Monday, July 24, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Let Freedom Ring (1939) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Nelson Eddy stars in LET FREEDOM RING (1939), an engaging MGM musical Western available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

LET FREEDOM RING marked a "solo" effort for Eddy without his frequent late '30s costar Jeanette MacDonald. One regrets just a bit that Jeanette wasn't in it, as it would have been a good vehicle for the duo, but even so it's an entertaining film which works quite well just as it is.

Ben Hecht's story and screenplay seem to have been loosely inspired by Johnston McCulley's Zorro. Steve Logan (Eddy) returns to his frontier community after receiving a Harvard law degree. Steve's father (Lionel Barrymore) and sweetheart Maggie (Virginia Bruce) expect Steve to help lead the community against a crooked railroad man named Knox (Edward Arnold), but Steve disappoints them both, appearing to have become a grasping wimp who's interested in doing business with Knox.

Secretly, however, Steve and his sidekick (Charles Butterworth) print newspapers disclosing all of Knox's crooked dealings, trying to stir the townspeople and railroad men against him. The papers are delivered with notes from "The Wasp."

Like TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958), seen earlier this weekend, the film has a traditional Western theme, with a greedy businessman burning settlers' homes and grabbing their land. The two films, made 20 years apart, serve as a good illustration of how Western themes changed very little over the decades; the fun is always in seeing the unique ways a story is handled. Just as TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN had an excellent screenwriter in Dalton Trumbo, here we have a solid script from the reliable Hecht.

Hecht may have been inspired by McCulley's classic character, but he does some nice original things with the story, such as creating a weak-looking, shawl-wearing saloon dealer who's deceptively great with a gun. It's a terrific role for the great character actor H.B. Warner.

The movie was energetically directed by Jack Conway, and along with the Zorro-esque fun there are several rousing musical numbers which really make the movie, concluding with a goosebump-y rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" ("Let freedom ring!"). Movies don't get much better than Nelson Eddy singing at MGM, and this film definitely put me in a happy place.

Virginia Bruce looks quite lovely in this, and she joins Eddy in the final song. The excellent cast also includes faces like Victor McLaglen, Gabby Hayes, Louis Jean Heydt, and Raymond Walburn.

LET FREEDOM RING was filmed in black and white by Sidney Wagner. Bruce's pretty costumes are by Dolly Tree. The film runs 87 well-paced minutes.

The Warner Archive DVD looks and sounds great. The disc includes the trailer.

Musical fans should check out this relatively little-known film for some enjoyable entertainment, including some terrific songs.  I had a good time watching it.

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, July 23, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Carbine Williams (1952) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

James Stewart plays the title role in CARBINE WILLIAMS (1952), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Williams was a moonshiner who went to prison after a federal agent was accidentally killed during a raid on a still.

Williams was initially a tough case at the prison and ended up on a chain gang, but eventually he was sent to a prison farm, run by Captain Peoples (Wendell Corey). When Peoples discovered that Williams had designed a new kind of repeating rifle, he allowed him to work on it in the prison shop over a period of years.

Williams' invention and simultaneous reform helped lead to his early parole, after which he continued to work on new gun designs. His concept of a repeating rifle was ultimately used by the army in World War II.

I had never seen CARBINE WILLIAMS before and it's a bit of an odd film, though ultimately rewarding. Stewart's character is an angry man for much of the movie, with the same simmering rage as was seen in some of his Anthony Mann Westerns that decade. Morever, his character spends at least the first two-thirds of the 92-minute movie making some really dumb decisions, which makes it difficult to empathize. It's hard to root for an immature man who thinks of his own feelings but not those of his family.

The film becomes a bit of a slog in the middle third, though Stewart pulls the viewer along by the sheer dint of his star power. The film improves once Wendell Corey enters the picture.

Stewart and Corey, who would later team in REAR WINDOW (1954), have an interesting dynamic, as Corey is equally capable of hinting at bubbling rage underneath a tranquil surface. This is particularly apparent in the scenes where Peoples sends Williams to solitary confinement.

