Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Classic Movie Hub: More Westerns to Stream at Home

My newest Western Roundup column was posted today at Classic Movie Hub.

This month, as was also the case in March, I've focused on Westerns readily available to stream at home.

This time around I've written about three "B" Westerns. The movies star Roy Rogers, William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, and the Rough Riders, also known as Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Raymond Hatton.

Please click over to Classic Movie Hub in order to read the column. My thanks to all, and I hope everyone is continuing to do well during these challenging days.

Previous Classic Movie Hub Western Roundup Column Links: June 2018; July 2018; August 2018; September 2018; October 2018; November 2018; December 2018; January 2019; February 2019; April 5, 2019; April 30, 2019; May 2019; June 2019; July 2019; August 2019; September 2019; October 2019; November 2019; December 2019; January 2020; February 2020; March 2020.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Murder, He Says (1945) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

The nutty crime comedy MURDER, HE SAYS (1945) was released this month on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

It probably won't come as a surprise to longtime readers that I was tracking and reviewing movies long before I had an internet account or a blog. Way back in August 1976 my parents took me to see this film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Leo S. Bing Theater, after which I gave it a one-star review, writing "Very strange; don't bother to see it again."

Well, having seen thousands of movies in the intervening 43-plus years, I thought it was time to disregard that admonition and come back to this film for a fresh look in a new context. And indeed, there's something very "full circle" about returning to this film the exact same month that the Leo S. Bing Theater was sadly demolished.

My 2020 verdict? I liked the film marginally better; this time I think I'd give it two stars thanks to Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, and a few clever bits. All in all, though, this just isn't my kind of comedy.

The problem is not so much that the movie is goofy -- if you like glow-in-the-dark dogs, this is the film for you! -- it's that it's almost plotless. Indeed, dialogue matters so little that I was thinking as I watched maybe it should have been a silent film! I can only watch people beating each other up or chasing each other around for so long before growing restless. In any event, it's way, way too long at 91 minutes; it should have been cut off at 70.

MacMurray starred in this film the year following his lead in the seminal classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). He plays Pete Marshall, a genial pollster who has the misfortune to show up at the Fleagle house deep in the woods. For a man fending off death almost from the moment the movie begins, MacMurray's Pete is amazingly sanguine about the whole experience; he wants out, but he plays the role for laughs rather than terror.

The Fleagles include Ma (Marjorie Main), her latest husband (Porter Hall), twins Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney), and Elany (MacMurray's DOUBLE INDEMNITY costar Jean Heather, doing a hillbilly spin on Ophelia in the last act of HAMLET).

Pete is introduced to Grandma (Mabel Paige), who privately confides to him on her deathbed (while she, incidentally, glows in the dark) something about the location of $70,000. The murderous Fleagles must then keep Pete alive long enough to find out where the loot is stashed. Meanwhile Claire Matthews (Walker) shows up, pretending to be long-jailed relative Bonnie, and she and Pete join forces to try to find the money and survive the Fleagles.

This hillbilly terror movie is so bizarre it's almost hard to figure out why Paramount Pictures released it. The script was by Lou Breslow, from a story by Jack Moffitt; Breslow later cowrote and directed another strange but much more successful film, YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951), in which Dick Powell played a dog reincarnated as a detective solving his own murder!

The movie was directed by George Marshall, who made all sorts of movies in his long career. It was shot in black and white by Theodor Sparkuhl.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray, from a new 4K master, looks absolutely fabulous, so this film's fans -- and believe it or not, there seem to be many! -- will be delighted. It might not have been the film for me, but I'm glad I tried it out again in this beautiful print, looking its very best.

The disc includes the trailer and a four-film Kino Lorber trailer gallery.

I may listen to the commentary track by Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel to gain some more insight into why this film tickles the funnybone of so many viewers. Schlesinger is a historian I very much admire, and as a matter of fact my husband and I had a nice chat with him in January before a screening of NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940). Taffel is also an important figure in the L.A. classic film community, producing the wonderful Cinecon festival on Labor Day weekend.

For anyone trying to figure out whether or not this film is their cup of tea, here are takes on this film by a couple other reviewers: Check out Mike Clark at Media Play News ("the most twisted Hollywood comedy I know from the 1940s") and Charlie Largent for CineSavant/Trailers From Hell ("a conflation of Looney Tunes nonsense and Southern Gothic that has never been equaled").

