Dear Old Alma Mater: John Wayne in TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY (Warner Brothers 1953)


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Tomorrow’s the big night, as my New England Patriots go up against the tough defense of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Tom Brady and company will be going for Ring #6, and everyone here in Southern New England is super excited, looking forward to another victory celebration! I’ll be attending a huge party with plenty of food, big screen TV’s, raffles, squares, and like-minded fans, but before the festivities begin, let’s take a look at TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY, a football-themed film starring none other than Big John Wayne !

St. Anthony’s College is a struggling Catholic university run by sweet old Father Burke, who’s getting to be as decrepit as the school itself. The powers-that-be want to close his beloved St. Anthony’s, seeing how the school’s $170,000 in debt, but old Father Burke comes up with an idea. Citing Deuteronomy 32:15 (“The beloved grew fat and kicked”)…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #33: Heaven Can Wait (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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The 1943 film Heaven Can Wait opens with a 70 year-old man named Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) stepping into an opulent drawing room and having a conversation with a refined but menacing man known as His Excellency (Laird Cregar).  From their conversation, it quickly becomes obvious that Henry has recently died and His Excellency is in charge of Hell.  Most people who come to see His Excellency do so because they want to argue that they do not belong in Hell and they usually end up falling through a convenient trap door.  However, Henry is there to argue that, after living an enjoyable but dissolute life, he belongs in Hell.

Henry tells the story of his life.  He tells how he was born into great wealth and influenced by his down-to-Earth grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a young man, he spent most of his time chasing after showgirls bur eventually, he met the beautiful and kind-hearted Martha (Gene Tierney).  He immediately fell in love with Martha but, unfortunately for him, she was engaged to his cousin (Allyn Joslyn).  Henry, however, used his considerable charm to convince her to elope with him.

(It helps, of course, that Henry’s cousin was totally and completely obnoxious, in the way that rival suitors often are in films like this.)

And, for 25 years, Henry was happy with Martha.  It took him a while to settle down and, at one point, Martha even left him as a result of his affairs.  However, they always got back together and Henry eventually did settle down, even going so far as to prevent his son from running off with a showgirl of his own.  It was only after Martha herself died that Henry, who always felt he didn’t deserve her love, returned to his old ways.

And, Henry argues, it’s because he was unworthy of his wife that he deserves to spend an eternity in Hell.  Does His Excellency agree?

Well, it would certainly be a depressing movie if he did.

One of the great things about TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar is that it gave me a chance to discover several films from director Ernst Lubitsch, films like The Smiling Lieutenant, The Love Parade, Ninotchka, and Heaven Can Wait.  Of those four Lubitsch films, Heaven Can Wait is probably the least substantial but it’s still an undeniably entertaining and nicely romantic film.  This is one of those films that you watch because the sets look wonderful, the costumes are to die for, and the performers are all pleasant to watch.  It’s pure entertainment, a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word.

In fact, tt was such a crowd-pleaser that it was nominated for best picture of the year.  However, it lost to the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Casablanca.

Cleaning Out The DVR #7: The More The Merrier (dir by George Stevens)


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After I finished with Watch On The Rhine, I decided to watch another film from 1943.  Like Watch On The Rhine, The More The Merrier is a film about life during wartime and it takes place in Washington, D.C.  However, that’s all that they have in common.  Whereas Watch On The Rhine was a serious and somber affair, The More The Merrier is thoroughly delightful little comedy.

The More The Merrier opens with a retired millionaire named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) arriving in Washington D.C.  He’s been asked to serve as an adviser for a commission that has been tasked with solving America’s housing shortage.  (This was apparently a very real concern during World War II.)  However, as soon as Dingle arrives, he finds directly effected by the problem that he’s supposed to be solving.  His hotel room won’t be available for two days and he has no where to stay.  After a quick look through the newspaper, Ben finds an ad for a roommate.

When he arrives at the apartment, he discovers a long line of men waiting outside.  They’re all in the same situation as him and are hoping that Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) will select him for her roommate.  However, Connie picks Ben, largely because he’s old and rich and she won’t have to worry about him hitting on her on like most guys nor does she have to worry about him borrowing her clothes or getting jealous of her, like she would have to with a female roommate.  Connie is engaged to a boring but well-paid bureaucrat named Charles Pendergrast (Richard Gaines).  She doesn’t really love Pendergrast (and he has an annoying habit of shushing her) but, after growing up poor because her mother married for love, Connie is determined to not to make the same mistake.

Ben and Connie struggle, at first, to adjust to each other’s habits.  Connie keeps to an exact schedule and claims to not have any use for frivolity.  Ben is the exact opposite.  The early scenes of them trying (and, of course, failing) to stay out of each other’s way are hilarious, with both Coburn and Arthur giving brilliant comedic performances.  (I’m jealous of how wonderfully Jean Arthur could express exasperation.)  Connie’s apartment is already small and it gets even smaller once she sublets half of it to Benjamin Dingle.

