day (2001).  (He even got snubbed for the excellent For Queen and Country [1988].)

Disclaimer: the preceding were my opinions and mine alone—if you disagree with me, I welcome your input in the comments section.  (All that I ask is that you remember that my parents are married.)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

“I’m a mad dog whose only concern is winning.” – Charles Barkley

The gods have spoken!  With the generous assistance of their random number generator, two individuals were selected to receive copies of the Radio Spirits Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy CD release Smile a While.  Loyal members of the TDOY faithful Amanda C. (from the wilds of Minnesota) and Roger S. (a Massachusetts boy) will soon be doubled over in laughter listening to these vintage broadcasts—my only regret is that I’m not able to hand out sets to all who entered, because the participation was most encouraging.  (I need to raise some money around this joint.  Maybe a Pay Pal button?)

Next Saturday, I’ll have one more contest planned for the expressed purpose of gifting TDOY readers with some bodacious old-time radio swag.  It’s is going to be a fantabulous “bundle” giveaway, so stay tuned for further details and remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Radar Secret Service (1950)

As the third-place winner in the “Reed Hadley Sound-a-Like Contest” intones off-screen that we couldn’t have won the Second World War without RAdio Detection And Ranging (radar to you laypeople), we learn that the Radar Secret Service in the nation’s capital is doing swell things with the technology.  Why, RSS Agent Bill Travis (John Howard) and his sidekick Static (Ralph Byrd)—no, not the character on The Space Kiddettes—are able to close the unsolved Allen murder case by locating the missing gun!  (I wonder if the Radar Secret Service ever had cause to work alongside the United States Counterspies?)

But Bill and Static have bigger fish to fry: hoodlum Mickey Moran (Tom Neal) has received word of a valuable shipment of U-238 in transit…and his henchmen Blackie (Riley Hill) and Benson (Robert Kent) manage to “liberate” those goods before the uranium reaches its destination.  The Radar Secret Service swings into action with the help of a “Tele-Meter”—a surveillance device that acts like…well, if this motion picture is to be believed, like there’s a friggin’ camera on every street corner, triggered by the very presence of the U-238.  Moran certainly has his hands full staying one step ahead of the RSS…but the mobster has bigger problems: his moll Lila (Adele Jergens) is two-timing him with the real head of the ring, a sebaceous sort who answers to Michael (Tristram Coffin).

The working title of Radar Secret Service (1950) was Radar Patrol (the organization is repeatedly referred to by that name in the film), but I suspect they changed the name because of fears there’d be confusion with a Republic serial released a year earlier, Radar Patrol vs. Spy King.  With the supporting cast in Service, it could very well be a chapter play: Ralph Byrd, Tris Coffin (oddly, he’s in Radar Patrol vs. Spy King), Pierre Watkin (billed here as “Watkins”), Robert Kent, and Kenne Duncan—just to name a few.  Here’s what handicaps Service in the cliffhanger department: it is deadly dull to sit through, despite its 57-minute running time.  (Even the fistfights are uninspired.)

We can probably blame B-picture king Sam Newfield for the leaden pace of this one, since he sat in the director’s chair (his brother Sigmund was absent from this snooze fest—the producer on Radar Secret Service was the prolific Barney Sarecky) …but the sluggish screenplay by Beryl Sachs (an East Side Kids veteran) doesn’t do Service any favors, either.  Robert L. Lippert “good luck charm” Sid Melton is also around for this programmer (as a hypochrondriacal henchman named “Pill Box”), but when Ralph Byrd manages to get bigger laughs than Sid something has gone seriously awry.  (In fairness to Sid, I choked on my Crystal Light when Byrd’s character remarks about radar: “Dick Tracy used it years before it was invented.”  The in-joke, of course, is that Ralph played the legendary comic strip detective in four Republic serials, two entries in the brief RKO franchise, and on TV from 1950-52 [Byrd passed away at the age of 43 in 1952]).

Agents Byrd and Howard tool around in a vehicle that looks like they're delivering hair dryers.

It’s a shame that Radar Secret Service fails so miserably because it’s got a halfway decent cast: Tom “Detour” Neal is properly snarly, and my favorite B-movie bad blonde Adele Jergens is suitably slinky as the dame what double-crosses him.  Byrd provides scattered chuckles (his explanation of how he found the picture of Blackie’s girlfriend [Myrna Dell] is a hoot), and the always dependable Coffin and Watkin lend solid support.  If there’s a discordant note in this affair, it’s star John Howard…who may be the exception to my long-held theory that even bad actors can get better with age.  (I suspect my animosity towards Howard might have something to do with the fact that he’s the wanker who talks Ronald Colman into leaving Shangri-La in Lost Horizon [1937].)

