Monday, September 17, 2018

Book Review: That Was Entertainment: The Golden Age of the MGM Musical

MGM musicals were among my first great movie loves. At a young age I was captivated by the picture book THE MGM YEARS, with its glossy photos of some of MGM's greatest films, and I began searching for the movies I read about. Some of them were shown in Los Angeles revival theaters, and I was fortunate that my parents were more than happy to take me to see them; others I saw on commercial television in those pre-cable, pre-VHS days.

The books THE MGM STOCK COMPANY and THE MGM STORY, as well as the release of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974), cemented my passion for classic films in general and MGM musicals in particular. MGM musicals have been a source of endless joy for me over many years of movie viewing.

I was thus happy to learn of a new book on the MGM musical, THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT: THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MGM MUSICAL. It's a history by Bernard F. Dick, whose previous books include biographies of Loretta Young and Claudette Colbert; it's been published by the University Press of Mississippi.

Particularly given my love for MGM musicals, I found the book an enjoyable read. THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT presents biographical material on some of MGM's greatest talents, starting with producer Arthur Freed, and simultaneously also surveys MGM's musicals in considerable detail. For me the book was a sort of "walk down memory lane" of favorite films and the many great talents who worked at the studio.

Judy Garland is the focus of multiple chapters, looking at her films with Mickey Rooney and then the progression of her career at the studio throughout the 1940s. Other chapters focus on topics such as MGM's original musicals, film versions of Broadway shows, Esther Williams' "swim" films, and musical revues. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on MGM's many "biopic" musicals.

I did have some reservations about the writing style and feel the book would have benefited from an editor able to help shape the facts into a smoother read. I was impressed at how much of Arthur Freed's early history, a century or more ago, the author was able to piece together, but at times it was difficult to follow the narrative. As an example, the author theorizes as to Freed's location at the time his father committed suicide in 1917; he then goes on to discuss Freed becoming head of the family, his WWI service, and his brother dying in France in 1918. After that the author returns to 1917 and describes the father's suicide at greater length. I found the non-chronological presentation challenging to follow, which was disappointing as the material itself is valuable.

Similarly, an introductory paragraph on MGM's 1930s musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy initially jumps all the way forward to a specific critique of their last film, I MARRIED AN ANGEL (1942), then backs way up to discuss MacDonald's pre-MGM career, describing scenes from her Paramount film ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932). All in one single paragraph! Similarly, the paragraph introducing the chapter on original MGM musicals begins with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) winning the Best Picture Oscar but ends up being mainly about the later BRIGADOON (1954).

The author obviously researched and knows his material, but it feels as though he struggled a bit on how to wrap his arms around the voluminous information he had to share and guide the readers through it in a consistently coherent manner. Trimming out some excess background not germane to the topic could have been part of the solution, such as a paragraph on the SUSPENSE radio show which works its way into a look at Garland's career or a detailed two-paragraph description of the recent Broadway production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, dropped into the chapter on original MGM musicals.

I felt that some of the later chapters, for instance on composer biopics, Jane Powell, and Esther Williams, were smoother reads. Also on the positive side, the depth of detail and tendency to dart from point to point make the book feel like chatting with an old friend about a favorite topic, excited to compare notes and cram everything into the conversation! I didn't always agree with the author's thoughts but found it interesting to compare opinions. As someone with a lifelong love for MGM musicals, spending time reading and thinking about them is always a pleasure.

As is the case with many books in today's publishing environment, there was a need for some additional copy editing; several minor goofs crept in. They weren't particularly important but I mention that in the interest of a thorough review. A more glaring error: The introduction states that Betty Garrett sang "I Can Cook, Too" in ON THE TOWN (1949); that song is not in the film.

THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT is 253 pages long, including footnotes and index. There is a nice insert of 16 glossy pages with photos from MGM musicals.

Thanks to the University Press of Mississippi for providing a review copy of this book.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Country (1984) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

COUNTRY (1984), a fine film about struggling farmers, was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber.

I saw COUNTRY on a big screen when it was first released; I remember there were two films about farm families released close in time, the other being THE RIVER (1984) with Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. I found COUNTRY the better of the two films.

