Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hell Divers

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Hell Divers (MGM, 1931) – Director: George Hill. Writers: Harvey Gates & Malcolm Stuart Boylan (s/p). Frank Wead (story). James Keven McGuinness & ralph Graves (add’l dialogue). James Warner Bellah, Charles MacArthur & Edward Dean Sullivan (cont. writers - uncredited). Stars: Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Marie Prevost, Cliff Edwards, John Miljan, Landers Stevens, Reed Howes, Alan Roscoe & Frank Conroy. B&W, 109 minutes.

A cursory look at the title might end one to think this is a film about deep sea divers or submariners. But it’s actually about those who fly and maintain dive bombers.

The dive bombers are Curtiss F8C-4 Helldivers, of which the film features plenty of in footage of flight operations aboard the Navy’s second aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, which accounts for the dedication at the divining of the movie: the United States Navy.


As to the plot, Chief Petty Officer “Windy” Riker (Beery), a veteran aerial gunner aboard a Navy Helldiver dive bomber and the leading chief of Fighting Squadron One, has just lost his five-year claim to the title of “champion dog fighter” to a young upstart C.P.O. named Steve Nelson (Gable), who has just joined the squadron. Later, the local police come to arrest Windy for his role in wrecking a Turkish bathhouses but Jack Griffin (Miljan), the unit’s commander, tells the police that Windy is needed for important maneuvers on base. 

Griffin and his second-in-command, Lieutenant "Duke" Johnson (Nagel), agree that Nelson is the best candidate to replace Windy as he ponders retirement.

The friendly rivalry between Windy and Steve turns sour after the squadron practices a new dive-bombing technique. When the release on Steve’s plane fails to fully work he climbs out onto the wing and holds the bomb in place until the plane can land on the carrier. Windy gives Johnson a cock and bull story about the bombs not being good enough, but Steve notices that the release is not in alignment and points it out to Johnson. The fact that Nelson overrode Windy’s explanation does not go down well with the older man and he decks Nelson as they walk away. Johnson sees the entire incident and dresses down Windy. 

Looking to get even, Windy pulls a practical joke on Nelson. When Steve's sweetheart, Ann Mitchell (Jordan), visits him, he proposes marriage to her. But Windy, unaware that Ann is Steve's fiancee and not simply a girl he is trying to impress, has bribed an old acquaintance, Lulu (Prevost), to pretend to be Steve's outraged lover. She starts an argument with Ann, who leaves the base upset, refusing to listen to Steve’s explanation. 

Windy, now Johnson's gunner, makes a crucial mistake during a bombing exercise off Panama. Thinking he has misplaced his code book, Windy delays the takeoff of the squadron while he searches for it, only to find it was in his back pocket all the while. As punishment, Johnson assigns him to supervise a work party when the ship docks, causing him to miss liberty and keeping him from seeing his girl, Mame Kelsey (Rambeau), the woman in Panama he wants to settle down with after retirement. 

Steve, who knows Mame, runs into her on the dock and shares her carriage back into town. When Windy hears about it he sneaks into town to have it out with Steve. Mame tries to convince Steve to patch up his differences with Windy and promotes a peace between them when Windy shows up at her hotel. But after having a drink together in the bar Windy starts a brawl. Though Steve tries to help him avoid the Panamanian police, they catch up to him and throw him in in jail. 

As the Saratoga passes through the Panama Canal, Mame bails Windy out of jail and he catches up to the carrier by stealing a boat. For his transgressions, the captain of the Saratoga (Roscoe) reduces Windy in rank one rate from chief, reduced to Aviation Machinist's Mate 1st Class for leaving his post without authorization, absent without leave, and missing ship. A reluctant Steve now becomes leading chief. 


During a war games manuever, Steve's aircraft crashes near a rocky island. The pilot is killed and Steve suffers a broken leg. When Duke and Windy land to rescue Steve, Duke suffers a head injury and Windy has to save both, setting Steve's broken leg. Steve and Windy now become friends while waiting in the fog to be found.

By the fourth day, Duke's condition worsens and Steve develops blood poisoning. With no sign of a rescue mission, Steve comes up with a plan to leave the island by having Windy fly the plane according to his navigation. Windy flies them out in Duke's dive bomber, with Duke in the rear cockpit and, in order to lessen the danger of flying too heavy, Steve insists on riding the wing. Despite the fog, they find the aircraft carrier, but the plane aircraft crashes during the landing, fatally trapping Windy in the burning wreckage. At his last request, Windy is buried at sea as a missing man formation flies overhead. Following Windy's burial at sea, Steve reads a letter that Windy wrote to him before his death. In the letter, Windy confesses to Ann that he used Lulu as a joke to frame Steve. 

Afterwords

Hell Divers is far more interesting today for its excellent naval-aviation action footage than for its creaky plot and corny lines. Wallace Beery, getting top billing, portrays his usual slow-talking, “aw shucks” character, while Gable, who disliked the film, handles his role quite well, researching his role by hanging out with Navy men. According to Jeremy Arnold’s essay on the TCM Movie Database, when Gable learned that the Navy fliers never took a lemon twist with their gin but rather had a slice of lemon on the side, biting the lemon between gulps, he picked up the habit himself for years after this film. It wasn’t easy for Gable to buddy-buddy it up with his co-star on the set. Off-screen he despised the older Beery, who gladly returned the favor. 

The film offers rare glimpses of naval aviation in its infancy, as Curtiss F8C Helldiver biplanes take off and land on the historic Saratoga in breakneck fashion. We’re also treated to a shot of a deck-landing by the rigid airship Los Angeles (ZR-3). Meanwhile, the screenplay lurches between military-movie clichés to brawling antics and finally ending in a hokey and manipulative melodramatic finale.

