Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars


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I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire…

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Film Review: The Last Days of Pompeii (dir by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)


The summer after I graduated high school, I took a trip to Italy.

I absolutely loved it.  There’s nothing more wonderful than being 18 and irresponsible in one of the most beautiful and romantic countries in Europe.  I also loved it because everywhere I looked in Italy, I saw the remains of history.  When I was in Rome, I visited the Colosseum.  When I was in Southern Italy, I visited Comune di Melissa, the village where some of my ancestors once lived.  When I visited Florence, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all that I nearly fainted.

And then there was Pompeii.  I spent a day visiting the ruins of Pompeii and it was an amazing experience.  The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD may have been horrific for the Romans but it’s also gave history nerds like me a chance to step right into the past.  Beyond just the thrill of seeing how the world once was, I have two main memories of Pompeii:

First, there was the visit to Pompeii’s brothel.  An Australian tourist lay down on one of the stone slabs so that his family could take pictures of him.

Secondly, there was the fact that I wore a really pretty red dress for my visit but I failed to take into account that 1) the area around Pompeii is very hilly and 2) it was a very windy day.  So, I can say that I’ve not only visited but I’ve flashed Pompeii as well.

The destruction of Pompeii has inspired several books and more than a few films, as well.  One of the earliest was the 1935 film, The Last Days of Pompeii.

The Last Days of Pompeii opens with Marcus (Preston Foster), an extremely bitter blacksmith who lives in the bustling city of Pompeii.  Marcus is bitter because he’s not rich and his family has been just been run down by some jackass in a chariot.  Marcus does find brief fame as a gladiator but he’s stricken with guilt after he kills a man and then discovers that he’s made an orphan out of the man’s son.  Marcus adopts young Flavius, just to then discover that the boy is seriously ill.  A fortune teller informs Marcus that Flavius will be healed by “the greatest man in Judea.”  Marcus naturally assumes that this is a reference to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone).  However, upon traveling to Judea, Marcus meets a different great man and then watches as his adopted son is healed.

Jump forward about two decades.  Marcus is now a rich man and is in charge of Pompeii’s gladiatorial games.  Flavius (now played by John Wood) has grown up to be an idealistic young man who barely remembers the day that he was healed. What Marcus doesn’t know is that Flavius has been helping slaves escape from Pompeii.  When Flavius is arrested, it appears that Marcus is doomed to watch his own son be killed in the arena.

But wait a minute — what’s that coming down the mountain?  It’s kinda smoky and red and it looks like it might be really hot and …. oh damn.

Now, there’s two problems here.  First off, from a historical point of view, the film’s timeline doesn’t work out.  Jesus was crucified in 33 AD.  Pompeii was destroyed 46 yeas later, in 79 AD.  Therefore, there’s no way that Flavius should only be in his early 20s.  Secondly, just the fact that the film takes place in Pompeii pretty much gives away the ending before the story even begins.  Since you know that the volcano is eventually going to kill everyone, it’s hard to get too caught up in any of the drama.  You just find yourself sitting there and going, “When isssssssssss the volcano going to eeeeeeeeeeeeerupt!?”

On the plus side, Preston Foster is one of the more underrated of the Golden Age stars and he does a pretty good job here.  Plus, you have to love any film that features Basil Rathbone as a semi-decadent Roman.  Rathbone plays Pilate as both a bored libertine and a guilt-stricken convert and, both times, he’s impressive.

Despite being directed by the team behind the original King Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii is a bit slow but, if you’re specifically a fan of old sword-and-sandal epics, it’s entertaining enough.  See it for Foster, Rathbone, and the ghosts of old Pompeii.

Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)


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This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the…

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Horror on the Lens: The Hound of the Baskervilles (dir by Sidney Lanfield)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles!

Based, of course, on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, The House of the Baskervilles is well-remembered for being the first of many Sherlock Holmes films to star Basil Rathbone as the detective and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick, Dr. Watson.  Interestingly enough, Holmes is absent for a good deal of the film, leaving it up to Watson to do the majority of the investigating.  That said, you can still see why Rathbone’s interpretation of the character proved to be so popular that he would go on to play Holmes in a total of 14 movies and one radio series.

Enjoy!

Halloween Havoc!: TOWER OF LONDON (Universal 1939)


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Rowland V. Lee followed up his successful SON OF FRANKENSTEIN with TOWER OF LONDON, reuniting with stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in a take on the story of Richard III that mixes historical drama with horror. This “Game of Thrones” is filled with political machinations, royal court intrigue, and murder most foul as the crook backed Richard kills his way to the top of England’s heap, aided by his chief executioner Mord.

You won’t find any Shakespeare here or historical accuracy, but Lee and his screenwriter brother Richard N. Lee craft a tale of bad intentions to capitalize on the renewed interest in the horror genre. Rathbone exudes evil from every pore as Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who along with his brother King Edward VI, has seized power by imprisoning the feeble-minded Henry IV. But there are six heirs standing in Richard’s way to succession, and he keeps…

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Halloween Havoc: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1939)


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Horror films took a hiatus from Hollywood from 1937 to 1939. The British Horror Ban forbid monster movies from being screened without an X rating, curtailing the export of terror-inducing tales. The Production Code was in full effect, with Joseph Breen and his censorship minions clamping down on what they considered wasn’t suitable for the public. Lastly, Carl Laemmle Sr. (and his son) were ousted from Universal Studios, the company he founded, with J. Cheever Cowdin taking over as Chairman. Cowdin was a money man with a tight hold on the bottom line for the cash-strapped Universal.

Then in 1938, a Los Angeles theater desperate for business featured a triple-bill consisting of FRANKENSTEIN , DRACULA , and KING KONG , playing to sold-out crowds, and a nationwide rerelease saw similar box-office success. The Universal Monsters were back in business, and a third sequel to their profitable series based on Mary…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (AIP 1964)


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Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone had all appeared together on film in various combinations seven different times, but never all at once until THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. This black comedy masterpiece spoofs AIP’s own Poe flicks and Shakespeare, with the quartet of chiller icons having a grand old time playing Richard Matheson’s delicious screenplay to the hilt. Horror and noir vet Jacques Tourneur gets to direct the old pros, and the supporting cast features classic comic Joe E. Brown and Rhubarb The Cat (more on him later!).

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Price  is Waldo Trumble, the besotted, greedy proprietor of Trumble & Hinchley Funeral Parlor. He’s cruel to wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a failed opera singer (“I wish her vocal chords would snap”) who he married only to gain control of the company from her doddering old, half-deaf father Amos. “Demon rum will get you yet!”, she tells Waldo, to which…

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