Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tonight's Movie: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

I successfully completed viewing all of the films on my 10 Classics for 2013 list on New Year's Eve, and I truly saved the best for last: John Ford's Oscar-winning masterpiece HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941).

Although I'm a great admirer of John Ford and many in the cast, I've always been reluctant to watch this film, as I knew it would be an emotional and probably tear-inducing experience. I found that although the story was, in many ways, very dark, that aspect was leavened by the film's beauty and the fact that it's simply an incredibly compelling movie.

When I teared up at the end I think it was not so much due to the story but my appreciation of the magnificent artistry of cast and crew. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is classic-era studio filmmaking at its finest.

Philip Dunne's screenplay for this 118-minute film was based on a novel by Richard Llewellyn. It tells the story of the Morgans, a close-knit family of Welsh miners, and the gradual disintegration of the family due to job loss and mining accidents.

Since I'm coming to this classic film relatively late, I suspect many of my readers already know the movie quite well. Suffice it to say that it's a deeply moving and absorbing film, anchored by a truly remarkable performance by 12-year-old Roddy McDowall as Huw, the youngest of seven children.

The film's loose narrative depicts the happy marriage of oldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles) to charming Bronwyn (Anna Lee); the not-so-happy marriage of Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) to the mine owner's son, as her true love (Walter Pidgeon), the minister, will not marry her; Huw's travails, first an accident and then being abused at a new school; and a strike and accidents at the mine.

As life in the mining village grows more difficult and the family scatters, the picture itself grows darker and darker, yet the story of this loving, religious family never loses a sort of spiritual glow. The final lines of Mrs. Morgan (Sara Allgood) feel like a sort of benediction, conveying the hope and faith that although there may be earthly tragedy, in the end all is well.

One scene among many which has stayed with me comes after the sons part ways with their father (Donald Crisp) over unionization and move out of the family home; little Huw, left alone at the table, noisily clanks his silverware to gain his devastated father's attention. With bowed head the father says, "Yes, my son, I know that you are there."

I could cite many more such beautiful moments but instead I'd simply like to encourage any of my readers who haven't seen this film not to wait as long as I did to see it! The investment of time and emotion will be amply rewarded.

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Best Black and White Cinematography (Arthur C. Miller), and Best Art Direction. (One of the film's many achievements was the construction of a very believable village on the studio backlot.) It received an additional five Oscar nominations.

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is on DVD in the Fox Studio Classics series. Extras include a commentary track with historian Joseph McBride and actress Anna Lee. It can be rented from Netflix and ClassicFlix.

It's also had releases on Blu-ray and VHS.

I enjoyed some great viewing thanks to this year's 10 Classics list, and I look forward to seeing what's in store in 2014!

Tonight's Movie: The Concorde...Airport '79 (1979)

New Year's Eve at our house means watching a disaster movie, and this year's selection was the enjoyably awful THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT '79 (1979). This movie won't win any prizes for logic or acting, but that made the movie even better. Like ZERO HOUR! (1957) a couple decades earlier, the actors play it straight but the audience watches a gloriously funny unintentional comedy.

George Kennedy is back as Joe Patroni, the unluckiest airline employee in the world. Crew members should run when they see him coming! Although perhaps in a strange way he could be considered lucky, given that he survives every disaster he encounters.

This time around Joe's a widower -- in fact, he's entirely too cheery announcing his wife's death on multiple occasions, especially given all he did to save her life in AIRPORT '75! -- and he and Captain Metrand (Alain Delon) are piloting a brand-new American-owned Concorde on its inaugural goodwill flight, first from Washington, D.C., to Paris and then on to the Soviet Union. Their navigator is Peter O'Neill (David Warner).

Newscaster Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely), having survived a hitman in her home the prior evening which left her barely hanging on to her roof, boards the plane after having just been handed documents proving that her lover, Dr. Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner), has been selling illegal arms overseas.

Dr. Harrison, a weapons manufacturer, of course concludes the only thing to do is tamper with his company's missile test and use a missile to take out the Concorde! Joe and Captain Metrand take successful evasive action, so Dr. Harrison goes for Round 2: a fighter jet pilot is hired to down the Concorde when it reaches France. In the midst of evasive barrel rolls Joe jokes "I'd love to see what my horoscope says for today!"