Revisiting it for the first time in decades, I still found COUNTRY a powerful and moving film, if not always an easy watch. Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard, who were at the time also a couple off the screen, play Jewell and Gil Ivy, farmers struggling to stay in business on land which has been in her family for over a century.

It's a hard life, yet it also seems to be a good one for the family, which includes Jewell's father (Wilford Brimley) and their children (Levi L. Knebel, Theresa Graham, and Stephanie-Stacy Poyner). It can be dangerous, as they experience as they try to get a crop in ahead of a storm, but there is satisfaction in working together and being part of the local community. They have a warm roof over their heads, food on the table, and each other.

Then the FHA starts calling in their loans on short notice, essentially planning to remove them from their farm in a month's time with no recourse. Gil falls apart while Jewell tries to find a way out of financial disaster.

As I mentioned, it can be difficult watching the family struggle, and they're also strongly impacted by a neighbor's financial difficulty. Yet there's also great beauty to be found in the film's depiction of family and a community; the cinematography by Roger Sherman Jr. and David M. Walsh is glorious, and there's wonderful authenticity in the details, from the very 1980s fake wood office paneling to the dishes in the Ivys' kitchen.

Lange's Jewell is a force of nature, cooking and organizing the neighbors with her baby girl on her hip; anyone who's ever struggled with a serious problem will relate to her as she sits up late with a calculator or cries when she sees her children all asleep in bed together. Lange received a Best Actress nomination for the role.

Shepard is moving as a good husband and father who falls into despair and temporarily loses his way, and Brimley gives his usual fine performance, saying things out of anger himself as he watches the family farm slipping away. Young Knebel and Graham are also effective as imperfect but ultimately loving children coping with a crisis they don't really understand.

The movie was directed by Richard Pearce from a script by William D. Wittliff. It runs 105 minutes.

The cast also includes Matt Clark as an FHA employee who eventually can no longer stomach his job.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG. There is some bawdy discussion near the start of the film, and a character commits suicide. Ultimately there are positive themes about a family working through problems and neighbors helping neighbors.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a nice widescreen print. The disc includes the trailer and a commentary track by Lee Gambin.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Down Three Dark Streets (1954) - A ClassicFlix Blu-ray Review

The highly entertaining "docu-noir" DOWN THREE DARK STREETS (1954) was released this spring as a restored Blu-ray by ClassicFlix. I enjoyed catching up with it today!

One of the stars of DOWN THREE DARK STREETS is Ruth Roman, who starred in another ClassicFlix restoration, 5 STEPS TO DANGER (1957). I loved that one and think DOWN THREE DARK STREETS might be even more fun. Honestly, I love them both; they're not classics but are simply the kind of well-made, entertaining crime films I really like to watch.

I first saw DOWN THREE DARK STREETS in 2013, and I think I enjoyed it even more this time. It's exactly my kind of movie, watching hard-working federal agents trying to crack cases in interesting 1950s Los Angeles locations.

FBI Agent Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) is working on three cases when he's killed in the line of duty. Fellow agent John "Rip" Ripley (Broderick Crawford) takes over the investigations, which include a widow (Roman) being blackmailed for life insurance money; a woman (Martha Hyer) being watched in hopes she'll lead the feds to her murderer boyfriend (Joe Bassett); and a man (Gene Reynolds) framed for a crime, who's afraid to talk to the police until his blind wife (Marisa Pavan) is threatened.

Reynolds and Pavan, incidentally, are still with us at the ages of 85 and 86, respectively.

The earnest praise heaped on the FBI by the film's narrator (William Woodson) is frankly rather charming, though it's also bittersweet viewed from today, knowing that some of the agency's top officials would later abuse the public's trust. Some of the intensive manual research done by the FBI in those pre-computer days is shown in the film and is truly impressive.

I just reviewed THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950), a crime film with excellent San Francisco locations; DOWN THREE DARK STREETS is the equivalent of that one in terms of providing fascinating looks at 1950s Los Angeles. My favorite thing in the film is the long-gone L.A. subway -- the Los Angeles Inter-Urban Electric Railway -- and I also loved seeing an Orbach's, a department store I remember from my childhood. There's also some shooting at the base of the Hollywood sign!

