Wednesday, November 30, 2011

TCM in December: Highlights

December is a very important month for fans of Turner Classic Movies, as Robert Osborne returns to the channel on December 1st! It will be wonderful to welcome Mr. Osborne back after his time off.

It's a great month on TCM for many other reasons, including a new documentary on Christmas movies premiering December 6th, the TCM debut on Christmas Eve of Jeanne Crain in the classic MARGIE (1946), and the incomparable William Powell as Star of the Month on Thursday evenings.

I plan to post more information on both the Star of the Month and TCM's great lineup of Christmas movies in the near future. Here are just a few of the other interesting titles coming to TCM in December:

...On Friday, December 2nd, there's a fabulous lineup of Warren William pre-Codes, including BEAUTY AND THE BOSS (1932) and SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1932).

...Saturday morning, December 3rd, TCM will be showing John Farrow's FIVE CAME BACK (1939), a "B" movie which represents a triumph of filmmaking over budget. I saw this creepy film, about survivors of a jungle plane crash, as part of an RKO Festival at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I was a teenager. I've never forgotten the experience. It has a great cast including Lucille Ball, Chester Morris, Wendy Barrie, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, Allen Jenkins, John Carradine, Joseph Calleia, Kent Taylor, Patric Knowles, and Elisabeth Risdon. Those were the days, when a 75-minute programmer could feature a cast of that caliber! Dalton Trumbo was one of the contributors to the screenplay.

...As a Stewart Granger fan, I especially enjoyed GUN GLORY (1957), a solid Western showing on the night of December 3rd. It costars Rhonda Fleming and Chill Wills. It's being shown as part of a five-film prime time tribute to Fleming which also includes OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956).

...On December 4th THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS (1955) has its TCM premiere. I saw this Bob Hope film many times while I was growing up, but haven't watched it in years. James Cagney has a cameo as George M. Cohan, and the film plays back to back with Cagney's Cohan film YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942).

...The film noir ANGEL FACE (1952), starring Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Herbert Marshall, and Mona Freeman, will play on the 5th. This is a good-looking film I've yet to catch up with.

...The rarely shown MGM musical EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS (1952) will play on December 6th. It stars Marge and Gower Champion. I've had the soundtrack on LP since I was young but I've never had the chance to see it; my DVR is set! It plays back to back with an episode of SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE directed by Gower Champion.

...TCM marks Pearl Harbor Day with a primetime lineup of World War II films, including FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945).

...I was extremely impressed by SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) when I recently saw it. James Wong Howe's black and white cinematography is stunning. December 8th is a great opportunity to catch this film. It stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, with excellent supporting performances by Susan Harrison and Martin Milner.

...TCM will celebrate the centennial of Broderick Crawford's birth on December 9th, showing three Crawford films, including his Oscar-winning performance in ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949).

...THUNDER ROCK (1942) sounds interesting: Michael Redgrave and James Mason in a spooky lighthouse movie directed by Roy Boulting. Lilli Palmer and Finlay Currie are also in the cast. It's shown in the wee hours early on December 12th.

...I'm an Audrey Totter fan, so I'll be recording A BULLET FOR JOEY (1955) on December 12th. It costars Edwards G. Robinson and George Raft.

...There's an outstanding birthday tribute to Van Heflin on December 13th, the only mystery being the exclusion of his Oscar-winning performance in JOHNNY EAGER (1941). No matter, as it's a great day which includes the enjoyable "B" mystery GRAND CENTRAL MURDER (1942), the biopic TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1942) with Ruth Hussey, the highly entertaining costume soaper GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947) with Lana Turner and Donna Reed, and EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949), with an all-star cast including Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Ava Gardner, and Cyd Charisse. I paid tribute to Heflin on the centennial of his birth on December 13, 2010.

...A Tribute to the George Eastman House Film Archive on the 14th will include Jeanette MacDonald in THE LOTTERY BRIDE (1930), Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Ray Milland in PAYMENT DEFERRED (1932), THE WORLD MOVES ON (1934) with Franchot Tone and Madeleine Carroll, and Ava Gardner and James Mason in PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951).

...On the 16th there are some great-looking pre-Codes, including YOU CAN'T BUY EVERYTHING (1934) with Jean Parker, HELL DIVERS (1932) with Clark Gable, THE WET PARADE (1932) with Myrna Loy, and LOVE IN THE ROUGH (1930) with Robert Montgomery.

