Friday, March 31, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Sky Liner (1949)

State Department official George Eakins (John McGuire), scheduled to leave for a conference in L.A., receives a sealed envelope containing his orders by courier.  Eakins will never get on that plane to the Coast, however; a shadowy figure enters the office and pistol whips him, rendering him quite dead.  His secretary, Amy Winthrop (Rochelle Hudson), immediately emerges as a “person of interest” because her seatmate (Steve Pendleton) on that plane—identified only as “Mr. Smith”—has told the airline people he’s Eakins.

" The Whistler..."

Steven Geray
Smith has another confederate on the same flight—foreign agent Bokejian (Steven Geray), who trades the sealed envelope originally handed to the real Eakins for five large.  Opening the envelope, Bokejian finds its contents consist of several blank sheets of State Department stationery…and because he believes “caveat emptor” to be a steaming pile of bovine excrement, he dispatches his ex-friend Smith to The Happy Haunting Ground with curare concealed in his fountain pen.  (This is not spoiling anything, by the way.  It’s obvious Bokejian is the murderer.)  Fortunately for the remaining passengers, there’s a Fed on board—Steve Blair, who takes quick control of the situation even though he’s played by the same actor (Richard Travis) who was Inspector Bruger in last week’s movie, Roaring City (1951).

Where to begin with Sky Liner (1949)?  I’ll say this for it—it makes Motor Patrol (1950) look like La règle du jeu (1939).  The tagline for this programmer reads “a fast paced and different kind of mystery thriller,” but there’s nothing remotely “fast paced” about Liner, and as for “different”—well, it would be unfair of me to say, “What makes it ‘different’ is that there’s nothing ‘thrilling’ about it” because it wouldn’t be the first movie I’ve watched that promised excitement and suspense and delivered neither.  It’s a static, talky B that keeps an unblinking eye on a stopwatch until its 61 minutes is up, and then announces it’s time for the wrap party.

Even then, the version of Sky Liner on the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collection Vol. 4 set (available at The Sprocket Vault) is a truncated version of the film, running at 49 minutes (DVD Talk’s Stuart Galbraith IV speculates it might be either a shorter UK release version or a TV cut).  The info on the movie at the American Film Institute mentions there’s an “obnoxious child singer” among the passengers…so it sounds like I lucked out here, because the kid in the print I watched does no singing.  “Amazingly, Sid Melton isn’t in this one,” observes Galbraith…but I was so bored watching the thing I kept hoping Sid would emerge from the plane’s washroom at some point.  Speaking of which:

Richard Travis
That washroom is larger than one we have here at the house.  There a lot of familiar Lippert faces in Sky Liner—Travis, Pendleton, Pamela Blake (as the stewardess), Michael Whalen, etc. (Margia Dean must have been furious with her agent)—and Robert L. stalwart William Berke (or “Wm.,” as it says in the opening credits) handles the directing chores (with a screenplay by the ubiquitous Maurice Tombragel).  I can’t in good conscience recommend you stop what you’re doing to sit down with this one, but if you’re trapped in a waiting room with fifty minutes to kill…you could do worse.

Next week: the return of Crime Does Not Pay!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“You’re durn tootin’, Hoppy!”

Of the numerous movies to which I helped myself from Vault on Demand during our recent Epix freeview, a little over a dozen of these features were B-westerns starring William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.  Cassidy was a cowpoke created by Clarence Mulford in a series of popular short stories—a whiskey drinkin’, tobacco-chawin’, rough-talkin’ hombre whose wooden leg caused him to walk with a noticeable limp, earning him the nickname “Hop-A-Long.”  Movie producer Harry Sherman negotiated a deal with Mulford to bring his literary creation to the silver screen (beginning in 1935 with Hop-A-Long Cassidy) but a few cosmetic changes were made to the movie Hoppy: his beverage of choice was now sarsaparilla, the wooden leg was downgraded to an injury from a bullet wound, and he was so squeaky clean (honest, forthright, kind to kids and animals, etc.) he threatened to make Gene Autry look like one of the Dead End Kids.  There would be a total of sixty-six Hopalong Cassidy oaters produced between 1935 and 1948, and Boyd’s Cassidy would become not only one of the motion picture industry’s highly bankable box office mainstays but a real hero to the Saturday matinee crowd (despite that Hoppy was often clad in black…white was the sartorial choice of the good guys in westerns as a rule).

Russell 'Lucky' Hayden and William Boyd
Law of the Pampas (1939) and Riders of the Deadline (1943) are the only two programmers of the fourteen I downloaded that I’ve yet to watch—the remaining movies are nevertheless remarkably entertaining, and I can see why the Hopalong Cassidy series was so popular.  The plots may not be original (there’s only so much you can do with westerns) but the strength of the Cassidy films lie in the characters; Hoppy himself, as played by the prematurely graying Boyd, comes across as a father figure—he didn’t engage much in the arena of romance (though more than I had been led to believe), preferring to leave “the wimmin stuff” to the youngest member of his “trio,” Johnny Nelson (played by James Ellison).  Ellison portrayed Johnny up until the ninth of the Hoppys, Borderland (1937), and was then replaced by Russell Hayden as ‘Lucky’ Jenkins.  (Hayden became so identified with Jenkins that he was often billed as “Russell ‘Lucky’ Hayden” in his later films…and many of the characters he played, particularly alongside Charles Starrett [like in Riders of the Badlands], were named ‘Lucky’ as well.)

