Saturday, May 31, 2014

TCM in June: Highlights

It's hard to believe May has already passed, and it's time to take a look at the June schedule on Turner Classic Movies!

Rock Hudson is the June Star of the Month. Over 21 Hudson films will be screened on Thursday evenings beginning June 5th. I'll be taking a closer look at the Hudson series next week. (Update: Please visit TCM Star of the Month: Rock Hudson.)

A wonderful month is ahead, with the Friday Night Spotlight focusing on pirates, a seven-film tribute to Lawrence Tierney, and an evening of "Hammer noir" just a few of the great things on tap for June.

Here's a look at the next month!

...The Essentials Jr. summer series aimed at kids kicks off Sunday evening, June 1st, with BRINGING UP BABY (1938), starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Check the special microsite for the rest of the excellent Essentials Jr. lineup.

...TCM gets June off to a nice start by paying tribute to actresses named June on June 2nd. The eight-film "June" lineup includes LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING (1949) with June Haver (plus Gordon MacRae, seen at the right), BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1945) with June Havoc, SON OF LASSIE (1945) with June Lockhart, and TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) which has a guest performance by June Allyson.

...BEACHHEAD (1954) is about a small group of people trying to survive WWII on a South Pacific island. Tony Curtis, Frank Lovejoy, and Mary Murphy star, on June 3rd.

...It's Rosalind Russell's birthday on June 4th, and the 7-film lineup includes a favorite little detective movie, FAST AND LOOSE (1939) with Robert Montgomery.

...A series of "brides" films on June 6th includes the unusual pairing of Robert Montgomery and Bette Davis in the romantic comedy JUNE BRIDE (1948).

...The Friday Night Spotlight on "Pirate Pictures" kicks off on June 6th with a silent version of THE SEA HAWK (1924), followed by Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara in THE BLACK SWAN (1942), O'Hara and Paul Henreid in THE SPANISH MAIN (1945), and Henreid and Patricia Medina in PIRATES OF TRIPOLI (1955).

...TCM will be featuring Bill Elliott Westerns on Saturdays this month, starting with THE LONGHORN (1951) on June 7th.

...On Sunday, June 8th, TCM will show SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963), which I recently had the pleasure of seeing with an appreciative audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

...Robert Osborne's Picks on June 10th include the pair of films in which Fritz Lang directed Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea: THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) followed by SCARLET STREET (1945). Osborne also honors Judy Garland's birthday with THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946).

...A series of baby-themed films on June 11th includes a film I've been wanting to see, A CHILD IS BORN (1940) with Jeffrey Lynn and Geraldine Fitzgerald. The Chester Morris version of THREE GODFATHERS (1936) is also part of the lineup.

...I saw THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) on the closing night of this year's Noir City Film Festival. TCM is showing this movie starring Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O'Brien, and William Talman on June 12th. It's part of a tribute to Ida Lupino, who directed; the lineup includes several films in which she starred, with great films like THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1941), THE HARD WAY (1943), and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) on the schedule.

...Lighthearted pirate movies are featured on Friday the 13th, including Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in THE PIRATE (1948) and Bob Hope and Virginia Mayo in THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATE (1944).

...On June 16th TCM features an evening of "Hammer noir." These movies were collaborations between Hammer Films and Lippert Productions, filmed in the UK with American stars heading British casts. All four Hammer films shown on the 16th are TCM premieres: Dane Clark in BLACKOUT (1954), Paulette Goddard in THE UNHOLY FOUR (1954), Lizabeth Scott in THE STOLEN FACE (1952), and George Brent in the enjoyable MAN BAIT (1952), costarring Marguerite Chapman and Diana Dors.

...Will DARK VICTORY (1939) with Bette Davis and George Brent make you cry? Yes. Should you watch it? Yes. June 17th.

...Yvonne DeCarlo and Clark Gable star in Raoul Walsh's BAND OF ANGELS (1957) on June 18th.

...The pirate movies shown on June 20th include a TCM premiere, AGAINST ALL FLAGS (1952) with Errol Flynn and Maureen O'Hara. The entire night, in fact, is a tribute to Flynn, with the other films being CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE SEA HAWK (1940), and THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE (1953).