One of the movie's many inexplicable plot angles is that after surviving attacks by missiles and a fighter jet, the crew and passengers simply walk away from the Concorde. There's some mumbling about an investigation, but clearly no one undergoes any serious debriefing. The plane is tidied up and then, without the attacks on the plane having been solved, everyone gets right back on the plane for round 3!

In fact, the captains don't even seem stressed despite having piloted their way out of near-death experiences on two separate occasions. They don't get much sleep that night -- Joe later learns the woman (Bibi Andersson) he spent the night with was actually a hooker hired by the other pilot! -- and then they're ready to get right back to piloting the Concorde to its final destination.

For this flight Dr. Harrison arranges for the Concorde's cargo door to pop open. The plane begins to tear apart, but fortunately a ski patrol can lay out a landing runway high in the snowy Swiss Alps...

This one has to be seen to be believed. After surviving the initial missile attack, complete with oxygen masks popping out and storage compartments emptying, do the pilots land at the nearest airport to check the plane over? Nope, they announce hey, everything's fine, we're going on to Paris!

There are so many actresses with blonde Farrah Fawcett hairstyles that we couldn't tell them apart. It took us a bit to realize that Eddie Albert's trophy wife (who refreshingly actually loves him) and Maggie (Blakely) were not the same character!

This being an AIRPORT film, you've of course got the urgent medical case on board (Nicolas Coster and Cicely Tyson are transporting a heart to France for a transplant), some musicians (Jimmie Walker and Monica Lewis), and young lovers (John Davidson and Andrea Marcovicci). Charo makes an inexplicable couple-minute cameo, trying to board the plane in Paris but kicked off because she's carrying a little chihuahua.

I might have muttered something about how low an Oscar winner fell when Mercedes McCambridge popped in for a couple of scenes as a Russian gymnastics coach. And poor Martha Raye fares even worse, playing a character whose sole function is to keep using the bathroom. Perhaps the ladies needed the income?

THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT '79 runs 113 minutes. It was directed by longtime TV director David Lowell Rich from a script by Eric Roth, based on a story by producer Jennings Lang. It was filmed by Philip Lathrop.

THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT '79 is available on DVD. It can be rented from DVD on Netflix.

It also had a release on VHS. It can currently be streamed via Amazon Instant.

The trailer is on YouTube. It gives a great overview of the numerous calamities faced by the crew of the Concorde.

Previous New Year's Eve disaster movies: AIRPORT '77 (1977), EARTHQUAKE (1974), CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965), THE CROWDED SKY (1960), ZERO HOUR! (1957), SKYJACKED (1972), and TWISTER (1996).

Reviews of the prior AIRPORT movies: AIRPORT (1970), AIRPORT '75 (1974), and AIRPORT '77 (1977).

THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT '79 is a gem of a bad movie which I thoroughly enjoyed. Fans of goofy airline disaster movies should be sure to catch it.

TCM in January: Highlights

Happy New Year, and best wishes for 2014!

The holiday season always passes too quickly, but we can look forward to an exciting January schedule on Turner Classic Movies.

Joan Crawford will be the January Star of the Month, with over five dozen Crawford films shown on Thursday evenings and the Friday daytime hours throughout the month. I plan to share more about this month's Crawford films on Thursday. (Update: Please visit TCM Star of the Month: Joan Crawford.)

Here are just a few of the other interesting titles airing on TCM in January:

...Spend New Year's Day with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954). I haven't seen that one in years, I'm due to rewatch it.

...The Friday Night Spotlight theme this month is "Science in the Movies," and the series kicks off on Friday, January 3rd, with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon starring in the classic MADAME CURIE (1943).

...I love the Lane Sisters and "B" movies, so I'll be recording the 59-minute ALWAYS A BRIDE (1940) on January 5th. Rosemary Lane costars with George Reeves.

...Another fun "B" movie on the 5th is TEAR GAS SQUAD (1940). Gotta love the title! Dennis Morgan and John Payne star.

...Primetime on the 5th features two Betty Grable films. The musical MOON OVER MIAMI (1941) is a big favorite at my house. Betty and Carole Landis chase Don Ameche and Bob Cummings in glorious Fox Technicolor. Sheer delight.

...The day after Rosemary Lane is on in ALWAYS A BRIDE, her sister Priscilla can be seen in BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941). This is a strange film -- starting with the name of Priscilla's character, she's called "Character"! -- but I have a soft spot for it, especially due to the memorable title song.  January 6th.