Hayden, Boyd, and George 'Gabby' Hayes
Flanking Hopalong Cassidy on the opposite side was an older, cantankerous sidekick in ‘Windy’ Halliday (though he also went by other surnames, depending on the movie)—portrayed by the Patron Saint of Garrulous Cinema Codgers, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes.  Hayes was in the first two Hopalong Cassidy pictures, but didn’t begin playing Windy until the third, Bar 20 Rides Again (1935).  Throughout the series, Windy and Johnny (and later Lucky) quarreled with and cussed at one another (Windy thought both “whippersnappers” despite the mutual affection), often requiring Cassidy to play mediator.  Hayes was with the Hoppy features until Renegade Trail (1939) and then, unable to come to terms with producer Sherman over his salary, switched to riding alongside Roy Rogers in a successful series of films at Republic (this is where he acquired the “Gabby” nickname).

Since the earliest of the Hopalong Cassidy films on Epix’s On Demand was Partners of the Plains (1938), I haven’t been afforded the opportunity yet to see any of the James Ellison films.  Plains is a very good introduction to the Hoppy features…even though ‘Gabby’ Hayes is absent from this one (he’s replaced by Harvey Clark as ‘Baldy’ Morton) it’s still business as usual: Hoppy and his friends work on a ranch where Britisher Lorna Drake (Gwen Gaze) has acquired a controlling interest, and Lorna—described by her Aunt Martha (Hilda Plowright) as being “a little willful and spoiled”—clashes almost immediately with foreman Cassidy.  But she’s carrying a torch for our hero (despite bristling at being told what to do); when Hoppy quits as foreman, she has the sheriff (Earle Hodgins) arrest him for “stealing” his beloved horse Topper!  (Hoppy doesn’t have a bill of sale…so in the eyes of the law, he’s a hoss thief.)

Lorna’s romantic designs on Hoppy do not go unnoticed by her fiancé, Ronald Harwood (John Warburton) …who accepts that Cassidy is the better man by taking bad advice from ex-convict Scar Lewis (character great Al Bridge)—great name, by the way—to remove Hoppy as his competition…permanently.  Everything comes out in the wash eventually, with a suspenseful forest fire climax and Lorna’s transformation from spirited filly to meek and docile submissive.

The young ingenue in Doomed Caravan (1941) is billed as “Georgia Hawkins” …but old-time radio fans know her as Georgia Ellis, whose best-remembered role is that of “Kitty Russell” on Gunsmoke.
Female characterizations don’t often fare well in the Hopalong Cassidy films…but I was pleasantly surprised by some of the portrayals, since many of the women are not content to just stand around looking helpless (in Doomed Caravan [1941], one of the top Hoppys, Minna Gombell’s freight owner is locked, loaded, and ready to tangle with the bad guys).  This is occasionally played for laughs; in Range War (1939), Ellen Marlow (Betty Moran) chafes at the thought of having to stay behind while the menfolk go after the outlaws.  She decides to avail herself of the only mode of transportation accessible to her: a broken-down mule who, alas, does not share Ellen’s zeal for her law and order mission.

Russell Hopton, Charlotte Wynters
A good example of a positive female character can be found in the last of the ‘Gabby’ Hayes Hoppys: in Renegade Trail, widow Mary Joyce (Charlotte Wynters) has had her hands full running one of the most prosperous ranches in Cactus Springs—the Circle J.  She accomplished this after the death of her husband, whom she’s told her son Joey (Sonny Bupp) over the years died a hero.  Surprise!  Hubby Bob ‘Smoky’ Joslin (Russell Hopton) has actually been serving a lengthy prison sentence…and now that he’s escaped, he’s threatening to reveal the truth to young Joseph—necessitating the need for many years of therapy in the young lad’s future, no doubt.  Mary agrees to provide cover for Smoky’s illegal activities in exchange for his silence (she tells everyone he’s her brother) …but she’s not particularly wild about the notion of his rustling her cattle, and neither are Hoppy and Lucky—who are in Cactus Springs to visit their old pal Windy (now the town marshal).

Roy Barcroft tangles with Hoppy in a lobby card for Renegade Trail (1939) as John Merton looks on (dis)approvingly.
The material has been done to death, I know…but the reason why I got such a kick out of Trail is that The Baddest Serial Villain of Them All, Roy Barcroft, is the wicked hombre in cahoots with Joslin (Roy’s character is called ‘Stiff Hat’ Bailey…and he not only gives Joey a smack in the kisser but kicks a dog for good measure) …and “Everyhench” John Merton is the chief goon.  It’s solidly paced, and well-directed by Lesley Selander…who directed a metric ton of the entries in the Hopalong Cassidy franchise.

The ‘Gabby’ Hayes deficit was made up in a few Hopalong Cassidy films by a character named ‘Speedy’ McGinnis (comically played by Britt Wood); I’ve only seen Wood in Range War, so I can’t really give you a full appraisal of what his character added to the series (a lot of Hoppy fans feel mostly “meh” about Speedy).  With Three Men in Texas (1940), the Hoppy franchise introduced my favorite of the elderly sidekicks in ‘California’ Jack Carson, played by veteran comedian Andy Clyde.  The fact that I’m such a huge fan of Andy’s admittedly colors my assessment of his contribution to the movie series…but Texas is a first-rate oater, and a beloved favorite among Cassidy fans.

