Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tonight's Movie: The Stranger (1946) - An Olive Films Blu-ray Review

The classic Orson Welles suspense film THE STRANGER (1946) has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive Films.

I last saw this film over nine years ago, and I enjoyed revisiting it tremendously; among other things, it reaffirmed that THE STRANGER might contain my favorite performance by Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson plays Wilson, an investigator hunting for a notorious Nazi war criminal (Orson Welles), now hiding in plain sight as Charles Rankin, mild-mannered teacher in a small New England town.

Wilson arrives in town on the very day that Rankin is marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the sweet daughter of a Supreme Court Justice (Philip Merivale). Mary's brother (Richard Long) seems to harbor doubts about his sister's new husband -- who oddly disappears for a prolonged time during the wedding reception.

It seems a fellow Nazi has arrived in town along with Wilson, and Rankin needs to make sure the man will never, ever tell what he knows about Rankin's evil past. Despite that, his identity begins to unravel, and Mary's life is in danger.

As directed by Welles, THE STRANGER is great, nail-biting fun, particularly watching Wilson circle his man. (Rankin's too-perfect pro-American ideals dinner table speech combined with the odd statement that Karl Marx wasn't German, but a Jew, is a key moment which convinces Wilson to continue surveilling Rankin.) Wilson hangs out in the town drugstore, helping himself to coffee and playing checkers with the owner, as bit by bit small clues continue to reveal themselves.

The film is very well paced at 95 minutes. If the movie has any drawback at all, it's the lack of chemistry between Welles and Loretta Young; on this second viewing I still find no explanation for why she married him -- or continued to support him as events unfolded. He's neither attractive or charming, if you ask me. I wondered at the time of my previous viewing if Mary felt herself to be an "old maid" but that description of the gorgeous Young defies logic.

THE STRANGER was filmed in black and white by Russell Metty. The supporting cast includes Byron Keith, Martha Wentworth, Billy House, Neal Dodd, and Konstantin Shayne.

The Olive Films Blu-ray was a significant improvement over the previous DVD I watched of THE STRANGER, which has suffered the indignity of being released in too many poor public domain prints over the years. It's a good-looking Blu-ray.

The knowledgeable commentary by Nora Fiore, who blogs at The Nitrate Diva, is a pleasure to listen to. Nora covers a wide range of material, moving easily from production background to trivia (loved a bit of info about a sign in the gym) to commonalities with other Welles films. (Full disclosure, Nora is an online acquaintance of several years, and I've enjoyed watching movies at the TCM Classic Film Festival with both Nora and her mother.) I listen to a great many commentary tracks and was both informed and impressed by Nora's track.

The set also includes a booklet with an essay by Jennifer Lynde Barker, which may also be found on the Blu-ray itself.

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Star in the Dust (1956)

A good cast elevates STAR IN THE DUST (1956), a solid Universal Pictures Western.

Sheriff Bill Jorden (Jonn Agar) holds a convicted murderer named Sam Hall (Richard Boone) in his jail. Sam is due to be hung at sundown, but a war is brewing between ranchers and farmers who want to break Sam out of his cell for varied reasons. Bill, aided only by two older deputies (Paul Fix and James Gleason), intends to hold them all off and carry out the sentence in due course.

One by one we're introduced to characters around town who are interested in the unfolding jailhouse drama, including wealthy George Ballard (Leif Erickson); his sister Ellen (Mamie Van Doren), who loves Bill; Nellie Mason (Coleen Gray), a seamstress shunned by some in town because of her love for Sam; and Nan Hogan (Randy Stuart), who fears her husband Lou (Harry Morgan) will die breaking Sam out of jail.

Other actors appearing in the film are Stanley Andrews, Robert Osterloh, Terry Gilkyson, and, in a very early role, Clint Eastwood.

It's a reasonably good Western, but there are two main drawbacks to the movie. The most important one is that I found the film's unending focus on a hanging and the attendant details distasteful, simply not an especially appealing theme.