However, things are about to get even more crowded.  One day, while out exploring Washington, Ben runs into Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a sergeant who has a few days before he’s scheduled to be shipped overseas and who has no place to stay.  Generously, Ben agrees to sublet half of his half of the apartment to Joe.  Of course, Ben does this without telling Connie.

When, after another hilarious and artfully done sequence of the three new roommates wandering around the apartment and just barely missing each other, Connie discovers what Ben has done, she orders both Ben and Joe to leave the apartment.  Ben agrees to do so, if she gives him back his security deposit.  Unfortunately, Connie already spent that money on a hat…

So, they’re stuck together.  Connie is attracted to Joe and Joe to Connie but Connie is also determined to marry Pendergrast.  (When Joe scornfully says that he bets Pendergrast combs his hair “every hour on the hour,” Connie snaps back, “Mr. Pendergrast has no hair!”)  Fortunately, Ben — being older and wiser — can see that Joe and Connie are perfect for each other and he starts doing everything he can to bring the two together.

As Ben says more than once, “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!”

Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She had this perfect “no bullshit” attitude, mixed with an unexpected vulnerability.  In The More The Merrier, she’s just as credible when she’s ordering Ben and Joe to leave as when she’s breaking into tears after she catches Ben reading her diary.  In the role of Ben, Charles Coburn is warm, kind, and wonderfully eccentric.  (When Joe asks him what does for a living, Ben cheerfully replies, “I’m a well-to-do retired millionaire.  How ’bout you?”)  And then you have Joel McCrea, in the role of the “cute but dumb” Joe Carter.  He’s not really that dumb but he certainly is cute.  Wisely, McCrea never tries to be funny.  Instead, he gets most of his laughs just by reacting to all of the craziness going on around him.

Briskly directed by George Stevens, The More The Merrier features a snappy script from Frank Ross, who was married to Jean Arthur.  It’s full of hilarious lines but, at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to it as well.  Hanging, like a shadow over all of the comedy and the romance, is the fact that Joe is soon going to be shipped overseas.  Even while you laugh, you’re very aware that there’s a chance he might not be coming back.  That reality brings an unexpected depth to the film’s otherwise cheerful love story.

The More The Merrier was nominated for best picture but it lost to Casablanca.  However, Charles Coburn did win the Oscar for best supporting actor.

Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Insomnia File #1: The Story of Mankind (dir by Irwin Allen)


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What’s an Insomnia File?  You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable?  This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you were suffering from insomnia at 3 in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1957 faux epic, The Story of Mankind.

I call The Story of Mankind a faux epic because it’s an outwardly big film that turns out to be remarkably small on closer inspection.  First off, it claims to the tell the story of Mankind but it only has a running time of 100 minutes so, as you can imagine, a lot of the story gets left out.  (I was annoyed that neither my favorite social reformer, Victoria C. Woodhull, nor my favorite president, Rutherford B. Hayes, made an appearance.)  It’s a film that follow Vincent Price and Ronald Colman as they stroll through history but it turns out that “history” is largely made up of stock footage taken from other movies.  The film’s cast is full of actors who will be familiar to lovers of classic cinema and yet, few of them really have more than a few minutes of screen time.  In fact, it only takes a little bit of research on the imdb to discover that most of the film’s cast was made up of performers who were on the verge of ending their careers.

The Story of Mankind opens with two angels noticing that mankind has apparently invented the “Super H-Bomb,” ten years ahead of schedule.  It appears that mankind is on the verge of destroying itself and soon, both Heaven and Hell will be full of new arrivals.  One of the angels exclaims that there’s already a housing shortage!

A celestial court, overseen by a stern judge (Cedric Hardwicke) is convened in outer space.  The court must decide whether to intervene and prevent mankind from destroying itself.  Speaking on behalf on humanity is the Spirit of Man.  The Spirit of Man is played by Ronald Colman.  This was Colman’s final film.  In his heyday, he was such a popular star that he was Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  However, in The Story of Mankind, Colman comes across as being a bit bored with it all and you start to get worried that he might not be the best attorney that mankind could have hired.

Even more worrisome, as  far as the future of mankind is concerned, is that the prosecutor, Mr. Scratch, is being played by Vincent Price.  Making his case with his trademark theatrics and delivering every snaky line with a self-satisfied yet likable smirk on his face, Vincent Price is so much fun to watch that it was impossible not to agree with him.  Destroy mankind, Mr. Scratch?  Sure, why not?  Mankind had a good run, after all…

In order to make their cases, Mr. Scratch and the Spirit of Man take a tour through history.  Mr. Scratch reminds us of villains like the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) and the Roman Emperor Nero (Peter Lorre, of course).  He shows how Joan of Arc (Hedy Lamarr) was burned at the stake.  The Spirit of Man argues that, despite all of that, man is still capable of doing good things, like inventing the printing press.