...DOLL FACE (1945), starring Vivian Blaine, Dennis O'Keefe, Perry Como, and Carmen Miranda, is a TCM premiere on June 23rd.

...TCM pays tribute to Lawrence Tierney with a seven-film marathon on June 25th, leading off with Tierney in the title role in the compelling DILLINGER (1945). I'm very interested in STEP BY STEP (1946) which reunited Tierney with his DILLINGER costar, Anne Jeffreys. Also in the lineup: BORN TO KILL (1947), costarring Claire Trevor and Audrey Long. (Tierney trivia: For anyone who might not be aware, Tierney was the older brother of actor Scott Brady.)

...June 26th has a number of interesting films including Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, Faye Emerson, and Andrea King in HOTEL BERLIN (1945). That's immediately followed by THE VERDICT (1946) which stars Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Joan Lorring, who all starred the same year in THREE STRANGERS (1946). It was just announced that Lorring has passed on at the age of 88.

...The final night of pirate movies on June 27th includes Charles Laughton and Randolph Scott in CAPTAIN KIDD (1945) and John Payne and Donna Reed in RAIDERS OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1953).

...British musical star Jessie Matthews stars in FIRST A GIRL (1935) on Saturday morning, June 28th.

...Later on the 28th, a series of Jack Benny films includes the classic he made with Carole Lombard, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1941), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

..Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward star in the excellent Henry Hathaway Western RAWHIDE (1951) on June 30th.

Please visit the complete June schedule for more information. Happy movie viewing!

Tonight's Movie: The Americanization of Emily (1964) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

James Garner and Julie Andrews star in THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964), recently released in an absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

The shimmering black and white images of longtime favorites James Garner and Julie Andrews are a fond memory from seeing the movie at the Filmex festival, held at the Plitt Theaters in Century City years ago. Filmex died out decades ago and the Plitt Theaters are gone too, but Garner and Andrews have never looked better than they do on the new Blu-ray. They, and the disc, are simply beautiful.

Alas, the movie itself proved to be one of those occasions when revisiting something years later is an unexpected letdown. This tale of a "coward" during World War II, who inadvertently becomes a hero on D-Day, has become terribly dated -- not in the '40s, when it's supposedly set, but instead the film is completely mired in the '60s.

Now, a dated movie is not a bad thing in and of itself. I actually love being able to revisit an era through such movies, which provide valuable snapshots in time. The only problem is that I wanted to see a film set in the '40s yet found myself thoroughly stuck in 1964.

Everything about the movie screams 1960s, from the bubble hairstyles to the evening gowns to the attitudes. There's not a bit of music or really much of anything to plant the film in 1944. I don't know why WWII films made in the '60s were so resistant to portraying period hairstyles, but people who lived through WWII wouldn't be able to guess the era watching films such as this or THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969). It's also completely confusing to the modern-day viewer.

Garner is absolutely adorable and has super-hot chemistry with Andrews; their flinty central romance still rings true, as does their fight in the rain, but nothing else about the film does.

The script is talky and self-important, supposedly being wiser about World War II and war in general two decades on. The tragedy of a military commander (Melvyn Douglas) having a mental crackup being played for laughs didn't sit well either. Supposedly the film is a black comedy commenting on things like poor leadership and false heroism, but the ability to make any valid points goes out the window when the admiral giving the silliest commands is mentally ill.

Speaking of mental crackups, how is it that Andrews' mother (Joyce Grenfell) can suddenly snap back to reality and acknowledge the deaths of her husband and son after years of denial? That "instant recovery" sequence felt false in psychological terms.

No one loves and admires Garner and Andrews more than I do, and this was not the review I expected to write. Nonetheless, I have to call 'em as I see 'em. Mine is certainly a minority take on the film, so potential viewers should by all means see the movie and assess it for themselves. If nothing else, there's considerable pleasure simply enjoying the company of the two lead actors looking fantastic on this sharp-looking black and white Blu-ray.

The film was directed by Arthur Hiller from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. It was beautifully shot by Philip Lathrop. The running time is 115 minutes.

The supporting cast includes James Coburn, Edward Binns, Keenan Wynn, William Windom, and Liz Fraser.