I feel terrible that I’m going to beat my blogging compadre Scott Clevenger to the punch on this one…but, yes. Radar Secret Service received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment (in December 1993).  Paired with a railroad safety short, Last Clear Chance (1959), the MST3K sendup of Service has its mad scientists (Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff) boasting that the flick contains “Hypno-Helio Static Stasis (containing X-4)” (in layperson’s terms—this turkey is a cure for insomnia).  The MST3K version is available on YouTube, which I strongly endorse watching…but for the more masochistic among you, the director’s cut is available for rental from ClassicFlix.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cheer up, Charlie…

Just wanted to give the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful a reminder that if you want to enter our latest giveaway you need to get your entry in before 11:59pm EST this Saturday, January 28th.  What is the prize, I hear you asking?  Well, I have two copies of the Radio Spirits release Smile a While (valued at $31.95) to hand out to two lucky cartooners—Smile being a bodacious 8-CD set containing sixteen rare and vintage broadcasts of The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show.  If you’re a U.S. resident and/or have a U.S. mailing address, just drop me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Smile a While” in the subject header and you just might be the recipient of one of these sets if the gods will it to be so.  The response has been very healthy so far, so get your entry in if you want a chance to win!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The best kind of McCarthyism

In May of last year, I received a plum assignment from Radio Spirits: authoring the liner notes for a collection of Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy broadcasts.  This wasn’t my first rodeo, you understand (I refer you here and here)—but the programs selected for this set would consist of many uncirculated shows, something that makes the heart of any old-time radio fan go pitter-pat.  It certainly did wonders for my cardiac circulation, reveling in the antics of radio’s most popular ventriloquist and his smartassed sidekick as they traded quips with the likes of Paulette Goddard, Bert Lahr, Ida Lupino, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lupe Velez.

This collection is titled Smile a While, and it contains sixteen broadcasts from 1943, when Edgar Bergen and his wooden friends ranked among radio’s top comedy programs—entertaining audiences weekly to relieve the stress and worries resulting from WW2.  I’ve got two of these sets (the SRP is $31.95) to give away to two lucky members of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful; I offer my most profuse mea culpa for not getting this up on the blog as I originally planned…but it took me a lot longer to defeat the Killer Flu Virus from Venus.  As it’s been a little over a month since I handed out some fantabulous swag, even if you made out like a bandit in December’s The Couple Next Door contest you can enter this one if you so desire.

Here are the rules:

1) Send me an e-mail with “Smile a While” in the subject header to igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com.  You have until 11:59pm EST on January 28, 2017 (next Saturday) to enter.

2) Make sure you are a U.S. resident or have a U.S. mailing address.

3) Again, since TDOY hosted the last giveaway back in December, the usual request to sit out a contest to allow other cartooners a more sporting chance is kinda null and void.  However…if you still wouldn’t feel right about entering, not only would we understand completely but we would probably write folk songs chronicling your generous nature and have a statue erected in your home town (provided I can sneak this provision in an upcoming Congressional infrastructure bill).

4) I will choose two winners Sunday morning (via the Random Number Generator at of January 29th and not only inform the lucky persons of their tremendous good fortune but suggest they have a flutter at buying a lottery ticket.  Keep in mind that when entering, you don’t have to provide a snail-mail address…but I will need it once you receive that “Congratulations!” e-mail.

5) As always…there is no number five.

This is truly an entertaining set (the November 14, 1943 broadcast with guest star Mary Boland is one of the funniest half-hours I’ve ever listened to) and it would look swell on the shelf that houses your OTR collection…or better still, a generous gift for the person in your life who’s not only got a birthday coming up but loves Edgar & Charlie as well.  As always, profuse thanks go out to my employers at Radio Spirits for donating the prizes and remember—Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950)

Old-time radio’s favorite representative from the fictitious “United States Counterspies” agency, David Harding (Howard St. John), returns for his second and final attempt to establish a silver screen franchise in Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950).  This time out, Harding and his agents are examining the “suicide” of one Don Martin (Harry Lauter), an operative who left a message on his boss’ machine announcing a break in the investigation of the leaking of valuable information regarding the government’s guided missile program.  It’s all so simple, really: why would a man take his own life the night he’s about to achieve a breakthrough that will reveal the person responsible for jeopardizing national security?