It’s a loose remake of the old chestnut What Price Glory? with retired Naval Lt. Comdr. Frank Wead credited for the film's story. (Wead himself was himself later portrayed by John Wayne in John Ford’s biopic The Wings of Eagles. In the course of the film, footage of Hell Divers appears. Ford regular Jack Pennick has a small role in both, appearing uncredited in Hell Divers as a recruit sailor.) 

Cinematographer Charles A. Marshall shot the principal aerial photography in 1931 at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, marking the first of a series of naval epics filmed there. The aircraft used in the film, the Curtiss F8C-4, was the first production variant to bear the nickname “Helldiver.” While a small number of miniatures stood in for the real aircraft, as well in a mock battle by planes attacking the Saratoga, the majority of the aerial scenes directed by Marshall featured the actual Helldivers. Real events were woven into the film, such as the footage of the historic 1928 landing of the USS Los Angeles landing aboard the carrier. 

Director George Hill was married to screenwriter Frances Marion for three years.  After Hell Divers, he completed only one more picture, Clear All Wires (1933), before committing suicide at his beach house. Before his death he had begun pre-production on The Good Earth. The project was handed to director Sidney Franklin, and the film, starring Paul Muni and Luise Reiner, became a classic. 

Supporting actress Marie Prevost also came to a sad and gruesome end six years after this film. A silent screen star who had appeared in three popular Ernst Lubitsch comedies (including The Marriage Circle in 1924), she had trouble transitioning to talkies due to her strong Canadian accent. She subsequently developed weight problems, and fell into bit parts in the 1930s while turning to the bottle. Broke, she died of alcoholism and malnutrition in her run-down Hollywood apartment, Her body wasn't discovered for two days, during which time her starving dog had nibbled on her corpse. (This according to Kenneth Anger is his Hollywood Babylon.) 

Dorothy Jordan, who plays Ann, Gable’s love interest, retired in 1933 to marry producer Merian C. Cooper. She made a brief comeback in the 1950s to play small roles in three John Ford films – including the wife still in love with John Wayne in The Searchers (1956). Cliff Edwards, who plays Windy’s buddy "Baldy," would go on to supply the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940) and sing "When You Wish Upon a Star,” which won an Oscar. Also look for Robert Young in a bit role as a sailor.


Budgeted at $821,000, Hell Divers grossed $1,244,000 in the U.S. and Canada, and $917,000 elsewhere.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for May 23-31

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
May 23–May 31

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

FURY (May 23, 9:15 am): This is director Fritz Lang's first American film, and it's one filled with suspense, revenge, mob rule, hostility, intolerance and action. Spencer Tracy plays Joe Wilson, who is accused of a crime he didn't commit. While he sits in jail, waiting for the police investigation into the crime, the local townspeople get worked up and go to lynch him. Unable to get inside, they torched the jail with Wilson killed in the fire – or so it seems. The great plot-twist is that Joe escapes, but is presumed dead, with the people responsible for the incident facing murder charges. With the help of his brothers, Joe seeks revenge against his would-be killers. Tracy does a great job going from a hardworking, mild-mannered guy into one controlled by anger and vengeance. 

MARTY (May 31, 8:00 pm): This is on TCM regularly, but if you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth catching. If it's been a while, you should watch it again. Ernest Borgnine steps out of his typical tough-guy character and does a fine job playing Marty, a lonely butcher who doesn't ever think he'll ever get married. He meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a plain-looking teacher and they fall in love despite Marty's friends and mother telling him he can do better. It's a sweet film. Borgnine's supporting cast, except for Esther Minciotti who plays his mother, isn't exceptional. But that's fine as Marty is clearly the film's main character and Borgnine is up to the task. Interestingly, his Oscar-winning performance didn't lead to him playing this type of character again.

ED’S BEST BETS:

TARANTULA (May 25, 8:00 pm): William Alland produced and Jack Arnold directed this way-better-than-average story about a humongous spider on the loose in the Arizona desert. Seems mad scientist Leo G. Carroll’s experimental growth formula works a little too well and with the wrong subjects. It’s one of the best giant-insect-on-the-loose films and boasts fast pacing, wonderful special effects, and a rare good performance by John Agar as a country doctor. Mara Corday supplies the required eye candy and damsel in distress as Carroll’s grad assistant. Also look for a brief glimpse of Clint Eastwood as the jet squadron leader.

TORA! TORA! TORA! (May 28, 10:30 pm): An excellent reenactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, from the planning stages to the attack itself. Equal time is given to both the Japanese side, who is planning the attack, and other American side, who is trying to figure out what the Japanese government’s next move is. The movie is marked by compelling performances from its actors, especially So Yamamura, as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, planner of the Japanese attack and leader of the naval squadron sent to carryout the mission; Martin Balsam as Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of Pearl Harbor and the American fall guy for the aftermath; E.G. Marshall as Lt. Col. Rufus S. Bratton; and Tatsuya Mihashi as Comdr. Minoru Genda. It’s a wonderfully involved and riveting look at the battle that drew us into World War 2.

WE AGREE ON ... TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (May 30, 9:45 am)

ED: A+. We all know the story about Howard Hawks telling Ernest Hemingway that he could take the author’s worst novel and make a good movie out of it. He chose To Have and Have Not and made a masterpiece by throwing out most of the story and focusing on one character, charter boat captain Harry Morgan, rather than following Hemingway in dividing the story between two disconnected characters. (Michael Curtiz would later adapt the novel faithfully in the noir masterpiece The Breaking Point in 1950 with John Garfield and Patricia Neal. In 1958 Don Siegel made an even closer adaptation to the novel, The Gun Runners, starring Audie Murphy.) But why throw out most of the novel? Because the book was a story of a man’s moral defeat, an element that has no place in the universe of Howard Hawks. If anything, the movie is closer to Casablanca: disillusioned American expatriate rediscovers his ideals aiding a European freedom fighter in his struggle. The film is best remembered as the first teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and marked Bacall’s debut. Has any newcomer so dominated a film like Bacall dominates To Have and Have Not? For the first – and only – time in a Bogart movie, the woman shares in the best lines. And she makes them unforgettable. She goes head to head with Bogart in trading witty sarcastic remarks. Think of her as an Ilsa Lund with attitude. It’s one of my favorite movies, a film I can watch anytime.