My only disappointment regarding this film is the early disappearance from the movie of the likeable Tobey (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD). It was necessary for story reasons but I wish they'd bumped off someone else and left him in the movie!

The cast includes Casey Adams, William Schallert, Harlan Warde, William Johnstone, and Claude Akins.

The screenplay was by Gordon and Mildred Gordon, based on their novel. They also wrote the screenplay for EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962), in which, curiously, Glenn Ford also played an FBI agent named John "Rip" Ripley.

DOWN THREE DARK STREETS was directed by Arnold Laven and filmed by Joseph Biroc. It runs 85 well-paced minutes.

The Blu-ray is an outstanding restored widescreen print. There are no extras, but this lovely print of a fun movie is a recommended "must have" for fans of the genre.

DOWN THREE DARK STREETS is also available from ClassicFlix on DVD.

Thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950) - A Flicker Alley Blu-ray Review

Film noir fans have a real treat in store with the new Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD release of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950).

Flicker Alley's release, in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA, is of UCLA's brand-new restoration of this terrific film. I first saw it last year at the Noir City Hollywood Festival, and then I enjoyed seeing the new UCLA print this year at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.

This is a tremendously fun film, and anyone who has seen the Flicker Alley releases of TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949) and WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950) knows what a fine job was done with those sets. THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF is an equally attractive release, from case cover art to disc contents, and the print is superb.

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF is San Francisco Police Lt. Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb), who's having a fling with wealthy Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt). Lois believes her husband has plans to kill her, so she shoots him first...and then Ed makes his big mistake, deciding he'll help Lois avoid any complications by dumping hubby's body in the San Francisco Bay.

Needless to say, the complications for Ed and Lois are actually only just beginning...especially with Ed's inquisitive, observant kid brother Andy (John Dall), himself a newly minted police detective, asking way too many questions.

I really love this film, with its unusual choices for lead actors, and I particularly enjoy Wyatt's highly entertaining, over-the-top performance as the femme fatale of the piece. TV's future "perfect mom" alternates manipulative whining with nerves of steel, and her final kiss-off to the rueful, helpless Cobb as she walks away in their last scene is priceless.

Dall is appealing as the man who's increasingly dismayed as all trails seem to lead back to his brother; this was released the same year as his classic GUN CRAZY (1950). Lisa Howard, who was married to the film's director, Felix E. Feist, and later became a journalist, plays Andy's artist bride.

This fast-paced 81-minute film was filmed in black and white by Russell Harlan. The movie's appeal is accentuated by many outstanding San Francisco locations shot by Harlan, with the final, extremely memorable sequence taking place in Fort Point, years before it was immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock in VERTIGO (1958).

This is a combination set which includes both Blu-ray and DVD discs. The extras include two featurettes, a longer 22-minute discussion of the film's production and a short but nifty look at the movie's locations; a restored version of the original theatrical trailer; and a glossy 24-page souvenir booklet, which has terrific photos.

I especially enjoyed the locations featurette; my own 2017 photos of the movie's Fort Point location may be found here. (Incidentally, there's a terrific photo spread of Fort Point on the inside of the case.) It was fun to learn that while most of the location shooting was done in San Francisco, the exterior of Jane Wyatt's home was in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles.

I do wish that this set had followed in the footsteps of TOO LATE FOR TEARS and WOMAN ON THE RUN and also provided a commentary track, but other than wishing for that, this is a terrific top-drawer release which is a must for anyone who loves film noir.

Thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray/DVD set.

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF may be purchased at the Flicker Alley website as well as through retailers such as Amazon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Quick Preview of TCM in November

Turner Classic Movies has posted the online preview of its November schedule!

In a move which is sure to please her many fans, Glenda Farrell has been chosen by TCM as the November Star of the Month. Four dozen films in which Farrell appeared will be shown on Mondays in November, starting in the daytime hours and continuing into prime time.

The October Noir Alley movies are THE SNIPER (1952), THE THREAT (1949), THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), and THE KILLING (1956).

Saturday morning programming will feature Whip Wilson Westerns, along with continuing Popeye cartoons and the Saint mystery series from October.

