Friday, February 27, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Smart Woman (1948)

SMART WOMAN (1948) is an enjoyable film meshing political intrigue, murder, and courtroom drama, performed by a fine cast.

SMART WOMAN was made for Constance Bennett Productions and released by Allied Artists. Bennett plays Paula Rogers, a prominent trial attorney who juggles a busy career with being the single parent of Rusty (Richard Lyon).

Special prosecutor Robert Larrimore (Brian Aherne) comes to town to investigate corruption swirling around D.A. Bradley Wayne (Otto Kruger). Paula goes up against Robert in the courtroom but despite their legal sparring, they find themselves attracted to one another.

However, life is complicated as Paula continues to respresent questionable clients and even do a little spying on Larrimore's investigation, as dictated by Wayne's political fixer-henchman Frank McCoy (Barry Sullivan). McCoy threatens to blackmail Paula if she doesn't cooperate; what is his hold over her?

SMART WOMAN provided a reunion for the appealing couple of Bennett and Aherne, who had costarred a decade previously in the screwball comedy MERRILY WE LIVE (1938). Here the subject matter is more serious, although Aherne and his assistant Sam Corkle (James Gleason) bring a light touch to the proceedings with their bantering. The dedicated but good-natured Larrimore seems to be just what the intense, stressed-out Paula needs in her life.

SMART WOMAN is a solid mid-range drama which provides 93 minutes of engrossing entertainment thanks to a very nice assemblage of onscreen talent. In addition to the previously named actors, Michael O'Shea plays Paula's reporter pal, whose habit of dropping into her apartment to eat provides a delightful bit of comedy at movie's end.

Selena Royle plays the D.A.'s concerned wife, with Isobel Elsom as Paula's flighty mother. John Litel is also on hand, assisting the special prosecutor.

Bennett's son is played by Richard Lyon, the son of Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels. Last year I reviewed another film in which he appeared, SECRET COMMAND (1944).

Look for Charles Lane as a reporter and Bess Flowers as a nightclub patron. The familiar faces also include Willie Best as a train porter and Edward Gargan as a police investigator. I wonder how many times each of those actors played that "type" in their careers?!

I also wondered if Gleason's character was given the unusual last name Corkle in tribute to Max Corkle, the character he played in HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941) and its sequel DOWN TO EARTH (1947).

SMART WOMAN was directed by Edward A. Blatt. Adela Rogers St. Johns was among those who worked on the story and screenplay. The movie was photographed in black and white by the great Stanley Cortez.

The only other film from Constance Bennett Productions was PARIS UNDERGROUND (1945). After SMART WOMAN Bennett would appear in just a handful of additional movies, along with several TV appearances.

Off the screen Bennett spent time organizing entertainment for the military as well as working on various business ventures. She had married an army colonel in 1946, a happy marriage which lasted until her death in 1965. Bennett's husband, John Coulter, ultimately became a brigadier general; he survived his wife by three decades. They are buried together at Arlington National Cemetery.

SMART WOMAN is available from the Warner Archive in a good-looking print. There are no extras.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This Week at Disneyland: A Royal Celebration

Earlier this week my husband and I enjoyed attending the Royal Celebration Annual Passholder party at Disneyland.

The "Royal Celebration" theme was a nod to the upcoming release of Disney's live action version of CINDERELLA (2015). The festivities included a family dance party at Fantasy Faire, where Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters made an appearance.

Fantasy Faire's Rapunzel tower by night:

My husband enjoyed using the camera he received for Christmas and contributed some photos to this post, including this great shot of the Tomorrowland sign.

The Storybook Land Canal's Monstro by night:

The perk we enjoyed most at this party was a special performance of Fantasmic! with no waiting for seats or need for a Fastpass.

I wrote about the Fantasmic! 20th Anniversary party back in 2012. Nearly 23 years after its debut, Fantasmic! still thrills. It is endlessly creative, truly one of the best things Disneyland has ever done.

I especially love the way the show incorporates both the Columbia and the Mark Twain. Above, Peter Pan and Captain Hook duel on the Columbia (although we noted the usual rope swinging was strangely absent).

Murphy, nicknamed the "reluctant dragon" due to his unreliable appearances in the show, was "on" tonight and looked fantastic.

My husband also took all the great shots below of Mickey Mouse and the Mark Twain finale. I appreciated his contributions to this post and hope my readers will enjoy them as well. Click any photo to enlarge for a closer look.

There are a couple more special Disney events on tap next week, starting with a free D23 preview of the new movie CINDERELLA (2015) on Tuesday and (barring rain) an annual passholder private party celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Indiana Jones Adventure on Wednesday. Stay tuned for additional Disney coverage!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Around the Blogosphere This Week

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

...Raquel has a great list of upcoming books on classic films at Out of the Past. One of the books which intrigues me the most is THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN by J.R. Jones, coming in May from the Wesleyan University Press. Meanwhile, Ryan fans should pick up the 1997 book on Ryan by Franklin Jarlett, which is excellent.