DAVID: A+. Humphrey Bogart is a tough American expatriate who begrudgingly helps a French resistance leader and his beautiful wife during World War II in an exotic country with the backdrop of a bar and a pal playing the piano. Sound familiar? While there are similarities to CasablancaTo Have and Have Not is a unique and excellent film that stands on its own. In a lot of ways it's as good as the legendary Casablanca. First, Bogey is outstanding as Harry Morgan and Lauren Bacall is breathtaking as Marie "Slim" Browning in her film debut. Director Howard Hawks' wife Nancy Keith noticed Bacall on a magazine cover and pointed her out to her husband, who cast her. For someone with minimal acting experience, the 19-year-old is able to match Bogart, who was 45 at the time, line for line. She's sexy, sultry, charming and funny. The romance between the two characters is kept to a minimal amount in the film, but when they are together they sizzle. That probably has a lot to do with the off-screen chemistry between the two stars. Bacall delivers the classic line: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow" with a smooth seduction that few could pull off. Morgan calls Browning "Slim" even though she doesn't like it and she calls Morgan "Steve" even though it's not his name. But they were the nicknames Hawks and Keith had for each other. Until recently, I hadn't seen the film in a few years. I watched it twice and it only gets better with each viewing. At first, the "rummy" character Eddie, played by Walter Brennan, was a little annoying. However, watching it a second time, his performance is wonderful and pivotal to the success of the film.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Marvel/Disney, 2017) – Director: James Gunn. Writers: James Gunn (s/p). Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning (based on the Marvel comics by). Steve Engelhart, Steve Gan (Star-lord created by). Jim Starlin (Gamora and Drax created by). Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby (Groot created by). Bill Mantlo, Keith Giffen (Rocket Raccoon created by). Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Dave Bautista, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Aaron Schwartz & Laura Haddock. Color, Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

Having seen the first installment of Guardians, I eagerly anticipated the sequel. I know and like the characters and wanted to see what adventure awaits them. It turns out there wouldn’t be an adventure if it weren’t for my favorite character, a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Cooper), who by the way, hates being called raccoon.

The unlikely team consists of Quill, an Earthman, Rocket, Gamora (Saldana), a sensual green woman with flaming red hair, Drax (Bautista), a hulking muscular purplish-gray man with red scrollwork tattoos, and Baby Groot (voiced by Diesel), a tree creature who sprouted up in the previous film from his own dying self. Groot’s only line is “I’m Groot,” and only Rocket can understand what he’s saying. Toward the end of the movie Rocket tells him, “We definitely have to work on your language skills.”

As the movie opens I couldn’t help but recall the 1984 film Starman, as extra-terrestrial Ego (Schwartz) drives Meredith Quill (Haddock), Peter’s mom-to-be to a place in a forest where he planted a mysterious alien flower. We hear her favorite song playing in the car and through the scene, Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”

Then it’s “34 years later” and the Guardians are defending a platform belonging to the golden Sovereigns, a race of perfect (so they insist) beings, from an inter-dimensional monster whose sole intent is soaking up the power from the Sovereigns’ batteries. Quill, Rocket, Gamora and Drax battle the enormous, tentacled, triple-jawed creature while Baby Groot dances through the opening credits to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” It’s more a hilarious spoof than a tense battle scene.

Even if you haven’t seen the first installment, you get the idea that the Guardians actually enjoy danger and never take themselves seriously and the plot follows suit. In payment for their service, the Sovereigns release Nebula (Gillan) to them. She’s the adopted cyborg sister to Gamora who only wants to kill her, and Gamora wants her locked up. When Rocket finds the temptation irresistible to steal the Sovereigns’ batteries, their leader Ayesha (Debicki) summons a fleet of drones to destroy the escapees.


In an effort to lose the drones, Quill and Rocket fly the ship into a “Quantum Asteroid Field” where the going gets tougher as asteroids pop into existence randomly, trying to make it to a jump gate. But the drones go around the field and meet them on the other side firing from all directions and causing serious damage. Time for a Deus ex Machina. After a mysterious stranger in the ship shaped like Mork’s birth egg destroys the drones, they are able to crash land on the nearest planet.

The egg lands near them, a port opens organically, and we meet Ego (Russell) a second time, along with antennaed empath Mantis (Klementieff). Ego introduces himself as Quill’s father and takes Quill, Gamora and Drax back to his home planet while Rocket repairs the ship and watches over Nebula and Baby Groot.

Ayesha hires Yondu Udonta (Rooker), a former “Ravager” exiled by Stakar Ogord (Stallone) for child trafficking when he took Quill from Ego and raised him as his own. Yondu and his pirate crew find Quill’s ship but are not prepared for the riotously funny set of booby traps set by Rocket. But using his telekinetic arrow, he captures Rocket, Nebula and Groot. When he appears soft by not killing his prisoners, his right-hand man Taserface (Sullivan) leads a mutiny, destroys his telekinetic crest and imprisons Yondu with Rocket and Nebula. Groot is held in a bird cage and made a source of amusement by the crew, much to his chagrin.

Meanwhile, Quill, Drax, and Gamora arrive on Ego’s self-created planet with Mantis. It’s almost baroque in its design and organic at the same time. Ego tells the story of his travels throughout the universe, finding and falling in love with Meredith. He mesmerizes Quill, but Gamora doesn’t trust him. She’s right. Ego is well named. The alien plants he established on all the worlds he’s visited will reform them into extensions of himself, eliminating all existing life in the process, when he finds a celestial like himself. (You guessed it, Quill.)