Joel McCrea will receive an eight-film daytime tribute on November 6th, the day after his birthday. The late Mary Carlisle (pictured at right), who recently died at the age of 104, will receive a primetime tribute on November 15th.

Also honored with multifilm tributes in November: George Sanders, Eleanor Powell, Mark Sandrich, Jane Russell, Will Geer, and the Sherman Brothers.

November themes will include pioneering women filmmakers, cattle drives, Veterans Day, and films with "wild" in the title. Thanksgiving features a great lineup of family-friendly films including Universal's MA AND PA KETTLE (1949). The TCM Spotlight is titled "The Art of Casting."

I'll have a more detailed look at TCM in November posted here around Halloween.

In the meantime, Dean Martin continues as the current Star of the Month for September, and Rita Hayworth's centennial will be celebrated when she is the Star of the Month in October.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tonight's Movie: As the Earth Turns (1934) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

AS THE EARTH TURNS (1934) is a fine filming of the Pulitzer Prize nominated book by Gladys Hasty Carroll. The movie has just been released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

I first read Carroll's novel about Maine farmers thanks to my well-stocked high school library. I was thrilled when years later I tracked down a used copy -- not always easy in pre-Internet days -- and could reread it whenever I wanted.

That said, it's been many years since I last opened the book's pages, and my memories are faded enough I'm not certain just how thorough an adaptation Ernest Pascal's screenplay is; indeed, my only complaint about this 73-minute film is that it's too short! With so many interesting characters, this should have given them more time and been a 90-minute movie. Well, seeing the movie is motivating me to revisit the book at long last, not least so I can see what was dropped from the film!

AS THE EARTH TURNS tells the story of two farming families, the Shaws and the Janowskis. Mark Shaw (wonderful David Landau) is a hard-working, successful farmer with a large family.

Sensible daughter Jen (an excellent Jean Muir) is the loving center of the Shaw family, capably caring for everyone in her midst, including a little brother and sister (Wally Albright and Dorothy Gray). Her brother Ollie (William Janney) is only home on breaks from college, while brother Ed (Russell Hardie) soon marries Margaret (Emily Lowry) and moves to his own farm.

The Shaw family is rounded out by Mark's second wife, the ever-complaining Cora (Clara Blandick), and her manipulative daughter Doris (Dorothy Appleby), who is determined to return to the big city. (Doris's name is one novel-to-film change I noted!) There's also Mark's ne'er-do-well brother George (Arthur Hohl) who is married to Margaret's sister Mil (Dorothy Peterson); Mil struggles to feed their four little ones while George will do anything to get out of work.

The Janowski family are Polish immigrants who have relocated from Boston to move into a barn down the road, but only oldest son Stan (Donald Woods) seems made for farm life. Stan and Jen fall in love, but Jen is cautious, having seen too many around her giving up on farming and/or unhappily married; she loves the farming life and wants to be certain Stan is committed to it, as well as her, for keeps.

Although the cast is huge, the film does a good job quickly establishing distinct characters; early in the film, as it shifts back and forth introducing the families, we see the pages of the novel turning with each scene change, a convention also used by the studio the following year when filming the book OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA (1935).

Despite (because of?) the exteriors being filmed almost entirely on soundstages, the movie quickly and effectively creates a distinct, absorbing world. Muir is particularly excellent as the reticent Jen, who has the patience of a saint with those around her who don't always deserve it...and deep down, stronger feelings which she is slow to share. The same year this film was released Muir also starred with George Brent in a favorite film of mine, the charming DESIRABLE (1934); I also enjoyed her as Helena in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1935) at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival.

Jen seems to be cut from the same cloth as her father Mark (Landau), who works hard while seemingly ignoring his wife's constant put-downs; he also helps his undeserving brother because he's not going to let George's children go hungry. Landau's too-early passing in 1935, at the age of 56, was a sad thing for the movies, as he was such a fine, fine actor. His last film was John Ford's JUDGE PRIEST (1934).

All in all, while AS THE EARTH TURNS could have used at least several more minutes to deepen its plotlines and characterizations, it does a really fine job given the limitations of time and budget. I enjoyed it very much.