...The fabulous Irene Dunne receives an eight-film birthday tribute on December 20th. There will be several pre-Codes shown, followed by the classic Cary Grant comedy MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940) and her role as a Norwegian immigrant in the warm I REMEMBER MAMA (1948).

...The Howard Hawks comedy BALL OF FIRE (1941), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, airs on December 21st. This is one of four titles left on my personal list of "unseen classics" which I hope to catch in 2011. The titles I've seen so far this year are listed in my review of THE LADY EVE (1941), which also starred Stanwyck.

...Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), which I recently enjoyed for the first time, will air on December 22nd. It stars Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker. Highly recommended. It's part of a Ruth Roman tribute which also includes YOUNG MAN WITH IDEAS (1952) costarring Glenn Ford and LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE (1951) with Richard Todd.

...December 23rd I'm looking forward to COVER-UP (1949), a film noir I've never seen with Dennis O'Keefe, Barbara Britton, and William Bendix.

...MARGIE (1946) isn't a Christmas film, but it has a nostalgic glow -- including a memorable ice skating scene -- which makes it perfect Christmastime viewing. This story of an awkward teenager (Jeanne Crain) blossoming in the 1920s is classic Americana. It's been hard to find for years, so what a thrill to see it premiering on TCM as one of "Robert Osborne's Picks" on Christmas Eve, alongside some classic Christmas titles. If I could only record one movie in December, it would be MARGIE.

...On December 28th TCM will honor several actors who passed away this year, including Jane Russell (THE PALEFACE), Elizabeth Taylor (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF), and Anne Francis (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK).

...The 30th features films from the National Film Registry, including TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), THE SEARCHERS (1956), and OKLAHOMA! (1955). OKLAHOMA! is one of a handful of mid-'50s films -- another is SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) -- which exists in two versions which are noticeably different. It was filmed in both CinemaScope and Todd-AO; the lighting and line readings vary considerably in some scenes, and I've found it fascinating to compare. The TCM guide doesn't indicate which version will be shown.

...There's a fun theme on New Year's Eve, which features movies with time deadlines. Titles include D.O.A. (1950), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), and ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968).

I'll be back soon with more on TCM in December, and you can also consult the complete schedule, which will hopefully show up here on December 1st. (It must be said that TCM has not always made it easy to find advance schedules this year!)

Happy December viewing, and welcome back, Robert Osborne!

Update: TCM Star of the Month: William Powell.

Update: TCM in December: Christmas Movies.

Judy Lewis, Daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable, Dies at 76

Judy Lewis, whose parentage was at the center of a decades-long Hollywood mystery, has passed away at the age of 76.

Lewis was the daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable, conceived while they were making CALL OF THE WILD (1935). Young was in the early stages of pregnancy when she filmed Cecil B. DeMille's THE CRUSADES (1935), reviewed here earlier this year. Gable was married, which put both actors in a very difficult position due to, among other things, morals clauses in their contracts. Unlike many actresses of the era, Young refused to have an abortion, so an elaborate story was concocted which hid the truth and allowed Young to "adopt" her own daughter -- which salvaged both actors' careers and provided Young with the means to support her child.

Although there were whispers for many years, Judy's true parentage wasn't publicly confirmed until the publication of two books, Judy's 1994 autobiography UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE and Loretta's authorized biography FOREVER YOUNG. Loretta told FOREVER YOUNG author Joan Wester Anderson the entire story; it was published weeks after her passing in 2000.

In FOREVER YOUNG Loretta recounted "In those days, unmarried pregnant women were sometimes thrown out of their homes in disgrace. But Mama...comforted me and talked to Clark about it." Loretta was terrified of discovery and refused Gable's calls, but she was also definite about having her child: "Judy was my baby, I loved her, and I knew I'd have enough angels around me, my mother and sisters, so that we could take care of her properly and give her a good life."

Young, who was deeply religious, also committed herself to supporting St. Anne's, a home for unwed mothers, encouraging many Hollywood stars to do the same.

Gable and Young kept their distance from one another until reuniting for the film KEY TO THE CITY (1950), 15 years after Judy's birth. Around that time, Loretta invited Clark to her home to meet Judy. Judy, who was unaware he was her father, wrote of being stunned to find Gable standing in her front hallway.