Harding will get an assist in the Martin matter from Simon Langton (Ron Randell), described by the counterspies as “the British David Harding.”  (Hence the “Scotland Yard” in the film’s title.)  Both men don’t know it yet—though the audience is clued in early, otherwise we’d be bored shitless—but the individual at the center of the leaks is Martin’s secretary (and secret ex-fiancée) Karen Michelle (Amanda Blake).  Karen, however, is unaware that her loose lips have been sinking ships; she’s being pumped for the information (thanks to a dose of sodium pentothal) by Dr. Victor Gilbert (Lewis Martin), who records their sessions and then sends the tape on to higher-ups in the spy ring (represented by the president of a bottled water company, played by Charles Meredith).  Say it with me now: this looks like a job for…David Harding, Counterspy!

The 'rents have heard me sing out "John Doucette!" every time I see him in one of their Lone Ranger reruns they're now able to spot him before I do.  (John plays one of the bad guys.)

Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard is a slight improvement over the original David Harding, Counterspy (1950); it’s shorter, as my Facebook chum Hal Erickson notes in From Radio to the Big Screen, though Hal also opines it’s “perhaps because Seymour Friedman was a better director than Ray Nazarro.”  (Leonard Maltin generously gives it ** ½ in his Classic Movie Guide, calling it a “slick, efficient B yarn.”)  It’s not too hard to suss out, however, why the attempt to continue the Counterspy film franchise fell by the wayside.  Howard St. John was a first-rate character actor (Born Yesterday, Li’l Abner) but he suffers from a serious deficiency in the charisma department when it comes to playing leads.  Ditto his “British counterpart,” Ron Randell, whose previous attempts to keep both the Bulldog Drummond and Lone Wolf movie series chugging along apparently met with much theatergoer malaise.

Legendary TV homewrecker June Vincent channels her inner Nurse Ratched as the henchwoman to the villainous doctor played by Lewis Martin.

So is there anything to recommend about Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard?  Well, the story and screenplay by Harold Greene has some clever moments, particularly the method the spies use to transport Michelle’s recorded babblings back to their lair.  (Erickson: “So cunningly complex is Mr. Miller’s scheme that one is almost pulling for him to get away with it!”)  Speaking of Michelle, the actress playing her will be familiar to legions of Gunsmoke fans as the gal who slaked the thirst of Dodge City’s citizens for nearly the entirety of the television run: Amanda Blake (and she’s quite good, too).  Mister John Dehner returns from the first movie as Agent Bob Reynolds, and future director Fred F. Sears is also back as Agent Harry Peters (special thanks to member of the TDOY faithful rnigma for the first name), Harding’s chief sidekick on the radio version.

I do not own the VCI edition of Forgotten Noir Collection 4 that features Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard…so I had to depend, as I have many times in the past, on the kindness of strangers—in this particular instance, I rented it from ClassicFlix.  Next Friday, I will sample another flick from that same set.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: Wagon Tracks (1919)

After appearing on stage for many years as a respected actor, William S. Hart made his debut “in the flickers” playing Messala in a 1907 production of Ben-Hur.  This is not, however, what cemented Hart’s cinematic immortality; beginning in 1914, Bill began appearing in two-reel westerns (which later expanded to feature film length when the shorts proved quite popular) for producer Thomas H. Ince.  The market for oaters was pretty much glutted at that time, yet Hart stood out from his cowboy movie brethren and inarguably became one of the first major sagebrush stars in the movies.  Hart made over seventy films between 1914 and 1926; not only as an actor but also a screenwriter, director, and producer.  His movie legacy includes such classics as Hell’s Hinges (1916), The Return of Draw Egan (1916), The Toll Gate (1920), and Tumbleweeds (1926—his final starring film).

In Wagon Tracks (1919), Bill plays “Buckskin” Hamilton—a desert guide who has traversed the Santa Fe Trail to Westport Landing, MO.  Hamilton’s purpose for his journey is to meet up with his younger brother Billy (Leo Pierson), who’s just graduated from medical school.  Alas, poor Billy will never get the opportunity to take the Hippocratic Oath…for he’s gotten involved in a riverboat card game with crooked gambler Donald Washburn (Robert McKim)—a title card informs us that Washburn had to beat a hasty retreat from St. Louis because of his activities; he’s currently on his way to Santa Fe with his sister Jane (Jane Novak) and her fiancé Guy Merton (future Warner’s director Lloyd Bacon) at his side.