...There's a new PRIVATE SCREENINGS on January 6th; in honor of TCM's 20th anniversary this year, Robert Osborne is the interviewee rather than the interviewer. I find the choice of Alec Baldwin as the interviewer awkward; the perennially immature Baldwin and a classy network like TCM don't seem to go together. That said, I'm looking forward to hearing Robert Osborne's thoughts on his life, career, and TCM.

...Also on January 6th: the priceless comedy LIBELED LADY (1936), starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow. Anyone who loves screwball comedies and hasn't yet caught up with this one should make it a point to catch it.

...TCM celebrates the 90th anniversary of Columbia Pictures with an 11-film festival beginning on January 7th. The titles include IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), COVER GIRL (1944), GILDA (1946), FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954).

...On January 8th TCM will devote a six-film tribute to actor Dane Clark. I highly recommend EMBRACEABLE YOU (1948), costarring Geraldine Brooks; it's one of those wonderful relatively unknown treasures I happened across a few years ago. I was deeply impressed by Clark's performance. I suspect it's better not to say anything about the plot but just let it unfold for new viewers; it may be farfetched at times, but the cast carries it off. You can read more about the film by Moira at Skeins of Thought.

...Actress Anita Louise received a nine-film birthday tribute on January 9th. There are many interesting titles to explore; the only one I've seen is THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS (1939), an entertaining MGM "B" film with a terrific cast, including Lana Turner, Marsha Hunt, Richard Carlson, and Ann Rutherford.

...I've always been partial to VALLEY OF THE KINGS (1954), an Egyptian treasure hunt film starring Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker. Not a great movie, yet I find it a lot of fun to watch. It's on January 11th.

...It's Kay Francis Day when TCM celebrates her birthday on January 13th. Kay receives a huge 10-film tribute, ranging from pre-Codes to Deanna Durbin's IT'S A DATE (1940) to late career films such as ALLOTMENT WIVES (1945) and DIVORCE (1945). It looks like a very enjoyable schedule.

...Loretta Young stars in the pre-Code PLAY-GIRL (1932) on January 14th. It's a bit silly, yet Loretta is magnetic. It's part of a morning of pre-Codes which also includes Kay Francis in the very entertaining MAN WANTED (1932).

...The annual birthday tribute to Margaret O'Brien will take place on Wednesday, January 15th. I particularly recommend OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945), which is classic MGM Americana. Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorehead play O'Brien's farmer parents. The excellent supporting cast includes James Craig, Frances Gifford, Jackie "Butch" Jenkins, Dorothy Morris, and Arthur Space.

...Ward Bond, Frances Dee, and Donna Corcoran star in GYPSY COLT (1954) on January 16th. This was the lovely Dee's last feature film; she had a "surprise" baby in 1955, two decades after the birth of her second child, and devoted herself to her family from that point on.

...I receive a great deal of email from professors and college students about THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947), wanting to know if this MGM film about the creation of the atomic bomb is out on DVD. This is one the Warner Archive should put out ASAP! It's airing on January 17th as part of the Friday Night "Science in the Movies" series.

...PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), airing on Sunday, January 19th, is a memorable fantasy starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. I have a great memory of seeing a revival screening of this in the late '70s or early '80s, when it switched to "widescreen" and tinted colors for the ending disaster sequence.

...I really enjoyed NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1946) at the 2012 Noir City Film Festival, starring John Garfield and Geraldine Fitzgerald. It's shown on the 22nd.

...The MGM musical LUXURY LINER (1948) has gorgeous Technicolor. George Brent is the ship's captain and Jane Powell is his daughter. Interesting trivia: George Brent liked Jane Powell so much that he and his wife named their daughter Suzanne, which was Jane's real name. Even more interesting trivia: Decades later, after his wife had died, George proposed to Jane. Jane loved George as a friend but turned him down. It will be airing on the 26th.

...The low-budget CAUSE FOR ALARM! (1951) shows how much can be done with a little, as Loretta Young's ill husband reveals a previously unknown dark side. Very dark side! It airs on the 27th.

...Laraine Day stars in the very cute BRIDE BY MISTAKE (1944), a remake of THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (1934) which starred Miriam Hopkins. The screenplay was written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, parents of the late Nora Ephron. BRIDE BY MISTAKE airs January 29th.