The rest of the movie is a series of captures, escapes, attacks, surprise bondings, alliances and discoveries that will keep the audience guessing. Kraglin (Gunn) is the only surviving member of Yondu’s loyal men. Rocket actually drops his aggressive attitude and sheds a tear. We see a series of cameos, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), a mainframe computer with the voice of Miley Cyrus, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Zardu Hasselfrau (David Hasselhoff) and an astronaut (Stan Lee). Why David Hasselhoff? Quill told all of his childhood friends that Hasselhoff was his father.

The soundtrack,“Awesome Mixtape 2,” includes the pop favorites mentioned before with “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell, “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, “Come A Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans, “Bring It On Home to Me” by Sam Cooke, “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, and “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens.

My favorite quote is from Drax, “There are two kinds of beings in the universe: those who dance and those who do not.” He’s referring to the “unspoken thing” between Quill and Gamora. Volume two is a wonderful romp through intergalactic space and a fantastic, colorful special effects and CGI delight. The humor is kind of raunchy, but not out and out vulgar, so parents, take that into consideration. And…be sure to stay through the credits for hints of things to come. There definitely will be another.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Foragers Table
300 West 22nd Street, New York

Foragers Table is the four-year-old extension of the Foragers Market on the corner of 22nd Street and 8th Avenue in Chelsea. All food is delivered fresh daily from farms in the Hudson Valley and you can definitely taste it when you dine there. 


Outside, what looks like two gigantic floor-to-ceiling windows on the outside framed subtly by slate gray wood are really six panels each of double-paned glass joined by a flexible polymer. Inside, everything is simple and a bit rustic inside the single room dining area, with 15 to 20 bare-topped tables with votive candles; a bar with extra seating that takes up the wall opposite the windows; and simple globe lights shining from the unfinished ceiling. The old-fashioned wooden chairs are comfortable enough and had sufficient support for me and, by the window, there was ample light.

Jill, my server, brought the drinks and food menus. I ordered the London Calling Cocktail – Breuckelen glorious gin, ginger beer, Cointreau, lemon/limeade, bitters – an interesting mix of many unusual flavors. I sipped it while Jill cited the soft-shelled crab special and the beef and lamb entrée specials, leaving me to decide.

Another server brought the most delicious, fresh focaccia I’ve had in a long time. It didn’t need butter or tapenade and wasn’t served with any. It had a nice, fluffy texture, was a little bit salty, and was browned golden on top.

The Foragers Farm Salad – sweet gem lettuce, heirloom mix, sunflower sprouts, olive dirt in a sherry vinaigrette – while not aesthetically presented (just simply piled in a white bowl), was amazing. I’ve had edible flowers before but the sunflower sprouts were a delight. The dressing was understated and let the salad greens stand out with an olive-salty accent.

The wine I chose was the 2014 Gothic vineyards Nevermore, a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, Oregon. It’s a beautiful deep ruby red, medium bodied wine with light tannins that proved itself worthy of all my dishes.

The bright green English Pea Soup was a good one. The bowl was set with pea hash, sour cream and a thin slice of prosciutto in the center and the server poured a soup that could have been the pride of the Emerald City around it. I love English peas for their sweet, bold taste, unlike the flat-tasting ones in the canned goods aisle. Jill was excellent with timing. No two dishes arrived simultaneously. 


The main course, the Long Island Duck Breast, came with a spiced honey glaze and was served over wild rice, tatsoi (aka spinach mustard), fiddlehead ferns, ramps and morels. The duck slices were medium rare, tender and juicy, with a crisp skin and just enough fat to make them decadent.

As I was enjoying my meal, the manager arrived at my table. We had a short talk on European travel and he asked me if I was ready for dessert. I mentioned that I love ripe cheeses and he helped me choose three cheeses: a firm, buttery white, a crumbly cheddar, and a bleu.

Jill brought me a mug of Earl Grey Tea, and I asked if they had any good sipping tequilas. She listed three or four, mentioning there’s one nobody ever orders. That caught my attention. The Chinaco Reposado Tequila, an 11-year old luxury tequila made from 100 percent blue agave, has a smooth, woody flavor with none of the bite of younger tequilas, a perfect after dinner drink. I felt sorry for anyone who didn’t order it.

The business card from Foragers Table primarily advertises the market (which I have visit soon). If the produce is as wonderful as the dishes made from them, I can’t wait. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Celluloid Club Celebrates Five Years

The Celluloid Club started about seven years ago as an email group of Ed's friends. Four times a month, he'd send out what evolved into our TCM TiVo Alerts, the website's most popular feature. The list, as it still does today, gave a rundown of what films were on TCM with letter grades and summaries.

David offered his opinions and saw numerous films recommended by Ed and some that he was told to avoid. While David watched movies since childhood, his passion for cinema was greatly increased by Ed's lists. For a while, David was watching 40 movies a month. The email exchanges between the two – and others, including Steve – turned into lively discussions.

Steve would send his weekly Dinner and a Movie reviews to the group, which also generated plenty of interest. For those of us who weren't regular moviegoers, the information about the latest releases were a way for us to decide what we'd see and what strange foods Steve ate that week.

After exchanging emails about cinema for about two years, the three of us thought rather than share our passion for film with a small group of people, we would share it with the world. And that is how The Celluloid Club website came to be. During these five years, our readership has grown beyond our wildest imaginations.

On May 5, 2012, we published our first article: one of our TCM TiVo Alerts, which included Ed and David disagreeing about Bringing Up Baby (neither has changed their mind four years later). We've done about 250 of them during these past four years. Equally impressive is during that time, Steve has written more than 250 Dinner and a Movie reviews.

