Friday, February 24, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Western Pacific Agent (1950)

Bindlestiff.  It’s a slangy word for a hobo or tramp, and apparently, it’s been out of usage for so long Microsoft Word is asking me “What the hell, Ivan?”  Be that as it may, the expression gets quite a workout in Western Pacific Agent (1950); as a train passenger (Jason Robards, Sr.) explains to his lady friend (Vera Marshe), most bindlestiffs are merely migrant workers…but some of them, to borrow the nomenclature of our orange Commander-in-Chief, are “bad hombres.”  The gentleman proceeds to tell the woman (and the movie audience) of one such wicked transient.

Though he’s recognized by his fellow rail-riders under his nom de hobo “The West Coast Kid,” the Kid is better known to his friends and family in Chester, California as Frank Wicken (Mickey Knox) …and he’s returned to his hometown to put the bite on his old man (Morris Carnovsky), who owns and operates the town’s general store.  No dice, Papa Joe tells his son—not one thin dime until Frank agrees to straighten up and get a J-O-B.  The ambitious Frank decides to take a shortcut and rob railroad agent Bill Stuart (Robert Lowery) of a $50,000 fruit pickers payroll; in doing so Wicken not only clubs Bill until his brains turn to guacamole but sticks a shiv in the stationmaster (Anthony Jochim) for good measure.  Fleeing with the cash, Frank leaves the murder weapon behind…because he isn’t very bright.  (I’m no lawyer…but I think Wicken just might swing for those killings.)

Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk says of the ubiquitous Sid Melton: "He grows on you." (So does kudzu.)

To solve the murders, a special railroad agent named Rod Kendall (Kent Taylor) is brought in…and you’d think if he was that much of a big deal this movie would have been titled Western Pacific Special Agent.  Kendall, with the help of the local sheriff (Dick Elliott) and a stooge played by Sid Melton (because this is a Lippert film, after all) gets down to cases; the company has had the foresight to pass out a list of the serial numbers on the bills to local business so that Frank is unable to spend any of his ill-gotten gains.  Oh, the irony!  (All we need now is Bill Forman chortling about how terribly Wicken screwed up like a classic broadcast of The Whistler.)  Frank is ultimately unable to outrun the long arm of the law because…well, you know the drill—weed of crime, bitter fruit, yada yada yada.

Unlike a lot of the programmers on these Forgotten Noir DVDs (available for purchase at The Sprocket Vault or to rent from the new ClassicFlix Underground), Western Pacific Agent is a dandy little B-noir (yes, I think this one qualifies) from director Sam Newfield (and his producer, brother Sigmund Neufeld) that’s a hell of an entertaining movie to watch.  No less than an authority than the late John Cocchi—author of one of my favorite film reference books, Second Feature—spoke most highly of the film: “One of the brothers’ very best is this crime drama in which the heroes become secondary to the villain.”  I think he pretty much nails it; the top cop is played by Kent Taylor who, despite his lengthy movie resume, I can never think beyond TV’s Boston Blackie.  Taylor’s Randall is competent but uninspiring—he seems annoyed by Melton’s comic relief (I’d gamble he’s not the only one) and his “romance” with Martha Stuart (Sheila Ryan)—yes, that is the character’s name—is dull stuff.

The top performances in Agent go to Mickey Knox, who would later enjoy great success in Italian films in the 1960s/1970s (he was a favorite of director Sergio Leone), and Morris Carnovsky, a respected stage actor whose movie career was cut off at the knees by the blacklist.  Knox is so convincing as an amoral drifter it’s scary (Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk notes that Woody Harrelson’s character in Natural Born Killers [1994] is named “Mickey Knox” and wonders if Oliver Stone ever saw Agent—I’ll bet this was Quentin Tarantino’s contribution) and the cruel twist of Fred Myton’s screenplay (from a story by Milton Raison) kind of makes you feel a little sorry for the little jerk.  Carnovsky proves to be the consummate pro in that he demonstrates despite having to be in this B-picture he’s going to give 100%.

Dick Elliott is always a welcome presence, and vets like Frank Richards and Ted Jacques turn in solid performances as two “bindlestiffs” who become hoboes of interest in Randall’s investigation.  (Look quickly and you’ll see our old buddy, B-western heavy Charles King, with a bindle as well.)  I’ll slip into a Stanley R. Sogg impression and let you know “the ever popular Margia Dean!” has a brief bit as a female hobo…proving that riding the rails was an equal opportunity occupation.  Why Jason Robards, Sr. goes unmentioned while his female companion gets a nod in the opening credits is a question I can’t answer…though the cynic in me speculates the actress in question might have been a friend of the producer, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Western Pacific Agent wraps things up with exciting shootouts at an old shack and a bascule bridge that per the {always reliable) IMDb is the Henry Ford Bridge on Terminal Island (Long Beach) where Knox’s Wicken meets a memorable end.  I only wish they had made a little more use of the Western Pacific streamliner the Zephyr Vista Dome, which was introduced in this picture (some of the scenes were shot on the train’s Frisco-to-Chicago run).  Other portions of Agent were lensed at Oroville (their dam has been in the news lately) in the Feather River country of Northern California.  Great little B-picture, and one of the stand-outs in the Forgotten Noir collections.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Mr. District Attorney (1941)