The Blu-ray contains a nice selection of extras, including a commentary by Hiller, a featurette, and a trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.

Coming to DVD: Dark Crimes - Film Noir Thrillers, Vol. II

A new TCM Vault Collection DVD set has been announced for release on July 7th: Dark Crimes - Film Noir Thrillers, Vol. II.

The set contains two films directed by Fritz Lang and two directed by William Castle.

The Lang films are YOU AND ME (1938), starring George Raft and Sylvia Sidney, and MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944) with Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, and Dan Duryea.

The inclusion of MINISTRY OF FEAR, which I reviewed in 2011, is a bit curious as the movie was just released last year by the Criterion Collection.

The Castle films are of considerable interest to me: UNDERTOW (1949) costars John Russell and Scott Brady, who also costarred that year in a favorite Yvonne De Carlo Western, THE GAL WHO TOOK THE WEST (1949), and HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951) stars Richard Conte and Julie Adams.

Extras include an introduction by Ben Mankiewicz, an essay by the Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller, and Julie Adams speaking on HOLLYWOOD STORY. The set also includes still and poster galleries.

Volume I in this series, released in 2012, contains THE GLASS KEY (1942), PHANTOM LADY (1944), and THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946).

As a side note, I have noticed in recent weeks that several TCM Vault Collections have disappeared from the TCM Shop. These sets include the Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection, the Sony Film Noir Classics Vol. III set, and the Women in Danger set.

I would be most interested if anyone knows why TCM has discontinued selling those sets. In the meantime, a word to the wise not to delay too long on purchasing desired TCM Vault sets, as what's available today may not be there tomorrow.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Roundup (1941)

Thanks to my friend John Knight I was able to enjoy a rarely seen Paramount Western, THE ROUNDUP (1941), directed by Lesley Selander. I've liked numerous Westerns directed by Selander, and THE ROUNDUP was no exception.

As the film begins, Greg Lane (Preston Foster) rides up to a ranch just in time to see the wedding of Steve Payson (Richard Dix) and Janet Allen (Patricia Morison).

The genial Greg is something of a ne'er-do-well who had been thought dead, and his reappearance comes as a shock to Janet, who had been in love with him. Janet finds herself torn between her steady, quiet husband and the livelier Greg, who takes advantage of the opportunity to escort Janet around Denver for a day when Steve must leave their honeymoon trip early.

When Greg gets into trouble at Denver's gambling tables, Janet impulsively offers the diamond ring Steve gave her to bail him out with weasely Wade McGee (Jerome Cowan) -- which McGee in turn uses to blackmail Greg, knowing he'll do anything to keep Steve from finding out why Janet's ring disappeared.

The love triangle is the spine around which a great deal of action unwinds, including multiple gunfights and Indian battles. It's to the film's credit that the interpersonal conflicts are believable and interesting rather than cliched; the leads are simply flawed people with problems to work out, with no too-obvious villains.

While the basic story may be tried and true, THE ROUNDUP is told with flair, with richly drawn characters and a fine cast. There are some creatively plotted, well-done scenes involving how the sheriff (Don Wilson) handles Steve shooting a man who had mistreated Janet; some lovely black and white location scenes shot in Lone Pine and the San Jacinto Mountains; and songs performed by the King's Men, who included the great choral arranger Ken Darby.

I don't think the stolid Dix (SKY GIANT, TWELVE CROWDED HOURS) will ever be my favorite actor, but he's right for the role as Janet's thoughtful husband. While nursing jealousy and pain at the thought Janet might decide to leave him, he's also guilty because before the wedding he hid from his wife the news that Greg would be returning to town.

Foster is excellent as a man who genuinely loves Janet, but he can't quite make up his mind if he's a good-for-nothing rascal or the hero who rescues a little girl, Mary (Betty Brewer), from an Indian attack. Eventually he turns to drink, before making one last grand gesture. Greg's final scene is well-written and genuinely moving.

The orphaned Janet meanwhile worries people will think she married Steve for his money, when she truly cares for him. Although it's not spelled out, the fact she had been alone for many years also causes her to accept raising the orphaned Mary without question when Greg leaves the child at Steve and Janet's ranch.