...The last day of January includes BACHELOR IN PARADISE (1961), a Bob Hope film with a stunning rainbow-hued early '60s look. It's also on the 12th.

Please visit the online schedule for the complete list of all the movies playing on TCM this month.

And again, Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Here's lovely Anita Louise welcoming the New Year:

Best wishes to all for a very Happy New Year!!

Columbia in the 1930s: Recent Restorations at UCLA

There are some exciting programs on the UCLA schedule for the first quarter of 2014, including an extensive Anthony Mann series beginning January 31st.

I'll have more details on the Mann series in January. First up, though, is an 11-film series titled "Columbia in the 1930s: Recent Restorations." With one exception, the series is comprised entirely of films from the pre-Code era.

The series opens this Friday evening, January 3rd, with LET US LIVE (1937) starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Sullivan. The double bill also includes EAST OF FIFTH AVENUE (1933) with Wallace Ford.

January 4th features two Lee Tracy films, THE NIGHT MAYOR (1932) and WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND (1932).

Coming on January 6th: Pat O'Brien and Mae Clarke in THE FINAL EDITION (1932) paired with Edmund Lowe, Evelyn Brent, and Constance Cummings in ATTORNEY FOR THE DEFENSE (1932).

A single film will be shown on January 12th: Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra's THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1932).

January 17th the titles are THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) with Walter Huston and BY WHOSE HAND? (1932) starring Ben Lyon.

The series wraps up in mid-February with a Valentine's Day screening of MEN IN HER LIFE (1931) starring Lois Moran and Charles Bickford, playing with LOVER COME BACK (1931), starring Constance Cummings.

All films in the Columbia series will be shown in 35mm.

There's also a series of films featuring Mexican actor Arturo de Cordova which begins at UCLA on January 10th. On January 11th I hope to see Joan Fontaine starring with de Cordova in FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (1944), which I missed when it was shown as part of the Mitchell Leisen series in the fall of 2012. The chance to see a 35mm film starring Fontaine, less than a month after her recent passing, is of course especially welcome.

FRENCHMAN'S CREEK will be shown with a 16mm print of ADVENTURES OF CASANOVA (1948), costarring Lucille Bremer. Bremer, best known for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) and YOLANDA AND THE THIEF (1945), is a favorite of mine and only appeared in a handful of films, so this screening is a wonderful opportunity.

For more information please visit the UCLA Film & Television Archive website.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Some Came Running (1958)

When I was drawing up my list of 10 Classics to see in 2013, my friend Blake Lucas suggested I consider adding Vincente Minnelli's SOME CAME RUNNING (1958) to the list.

I appreciated the idea, as while I've seen and admired virtually all of Minnelli's musicals and comedies -- indeed, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) is one of my favorite films of all time -- I'd only seen a couple of his dramas. SOME CAME RUNNING, which was nominated for multiple Oscars, was a significant Minnelli film I was glad to finally cross off my "to see" list.

SOME CAME RUNNING, which stars Frank Sinatra, is based on a novel by James Jones, who also wrote FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. It was the 1953 film version of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY which netted Sinatra a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; five years later Sinatra was the top-billed star in the filming of Jones's SOME CAME RUNNING.

SOME CAME RUNNING has more than a little in common with the previous year's PEYTON PLACE (1957), and it also called to mind some of Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas, with themes including small town societal expectations and hypocrisy, not to mention adultery, alcoholism, rigidity, and frigidity.

Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a hard-drinking one-time writer who ends up back in his hometown after leaving the army in 1948. Dave hasn't seen his older brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) in years, and they have a frosty relationship. It seems Frank placed his orphaned little brother in a home after their parents died, and there's also some business, never fully explained, about how Frank's wife Agnes (Leora Dana) was depicted in a thinly veiled novel written by Dave. Some of Agnes's reactions when the past is brought up hint there's more to that back story than was depicted in the film.

Dave tries to clean up his act when he falls for an uptight writing teacher, Gwen (Martha Hyer). They have a push-pull relationship, with Gwen alternating between giving in to her attraction to Dave and then pulling back in fear and telling him she's only interested in his writing.