P(rince) Cadwallader Jones (Dennis O’Keefe), newly-minted Harvard Law graduate (summa cum laude!), is given an opportunity (thanks to some political pull from an uncle) for a job in District Attorney Thomas Winton’s (Stanley Ridges) office.  For an Ivy League graduate, Jones doesn’t seem too bright; in handling his first assignment in court, he inadvertently allows a mobster (Ben Welden) to go free by arguing a point of law that forces the judge (George Watts) to declare a mistrial.  This little clusterfudge hits the front page of the paper where ace reporter Terry Parker (Florence Rice) works—the same periodical that hopes to back Winton in a tough reelection race against criminal attorney (emphasis on criminal) Arthur Barret (Minor Watson).

As punishment for being such a doofus, Jones is given a busywork assignment: a closed case (complete with a mountain of paperwork) involving a crooked politico named Paul Hyde (Peter Lorre), who made off with a tidy sum “liberated” from a public fund several years earlier.  Hyde has disappeared and is presumed dead…but when four fifty-dollar bills from that fund turn up at a local racetrack there’s no question that Mr. Hyde is back in circulation; Winton, however, takes the case away from screw-up Jones and hands it off to a more experienced litigator.  Jonesy and Terry team up to investigate the case, which leads them to murder, money, and mayhem before the final fadeout.

Back in November of last year, one of the entries on the blog’s Forgotten Noir Fridays was Mr. District Attorney (1947), a B-picture inspired by the popular radio show of the same name (from 1939 to 1953).  The 1947 version of Attorney was actually the fourth time the movies tried to start a film franchise based on the radio program; this week’s Forgotten Noir entry is the first go-round for Mr. District Attorney, released by Republic in 1941.  The 1941 film was originally going to be just a run-of-the-mill programmer cranked out by the Republic folks, but studio head Herbert J. Yates liked what he watched in the rushes and decided to appropriate a little more fundage to make the picture a “special.” 

In From Radio to the Big Screen, Facebook chum Hal Erickson notes: “To that end, [Yates] hired playwright F. Hugh Herbert (Kiss and Tell, The Moon Is Blue) to contribute additional dialogue, which may explain why the witty badinage between O’Keefe and Rice is the best thing in the picture.”  Mr. District Attorney is a tol’able little feature, but I disagree with Hal about the screwball comedy aspect involving O’Keefe and Rice; I found their relationship forced, and really—if I wanted to watch an attorney and his romantical escapades I’d put on a rerun of Bachelor Father.  I do agree wholeheartedly with Hal when he compares the comedic shenanigans in Attorney to the treatment detective Ellery Queen was receiving at Columbia at that time (with Ralph Bellamy playing the great sleuth for laughs)—neither approach served those gumshoes well.

I will say this in Mr. District Attorney’s favor: as the movie heads toward the end of its 69-minute running time it puts a nice spin on the plot (unfortunately resolved with a comedic car chase involving the principals).  The supporting cast is also first-rate: Grady Sutton is uncredited as a haberdashery salesman who appears at the beginning and end of the movie (he’s in on the lighthearted wrap-up), and I also spotted TDOY faves like Vince “Elmo” Barnett, Billy Benedict, Tommy Cook, Dick Elliott, Fred Kelsey, and Dave Willock (he has no dialogue, but he’s easily recognized as a photographer seated beside Rice in a courtroom scene).  I thought Peter Lorre was a little subdued in his role of villain—otherwise the rest of the veterans turn in solid work.

Republic followed Mr. District Attorney with Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941), described by Hal as “a notch better than its predecessor,” and a third entry in the franchise, Secrets of the Underground, was released in 1943—with D.A. “Winton” from the first two films shunted off to a bit role (and played by Pierre Watkin).  If you mosey over to The Sprocket Vault, you’ll find the 1941 movie and previous Forgotten Noir discs back in print—Richard M. Roberts will probably have more info on this but it looks as if Kit Parker Films has decided to release these little gems on their Vault label (which would explain their gradual fade-out from the VCI website).  While I didn’t care for the heavy comedy in Mr. District Attorney (Kit Parker calls it on their website a “whimsical filmization”), overall I found the picture to be a pleasant if unremarkable viewing experience.  (The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther had a dissenting opinion, calling it “the worst bad picture of the year.”  That had to have left a mark.)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Animation fascination

Back in September 2016, I beat the drum for an Indiegogo project instituted by Tommy José Stathes—early animation historian, archivist, preservationist, and societal gadabout—that would bring to DVD/Blu-ray fifteen early animation shorts starring the irrepressible Bobby Bumps, a beloved cartoon tyke who headlined a good many one-reelers for the John Randolph Bray cartoon studio between 1915 and 1925 (Bobby was created by J.R. Bray animator Earl Hurd).  Stathes, who owns one of the largest silent film cartoon collections in the world, has made it his mission to share these goodies through his home video company Cartoons on Film; the organization is dedicated, to quote the website, “to shar[ing] these masterpieces and prevent[ing] them from being forgotten ever again.”

