Monday, May 30, 2016

On Memorial Day

Remembering, with deep gratitude, the brave men and women who gave all for our nation and our freedom.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Song of Russia (1944) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters star in the WWII musical propaganda film SONG OF RUSSIA (1944), recently released by the Warner Archive.

Taylor plays a world-famous American conductor. While on a goodwill concert tour in the Soviet Union he meets Nadya (Peters), a lovely pianist, and the two fall in love and marry against the backdrop of the German invasion of Russia.

I'm going to state flat-out that I love this movie! I've been waiting for the DVD for a long time, and I'm thrilled it's finally here.

That said, yes, SONG OF RUSSIA is more than a bit of a guilty pleasure, with its crazy pro-Stalinist Soviet propaganda; as the saying goes, war makes strange bedfellows.

At the same time, the mind-bending pro-Soviet slant is part of what makes the movie so wildly entertaining. The depiction of a Soviet Russia with peasants toiling happily in the fields by day and visiting swank nightclubs by night has to be seen to be believed. Only in the movies...!

I mean, the film has one of the sweetest, most demure movie heroines in history -- who's somehow also a superwoman who rides a tractor and teaches children to make Molotov cocktails. And she's also got time to be a world-class concert pianist!

But who cares if it's believable when the actress is Susan Peters; she's absolutely luminous, her eyes glowing, lovingly filmed by Harry Stradling Sr. She was a gift to the cinema, gracing us with her presence for far too short a time. It makes one's heart ache thinking of what was to come for her off camera.

This was Robert Taylor's last film before leaving for service in WWII, and he's the epitome of a Movie Star, dashing and oh-so-romantic. Taylor's real-life background as a classical musician in college -- he was an accomplished cellist before Hollywood beckoned -- lends a note of authenticity to his performance, although at times his conducting seems a bit overwrought and strangely out of sync with the music.

Just as the knowledgeable viewer will feel a certain sadness, knowing that Peters' light would shine too briefly in movies, it's painful to watch Taylor chain-smoking in this film, being aware he would die of lung cancer at 57. Peters' Nadya actually encourages him to cut back on the smoking in this film, which seems a bit unusual for a film of the era.

The movie epitomizes MGM's glamour and skill with musical films; the movie was produced by Joseph Pasternak, who produced many of Deanna Durbin's fine movies. The "Pasternak touch" is evident throughout when it comes to the presentation of the music.

I was a goner from the goose-bumpy moment Peters' Nadya gets the conductor's attention by sitting down and playing Tschaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestra members, who have just ended a rehearsal, pick up their instruments and play's a simply wonderful moment. The beautiful music throughout the film, combined with the Taylor-Peters romance, is more than enough to make this movie a winner for me.

It was especially interesting watching this the same weekend as two other WWII resistance films, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) and THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER (1942). So far this Memorial Day weekend, without intending to, I've watched films about resistance fighters in Poland, Holland, and Russia! And it must be said that SONG OF RUSSIA builds to an inspiring conclusion, with a passionate victory speech by John Hodiak followed by Tschaikovsky.

It was a treat to see Darryl Hickman in this, just weeks after seeing him on the red carpet at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival.

The fine cast also includes Robert Benchley, Jacqueline White (THE NARROW MARGIN), Joan Lorring, Felix Bressart, Patricia Prest, and Vladimir Sokoloff. Look for Tommy Rall (SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS) as a dancing peasant at the wedding.

The film was directed by Russian-born Gregory Ratoff. Laslo Benedek also worked on the movie when Ratoff fell ill. The movie runs 107 minutes.

It's fascinating to take a look at Bosley Crowther's 1944 review in the New York Times; he calls it "a honey of a topical musical film, full of rare good humor, rich vitality and a proper respect for the Russians' fight in this war...a fine blend of music and image is achieved in the best cinematic style...Joseph Pasternak, producing for Metro, has imparted to this tale a buoyance and gusto quite similar to that of his earlier musical films."