Dave has another circle of friends on the other side of town, including an alcoholic gambler named Bama (Dean Martin) and a floozie named Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine). Dave's worlds collide when dumb bunny Ginnie decides to go ask Gwen whether or not she plans to marry Dave. (Speaking of dumb bunnies, surely it's not a coincidence that Ginnie carries around a stuffed bunny purse, and in another scene Dave finds himself talking to an actual bunny.) Rejected by the shocked Gwen, Dave makes an impulsive decision, but the hand of fate has something else in mind.

This being a Minnelli film, it's no surprise that one of the film's greatest pleasures is its great widescreen '50s look, photographed in Metrocolor by William H. Daniels. Frank and Gwen's homes are especially gorgeous, and the climactic carnival sequence is terrific. In an interview for THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES, Minnelli said he wanted the carnival to look "like the inside of a jukebox," and I think he succeeded. The entire surreal sequence is very Minnelli, worth waiting for.

I especially liked that Sinatra's Dave showed a capacity to mature and grow, cutting out the drinking, resuming interest in his writing, and taking on unaccustomed responsibility in mentoring his troubled niece (Betty Lou Keim). It was a bit ironic that the more stable and "respectable" character, Gwen, was by comparison only able to evolve at a glacial pace.

The final scene seemed to open up more questions than it answers, particularly about Gwen -- I'd love to know how it was interpreted by others -- and indeed, the viewer wanting to know what happens after "The End" gives the movie a "good book" kind of feel.

The movie's drawbacks for me were an excessively long running time, clocking in at two hours and 17 minutes, and, well, Shirley MacLaine. Starting with the latter issue first, MacLaine received a Best Actress nomination for this film, but I've simply never warmed up to her, and I found myself impatient for her scenes to end so I could get back to the other characters. Her troubled, unkempt cutesy-pie character types just don't work for me.

The running time was problematic in part because it got to be a bit difficult watching so many characters engaging in self-destructive behavior; some condensation would have been helpful. In fact, while I'm a big Dean Martin fan and own countless Martin CDs, I think his character could have been trimmed or even excised for a more streamlined story. Martin's Bama is colorful, but I didn't feel that the relationship with Dave was critical to Dave's story, other than Bama perhaps being a sympathetic sounding board; his determination to drive himself into a diabetic coma just added additional angst to a film which already had plenty.

Despite my complaint about too many self-destructive characters, I must say that I was quite interested in the relationship between Frank and his enigmatic secretary Edith (Nancy Gates), who turns out to have hidden fires under her placid, efficient exterior. I've always enjoyed Gates, and in this case I would have enjoyed her role being quite a bit larger. Her quiet performance was the polar opposite of MacLaine's, and while MacLaine's excesses dulled my interest, Gates had my eyes on her for every second of every scene, trying to read her. She was excellent, and Frank's final line to her Edith was perhaps the most memorable sentence in the movie.

Gates, incidentally, had previously worked with Sinatra in SUDDENLY (1954). She'll be 88 on February 1st.

I've been reading FINDING MY WAY: A HOLLYWOOD MEMOIR by Martha Hyer, and found it interesting that she said she had trouble with the role of Gwen because she'd been working for years to be a more natural actress on screen, yet suddenly she was portraying an uptight, stiff character with pursed lips. She was very appreciative of Minnelli's direction and said she loved working for him, but she initially felt her performance was a flop -- only to find herself nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress!

In addition to nominations for MacLaine and Hyer, the film received nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Arthur Kennedy), Best Costume Design (Walter Plunkett), and Best Original Song, "To Love and Be Loved" by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. That very same year, Minnelli's GIGI (1958) swept the Oscars, winning a staggering 9 awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

A final reaction to the film: I was of two minds about the score by Elmer Bernstein. I found the doom-laden opening credits music, played while the sleeping Sinatra rides the bus to his hometown, to be overly bombastic. However, I really appreciated the scoring of later sections of the film. It's interesting I also had some trouble this year with Bernstein's score for THE TIN STAR (1957). I rarely react negatively to scores, but for my taste some of Bernstein's music in these films seems to inappropriately dominate what's on the screen.

SOME CAME RUNNING is available on DVD in the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years Collection. The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix or Netflix. It can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

This MGM movie can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next be shown on February 12, 2014.

The trailer is available on the TCM website.

While SOME CAME RUNNING didn't work for me on all levels, it was absorbing and thought-provoking, with a great look, and I'm glad to have finally caught up with it. Thanks again to Blake Lucas for the suggestion!