TDOY fave Andy Clyde joins Boyd and Hayden.
The best of the Hoppy features that I’ve watched (so far, of course) is Pirates on Horseback (1941), which finds Hoppy, Lucky, and California on the hunt for a gold mine discovered by Carson’s distant cousin (very distant—like 42nd), Ben Pendleton (played by Britt Wood!).  Upon arriving at Pendleton’s shack, the trio meet his niece Trudy (Eleanor Stewart) …and agree to help her locate the mine, the location of which is gradually revealed via cryptic clues throughout Horseback’s running time.  Trudy is convinced by Ace Gibson (Morris Ankrum) that Hoppy and Company are working against her best interests…unaware that Gibson wants to get his grimy mitts on the mine himself!  Character veteran Ankrum was in a buttload of Hoppy westerns (the [always] reliable IMDb credits him with a baker’s dozen), and I got so used to seeing him play the villain that when he portrayed a good guy in Wide Open Town (1941) I kept suspecting it would eventually be revealed he was up to something criminal.

Years before starring opposite Richard Denning on TV/radio's Mr. and Mrs. North, Barbara Britton was paying her sagebrush dues.  In Secret of the Wastelands (1941), she plays an archaeologist who literally has to remove her glasses and let down her hair before Hayden's 'Lucky' realizes she's beautiful.

Wide Open Town was Russell Hayden’s swan song (after 27 films) with the Hopalong Cassidy franchise; his ‘Lucky’ Jenkins would be replaced by Brad King as “Johnny Nelson.”  (When the Hoppy films resumed in 1946—after star Boyd purchased both his old films and the rights to make more—the ‘Lucky’ character returned to the fold, portrayed by Rand Brooks.)  After King, the Cassidy series then showcased several rotating young sidekicks including Jay Kirby and Jimmy Rogers—in Bar 20 (1943), the sidekick is played by future TV Superman George Reeves!  The presence of the bland Kirby (as “Johnny Travers”) in Border Patrol (1943) didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this film; Hoppy and his crew match wits against an autocratic judge in Orestes Krebs (Russell Simpson), who’s been using kidnapped Mexicans as forced labor in his silver mine.  Judge Krebs puts the three comrades on trial that brings new meaning to the term “kangaroo court”—with Robert Mitchum (billed as Bob) as the foreman!  (Big Bad Bob appeared in several Hoppy westerns, notably 1943’s Hoppy Serves a Writ [which I haven’t seen] and Leather Burners [which I have].)  Patrol was my second favorite among the Epix Hoppys, with fine support from familiar faces like Claudia Drake, Duncan Renaldo, and Pierce Lyden.

The only gripe—and I’ll be honest, it’s a major one—is that the Epix prints of these movies have, to use the horse parlance, been rode hard and put up wet.  Two of the titles, Doomed Caravan and Wide Open Town, have running times of fifty-four minutes (most disappointing, since these are two of the best movies in the series) …leading me to suspect that these versions were the ones that were cut-up for television by NBC when Hoppy’s adventures came to small screens in 1949.  (Bar 20 Justice [1938] was missing its opening credits.)  A complete collection of the Hopalong Cassidy films was released to DVD by Echo Bridge in 2009 with restored prints, and that set, Hopalong Cassidy Ultimate Collector's Edition, was reissued in 2015 (sans collective lunchbox) …so I’m entertaining thoughts of grabbing one of these once the financial picture is a bit rosier here at Rancho Yesteryear.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Roaring City (1951)

“Murdered men flock to you like flies around a molasses jug, O’Brien,” observes San Francisco cop Inspector Bruger (Richard Travis), having discovered his nemesis, private shamus Dennis “Denny” O’Brien (Hugh Beaumont), lying beside a man who appears to be in the advanced stages of death.  “I could get all the killers in this town by just sticking to you and waiting for the bodies to drop into your lap.”

“You’d be one up on the way you do things now,” is O’Brien’s hardboiled reply…and we’re off to the races with Roaring City (1951)—a Robert L. Lippert-produced programmer whose title seems more fitting for a western than a crime picture.

Hugh Beaumont, Richard Travis
Roaring City is a B-quickie made up of two unaired television episodes from an attempt to bring the Jack Webb radio classics Pat Novak…for Hire/Johnny Madero, Pier 23 to the small screen.  The above dialogue exchange is from the second half of the film; Novak Madero O’Brien is hired by a damsel in distress (Joan Valerie) to pose as her stepdaughter Sylvia’s (Wanda McKay) spouse for a C-note.  It seems that Bill Rafferty (Anthony Warde), Sylvie’s old beau, is back in town and Syl is worried that Rafferty might do something terribly dangerous once he finds out about their marriage.  The unfortunate shmoe that winds up dead alongside the unconscious O’Brien was first introduced to Denny as her cousin Steve…but in his attempt to clear himself of a homicide rap, our hero learns that “Steve” is in actuality Sylvia’s husband.