And really, the whole point of the film is to see who is playing which historical figure.  The film features a huge cast of classic film actors.  If you watch TCM on a semi-regular basis, you’ll recognize a good deal of the cast.  The fun comes from seeing who tried to give a memorable performance and who just showed up to collect a paycheck.  For instance, a very young Dennis Hopper gives a bizarre method interpretation of Napoleon and it’s one of those things that simply has to be seen.

And then the Marx Brothers show up!

They don’t share any scenes together, unfortunately.  But three of them are present!  (No, Zeppo does not make an appearance but I imagine that’s just because Jim Ameche was already cast in the role of Alexander Graham Bell.)  Chico is a monk who tells Christopher Columbus not to waste his time looking for a quicker way to reach India.  Harpo Marx is Sir Isaac Newton, who plays a harp and discovers gravity when a hundred apples smash down on his head.  And Groucho Marx plays Peter Miniut, tricking a Native American chief into selling Manhattan Island while leering at the chief’s daughter.

And the good thing about the Marx Brothers is that their presence makes a strong argument that humanity deserves another chance.  A world that produced the Marx Brothers can’t be all bad, right?

Anyway, Story of Mankind is one of those films that seems like it would be a good cure for insomnia but then you start watching it and it’s just such a weird movie that you simply have to watch it all the way to the end.  It’s not a good movie but it is flamboyantly bad and, as a result, everyone should see it at least once.

 

 

 

Embracing the Melodrama #9: Kings Row (dir by Sam Wood)


Kings Row“Where’s the rest of me!?” — Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), upon waking up to discover that his legs have been amputated, in Kings Row (1942)

It is with that line that the 1942 best picture nominee Kings Row earns its place in film history.  The formerly carefree and rich Drake had lost all of his money due to a crooked banker.  However, instead of feeling for himself, Drake got a job working for the railroad and finally started to show that he was capable of acting like a mature, responsible adult.  However, when Drake was injured in a boxcar accident, he had the misfortune to be taken to the sadistic Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn).  Gordon felt that it was his duty to punish those who he considered to be wicked and that’s exactly how he felt about about Drake.  So, despite the fact that Drake had once been in love with Gordon’s daughter, Gordon proceeded to chop of Drake’s legs.

It’s just another day in Kings Row.

Of course, to an outsider, Kings Row looks like your typically calm and pleasant community.  But behind closed doors, this small town is full of sordid secrets.  Only those who have grown up in Kings Row understand the truth.  Only they can understand how Drake McHugh could end up losing his legs.

When they were both growing up at the turn of the century, Drake’s best friend was Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings).  While Drake was pursuing Dr. Gordon’s daughter, and being loved from afar by Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), Parris was studying to be a doctor under the tutelage of Kings Row’s other doctor, Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains).  While Dr. Tower appeared to be a much nicer man than Dr. Gordon, he definitely had his eccentricities.  For instance, there was the wife who was reportedly confined somewhere in the house and never allowed to leave.  And then there was Dr. Tower’s daughter, Cassandra (Betty Field).  Dr. Tower was very protective of Cassandra, perhaps too protective.  How would Dr. Tower react when Parris, his best student, started to develop romantic feelings towards Cassandra?

Again, it’s just another day in Kings Row.

So, by now, it should be pretty obvious that Kings Row is one of those films that deals with big secrets in small towns.  That, of course, is a theme that was explored by films that were made long before Kings Row.  What made Kings Row unique is that it was perhaps the first film to actually portray that evil as specifically existing and thriving because of the repressive nature of a small town.  Whereas other films had featured outsiders bringing bad habits to an otherwise innocent and idyllic community (and be sure to watch Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt if you want a perfect example of this), Kings Row suggested that the very nature of its setting is what led to all of the melodrama.  The film suggests that evil men like Dr. Gordon can specifically thrive in a town like Kings Row because his fellow townspeople aren’t willing to risk the placid surface of their existence by exposing him.  As such, Kings Row serves as a template for all of the sin-in-a-small-town films and TV shows that have followed.

Beyond the film’s historical importance, Kings Row holds us pretty well as entertainment.  As the film’s hero, Robert Cummings is a bit on the bland side but, fortunately, he’s surrounded by an excellent cast of character actors.  It’s a bit of a cliché to say that Claude Rains was perfectly cast because, seriously, when wasn’t Claude Rains perfectly cast?  But, in the role Dr. Tower, Claude Rains is perfectly cast.  Charles Coburn makes for a perfectly terrifying villain.  Ann Sheridan is likable and sympathetic as the woman who tries to help Drake recover after Dr. Gordon takes away his legs.  And finally, you’ve got future President Ronald Reagan in the role of Drake McHugh.  Reagan is usually dismissed a being a pretty boring actor (and I really haven’t seen enough of his films to say one way or the other) but he gave a great performance in Kings Row.

And that’s why, even beyond its historical significance, Kings Row is still a film that is more than worth watching.

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