...The new DVD release of SYNCOPATION (1942), starring Bonita Granville, Jackie Cooper, and a number of big band names, sounds special. Glenn Erickson reviews it at DVD Savant.

...This week's YouTube find: Joan Leslie and James Craig in Eagle-Lion's NORTHWEST STAMPEDE (1948).

...Coming in April, the Great Villain Blogathon! It's hosted by Kristina, Karen, and Ruth of Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings, respectively. It will take place April 13th through 17th.

...Speaking of villains, I haven't yet caught up with THE WICKED LADY (1945), starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. At A Shroud of Thoughts Terry shares interesting details on this British film's clash with U.S. censors.

...Here's January's TCM Friday Night Spotlight host, Ken Levine, on "My Day as Robert Osborne."

...Coming to DVD in May: Season 5 of HILL STREET BLUES. Season 4 will be out in March.

...Another blogathon coming soon! Russia in Classic Film, hosted by Movies Silently, will take place March 8-10. The list of participants signed up to date is impressive!

...The daughter of actress Barbara Britton, Christina Britton Conroy, is a musician, music therapist, and author. You can read about her here. Several Barbara Britton movies have been reviewed here, most recently GUNFIGHTERS (1947).

...I also stumbled across this last week. Actor Richard Carlson's IMDb biography seems to corroborate that this attorney is his son -- and besides, doesn't the photograph resemble Carlson?

...A Margaret Lindsay Gallery at Speakeasy.

...The first few titles for April's Noir City Hollywood Festival have been previewed at the Egyptian Theatre site. I'll have complete coverage in the future as details are available!

...I'm happy to announce that I will again be credentialed media covering the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. The festival gets underway a month from now -- more details coming soon!

...Susan King of the Los Angeles Times has information on two new exhibits in Hollywood, on Hollywood.

...A new trailer for the final season of MAD MEN takes a look back at some of the show's most famous moments.

...Notable Passings: Jazz musician and educator Clark Terry has passed away at the age of 94. Among many accomplishments, he played in the TONIGHT SHOW band for a dozen years...Movita Castaneda, who was sometimes billed simply as Movita, has died at 98. She played Tehani, the Tahitian love of Franchot Tone, in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), which won the Academy Award as Best Picture; she was believed to be the film's last surviving cast member. She was at one point married to Marlon Brando, who ironically starred in the 1962 MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY remake and married an actress from that film after his marriage to Movita came to an end. Her other films included John Ford's FORT APACHE (1948).

...TCM Remembers Louis Jourdan.

...If you missed last week's link roundup, it's right here!

Have a great week!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tonight's Movie: The Murder Man (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

THE MURDER MAN (1935), which was just released by the Warner Archive, is an entertaining film blending newsroom drama and murder mystery.

THE MURDER MAN stars Spencer Tracy and Virginia Bruce, and it's especially notable as the feature film debut of James Stewart.

Tracy plays newspaper reporter Steve Grey, nicknamed "Murder Man" for his reporting on homicide cases.

Steve's latest story, on a crooked financier (Harvey Stephens) who murdered his partner (Theodore Von Eltz), is particularly remarkable as he keeps scooping his rivals; somehow Steve's stories are always on the street just as new information has been uncovered. The stories are really out there too fast, but the timing doesn't register as suspicious to his admiring employer and colleagues.

Eventually the reasons behind Steve's fast reporting -- not to mention his drinking and depression -- become apparent, and it's not what anyone expects.

THE MURDER MAN is a fast-paced 69-minute yarn with a creative story. As a matter of fact, one aspect of the plot, involving a dictation machine, seems to foreshadow DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944).

Tracy leads an excellent cast; his character is rather insufferable for most of the film, for multiple reasons, but it's in service to the story so the viewer doesn't mind that too much. Lovelorn Bruce, playing the newspaper's advice columnist, is the recipient of audience sympathy, although it must be said it's hard to understand what she sees in the hard-drinking Steve.

The most engaging aspect of the film is the newsroom setting. Anyone who loves a good '30s newspaper film can't help loving the gang of reporters sitting around waiting for a story to break: William Bendix, George Chandler, and "Shorty," played by lanky Jimmy Stewart. Who could resist that group? Stewart stands out amidst a collection of pros; little wonder he became a major star within a couple years' time.

The deep cast includes Lionel Atwill as the police captain and Robert Barrat as the newspaper editor. Also in the cast are William Collier Sr., Bobby Watson, Lucien Littlefield, Fuzzy Knight, and high-voiced Jeanie Roberts.

THE MURDER MAN was directed by Tim Whelan, who cowrote the story and screenplay. It was filmed in black and white by Lester White.