Stanley Price
The first story in City finds O’Brien hired by skeevy fight manager Harry Barton (Stanley Price) to lay down several $1000 bets on a pugilist named Ham Harper—who’s going to win a fight against Barton’s fighter, Vic Lundy (Greg McClure), because Lundy is going to take a dive in the first round.  Things do not go as planned; Lundy ends up winning the bout (Harper was not in fighting trim…and he had a blood clot near his brain) and is rewarded by being murdered not long afterward.  Like bad Kabuki theater, Bruger is convinced O’Brien is responsible, necessitating that Denny follow the clues pointing to a gambler named Ed Gannon (William Tannen).

Hugh Beaumont is not going to play the sap for Rebel Randall; he's slipped some incriminating evidence into her pocket.
DVD Talk’s Stuart Galbraith IV believes Roaring City is the worst film in the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collection Vol. 4 set (available from The Sprocket Vault), forgetting that it has formidable competition with Radar Secret Service (1950) and Motor Patrol (1950), both in the same compendium.  I’m able to cut City a little more slack because I’m so familiar with its source material…while in the same breath recognizing that a TV show based on Jack Webb’s waterfront creations probably wouldn’t have had much success.  The dialogue on Novak/Madero is a hilarious parody of hardboiled detectives…and while City faithfully reproduces this (leafing through a drawer, Beaumont’s O’Brien finds a calendar featuring models “who posed without telling their mothers”), visually there’s very little director William Berke can add to the proceedings.  Seriously, you could close your eyes while this movie is on and miss very little of the action…particularly since O’Brien’s voice-over narration tells you all you need to know (and in more than one instance, is repeated again in dialogue with other characters).

Hugh Beaumont is roughed up by henchman Abner Biberman and serials hoodlum Anthony Warde (the poor man's Ted de Corsia).

Ed Brophy has been given his bottle, and he's ready for bed.
Galbraith disses my man Ed Brophy, whom I have applauded in previous reviews for Danger Zone (1951) and Pier 23 (1951) for attempting to do something out of his wheelhouse in his portrayal of “Professor” Frederick Simpson Schicker, O’Brien’s frequently inebriated confidant:

Brophy's character is a real oddity. The actor had a thick Brooklynese accent that was instantly recognizable; he was short, bald, and bug-eyed - ideally suited for none-too-bright comic henchmen parts. But here someone got the bright idea to cast him as an erudite (if alcoholic) British professor (Red Flag! Red Flag!) who speaks floridly, gesturing like John Barrymore. Brophy plays it with an English accent, but some of the woids don't quite come out right. The effect is bizarre: it's like when Stan Laurel bonked his head in A Chump at Oxford and started talking like C. Aubrey Smith.

Hey…I’ll admit Brophy is no Tudor Owen—but give the man props for not being afraid to experiment.  Next week on the blog: I’ll wrap up the “Forgotten Noir” series with Sky Liner (1949).  When that’s finished—TDOY will resurrect the long-dormant feature “Crime Does Not Pay (As Well as It Used To).”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Behind the Door (1919) Blu-ray/DVD Giveaway

It’s been a little over a month since we’ve handed out some excellent swag here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…so I thought I’d rectify the “fabulous prizes” drought by announcing a swell opportunity for members of the TDOY faithful to win a copy of Behind the Door (1919)—an upcoming release (due out April 4) from the hardest-working folks in the classic film heritage business: Flicker Alley.

If you make regular visits to this humble scrap of the blogosphere, you know that Flicker Alley is responsible for more than a few of the movies I’ve reviewed here in TDOY’s silent film showcase on Thursdays; past feature films written up on the blog include Victory (1919)/The Wicked Darling (1919), Tol’able David (1921), and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924).  In addition, I’ve given titles like Children of Divorce (1927), The House of Mystery (1921), and Too Late for Tears (1949) the “Where’s That Been?” treatment at ClassicFlix, and the dusty TDOY DVD shelves are adorned with past bodacious Flicker Alley releases like Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies and The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. 1.  From Cinerama to Curtis Harrington, Flicker Alley is dedicating to presenting the finest silent, classic, and eclectic film collections so near and dear to all of us.

This is why I am so pleased and honored to participate (along with so many other great silent and classic film sites) in Flicker Alley’s giveaway for the upcoming April 4 release of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu-ray/DVD.

Legendary producer Thomas H. Ince and director Irvin V. Willat made this—“the most outspoken of all the vengeance films” according to film historian Kevin Brownlow—during the period of World War I inspired American patriotism.

Hobart Bosworth stars as Oscar Krug, a working-class American, who is persecuted for his German ancestry after war is declared. Driven by patriotism, Krug enlists and goes to sea. However, tragedy strikes when his wife (Jane Novak) sneaks aboard his ship and is captured following a German U boat attack. Krug’s single minded quest for vengeance against the sadistic German submarine commander (played with villainous fervor by Wallace Beery) leads to the film’s shocking and brutal climax.

This newly restored edition represents the most complete version of the film available since 1919, thanks to the collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.

Sourced from the only two known remaining prints and referencing a copy of Willat’s original continuity script, this edition recreates the original color tinting scheme and features a new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne.  Flicker Alley is honored to present Behind the Door on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time ever.