One of Cartoons on Film’s previous DVD/Blu-ray releases, Cartoon Roots, was reviewed by yours truly at my “Where’s That Been?” column at ClassicFlix back in April of 2015…and in the interim, I had purchased its sequel Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios – Animation Pioneers with every intention of writing it up in this space at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  The delay on this requires a bit of an explanation: I have two Blu-ray players here in Castle Yesteryear.  One of them is connected to the desktop computer in my bedroom…but it no longer plays new Blu-rays because the software that came with the computer insists I pay for an update before it will commence with the Blu-ray thing.  (I simply refuse to submit to this kind of extortion.  It’s akin to paying for sex.)

The other player is in the living room…and since the TV out there is often held hostage by my MSLSD-obsessed father, it’s a little difficult scheduling time to watch any Blu-rays.  I try to do it after he’s officially called it quits for the day (and has headed off for sleepy bye) …but by the time, I’m usually too exhausted to watch anything myself.  (Also, too: my mother suffers from insomnia, and she’s been known to wander out into the living room at that time of night after getting the full two hours of shuteye.  I know the last thing she’s going to want to do is watch silent cartoons.)  It wasn’t until I finally decided that I would stop putting it off and just tear off the shrink wrap that I realized—this is a DVD/Blu-ray combo.  I could have watched this on the DVD player in my bedroom.  So mea maxima culpa to you, Tom…but as I have noted so often here on the blog in the past—I can be a real idiot at times.

As befitting its title, the content of Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios focuses on shorts produced at one of the most inventive of the cartoon factories (and the first successful animation company in America).  The Bray Studios’ first effort, The Artist’s Dream (1913; a.k.a. The Dachshund and The Sausages), kicks off the proceedings; this famous short is a delightful little outing in which a little cartoon weiner dog drawn on an artist’s easel ingenuously gobbles up a plate of bangers…much to the animator’s bewilderment.  The Artist’s Dream was featured on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in October of 2012 on a presentation of early New York animation shorts hosted by cartoon guru Jerry Beck and TCM oracle Robert “Bobby Osbo” Osborne.

The House of Yesteryear was probably in one of its frequent non-TCM periods at the time the previously mentioned special was televised…but I was able to catch the 100th Anniversary of Bray Studios two years later, which is where I saw one of the DVD/Blu-ray’s other ‘toons, A Fitting Gift (1920).  Gift stars Judge Rummy, who was the subject of a popular comic strip by Tad Dorgan (from 1910 to 1922) that was adapted by the Bray Studios in a series of shorts from 1918 to 1922.  Accompanied by his sidekick Silk Hat Harry, His Honor browses various corsets in a shop to find a suitable one for his wife.  Wacky complications ensue.  J.R. Bray brought several personalities from the “funny papers” to the big screen, represented on Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios with characters like Krazy Kat (The Best Mouse Loses [1920]) and Jerry on the Job (The Tale of the Wag [1920]).  Even the popular Bobby Bumps series had its origins in comic strips; creator Earl Hurd drew an embryonic version of Bobby as “Brick Bodkin” for The New York Journal from 1912 to 1914.  (There’s one of Bobby’s cartoons on this set: Bobby Bumps’ Pup Gets the Flea-enza [1919].)

A chief reason why I—and by that rationale, so many others—find silent cartoon shorts so fascinating is that they were truly inventive little creations…and not just geared to juvenile audiences (some of the material is a little on the risqué side).  How Animated Cartoons are Made (1919) is a jewel, starring animator Wallace Carlson as himself in a short that “documents” how he put together a typical “Us Fellers” cartoon (a short-lived Bray series featuring a daydreaming tyke who answered to “Dreamy Dud”).  Granted, the short deviates a great deal from reality (it leads you to believe producing cartoons was a one-man show…which it most assuredly was not) but it’s most entertaining in its skillful blend of live action and animation.  This would be one of the Bray Studios’ hallmarks; directors like Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz used the live action-animation device often, and are represented on this release with The Tantalizing Fly (1919—with Koko the Clown!), The Pied Piper (1924—starring Dinky Doodle and his pup Weakheart), and The Lunch Hound (1927—Pete the Pup).  It will come as no surprise that Fleischer and Lantz would later start their own studios; Terrytoons’ Paul Terry was also a Bray employee (and his legendary Farmer Alfalfa appears in the 1916 outing Farmer Alfalfa Sees New York.)

