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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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (dir by Richard Brooks)


The 1958 best picture nominee, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, opens with a 30-something Paul Newman doing something stupid.

It’s a testament to just how incredibly handsome Paul Newman was in the 1950s that he can still be sexy even while he’s stumbling around in a drunken haze and attempting to jump over hurdles on a high school football field.  Newman is playing Brick Pollitt, youngest son of the wealthy cotton farmer Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives).  Brick was a star athlete in high school but now, he’s a drunk with an unhappy marriage and a lot of bitter feelings.  When Brick attempts to jump over the hurdles, he breaks his ankle.  The only thing that keeps Brick from being as big a loser as Biff Loman is the fact that he looks like Paul Newman.

Brick is married to Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), a beautiful woman who may have grown up on the wrong side of the tracks but who has married into money.  The only problem is that it doesn’t seem like Brick is ever going to get that money.  With Big Daddy getting older, everyone in Mississippi is wondering which Pollitt son will inherit his fortune.  Will it be drunken, self-pitying Brick or will it be Goober (Jack Carson) and his wife (Madeleine Sherwood)?  One point in Goober’s favor is that he and his wife already have five rambunctious children while Brick and Maggie have none.  In fact, gossip has it that Brick and Maggie aren’t even sleeping in the same bed!  (While Maggie begs Brick to make love to her, Brick defiantly sleeps on the couch.)  The other problem is that, for whatever reason, Brick harbors unending resentment towards … well, everything.  Perhaps it has something to do with the mysterious death of Brick’s best friend and former teammate, Skipper…

Brick, Maggie, Goober, and the whole clan are in Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday.  Big Daddy is happy because he’s just been told that, despite a recent scare, he does not have cancer.  What Big Daddy doesn’t know is that his doctor (Larry Gates) lied to him.  Big Daddy does have cancer.  In fact, Big Daddy only has a year to live.

Whenever I watch Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, I find it’s helpful to try to imagine what it would have been like to watch the movie in the 1950s.  Imagine how audiences, at a time when married couples were still regularly portrayed as sleeping in separate beds and when men were naturally assumed to be the kings of their household, reacted to seeing a film where Elizabeth Taylor was literally reduced to begging Paul Newman to make love to her while Newman hopped around on a crutch and continually found himself getting stuck in embarrassing situations.  Though it may seem tame by today’s standards, the film was undeniably daring for 1958 and watching it is like stepping into a time machine and discovering that, yes, there was a time when Elizabeth Taylor wearing a modest slip was considered to be the height of raciness.

Of course, the film itself is quite toned down from the Tennessee Williams’s play on which it was based.  Williams reportedly hated the changes that were made in the screenplay.  In the play, Skipper committed suicide after confessing that he had romantic feelings for Brick, feelings that Brick claims he did not reciprocate.  That was glossed voter in the film, as was the story of Skipper’s unsuccessful attempt to prove his heterosexuality by having sex with Maggie.  By removing any direct reference to the romantic undercurrent of Brick and Skipper’s relationship, the film also removes most of Brick’s motivation.  (It’s still there in the subtext, of course, but it’s probable that the hints that Newman and Taylor provided in their performances went straight over the heads of most audience members.)  In the play, Brick is tortured by self-doubt and questions about his own sexuality.  In the film, he just comes across as being rather petulant.

And again, it’s fortunate that, in the film, Brick was played by Paul Newman.  It doesn’t matter how bitter Brick becomes or how much he whines about not wanting to be around his family.  One look at Newman’s blue eyes and you understand why Maggie is willing to put up with him.  In the role of Maggie, Elizabeth Taylor gives a performance that manages to be both ferocious and delicate at the same time.  Maggie knows how to play the genteel games of the upper class South but she’s definitely not going to let anyone push her around.  It’s easy to see why Big Daddy prefers the company of Maggie to his own blood relations.  It’s not just that Maggie’s beautiful, though the implication that Big Daddy is attracted to her is certainly present in the film.  It’s also the she’s the only person around who is as strong and determined as him.

Indeed, seen today, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof‘s main strength is that it’s a masterclass in good acting.  Williams’s dialogue is so stylized and his plot is so melodramatic that one bad performance would have caused the entire film to implode.  Fortunately, Newman and Taylor make even the archest of lines sound totally natural while Burl Ives and Judith Anderson are both the epitome of flamboyant charisma as Big Daddy and Big Mama.  It takes a lot of personality to earn a nickname like Big Daddy but Ives pulls it off.

Along with being a huge box office success, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was nominated for best picture of 1958.  However, it lost to Gigi.

Experience Matters: THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia 1966)


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A quartet of macho mercenaries – Lee Marvin Burt Lancaster Robert Ryan , and Woody Strode  – cross the dangerous Mexican desert and attempt to rescue a rich man’s wife kidnapped by a violent revolutionary in writer/director Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS, an action-packed Western set in 1917.  The film’s tone is closer to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns than the usual Hollywood oater, though Leone’s trilogy wouldn’t hit American shores until a year later.