Bonus Materials Include:

•            Original Russian version of Behind the Door: The re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
•            Original Production Outtakes: Featuring music composed and performed by Stephen Horne.
•            Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door: An inside look at the restoration process with the restoration team.
•            Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat: Directed by Patrick Stanbury, an in-depth interview with renowned historian and honorary Academy Award® winner Kevin Brownlow on the career of director Irvin Willat.
•            Slideshow Gallery: Original lobby cards, production stills, and promotional material.
•            12-page Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, film restorer Robert Byrne, and composer Stephen Horne.

Official Release Date: April 4, 2017

Giveaway Hosted By:

Co-Hosted By:

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual‑Format Edition Blu‑ray/DVD from Flicker Alley! Giveaway is open to residents of U.S./Canada and ends on April 12, 2017.

Leave a comment on this post after watching the trailer, and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Delinquents (1957)

“They try to tell us we’re too young…” That lyric from the classic Nat King Cole song has special resonance for young Scotty White (Tom Laughlin) …because the parents of his best girl, Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard), have requested that he no longer date her.  It’s not that Scotty is an inappropriate suitor for Jan’s attentions—they just feel that a girl her age (she is sixteen, going on seventeen—as another song goes) shouldn’t be “going steady.”

Despondent, Scotty cracks under the strain of his teenage angst and goes on a three-state killing spree.  No, I’m just kidding about this—but he does hook up with a crew of young lawbreakers more than up to that particular task at his local drive-in.  Bill “Cholly” Charters (Peter Miller) and his gang step in to keep Scotty from taking a right pummeling from some other rough boys (even though Cholly’s pal Eddy [Richard Bakalyan] is responsible for the event that snowballed into the fracas), and a grateful Scotty allows Cholly to help him out with a bit of dating subterfuge: Cholly will masquerade as Jan’s new boyfriend, and pick her up at her home to take her to the movies.  Once they’re out of sight from her folks’ house, Scotty will take the baton from Cholly and continue the date portion of the evening.

Cholly snows Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (James Lantz, Lotus Corelli) with a yarn about working as an apprentice stockbroker (that reminds me: I should probably invest in hoodlum futures), and once he’s collected Jan, he persuades Scotty to attend a “party” that’s scheduled to be held at a seemingly abandoned house in the woodsy part of town.  Janice isn’t particularly wild about the idea…and her instincts prove right on the money: there’s drinking!  And dancing!  To raucous hopped-up jazz music!  Why…it’s almost as if this new crowd that’s adopted our young lovers are…delinquents!

Before he became the critically-acclaimed director of such films as MASH (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975), Robert Altman held the megaphone on a low-budget teensploitation flick known as The Delinquents (1957), filmed in Altman’s hometown of Kansas City, MO (depending on the source, the budget ranged from $45,000 to $63,000).  Motion picture exhibitor Elmer Rhoden, Jr., president of the Commonwealth Theaters chain, wanted to reap some of that sweet, sweet drive-in cash and hired Bob (who had been making industrial films and docs locally for The Calvin Company) to tackle the project; Altman scouted locations, cast the film, and cranked out the screenplay (inspired by j.d. movie successes like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause) in about a week.

Many of Delinquents’ actors were local Kansas City-ians of Altman’s acquaintance (his then-wife Lotus Corelli plays Mrs. Wilson, while their daughter Christine essays the role of Sissy, Scotty’s kid sister) but Bob and Elmer made a pilgrimage to The Golden State to find more practiced thespians who could play the three male leads.  Peter Miller, who portrays Cholly, had not only appeared in Blackboard and Rebel but had on his resume Forbidden Planet (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956).  Character veteran Richard “Dick” Bakalyan (as Eddy) had his first important dramatic film turn in Delinquents; he would later appear in such films as Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and Chinatown (1975)…but he’s probably best known as “Cookie” in the Walt Disney Studios’ “Dexter Riley” trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969—though he’s called “Chillie” in this one), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).  (Andrew “Grover” Leal humorously refers to Dick as Disney’s “Everyhench.”)  In addition, Bakalyan graces the cast of The Cool and the Crazy (1958), also produced by Rhoden, Jr. and directed by TDOY idol William Witney.

The star of The Delinquents (as Scotty) was Tom (Tommy) Laughlin—it was not, as previously reported, his feature film debut (Laughlin was also in These Wilder Years and Tea and Sympathy), but it served as an important launch pad for a motion picture career that would later be defined by the 1967 biker classic The Born Losers and cemented by 1971’s Billy Jack (Tom plays the same character in both movies), a film that has an inexplicable cult following.  (Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a man dedicated to teaching peace and non-violence by beating the stuffing out of anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.)  Billy Jack was such a monster box office hit that it led to a slate of follow-ups: The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), The Return of Billy Jack (1986), and Billy Jack at Waikiki (1990).  (Um…I think this last title may be incorrect; I may have it confused with a “Ma and Pa Kettle” vehicle.)  In later years, Altman might have regretted selecting Laughlin for his movie; the two repeatedly clashed during the making of Delinquents, with Bob memorably describing the star as “an unbelievable pain in the ass.”