Rounding out Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios are Col. Heeza Liar’s African Hunt (1914), The Police Dog on the Wire (1917), Chemical Inspiration (1921), and The Point of View (1921)—an interesting public service announcement about the need to see your optometrist regularly.  Fans of Winsor McCay might get a chuckle out of Diplodocus (1915), a cartoon that was clearly inspired by McCay’s famous Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).  (There is a lot of gossip and speculation as to what Bray “liberated” from McCay in terms of animation techniques—I won’t get into it here.)  Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios is also stuffed with a lot of lovely extra goodies (promotional art, trade paper items) and is supplemented with a “program guide” with detailed information on each short as well as informative essays from Stathes, Beck, David Gerstein (who scored several of the shorts), and Facebook compadre Thad Komorowski.  Animation fanatics will want a copy of this so that they can hug it and squeeze it and pet it and call it “George” …but classic movie fans in general should hie themselves to Amazon and grab one for its indispensable historical value.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

B-Western Wednesdays: Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944)/Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944)

Fans of the Sunday morning newspaper “funnies” might remember that Red Ryder rode the comic strip range in those pages from 1938 to 1964.  The strip was illustrated for most of its run by artist Fred Harman, who drew upon inspiration from an earlier strip he did from 1933 to 1938 entitled Bronc Peeler.  Ryder was a “peaceable” cowpoke who lived on the Painted Valley Ranch owned by his aunt—known as “The Duchess” (not my best friend from high school, of course)—in the Bianco Basin of the San Juan Mountain Range out Colorady way, and engaged in two-fisted western heroics assisted by Little Beaver, his young Native American sidekick…who unfortunately spoke in the same pidgin English that plagued the Lone Ranger’s Tonto.  (Little Beaver’s phrase “You betchum, Red Ryder” eventually made its way into the pop culture vernacular—I will sheepishly admit that I use it myself from time to time though I probably shouldn’t.)

Red Ryder was not only a popular newspaper strip, it was also a mainstay in the comic book racks from 1940 to 1957 under various titles (Red Ryder Ranch Magazine, Red Ryder Ranch Comics)—though for a brief period during its lengthy run those books were comprised of reprints from the comic strip.  Red Ryder was a merchandising fool: clothing, sporting goods, books, toys, etc.  The strip’s longest-lasting contribution to pop culture was the “Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time”—featured, of course, in the Yuletide movie perennial A Christmas Story (1983).  (A friend of mine was completely unaware of Red’s history, once remarking: “I thought that was just something they created for the film.”)  Red Ryder also appeared on radio, airing on the Blue Network and Mutual (mostly on the West Coast) from 1942 to 1951, and featuring at various times the likes of professional narrator Reed Hadley, Carlton KaDell, and Brooke Temple as “America’s favorite fighting cowboy.”

Red Ryder came to the silver screen in 1940 in a twelve-chapter Republic serial entitled (what else?) The Adventures of Red Ryder, with Don Barry playing the titular hero…and making such an indelible impression that he spent the remainder of his movie career frequently billed as “Don ‘Red’ Barry.”  By the time Republic committed to a B-western series based on the property in 1944 (the first entry being Tucson Raiders), however, the studio cast “Wild” Bill Elliott in the part…and after making a total of 16 Red Ryder features Elliott was replaced by Allan “Rocky” Lane for seven more outings (the studio wanted to move “Wild” Bill into bigger and better things).  Republic’s Red Ryder series ended in 1947…but only because of a clerical error on the option-renewal date; the owner took advantage of this loophole to hold out for more money.  (Republic decided “Nuh-uh” and continued to make thirty-eight non-Red Ryder films with Lane until 1953.)  There was one last gasp at resurrecting the Ryder franchise at Eagle-Lion between 1949-50 with Jim Bannon as Red; these four films were made in Cinecolor and two of the features that survive in this process were released as a “double feature” from VCI in 2004.

VCI is the reason why I’m doing a “B-Western Wednesdays” post today, by the way.  I received an e-mail flier from the company back in the latter part of December, and though I know better not to do this I clicked on the link for their “Clearance Sale” just for a browse.  (I’m an idiot, I know.)  Ostensibly, I had planned to just buy a copy of Chariots of the Gods (1974) for my fadduh (it was on sale for $3.00) because…well, in addition to his obsession with reality TV shows and MSLSD, he also watches a lot of those UFO-themed programs—you know, the ones where the narrator refers to people as “ancient astronaut theorists” because he’s too polite to say “wacko birds.”  Anyhoo, while browsing the stacks I also found copies of two of their Red Ryder volumes (11 and 12) for sale at $6 each and before you could say “Classic movies never go out of style” all three were nestled snugly in the online shopping cart and on their way to the House of Yesteryear.

Volume 11 kicks off with Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944), an excellent example of how the Red Ryder series represents Republic at the apex of their B-western powers.  Red does not reside in his usual Painted Valley environs (I think they only used that locale in the first film in the franchise), but rather in the hamlet that required a U.S. marshal with “a chancy job” that “makes a man watchful…and a little lonely”: Dodge City.  Red is breeding horses for a U.S. Cavalry contract, and while inspecting his stock with Little Beaver (Robert “Bobby” Blake) and cowpoke Denver Thompson (Tom London), hears gunshots not far from where his horses are situated.  The trio rides hard towards the source of the shooting, but arrive too late to stop the robbery of $40,000 from a freight wagon (and the murder of two men, including the driver).

The wagon belongs to The Duchess (Alice Fleming), who operates a freight line in addition to her ranch; she and Red are unaware that the robberies are being staged by Luther Jennings (LeRoy Mason), a local banker (what else?) who very much wants to buy out “Auntie” Duchess but she refuses to sell.  (Jennings hopes that the robberies will result in the freight line’s inability to continue obtaining insurance…and fortunately, he’s enlisted the help of Walter Bishop [Hal Taliaferro], the man who’s collecting the policy premiums.)  With the help of his chief goon Ross Benteen (Bud Geary), Jennings concocts an eevill scheme to rustle Red Ryder’s horses…and then pin the theft of those equines on Red himself!  Our hero is in a sticky situation…but it all comes out in the wash, as he rounds up the bad guys and brings them to justice.

Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives Vigilantes of Dodge City four stars and calls it “high energy, non-stop action.”  He’s not exaggerating, either; the highlight of the movie is a climactic chase where bad guys Jennings and Bishop have kidnapped Little Beaver and are making a run for it in a wagon while Red and Denver give chase with a stagecoach.  The wagon is carrying a shipment of dynamite, and at one point in the action the vehicle is set ablaze as Red and Jennings fight to the finish.  The stunts in this little programmer are incredible; it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the second unit director on the movie was one of the motion picture industry’s finest stuntmen, Yakima Canutt.  It’s got a great cast of oater veterans: Mason, Taliaferro (he played a good guy in the Red Ryder serial), London, Geary, Kenne Duncan, Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, and The Man with the Perpetual Sneer—Bob Wilke.  (TDOY fave/Republic serial queen Linda Stirling plays the ingénue in this one—she was in quite a few of the Ryder films—but she doesn’t get much to do, sadly.)

Paired with Vigilantes is Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944); Magers isn’t quite as enthusiastic about this one (two stars) but it’s not all that terrible.  In this entry, Red is appointed sheriff of that titular berg (this was before the casinos, of course) and has his hands full trying to solve the murder of prominent jurist Homer T. Blackwell (John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton), who gets croaked shortly after announcing to The Duchess and schoolteacher Ann Carter (Peggy Stewart) that he’s having banker-lawyer Arthur Stanton (Selmer Jackson) write his no-account son Tom (Jay Kirby) out of his will.  Suspicion in Blackwell’s demise falls upon Tom, of course—though it was really Tom’s disreputable buddy (and saloon owner) Dan Sedley (William Haade) what done the dirty deed.

I was entertained by Sheriff even though I’m convinced the movie’s major flaw is that you never really understand the motivation behind Sedley’s killing of Judge Blackwell (it’s sort of explained at the end, and even that clarification is weak).  (Then again, the only reason why Shakespeare had Don John in Much Ado About Nothing is that he needed a bad guy.)  Geary, Duncan, and Wilke are on hand for this one (playing different characters, natch), and the movie also benefits from the presence of old pros like Hamilton and Jackson.  There’s a bit more emphasis on comic relief in Sheriff (much of it at the expense of Little Beaver) …but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t say I smiled at some of the lighter moments from time to time.

The Red Ryder westerns run a little less than an hour (slightly longer than a TV episode from that 50s era) but when they’re en fuego with the action and stunts they’re entertaining as all get out.  Robert Blake, fresh off being an obnoxious kid (sorry, Baretta fans—but it’s true) with the Our Gang comedies at MGM, would play Little Beaver throughout the Bill Elliott and Allan Lane incarnations of the franchise—Don Kay “Little Brown Jug” Reynolds replaced him in the Bannon Eagle-Lion Ryders.  (Alice Fleming portrayed The Duchess in the Elliott films, Martha Wentworth in the Lane entries, and Marin Sais in the Bannon vehicles.)  I highly recommend these unpretentious little oaters for the dedicated B-western fan, and will hopefully return to some more of them on the blog in the future.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The critics are always right. The only way you shut them up is by winning.” – Chuck Noll

Profuse apologies for not having this announcement up sooner: I’ve been distracted by little annoyances all morning, and didn’t get a chance to draw the winner in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s “Pulp Fiction” giveaway till after lunch.  The response to this one, by the way—tremendous, as Dear Leader himself might say; we came close to Johnny Dollar proportions.  As always, I wish I had enough sets to hand out to all who entered…alas, I cannot.  But I can make certain that copies of Nick Carter, Master Detective: Chasing Crimes and The Shadow: Dead Men Tell make their way to lucky winner and member of the TDOY faithful Richard C. of Kingman, AZ (“Home of the Dry Heat”).

While I’m issuing mea culpas…I should have had a pair of posts up on Thursday and Friday this past week (one for TDOY’s “Silent Spotlight” and the other for Forgotten Noir Fridays) but I had a deadline for an outside project due, not to mention an appointment at the optometrist and various and sundry interruptions.  Tuesday, I’ll be back with Overlooked Films on Tuesdays and normal blogging will resume.  I thank you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The weed of crime bears fantabulous swag

Just wanted to give the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful a reminder that our latest giveaway—a “Pulp Fiction” prize of the Radio Spirits collections Nick Carter, Master Detective: Chasing Crime and The Shadow: Dead Men Tell—will conclude this Saturday, February 11 at 11:59pm…so if you want a chance to win these two sets, you need to get your entry in before the deadline.  (You can find the full info in this earlier post.)  The response to the contest so far has been most encouraging (I’ve already received more entries than the previous “Smile a While” promotion), so e-mail me an entry if you’re in a gambling mood…and remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar II: Texas Blood Money