During the game, Billy discovers that Washburn is cheating…and in a mutual exchange of temper, guns are drawn.  Jane steps in to stop things from escalating, but it appears that in her struggle for Billy’s gun she shoots and kills him.  In explaining the incident to the ship’s captain (Charles Arling), Washburn spins a yarn that Jane was forced to gun Billy down after the young man’s intentions proved less than honorable…and conveniently leaves out the part about him trying to rook Hamilton in poker.

Buckskin is devastated by the death of his brother.  He tells Jane that while he believes it was an accident, he’s convinced there’s more to the story than she’s telling.  Buckskin will get the opportunity to exact a little frontier justice (with the help of a band of Kiowas) when he agrees to head up the wagon train on which Merton and the Washburns are traveling…because during that trek to Santa Fe, Jane eventually reveals the truth.

A morality play set against the background of the “go west, young man” trek in the mid-1800s (the time frame is 1850, shortly after the California gold rush), Wagon Tracks showcases William S. Hart at his Western finest.  The film was praised effusively by film critics at the time of its release, none more so than the Los Angeles Times: “The great desert screen epic is with us at last.  It has been done by William S. Hart and C. Gardner Sullivan, with the aid of a fine cast and superlative photography…”  The reviewer went on to call Sullivan’s screenplay “a masterpiece.”  A little closer to home, the Atlanta Constitution (this is years before it merged with The Atlanta Journal) gushed “No one who sees this picture will soon forget it.  It will be a vivid memory for months afterward.”

Maybe it was a slow week at the neighborhood cinema when these critics sat down with an overpriced box of popcorn and cup of soda…but Wagon Tracks is a little overpraised.  I don’t want to give the impression that I’m down on the film, however; it is very much worth the time to sit down with it, because the performances and photography are first-rate.  Bill Hart had a very impressive background as a Shakespearean actor, and he is most effective throughout Wagon Tracks—particularly the scene in which he grieves over the loss of his brother.  The movie’s plot also features a nice twist that I will not reveal for those who have not seen it.  Tracks was directed by Lambert Hillyer, an accomplished journeyman whose talent for B-westerns has been discussed previously here on the blog (Gun Law Justice).

Wagon Tracks is important because coming January 24 (this Tuesday), it will be the first of Hart’s films to receive treatment on Blu-ray.  In a press release from Olive Films, Alex Kopecky observes: “William S. Hart was an iconic performer, and it’s hard to believe that he has been missing from Blu-ray collections until now.”  The movie, due to its public domain status, has been available on YouTube and DVD (Grapevine Video, Sinister Cinema, etc.) for several years…but the Olive Films release is the one you definitely have to purchase.  Mastered for home video from an original 35mm nitrate print courtesy of the Library of Congress, this version of Wagon Tracks is positively breathtaking.  (I was very impressed by the film’s tinting—particularly those scenes illuminated by campfires, where the movie is bathed in an orange glow—and the original score composed by Andrew Earle Simpson.)

When William S. Hart passed on in 1946, he designated in his will that his 265-acre ranch be transformed into a public park and museum.  “When I was making pictures, the people gave me their nickels, dimes and quarters,” he stated.  “When I am gone, I want them to have my home.”  Hart not only gave us his home, he left behind a rich legacy steeped in the genre we know as the movie Western, and Wagon Tracks is an excellent example of what made “Two-Gun Bill” a solid audience favorite.  (Generous thanks to Olive Films’ Bradley Powell for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with this wonderful screener.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

The state of the blog

As you can see by this morning’s review of The Red Skelton Hour in Color DVD collection, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is back in the blogging saddle.  I profusely apologize for being away so long; my original plan was to start applying the paddles to TDOY last week, but this cold my sister gave me for Christmas morphed into a wicked bout of flu—the kind where you don’t feel like doing anything outside of glancing at the trashcan that sits beside Count Comfy von Chair and marveling at the amount of Kleenex you’ve gone through.

Be that as it may, I did not spend all the time counting snot rags; no, indeedy—I was formulating plans towards once again revamping the content here at TDOY…and sadly, this means some of the regular features will be given their pink slips (they will, however, receive a most generous severance package).  I will not sugarcoat this: my reaction to some of these standbys is that they’re a little too much like work.  An example of this is B-Western Wednesdays; I like to sit down with a good oater with the best of them…but when it gets to the point where I’m looking at the calendar and saying to myself: “Geez, I need to set aside some time to watch a programmer for the blog before Wednesday”—well, that’s when watching movies ceases to be fun.  I want to write about movies I’ve recently glanced at for the joy of sharing them…not because I’m conforming to a schedule.