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Tonight's Movie: Vagabond Lady (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Robert Young, Evelyn Venable, and Reginald Denny star in VAGABOND LADY (1935), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Jo (Venable) works for a large department store, where her alcoholic father (Frank Craven), who knew the store owner (Berton Churchill) in college, heads the janitorial department.

Jo has thus long known the owner's son Johnny (Denny). Johnny is a stuffed shirt but wants to marry pretty Jo, believing that in time he can mold her into enjoying the "finer things" he appreciates such as opera and lectures.

Jo is delighted when Johnny's irresponsible brother Tony (Young) returns from a long trip sailing on his boat, the Vagabond Lady. Tony's lighthearted personality -- he takes her to the circus! -- appeals to Jo, but she also struggles with his immaturity. Which brother should she marry?

Honestly, the answer should have been "neither"! It's a cute enough 71 minutes, but surely there must be a happy medium between a control freak driven mad by a woman eating "low class" gumdrops and a ne'er-do-well who shows every indication he'll end up as much of a drunk as Jo's father. Just as it seems unlikely Johnny can mold Jo into what he wants, why should Jo's love make Tony into a more responsible person?

Venable's Jo is bright-eyed, intelligent...and far too good for either brother. There should have been a nice young Norman Foster or George Brent type working in the mail room who could rescue lovely Jo from the entire family...but alas, there wasn't.

This film struck me as sort of a low-rent variation on the themes of the 1928 Philip Barry play HOLIDAY, which had already been filmed in 1930 and would be remade in a better known 1938 version with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn; VAGABOND LADY just flips genders on the original story of the man deciding between a pair of wealthy sisters. Like HOLIDAY, it straddles a sometimes odd line between heavy drama and screwball comedy.

I've always liked Robert Young and feel his performance in CLAUDIA (1943), in particular, is an overlooked gem. That said, I've come to realize of late just how many unlikeable characters he played early in his career! I think some of it was the roles and scripts Young was assigned, and I'm also thinking that his acting improved and became more nuanced over the years.

Young was excellent in later movies such as JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942) and THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945) -- and also really interesting as the homme fatale discarding women right and left in THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (1947). Here his Tony is ostensibly the romantic hero but his gaiety seems forced, and I was as disturbed as Jo when he got drunk and jumped in the swimming pool in his tux; it seems like the issue is a combination of an unappealing character and the actor not being the genuinely relaxed and friendly persona he communicated in later roles.

Denny is another actor I enjoy; I especially loved him in the previous year's THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (1934). He has some amusing scenes, and though he would have been miserable married to Jo, I almost felt sorry for him, trapped in his own rigidity.

I really liked Venable in this; she's quite personable, even if she has poor taste in men. There's a lovely piece on her at the University of Cincinnati website which I recommend. It includes many wonderful photos.

In the end, VAGABOND LADY holds the attention and is somewhat worth seeing, being interesting to analyze, though the drama didn't evoke much sympathy and the comedy didn't make me laugh. I appreciated that it gave greater context to my understanding of the careers of the three lead actors, all of whom I enjoy, and it's also interesting as Depression-era wish fulfillment, with the heroine choosing between two wealthy men.

The movie was produced by Hal Roach Studios for release by MGM. The script was by Frank Butler, with direction by Sam Taylor. The movie was filmed by Jack MacKenzie.

The print is quite good for a mid '30s film. I found myself adjusting the volume up and down at times due to variable sound levels, but that's my only complaint regarding sound quality. The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Rare Breed (1966) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, and Brian Keith star in THE RARE BREED (1966), recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

The rambly plot concerns Martha (O'Hara), a recent widow who has arrived in America with her daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills) and a Hereford bull named Vindicator. Martha intends to fulfill her husband's dream of cross-breeding the Hereford with Texas longhorns.

Vindicator is sold at auction, and here the plotting gets extremely murky as far as who has bought Vindicator, who's going to deliver him where, and who's going to try to steal him. David Brian makes a brief appearance in these early scenes as a buyer for rancher Alexander Bowen (Keith), and Jack Elam is (what else?) a bad guy.

Ultimately Martha, Hilary, and Vindicator travel to Bowen's ranch with Sam Burnett (Stewart). Along the way they rescue Bowen's son Jamie (Don Galloway) who is trampled in a stampede and...well, it's all a long, complicated story.

Bowen is a rough-edged Scot who lives like a pig, but once he gets used to Martha cleaning up his "fort" he comes to like her enough to propose; she's uncertain, seeming to have a yen for Sam instead. Sam, meanwhile, isn't around much as he's preoccupied with trying to make sure there will be little Vindicator calves come spring.