Patricia Morison (LADY ON A TRAIN), with her beautiful eyes and long dark hair, is stunningly beautiful in this film. She was about 25 when this was filmed, and she would go on to find fame as a Broadway musical star in KISS ME KATE and THE KING AND I. As a child I saw her as the Baroness in a '70s stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC which starred Sally Anne Howes as Maria and Werner Klemperer as Uncle Max. She is now 99 years old and lives in Los Angeles. She's seen here in a still from TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS (1947).

Ruth Donnelly is around for comic support as Miss Polly, Steve's longtime housekeeper who is sweet on the shy sheriff. The cast also includes Morris Ankrum, Douglas Dumbrille, Lane Chandler, and Richard Curtis.

THE ROUNDUP runs 90 minutes. The strong script was written by Harold Shumate, based on a play by Edmund Day. Shumate's later work included the fine Westerns BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948) and SADDLE TRAMP (1950).

It was filmed in black and white by Russell Harlan.

Like so many other Paramount films of the '40s, THE ROUNDUP has been kept out of circulation by its owner, Universal. It's past time for Universal to start regularly releasing their library in an MOD program such as the Universal Vault Series. These films are part of our American cultural heritage and deserve to be accessible to the public.

New on DVD: The Mississippi Gambler (1953) and More

Fantastic news this morning thanks to the ClassicFlix site: Tyrone Power's THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER (1953) is available on DVD at long last.

The movie, which costars Julie Adams and Piper Laurie, will be available in the Universal Vault series, sold exclusively by Amazon.

This release has been a long time coming for fans of both Power and Universal Westerns. My copy has been ordered this morning!

Another exciting release in this wave: IF I WERE KING (1938) with Ronald Colman and Frances Dee.

There are several more interesting titles including William Powell and Kay Francis in the pre-Code FOR THE DEFENSE (1930), Maureen O'Hara as LADY GODIVA OF COVENTRY (1955), and the all-star VARIETY GIRL (1947), which I reviewed via VHS in 2011.

The complete list is posted at ClassicFlix.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Thunder Bay (1953)

THUNDER BAY (1953) is one of eight films directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart.

When I first saw THUNDER BAY seven years ago, I wasn't particularly impressed with it, finding it rather listless. However, having thoroughly enjoyed 16 of Mann's films at UCLA earlier this year, and having also now seen all of Stewart and Mann's other films together, I thought it would be interesting to circle back to take a fresh look at THUNDER BAY.

I still see this movie about conflict between offshore drillers and fishermen as a lesser Mann-Stewart film, and I particularly stand by my previous thoughts that Stewart and Joanne Dru's relationship is poorly developed. I didn't think they had chemistry, and they didn't have enough scenes together to otherwise explain what they see in one another.

That said, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit more this time around and was glad I gave it another chance. I didn't feel the same sense of impatience with it that I had last time and got more out of the film.

It's a very attractive movie, shot in widescreen by William H. Daniels. I saw it in a better print this time -- DVD instead of VHS -- and I'm sure that helped my appreciation of the film's visual look. I also felt more of a sense of "place" on this viewing than I had the first time around. And, as I commented last time, the oil rig is an interesting setting.

Last time I didn't find Dan Duryea's character interesting, but having become a major Duryea fan in the intervening years, I watched his work in this more carefully and picked up nuances I'd missed the first time. Context probably helped my appreciation, as so often I've seen him play a villain or a troubled hero, and it was nice here to see him playing someone who's kind of loud (which was probably what bothered me last time) but turns out to be a decent guy.

It was also more meaningful to watch this film in light of Duryea's other work with Stewart, playing a villain in WINCHESTER '73 (1950) and NIGHT PASSAGE (1957). Here he plays a less flashy character, but it was nice to have the chance to see him as a supportive pal.

Similarly, since 2007 I've seen Marcia Henderson, who plays the girl Duryea falls for, in films such as ALL I DESIRE (1953) and CANYON RIVER (1956). I'd completely forgotten she was in this and enjoyed seeing her playing opposite Duryea as a couple instantly smitten with one another. There's concern at first that he's a love 'em and leave 'em type and she'll be hurt, but I found the resolution to their story quite satisfactory. Their romance was surprisingly sweet, and I don't think it had even really registered with me last time.