She wrote, in part, "I could tell he really cared about what I was saying... We sat there...and talked for what seemed like a long time. I have no idea how long it was, but what mattered was that I was alone with Clark Gable and that he wanted to know everything about my life... He was warm and considerate and caring... I liked his interest in me; I didn't understand it, but I genuinely enjoyed it... As I sat there, it did occur to me that he had actually been waiting for me to walk in the front door and that he had known when I was due home." Then, when their long discussion was finished, he kissed her and said goodbye.

Lewis's career accomplishments included a long association with TV soap operas. She acted on GENERAL HOSPITAL and THE SECRET STORM, was on the writing staff of SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, and produced TEXAS. In later years she began a new career as a psychotherapist. Her obituary mentions that she counseled teenagers at St. Anne's -- which is the same maternity hospital supported by Judy's mother for so many years.

Judy's younger brothers, Christopher and Peter Lewis, posted a wonderful tribute video to Judy on YouTube a few weeks ago. "Judy Lewis - Pictures of the Past" includes some remarkable home movie footage. I discovered it via the official Loretta Young website.

A transcript of a Larry King interview with Judy and Peter Lewis is also available online. Among other things, they discuss the refusal of Judy's younger half brother, John Clark Gable, to acknowledge Judy as his sister.

Related Post: New Book: Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young (October 26, 2011).

Update: Additional obituaries have been published by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Strange Impersonation (1946)

STRANGE IMPERSONATION, a 68-minute "B" picture directed by Anthony Mann for Republic Pictures, is a wild ride of a movie. It has a hard-to-believe storyline with many wild twists and turns, yet despite -- or because of -- the crazy plot, it's a pretty entertaining film.

Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is a research scientist engaged to Dr. Stephen Lindstrom (William Gargan). Nora's been delaying their wedding as she's so consumed by her work developing anesthetics.

As part of her job, Nora likes to try out her new anesthesia inventions at home (!), away from fussbudgets at the office who might require mundane things like paperwork prior to clinical trials. One night at Nora's apartment, while she's knocked out by anesthesia, Nora's jealous assistant Arline (Hillary Brooke) starts a fire. It seems Arline wants Dr. Lindstrom for herself.

The fire doesn't kill Nora, but it disfigures her face. Arline manages to convince Nora and Stephen that neither wants to see the other again so she can have Stephen to herself, and the movie's just getting warmed up at this point!

I thought Mann's very enjoyable STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944) had an improbable plot, but STRANGE IMPERSONATION may win the prize. As the film goes on, there's the matter of a blackmailer, a balcony that's too low -- a little problem which is clearly telegraphed by a comment early in the movie -- plastic surgery, and developments which might have inspired some of the plot in the following year's Warner Bros. film NORA PRENTISS (1947). (Odd that the heroine of STRANGE IMPERSONATION is named Nora!) I'm not going to say anything more about the storyline, only that I've seen enough film noir to be able to correctly guess the ending.

I sometimes find Brenda Marshall beautiful but too bland, examples being THE SEA HAWK (1940) or FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARK (1941). I found her more interesting in a small but showy role in THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943), and I thought she was quite good in STRANGE IMPERSONATION, taking her character through a variety of life-changing travails. The plot doesn't always make sense -- Nora's "plastic surgery" seems to consist merely of a dye job on her hair, yet no one recognizes her? -- but Marshall plays the role with gusto.

Speaking of plot devices that don't make sense, I was slightly amused at the thought of a woman being willing to murder for the love of William Gargan, but whatever! He does what he can as the good doctor, who's a little too patient and a little too dense. Hillary Brooke is entertaining in a showy role as Nora's evil "friend."

George Chandler plays an ambulance-chasing attorney, H.B. Warner is a plastic surgeon, and Lyle Talbot shows up in the final minutes as a police detective. Ruth Ford, who in real life later married Zachary Scott, plays a blackmailing accident victim. Mary Treen is a goodhearted but extremely annoying nurse who always speaks in plurals, as in "We need our nap now!"

STRANGE IMPERSONATION isn't the best of the early Mann films I've seen to date, but Mann fans should find this fast-paced film entertaining.

STRANGE IMPERSONATION is available on DVD from Kino. It can be purchased as a single title or in Kino's boxed set titled Film Noir: Five Classics From the Vaults. The DVD is currently available from Netflix.

It was also released by Kino on VHS.

February 2014 Update: I had the wonderful chance to see this film in 35mm at UCLA's Anthony Mann Festival.

New Book: Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

I appreciate Clara of the blog Via Margutta 51 making me aware via a Tweet of a brand-new book on one of my favorite actresses.