While all this is going on, Hilary and Jamie fall for one another...

I've always heard this film wasn't particularly good but hoped I might like it more than expected, given the leads. However, the first half of the film is quite confusing and hard to follow, compounded by the fact that the movie is all over the place and doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. It randomly shifts tone from light comedy scenes such as Stewart's repeated brawls to Jack Elam being a disturbingly cold-blooded killer.

It's also got pointless characters who come and go, such as Ben Johnson playing a friend of Sam's. He vanishes early on, as does David Brian. Harry Carey Jr. has a little more to do, but not much.

The film settles down a bit in the second half, once everyone arrives at the Bowen ranch, but even here it's rather baffling. It's hinted that Stewart and O'Hara's main characters are in love, yet they're apart for most of the second half of the film, while she spends screen time with Keith. There's zero relationship development here between Stewart and O'Hara; everything we know about Sam and Martha is predicated on the time they spent together in the first half of the movie.

Fortunately Galloway and the charming Mills are on hand to keep things somewhat more interesting, but the film really suffers from a poorly planned script (by Ric Hardman). I can see this film being on in the background while doing chores some lazy Saturday, just for the cast, but all in all it's a pretty drawn-out 97 minutes which just barely makes sense.

The movie also has an odd "mixed" look, blending excellent location shooting with soundstage exteriors and some truly awful back projections which reminded me of some poor shots from live-action Disney films of that era. THE BRIDE WORE RED (1937), seen a couple days ago, had some of the same issues trying to blend locations and studio backdrops, but one expects a film made three decades later could do better in this regard.

The best thing going for the film is simply spending time with the cast. The film was a reunion for O'Hara and her male costars, as in 1961 she had costarred with Keith in THE PARENT TRAP (1961) and the following year she and Stewart appeared in MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962). This was also O'Hara's second time to play the mother of a Mills sister; in THE PARENT TRAP she was the mother of Juliet Mills' younger sister, Hayley.

THE RARE BREED was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and filmed by William H. Clothier in Panavision. The score was by John Williams, billed as "Johnny" at that point in his career.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray picture is wonderful, a sharp print which is one of the best reasons to watch. The disc also includes a commentary track by Simon Abrams and the movie's trailer, along with a trailer gallery for nine additional films available from Kino Lorber.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Around the Blogosphere This Week

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

...The latest exciting news from Kino Lorber: A brand-new 4K restoration of HELL BENT (1918), written by John Ford and Harry Carey (Sr.), starring Carey and directed by Ford, is "coming soon."

...Lee Gambin recently Tweeted that he will be recording audio commentaries for Kino Lorber Blu-ray releases of SON OF ALI BABA (1952), starring Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie, and BUCCANEER'S GIRL (1950) with Yvonne DeCarlo. Both have previously been released on DVD. I reviewed BUCCANEER'S GIRL way back in 2007 and found it quite delightful. I'm hoping to review the Blu-ray in due course, as well as SON OF ALI BABA, which I've never seen.

...Caftan Woman has discovered that DARK CITY (1950) is...an Easter movie?! Not exactly, but I'd forgotten that holiday is briefly alluded to in the film.

...CineSavant Glenn Erickson has reviewed the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release of RACHEL AND THE STRANGER (1948), which has had 12 long-missing minutes restored to the print. Can't wait to see this!

...A few days ago I reviewed the second film in the Hopalong Cassidy series, THE EAGLE'S BROOD (1935). I was delighted that Dan Stumpf reviewed a later film in the series, FALSE COLORS (1943), for Mystery File. I added that one to my "watch" stack!

...Here's a short interview with Eddie Muller, who shares that while most of the films shown on Noir Alley are films already available to Turner Classic Movies, "...they've been very good about allowing me to choose five or six films a year that are outside of the licenses. We go after them and get them specifically for ‘Noir Alley.’”

...At Jeff Arnold's West: An extensive rundown on "Women in Westerns."

...Coming to Blu-ray in mid-May from Mill Creek: A double-film disc with HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951) and NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED (1955). NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED is also available on Blu-ray in the Noir Archive Vol. 2 collection. To my knowledge this is the first time HOLLYWOOD STORY has been released on Blu-ray; it was previously released on DVD by the TCM Vault as a single title and in the four-film set Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers, Vol. 2, which doesn't seem to be currently available.