I think Stewart's obsessed oilman got on my nerves a little previously, but this time I was looking at his performance in light of his intense work in all the Mann Westerns I've seen in the years since. Mentally making those comparisons when his character gets a bit wild-eyed was one of the things which made the film more enjoyable for me.

All of this serves to illustrate why sometimes I like to revisit films which don't impress me, as the passage of time can cause a movie to look quite different for various reasons! It's fascinating how fresh contexts can change one's perspective.

The supporting cast of THUNDER BAY includes Jay C. Flippen, Gilbert Roland, Harry Morgan, Antonio Moreno, Robert Monet, and Fortunio Bonanova.

THUNDER BAY runs 103 minutes. It's available on DVD or VHS, and it's shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. (Update: It's now also available as a single-title DVD.)

July 2019 Update: THUNDER BAY is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. My review of the Blu-ray is here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: John Wayne: The Life and Legend

Over the years Scott Eyman has established himself as one of our finest film biographers.


Eyman's latest book, JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND is one of the most enjoyable biographies I've had the pleasure to read in recent years.

As those who saw him last month on Turner Classic Movies are aware, Eyman can speak knowledgeably on every facet of Wayne's life.

One of his book's achievements is that he's created a lengthy book -- 658 pages, including the index -- which is a page-turning read even for someone who already knows a great deal about the Duke's life and career.

John Wayne has always been extra-special to me, the star of many favorite films; he's also a local icon in Orange County, where I grew up and still live today. I remember his Newport Beach home being pointed out during a harbor cruise years ago, and of course after his passing the county airport was named in his honor. I especially looked forward to learning more about the Wayne off camera, and Eyman's book did not disappoint.

Wayne's family and friends paint a composite picture of Wayne as an antique collector, a chess player, a loyal friend, and a family man who adored his kids and grandkids but had problematic relationships with each of his wives in turn. One of the fun tidbits is that he loved catalogue shopping and could look at anyone and accurately know their clothing size.

One of the most interesting aspects is the portrait the book offers of Wayne as an educated, well-read man, knowledgeable on many topics; that really should be no surprise, as one would have to be smart to be as good as Wayne was. Those who like to say Wayne was "playing himself" don't really get that, or what a fine actor he was.

As Eyman writes, Wayne built his persona "brick by brick"; he quotes Harry Carey Jr., to whom the book is dedicated, as saying "He worked hard to be a graceful big man. It didn't just happen."

JOHN WAYNE is a treasure trove of anecdotes. One of my favorites was Wayne telling his pal Rod Taylor "I would crawl over the mountains of Beverly Hills on my hands and knees if I could do a movie with Doris Day!" And he really meant it. I love that, especially as USC film professor Drew Casper has suggested Wayne and Day would have been a great team in TEACHER'S PET (1958).

One of the things I appreciated is that while the book is thick, it's better edited than some recent biographies I've read. There's a lot of information but it reads smoothly, without disconcerting changes of topic.

The book includes a section of two dozen glossy pages of photos, many of which I'd never seen before.

A recommended read.

Sincere thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy of this book.

My 2014 Summer Classic Film Book Reading List

Last summer I very much enjoyed participating in the Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge sponsored at Out of the Past.

The challenge motivated to me to make time to read several books on my "to read" list.

Raquel is again hosting a summer reading challenge this year and has invited participants to share their reading lists. The goal is to read half a dozen books by September 1st.

Here's my list for this summer!

First up is JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND by Scott Eyman. I just finished reading this excellent book, and a review will be up shortly. (Update: Here's the review!)

Next is DANGEROUS RHYTHM: WHY MOVIE MUSICALS MATTER by Scott Barrios, author of A SONG IN THE DARK. (Update: Here is the review of DANGEROUS RHYTHM.)

John Mills' STILL MEMORIES: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN PHOTOGRAPHY recently arrived and looks absolutely fascinating. It's filled with photographs of the Mills family with everyone from Vivien Leigh (godmother to his daughter Juliet) to Stewart Granger to Walt Disney. (Update: Here is my review of STILL MEMORIES.)