Author Richard Rhodes previously won the Pulitzer for THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB.

As I've mentioned here in the past, Hedy Lamarr was a fascinating woman. The "frequency hopping" for which she was a co-patent holder led to today's wireless technologies.

In a review of the new book, Sam Kean writes "Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century. Believe it or not, this essentially happened to Hedy Lamarr."

For those who are fans of Hedy or those who would like to learn more about her, there are several other books available on her life. I highly recommend the Citadel picture book THE FILMS OF HEDY LAMARR by Christopher Young, which I thought was one of the best books in the Citadel series.

Not long ago I bought BEAUTIFUL: THE LIFE OF HEDY LAMARR by Stephen Shearer. It looks quite good, but I haven't had a chance yet to do more than dip into it for a few minutes.

I haven't yet purchased HEDY LAMARR: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FILM by Ruth Barton or Hedy's own autobiography, ECSTASY AND ME: MY LIFE AS A WOMAN. The latter book was recently reviewed by Jessica at Comet Over Hollywood.

Update: An interesting interview with author Richard Rhodes was published in the Los Angeles Times.

Update: Here's a link for another book on Hedy Lamarr: SPREAD SPECTRUM: HEDY LAMARR AND THE MOBILE PHONE by Rob Walters.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tonight's Movie: The Falcon Takes Over (1942)

THE FALCON TAKES OVER is a strong third entry in George Sanders' FALCON series, following THE GAY FALCON (1941) and A DATE WITH THE FALCON (1942).

THE FALCON TAKES OVER is somewhat improbably based on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mystery FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY was more famously filmed by the same studio, RKO, just two years later, when Dick Powell starred as Marlowe in MURDER MY SWEET (1944).

Lynn Root and Frank Fenton adapted the Chandler novel into a fast-paced 65-minute Falcon story. Needless to say, with the Falcon (Sanders) and his righthand man Goldie (Allen Jenkins) on the case, THE FALCON TAKES OVER is a more jovial affair than the later film of the story. There's no sign of Philip Marlowe in the Falcon film, but viewers familiar with MURDER, MY SWEET will recognize characters such as Velma and Moose Malloy. Malloy is superbly portrayed here by a memorably creepy Ward Bond.

The Falcon's fiancee is out of town, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to become mixed up in a new murder mystery involving a big man named Moose (Bond) who is looking for a woman named Velma. Moose seems to leave bodies behind everywhere he goes.

Despite his engagement, the Falcon is still an incorrigible flirt, and while working on the case he enjoys spending time with both reporter Ann Riordan (Lynn Bari) and glamorous Diana Kenyon (Helen Gilbert).

Bari here plays a character somewhat similar to the reporter she played the previous year in 20th Century-Fox's Michael Shayne mystery, SLEEPERS WEST (1941). The main difference is here her reporter is a little less experienced and worldly. It's a nice part, and there's some excellent interplay between the Falcon and Ann.

Helen Gilbert, as Diana, is a very striking blonde who makes quite an impression. Gilbert had 18 film and TV credits spread over an 18-year period. Her private life appears to have been somewhat tumultuous, as she had half a dozen husbands, including the infamous Johnny Stompanato, who was later killed by Lana Turner's daughter.

James Gleason and Edward Gargan return in this film as perennially exasperated Inspector O'Hara and dimwitted Detective Bates. Anne Revere, Hans Conreid, and Turhan Bey are also in the cast.

This film was directed by Irving Reis. It was photographed in black and white by George Robinson.

THE FALCON TAKES OVER is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive in The Falcon Mystery Movie Collection, Volume 1.

It's also available on Region 2 DVD, along with several other FALCON films.

THE FALCON TAKES OVER can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

Tonight's Theater: A Christmas Carol at South Coast Repertory

The South Coast Repertory production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a tradition for many Orange County theatergoers. The show is now in its 32nd season, and for all 32 of those years, Hal Landon Jr. has starred as Ebenezer Scrooge.

I saw the show with my parents a couple of times in the early '80s and enjoyed it very much. I've wanted to go again for years, but for various reasons the timing was never quite right.

This year our daughters signed up for a program at South Coast Repertory which makes inexpensive tickets available to theatergoers ages 15-25. (A couple months ago they loved a South Coast Rep production of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.) 2011 was thus finally the year for our family to go see A CHRISTMAS CAROL!