...Scott Feinberg has interviewed 91-year-old actress Nancy Olson for the Hollywood Reporter.

...Chris Pine is set to star in a new movie version of THE SAINT, previously played on the big screen by George Sanders and Louis Hayward, among others, and notably by Roger Moore for television. I hope he has better luck rebooting that series than he did with JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014), a very enjoyable film which is currently in my "rewatch" pile. I was disappointed there weren't any more Ryan films.

...Alan K. Rode recently announced new dates for this year's Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival. The fest, originally scheduled for mid-May, will now take place in Palm Springs from December 3rd through 6th.

...Frequent Hallmark star Jill Wagner has given birth to her first child, a daughter.

...Theme park reporter Brady MacDonald shares his thoughts on how Disneyland might reopen in the coming months at MiceChat.

...At Comet Over Hollywood, Jessica has reviewed an interesting Lucille Ball film I enjoyed a couple years ago, BEAUTY FOR THE ASKING (1939). I liked its unexpected story twists.

...Notable Passing: Oscar-nominated actress Shirley Knight has passed on at the age of 83. She was in "The Ice Man" (1961) episode of MAVERICK (seen here with Jack Kelly), and I fondly recall a TV production of FRIENDLY PERSUASION (1975) she appeared in with Richard Kiley. She also played Hope's mother in a couple episodes of THIRTYSOMETHING circa late '80s.

...For additional recent links of interest to classic film fans, please check out my April 18th roundup.

Have a great week!

Friday, April 24, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Bride Wore Red (1937) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Joan Crawford stars in the title role in THE BRIDE WORE RED (1937), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Crawford appeared with her then-husband, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young in this story of a cabaret singer who fights for a better life after fate dumps an opportunity in her lap.

That opportunity comes when Count Armalia (George Zucco), slumming in a cheap dive, decides on a whim to send singer Anni (Crawford) to a ritzy Alpine resort, passing her off as a countess.

Anni quickly decides to secure her financial future by going after marriage to the Count's wealthy friend Rudi (Young), despite Rudi already having a sweetheart in pretty young Maddelena (Lynne Carver). It's a race against time to marry Rudi before the clock strikes midnight, in a manner of speaking, and the Count discloses her identity to all via telegram.

Meanwhile, Giulio (Tone), the poor but handsome local postman and telegraph operator, has fallen for Anni. He's unconcerned about her clearly unsavory past, as well as her current scam, and offers Anni an honest relationship and a loving marriage.

This film, directed by Dorothy Arzner, had potential, given the cast, which also includes Billie Burke and Reginald Owen. However, unlike a similarly plotted Cinderella tale of a couple years later, MIDNIGHT (1939), this film has quite a dark and dour tone throughout.

Crawford, initially presented as sort of a Dietrich-esque performer, plays a hardbitten and unhappy woman who's not particularly likeable. Any sympathy and understanding she may draw due to her poverty is erased by her plotting, which hurts the film's two worthy characters, Giulio and Maddelena. The story might have worked if the film had a lighter touch, but the heavy-handed treatment is too sour.

As a side note, though Crawford is gowned by Adrian, she has an unbecoming pageboy haircut which almost looks like a helmet; it's actually rather appropriate for Anni, who is not so much looking for love as going into battle for financial security. Unfortunately, like the character, it's not especially attractive, though it works better in the scenes where Anni is happiest, in peasant dress.

Young plays an immature, slippery type who's not entirely admirable, ready to ditch sweet Carver for Crawford, though he might just be smart enough in the end to realize what he would be giving up if he doesn't marry Maddelena. I liked the scene where Young calls things off with Carver, as her class in handling it perhaps causes him to see her clearly for the first time.

20-year-old Carver may have been young, but her character has a maturity and kindness missing from all of the main cast excepting Tone; I almost wished Giulio and Maddelena could go away together, as their characters actually deserved each other.

The film's mournful mood is lightened only by the appealing Tone and his many cousins, who include Pietro (Dickie Moore) and Alberto (Frank Puglia). Puglia has a great bit as a sympathetic waiter who unobtrusively guides Anni on the ins and outs of upper-class dining. Anni's confusion about which fork to use and his subtle coaching was perhaps my favorite moment in the movie.

Ann Rutherford has a small role as a peasant girl who chases after Tone during a carnival. Another of the peasant girls is Adriana Caselotti, who that same year voiced Snow White in Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).