Absent the problems with Laughlin, Altman’s film went smoothly: The Delinquents was put together in three weeks, and the finished project was picked up by United Artists (for $150,000) for distribution, ultimately earning a nice return of $1 million.  But Bob wouldn’t look upon his debut feature with fondness in later years; UA altered the ending and included some sappy Crime Does Not Pay-like narration at the movie’s conclusion, which the director didn’t find out about until he attended a preview of the movie.  Delinquents played mostly at drive-ins, but it did attract the notice of The Master of Suspense—who hired Altman to direct episodes of his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and that led to future assignments on boob tube classics like The Millionaire and Combat!).  Still, when London’s National Film Theatre put together a retrospective of Altman’s work in January of 2001, The Delinquents was noticeably absent (a program note stated that Altman preferred that it not be seen).

Is the movie terrible?  No, it isn’t—unless you have loftier expectations from a drive-in teen flick.  What’s very impressive about The Delinquents is the level of professionalism present in such a low-budgeter; Altman demonstrated with this debut that he was a talent to watch, even though devotees may be disappointed at the lack of a film signature…save for a free-wheeling party scene that previews Bob’s fondness for free-wheeling improvisation.  The acting may be amateurish at times (this tends to happen when you use amateurs) but the black-and-white photography is a standout (cinematographer Charles Paddock noted that Altman suggested he watch The Asphalt Jungle to emulate its style) and again, the overall product is quite polished.  (The music from KC’s own Julia Lee and the Bill Nolan Quintet Minus Two in the opening nightclub scene is first-rate, too.)

The Delinquents makes its Blu-ray/DVD debut today, courtesy of Olive Films—“a boutique theatrical and home entertainment distribution label” (according to the company) that has made many their releases available to this humble scrap of the blogosphere (thanks to Bradley Powell) to review from time to time.  Fans of Robert Altman (and believe me—there’s an army of them out there) will want to add this to their video shelf so that they can truly appreciate a major filmmaking talent learning his craft.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949)

Edmund Dantes (Glenn Langan) has no sooner stepped off a boat (on which he’s employed as a second mate) docked along San Francisco’s waterfront when he must come to the rescue of a woman being attacked by a pair of goon-like gentlemen.  The female in question is Jean Turner (Adele Jergens), an heiress who’s currently receiving mail at a sanitarium (or “nuthouse,” as Dantes colorfully refers to it) because her guardian has placed her there to keep her from receiving the substantial fortune left to her by her father.  Jean cashes in when she’s either married or reaches the age of twenty-five; she mentions to Edmund that she’s nearly there, age-wise (yes, I knew Jergens was in her early thirties when this film was produced), but if the two of them were to tie the knot she could defeat her custodian’s eevill scheme.  (It would be a temporary business arrangement.  A three-month merger.)

Glenn Langan, Robert (Bobby) Jordan
So they’re off to “The Biggest Little City in the World” (Reno), and the morning after, Jean is having second thoughts.  When Ed ventures out to get her some cigarettes, he discovers upon his return that she’s vanished…but the address of the sanitarium has been scrawled on the mirror in lipstick.  (If Jean was abducted…wouldn’t the people putting the snatch on her notice something like this?)  Arriving at Casa del Cuckoo, Dantes hides in an upstairs room in the asylum when a man enters…and is shot by an unseen assailant.  This makes Ed The Amazing Colossal Patsy (actor Langan is known for his starring role in the 1957 cult sci-fi film The Amazing Colossal Man), as he’s arrested, tried, and sentenced for the murder of a man he’s never even met!  (Worst.  Honeymoon.  Ever.)

Adele Jergens
Despite its clunky title, which would be more fitting for a swashbuckling epic, Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949) is a decent noir whose only deficits are flabby pacing (I was kind of disappointed in director William Berke, who can usually make these little programmers hum) and uneven performances.  Far be it from me to want to deny actor Glenn Langan a career in show business…but the guy is in dire need of a charisma transplant (I know, he did quite a few biggies at Fox, like Forever Amber [1947] and The Snake Pit [1948]); a better leading man would have improved this picture enormously, and I’m only saying this because I have a thing for Adele Jergens.  (Adele and Glenn have zero chemistry.  Zip.  Nada.)

Margia, Margia, Margia! (Dean, that is.)

“If you love or live in San Francisco, this movie's like a time machine back to 1949,” observes Stuart Galbraith IV in his review at DVD Talk…and I think that’s another deficit in Treasure—it’s more of a travelogue at times than movie thriller.  (A narrator at the beginning even regales us with some Frisco stats before the story gets underway.)  Shooting on location is always nice in a film, but it shouldn’t overshadow the plot…which is conventional to the point of cliché from the get-go.  (There’s even a scene with a paralyzed victim who must communicate by moving his eyeballs.)  I wasn’t quite as taken with the suspense as Galbraith; truth be told, I had a little trouble staying awake at several points in the film.  (You could argue that the suspense is generated by “will he be able to keep from nodding off?”)

Steve Brodie
Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans will be amused at the presence of Bobby Jordan (billed here as Robert), portraying the friend who helps Langan crash out on his way to San Quentin—I’ve seen Jordan in a couple of Tales of Wells Fargo episodes of late, and can’t help but be a little wistful at how his adult life turned out (I think Leo Gorcey once remarked that his friend “didn’t have a guardian angel”).  Familiar movie heavy Steve Brodie plays the bad guy (pro-tip: never hire an attorney sporting a pencil-thin moustache) and member-of-the-TDOY-faithful b piper will be overjoyed to see Lippert “good luck charm” Sid Melton (billed as Sidney) as a henchman (thankfully, he keeps the shtick to a bare minimum).