As we approach our 1,000th article, we want to thank our readers, particularly the longtime followers who found us at the beginning and have stayed with us ever since. These five years have been an adventure and a lot of fun. Below are links to some of our favorites from the past 12 months. Once you're on our website, feel free to look around. 

Ed, David and Steve












Monday, May 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for May 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

TCM SPOTLIGHT: CREATURE FEATURES

As readers are no doubt aware, Dennis Miller has been hosting this month’s Spotlight. I like Dennis Miller, but not as a horror/sci-fi host. It’s sad watching him read the idiot cards and pretend to be something of an expert. Here’s an idea, TCM. Why not get a real expert instead of merely plugging another celebrity in as a host? One of the directions TCM has taken that annoys me no end is the use of celebrities as hosts. They know nothing, except how to pose. TCM needs a regular host for its Underground and special horror/sci-fi showings. Hey TCM, it’s not as if there’s no one out there. How about Michael H. Price, Gary Don Rhodes, Michael Weldon, Gary Svehla, Tom Weaver, John McCarty, Bill Warren, Danny Peary, Philip J. Riley and Gregory William Mank, for starters? Hell, why not spend the money you delegated for Miller and hire Stephen King? Remember him? I’m tired of the station dumbing us down. It’s supposed to be a channel that promotes movies. Such promotion includes knowledge, and celebrities are, for the most part, hired for their faces.

If TCM had been pursuing its current policy when it began we might never have had the wonderful Robert Osborne. Nor, probably, would we have the delightful Ben Mankiewicz. Think about it. Also remember that the best season of The Essentials was the first, when Bob had the informative Molly Haskell as co-host.


May 18: Start the evening at 8 pm with the excellent sci-fi classic and Red scare film, Them! (1954). Then follow it at 9:45 with the Americanized version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), a sanitized version of the 1954 Gojira with Raymond Burr talking to the backs of actor’s heads. At 11:30 pm it’s the classic It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), starring Kenneth Tobey, Donald Curtis, and the drop dead gorgeous Faith Domergue, who probably connived a lot of us young males that watched it to take an interest in science. Apart from Faith, the highlight of the film was the giant octopus, created by master animator Ray Harryhausen. As the executive producer was “Jungle” Sam Katzman, one of the side joys of the flick is to count the number of legs on the octopus. Experts disagree as to whether there were five or six legs on the beast. Sam certainly wasn’t going to pay for eight. 

At 1 am comes the intelligently done, though budget challenged, The Giant Behemoth (1959), director Eugene Lourie’s remake of his The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Gene Evans and Andre Morrell (World’s Luckiest Man: he was married to the delectable Joan Greenwood) are on the track of a giant dinosaur who has somehow become radioactive. The animation is by the heralded Willis O’Brien (King Kong) who, at this point in his career was dogged by limited budgets for his wonderfully constructed stop-motion creations. 

At 2:30 am we go straight to the ridiculous. The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues (1955). A mad scientist has a pet monster that lurks in the shallows attacking unwary scuba divers and fishermen who get too close to his lair. The monster soon takes a back seat to a script filled with secret experiments, kinky characters, espionage, threats and paranoia that are all linked to a mysterious beam of radioactive light emanating from the ocean floor. To quote critic Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Spies, an underwater death ray, and a laughable puppet monster are dispersed by hero Kent Taylor. It was co-billed with Corman’s The Day the World Ended, making that movie look great by comparison.” If that doesn’t make you want to watch, nothing does.

Finally, at 4 am, it’s a different sort of monster from producer Ivan Tors. The Magnetic Monster (1953) stars Richard Carlson and King Donovan as investigators from the government’s Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI). They are on the track of a radioactive element that could destroy the world, the creation of scientist Leonard Mudie in his atomic laboratory located above a hardware store(!). Dangerously unstable, it must be “fed” larger and larges quantities of electric energy to remain stable. Otherwise – Boom! The massive top secret subterranean “deltatron” used to try to stop the monster is lifted from the 1934 German production of Gold from UFA. Despite the budget shortcuts it remains one of the most intelligent of the ‘50s sci-fi flicks. Director Herbert L. Strock, who is uncredited, took over from original director Curt Siodmak after Tors fired him.

May 25: The Spotlight closes out, beginning at 8 pm with the superb and underrated Tarantula (1955). It’s notable for being one of John Agar’s best performances. Mara Corday and Leo G. Carroll co-star. At 9:30 it’s the subpar Return of the Fly (1959), with Vincent Price, followed by The Cosmic Monster (1958) at 11:15 pm. (Read our essay on it here.)

At 12:45 am it’s Roger Corman’s ridiculously entertaining The Wasp Woman (1960), starring the unjustly forgotten Susan Cabot. At 2:00 am it’s the overrated Swamp Thing (1982). And to close out the festival, it’s Texas radio mogul Gordon McClendon’s dismal attempt at making product for his drive-in theaters chain, The Killer Shrews (1959). We recommend the MST 3000 version of the film instead. It’s way more interesting.

EDWARD YANG

May 21: At 2:00 am comes A Brighter Summer Day (1991) from the Shanghai-born director (born Te-Chang Yang), a JD class inspired by a real-life 1961 incident in which a 14-year-old Taiwanese boy murdered his girlfriend in a public park. In addition to a multitude of actors – there are over 100 speaking parts – the film is rife with pop culture references from both East and West including nods to Citizen Kane, Rebel without a Cause, and Rio Lobo. It’s quite lengthy – 3 hours and 57 minutes – but it’s one of those films that grab the viewer and never let go. I saw it on the large screen and the minutes just seemed to fly by. Yang is a master at portraying Taiwan’s underworld and this film is testament to that mastery. 