For more on this film, please visit my 2010 review, posted after watching the movie via TCM.

The SONG OF RUSSIA print was newly remastered, yet I felt it doesn't look as good as most Warner Archive prints. There are no skips or major glitches, but there quite a few lines and streaks which are particularly noticeable during some of the quieter scenes with Taylor and Peters. Anyone who loves the movie as I do will want to own this DVD, but should know going in that the picture looks worn in spots.

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.

A Visit to Holy Cross Cemetery, Part 3

This is the third of three posts sharing photographs from last month's visit to Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Part 1, including an introduction to this series, may be found here, and Part 2 is here.

This final post focuses on the Holy Cross Mausoleum, seen here:

Fred MacMurray and his wife, June Haver, are in a lovely corner with sunlight pouring in through stained glass.

Actor John Candy is immediately above MacMurray, Haver, and additional Haver family members:

Pianist Jose Iturbi, who added so much to MGM musicals. His sister Amparo, who also appeared in MGM films, is nearby.

Another MGM star, Mario Lanza:

Ray Bolger of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939):

Actress Marguerite Chapman:

Baseball player and GENERAL HOSPITAL star John Beradino:

The great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who gave us OUT OF THE PAST (1947):

The Oscar-winning cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.:

Joan Davis:

Still to come: A two-part series on last year's visit to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

Previously: A Visit to Hollywood Forever Cemetery; A Visit to Westwood Village Memorial Park - The Musicians; A Visit to Westwood Village Memorial Park - The Comedians; A Visit to Westwood Village Memorial Park - The Actors; A Visit to Westwood Village Memorial Park - Writers, Directors and More; A Visit to Holy Cross Cemetery, Part 1; A Visit to Holy Cross Cemetery, Part 2.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Wife Takes a Flyer (1942)

Joan Bennett and Franchot Tone star in THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER (1942), an anti-Nazi comedy released a few months after Pearl Harbor.

THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER was released just weeks after another wartime comedy, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), and it was rather fascinating watching the movies a couple of days apart.

The movies are similar in that each centers around an anti-Nazi resistance movement; TO BE OR NOT TO BE is about Polish freedom fighters, while THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER is set in Holland. Both films portray the Nazis as buffoons who will inevitably lose to the Allies.

Yet while TO BE OR NOT TO BE has a surprisingly light touch with its dark humor, THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER is simply strange, which might be an understatement; its humor is more of the leaden and unsophisticated HOGAN'S HEROES variety, although the lead actors and unusual story make it worth a look.

Tone plays Christopher Reynolds, an American flyer for the R.A.F. who is shot down over Holland. He's hidden by a Dutch family, the Wovermans; the Wovermans pretend he's their son Henrik, due home from an extended stay at a sanitarium.

Bennett plays the real Henrik's estranged wife Anita, who has plans to divorce Henrik but is quite taken with the new version of her "husband."

Complicating everything is Nazi General Zellfritz (Allyn Joslyn), who commandeers a room in the Woverman home. He has designs on Anita and is very intent on her divorce taking place.

Christopher must continue to play the role of Henrik in order to protect the Wovermans from the General, while at the same time he needs to find a way to complete his mission.

This is quite an oddball movie; it warns in an opening card that it will make fun of the enemy, and it's quite merciless in doing so.

From today's standpoint, some of the jokes are a bit jaw-dropping, yet really the lines about executions are not all that different from those in TO BE OR NOT TO BE -- they're just not as well, er, executed.

I love Allyn Joslyn, who is fantastic in films such as MOONRISE (1948) and ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953), but he's really not very good in this one. Part of the problem is the script; he's stuck playing an incredibly dense character, but much of the performance consists of barking his dialogue, which becomes wearying.

Then there's the entire concept that Anita is married to someone with mental problems; in the end he turns out to be daffy but a nice guy, played by Hans Conreid. How Anita and Henrik ended up together in the first place, we'll never know.