At the same time, Corey's character is a smart man who recognizes Williams' interest might be used to help turn his life around. Despite his earlier harsh relationship with Williams, he eventually gives him the freedom to work on his invention on prison grounds. Stewart's reaction in a scene where Peoples tells the prison board that he'll finish Williams' sentence if Williams lets him down is quite moving.

I wouldn't class CARBINE WILLIAMS as one of Stewart's stronger films, but I think it proved worthwhile, and it also opens a window on an interesting piece of history.

The supporting cast includes Jean Hagen as Williams' long-suffering wife and Bobby Hyatt as his son. Williams' parents are played by Carl Benton Reid and Lillian Culver, and one of his brothers is played by James Arness. The large cast also includes Paul Stewart, Rhys Williams, John Doucette, Emile Meyer, Otto Hulett, and Howard Petrie.

CARBINE WILLIAMS was directed by Richard Thorpe and filmed in black and white by William C. Mellor.

CARBINE WILLIAMS was released early in the Warner Archive's history; I noticed the print has the old Turner logo at the start. The picture is quite clear, though originally filmed in a bland, muted visual style. 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.

The 2017 D23 Expo: Highlights, Part 2

Saturday at the 2017 D23 Expo was a day which was initially challenging but ended up being pretty wonderful.

As I wrote a few days ago, my day began in a three-hour line in the sun which was crowded and uncomfortable.

I was feeling fairly frustrated by the time I finally made it into the convention center, around 20 minutes after the show floor opened, but I felt better when I headed for the Disney DreamStore and found a short line. The DreamStore carries Expo-branded merchandise, and I was able to quickly pick up the items I wanted.

My daughter at this point was still in line for and later attending that morning's Live Action panel. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the show floor, starting with the giant model of Star Wars Land:

The Star Wars Land model was huge. (Click any photo to enlarge for a closer look.) During the weekend it was announced the land's official name will be Galaxy's Edge.

Cutouts provided a look at what the visual perspective will be entering the land at various points:

I also visited the Marvel Studios Pavilion, which featured costumes from upcoming films including BLACK PANTHER (2018):

After that it was time for another huge basement line, this time for Parks and Resorts. Due to the crowds still outside waiting to get in the building, it had been impossible to leave for lunch first, but thankfully my daughter was able to round up pretzels, which had to last us until dinnertime! After all these years I'm resigned to the fact that Disney ignores how bad the convention center food is and doesn't attempt to offer alternatives, but it really reflects poorly on the company that they hold their event in a venue with inedible food.

There weren't any particularly big surprises announced during the Parks and Resorts panel, which can be seen on YouTube. That said, I was perplexed to learn that DCA's Paradise Pier is being renamed and rethemed to "Pixar Pier." Disney just did a beautiful retheming job in the last few years which has been very successful, so I'm not sure what they're thinking. Hopefully it doesn't mean the end of the charmingly redone Silly Symphony Swings.

I was most intrigued by the retheming of Hotel New York at Disneyland Paris to an IRON MAN/Avengers theme. An ultra-immersive STAR WARS hotel was also announced for Florida, but I think it might be a little too interactive (and expensive) to appeal to me.

The best part of the Parks and Resorts panel came at the end, when it was announced that everyone present would receive a pass for a weekend sneak preview of the remodeled Fantasmic! show, which was officially reopening two days later. Many people left the panel with green balloons (it's a long story), which meant the line to receive wristbands for seating at Fantasmic! was rather colorful:

And so, instead of heading home at 7:00, we were off to Disneyland! It meant for a long day but we were able to grab a good meal there and had a really wonderful evening alongside the Rivers of America.

My one criticism of the rehabbed, slightly tweaked show is that changing out PETER PAN for Captain Jack Sparrow and PIRATES was a loser, especially a woman endlessly screaming "Jack!" during the fighting.