PRE-CODE

May 17: Myrna Loy is a lusty gypsy who breaks up a family in The Squall (1929) at 1:30 pm. Following at 3:15 Wheeler and Woosley are tramps turned fortune tellers in The Cuckoos (1930). Also starring W&W regular Dorothy Lee.

At 9:30 pm, it’s Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee in Josef Von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, a rarely seen Paramount Pre-Code production. 

At 2:45 am it’s the superb Of Human Bondage (1934) starring Leslie Howard with Bette Davis in the role that brought her stardom. Following at 4:15 am, Frances Dee returns, along with Billie Burke and Ginger Rogers, in Finishing School (1934). 


Finally, at the late hour of 5:45 am comes a real Pre-Code treat: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ann Dvorak and Lee Tracy in William Wellman’s Love is a Racket (1932) from Warner Bros. Fairbanks plays a rather callous Broadway columnist romancing Frances Dee while racing around the city looking for fodder for his gossip column. Things take a nasty turn when gangster Lyle Talbot buys up Dee’s shopping debts with an eye to making her his mistress. It’s up to Doug to prevent this from reaching the tabloids while he figures a way out of Mary’s fix. Lee Tracy is Doug’s co-worker, and Ann Dvorak is a young actress Doug promotes in his columns.

May 22: Ann Harding marries poor writer Laurence Olivier and lives to regret it in Westward Passage, a 1932 drama from RKO. Check out the mustache on Olivier. It makes him look like poor man’s Ronald Colman. Though the film’s not very good (it lost $250,000 for RKO, a huge sum in the Depression) it is rarely screened.

May 26: A triple-feature, beginning at 6 am with Bessie Love and Raymond Hackett in the 1929 MGM show biz comedy-drama, The Girl in the Show. At 8:30 am, Anita Page and June Walker are dedicated nurses serving in World War I in MGM’s gritty, excellent War Nurse, from 1930. As it’s an excellent film that rarely gets shown, we recommend you record it for later pleasurable viewing. You won’t be disappointed. Finally, at 10 am, Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone and Phillips Holmes star in the thoughtful Men Must Fight (MGM, 1933), a prophetic tale of a mother trying to keep her son out of war in 1940(!). Sounds like the story of Neville Chamberlain. The film also predicts the mainstream popularity of television. By all means, catch this one!

May 30: Tuna fisherman Edward G. Robinson marries wayward Zita Johann only to see her fall for his best friend Richard Arlen in Tiger Shark, from director Howard Hawks and Warner Bros. in 1932. Worth catching for Robinson’s awesome performance.

May 31: Poor orphan girl Jean Parker and reform school runaway Tom Brown are mistreated by farmer Arthur Byron in 1934’s Two Alone from RKO.

MEMORIAL DAY MARATHON

May on TCM means the annual Memorial Day Marathon, saluting movies about war and our reaction to war. Though once again nothing new is added to this year’s schedule, there are still several favorites being run for our enjoyment.

May 26: Begin at 8 pm with John Wayne playing pioneer aviator Frank “Spig” Wead in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (MGM, 1957). What’s a Memorial Day Marathon without the Duke and Ford? Then, at 10 pm, we get to see what World War I hero Alvin York would have been like if he was Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (WB, 1941).

May 27: Samuel Fuller’s Korean War masterpiece, The Steel Helmet, airs at 4:30 pm. At 8 pm, it’s Andy Griffith, Nick Adams and Don Knotts in the classic service comedy No Time for Sergeants (WB, 1958), followed by Henry Fonda, Jimmy Cagney and Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts (WB, 1955) at 10:30.


May 28: Begin the day with Conrad Veidt in a dual role in Nazi Agent (MGM, 1942). Then stay tuned for Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine and Raymond Massey in Hotel Berlin (1945), Warner Bros.’ answer to MGM’s Grand Hotel. At 4:15 Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane star in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (Universal, 1942). At 6:15 Humphrey Bogart closes out the afternoon, along with Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s Across the Pacific (WB, 1942).  

The evening is highlighted by two superb films. First up at 8 pm is Twelve O’Clock High (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1948), a psychological drama about the pressure of bomber combat missions over Europe starring Gregory Peck, Gary Merrill, Dean Jagger, and Hugh Marlowe. It’s followed at 10:30 pm by the sublime and engaging docudrama Tora, Tora, Tora (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1970) as the story of the Pearl Harbor attack is told from both American and Japanese sides. With an all-star cast including Martin Balsam, So Yamamura, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotten, Tatsuya Mihashi, E. G. Marshall, Takahiro Tamura, and James Whitmore.

May 29

An entertaining triple-feature begins at 12:00 pm with Clint Eastwood starring in Kelly’s Heroes (MGM, 1970), based on the true story of a group of GIs out to rob a bank in occupied France containing 14,000 bars of gold. Originally a subtle anti-war film, Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton were forced to make cuts by their studio, MGM, that resulted in a different film from the one they originally made. It wasn’t until 1999 that the same plot of soldiers taking leave of a war to find hidden gold was employed for the movie Three Kings, which was not cut by the studio. 

At 2:30 pm follows an adaptation of Alistair McLean’s, Where Eagles Dare (MGM, 1968), starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as part of a team of commandos parachuted into the Bavarian Alps to rescue an Allied officer held prisoner at a castle-fortress known as the “Castle of the Eagle.”

Finally, at 5:15 pm comes Robert Aldrich’s tale of convicts turned commandos: The Dirty Dozen (MGM, 1967), starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and a host of other slob actors. 

At 8 pm the emphasis shifts to submarine warfare beginning with Cary Grant and John Garfield in Destination Tokyo (WB, 1943). At 12:30 am U.S. destroyer commander Robert Mitchum and U-Boat Commander Curd Jurgens engage in a deadly game of chess in The Enemy Below (20th Century Fox, 1957). The film was remade in a 1966 episode of the classic Star Trek, where Kirk battles it out with a cloaked Romulan warship. It was our first look at the Romulans and their resemblance to Vulcans.