Heeeeeeeeeeere's Sidney!

There’s a DVD disclaimer at the beginning of this film that reads: “The original nitrate negative to this picture had decomposed, but fortunately a master positive survived.  Even after restoration the sound track is not perfect.  We hope this imperfection will not affect your enjoyment of this rare film.”  It did not (though the part about the sound concerned me to where I waited until the cleaning ladies finished vacuuming), and it just reinforces what has become a mantra here on the blog: film preservation is most important, because nitrate won’t wait.  You can purchase a copy of Treasure of Monte Cristo on the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collector’s Set Vol. 4, available at The Sprocket Vault.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hurry on down to Hardie’s

My fellow classic movie mavens are well aware that in the month of February (and first three days of March—except leap year), The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ runs their “31 Days of Oscar” tribute.  This event and “Summer Under the Stars” usually allows me to catch up with whatever I have squirreled away on our DISH DVR, and I was very much looking forward to watching the content (and slapping my favorites onto disc).

But…in the immortal words of Robert Frost: “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley.” (Who says this blog isn’t highbrow?  Besides 98% of the blogosphere, I mean.)

The good people at DISH decided to have a “freeview” weekend of HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime the weekend of February 17-20.  The following weekend, we were treated to free Starz.  The weekend after that, Encore.  And we just finished up a freeview of Epix this past weekend.  For a recovering movie nut like your humble narrator, this is an embarrassment of riches—particularly because when there isn’t anything on the schedule worth grabbing, there’s always On Demand offerings I can download.  I have been spending every free waking moment luxuriating in movies, movies…and more movies.

Laramie stars John Smith and Robert Fuller
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I went hog wild during the Encore freeview…because their On Demand features episodes of the classic TV westerns they offer on their schedule—this is how I was able to build my substantial Wanted: Dead or Alive collection back in December of 2015.   Encore Westerns on Demand has episodes of Death Valley Days, Laramie, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Tales of Wells Fargo (a recent acquisition), and Wagon Train—which presented me with a dilemma: which show do I download?

I eliminated Death Valley Days and Wagon Train right off the bat; I like both shows—but they’re not something I have to have.  I leaned heavily toward Laramie, particularly due to the piss-poor quality of the Timeless Media Group DVDs…but I’ve got a 30-day window with these downloads, and I didn’t think I could get all EW had in that amount of time (particularly since they’re 50-minute shows).  There’s DVR space to consider, too—I like to have enough of a “buffer” in case Mom (who learned how to work the DVR during her convalescence) wants to grab any Rambo movies or something with Jean-Claude God Damme.  (I don’t know why she insists on recording stuff with commercials…particularly since she hasn’t learned to fast-forward yet.)  So, it came down to either Wyatt Earp or Wells Fargo…and since all six seasons of Earp have been released to disc, I went with Fargo (its DVD release history is a little spotty).

Tales of Wells Fargo originally premiered as a December 14, 1956 episode of CBS’ Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, “A Tale of Wells Fargo”—with a teleplay by Frank Gruber from a Zane Grey story.  The producer of this episode, Nat Holt, had also produced the 1949 film that gave future Wells Fargo star Dale Robertson his first onscreen credit, Fighting Man of the Plains (Fargo creator Frank Gruber also wrote this screenplay…in addition to the novel on which it was based).  Holt had quite a time talking Robertson into doing “Tale” as a regular series—Dale initially didn’t think much of the script, and only agreed to commit to the pilot as a favor to his friend.  He never dreamed that the show would leap to #3 in the Nielsens in its second season (Tales of Wells Fargo officially premiered over NBC on March 18, 1957).  (Wells Fargo remained in the Top 10 in its third season, and continued to be a solid ratings performer until its final season in 1961-62.  More on this in a bit.)

I thought that by downloading all the Wells Fargo Encore Westerns had to offer, I could play a few for mi madre—a longtime fan of the show.  I know I mentioned this on the blog in the past (my previous experience with Wells Fargo was a single episode, “Jesse James,” which was on Timeless’ The Classic TV Western Collection) but my father used to tease my mother unmercifully about this series, derisively referring to the star as “Dale Roberts” and saying…well, I won’t repeat exactly what he said (it’s a little insensitive) but he hinted that Mr. Robertson was a few horses shy of a remuda.  I’ve watched 13 out of the 14 episodes in the first season (“The Silver Bullets” did not download properly, much to my dismay) and a couple from Season Two…and I don’t know why Dad kids Mom so.  Granted, I do not possess the sophisticated television tastes as my old man (and by “sophisticated television tastes” I mean shows about UFOs and cops placing people under arrest) but I’m finding Tales of Wells Fargo to be a pretty entertaining series.  It’s not a great show (there are superior western half-hours, like Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel) but it’s far and away better than The Cisco Kid or any other juvie oater you’d care to name.  Robertson didn’t consider Wells Fargo an “adult western” or a “kids western”—but a “family western,” assuming your family conducted private investigations for the Wells Fargo company for a living.  (That’s the premise in a nutshell: as Jim Hardie, Robertson chased down bad hombres who robbed the company’s stagecoaches or freight wagon in the 1860s/1870s/1880s, and brought the miscreants to justice.  This was quite a few years before the Wells Fargo company started committing fraud on a major scale.)