The movie was directed by Alfred E. Green and filmed by Byron Haskin.

The supporting cast includes Marilyn Knowlden, Sarah Padden, Egon Brecher, David Durand, and Cora Sue Collins as Stan's little sister. What fun to see her in this, having just seen her in person at the Cinecon Festival a few days ago!

Stills from this film are curiously difficult to track down, hence the relatively poor quality of those shared here.

The Warner Archive DVD is a good-looking print. The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Upcoming Disney Books

It's time for the annual look at upcoming Disney books! There are a number of interesting new Disney titles coming out this fall and winter.

Due out today, September 11th, is WALT DISNEY'S DISNEYLAND by Chris Nichols, published by Taschen. This book, weighing in at over 6-1/2 pounds and 350 pages, is described on the Taschen site as a "beautiful visual history"; that's certainly correct if the sample photos on the Taschen site are anything to go by. I anticipate receiving my copy in the near future!

September 16th Update: Like many others who preordered WALT DISNEY'S DISNEYLAND, I was perplexed when after last week's release date Amazon said it would not ship until as far out as November. Happily I learned there was a book signing scheduled today at the Disneyana store in Disneyland. It cost a little more there, but it wasn't too bad with my Annual Passholder discount, and it was worth paying a premium to obtain the book immediately and have it signed. At first glance the book is beautiful! A manager in Disneyana said that the book had already gone into a second printing to meet high demand. I had a feeling they hadn't printed enough...

Coming September 25th: THE ART OF WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE by Jessica Ward for Disney Editions Deluxe.

The book I'm especially excited about this year is FROM ALL OF US TO ALL OF YOU: THE DISNEY CHRISTMAS CARD by Disney historian Jeff Kurtti for Disney Editions Deluxe, due out October 2nd. I'm anticipating a visual feast from this one; the cover alone is glorious.

Also from Kurtti and Disney Editions Deluxe, PRACTICALLY POPPINS IN EVERY WAY: A MAGIC CARPETBAG OF COUNTLESS WONDERS is coming on November 6th. Timed to coincide with the release of MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) this Christmas, the book appears to cover the complete history of MARY POPPINS, from books to the classic 1964 film to Disney's new movie.

WINDOWS ON DISNEY'S MAIN STREET, U.S.A. by Chuck Snyder, releasing from Disney Deluxe Editions on October 9th, appears to be a much more elaborate take on a subject Snyder covered in a small 2009 paperback, WINDOWS ON MAIN STREET. Each Disney park pays tribute to company and park history via these beautiful windows.

The 2014 book MAIN STREET WINDOWS by Jeff Heimbuch also looks at Disney's tribute windows.

Releasing on November 13th: KEM WEBER: MID-CENTURY FURNITURE DESIGNS FOR THE DISNEY STUDIOS by David Bossert, author of OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT: THE SEARCH FOR THE LOST DISNEY CARTOONS; the publisher is The Old Mill Press. The variety of topics covered in Disney history books never ceases to amaze me!

Thanks to fellow Disney fan Dan Cunningham for letting me know about MICKEY MOUSE: THE GREATEST ADVENTURES, due out from Fantagraphics on November 20th. The book is a "greatest hits" of Mickey Mouse comics; with color illustrations, I anticipate this book will be a visual treat.

Coming from the University Press of Mississippi on January 15, 2019: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WARD KIMBALL: MAVERICK OF DISNEY ANIMATION by Todd James Pierce.

And here's one I missed which came out this spring, LIFE INSIDE THE DISNEY PARKS: THE HAPPIEST PLACES ON EARTH from the editors of LIFE magazine.

Finally, for those who may be interested in the trend of coloring books for adults, check out ART OF COLORING: POSTER ART OF THE DISNEY PARKS, which came out this summer. It contains three dozen postcard-sized posters. Credited to Walt Disney Imagineering, it appears to have been inspired by the terrific 2012 book POSTER ART OF THE DISNEY PARKS by Vanessa Hunt and Danny Handke.

Lots of great reading ahead for Disney fans!

Check out these posts for more terrific Disney books released in the last couple of years: Upcoming Disney Books (June 2016); Upcoming Disney Books (May 2017).