The other issue, which is more of a good problem to have, is that the cast is so big, with a number of good actors and interesting characters, that one wishes some of them had more screen time than 80 minutes allows.

Additionally, Agar is almost a little too stoic as the sheriff, who walks in the shadow of his late father, also a sheriff. Agar constantly looks pained but doesn't bring many shadings to the character to make Bill more interesting. I like Agar's work in Ford's FORT APACHE (1948) and especially SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949) very much, and he's by no means poor here, but he does seem on the tired side in his depiction of a serious man with a big problem. His numerous scenes with Fix are a relief as Fix is much more lively as his righthand man.

Boone, as he did in the later THE TALL T (1957), makes a fascinating villain; in this case it's a bit problematic that he isn't playing opposite someone equally dynamic.

Van Doren is acceptable as the leading lady, torn between her love for Bill and her weasel of a brother, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about her character. The supporting ladies are far more interesting, starting with Coleen Gray as Nellie, the woman Sam has dallied with. Nellie has apparently led a lonely life, starved for affection until Sam came to town, and she desperately wants to break Sam out of jail and run away with him. Nellie has quite a knock-down, drag-out fight with Nan (Stuart) over some critical letters.

The characters I most wanted to know about were Nan and Lou (Morgan). Nan is apparently a former saloon girl who was once George's lady friend, but she's now happily married to Lou. It was interesting watching the characters and doing some reading between the lines; both Stuart and Morgan brought a lot to their roles and might have been the most interesting people in the movie.

STAR IN THE DUST was directed by Charles F. Haas. It was shot by John L. Russell, who coincidentally filmed the last movie I reviewed, TOBOR THE GREAT (1954).

STAR IN THE DUST is not available in the U.S. in any format, but it's been released on a Region 2 DVD in Europe, and it's also had a Blu-ray release there. Let's hope that at some point there will be a U.S. DVD release in the Universal Vault Collection.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Tobor the Great (1954) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

TOBOR THE GREAT (1954) is an entertaining sci-fi film just released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber.

Tobor ("robot" spelled backwards) is the creation of Professor Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes), who has designed a robot capable of participating in space exploration, protecting human lives from being at risk.  Tobor can be remotely controlled not only by mechanical devices but telepathically.

Dr. Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake) has just quit the U.S. space exploration department to protest lives being risked. He visits the professor to learn about his creation, and he also meets the professor's widowed daughter Janice (Karin Booth) and her son Gadge (Billy Chapin). It appears likely Dr. Harrison will soon have a ready-made family!

A foreign spy (Steven Geray) and his henchmen kidnap the professor and Gadge to get their hands on the "Tobor" plans, but they're not counting on Tobor coming to the rescue...

TOBOR THE GREAT is a fun little movie which runs a quick 77 minutes. It's a bit cheesy, insofar as it has fairly low production values and earnest yet not very good performances; somehow the viewer is always aware they're actors saying lines. At the same time, the movie's slight creakiness is part of its charm, and I had a good time watching it. I suspect other fans of '50s sci-fi will enjoy it as well, especially if they go into it not expecting a genre classic.

Favorite moments included location shots of the exterior of the Griffith Observatory and the appearance of William Schallert as a reporter. Schallert turns up in many '50s sci-fi films, and his appearance thus gives the movie a pleasing connection to other films in the genre such as THEM! (1954) and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957).

Fans will also enjoy Lyle Talbot popping up as a general in the closing scenes; it seems as though no part was too small for Talbot in the '50s, but it's to the film's benefit as he quickly gives his part a (slightly pompous) stamp of authority.

The climax of the film was shot at Iverson Ranch, a Southern California location which turns up in countless films. I wrote a little about Iverson last November; scroll down toward the end for the info and photos. I think the next-to-last photo in my Iverson post may have been taken at the same spot as in the TOBOR still at the right.

Amusingly, there's nothing in the film like the scene used on posters with the robot carrying a beautiful woman. Tobor does carry the little boy at the end of the movie, though!