All in all I found it a surprisingly sad 103 minutes. Crawford was an acquired taste for me, but I've come to enjoy her quite well. In the future I'll stick with favorite '30s Crawford titles like FORSAKING ALL OTHERS (1934), NO MORE LADIES (1935), and THE LAST OF MRS. CHEYNEY (1937).

THE BRIDE WORE RED was produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The screenplay, which had multiple contributors including Mankiewicz, was based on a play by Ferenc Molnar. The cinematography was by George Folsey.

The movie was made with MGM's typical high standards, though the mixture of Mammoth Lakes locations with obvious backdrops is a bit awkward; it might have been better to choose either the realistic or the fairy tale look and stick with it.

The Warner Archive DVD includes the trailer. The print and sound are of good quality.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Don't Bet on Women (1931)

A terrific cast buoys DON'T BET ON WOMEN (1931), a giddy pre-Code comedy.

I'd term this film "Ernst Lubitsch lite," as it made me think of the great director's pre-Code bedroom farces. DON'T BET ON WOMEN, directed by William K. Howard, isn't on that level, but it's good fun nonetheless.

The plot is nonsensical, starting with the baffling concept of luscious young Jeanette MacDonald married to Roland Young. The droll Young is always fun to watch, but the idea they're happily wed in what otherwise seems to be a, shall we say, tepid marriage is odd, to say the least.

Much of the film revolves around Young and his client, a divorced man-about-town (Edmund Lowe), discussing their philosophies regarding the fairer sex, culminating in a $10,000 bet on whether or not Lowe can get virtuous MacDonald to kiss him within 48 hours.

Meanwhile, a daffy Southern miss (Una Merkel) is romanced by Lowe's best friend (J.M. Kerrigan).

The whisper-thin plot is almost inconsequential, but watching Lowe, MacDonald, Young, and Merkel exchange repartee is worth the price of admission.

They're all good, but Merkel almost steals the show from the time she swims into the picture. Her non sequitur spouting Tallulah makes Gracie Allen seem like a genius!

MacDonald is always a delight, whether she's singing or playing comedy. Here she also has quite a moving moment near the end, when she attempts to seduce Lowe and he rejects her; in a wonderful few seconds we watch her react, then gather herself back together and work herself into anger before the scene moves on to its lighthearted conclusion.

When the movie came to an end after 70 minutes I wasn't quite sure exactly what had just happened, but whatever it was, I enjoyed it!

The movie was filmed by Lucien Andriot.

This film does not appear to be available for home viewing. In the past the film's Museum of Modern Art print has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Eagle's Brood (1935)

THE EAGLE'S BROOD (1935) was the strong second entry in the long-running HOPALONG CASSIDY movie series.

The first film, HOP-A-LONG CASSIDY (1935), was released in August 1935. Last fall I wrote about that movie in some detail for Classic Movie Hub. As a side note, that was the only film in which the nickname "Hop-a-long" was hyphenated!

The second Hoppy film, THE EAGLE'S BROOD, was released two months later, in October 1935. It was strongly recommended by Frances M. Nevins in his comprehensive Hoppy reference HOPALONG CASSIDY: ON THE PAGE, ON THE SCREEN, and it did not disappoint.

The movie has a somewhat darker, grittier feel than later Hoppy films, including steely-eyed Bill "Hopalong" Cassidy (William Boyd) being a pretty dangerous customer. You absolutely do not want to mess with this man! Hoppy was always a confident character but here he's almost scary at times, then finally he'll break into a reassuring smile.

The film opens with the murders of the parents of young Pablo Chavez (George Mari), while he hides in the nearby woods. (This sequence reminded me a bit of the opening of a later Zane Grey Western, 1937's THUNDER TRAIL.) Pablo is found by Dolores, a kind-hearted dance hall performer; Dolores was played by Joan Woodbury, curiously billed as Nana Martinez, the only time in her career she used that name.

Dolores quickly realizes that her boss Big Henry (Addison Richards) is behind the murders and is now hunting for the child, wanting to eliminate a potential eyewitness to the killings. She hides the little boy, then writes to his grandfather, the famous bandit El Toro (William Farnum).

El Toro heads north from his home in Mexico to find his grandson, pausing along the way to save the life of Sheriff Cassidy (Boyd). Cassidy recognizes El Toro and orders him to return south of the border, then pledges to find the man's grandson, in gratitude for saving his life.