The production was as enjoyable as I remembered. Landon is simply a must-see as Scrooge. I've read that when Landon began playing the role, he had to use old-age makeup, but as the decades have gone on, much of that makeup is no longer needed! He makes Scrooge interesting in his various stages, and his joy on Christmas morning is infectious. His somersault across his bed, coming up wearing his top hat, is a classic theatrical moment.

The rest of the cast is generally strong; I found William Francis McGuire (Fred), Daniel Blinkoff (Bob Cratchit), and Timothy Landfield (Spirit of Christmas Present) particularly noteworthy among the large cast.

There are some excellent special effects for a small theater, ranging from snow to the spirits coming and going in mysterious ways. I also liked the use of music, particularly at the end of Act I.

As with the recent production I saw of MARY POPPINS, this is a color-blind production. Some of the casting thus does have the effect of mentally taking the viewer out of Victorian London. However, as SCR notes in the program, they have made a decision to set the story in London, yet it is not designed to be "specifically British or realistic."

A CHRISTMAS CAROL most definitely leaves the audience filled with Christmas cheer. It closes on Christmas Eve.

Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast; Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins; Tonight's Theater: West Side Story.

Around the Blogosphere This Week

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

...Don't miss the great photo spread on SECOND CHANCE (1953), a 3D film starring Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell, and Jack Palance, at Greenbriar Picture Shows.

...Dear Old Hollywood takes a close look at the Los Angeles locations for HOLLOW TRIUMPH (1948), which starred Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett. I always find Robby's location posts fascinating. This film can be seen on Netflix Watch Instantly under the title THE SCAR.

...The L.A. Times ran a wonderful story on Thanksgiving about the relationship of two USC Trojans, Louis Zamperini (age 95) and John Naber (age 55). Zamperini's story is told in Laura Hillenbrand's book UNBROKEN.

...Speaking of Trojans, USC fans are feeling happy today about the Trojans' 50-0 shutout over UCLA yesterday. :)

...Here's two articles on the transition from film to digital screenings: "Film Technology Advances, Inspiring a Sense of Loss," which appeared in the New York Times, and "Sweet Emulsion: Why the (Near) Death of Film Matters," posted at A.V. Club.

...Continuing the theme of the above stories, I appreciated Vince of Carole & Co. using my review of last weekend's digital screening of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934) to help call attention to the New Beverly's petition to movie studios to be allowed to continue to screen films in 35mm. The petition is closing in on 5,000 signatures; if you haven't already signed it and love classic films, please consider adding your name.

...And from the L.A. Times, another article looking at film history, "L.A. Movie Palaces Still Matter to Film Industry." A number of decades-old movie theaters in Los Angeles are regularly used for filming.

...There seems to be a theme of "changing times" in today's links. Here's one more story from the Los Angeles Times, on the future of greeting cards in an era of email. Personally, I love to send greeting cards and other "real mail."

...Good news: Looks like the Andy Hardy films will finally be coming to DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. No word yet on the release date.

...The post office is raising prices once again in January. Sigh.

...That's odd: No mention of God in the President's Thanksgiving address? After all, who are we thanking?

...Matthew of Movietone News has been enjoying the Falcon films -- I've enjoyed the first two films myself this month! He provides an excellent biographical sketch of George Sanders.

...Jim Lane's Cinedrome has a wonderful entry on a Christmas film I just discovered a few years ago, REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

...Robby's soliciting readers' favorite Christmas films at Dear Old Hollywood. REMEMBER THE NIGHT is a great title to try!

...And Caftan Woman has been sharing thoughts on one of my favorite topics, Christmas music. Love that Singers Unlimited album she mentions!

...Attention Southern Californians: The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica will be hosting a rare screening of the film noir CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944) on December 2nd. The movie stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin in what was an atypical film for each of them.

Have a great week!

Best Wishes for a Very Happy Advent

Somehow the start of Advent always catches me by surprise; it may be hard to believe, but Christmas is four Sundays from today!

My sincere best wishes for a very happy and meaningful Advent season, leading to what I hope will be a wonderful Christmas celebration.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tonight's Movie: The Muppets (2011)

This was a rare afternoon when everyone in our family had an open schedule and there were two brand-new movies we all wanted to see. We followed seeing the delightful ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011) with THE MUPPETS, a well-done and entertaining family film.

It took me a little longer to buy into the premise of THE MUPPETS, insofar as Gary (Jason Segel) is brother to...a Muppet, Walter (Peter Linz). (Well, Walter's not an official member of the Muppets, but he's a puppet!) That notion caught me a little off guard, but the sweetness of the characters soon warmed me up.