TOBOR THE GREAT was directed by Lee Sholem and filmed in black and white by John L. Russell.

The Kino Blu-ray is a nice crisp print of a film shot in straightforward fashion, with nothing especially notable or flashy about the film's look.

Extras include a sci-fi trailer gallery and an informative audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith. Smith shared many interesting factoids, including information on stock and special effects footage and trivia such as that the film was originally rumored to star sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson. I thought it was an especially good commentary track.

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Music for Millions (1944)

LOST ANGEL (1943), which I enjoyed last weekend, whetted my appetite for more MGM, Margaret O'Brien, and Marsha Hunt, so I pulled MUSIC FOR MILLIONS (1944) off my DVD shelves.

MUSIC FOR MILLIONS also stars June Allyson and Jose Iturbi. Somehow, despite my love for MGM musicals and the cast, I had never seen this one. I can happily say it pushed all my "MGM" buttons; I thoroughly enjoyed it and will return to it again in the future.

June plays Barbara Ainsworth, a pregnant symphony bass player anxiously awaiting overdue mail from her soldier husband.

Barbara's little sister "Mike" (O'Brien) shows up out of the blue to stay with her. Barbara is happy to see Mike, although Mike inadvertently creates complications, including walking on stage during a concert! Mike initially annoys Jose Iturbi, the conductor, but soon he's taken with her and her attempts to help her frail sister.

When bad news for Barbara arrives in the form of a War Department telegram, Barbara's friends, headed by harpist Rosalind (Hunt), fear she will miscarry and determine to hide the news from her until after the baby is born. The women are well-intentioned but also weighed down with guilt and worry. And as the symphony tours military installations, Barbara can't understand why no mail has ever been forwarded to her by the landlady...

MUSIC FOR MILLIONS is 117 minutes of polished MGM filmmaking. It's true that Allyson and O'Brien weren't called "the Town Criers" of the MGM lot for nothing, and they do more than their share of weeping in this one; additionally, O'Brien's denseness at times is just a little too much to be cute. But really, those are my only complaints.

It's most enjoyable watching the four leads, and Allyson in particular was at her loveliest in this. As always, Hunt is a very appealing screen personality herself, and Iturbi displays a nice touch for comedy along with his musical talents.

They're ably supported by Helen Gilbert, Marie Wilson, and Madeleine LeBeau as symphony musicians. Also in the cast are Jimmy Durante, Hugh Herbert, Harry Davenport, Ethel Griffies, Connie Gilchrist, Willie Best, Arthur Space, and Byron Foulger, to name just a few of the familiar faces.

Producer Joe Pasternak was known for presenting beautiful music in appealing ways in his films, and this movie is a great example. Harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler plays a lovely version of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," later reprised by Iturbi on piano. Symphony concert highlights include Herbert's "March of the Toys." My favorite scene in the movie was the finale, a beautifully staged rendition of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" which knocks it out of the park in terms of both music and dramatic story impact.

Incidentally, I believe the movie uses the same MGM concert stage set as Pasternak's very different but equally musical SONG OF RUSSIA (1944), released earlier that year.

Like Pasternak, director Henry Koster had worked on Deanna Durbin musicals for Universal before coming to MGM; this was the first of three mid-'40s films Koster made for MGM, followed by Allyson's TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON (1946) and O'Brien's THE UNFINISHED DANCE (1947).

MUSIC FOR MILLIONS was filmed in black and white by Robert Surtees. Myles Connolly was Oscar nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

MUSIC FOR MILLIONS is available on DVD in a very nice print from the Warner Archive. The disc includes the trailer.

It's also shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies; the trailer is on the TCM site.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Untamed (1940) at Cinecon

One of my favorite experiences at the recent Cinecon Classic Film Festival in Hollywood was the "Saturday Nitrate Fever" program.

The evening made great use of the Eygptian Theatre's nitrate projection booth, which began screening films for the public last November.