I stumbled across a mention of THE YEARS OF GEORGE MONTGOMERY earlier this year and promptly ordered it. I was really wowed by what I saw flipping through this large book when it arrived, but I have yet to actually sit down and read it. I plan to rectify that this summmer! (Update: Here is my review of THE YEARS OF GEORGE MONTGOMERY.)

I first saw FIVE CAME BACK: A STORY OF HOLLYWOOD AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Mark Harris in the TCM Boutique during the TCM Classic Film Festival. I just ordered it recently. Since movie making of the WWII era is a favorite subject, I expect this book should be fascinating. (Update: Here is my review of FIVE CAME BACK.)

Over the last few years I've seen many films directed by Jacques Tourneur, and I think I've liked -- or loved -- all of them. Wanting to learn more about the man and his movies, I purchased JACQUES TOURNEUR: THE CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL by Chris Fujiwara. (Update: My review of JACQUES TOURNEUR: THE CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL is here.)

If you'd like to participate in the reading challenge, there's a form at Raquel's blog to sign up, and there's also instructions on submitting links to completed book reviews.

Thanks to Raquel for hosting the challenge for the second year in a row, and happy reading!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Tonight's Movie: After Office Hours (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

AFTER OFFICE HOURS is a congenial diversion just released this month by the Warner Archive.

Clark Gable plays his patented fast-talking newspaper editor, with Constance Bennett as a lovely, wealthy society dame who takes a job at the newspaper.

Jim (Gable) is initially skeptical of Sharon (Bennett), but he begins to see her value, as she provides an entree into high society news. When Sharon's friend Julia Patterson (Katharine Alexander) turns up murdered, Jim naturally wants Sharon's help on the case, but she's aghast that he suspects her friend Tommy Bannister (Harvey Stephens).

The movie is pretty much just a 72-minute ball of fluff, but sometimes that's exactly what you want to watch; that was definitely the case for me after having previously watched the deeply emotional THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945).

Gable is handsome and funny, Bennett is cool and lovely, and there's a terrific supporting cast led by Billie Burke. Burke is an absolute stitch, whether she's responding to Gable's flirting and calling her "Mother" ("He's never had a mother?") or suffering an agony of embarrassment when she learns from the butler that Jim and Sharon have been alone in the guest bedroom all night long!

The script by Herman Mankiewicz has some nice bits of dialogue ("If you were looking at what I'm looking at, you'd lie too"), and there's terrific set and fashion design, from the doors of Sharon's fancy apartment to the cheap diner where she eats ham and eggs, to Tommy's basement boathouse/den and Sharon's flashy "SN" brooch with her initials. Sharon's eye-catching gowns were designed by Adrian. It's a great-looking film.

I never was quite sure how Jim figured out the real murderer, but between the entertaining cast and all the eye candy, I didn't really care. It's lighthearted fun for fans of '30s romantic comedies and newspaper films.

Stuart Erwin has some amusing moments as Gable's photographer, and the cast also includes Henry Travers, Hale Hamilton, William Demarest, Tom Dugan, Pat O'Malley, Margaret Dumont, Henry Armetta, and Herbert Bunston.

Everyone's favorite movie "stalker," Bess Flowers, is the elegantly dressed woman sitting next to Constance Bennett in the lounge area of the Riverside Club.

Robert Z. Leonard directed, and it was filmed by Charles Rosher.

The print is occasionally speckled but for the most part the Warner Archive DVD looks and sounds terrific. 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 Amazon and other online retailers.

Tonight's Movie: They Were Expendable (1945)

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), directed by John Ford, is certainly one of the greatest war films ever made...possibly the greatest. It's a stunningly made film which is a powerful testament to valor under grim conditions.

This saga of a PT boat squadron in the Philippines in the darkest days of World War II was inspired by real people and events. Robert Montgomery and John Wayne star as Lt. John Brickley and Lt. Rusty Ryan, who were based on John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly. Wayne's role as the more hotheaded of the two men was originally slated for Robert Taylor.