Add in Anita renting a room in a home for elderly ladies, who all pitch in to help Christopher battle the Nazis, and it's a pretty wacky film. You've got a courtroom divorce scene straight out of a screwball comedy, but it's interrupted by Gestapo agents; the movie's tone tends to wander between the funny and the serious, with the biggest clash of styles being a scene where Christopher is condemned to death played for laughs.

As one could infer from the above, I wouldn't call it a good movie, yet at the same time I found it strangely diverting. I'm a big fan of both Bennett and Tone and found it worth seeing for them, and it was also worthwhile from an historical perspective, since I'm interested in Hollywood's role in WWII. It's especially interesting to watch films which were released in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor and our entrance into the war.

As a side note, a couple of years previously Bennett had appeared in a much more serious anti-Nazi film, THE MAN I MARRIED (1940), in which she plays an American trapped in Germany with her German-born husband.

The large supporting cast of THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER includes Lloyd Corrigan, Barbara Brown, Roger Clark, Aubrey Mather, and Cecil Cunningham. When a group of Gestapo soldiers walked into the courthouse, I did a double-take as the lead soldier was James Millican. Lloyd Bridges and Hugh Beaumont are supposed to be soldiers as well, but I didn't spot them!

THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER was directed by Richard Wallace. It was filmed in black and white by Franz Planer. The running time is 86 minutes.

To my knowledge, this Columbia Pictures film is not available on DVD or other formats.

Tonight's Movie: In Name Only (1939) at UCLA

The second Carole Lombard film I saw at UCLA Thursday evening, following TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), was IN NAME ONLY (1939).

Both films were part of a double bill on the last night of the series Independent Stardom on Screen: Freelance Women in Hollywood.

IN NAME ONLY costars Cary Grant and Kay Francis. I began watching Grant's films at a very young age; I began tracking the movies I watch around age 11, and IN NAME ONLY is one of the earliest titles on the list. It's always been a film I especially enjoy, with appealing stars in an engrossing and romantic story. It's one of those movies which seems to me to epitomize 1930s movie glamour.

With Lombard and Grant in the leads, the unsuspecting might expect a comedy, but this is actually a serious drama; one might say it's downright soapy, but in the very best way.

Julie (Lombard) and Alec (Grant) "meet cute" in the countryside, when he helps her with a fishing line caught in a tree. They quickly develop a friendship which includes going on picnics with the widowed Julie's little girl Ellen (Peggy Ann Garner).

Alec, however, is remiss in not informing Julie that he's married, which she learns when he's injured in an auto accident near her home. She soon also learns that Alec's wife Maida (Kay Francis) married Alec for his money and social position, and he's miserable.

Maida turns on the charm in front of all their family and friends, especially his parents (Charles Coburn and Nella Walker). They can't understand why Alec is so unhappy with her, not knowing the real Maida.

Maida finally agrees to a divorce and heads for Europe with his parents, where she plans to tell them the news and take care of the legalities, or so she says. Maida always has another trick up her sleeve; meanwhile the unsuspecting Alec and Julie plan for a happy future...

This is one of those movies which reels the viewer in from the opening scene and hangs on until the very last moment. Lombard and Grant are lovely and quite touching, whether he's blushing over nursery wallpaper in their future home or she's trying to give him the will to live.

They're matched by Francis, simply splendid as the manipulative wife. Her moments playing the loving, patient, and faux bewildered spouse in front of his parents are vastly entertaining. It's a great part, and she makes the most of it.

The film builds to one of my favorite little moments in the movies, when Francis as Maida finally gives away the game to Alec's parents. The audience at UCLA gasped right along with Alec's mother (Walker). It's delicious and very satisfying.

Peggy Ann Garner, most recently reviewed here in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1946), is adorable as Lombard's little girl. She was six or seven when this was filmed.