Coming to DVD: Maverick - Season 4

MAVERICK fans received a Christmas gift from the Warner Archive, the news that Season 4 is coming to DVD in January.

Season 4 will be out just three months after the Archive's release of Season 3, so it seems likely that we'll also see the release of the fifth and final season in 2014.

Although the box cover art says "Part One," TV Shows on DVD cites other information showing that it seems likely it will actually be a complete season set like the others in the series.

Roger Moore joined the cast in Season 4 as the Mavericks' cousin Beau; if you're wondering why their cousin has a British accent, watch the first episode of the season, "The Bundle From Britain."

Highlights of the fourth season include "Hadley's Hunters," with cameos by numerous Warner Bros. TV Western stars; James Garner's last episode, "The Maverick Line"; and "Triple Indemnity," one of half a dozen episodes in which Peter Breck played Doc Holliday.

Previously: Coming to DVD: Maverick - Season 1, Coming to DVD: Maverick - Season 2, and New on DVD: Maverick - Season 3.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Around the Blogosphere This Week

Miscellaneous bits of news and fun stuff from around the Internet...an abbreviated holiday week edition!

...New on DVD from the Warner Archive: THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW (1971-72), costarring Stewart's BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) leading lady, Julie Adams.

...At The Skeins, Moira has a tribute to actress Marian Marsh, who I enjoyed earlier this year in the pre-Code BEAUTY AND THE BOSS (1932).

..."A Look Back at How the Content Industry Almost Killed Blockbuster and Netflix (and the VCR)." When I shared this TechCrunch article on Twitter, it received numerous ReTweets. It sure took me back to the early '80s and the time when it seemed my first Betamax, purchased in 1980, might be my last.

...Two promising trailers for 2014 sports films: MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014) starring Jon Hamm, and DRAFT DAY (2014) with Kevin Costner. Fingers crossed these are good films!

...Will McKinley shared his "Christmas Eve With Donna Reed's Daughter" at Cinematically Insane.

...Here's Toby on 3 GODFATHERS (1948) for ClassicFlix. I still need to see that one!

...A visit to the set of Turner Classic Movies.

...Jason Belzer for Forbes Magazine: "Why the Oregon Ducks Teach Us that Luck Isn't Everything."

...Our younger daughter is in San Antonio with the Ducks Marching Band for the Alamo Bowl, which will be played on Monday, December 30th. Here are some photos of last night's neat pep rally on the San Antonio Riverwalk.

...Graham Fuller on "The Romantic Passion of Joan Fontaine."

...Notable Passing: Hungarian singer Marta Eggerth, who appeared in the Judy Garland musicals FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942) and PRESENTING LILY MARS (1943), has passed away at the age of 101.

...Please stay tuned, as I have numerous posts scheduled for the next week or two, including a look at TCM in January, with Joan Crawford as Star of the Month; a roundup of Disney news; reviews of the last two films on this year's 10 Classics list, and the new list for 2014; a preview of a series of Columbia films at UCLA; a review of the new biography of Barbara Stanwyck by Victoria Wilson; and the annual epic New Year's Day post, "Tonight's Movie: The Year in Review."

Have a great week, and Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Sky Murder (1940)

Last night's movie was SKY LINER (1949), and tonight's movie was the similarly titled -- and similarly themed -- SKY MURDER (1940).

SKY MURDER is the final film in the Nick Carter mystery series starring Walter Pidgeon. SKY MURDER follows NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE (1939) and PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940), which were both directed by up-and-coming director Jacques Tourneur.

SKY MURDER, on the other hand, was directed by MGM "B" film specialist George B. Seitz, best known for directing many entries in the long-running Andy Hardy series.

This time around Senator Monroe (George Lessey) and wealthy Cortland Grand (Edward Ashley) try to recruit Nick to investigate a Fifth Column group. Nick declines, but then when Nick is flying home on Grand's private plane, Andrew Hendon (Tom Conway) is murdered on the plane in mid-flight.

Is beautiful young Pat Evans (Kaaren Verne, billed Karen here) a murderess? And what's the connection to the Fifth Column group?

The plot is a bit silly at times, chiefly due to Joyce Compton as a giddy detective with memory problems, but it's amusing enough and the 72 minutes zips past.