The Warner Archive DVD is a very nice print. The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from Amazon and other online retailers.

Tonight's Movie: Speed (1936) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

What better movie to watch on Daytona 500 Sunday than a film titled SPEED (1936)? It's an early James Stewart film just released by the Warner Archive.

Stewart's first screen appearance was an unbilled role in a short released in 1934, and he had appeared in supporting roles in a half-dozen additional films prior to the release of SPEED. The 70-minute film SPEED was his first starring role, a chance to show he could carry the lead in a picture.

Stewart plays Terry Martin, a test driver for a factory who develops a new type of carburetor. On the side he alternates fighting with and romancing the new publicity woman, Jane Mitchell (Wendy Barrie), who is hiding the fact she's the niece of the factory owner (Ralph Morgan).

Despite its title, SPEED is a fairly slow-moving affair, and it doesn't help it was clearly made on a low budget, with back projections galore. That said, one of the most interesting scenes in the movie is a back projection tour of a car factory. The stock footage of the manufacturing process was interesting!

Stewart and Barrie make a cute couple, but all in all the film is a pleasant time passer but not much more.

Stewart would go on to play a key supporting role in AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936) and was the second billed male lead in a couple additional pictures, but by 1938 he was firmly established as a full-fledged star.

Patricia Wilder is amusing in a small role as a secretary who speaks in a Southern drawl and chases after Stewart's assistant (Ted Healy). This was Wilder's first screen role; she appeared in 11 more films before leaving the screen after THANKS FOR THE MEMORY (1938). In 1951 she married a prince, to whom she was married until his death in 1984. When Wilder died in 1995 the New York Times published an obituary, although a Wikipedia entry says the Times story was inaccurate in some respects.

The supporting cast also includes Weldon Heyburn, Una Merkel, Walter Kingsford, and George Chandler.

SPEED was directed by Edwin L. Marin and photographed by Lester White.

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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tonight's Movie: McFarland, USA (2015)

After a short trip to Disney California Adventure this afternoon, on the way home I stopped by a movie theater to catch Disney's newest film in the inspirational sports genre, MCFARLAND, USA (2015).

Kevin Costner, one of my favorite actors, stars in this fact-based film as Jim White, a high school football coach who in the late '80s finds himself having to accept a job and move his family to what seems to be the middle of nowhere -- McFarland, California, to be exact.

A poor agricultural town with a largely Hispanic population, McFarland is a far different place than the White family are used to, to the extent that when youngest daughter Jamie (Elsie Fisher) wakes up from a nap, she looks out the car window and asks "Are we in Mexico?"

Working as assistant football coach at McFarland High doesn't go so well, but Coach White soon notices something several of the students excel at -- running. He decides to start up a cross-country team, but learns that if the program is going to succeed, he needs to find a way to win over the boys' parents, not to mention set practice times late enough not to clash with the boys' work in the fields before and after school.

Gradually the Whites make friends in the community and begin to feel at home, and meanwhile the new McFarland cross-country team starts racking up some unexpected results at competitions.

What makes a "formula" film like this interesting is how the filmmakers work within the conventions of the genre, and MCFARLAND, USA deserves major kudos in this regard. It presents a fairly unique view of life in a poor town which feels authentic, from the run-down grocery store to the taco restaurant to the neighbor lady who presents Coach White with a chicken as a housewarming gift. Small touches such as the coach riding his daughter's pink bike alongside his runners also feel very real.

The White family's very gradual absorption into the community makes compelling viewing, building to a touching sequence when new friends help throw a quinceanera for daughter Julie's (Morgan Saylor) 15th birthday.

Although McFARLAND, USA covers some of the same territory as last month's SPARE PARTS (2015), about high schools in struggling Hispanic immigrant communities, the tone of MCFARLAND, USA was far less political, focusing on bridging the cultural divide, building community, and the value of hard work. The film's postscript, detailing how life turned out for the boys depicted in the film, is truly inspirational.

Kevin Costner is excellent as the coach, a man whose past anger management issues mean that McFarland is the end of the road. He grows and changes right along with his team. No one can do a role like this better than Costner.

The film feels a touch like the TV series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, although Coach White's wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) is not as well developed a character. That said, the film tells a lot of story, and Bello does well within the confines of her role.

The cast also includes Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Michael Aguero, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Martha Higareda, and Valente Rodriguez. Diana Maria Riva is terrific as the mother of three boys on the team, who rousts them out of bunkbeds at the crack of dawn.

MCFARLAND, USA was directed by Niki Caro. It runs 129 minutes.

Parental Advisory: This film is a very mild PG. There is passing reference to a teenage pregnancy, but particularly by today's standards this is a very family-friendly movie.

The trailer is at IMDb.