Another actress I'm always glad to see, Katharine Alexander, plays Julie's sister, reeling from a divorce. Jonathan Hale and Helen Vinson are also in the cast.

IN NAME ONLY was directed by John Cromwell, who that year also directed Lombard in another tear-stained marital melodrama, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939).

The movie was filmed in black and white by J. Roy Hunt. The screenplay is by Richard Sherman, based on a novel by Bessie Breuer. The film runs 94 minutes.

IN NAME ONLY is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. It was also released on VHS.

A Birthday Tribute to John Payne

Actor John Payne was born this week in 1912.

Numerous sources give Payne's birth date as May 23rd, but I'm using the May 28th date which is attributed to his daughter Julie at the IMDb site. Either way, it's a great week to reflect on John Payne and his many contributions to classic cinema.

Early in his career Payne was the singing star of wonderful Fox musicals such as SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941), WEEK-END IN HAVANA (1941), SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES (1942), and HELLO FRISCO, HELLO (1943).

Like Dick Powell before him, Payne later made the transition from musicals to rugged film noir hero, appearing in classics of the genre such as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), 99 RIVER STREET (1953), and SLIGHTLY SCARLET (1956).

Payne also starred in numerous adventure films and Westerns in the '50s, including RAILS INTO LARAMIE (1954), SILVER LODE (1954), and TENNESSEE'S PARTNER (1955).

He'll probably always be best-known, however, as one of the stars of the Christmas perennial MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947).

Early marriages to Anne Shirley and Gloria DeHaven didn't take, and a romance with Coleen Gray in the early '50s also came to an end, but in 1953 Payne married Alexandra Crowell Curtis. Their marriage lasted 36 years, until Payne's death in 1989.

John Payne's career is filled with very enjoyable films spanning a variety of genres. His movies which have been previously reviewed at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: GARDEN OF THE MOON (1938), WINGS OF THE NAVY (1939), TEAR GAS SQUAD (1940), SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941), WEEK-END IN HAVANA (1941) (also here), SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES (1942), HELLO FRISCO, HELLO (1943), THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946), MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), THE SAXON CHARM (1948), LARCENY (1949), THE CROOKED WAY (1949), EL PASO (1949), 99 RIVER STREET (1953), SILVER LODE (1954), RAILS INTO LARAMIE (1954), TENNESSEE'S PARTNER (1955), SLIGHTLY SCARLET (1956), and REBEL IN TOWN (1956).

I have a number of John Payne films on hand I've never seen which I hope to review here in the future! Additional notable titles include TIN PAN ALLEY (1940), REMEMBER THE DAY (1941), SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1946), CAPTAIN CHINA (1950), TRIPOLI (1950), SANTA FE PASSAGE (1955), and THE BOSS (1956), to name just a few.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Tonight's Movie: To Be or Not to Be (1942) at UCLA

I was able to wrap up work for the week Thursday afternoon and head to UCLA last night for a great Carole Lombard double bill, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) and IN NAME ONLY (1939).

The films were being shown on the last night of the series Independent Stardom on Screen: Freelance Women in Hollywood, and they were introduced by Emily Carman, author of INDEPENDENT STARDOM: FREELANCE WOMEN IN THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIO SYSTEM.

I would have loved to have seen more films in the series, but between the Noir City Film Festival, the TCM Classic Film Festival, and traveling to Flagstaff for our son's college graduation, there simply wasn't time! I'm very glad I was able to attend the finale, especially as the movies shown are two of my very favorite Lombard films. I've previously seen each one several times, but not for quite a while and never in a theater.

Seen together, TO BE OR NOT TO BE and IN NAME ONLY encapsulate Lombard's many gifts, including the ability to play either high comedy or serious drama, all while looking incredibly glamorous.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a real high point in the careers of director Ernst Lubitsch and his stars, Lombard and Jack Benny. All three are brilliant, firing on all cylinders.