PSYCHOTRONIA AND THE B-HIVE

May 17: Frances Dee stars run producer Val Lewton’s psychotronic adaptation of Jane Eyre, I Walked With a Zombie (RKO, 1943), at 11:30 pm. She is a nurse in the Caribbean who resorts to voodoo to cure her patient, even though she is head over heels for the woman’s husband. With the always entertaining Sir Lancelot.

May 18: With water being a precious commodity, Robert Urich heads a band of intergalactic buccaneers after giant ice cubes in Ice Pirates (MGM, 1984) at 10:30 am. Also starring Mary Crosby, Anjelica Huston, the venerable John Carradine, and Ron Perlman.


May 19: A mini-marathon of films about The Whistler begins at 6 am with, appropriately enough, The Whistler (1944). One of 8 B-movies made by Columbia and based on a popular radio series, the thread linking the plots of the series is an unseen narrator who introduces the stories, just as he did on the radio show. In this film, Richard Dix is Earl Conrad, a man who believes his wife has died in an accident and is badly depressed as a result. He chooses to end it all by hiring hit man J. Carrol Naish to kill him. But the plot thickens when the wife turns out to be alive (she was being held by the Japanese on a Pacific island, of all things). Dix, however, can't find the hit man to call off his own murder. Besides the narrator, Dix was the only star who appeared in all of the films except the last, alternating between playing victims and villains.

At 7:30 am comes The Power of The Whistler (1945). Once again, Richard Dix stars as an amnesiac who is helped by kindly Janis Carter as he tries to regain his memory. With her help he finally does regain it – and it turns out that he is actually a homicidal maniac! A great entry in the series.

At 9 am it’s Voice of the Whistler (1945), with Richard Dix as a wealthy industrialist who, on doctor's orders to take a long rest, assumes a different identity and goes to live in a remote seaside spot in Maine with his nurse in tow. Revealing his true identity to her, he offers to leave her everything in his will if she will marry him and stay with him for what he believes are the final months of his life. But complications arise when Dix falls for the nurse and returns to health. Now he comes up with a plan to murder her intern boyfriend, who expects to marry her after the rich man's death. Directed by William Castle.

Following at 10:30 comes another Castle-directed entry, The Mysterious Intruder (1945). Elderly music shop owner Edward Stillwell (Paul Burns) shows up at the office of detective Don Gale (Richard Dix) to inform him he's seeking Elora Lund (Pamela Blake). Not only has she been missing for seven years, ever since her mother died when Elora was only 14 years old, but Elora is now rich, though she doesn't know it. Stillwell, for his part, won't tell Gale how he knows it. To find out just how Elora came by her wealth, Gale hires actress named Freda Hanson (Helen Mowery) to pose as Elora, figuring that Stillwell won't be able to tell the difference between Eloras. He's right, but unfortunately, before Stillwell can tell Elora about her newfound wealth, he's murdered and Gale has now become a suspect.

At noon Dix is an insane artist in The Secret of The Whistler (1946). His wealthy wife, Edith, catches him in an affair with Kay Morrell, one of his models. After Edith asks for a divorce he poisons her and shortly after marries Kay. Kay, suspecting he killed his first wife, discovers Edith’s diary and learns the truth. Stick around for the great twist ending.

At 1:30 pm comes the final entry in the series, The Return of The Whistler (1948). Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, young civil engineer Ted Nichols (Michael Duane) is engaged to widow Alice Dupres Barkeley (Lenore Aubert), when she suddenly disappears. The detective he hires (Richard Lane) to find her is actually working for the husband’s family. They have abducted her and are scheming to obtain the fortune she stands to inherit. Dix is not in this one and it’s just as well, as this is the weakest of the series. Not a good way to go out.


At 3 pm we now switch to another B-series made by Columbia and based on a radio show, namely, I Love a Mystery. In the 1945 debut film by that name, detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) at the A-1 Detective Agency are hired by socialite Jefferson Monk (George Macready), who is receiving strange messages threatening his life from an Asian secret society. He comes to believe that he will be decapitated in three days and Packard and Long must think fast to prevent his death. 

At 4:30 it’s The Devil’s Mask (1946). After a shrunken head is discovered in the wreckage of a downed plane Jack and Doc are drawn into the mystery of a missing museum curator and his psychologically damaged daughter (Anita Louise), whose undiagnosed Electra Complex may have driven her to murder. This is an intriguing film with great cinematography by Henry Freulich, who has an eye for bottomless shadows. Though the film promised great things to come for Columbia, the studio abruptly pulled the plug after only one more entry in the series. 

And that entry is The Unknown (1946), which is airing at 6 pm. This old dark house whodunit takes place over a span of years with happening before Jack and Doc show up. Rachel Martin (Karen Morley) is engaged to James Wetherford (Robert Kellard); the engagement arranged by her mother, Phoebe (Helen Freeman). At the party Rachel is discovered in the study with Richard Arnold (Robert Wilcox). She reveals that they have been secretly married for several months. When her father pulls a gun and orders Richard to leave, he and Richard struggle for the gun and the father is accidentally killed. To avoid scandal, Phoebe has her sons and Rachel help her entomb Martin's body in the fireplace and forbids them ever to mention the occurrence. As time passes Rachel becomes mentally unbalanced and gives birth to a baby girl, whom Phoebe immediately has sent away. Years later, the child, now a grown woman named Nina (Jeff Donnell), returns to the home where she was born for the reading of Phoebe's will. Nina has never met any of her relatives, was reared by a succession of teachers paid for by a mysterious benefactor. Accompanied by private detectives Jack Packard and Doc Long, who have been hired by her benefactor, Nina finds the family has several closets containing skeletons, including a surprise appearance by the deceased before they track down a killer.  