So while B-Western Wednesdays won’t disappear entirely from TDOY it’s been relegated to “irregular” status.  I’ve been kind of slack on the television material with regards to the blog, so I’m hoping to dust off some of my boob tube-related DVDs and watch a classic or two on occasion.  I mentioned in a previous post that Forgotten Noir Fridays will be wrapping it up in a few months, and I hope after that’s finished to welcome back the off-and-on Crime Does Not Pay shorts (I lucked out when the Warner Archive collection was on sale at Amazon and I picked up the entire set for a mere bag of shells).

The silent movies I write about on Thursdays will be sticking around, as will be Overlooked Films on TuesdaysOverlooked is kind of an extension of the “Where’s That Been” column I write for ClassicFlix, and I get a lot of pleasure out of sitting down with a movie that may have slipped under the radar of many a classic film fan.  Finally, I want to apologize for not getting the last TDOY giveaway started when I promised: I will have an announcement for this on Saturday, word of honor.  (It will be a month since the last swag contest, so everyone will get an opportunity to participate.)

2017 is going to be a dark year for many in the TDOY faithful.  Contrary to some of the smack being written about me on Twitter, I remain the happy-go-lucky individual dedicated to wallowing in nostalgia, and sharing that delight with like-minded classic movie and TV fans, so I’m hoping that the blog will provide a respite for those people who find themselves overwhelmed and just need a safety valve to restore a little bit of sanity.  As a wise cartoon Indian once said: “Hoopy doopy—we have fun!”  I most certainly intend to, and I invite you to join me.

“Good night…and may God bless…”

"A mime whose greatest success was on the radio.  A folk humorist in the years when American entertainment was becoming urban.  A vulgar knockabout at a time when American comedy was becoming sophisticated and verbal.  A naïve ne'er-do-well in the age of the self-conscious schlemiel.  Red Skelton's career is a study in how to miss every trend that comes down the pike."  This assessment of the legendary comedic clown by writer Ross Wetzsteon is excerpted by Leonard Maltin in his chapter on Red from his indispensable reference The Great Movie Comedians, and it’s one that’s stayed with me for many years—particularly the first sentence.

See, I am a huge fan of Red Skelton’s work…but I sincerely believe his shtick—what I have referred to many times in the past as his “Gallery of Grotesques”—worked better in an aural medium despite Skelton’s undeniable talent for pantomime and physical comedy.  I’ve had the marvelous pleasure to have worked on any number of collections of his radio broadcasts during my tenure at Radio Spirits—many of these shows have been previously uncirculated among old-time radio hobbyists, and have recently resurfaced with the stamp of approval from the Skelton estate.

That estate has not neglected the comedian’s television legacy, either.  You’ll find a myriad of DVD collections available from Skelton’s twenty-year boob tube reign as “the clown master,” and in casual conversations with those who share my obsession with nostalgia, I gleaned an impression that Red’s TV work is what they remember best.  (I don’t think my parents ever watched his show, so that’s why most of my memories are from radio.)  Time-Life added a magnificent set to the mix on January 3 of this year with The Red Skelton Hour in Color, a 3-DVD set featuring twelve episodes from Skelton’s mega-successful variety hour that convulsed audiences over CBS-TV on Tuesday nights from 1962 to 1970.  (Skelton made the leap into TV in 1951, but his weekly show was a half-hour for the first 11 years he was on the small screen.)

Many of the telecasts showcased on The Red Skelton Hour in Color haven’t been seen by audiences in over fifty years.  They are an incredible wallow in nostalgia; a time when the variety show format, practiced by TV legends like Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers, etc., amused millions of viewers who wanted little more from that appliance in their living room than an hour of non-think entertainment.  The Red Skelton Hour naturally attracted big-name celebrities as guest stars; you’ll be delighted at seeing the likes of John Wayne, Phyllis Diller, and Mickey Rooney cavort with Skelton, who, it would appear, started the long TV variety hour tradition of not taking the proceedings too seriously…breaking up his guests with wild ad-libs and unrehearsed asides at every opportunity.

My favorite show on the collection is a September 24, 1968 outing featuring Thrilling Days of Yesteryear idols Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as a pair of mad scientists who are convinced that Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper is their robot creation come to life.  (Price, Karloff, and Skelton also do a hilarious musical number in the same telecast.)  Clem is also the focus of a September 20, 1966 telecast with guest stars Rooney (who does a first-rate job alongside Skelton…and I say this as an individual who accepts all things Mick with the enthusiasm of a proctology exam) and Simon & Garfunkel, and a Diller outing from January 23, 1968 that also features Lou Rawls (performing “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”).  Skelton does “Deadeye” in two telecasts on the Color set: a December 13, 1966 episode featuring Robert Goulet and a hilarious show from October 15, 1968 with “The Big Mouth” herself, Martha Raye.