Gary and his girlfriend Mary (the always-delightful Amy Adams) decide to take Walter along on a trip to Hollywood so he can tour the studio where his idols, the Muppets, once filmed their show. Upon arrival they discover not much is left of the studio, and an oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) who claims he wants to build a Muppet museum on the property really wants to raze it and drill for oil.

Walter finds Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and convinces him to round up the ol' Muppet gang and hold a telethon so they can hang on to the property, and craziness ensues. Somehow the Muppets, who haven't performed together in years, pull together a program in a matter of hours. In the end, the film is a Muppet reunion melded with the classic "Let's put on a show!" theme of countless movies.

While this film didn't completely wow me like ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, there's plenty I enjoyed: a nice sense of humor (especially the moments where the characters break "the fourth wall"), a couple good production numbers, and sweet nostalgia. Any viewer of a certain age probably had a tear in the eye when Kermit launched into "The Rainbow Connection." I know I did.

The first production number, "Life's a Happy Song," takes place on the Warner Bros. backlot and provides a great visual tour of the street sets which are also known as River City from THE MUSIC MAN and Stars Hollow in GILMORE GIRLS. The final production number, which reprises the same song and is my favorite scene in the movie, is a street dance at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland in Hollywood. Composer Bret McKenzie can be seen singing the catchy, upbeat tune with Kermit on a video.

The Los Angeles location shots are among the film's strengths, as the characters visit the El Capitan Theatre (doubling as the Muppets' theatre), Angels Flight, and Pink's Hot Dogs. The movie is very attractive visually, with a clean, crisp look and lots of bright, bold colors. I was glad I watched it on a big screen, as I think some of the movie's nice look might be lost on a smaller screen.

Amy Adams conveys a certain innocence which makes her perfect to believably costar with a horde of Muppets, and she's also got a great singing voice for the musical numbers. (In fact, I would have liked it if she'd had the chance to sing more often!) Jason Segel grew on me as Gary.

There are a number of amusing cameos, although I thought the movie could have had more of them, with bigger stars. I especially liked seeing the man who popped up in the first version of "Life's a Happy Song," and I also thought the sequence at Miss Piggy's Parisian office was done very well.

THE MUPPETS was directed by James Bobin. It runs 98. It's rated PG for "mild rude humor."

Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times thought the film was "charming," while Leonard Maltin described it as "a joyful movie." USA Today says it "bursts with charm and cheeky humor."

Recommended as solid entertainment which will be enjoyed by all ages.

Tonight's Movie: Arthur Christmas (2011)

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is, as the British might say, "brilliant" -- an appropriate adjective for this very British, very funny holiday movie. I believe ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is destined to be a beloved Christmastime viewing perennial.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is an ingenious reworking of the Santa story. The creative screenplay by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith continually delights and surprises, as the viewer is treated to a fun cast of characters and very novel, modern methods of delivering gifts from the North Pole.

Santa (Jim Broadbent) is embarking on his 70th trip around the world delivering presents on Christmas Eve. Although he's reluctant to sit by the hearth with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) on Christmas Eve, it may be time for Santa to turn over the reins -- not to a sleigh, but a spaceship -- to his oldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who runs delivery operations with military precision.

Santa's younger son, the klutzy but warm-hearted Arthur (James McAvoy), handles answering children's letters in the mailroom. When it's discovered that a gift for a little girl (Ramona Marquez) in Cornwall wasn't delivered, it's up to Arthur and Grandsanta and an outdated sleigh to make sure that her present is there when she wakes up on Christmas Day.

There are so many things I loved about the film. I could have happily spent the entire movie in the operations room, enjoying all the clever bits of business involved in making the deliveries to various countries. I think Steve, with his Christmas tree beard and military bearing -- a skilled but imperfect potential Santa -- was my favorite character. Watching him run operations was a delight, especially when Santa was potentially trapped by a "waker." The North Pole computer, incidentally, is voiced by Laura Linney.

I also loved the film's very British tone, complete with "Happy Christmas" and stockings hung by children's beds. The ever-calm Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton), who handles every development with cheerful equanimity, was clearly modeled on Britain's beloved Queen Mum.