Additional reviews of MCFARLAND, USA: Leonard Maltin ("deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience"), Kenneth Turan in the L.A. Times, Jocelyn Noveck in the Post Star, and Scott Tobias for The Dissolve.

Reviews of 2014 Kevin Costner films: JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014), 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014), and DRAFT DAY (2014).

McFARLAND, USA, is recommended viewing.

Today at Disney California Adventure: Lunar New Year

I headed out to Disney California Adventure this afternoon to take in the Lunar New Year celebration ahead of a rainstorm expected on Sunday.

No sign of rain today!

As usual, the Paradise Gardens decorations for the Lunar New Year were eye-catching:

We really enjoyed these talented dragon dancers!

It was announced today that Disney is raising prices -- no big surprise, as they go up every year, but the amount the Premium pass was increased was a bit of a gulp.

The bigger news is Disney is said to be discontinuing selling parking passes to all but Premium passholders or current passholders who already have parking and will be allowed to continue to purchase it when they renew. Charging passholders parking on each visit seems pretty crazy, as one visit per month would add a couple hundred dollars to the cost of a pass -- it seems like a backdoor way to try to reduce the number of visits passholders make. It also seems aimed at trying to influence passholders to commit to full day trips, to get their money's worth from the parking fee, instead of "dropping in," as I did today.

It will be interesting to see if the lack of parking pass availability depresses future sales or, conversely, leads to the sale of more Premium passes.

Given the continuing increases, it would certainly be nice to see Disney invest some of that money in additional ride capacity for each park!

Meanwhile, Luigi's Tires is now closed until 2016, when a new ride will be unveiled:

Previous Lunar New Year photos: 2013 and 2014.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Union Pacific (1939) at UCLA

Tonight was the last of the films I plan to attend in UCLA's excellent Cecil B. DeMille series, a screening of UNION PACIFIC (1939).

Mark Vieira, author of the new book CECIL B. DEMILLE: THE ART OF HOLLYWOOD, introduced the movie, which stars Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston. Also on hand to enjoy the movie tonight were Joel McCrea's grandson, Wyatt, and his wife Lisa.

Vieira spent some time discussing the storied films of 1939, including the info that significantly more money was spent to produce the films made that year than in the couple years preceding -- an interesting tidbit given what a banner year 1939 was in the history of the movies.

Vieira also read from a note which director Cecil B. DeMille sent to his writers, exhorting them to find more drama in the story; his note demanding action included the memorable line that he wanted "a snake under every bed!" There weren't actually any snakes in the movie, but that certainly conveyed the idea! The film was a nonstop series of set pieces, including Indian attacks and a couple of spectacular train crashes.

McCrea plays Jeff Butler, a "troubleshooter" for the Union Pacific in its battle to build the continental railroad. He's up against Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy), who's being paid to delay the construction by any means possible. Campeau's partner is Dick Allen (Preston), Jeff's old army buddy.

Jeff and Dick are also in competition for the affections of lovely Irish lass Mollie Monahan (Stanwyck), daughter of a Union Pacific engineer (J.M. Kerrigan).

The film is 135 fast-moving minutes of action and romance. Other than some antiquated horseback riding shots, which were noticeably done on a mechanical horse in front of back projections, it's an impressively produced film which was great fun to watch.

Best of all, UNION PACIFIC provides a chance to spend time with a marvelous cast. You simply can't do better than McCrea and Stanwyck, and Preston makes an excellent foil for McCrea, playing a bad man who's not all bad.

Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman shine as the team who are always on hand to back Jeff's plays; they're rough-looking guys who are seriously good with a gun and a whip while also providing comic relief.

The cast also includes Robert Barrat, Anthony Quinn, Henry Kolker, Stanley Ridges, Richard Lane, Regis Toomey, and Lon Chaney Jr. A young Evelyn Keyes was billed in the opening credits but only had one scene. A very young Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) can be spotted as a reporter late in the movie.

Sheila Darcy, who played Sid's paramour Rose, was long married to Preston Foster. Ward Bond shows up in IMDb as a "tracklayer" but I didn't spot him!

The movie was shot by Victor Milner. The film was shot on a range of locations including in Utah and Northern California.

I hadn't seen the film since childhood and didn't remember much of that long-ago viewing, so it was very enjoyable to see it once again, especially in such a beautiful print. A shimmering 35mm print seen with an appreciative audience is the way to see a movie whenever possible.

It was a wonderful evening, including the chance to say hello to friends including Lindsay, Kim, and longtime commenter Jane ("Simple Gifts"). And it's always great to have the chance to chat with Wyatt McCrea, who is so knowledgeable about his grandfather's career.

UNION PACIFIC is available on DVD in the excellent Cecil B. DeMille Collection or as a single-title Universal Vault release.

2021 Update: UNION PACIFIC will be released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in August 2021.

Update: My review of the Blu-ray is here.

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