Cassidy and his Deputy Johnny Nelson (James "Jimmy" Ellison, seen here) turn in their badges and head off to find Dolores, arriving in town separately and not letting on they know one another as they investigate the situation. A series of violent incidents take place as the men edge closer and closer to finding little Pablo.

This was quite a strong and compelling drama which I enjoyed very much. It's told in a compact 61 minutes but is a complete, satisfying story with some dramatic punch. I'd describe it as a model "B" Western.

Woodbury and Farnum are particularly good among the supporting cast, which also has familiar names like George "Gabby" Hayes and Paul Fix. Former silent film actress Dorothy Revier registers well as Dolly, who works with Dolores.

It's quite interesting to track the evolution of the Hoppy character from the very first films, as he's definitely a more lighthearted persona as the series continues. The movie is also much more violent than I've seen in later Hoppy films, including a couple people flying over cliffs. Legendary stuntmen such as Cliff Lyons and Jack Montgomery were among the movie's crew.

THE EAGLE'S BROOD was directed by Howard Bretherton and filmed by Archie Stout. IMDb says the movie was shot in the area of Kernville, California.

This movie is available on DVD and VHS, and it's also available for streaming via multiple services.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Tonight's Movies: Tex Avery Screwball Classics, Volume 1 - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1, was recently released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

The one-disc set includes 19 beautifully restored cartoons; the individual titles are listed at the end of this review.

I feel sure that I must have seen some of animator Tex Avery's cartoons in the past, perhaps as extras on MGM DVDs, yet I can't say that I remembered any of the titles in this set. I've recently been watching a couple at a time before watching a movie, and getting to know these cartoons has been a great deal of fun.

The thing that impresses me most about the Avery cartoons in this set is the eye-popping, gorgeous color, with a host of different color palettes and styles. Each cartoon is a visual feast; for a good idea of what I'm talking about in that regard, simply take a look at the amazingly colorful title cards shown at DVD Beaver. They're tremendously enticing!

The restored cartoons are not only visually stunning, they're also a lot of fun, with unusual "breaking the fourth wall" gags and some fairly sophisticated verbal and topical humor along with the expected "animals beating each other up" cartoon violence.

I've been particularly struck by how much of the then-topical humor now relies on the viewer's knowledge of the '40s, especially the homefront during WWII. Viewers who are unaware of things like ration points and rubber shortages, or names like Spike Jones and Kitty Foyle, will miss quite a bit of the humor, but on the flip side, viewers in the know will find the cartoons all the funnier. I actually laughed out loud at a couple of hilarious ration points jokes. (And with some difficulty obtaining various groceries these days due to the pandemic, I could also relate a bit more to how 1940s audiences must have felt!)

A couple of the cartoons weren't as clever as others, but on the whole it's a strong group which I liked a lot. My favorite was probably SYMPHONY IN SLANG, in which common slang phrases such as "raining cats and dogs" are interpreted literally. I was also charmed by THE PEACHY COBBLER, in which a bunch of semi-inept (and rather violent!) elves attempt to help a poor shoemaker. A pair of "bunny" shoes multiplying was just one joke that had me chuckling.

Other gems include RED HOT RIDING HOOD, delightfully set in Hollywood (the tuxedo-clad Wolf tries to lure voluptuous Red with "white sidewall tires") and WHO KILLS WHO? which works in some live action and fascinating visual perspectives, including audience members seeming to run in front of the cartoon screen.

A side note for those who notice the name Preston Blair in the credits: He was the brother-in-law of Disney's famed Mary Blair.

This beautiful set is a "must" for animation fans, and I'm certainly hoping for and looking forward to Volume 2.


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

Tonight's Movie: Canyon Passage (1946) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

The superb Western CANYON PASSAGE (1946) is now available on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber.

In the years since my first viewing close to two decades ago, this film directed by Jacques Tourneur has become one of my favorite Westerns -- indeed, one of my favorite movies, regardless of genre. It's a richly detailed, complex film which offers new rewards and insights on each viewing, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The movie tells the story of a frontier community in 1850s Oregon, including Logan (Dana Andrews), a merchant who also runs a pack mule delivery service, and his best friend George (Brian Donlevy), who has a gambling addiction and is engaged to Lucy (Susan Hayward).

Logan and Lucy seem to have an attraction, but Lucy remains loyal to George, while Logan proposes to a recently orphaned English girl, Caroline (Patricia Roc).