Monday, September 10, 2018

Tonight's Movie: China Passage (1937) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

CHINA PASSAGE (1937) is a minor RKO "B" picture just released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

Vinton Haworth and Gordon Jones play Tommy and Joe, mercenaries of a sort who are hired to guard a precious diamond being delivered to a shop in Shanghai. When the diamond is stolen in an elaborate scheme, Tommy and Joe round up suspects seen in the area that evening, played by Constance Worth, Joyce Compton, Leslie Fenton, Dick Elliott, Philip Ahn (billed as Philip), and Alec Craig. Tommy and Joe are under considerable pressure to recover the diamond -- their lives depend on it!

Unfortunately Tommy and Joe have no leads and must let the suspects go, so they hop a ship bound for San Francisco...and every single one of the suspects also books passage. It's a perilous voyage, with poison and murder a constant threat. And it just might be that the mystery won't be solved by Tommy or Joe, but by Jane Dunn (Worth), who turns out to be a federal agent.

The personable Worth almost single-handedly keeps the story afloat. She's upbeat and determined, carrying on with her job even when faced with chauvinism; the annoyed ship's captain tells her flat out that "A woman's place is in the home." She's also very forthright in admitting to her growing feelings for Tommy. (Incidentally, the Australian Worth's accent is explained away that she's an American who was educated in England.)

Joyce Compton plays her trademark dingy character with verve, and it's fun that there's a little more to her here than meets the eye. I would have liked to see more of Lotus Liu, Jane's assistant in the Shanghai scenes. The rest of the cast, including leading man Haworth, are all frankly pretty bland.

The film is a quick 65 minutes, so its trio of interesting actresses, the shipboard setting, and the photography of Nicholas Musuraca make this mystery a decent enough time-passer. Otherwise there's not a whole lot to it.

The movie was directed by Edward Killy. The supporting cast includes Frank M. Thomas, Lotus Long, Billy Gilbert, Alan Curtis, and Anita Colby.

The Warner Archive DVD print is quite nice, with good sound. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tonight's Movie: Three Daring Daughters (1948) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Jeanette MacDonald, Jane Powell, and Jose Iturbi star in THREE DARING DAUGHTERS (1948), an enjoyable family musical available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Over a decade after serving as associate producer for the Deanna Durbin Universal Pictures hit THREE SMART GIRLS (1936), Joe Pasternak made another musical about three daughters contending with a divorced mother's love life, MGM's THREE DARING DAUGHTERS.

MacDonald plays Louise Morgan, an overworked magazine editor and single mother of three daughters, Tess (Powell), Ilka (Ann E. Todd), and Alix (Elinor Donahue, billed as Mary Eleanor Donahue).

When Louise has a fainting spell, her doctor (Harry Davenport) prescribes she go on vacation sans children so she heads off on a Caribbean cruise -- and comes back married to the great conductor and pianist Jose Iturbi (playing himself, sort of, a concept which is both charming and goofy).

Unbeknownst to Louise, while she was gone the girls have asked the employer (Edward Arnold) of their foreign correspondent father to bring him home, childishly imagining that their divorced parents only have to be reunited and they'll want to remarry. Louise and "Mr. Iturbi" thus have some unexpected complications to deal with when they arrive home, planning to announce their marriage to the girls.

The girls are a bit bratty and selfish in their behavior at times, but -- like Durbin in her films -- they get away with it because they're also cute and charming. Powell looks glorious in Technicolor, and it's wonderful hearing her sing, with and without MacDonald. A "Route 66" number with Iturbi is particularly cute.

Ann E. Todd is an underrated child actress who was in many good movies, and Elinor Donahue was cute as a button, years before playing Betty on FATHER KNOWS BEST. I'm happy to say that at this writing all three of the titular daughters are still living. Jane Powell is 89, Ann E. Todd is 87, and Elinor Donahue is 81.

The relationship between MacDonald and Iturbi is sweet, if strangely sexless; MacDonald was always a charmer, and it's fun watching Iturbi playing the "movie character" version of himself in such a large role. He had a nice screen presence and did well handling light comedy.