Otherwise it looked great and it was wonderful to see the show again now that the river has reopened after a lengthy closure due work on Star Wars Land. It was an unexpected and delightful way to end the day.

Coming soon: The final day of the 2017 D23 Expo.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Terror in a Texas Town (1958) - An Arrow Films Blu-ray Review

TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958) is a unique, memorable Western which has just been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films.

The always-interesting Sterling Hayden plays George Hansen, a Swedish seaman who arrives in Prairie City, Texas, only to discover that his father (Ted Stanhope) has just been murdered.

Most of the townspeople are tight-lipped about what happened, although George gleans some details from his father's neighbor (Victor Millan). It seems that wealthy McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) is claiming he has the rights to land surrounding the town, and if the farmers won't be bought out, McNeil's hired gun Crale (Ned Young) will see they end up dead.

George tries to rally the fearful townspeople against McNeil and Crale, but in the end it comes down to him and Crale on a dusty street, where George's only weapon against Crale's gun is his father's whaling harpoon.

This was a very interesting film where, like so many Westerns, there is great pleasure in discovering a fresh spin on a familiar Western theme. We've all seen the lone man who can't rally frightened townspeople (HIGH NOON, anyone?), and we've also seen settlers being forced off their land. But a Swedish sailor with a harpoon? That's different!

The sailing theme is also noteworthy inasmuch as Sterling Hayden was known offscreen for his love of the sea. Continuing with that theme, he looks like the proverbial fish out of water here, always dressed in "city" clothes, but like Gregory Peck's equally out of place sea captain in THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) the same year, George is a man whose "un-Western" appearance is deceptive. He won't back down from doing what's right, even if he has to go it alone.

The thoughtful hired gun with the steel hand is intriguing as well, particularly when he's emotionally undone late in the film after facing a man who wasn't afraid to die. He's completely unnerved by the loss of power over his victim.

The story is presented in a compact 80 minutes, well scripted by Dalton Trumbo, writing under the name Ben Perry. It's a curious piece of history that the film was not only written by a blacklisted screenwriter, but supporting actor Ned Young (Crale) was a blacklisted screenwriter himself, winning the Oscar under a pseudonym that year for THE DEFIANT ONES (1958). TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN is Young's penultimate acting role, with his last performance coming in 1966. He's very good with a unique spin on a Western villain.

The film was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who sustains interest throughout. Lewis was a man who knew how to get the most of a script, as seen in films like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945).

The somewhat off-kilter, noir-tinged aspects of this fairly dark and gloomy film also aren't surprising considering the director's earlier work included GUN CRAZY (1950) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

The black and white cinematography was by Ray Rennahan. Incidentally, something else unusual about the film is that the opening credits are a preview of the scenes to come later in the film.

My only complaint was that the oddball musical score, by Gerald Fried, mostly consists of shrill trumpet playing which becomes annoying after a while.

The supporting cast includes Frank Ferguson, Byron Foulger, Carol Kelly, Marilee Earle, and Eugene Martin. Glenn Strange, who was in countless Westerns, is seen briefly talking to Hayden on a train.

Extras include a 13-minute introduction by Peter Stanfield, which focuses largely on director Lewis and the context of the film being made during the Hollywood blacklist era. There is also a separate visual analysis by Stanfield, plus a trailer which has sound but no text.

The first pressing from Arrow Films will also include a booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny; the booklet was not included in the advance copy I reviewed.

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

Tonight's Movie: Deja Vu (1985) - An Olive Films DVD Review

Jaclyn Smith stars in the fantasy-mystery DEJA VU (1985), recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films.

Smith, the erstwhile Charlie's Angel, may be an actress of limited range, but I've always had a soft spot for her. Needless to say, she's a beauty, and I found her a particularly winning presence in period TV-biopics such as JACQUELINE BOUVIER KENNEDY (1981), GEORGE WASHINGTON (1984), and FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE (1985).

Claire Bloom, who costarred in FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, also appears in DEJA VU, which was released the same year. She plays Smith's mother in both films, which is apt casting as there is a vague physical similarity.