The wider community is populated by a marvelous group of actors including Ward Bond (truly scary in this one), Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Dorothy Peterson, Fay Holden, Virginia Patton, Stanley Andrews, Frank Ferguson, Halliwell Hobbes, and more. Wandering amongst the community members singing songs like the Oscar-nominated "Ol' Buttermilk Sky" is Hi Linnet (Hoagy Carmichael).

I've previously written about the film at considerable length in both 2013 and 2019, so rather than restate many of the same points I'd like to direct readers to those posts for more extensive thoughts on the movie.

I think it's worth emphasizing here, however, how I gain something new on each viewing, which makes adding this particular Blu-ray to a classic film fan's library such a joy. Last time around, as I wrote for Classic Movie Hub, I really keyed in on how much George (Donlevy) exists "outside" the local community. He lives there, but he's not really part of things, other than his close relationships with Logan and Lucy.

This time I felt I gained new insights into the character of Caroline (Roc), who on first or second viewing seems to be a bit of a timid English rose; that impression might have been initially reinforced by the way she wanders lost in the forest after a lethal Indian attack.

On this viewing I was completely struck by a sequence early in the film which I almost didn't remember, in which Caroline leaves the Dances (Devine and Peterson) to help a neighbor deliver a baby. When Mrs. Dance asks if she should send for the doctor, Caroline laughingly says that it's "just a baby" and she can handle it, and she confidently heads out to serve as midwife.

Though an unmarried young woman, Caroline plainly has a great deal of life experience and has more nerve than I initially credited to her, singlehandedly delivering a baby at an isolated cabin -- a point which is underscored by her desire to remain in Oregon and have a farm after her father was killed, despite the ongoing dangers.

Though the film is only 92 minutes long, it's as meaty as a good novel, managing to give its many characters depth and distinctive personalities, in turn causing the viewer to reflect more deeply on them with each successive viewing. Simply put, it's a superb film which deserves to be revisited regularly.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray shows off the Technicolor cinematography of Edward Cronjager in fine fashion; surely the wonderful location shots filmed in Oregon never looked better. I also really noticed so many interesting details in the houses this time around, perhaps aided by the crisp-Blu-ray picture.

The disc includes the movie's trailer, an additional trailer gallery for four films also available from Kino Lorber, and a fact-filled commentary track by Toby Roan.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The King's Thief (1955) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

A splendid cast appears in MGM's swashbuckler THE KING'S THIEF, available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Ann Blyth stars as Lady Mary, whose father was unjustly executed for treason against King Charles II (George Sanders).

The execution was the plot of King Charles' trusted friend the Duke of Brampton (David Niven), who frames various members of the nobility and then skims some of their estates for himself after they're killed. He keeps the names of his targets in a little notebook, which soon falls into the hands of Michael Dermott (Edmund Purdom), the thief mentioned in the movie title.

There's quite a bit of action as the book changes hands back and forth, culminating in Michael and Mary joining forces and attempting to steal the Crown Jewels, only so they can gain the King's attention and tell him the awful truth about the Duke.

Few movie moments of the '50s are more pleasurable than widescreen color opening credits accompanied by a stirring theme composed by Miklos Rozsa, and the sequence here launches the film to a fine start. Alas, what follows is only a fair to middling adventure, though there are numerous nice bits scattered throughout the film.

The good things about the movie begin with the cast. I especially enjoy Blyth and Sanders, so they are reason enough to watch the film. Blyth is both lovely and spunky, no weak-kneed miss, while Sanders in his few scenes seems to be having a good time, surrounded by many small dogs.

Purdom, who had previously teamed with Blyth in THE STUDENT PRINCE (1954), is quite adequate in the title role, yet strangely lacking in charisma. I found myself much more interested in watching the sides of the frame to observe Roger Moore, whose character Jack is essentially Will Scarlett to Purdom's Robin Hood.

Niven curiously doesn't make much of an impression as the villain of the piece. He's a bad man, but he's not particularly scary or memorable. Niven did better work in many other films.

The supporting cast is marvelous, starting with John Dehner as the Duke's righthand man. Also in the film are a wonderful array of faces including Sean McClory, Tudor Owen, Melville Cooper, Alan Mowbray, Queenie Leonard, Ian Wolfe, Rhys Williams, and Paul Cavanagh.

Young players Peter Hansen (GENERAL HOSPITAL) and Robert Dix are also on hand; Dix and Moore became lifelong friends at MGM, which led to Dix playing the agent who is murdered at the start of Moore's first James Bond film, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). He tells that story here.