Merv Griffin guest stars in a March 18, 1969 show that’s sort of unusual in that Red does one of his radio characters that didn’t receive the prominence that favorites like Clem and Deadeye would later achieve on TV: obnoxious Brooklynite Bolivar Shagnasty (“T’ink nothin’ of it!”).  The Griffin telecast also lets Skelton do my two favorites in his repertoire: Cauliflower McPugg and Willie Lump-Lump (“You don’t look right, boy…you just don’t look right!”)  Some of Red’s radio creations never really made a smooth transition to the small screen; the comedian did “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid” on many occasions but the visual medium spoiled the effect—he looked like an adult with a severe case of arrested development.  To offset this, Skelton introduced new characters like Freddie the Freeloader, who’s the focus of an October 31, 1967 show that features not only Tim Conway but Jackie Coogan and Nancy “That Was the Week That Was” Ames.  (“There’s nothing like a well-rehearsed show,” Skelton ad-libs to Conway when a comedy prop doesn’t work as planned.  “And this is nothing like a well-rehearsed show.”)

With a January 14, 1969 telecast guest starring Audrey Meadows, Red frolics as another of his boob tube creations, George Appleby (he has a funny ad-lib for one of Audrey’s zingers: “No wonder Ralph Kramden divorced you!”).  (This show also features one of Red’s most beloved routines: his interpretation of The Pledge of Allegiance.)  Two of the telecasts on this collection casts Skelton as Forsooth Fromkiss, a simpleton who’s apprentice to the scion (played by Milton Berle) of a torture device salesman in a January 4, 1966 outing, and sidekick to Christopher Columbus (guest star “Lonesome” George Gobel) from February 14, 1967.  The Berle and Gobel shows are a lot of fun to watch, because Skelton seems to have a great deal of fun matching wits with his fellow comics.

The Duke himself, John Wayne, appears on the remaining shows on The Red Skelton Hour in Color.  The earliest telecast is dated March 1, 1966, and allows Red to reprise many of the routines requested by TV viewers (including his legendary “donut dunking” routine, which cemented his fame in vaudeville).  (This type of telecast was apparently a Red Skelton Hour tradition, known as “The Skelton Scrapbook”—a kind of callback to his radio days, when many of the broadcasts were identified as “The Skelton Scrapbook of Satire.”)  An October 28, 1969 show pays tribute to Wayne’s forty years in the movies, and features a hilarious routine where Red plays a variety of autograph hounds encountering The Duke on the street.  In the set-up to the bit, Red suggests that Wayne “pretend you’re a movie star—you’ve been doing that for years, see…”

This produces a hearty guffaw from The Duke, prompting Skelton to observe: “That’s what I like—a guy who can laugh at himself!”  “You’ve been doing that for years!” Wayne retorts, to loud audience laughter and applause.  Another great thing about the Skelton Hour shows is seeing familiar character faces; I spotted Henry Corden in two programs, not to mention Peggy Rea, Elaine Joyce (in a see-through dress that you have to see to believe), Grady Sutton, David Sharpe (Grady and Dave are Boy Friends alumni!), Bern Hoffman, Stanley Adams, and Robert “I was kicked in the haid by a mule” Easton.

I’m not going to lie to you.  A lot of the material on these telecasts (Skelton’s writing staff during the 1960s included hard-working scribes like Charlie Isaacs, Fred S. Fox & Seaman Jacobs, Bobs Weiskopf & Schiller, and Dave O’Brien—the guy from the MGM Pete Smith shorts) are crammed with wheezy jokes that even Abbott & Costello might have considered abandoning.  But there’s an unbeatable sense of free-wheeling mirth (even Red refers to his hour as “a hokey old show”) that’s positively infectious, and at the risk of resorting to a hoary cliché—they truly don’t make them like this anymore.  The 3-DVD set of The Red Skelton Hour in Color (Skelton was the first CBS star to tape his programs in color) is great entertainment for the SRP of $29.95 (and for those of you watching your pennies, a single disc with four shows is available for $12.95), and it’s wonderful having the work of a tried-and-true comedic icon available for a new generation of fans.  (Gracious thanks to my pal Michael Krause at Foundry Communications for providing the blog with the screener.)