First up was an admittedly scratchy print of the Bugs Bunny cartoon HARE RIBBIN' (1944), but even with the flaws, I appreciated the bright nitrate Technicolor in a crazier-than-usual Bugs cartoon.

The feature film of the evening was the rarely screened Paramount Pictures film UNTAMED (1940). The audience was told that finding a good-quality nitrate print to screen was a challenge, with many titles scratched off the wish list due to flaws or the inability to safely run the prints through the projector due to shrinkage or other issues.

I couldn't have been more pleased that they found a great print to screen in UNTAMED, with favorites Ray Milland and Patricia Morison heading a fine cast.

Soap opera meets the great outdoors in UNTAMED, which was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Milland plays Dr. William Crawford, a big city, high society doctor who is diagnosed as having a bad case of the nerves (not to mention too much alcohol). He's prescribed a long rest in the fresh air, and he and his friend Les (William Frawley) head for the wilds of Canada to get away from it all.

Bill and Les enjoy time camping on the trail with their guide Joe (Akim Tamiroff), but when Bill breaks his leg he's transported to Joe's home in a small mountain community, with scenic Cedar Lake in Big Bear Valley standing in for Canada.

There Bill meets Joe's beautiful wife Alvy (Morison), who was one of several "wounded birds" the kindly Joe had rescued and made part of his home; widowed Maggie (Jane Darwell), her son Mickey (Darryl Hickman), and blind Smokey (Clem Bevans) complete the household.

After Joe heads back to the wilderness, Bill and Alvy fight a growing attraction for one another, not wanting to hurt Joe. Although Bill has become interested in serving as the community's doctor, he realizes he needs to put temptation behind him and leave, but he's stopped by an epidemic, just as Joe returns and is confronted by town gossip...

UNTAMED was an engaging, entertaining film; it might not be a classic but it's the type of solid, well-made film the "studio system" turned out on a regular basis. The lead actors are all wonderful, and once again a Patricia Morison film made me wish she'd had a much longer screen career! She's such a striking screen presence, with her beautiful eyes and unusually long dark hair.

The film's rich Technicolor was beautiful to look at, especially the summer scenes next to the lake. In an interview after the film (seen at right) Morison recalled that the film's blizzard scenes were filmed in a Los Angeles area ice house, and the actors were genuinely cold! She also mentioned her liking for Ray Milland, mentioning that her mother was from the UK so she had that background in common with the Welsh Milland.

In addition to the actors named above, the cast includes Esther Dale, Fay Helm, J.M. Kerrigan, Eily Malyon, J. Farrell MacDonald, Roscoe Ates, Charles Waldron, Iron Eyes Cody, Byron Foulger, Dorothy Adams, and Ann Doran. You can't ask for a finer group of character players than that!

UNTAMED was directed by George Archainbaud and filmed by Leo Tover. The screenwriters of this 83-minute film were Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Frank Butler.

UNTAMED is not available in any format. Hopefully at some point Universal, which owns the rights, will release it in the Universal Vault DVD series, but given Universal's slowness at releasing '30s and '40s Paramount titles, it could be a very long wait.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Home Again (2017)

Tuesday is discount day at my local theater, so today I slipped away from my work for a long lunch break spent with the new movie HOME AGAIN (2017). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

HOME AGAIN was written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Nancy Meyers, the filmmaker behind films such as BABY BOOM (1987), THE HOLIDAY (2006), and IT'S COMPLICATED (2009). Nancy Meyers served as one of this film's producers.

As some critics have pointed out, in HOME AGAIN Meyers-Shyer has basically made a Nancy Meyers movie, right down to the gorgeous kitchen...and that's just fine with me.

Reese Witherspoon plays Alice Kinney, daughter of a now-deceased famed movie director and his actress-muse wife (Candice Bergen, whose backstory is effectively told with early Bergen photos).