Brickley, Ryan, and their squadron attack Japanese boats as the situation in the South Pacific grows ever more grim. The squadron is decimated by losses but is able to help evacuate General Douglas MacArthur and his family from Bataan. Ultimately Brickley and Ryan are ordered to evacuate as well, so that they can train future PT boat crews; they must leave behind their remaining crew members to what might be a terrible fate as the Japanese advance.

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is completely absorbing for all of its 135 minutes, the kind of film which draws the viewer in so deeply that one almost forgets it's a movie. It's a tremendously moving film yet in no way manipulative; it earns its audience's tears due to gritty yet poetic filmmaking and the genuine heroism the film depicts.

The entire cast is outstanding, with Montgomery particularly notable as a man who must balance the emotional distance needed for commanding with sympathy for his men, while at the same time he must accept and follow orders without regard for his personal wishes and frustrations.

There's a scene where Rusty and his fellow officers host a dinner for Sandy (Donna Reed), a young nurse Rusty likes. I think I watched most of it with tears in my eyes, even though on the surface all that was happening was dinner. The men's gallantry and pleasure at having a young woman to dinner -- who perhaps reminded them of loved ones back home -- was very moving. Sandy's fate will ultimately be unknown to the men and the viewer, the uncertainty adding to the film's emotional power.

That scene, in fact, is one of a cascade of moving sequences, whether it's the squadron paying a visit to a wounded comrade (Paul Langton), "Dad" (Russell Simpson) refusing to evacuate, Brickley and Rusty saying farewell to Boats (Ward Bond) and their men, or two officers (Leon Ames and Louis Jean Heydt) being bumped off the final flight to make room for two young PT boat officers (Cameron Mitchell and Marshall Thompson). The graciousness of the two older men, who in losing their seats on the plane have very likely been consigned to imprisonment or death, is devastating.

When I reviewed THE LONGEST DAY (1962) earlier in the weekend, a conversation ensued about the value -- or not -- of bloody realism in war pictures. Perhaps even more than THE LONGEST DAY, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE conveys the losses of war in a deeply affecting way without the need for subjecting its audience to graphic scenes. Simply pondering the possible fates of various characters is quite disturbing in and ot itself.

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE was shot by Joseph August. The screenplay by Frank "Spig" Wead was based on the book by William L. White. The cast also includes Jack Holt, Donald Curtis, Jack Pennick, and Jeff York.

Robert Montgomery, whose wartime service included commanding a PT boat and serving on the USS Barton on D-Day, had at one point served as the real Bulkeley's executive officer. Bulkeley later said of the film's quasi-documentary style that it was "a documentary, yes -- but with good actors."

It's also interesting to note that, according to Joseph McBride's SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD, Robert Montgomery refused to be an enabler for Ford's sometimes atrocious behavior toward his cast members. When Ford launched into his usual insults of Wayne, which Wayne customarily endured, Montgomery put both his hands on Ford's chair and told him "Don't you ever speak to anyone like that again." Ford backed down. Despite that momentary friction, Montgomery said that Ford was the best director he'd ever worked with, "a genius."

Ford likewise respected Montgomery and put him to work as a second-unit director on the film, then asked Montgomery to fill in as director for several days when Ford was incapacitated. Ford later paid Montgomery the ultimate compliment, saying, "I couldn't tell where I left off and you began."

Montgomery would go on to direct all but one of the remaining feature films in which he starred, and after winding down his film career, he won a Tony for directing THE DESPERATE HOURS on Broadway. The last film Montgomery directed was a superb portrait of Admiral Halsey in the early days of the war, THE GALLANT HOURS (1960), with his close friend James Cagney in the title role.

While Ford could be a pain, he was also loyal. Ward Bond was seriously injured in a car accident, so Ford arranged for Bond's character to be wounded and walking on a crutch for most of the film.

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE has had multiple DVD releases, including as a single title and as part of a 4-film Wayne set. It was released on VHS in 1998, and it can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is here.

Most highly recommended.

2015 Update: Please visit this related book review, BEHIND THE SCENES OF THEY WERE EXPENDABLE: A PICTORIAL HISTORY.

2016 Update: THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. My review of the Blu-ray may be found here.

Newer›  ‹Older