DEJA VU concerns a writer named Greg (Nigel Terry) who becomes fascinated with a long-deceased ballerina, Brooke Ashley (Smith), after seeing her in an old film.

Coincidentally, Greg's fiancee Maggie (also Smith) is the spitting image of Brooke -- save for her bad blonde '80s shag haircut -- while Greg looks a great deal like Brooke's choreographer love, Michael (also Terry).

Greg considers writing a screenplay about Brooke, and as he delves into her past he comes to believe he and Maggie are the reincarnations of Brooke and Michael.

The film turns into a mystery/horror movie as he receives dire warnings from the Great Beyond not to delve into Brooke's past; the warnings include the killing of Maggie's cat, a big no-no for me as a viewer!

I hoped to find something interesting in checking out this film, finding the London setting and the idea of Smith as a ballerina appealing, but I found it both desultory and silly. Everything from the very long, pointless bed scene which opens the film, to Michael being possessed with a woman's warning voice coming out of his mouth, to Maggie's hairstyle were just...bad. Shelley Winters as a medium who hypnotizes Greg? Also bad. Dead cat? Very bad.

Smith's Maggie is a complete enigma, more of a placeholder than a flesh-and-blood character, although some of the reason for that is revealed as the film goes on.

Furthermore, great opportunities to show off the city of London were wasted with boring, flat photography in a dull color palette. The cinematography was by David Holmes.

It's not often I'm that dissatisfied with a film, but there you have it. It was a very long 90 minutes, and by the time it crawled to a close, I really didn't care what the answers to the mysteries were.

DEJA VU was directed by Smith's then-husband, Anthony B. Richmond. This was the sole directing credit for Richmond, a cinematographer whose career began in the '60s and continues today.

The Olive Films DVD print looks fine. There are no extras.

While this film disappointed, Olive Films has overall done great work resurrecting lesser-known films and making them available to viewers once more. Happily Olive recently released another '80s film, SHAG - THE MOVIE (1989), which I found a lot of fun. Unexpected discoveries such as that one keep me trying out unknown titles, because you never know when you'll find a hidden gem, or at least an entertaining film worth seeing!

Thanks to Olive Films for providing a review copy of this DVD.

Tonight's Movie: Pilot #5 (1943) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Franchot Tone, Marsha Hunt, and Gene Kelly star in PILOT #5 (1943), a patriotic WWII programmer from MGM.

It's available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Having seen DUNKIRK (2017) earlier in the weekend, I thought it would be interesting to also watch a film actually made during the war, and I happened to have this in my review stack.

The film opens on Java, where Allied soldiers from several countries are enduring intense bombing by the Japanese. Pilot George Collins (Tone) suggests equipping their one remaining plane with a large bomb and attempting to hit the Japanese carrier offshore. George is the flyer on what will likely be a suicide mission, but if successful it may save the lives of many men facing increasingly grim odds on the island.

During George's flight his life story is told in flashback by his friends, including his former law partner and fellow pilot Vito Alessandro (Kelly). Each man relates the part of George's story he knows, including the time George's life temporarily went off the rails when he worked for an unethical governor (Howard Freeman); George lost both his fiancee Freddie (Hunt) and his legal business, but he ultimately redeemed himself when he helped put the governor in jail.

Vito engineers a reunion between George and Freddie during a three-day leave, but then George is off to fight in the war...

This is an interesting little movie. It zips along quickly; as further noted below, it apparently was cut down from a longer film and changes course rather abruptly at times, but it's never dull. The final sequence must have had quite an impact when the film was released in the heart of the war, in June 1943.

Tone and Hunt are great favorites of mine, especially Hunt, and it's quite enjoyable watching both actors.

This was Kelly's third film, one of several straight dramatic films he made during his years under contract to MGM. The personable cast also includes Van Johnson and Peter Lawford in early roles.