Alice has been going through a difficult time, separated from her music exec husband Austen (Michael Sheen) and relocating from New York to L.A. with her two young daughters. That said, Alice's version of a hard time is different from the average person, seeing as how she's inherited a gorgeous multimillion dollar home to live in!

Through a series of circumstances a trio of young filmmakers (Nat Wolf, Pico Alexander, and Jon Rudnitsky) move into Alice's guest house while they work to close a deal. Alice has a fling with one of the young men (Alexander), which is especially awkward once Austen shows up in L.A. On the bright side, as one of her friends points out, thanks to her tenants Alice has free child care and tech support under one roof! Movie nights with homemade tacos provided, too.

In a nutshell, HOME AGAIN is about everyone in the film, especially Alice, figuring out what they want and moving forward with their lives in a positive way.

Anyone looking for a cold hard dose of reality probably won't find it here, from Alice's luxurious digs to her not being especially pressured to earn a living to the notion of four different men showing various degrees of romantic interest in her. But reality isn't really why we're there, anyway!

We're there for the humor (the knowing Hollywood "meeting" dialogue seems right on target), the attractive cast, the interesting situations, and the oh-so-gorgeous eye candy settings, right down to the kitchen with organic cereals and an Ina Garten cookbook on the counter.

And yes, some of it is a bit predictable, but in a good way...while towards the end the film does take some unexpected, interesting directions. I didn't necessarily agree with all of Alice's decisions, especially when it came to a casual affair, but I enjoyed seeing how she worked through the consequences and what would work best for her and her daughters.

Witherspoon is great with comedic dialogue, as always, and she evokes sympathy as well. (A scene where she "puts on a happy face" for her daughters will be recognized by any parent.) The entire cast is good; in addition to the actors named above, Lake Bell (MILLION DOLLAR ARM) has a few scenes as Alice's manipulative first interior decorating client from hell.

The movie runs 97 well-paced minutes, and one of its pleasures, compared to most movies these days, is it knows when to say "The End" and not wear out its welcome.

The film was attractively shot by Dean Cundey.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13 for "thematic and sexual material." It's not for the young, although it soft-pedals some scenes and language compared to other PG-13 movies.

A trailer is here.

As Katie Walsh wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "This world doesn't quite exist, but it's an exceedingly pleasant place to escape to for a couple hours. Thank goodness the Meyers mantle has been passed on to the next generation."

Monday, September 11, 2017

Around the Blogosphere This Week

Miscellaneous bits of news and fun stuff from around the internet...

...At Greenbriar Picture Shows, John McElwee alerts readers to a forthcoming book, NOTHING SACRED: THE CINEMA OF WILLIAM WELLMAN by John Andrew Gallagher and Frank Thompson. It's a deluxe edition which will cost a pretty penny (consider yourself forewarned!) but it sounds amazing. The book news is accompanied by a photo-filled post on Wellman's ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI (1951), starring Clark Gable, with more Wellman posts coming to the Greenbriar site in the next few days.

...Belated birthday wishes to the great Marge Champion, who turned 98 on September 2nd. My 2014 birthday photo tribute may be found here.

...The SISSI movies starring Romy Schneider are coming to Blu-ray in October. (They'll also be shown on TCM October 18th!) Thanks to Ashley for the tip, and another shout-out of thanks to Ashley for her assistance helping to keep my older reviews updated with new DVD and Blu-ray release links.

...Chris Erskine of the Los Angeles Times recently wrote about one of our Lone Pine food stops, the Frosty Chalet. We'll be back in Lone Pine next month for the Lone Pine Film Festival! Festival plans are taking shape, including Harry Carey Jr.'s daughter Melinda introducing one of my favorite movies, WAGON MASTER (1950). Alas, I won't be at the screening myself, as I'm already signed up for a locations tour for Robert Mitchum's NEVADA (1944), being shown in honor of his centennial this year. This year's festival guests include Ben Mankiewicz, Bruce Boxleitner, William Wellman Jr., Wyatt McCrea, Ed Faulkner, Bruce Davison, Scott Eyman, Rob Word, and Ed Hulse, and that's not the complete list!