The Santas may have some interpersonal issues, but the movie also never loses sight that they're a family. Steve could easily have devolved into a villain, and it's to the film's credit that never happens. He's just a guy who's got a great skill set in one area but also has some problems. Likewise, Arthur has his own issues, but he's got great heart and is dedicated to making sure not a single child is forgotten. The film gradually demonstrates that Steve and Arthur's strengths complement one another, one of the film's many positive themes.

Another of the film's treats is Bryony (Ashley Jensen), a Scottish elf from the wrapping division, whose motto is "There's always time for a bow!" Bryony is a wonderful character who provides many laughs. Additional elves are voiced by Robbie Coltrane and Joan Cusack.

The movie deftly mixes humor and inventiveness with strong messages, including the importance of family and a "never give up" attitude, along with not forgetting what it means to have the Christmas spirit. The film is somewhat inexplicably rated PG for "mild rude humor," but whatever it was that caused the film not to have a G rating, I missed it. All in all, it's simply a wonderful film which provides 97 minutes of terrific entertainment.

Incidentally, we've seen plenty of 3D movies recently and didn't have any great desire to pay extra to see another film in that format, so we saw the 2D version. We didn't miss the 3D a bit.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS has an official website.

In closing, I agree completely with Leonard Maltin, who writes that ARTHUR CHRISTMAS "is so ingenious, endearing, and downright funny that it instantly joins the ranks of first-class holiday movies, intended for viewers young and old."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tonight's Movie: I Love Melvin (1953)

The MGM musical I LOVE MELVIN is a breezy trifle which provides 77 minutes of enjoyable entertainment.

The paper-thin plot is merely an excuse to string together a series of musical numbers featuring the film's stars, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. Debbie plays Judy, a dancer in a Broadway show who falls in love with Melvin (O'Connor), a photographer's assistant at Look magazine.

Melvin leads Judy to believe he can do a spread of photos on her in the magazine, and then he goes to greater lengths to persuade Judy and her family that she'll be on the cover. Judy hopes this will make her a star and save her from her father pressuring her to marry boring Harry (Richard Anderson) for financial security. Of course, telling tall tales comes back to bite Melvin and complications ensue.

It does give one pause that the plot hangs on the thread of the leading man being a liar who doesn't know when to quit, but O'Connor is wistfully charming and persuades the viewer that he's really a nice guy led astray by love. One can understand how smitten Melvin is with Judy, as Reynolds was at her very loveliest in this film. She's delightful.

The Mack Gordon-Josef Myrow musical score isn't especially memorable, but it's kind of catchy; as a teenager I enjoyed listening to it on LP for years before I ever had the opportunity to see the movie. My favorite number is "Where Did You Learn to Dance?" which Judy and Melvin perform in the living room of her family's apartment. I also like the tune they sing in the park before meeting, "We Have Never Met, As Yet."

O'Connor has a couple of solos, including a good number in a park on roller skates. (Fun to note that this preceded Gene Kelly's roller skating dance in IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER by a couple of years.) Watch carefully as O'Connor skates around a gazebo in perfect circles -- he's attached to what's apparently meant to be an invisible wire which is anchored at the center of the gazebo.

The movie has a nice sense of humor, including a dream sequence featuring Robert Taylor (!). I also especially liked Debbie's wardrobe of pretty dresses, designed by Helen Rose, and the set design of Judy's family's lower middle class apartment, which is a bit cramped and worn, but also homey and comfortable.

I especially like Una Merkel in this, playing Judy's mother. Her appearance in this film reminds me a bit of my late maternal grandmother.

Allyn Joslyn plays Judy's perpetually bellicose father. He's always been one of my favorite character actors, but he doesn't have much to do in this short film other than be disagreeable.

Noreen Corcoran is cute as Judy's little sister, Clarabelle. Noreen was from a large family of child actors which included Donna (ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD), Kevin (OLD YELLER), and several other siblings.

Jim Backus plays the photographer Melvin works with at the magazine, and Les Tremayne is the editor. If you don't blink, you can spot Barbara Ruick as a studio tour guide in Judy's dream sequence; this was one of a number of small roles she appeared in at MGM in the early '50s.

The movie was directed by Don Weis and photographed in Technicolor by Harold Rosson. The film includes some attractive location shooting in New York City.

I LOVE MELVIN has been released in a nice remastered print by the Warner Archive. The disc includes the trailer and an outtake reprise of the song "A Lady Loves" which appears to have been an alternate ending to the movie. A shot from that outtake also appears at the end of the trailer.

This film has also been released on VHS.

I LOVE MELVIN can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

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