For a classic film fan, much of the fun in watching SKY MURDER is simply spotting the various faces as they come and go. For instance, this was one of Tom Conway's first films, playing one of the bad guys. Then there's a group of six young ladies who have considerable screen time in the first half of the film, and one of them is Virginia O'Brien in an early role. And he's not billed, but isn't that George Reeves as the would-be murderer at the end of the movie?

Donald Meek is on hand once more as Carter's improbable assistant, the "Bee Man." Chill Wills, Grady Sutton, Byron Foulger, Cy Kendall, and Tom Neal are among the other familiar faces along for the ride. Joan Crawford's brother, Hal Le Sueur, plays Al, the ill-fated copilot.

It's too bad that the busy Pidgeon only made three Nick Carter films, but right about this time his stardom was moving into higher gear and a series of prestigious pictures was immediately ahead, including MAN HUNT (1941), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), and BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST (1941), which launched his highly popular teaming with actress Greer Garson.

In fact, in the next two years after SKY MURDER, Pidgeon was in back to back Best Pictures, John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY followed by William Wyler's MRS. MINIVER (1942), Pidgeon's second film with Greer Garson.

The three Nick Carter films are available from the Warner Archive in the Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature set.

This film can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is on the TCM website.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Sky Liner (1949)

After THE SAINT STRIKES BACK (1939) it was time to open another new DVD set received this week! This time it was Forgotten Noir & Crime: Vol. 4 from VCI Entertainment, an assortment of low-budget films with interesting casts. The actors in this nine-film collection include Dennis O’Keefe, Jane Nigh, Florence Rice, Reed Hadley, Myrna Dell, Don Castle, Steve Brodie, June Vincent, John Dehner, and Hugh Beaumont.

Due to time constraints I chose SKY LINER, which runs a mere 49 minutes. According to IMDb the film was originally 61 minutes; there was a slight continuity issue, as passengers were suddenly aware of a potential criminal on board, and I also suspect the backgrounds of some characters may have been whittled down, but otherwise the story ran quite smoothly despite the editing.

Richard Travis (THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, TRUCK BUSTERS) plays FBI Agent Steve Blair, who's on a westbound Trans World Airlines flight keeping an eye on Amy Winthrop (Rochelle Hudson). Winthrop, who works at the State Department, is suspected of espionage.

Matters grow considerably more complicated when Winthrop's partner in crime turns up dead in the washroom (which from a modern standpoint is interesting because it's big enough for several people to use at the same time). Blair's not only got to find the murderer, there's also a murderer involved in a completely unrelated crime on board!

Earlier tonight I happened to mention a "B" film directed by John Farrow, SORORITY HOUSE (1939). It turns out that Pamela Blake, who stars in this film as Carol, the perky, capable stewardess, was one of the stars of SORORITY HOUSE, then acting under her real name, Adele Pearce. She used the Pearce name until 1941. Pamela Blake passed away in 2009, at the age of 94.

Incidentally, both Blake and leading man Richard Travis appear in other titles in VCI's Forgotten Noir sets.

The SKY LINER cast also includes Steven Geray, Michael Whalen, and Ralph Peters.

According to IMDb, Bess Flowers played a mother in the movie. How did I miss her?! Perhaps she was the parent of the little girl on the plane. I'll be putting the DVD back in tomorrow morning to find out if she was one of the passengers and update this post if I spot her. Bess, with her 800-plus film credits, seems to turn up everywhere. And her IMDb page isn't even complete, as I found her in a movie a few weeks ago which is not listed among her credits. (Update: I spotted her! She's at the left edge of the screen in a few shots, in a nonspeaking role as the mother of the little girl on the plane.)

SKY LINER is a fun little movie which among other things gives us a peek at cross-country airline travel in the late '40s, and the climax features some great shots at what I believe is Long Beach Airport. (It could also be Burbank Airport, which is referenced in the film; that might explain the pedestrian tunnel to the field which I don't recognize from Long Beach.)

There's plenty of stock footage -- according to comments at IMDb, if you look carefully two different planes are used as the "Sky Liner" -- but they tend to add rather than subtract from the interest. In particular, there's a nice sequence where the plane makes an unscheduled landing at a fogbound military airport which does a nice job mixing the stock footage with the actors in the cockpit.

SKY LINER was directed by William Berke for Lippert Pictures.

This isn't classic movie making, but my fellow "B" movie fans will probably find it as diverting as I did. Kudos to VCI for making available obscurities such as SKY LINER.

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