May 20: Casino blackjack dealer Gary Lockwood plans to knock over an armored car with his gang in They Came to Rob Las Vegas (WB, 1969) at 8:15 am. Elke Sommer and Jack Palance co-star.

At 10:30 reformed thief Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) uncovers a Nazi spy ring in Meet Boston Blackie (Columbia, 1941).

At noon Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) gets caught up in a murder while seeking help from Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) in the highly entertaining The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Universal, 1976).

A crashed spaceship contains a quickly growing monster from Venus in 20 Million Miles to Earth (Columbia, 1957). William Hopper and Joan Taylor star. The creature came from the imagination of master animator Ray Bradbury. Race car driver Elvis tries to outrun the beautiful tax auditor (Nancy Sinatra) out to settle his account in Speedway (MGM, 1968).

May 22: It’s a night of hagspoiltation, beginning at 8 pm with the classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (WB, 1962), with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, followed by Tallulah Bankhead tormenting Stefanie Powers in Die! Die! My Darling (Columbia/Hammer, 1965) at 10:30 pm. At 12:30 am it’s Joan again, reaching new lows in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964). Then, at 2:15 am, Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters sell themselves for a paycheck in What’s the Matter With Helen? (UA, 1971). Finally, Bette Davis is a psycho child caregiver in The Nanny (Twentieth Century Fox/Hammer, 1965) at 4:15 am.

May 30: One of the films being shown in a day-long tribute to director Howard Hawks is the classic The Thing From Another World (RKO, 1951). But Hawks did not direct it, he produced it. The directorial credit went to his film editor, Christian Nyby. Although some say Hawks actually directed it, they would be wrong.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for May 15-22

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
May 15–May 22

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

ADVISE AND CONSENT (May 16, 3:45 pm): This 1962 film about the confirmation process of a secretary of state nominee (Henry Fonda) was ahead of its time. Having the president (Franchot Tone) dying while the proceedings occur is somewhat overdramatic, but the storyline rings true with politics of later years that saw and still see numerous presidential nominees have their entire lives scrutinized just for the sake of partisanship and not for the betterment of the country. It's dialogue heavy, but the dialogue is so good that it elevates the quality of the film. Add the excellent cast – Fonda, Lew Ayres, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, and Burgess Meredith (in a small but memorable role) – and great directing by Otto Preminger and you get a film that's interesting, intelligent and compelling.

BONNIE AND CLYDE (May 19, 10:15 pm): A groundbreaking film in terms of style, content and graphic violence from 1967, which I consider to be among the two or three finest year in cinematic history. The leads – Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – are outstanding in their roles as the famed outlaw duo oozing passion, raw sexuality, violence, charisma and charm at every turn. The supporting cast – notably Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons – are equally strong. The movie's violence goes from almost comic to intensely graphic. The final scene in which the two are shot dozens of times is outstanding, particularly the quick looks of horror Beatty and Dunaway give each other when they realize they're about to die a very brutal death. It conveys more emotion and intensity than almost anything you'll seen in film.

ED’S BEST BETS:

BLOOD SIMPLE (May 15, 12:00 am): The first film directed by the prodigious Coen brothers, this is a great noir about a Texas bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a shady private detective (M. Emmett Walsh) to get photographic evidence of his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz), one of his bartenders. It's when he hires the detective to kill them that things go dreadfully wrong. And when things go wrong in a Coen Brothers film they never follow the usual route, which makes it a film to catch.

BELLE DU JOUR (May 19, 2:00 am): Catherine Deneuve is outstanding as a self-loathing housewife who turns tricks to fill the emptiness in her life and live out her sexual fantasies. As for the film itself, it’s yet another exercise by Bunuel in surrealism and it hasn’t aged well over they years. It can best be seen as a historic exercise, much like Birth of a Nation, rather than as a groundbreaking film. Watch it for Deneuve and how she projects sexiness on screen in a manner much beyond what most other screen beauties can reach. Also watch it for Bunuel’s use of color – for his first color film, he uses the shades like a master.

WE DISAGREE ON ... GILDA (May 20, 8:00 pm)

ED: B. This tale of intrigue and romance has some resemblance to the later – and superior – Notorious. However, unlike the Hitchcock film, Gilda is a noir. What mars the film for me is, given the unpleasantness and perversity going on throughout the film, it ends on an optimistic note that seems to come out of nowhere. I think it’s a rather heavy-handed attempt to distract us from the obvious homoerotic relationship between Johnny and Mundson, since Johnny’s devotion to his employer feels more romantic than either of their relationships with Gilda. For her part, Gilda’s sexuality, blatant as it is, is more directed towards the audience, as evidenced in the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” number. What helps the movie is the performances of George Macready as the sleazy Mundson and Rita Hayworth, who gives a larger-then-life performance as the title character. The film is also populated by a group of tried-and-true character actors such as Joseph Calleia, Stephen Geray, Joe Sawyer, Gerald Mohr, and Donald Douglas. And has any character made an entrance quite like Gilda and her hair flip?


DAVID: A. Rita Hayworth is one of cinema's greatest femme fatale in the title role of this 1946 film noir classic. She incredibly gorgeous, and her form-fitting dresses and how she is filmed only adds to her sex appeal. Glenn Ford had a number of memorable roles in his career, but his portrayal of Johnny Farrell, a down-on-his-luck hustler in this film, is among his best. George Macready is strong as Ballin Mundson, a casino owner who also happens to be working with the Nazis. Little does anyone know that Gilda, married to Mundson, had a torrid affair with Farrell years earlier, and the two haven't resolved their feelings. In this role, Hayworth could have chemistry with a rock. Fortunately, Ford has considerably more talent than said rock and the two sizzle on the screen. The cinematography, Hayworth's performance and the dynamics between the three main characters makes this a classic even though the plot could use some assistance.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.