Hugh Beaumont as Jesse James
One of the aspects of the program that I’ve observed is its rather compassionate portrayals of its outlaw element: in the aforementioned “Jesse James” (07/01/57), future Leave it to Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont portrays Jesse as a very sympathetic sort, and in “Sam Bass” (06/10/57), rifleman Chuck Connors makes the titular bandit a jovial, happy-go-lucky fella (the real Bass was apparently also a “no worries” kind of guy).  (Connors also appears in the premiere episode of Tales of Wells Fargo, “The Thin Rope”—adding some interesting shadings to the villain.)  The nature of Hardie’s work dictated he make contact with many Old West legends, including Belle Starr (a nice turn by Jeanne Cooper), John Wesley Hardin (Lyle Bettger), Billy the Kid (Robert Vaughn), and Butch Cassidy (Charles Bronson).

Jack Elam
Of the episodes I’ve viewed so far, I was very impressed with “The Hijackers” (06/17/57); Hardie puts a premature end to his vacation by tracking down the son (Harry Holt, Jr.) of a wealthy man and his fiancée (Jacqueline Holt) and finds their trail leads to a ghost town, where they’re being held captive by Jack Elam and his gang.  There’s a beautifully done (and wordless) sequence in which Robertson and Elam play hide-and-seek in the abandoned burg, and when the closing credits rolled I was not at all surprised to see serials ace John English attached as director.  (The author of this one is N.B. Stone, Jr., later responsible for Ride the High Country.)  The following episode, “Stage to Nowhere” (06/24/57), is also first-rate; Hardie is escorting an outlaw (Walter Coy) to the hoosegow when their stagecoach is chased down by the man’s gang—also on board are a timid newspaper reporter (the ubiquitous Lyle Talbot) plus a woman (OTR’s Barbara Eiler) and her son (Bobby Clark), who have an important connection to Jim’s prisoner.

Michael Landon
You’ll spot a good many familiar future TV faces and veteran character thesps in these episodes of Tales of Wells Fargo: Michael Landon is not only in “Sam Bass” but “Shotgun Messenger” (05/07/57)—which I’d wager was the first time he worked with his future Little House on the Prairie co-star Kevin Hagen (as one of the bad guys, of course).  Some time back on Facebook, I made a joking reference to actor John Carroll being “the poor man’s Clark Gable” …and my social media compadre Christopher Snowden (the proprietor of Television Diary) responded that he always considered Dale Robertson to be quite Gable-ish.  When I concurred that I can definitely hear a Gable-ness in Robertson’s speech patterns, Chris observed: “[H]e's also there in scenes where Robertson's character is charming the ladies—chin down, and eyes uplifted as a big ingratiating smile spreads wide.  And all of these mannerisms are still in place twenty-odd years later, when he appears for short stretches on Dallas and Dynasty.”

The moustache helps a lot.  (From a 1965 TV pilot, Diamond Jim.)
William Demarest with star Robertson
In the fifth season of Tales of Wells Fargo, Earle Lyon replaced Nat Holt as the series’ producer; Lyon related in an interview: “I took over the last two years.  Dale Robertson called me one day and said he felt Nat was getting too old and couldn’t remember things.  Dale was pretty upset with the way things were going with the series.” NBC decided to side with the show’s star, and Holt’s inaugural season as producer went so swimmingly the network made the decision to not only expand Wells Fargo to an hour in Season Six but produce it in Living Peacock Color.  A cast of regulars was also added as Jim Hardie acquired a horse ranch near San Francisco (star Robertson was quite the horseman in real life) including future My Three Sons co-star William Demarest (as the stock crotchety ranch foreman, Jeb Gaine) and future Folgers’ pitchwoman Virginia Christine (as Hardie’s neighbor, The Widder [Ovie] Swenson).

Tales of Wells Fargo had stiff competition in its final season—it was scheduled Saturday nights opposite Perry Mason, and though it came in a respectable second, ratings-wise, the decision was made (the show was getting a bit expensive for the cost-conscious MCA/Revue to produce) to send it to the Old Syndication Retirement Home.  Star Robertson would later headline Iron Horse, another boob tube oater that barely hung on for two seasons, and J.J. Starbuck (1987-88), a Stephen J. Cannell creation that also resurrected Ben Vereen’s character of E.L. “Tenspeed” Turner (which he had played on the short-lived 1980 series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, also created by Cannell).

Tales of Wells Fargo’s first and second seasons are available on DVD (Tales of Wells Fargo: The Complete First and Second Seasons); in addition, there’s a collection containing “selected” episodes from Seasons 1-5, and Tales of Wells Fargo: The Best of the Final Season in Color.  In looking at what I downloaded from Encore Westerns, neither seasons five or six seem to be in their package—perhaps they will air these in the future.  Wells Fargo plays much, much better than I had hoped…and later, I will make a small sacrifice to the satellite gods for allowing me to grab these episodes for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.