Blyth's costumes (by Walter Plunkett) and hairstyles are lovely, though unfortunately the relatively pallid tones of Eastmancolor don't show them off to full effect. The cinematography was by Robert Planck.

The script by Christopher Knopf, based on a story by Robert Hardy Andrews, isn't particularly memorable, which might be the film's biggest failing. However, the movie moves along in a brisk 78 minutes, which works in its favor.

In the end the film is worth a look, especially for fans of the cast, but I couldn't help feeling that it could and should have been more romantic and exciting, especially given all the talents involved.

The film was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who took over for the uncredited Hugo Fregonese.

The Warner Archive print of this CinemaScope film looks quite pleasing. 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 the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Around the Blogosphere This Week

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

...Coming in September from University Press of Mississippi: HOLLYWOOD HATES HITLER! JEW-BAITING, ANTI-NAZISM, AND THE SENATE INVESTIGATION INTO WARMONGERING IN MOTION PICTURES. It's by my friend Chris Yogerst, who previously wrote FROM THE HEADLINES TO HOLLYWOOD: THE BIRTH AND BOOM OF WARNER BROS. This look at the 1941 Senate investigation, which was one might say was ultimately rendered moot by Pearl Harbor, should be fascinating.

...Here's a February article I just came across on the great film historian Jeanine Basinger. I'm currently reading her book THE MOVIE MUSICAL! which is as good as one might expect from Basinger.

...This weekend I rewatched DRAFT DAY (2014) for the first time since I saw and reviewed it in 2014. What an extremely enjoyable movie! I love how it takes what one might expect to be the climax, Kevin Costner's choice of his team's No. 1 draft pick, and makes that just the start of an exciting extended sequence of wheeling and dealing. The movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as streaming rental from Amazon.

...Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal excerpts his new column on Frank Sinatra as a conductor at his blog About Last Night.

...Time Magazine published an excellent list of '30s classic film comfort viewing with beautiful illustrations.

...Here's Leonard Maltin on new classic film releases.

...The Self-Styled Siren, Farran Smith Nehme, has written an article on Zachary Scott for the latest Noir City e-magazine. Details at her site.

...CineSavant Glenn Erickson calls Buster Keaton's OUR HOSPITALITY (1923) "a little masterpiece." It's available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber, and it's in my "watch" stack!

...Coming to Disney+ on May 4th: DISNEY GALLERY: THE MANDALORIAN, an eight-episode documentary on the creation of Disney's superb STAR WARS series, which I reviewed last November.

...This week San Diego Comic Con announced it will not take place this July. I have a feeling my first-ever visit to Star Wars Celebration won't take place in Anaheim this August, but we can hope.

...Cinemark hopes to reopen its theaters approximately July 1st.

...The good news just keeps coming from Kino Lorber, which this past week announced FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA IV, releasing in July. This follows sets II and III, releasing in May and June, respectively. Vol. IV will feature Alan Ladd and Gail Russell in CALCUTTA (1947), Fredric March and Edmond O'Brien in AN ACT OF MURDER (1948), and Tony Curtis and Julie Adams in SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS (1955). I'm especially excited about CALCUTTA, a terrific film I've seen twice on a big screen, which was never released on DVD, and SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS, also new to DVD. Details on Vol. II are in my February 22nd roundup, while the Vol. III info can be found in the March 21st roundup.

...And here's some great July news from the Criterion Collection: They're releasing THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), complete with a special effects presentation by Ben Burtt and Craig Barron. I saw their talk on the film at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival -- and met Ann Robinson after the movie! (Photo of Ann here.)

...Classic Movie Ramblings reviews NAKED ALIBI (1954), an enjoyable film I most recently reviewed here. Gloria Grahame and Sterling Hayden star, along with a very disturbed Gene Barry.

...Remembering actress Barbara Hale today, born on April 18, 1922.

...Notable Passings: The terrific character actor Brian Dennehy (seen at right) has sadly passed on at 81. His work over many decades included voicing Django in Disney/Pixar's RATATOUILLE (2007)...Cinematographer Allen Daviau, who recorded such beautiful images for his Oscar-nominated work on E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982), has died at 77...Singer Betty Bennett, the first wife of Andre Previn, has died at 98. Marc Myers has lots of photos and recordings in his tribute at JazzWax...Animator Ann Sullivan, a longtime Disney employee, has passed on at 91.

...For additional recent links of interest to classic film fans, please check out my April 11th roundup.

Have a great week!

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