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Rich rancher J.W.Grant (screen vet Ralph Bellamy ) hires the quartet to retrieve wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from Jesus Raza (Jack Palance ), formerly a captain in Pancho Villa’s army, now a wanted bandito. Marvin is the stoic leader, a weapons expert who once rode with Raza for Villa, as did Lancaster’s explosives whiz. Ryan plays a sympathetic part (for a change) as the horse wrangling expert, while Strode is a former scout and bounty hunter adept…

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Back to School #3: Blackboard Jungle (dir by Richard Brooks)


You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.

Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school.  As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers.  Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future.  As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.

At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class.  The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school.  Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair.  It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos.  (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)

It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today.  We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here.  In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film.  And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise.  The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example.  It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today.  (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)

That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well.  Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple.  Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader.  However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.

As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain.  In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him.  He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost.  He was merely damaged.  However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior.  His parents go unmentioned.  When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records.  Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached.  He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.

Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.

Artie Turner Acting Out

Artie Turner Acting Out

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 10: The Substitute (dir. by Robert Mandel)


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The most recent entry in the Guilty Pleasure series had Lisa Marie waxing poetically about the idealistic teacher in the “jungle” film The Principal. I counter and follow this up with a similar-themed film called The Substitute that came and went very quickly in the theaters (I’m not even sure if it did or just went straight to video) in 1996.

The Substitute stars veteran actor Tom Berenger (you may remember him in such films as Platoon, Major League and Sniper) as a Vietnam vet mercenary who ends up substituting as the substitute teacher for his girlfriend’s high school class as she recovers from an attack that has left her unable to teach. The girlfriend was played by one Diane Venora who in the very same year was in another little film called Heat by Michael Mann. These two polar opposite films in terms of their “quality” just shows you that when it comes to acting, unless one was a recognizable name then any role is a good role it seems.

Getting back to the film, Berenger’s character is the titular substitute in one of Miami’s worst inner-city high schools where, as the film’s tagline proudly proclaims, the most dangerous things about it was the students. That is until Berenger’s character shows up to find out who attacked his girlfriend and bring down the wrath of God himself (or at least Berenger’s character and members of his old mercenary team).

The film isn’t what one would call very subtle. We clearly see either two types of teachers in this school. There’s Berenger and his girlfriend who care for the young teens (the former woth tough love and the latter going about it in a more liberal sense) and then there are those who have given up on the school and just cashing in on a paycheck. This goes to the extreme with the school’s principal (played by Ernie Hudson) who begins to suspect that the new substitute might be more than he appears.

It’s the passive-aggressive interaction between the two roles played by Berenger and Hudson that made for some of the more hilarious sequences in the film.

Oh, another thing the film also involves a dangerous high school gang that uses the school as if it’s their own little fiefdom and the local drug kingpin using it as a way station to move heroin into the Miami inner-city school system. Oh, did I happen to mention that Marc Anthony plays the leader of the high school gang, because he sure does.

The Substitute almost plays out like how a teacher fed up with the inattentiveness of his students and the stress of doing a thankless job imagines the perfect scenario to “clean-up” the high school. It’s not through coddling and talking things out with the students. It’s about using military tactics to take out the dangers of gangs and drug dealers and tough love on those who are still worth saving.

Some have called the film as blatantly racist while others have pointed out how it is just an extreme version of the longstanding storyline of the educated and civilized white man saving the “natives” from themselves. What this film has over other school films of similar themes is how it doesn’t try to sugarcoat and hide behind ideals when it comes to it’s story. Plus, it’s such a guilty pleasure to see a typical 80’s action flick dressed up to be a late 90’s film. They really don’t make films like this anymore.

Lisa’s Thoughts On 10 Best Picture Nominees That She’s Recently Seen: The Alamo, Becket, Elmer Gantry, Gaslight, Gladiator, Kramer Vs. Kramer,Marty, Of Mice and Men, Out of Africa, and Wilson


Since it’s Oscar weekend, I’ve been watching past and present Best Picture nominees like crazy.  Here are my thoughts on ten of them.

The Alamo (1960, directed by John Wayne, lost to The Apartment) — I’m a Texan which means that I’m legally required to watch both this film and the 2004 remake whenever they show up on television.  Both films are way too long and feature way too many characters speaking speeches as opposed to dialogue but, if I had to choose, I would have to go with the 1960 version of the story.  The original Alamo might be heavy-handed, poorly paced, and awkwardly acted but at least it’s sincere in its convictions.  I always cry when Richard Widmark dies.

Becket (1964, directed by Peter Glenville, lost to My Fair Lady) — This one is a personal favorite of mine.  The film is about the friendship and the eventual rivalry of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton).  Becket and Henry II start out the film drinking and whoring but eventually, Henry makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury.  Becket, however, rediscovers his conscience and soon, Henry is famously asking, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”  Becket is an exciting historical drama and Peter O’Toole is at his absolute best as the flamboyantly decadent Henry.