Arnold adds immensely to the fun as a sort of traffic cop for the various characters as they come to him with their relationship challenges. Davenport is always welcome on screen; I wonder how many times he played a doctor?

Charles Coleman, who incidentally was also in THREE SMART GIRLS, plays Arnold's butler, and Ian Wolfe is also on Arnold's staff. The cast also includes Angela Lansbury's mother Moyna MacGill, Tom Helmore, Kathryn Card, Thurston Hall, harmonica player Larry Adler, and Iturbi's sister Amparo, who duets with him.

THREE DARING DAUGHTERS was directed by Fred M. Wilcox and filmed by Ray June. It runs 115 minutes.

The Warner Archive DVD is a very nice Technicolor print with good sound. The trailer is included on the disc.

I really enjoyed revisiting this film for the first time in years. MGM musical fans are sure to enjoy it as well.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Tonight's Movies: The Shakedown (1929), The Virginia Judge (1935), and Miss Tatlock's Millions (1948) at Cinecon

On Labor Day I returned to the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for the final day of Cinecon 54!

After a six-film, three-short Sunday, Monday was a more relaxed day for me, "only" seeing three films, just as I had on the festival's opening night.

The morning began with THE SHAKEDOWN (1929), a silent film with a prerecorded track. It was directed by the great William Wyler, which made it a festival "must see" for me. I have gradually started seeing some of his earliest work thanks to film festivals, such as A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931) at the TCM Fest, and this summer I also revisited Wyler's COUNSELLOR AT LAW (1933) at UCLA.

THE SHAKEDOWN reminded me a bit of an earlier John Ford film starring Buck Jones, JUST PALS (1920), inasmuch as the central theme of each film is how a ne'er-do-well is reformed when he takes responsibility for an orphaned boy. James Murray is Dave, the young man in THE SHAKEDOWN, with Jack Hanlon as the boy he takes under his wing.

In both JUST PALS and THE SHAKEDOWN the young man also finds love; the leading lady of THE SHAKEDOWN is lovely Barbara Kent, who appeared the year before in the marvelous silent LONESOME (1928).

THE SHAKEDOWN started out a bit ho-hum, watching Dave and his cohorts run a boxing scam, but it picked up interest as it went and was ultimately a satisfying, heartwarming film.

James Murray was somewhat reminiscent of a young Dick Powell or Charles Farrell, creating a well-rounded, conflicted, and ultimately sympathetic character. Murray was in a number of other films, including King Vidor's THE CROWD (1928); I was saddened to learn he died of alcoholism in 1936.

Wheeler Oakman, who starred in OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920) earlier in the festival, has a large role here as the shifty boxing manager. Watch for director Wyler making a cameo in a fight sequence! According to IMDb John Huston was an extra but I didn't spot him.

THE SHAKEDOWN was filmed by Jerome Ash and Charles Stumar. It runs 70 minutes.

The one and only Marsha Hunt, who will be 101 next month, was on hand to introduce her very first film, THE VIRGINIA JUDGE (1935). How amazing it was to watch this film knowing that Marsha was watching her 17-year-old self along with us! She glows and seems completely confident and natural alongside her costars Johnny Downs and Robert Cummings.

THE VIRGINIA JUDGE is the story of Jim (Cummings), a very troubled young man who is unable to accept his kindly stepfather (Walter C. Kelly), the titular judge. Jim gets into trouble trying to impress pretty Mary Lee (Hunt), who's also being courted by wealthy Bob (Downs); Jim "borrows" a car (owned by scary Charles Middleton) without permission in order to take Mary Lee for a ride and wrecks it, and that's just the start of his problems. He actually has the nerve to sell a rifle out of the car's trunk to Bob in order to get money to pay for the repairs!

Things go from bad to worse when Jim and Bob tussle over a gun at a carnival...

In some ways the film is rather sad as so much of the 62 minutes is spent watching Jim bring more and more trouble on himself, despite his supportive mother (Virginia Hammond) and stepfather, who keeps trying to build bridges which Jim rejects. While not a particularly special film, I enjoyed watching the young Cummings and Hunt, who were soon reunited in DESERT GOLD (1936) and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1936). And what a treat to see this film in such a gorgeous print!