Dorothy Morris appears in a role as a mentally disturbed young woman which isn't too dissimilar from the part she later played in OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945). The cast also includes Steven Geray, Frank Ferguson, Alan Baxter, Dick Simmons, and Frank Puglia.

There are a number of interesting actresses listed at IMDb who aren't actually in the film, including Marie Windsor, Marilyn Maxwell, Jacqueline White, and Frances Rafferty. There are no "party girls" in the film, nor a carhop or a "Mrs. Claven." Sara Haden doesn't appear as a landlady, either. James Millican is listed as a lieutenant, but I didn't spot him, nor did I see Hobart Cavanaugh as a boat owner. It seems several scenes must have been left on the cutting-room floor of this 71-minute film.

PILOT #5 was directed by George Sidney, who also directed Kelly in ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948), and PAL JOEY (1957). It was filmed in black and white by Paul Vogel.

The Warner Archive disc is a fine print. The DVD 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.

The 2017 D23 Expo: Highlights, Part 1

We were in line bright and early on the first day of the 2017 D23 Expo! We've learned from past experience that taking the time to line up two or three hours before the show floor opens pays off with an easier time later on.

As a Marvel fan I enjoyed having the chance to see Agent Coulson's beloved car Lola from AGENTS OF SHIELD, which was parked out front all weekend. One of the show's catch phrases is "Don't touch Lola!" Needless to say, we didn't touch her, but we took plenty of photos!

When the doors opened we headed directly for Mickey's of Glendale, a store with unique Imagineering-themed designs which always draws long lines just to get inside.

One of this year's fun shirt designs:

The Bengal Barbecue at Disneyland is a favorite! Love this shirt.

Some scenes from the show floor, where seemingly every division of Disney is represented:

This was the first Expo where I didn't visit the Disney Archives exhibit. Based on my daughter's description, I believe I had seen some of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride items in past exhibits, and I wasn't interested in props from the movies, so I spent my time elsewhere.

Speaking of spending time elsewhere, this is the basement line for the Animation panel! As I wrote previously, we made it safely inside for the presentation, although there aren't any photos as everyone was required to seal their phones in plastic bags before entering the hall.

A highlight was a very funny scene from RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET: WRECK-IT RALPH 2 (2018) featuring all the Disney princesses. After the clip aired, nine of the "princesses" took the stage, including Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O'Hara (Belle), Mandy Moore (Rapunzel), Auli'i Cravalho (Moana), and more. The clip combined with the personal appearances was delightful!

The cast of THE INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) also appeared in person, including Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The presentation concluded with Benjamin Bratt of COCO (2017) taking the stage and singing, accompanied by the Mariachi Divas and dozens of dancers. That kind of spectacular presentation is part of why we wait in the lines!

Everyone received this COCO poster as we exited. I haven't been very enthused about COCO -- love the color palette, don't like the skeletons -- but the live musical performance combined with the movie clip stirred some interest. I'm not sold yet but will consider seeing it now. It will be released around Thanksgiving.

Next it was on to the convention arena for a wonderful combination concert and interview show, "Melodies in Walt's Time." Whoopi Goldberg served as host for this program about music from Disney's live-action films; most of the films were from the '60s, with a couple from the '50s thrown in.

Goldberg seems to have been well-prepared, or at least had a good teleprompter! She did a credible job interviewing Leonard Maltin, Joyce Bulifant, and Caryl Carothers (widow of Disney screenwriter AJ Carothers).

The highlights for me were the interviews with Karen Dotrice of MARY POPPINS (1964), which was the first film I ever saw in a movie theater...

...and Lesley Ann Warren of THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (1967) and THE ONE AND ONLY, GENUINE, ORIGINAL FAMILY BAND (1968). Since Lesley Ann Warren was my childhood CINDERELLA (1965) it was also particularly special for me to see her.

A Disney employee choir sang a number of songs from the movies, and at the very end composer Richard Sherman came out for a bow:

It was the perfect end to a fun and productive first day at the D23 Expo!