One of the reasons why I love Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars so much is that in his book, he singles out for Academy Award trophies motion picture actresses who rightfully should have taken home prizes.  Here are a few of the creative choices that are my absolute favorites:

1928-29: Lillian Gish for The Wind

1929-30: Louise Brooks for Pandora’s Box

1936: Jean Harlow for Libeled Lady

1940: Rosalind Russell for His Girl Friday

1941: Barbara Stanwyck for Ball of Fire

1942: Carole Lombard for To Be or Not to Be

1943: Jean Arthur for The More the Merrier

1945: Joan Bennett for Scarlet Street

1947: Deborah Kerr for Black Narcissus

1953: Gloria Grahame for The Big Heat

1959: Marilyn Monroe for Some Like It Hot

1963: Leslie Caron for The L-Shaped Room

1968: Tuesday Weld for Pretty Poison

1969: Shirley Knight for The Rain People

1980: Ellen Burstyn for Resurrection (her second, to go with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore)

1991: Lili Taylor for Dogfight

Overall, I firmly believe that many of Peary’s “alternate” Oscars are miles and away better picks than the ones that were handed out in real-life.  Danny also relieves a few winners of their cumbersome trophies: both Shirley Booth and Jessica Tandy, he argues, were better known for their work on stage and therefore their Academy Award victories have a bit of a tarnish.  (He makes the same argument with Helen Hayes—who won in 1931-32 for The Sin of Madelon Claudet—but I’m of the opinion she just won the prize for the wrong movie: she’s fantastic in 1934’s What Every Woman Knows.  I’m guessing until he releases a book that addresses Best Supporting Oscars Helen can keep her statuette for Airport.)

In addition, the future Princess of Monaco forfeits her Oscar for The Country Girl (1954).  I don’t have to tell you that Peary agrees with most people that that statuette should have been Judy Garland’s and Judy’s alone…though if you’d like to argue about it in the comments section, I’ll have ClassicBecky (the muse for this article) hold our coats.  (Remember that Groucho Marx sent Judy his regrets, stating her loss at the Awards “was a bigger robbery than Brink’s.”)  At the time Danny wrote the book, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences hadn’t bestowed Oscars on two of my bête noires—Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow—so I’ll include them in this paragraph of “WTF, Academy?”

I had a lengthy list of actresses who won Oscars for the wrong movies…but I did a little pruning so I could provide a tidy ten:

Marie Dressler – Marie is one of those actresses that makes me tear up every time she does a serious scene—I even get misty when I watch the movies she’s in with Polly Moran, and they’re supposed to be comedies.  Dressler was a sentimental favorite the year she won a Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill (1930) …but I think she’s even better in the underrated Emma (1932).  I’d even argue in favor of her work in Dinner at Eight (1933), though that might be considered more of a supporting turn.

Katharine Hepburn – Kate is still the champ when it comes to the Best Actress category; she won four trophies (she was nominated twelve times…but Meryl Streep has her beat on that score with 16) for Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and (ugh) On Golden Pond (1981).  Wrong on all counts.  The films for which she received nominations are better choices; if Hepburn is to win all that Oscar largesse I’d personally prefer it be for Alice Adams (1935—AO pick), The African Queen (1951), Summertime (1955), and The Rainmaker (1956—Kate’s second AO).  As for the movies Hepburn didn’t get noms for, Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Holiday (1938) surely must be on the list.

Bette Davis – When Bette won the first of her two Oscars in 1936 for Dangerous (1935), it was widely accepted that that trophy was for her superior performance the previous year in Of Human Bondage (1934—AO’s choice)—a role that did get nominated via a write-in campaign when both Warner Brothers and RKO refused to submit Bette’s name for a certified nom.  She’d win a second statuette for Jezebel (1938), and while I could be persuaded that she keeps that one, any of the other films for which she received nominations would be better substitutes for the first one (Dangerous simply isn’t that great): The Letter (1940—my pick), The Little Foxes (1941), All About Eve (1950), and The Star (1952).  (I also have soft spots for Marked Woman [1937] and The Catered Affair [1956].)

Joan Fontaine – Joan’s Best Actress Oscar win in 1942 was for Suspicion (1941) …and in the case with Bette Davis, was considered a consolation prize for losing out the previous year with her nomination for Rebecca (1940).  Rebecca is a much better showcase for Fontaine, as is The Constant Nymph (1943), her third and final AA nomination.  But I agree with Danny Peary that Fontaine’s performance in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is the one for which she should have been able to put the prize on her mantle.

Ingrid Bergman – The legendary actress would win three Oscars during her career: a second Best Actress prize for Anastasia (1956), and a Supporting Actress trophy for Murder on the Orient Express (1974).  I’ve not seen Anastasia, a “cinematic vegetable” I hope to get around to one of these days, but as far as her Best Actress Oscar goes I think Ingrid’s turns in either Casablanca (1942) or Notorious (1946) are superior to her work in Gaslight (1944).