Elmer Gantry (1960, directed by Richard Brooks, lost to The Apartment) — Burt Lancaster plays Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman and con artist who ends up falling in love with a saintly evangelist (played by Jean Simmons).  Gantry soon starts preaching himself and soon has an army of loyal followers.  However, Gantry’s new career is threatened when an ex-girlfriend-turned-prostitute (Shirley Jones) pops up and starts telling people how Gantry “rammed the fear of God into” her.  With its unapologetically corrupt lead character and its looks at how commerce and religion are often intertwined, Elmer Gantry makes a perfect companion piece to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Lancaster won an Oscar for his powerful and intense performance in the title role.

Gaslight (1944, directed by George Cukor, lost to Going My Way) — Evil Charles Boyer marries Ingrid Bergman and then attempts to drive her crazy.  Luckily, Inspector Joseph Cotten is on the case.  Gaslight is, in many ways, an old-fashioned melodrama but it’s still a lot of fun to watch.  Boyer is a suave devil and Joseph Cotten (one of my favorite of the old film actors) is a dashing hero.

Gladiator (2ooo, directed by Ridley Scott, won best picture) — One thing that I’ve recently discovered is that men love Gladiator.  Seriously, they obsess over this film and hold Russell Crowe’s surly gladiator up as some sort of mystical ideal and if you dare to say a word against it in their presence, be ready for big and long argument.  So, I won’t criticize Gladiator too much other than to say that the film has always struck me as being kinda overlong, that the CGI is occasionally cartoonish, and that, despite his fearsome reputation, Russell Crowe is a lot more interesting as an actor when he plays a thinker as opposed to a fighter.  Joaquin Phoenix, playing the Emperor Commodus, is a lot of fun to watch.

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979, directed by Robert Benton, won best picture) — Dustin Hoffman plays a workaholic New York advertising executive who, after his wife Meryl Streep leaves him, ends up as a single father.  Kramer Vs. Kramer won best picture in 1979 but I have to admit that I didn’t care much for it.  Then again, I don’t think that I was the intended audience.  Instead, Kramer vs. Kramer appears to have been made to appeal to men frustrated with women wanting to have a life outside of being a domestic servant.  The film is well-acted though Hoffman’s character becomes insufferably smug once he gets comfortable with being a single father.

Marty (1955, directd by Delbert Mann, won best picture) — Lonely butcher Marty (Ernest Borgnine) romantically pursues a shy school teacher named Clara (Betsy Blair).  However, Marty’s friends and his family don’t like Clara and Marty soon finds himself having to choose between them.  Marty is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to best picture winners.  It’s not an epic, it doesn’t claim to solve any of the world’s problems, and it’s based on a tv show.  However, it’s also a sincerely sweet and heartfelt  film and also features excellent performances from Borgnine and Blair.

Of Mice and Men (1939, directed by Lewis Milestone, lost to Gone With The Wind) — “Tell me about the rabbits, George.”  Yes, it’s that film.  Smart and little George (Burgess Meredith) and big but simple Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.) are migrant farm workers who get a job working at ranch where Lenny ends up accidentally killing the rancher’s daughter-in-law.  Despite the fact that we all now tend to naturally smirk when we hear anyone say “Tell me about the rabbits, George,” Of Mice and Men remains an effective tear-jerker and both Meredith and Chaney give strong performances.

Out of Africa (1985, directed by Sydney Pollack, won best picture) — I recently sat down to watch this film because 1) my aunts love this film and get excited whenever they see that it’s going to be on TV and 2) Out of Africa was named the best film of the year I was born.  So, I sat down and watched it and then three or five hours later, I realized that the film was nearly over.  Anyway, the film is about a Danish baroness (Meryl Streep) who moves to a plantation in Africa and ends up having an affair with a British big game hunter.  The hunter is played by Robert Redford, who refuses to even try to sound British. (USA! USA! USA!)  Anyway, the film is pretty in that generic way that most best picture winners are but the film ultimately suffers because its difficult to care about any of the characters.  Streep acts the Hell out of her Danish accent but she and Redford (who seems to be bored with her) have absolutely no chemistry. I saw one review online that dismissed Out of Africa as a “big budget Lifetime movie” but Lifetime movies are a lot more fun.

Wilson (1944, directed by Henry King, lost to Going My Way) — Wilson is a two-and-a-half biopic about Woodrow Wilson and his presidential administration.  Wilson is well-played by Alexander Knox, who later showed up in countless exploitation films.  Wilson shows up on cable occasionally and every time I’ve seen it, I’ve had mixed feelings about it.  The critical part of me tends to be dismissive of this film because it’s way too long, extremely stagey, and it glosses over the fact that Wilson was a virulent racist who idolized the Ku Klux Klan.  However, as a secret history nerd, I can’t help but enjoy seeing a film where Vincent Price plays the Secretary of the Treasury.