Sadly, the movie was released just weeks after Lombard's tragic death in a plane crash as she returned home from a tour selling war bonds. Her performance here underscores what a huge loss her early passing was to the cinema.

There isn't much to be said to describe the plot of TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Suffice it to say that a group of Polish actors, headed by that "great, great Polish actor" Joseph Tura (Benny) and his wife Maria (Lombard), become involved with the Polish resistance movement and foiling a Nazi spy. The genius isn't so much in the plot, but in how it's told, with a darkly comic style which was quite daring considering the film was released mere months after Pearl Harbor.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is, to my mind, a flawless film. The screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer is brilliantly constructed; case in point, the sequence where Benny first pretends to be "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" and then replays the "scene" in another "role" opposite the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman, in what must have been his best role).

Jokes such as Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) walking out every time Benny begins Hamlet's soliloquy are the stuff of great, memorable comedy; by the end of the movie all Benny has to do is walk out on stage and the audience starts laughing. Some of the humor gets pretty dark, such as the fate of the two Nazi pilots, yet the viewer can't help chuckling in surprise.

The movie also walks a really interesting, rather daring line with the Turas' relationship. One never doubts that Joseph and Maria, who are both goofy hams, love each other, but they also love the adulation of audiences, and in Maria's case, that includes handsome young pilots.

The supporting cast is superb, including Felix Bressart as the spear carrier who would be Shylock and Tom Dugan as a Hitler impersonator who gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie. (What a joy to see this movie with an enthused audience!) Also in the cast: Charles Halton, Stanley Ridges, Lionel Atwill, Maude Eburne, and Miles Mander. All the actors have a chance to shine, down to the smallest roles.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE was photographed in black and white by Rudolph Mate, who later became a director himself. It runs 99 minutes.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE was released on DVD in 2005. In 2013 the Criterion Collection released the movie on DVD and Blu-ray. It was also released on VHS.

Very highly recommended.

Related post: Tonight's Movie: THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER (1942).

Today at Disneyland: Memorial Day Weekend Begins

For the third year in a row my husband and I spent the Friday morning heading into Memorial Day weekend at Disneyland.

Unlike the previous four years, Disneyland did not host a 24-hour Memorial Day party, which many attribute to recent cutbacks due to Shanghai Disneyland cost overruns. (This has prompted a sarcastic #ThanksShanghai hashtag on Twitter when U.S. park cutbacks are noted.) It wasn't all bad, though, as unlike the last couple of years, we had zero lines at breakfast or for our first couple of rides today!

We took a trip on the recently rehabbed Jungle Cruise, which was looking great:

After walking on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad without a line, I took a second trip, which also allowed me to snap a photo of Star Wars Land construction from one of the highest points on the ride:

This summer there's a special popcorn bucket for Annual Passholders. It's $15 and refills are just $1 all summer long. The refill promotion ends September 5th.

I picked up the latest mug for my Disneyland Decades collection! This one commemorates park additions from 2005 to 2014, including Cars Land and the Carthay Circle Theater.

I also realized that somehow I had never seen the 1995-2004 mug, but fortunately I was able to pick one up on eBay today! I was relieved to know I'll have a complete set, especially as this design includes one of my favorite rides, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

I love this reproduction of the LADY AND THE TRAMP album I had as a child. Although I still have several old Disney LPs, I no longer have this one, so I might have to pick it up on a future trip:

This summer's park maps:

The new musical FROZEN - LIVE AT THE HYPERION opened this week to strong reviews. I hope to see it soon!

Past Memorial Day Weekend Posts: Today at Disneyland: Rock Your Disney Side 24-Hour Party (2014), Today at Disney California Adventure: Rock Your Disney Side 24-Hour Party (2014), Today at Disneyland: Diamond Celebration 24-Hour Party (2015), and Today at Disney California Adventure: Grizzly Peak Airfield (2015).