Jane Wyman – After Wyman won her Oscar for Johnny Belinda (1948), her husband (future U.S. President Ronald Reagan) joked during their contentious divorce that he should name the film as “co-respondent.”  I personally think Wyman’s win for Belinda was one of the weakest choices in the history of the Oscars, particularly since she’s so much better in the earlier The Yearling (1946—she was nominated for this) and the later All That Heaven Allows (1955).  (Of the two, I’d go with Heaven…even though I’m still convinced the best acting Janie ever did was her wicked homage to Reagan’s second wife as Angela Channing on TV’s Falcon Crest.)

Judy Holliday – Holliday’s win for her superb comic turn in Born Yesterday (1950) is kind of going to violate my long-standing gripe with the Academy that they’re prejudiced against comedy performances.  But I cannot deny (and Peary feels the same in Oscars) that Judy was at her very best in the underrated The Marrying Kind (1952), a film that deserves more attention that it usually gets.

Audrey Hepburn – I’m also going to agree with Danny that rather than receive an Oscar for Roman Holiday (1953), the lovely Audrey gives a far better performance in another neglected film, Two for the Road (1967).  (I also have a soft spot for The Nun’s Story [1959].)

Joanne Woodward – Woodward’s Best Actress Oscar win for The Three Faces of Eve (1957) is copacetic with Peary in Alternate Oscars…but truth be told, it’s a movie I’ve just never warmed up to.  My personal fave among Joanne’s performances is in Rachel, Rachel (1968); she was nominated for that as well as the underrated Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973).

Sissy Spacek – Peary gives Sissy two statuettes in AO: one for Carrie (1976), and the other for the underrated Raggedy Man (1981—not the strongest of motion pictures, but Spacek is phenomenal in it).  Either of these is a better choice than her celebrated turn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980); I’d also go with Missing (1982—what can I say; I love this movie and was crushed when it lost Best Picture to Gandhi) or The Long Walk Home (1990), the movie that inspired these two Oscar-themed posts in the first place.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Pulp fiction

Apologies for not getting this up on the blog earlier this morning.  I was wide awake at 4:30am, and thought about nipping out to the old laptop to put the post together so it would go “live” (an expression we use in the blogging bidness) at 7am but instead I just turned over and willed myself back to sleep.  Today is my father’s natal anniversary; he celebrates Number 85 (though “celebrate” is probably not the word he would use—he jokingly told me he’s going to start counting backward from now on, so he maintains he’s 83) and as such, Mom has whipped up a lot of his favorites in the kitchen here at Rancho Yesteryear.  This morning’s breakfast menu: sausage gravy and biscuits.

One of the birthday gifts Dad received was a chess he can practice and not be humiliated the next time he plays his grandson.
In examining the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear prize closet last week, I learned to my dismay that there were only two items left…and they were way in the back, where I had difficulty seeing them.  (I have an appointment with the optometrist this week.)  So I have decided to do another TDOY “bundle,” seeing as both prizes have a connection to what defines as “fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp.”

In May of 2010, I gave away copies of Nick Carter, Master Detective: Volume 1—a Radio Spirits collection featuring eighteen broadcasts from the popular radio series featuring the shamus author/pulp fiction historian John J. “Jess” Jevins once described as “the grandfather of superheroes.”  (The set is now OOP, so consider yourself fortunate if you snagged a copy.)  I didn’t do the liner notes on that collection—come to think of it, I don’t think it had one—but I did compose the booklet for Chasing Crime, another Nick Carter radio show compendium released in 2015.  This set (SRP: $31.95) hosts sixteen episodes broadcast between 1945 and 1949.

Though he’s often classified as the American answer to the legendary British sleuth Sherlock Holmes, Nick Carter made his first literary appearance nearly a year before the Baker Street investigator, in “The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square,” written by John Russell Coryell and published by Street & Smith’s New York Weekly in the September 18, 1886 issue.  Nick would eventually graduate to his own magazine in Nick Carter Weekly, and when that ceased publication in 1915 “the most famous of all manhunters” moved to the company’s Detective Story Magazine until 1927.  In the 1930s, the popularity of The Shadow and Doc Savage led to a revival of Carter in Nick Carter Detective Magazine, and Carter’s career in comic books, films, etc. was set—a radio version of the shamus premiered over Mutual on April 11, 1943, and became one of that network’s most durable programs until September 25, 1955.

Carter’s comic book career began with Shadow Comics in March of 1940; the namesake of that magazine also enjoyed a long, healthy stay in the pulps though his fame started as the host of a program inspired by a magazine he didn’t even appear in!  The Detective Story Hour debuted over CBS Radio on July 31, 1930, and “The Shadow” was the unseen narrator of a dramatic anthology sponsored by Street & Smith to promote Detective Story Magazine.  Within a few months, news dealers started getting customer inquiries as to if they sold a magazine with “that Shadow character from the radio.”  Street & Smith moved quickly to get a Shadow magazine into circulation, which they did in April of 1931—the first adventure, “The Living Shadow,” was written by Maxwell Grant (the nom de plume of author/magician Walter B. Gibson), and Grant would eventually become The Shadow’s “biographer,” cranking out the equivalent of 283 novels.  (He liked to write.  He liked to write a lot.)