THE VIRGINIA JUDGE was directed by Edward Sedgwick and filmed by Milton R. Krasner. Familiar faces in the cast include Stepin Fetchit, Etta McDaniel, Sam McDaniel, Fred "Snowflake" Toones, Irving Bacon, and Arthur Aylesworth.

MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS (1948) was also shown in a beautiful print. I've been interested in this film for long time, given that it stars faves John Lund and Wanda Hendrix. I actually own a copy thanks to a very kind friend, but had held off watching it in hopes I'd have an opportunity to first "meet" this film on a big screen in 35mm, and I lucked out! What fun to see it with an appreciative audience laughing along. I'll surely be revisiting it via my copy before long.

MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS is weird, wonderful and steamy, with a great cast in a film which is half slapstick, half sophisticated screwball farce. It was one of a few films directed by actor Richard Haydn (Uncle Max in THE SOUND OF MUSIC), who also appears in the film. The screenplay is by Richard L. Breen and the great Charles Brackett; per IMDb, uncredited writers on the film also included Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The plot almost defies description so bear with my attempt a thumbnail synopsis: Movie stuntman Tim Burke (Lund) is hired by a man named Noonan (Barry Fitzgerald) to "play" mentally incompetent Schuyler Tatlock at the reading of a family will. Schuyler has long been absent from the family scene and Noonan, his ostensible caretaker, actually believes him dead but doesn't want the easy money to stop rolling in, hence his need to produce a living, breathing Schuyler for the rest of the family.

Greedy relatives (Ilka Chase, Monty Woolley, and Dan Tobin) would love to get their hands on more of the family money, to the extent that Cassie (Chase) has her playboy son (Robert Stack) romancing his cousin Nan (Hendrix), Schuyler's sister, intending for them to marry and keep the money in the family.

Many complications ensue, including all of the money being left to Schuyler; if he's dead it goes to a charity. Tim/Schuyler also accidentally regains his "sanity" when he hits his head...I don't even know how to explain all of that so I won't! Meanwhile, Nan is confused by her decidedly odd feelings toward her "brother," and Tim wants desperately to tell her the truth, but if he does it will upset his plans to ensure she inherits Schuyler's fortune.

I suspect none of the above makes much sense! It's a film that really needs to be experienced; it desperately needs a release on DVD.

The normally rather elegant Lund is seen as never before in this, embracing Schuyler's childlike crazy side in what I can only describe as a Jerry Lewis type manner (not that I've seen much of Lewis onscreen!). The depiction of a mentally challenged individual is actually a little troubling viewed from the vantage point of 2018, but I tried to put any discomfort aside and just go with it as pure fantasy; Schuyler's problems are supposedly the result of a childhood head injury.

Lund is quite amazing in basically a dual role, straddling the line between performing as Schuyler for the family and communicating Tim's true feelings to Noonan. His love for Nan is deep and absolute, making the scenes where they're separated quite moving and the ending overwhelmingly joyous.

When the movie isn't focused on slapstick craziness there are some absolutely terrific bits of dialogue, with some of the best lines going to Monty Woolley. There are also delightful cameos by Ray Milland and Mitchell Leisen at the start of the movie; Leisen would later direct some of Lund's best work in films like NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950) and THE MATING SEASON (1951).

Hendrix is charming as the innocent, intrigued Nan who finds herself in the middle of a very mixed-up situation, and the rest of the cast is great, including Stack as a rather slimy "wolf."

MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS was filmed in black and white by Charles Lang. It runs 101 minutes.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I decided to leave before the screening of the final film, ON THE AVENUE (1937), as my energy was flagging and I had a long drive home. And it turned out that some film cans were mislabeled and I missed THE PIED PIPER (1942), which I haven't seen since I was a child! Ah, well. It would be really great if both films would be reprised on next year's Cinecon schedule!

Once again, I'm unaware of any of the three films seen on Labor Day being currently available for home viewing, which I really hope will be rectified in the future.

Previously: Cinecon Classic Film Festival Opens in Hollywood August 30th. (This post contains links to all Cinecon 54 coverage.)