...The schedule for UCLA's Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles series has been posted, and it looks fascinating. The festival opens September 23rd and runs through December 10th. I'm hoping to attend some screenings! Stars include Maria Felix, Pedro Armendariz, Arturo de Cordoba, Lupita Tovar, Gilbert Roland, Tito Guizar, and Dolores del Rio.

...Amazon has announced plans to build a "second headquarters" outside Seattle. Irvine and Los Angeles are interested, but I have trouble believing Amazon would open the new location in a state which is such an expensive place to do business.

...There's a new book out which sounds interesting, STORYBOOK STYLE: AMERICA'S WHIMSICAL HOMES OF THE 1920s, by Arrol Gellner and Douglas Keister. As explained in this article, "storybook" style architecture has Hollywood roots.

...L.A.'s Angels Flight Railway, a famed backdrop in many film noir classics, reopened last week after a four-year hiatus, only to shut down days later due to a broken part. It's expected to reopen soon.

...Over at Filmstruck/TCM's Streamline blog, Susan Doll has written about two of my favorite Fox film noir titles, LAURA (1944) and FALLEN ANGEL (1945).

...Fans of Dennis Morgan will love the story of the founding of Two Strike Park in La Crescenta, shared by Melanie at L.A. Explorer last year.

...The Hallmark Channel will be building on its great success with a third channel debuting October 1st and a streaming service coming October 3rd. The streaming service will be $5.99 a month. Incidentally, this year's Hallmark Christmas movie season launches October 27th. 21 new Christmas movies are coming to the Hallmark Channel, with a dozen more coming to Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel. Stay tuned to the site It's a Wonderful Movie for all the latest Hallmark movie info.

...I really enjoyed this article on what it took to keep H.E.B. grocery stores running in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

...The Criterion Collection's upcoming Olympic documentary collection is most impressive.

...Here's a podcast interviewing executives of Homer Laughlin, makers of colorful Fiestaware.

...The Hamner family home in Virginia which inspired the setting of THE WALTONS has been purchased. The "Waltons Hamner House" will be open year-round and have guided tours available.

...Julie Andrews says she's writing a second volume of memoirs, a followup to her 2008 book HOME.

...Props to Kristen Bell of FROZEN (2013) who was stuck in Orlando during Hurricane Irma and decided to help turn lemons into lemonade for many evacuees, singing FROZEN tunes in a local hurricane shelter and calling bingo games for senior citizen evacuees staying at her hotel. Bell was certainly living up to the motto posted on her Twitter account, "be kind. do good. spread joy."

...Royalty Watch: Lovely news that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their third child, and hopefully Kate will be feeling much better before long...Princess Madeleine of Sweden and her husband, Chris O'Neill, are also expecting baby number three...Prince Carl Philip and Princess Sofia of Sweden have welcomed their second son, Prince Gabriel...Prince George's first day of school photo was very cute...Princess Mako of Japan, granddaughter of the emperor, has announced her engagement. Mako's father, Prince Akishino, is second in line to the throne. As tradition dictates, Mako will lose her royal status upon marrying.

...Notable Passings: The great Barbara Cook passed on last month. Cook was the original Broadway leading lady of one of my all-time favorite musicals, SHE LOVES ME (1963), not to mention being the original Marian the Librarian in Broadway's THE MUSIC MAN (1957). The 1962 studio cast album of SHOW BOAT with John Raitt is one of my earliest LP listening memories...Legendary Disney Imagineer "X" Atencio has died at 98. Atencio was hired by Disney as a teenager in 1938; he retired in 1984 but remained a consultant. He was not only an artist, he cowrote the classic theme song "A Pirate's Life for Me" for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and "Grim Grinning Ghosts" for the Haunted Mansion.

...For additional recent links on classic movies and more, please visit my August 7th link roundup.

Have a great week!

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