The program that listeners remember as The Shadow didn’t come into being until the fall of 1937 on Mutual, with the mysterious hero taking center stage, clouding men’s minds so that they could not see him.  Eighteen classic broadcasts of that long-running series (it was heard over Mutual until 1954) are available in Dead Men Tell (SRP: $35.95), featuring Orson Welles, Bill Johnstone, and Bret Morrison taking turns portraying the crimefighter “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”  (I wrote the notes for this collection, too—my third for Radio Spirits.)

So I have a copy of Chasing Crime and one of Dead Man Tell to hand out to one lucky member of the TDOY faithful…here are the rules of the giveaway:

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

2) Make sure you are a U.S. resident or have a U.S. mailing address.  (Even though it’s a new year, the wolf is still at the door of the House of Yesteryear.)

3) If you’ve been a previous winner of a TDOY giveaway, I ask that you wait thirty days before entering another contest only because it’s just good manners to allow those not as fortunate a chance to pick up some swell swag.  Roy Rogers would be proud of you if you do.

4) I will choose a winner the morning (via the Random Number Generator at of February 12th and contact them via e-mail as to their enormous good fortune.  When you enter, it’s not necessary to provide a snail-mail address (your name will suffice) if you’re concerned about your undisclosed location falling into the wrong hands.  You can provide me the details should you receive a “Congratulations!” e-mail.

5) As always…there is no number five.

So just don’t stand there looking stupid, grasping your hands in pain—you’ve got a giveaway to enter!  And remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Motor Patrol (1950)

In last week’s review of Radar Secret Service (1950), I joked that the movie’s narrator was the third-place victor of a fictional “Reed Hadley Sound-a-Like Contest.”  This week—we get the genuine article!  Once several motorcycles are gunned during the opening credits of Motor Patrol (1950), we soon spot Mr. Hadley’s name nestled snugly among the names of the cast…and for me, there was much rejoicing.

Hadley plays Detective Robert Flynn in a not-even-remotely-noir tale of two motorcycle beat cops, Larry Collins (Bill Henry) and Tom Morgan (Lucio Fulci), who are first at the scene of an apparent hit-and-run.  The victim is a man named Richard Thompson, a used car salesman, and as Flynn and partner Bill Hartley (Richard Travis)—both of whom are with LAPD’s Traffic Division—conduct their investigation into Thompson’s death, the two men find themselves on the trail of a jamoke named Russ Garver (Charles Victor).  Garver is involved with a stolen automobile ring, and when Collins and Morgan recognize that Garver’s ride is a vehicle what’s been “liberated,” they take off after them on their sickles.  Garver deliberately slams his car into a tree, leading poor Larry to hit the wreck and wind up kilt when he’s thrown from his motorcycle.

Larry’s brother-in-law, Ken Foster (Don Castle), is enrolled at the Police Academy and hopes to follow in his bro-in-law’s kickstand by also taking up motorcycle policing once he graduates.  But all that must wait: he persuades Flynn to let him participate in the hunt for Collins’ murderer…which will necessitate his posing as a Chicago car thief to infiltrate the organization and expose the miscreants.  (Kind of like how Clarice Starling gets to work with the FBI in The Silence of the Lambs even though she’s still an agent-in-training.  Motor Patrol has considerably less cannibalism, though.)

My sentiments precisely.
I’m going to damn Motor Patrol with faint praise: it is not as terrible as Radar Secret Service.  But that doesn’t mean you need to rush out and snap this one up in a hurry—I fell sleep twice while watching it, much to my mother’s annoyance.  It’s your standard Lippert programmer, neither good nor bad, directed by B-movie maestro Sam Newfield (with his faithful sidekick Barney Sarecky producing), and dotted with the usual Lippert suspects in the cast: Richard Travis, Sid Melton, Margia Dean, etc.  Curiously, Melton isn’t a member of the auto theft gang (he’s usually the comic relief in the criminal contingent); instead, he’s a wisecracking bartender at a roadhouse café who identifies Thompson’s corpse as a goof who had a heated argument inside the jernt a few hours before his death.  Dean’s character actually gets bigger laughs (if I’m any judge) with her brief bit as a “model” giving Collins the lowdown as a witness at the scene of Thompson’s accident…while her “boyfriend” (Joseph J. Greene) ineffectively tries to conceal his impatience.  (Margia’s character is “Renee Roulette”—I guess that’s because so many johns have taken her out for a spin.  Try the veal!)  Onslow Stevens plays Hadley’s superior, and character fave Frank Jenks is on hand as “Mac.”  So…there’s that.

Like the proverbial bad penny, Sid Melton always turns up.  (He'll be in more "Forgotten Noirs" to come, too.)
When I wasn’t snoring through Motor Patrol, I had difficulty figuring out why a master auto theft ring would allow the vehicle that played a role in Collins’ death to be collected by the cops—wouldn’t it have made more sense to strip that baby and dispose of what couldn’t be sold as parts?  Be that as it may, Motor Patrol is over and done with at 65 minutes, and I’d recommend it only to those who aren’t particularly discriminating in their movie choices.  (I know—I have very little room to talk in this area.)  It’s available for rent at ClassicFlix.