Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"She's waitin' for me
when I get home from work oh, but things ain't just the same She turns out the light and cries in the dark won't answer when I call her name On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone Mexican kids are shootin' fireworks below Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July She gives me her cheek when I want her lips but I don't have the strength to go On the lost side of town in a dark apartment we gave up trying so long ago On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone Mexican kids are shootin' fireworks below Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July What ever happened I apologize dry your tears and baby walk outside, it's the Fourth of July On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone Mexican kids are shootin' fireworks below Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July
Hey baby, Baby take a walk outside."

Monday, January 28, 2008

THE BIG BARRICADE. So, I spent the weekend barricaded inside against all the people around me who are sick with the plague. This means that it was a solid movie marathon wherein I never stepped foot outside (except when I had to work a half day Saturday). Once I came home from work Saturday afternoon (clutching a nice takeout order of Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce to sustain me), I began watching films of a mostly noirish flavour. . . some more than others.
I began with THE BIG CLOCK, a 1948 bonafide film noir starring Ray Milland as a guy desperately trying to prove his innocence in a murder case. The corpse is a blonde; she was despatched with a metal sundial with a green ribbon tied on it (don't ask -- just go watch the film). The eponymous "big clock" is the big clock in the office building of Janoth Publications; Milland's character works on the magazine "Crimeways" and the big boss is clock-obsessed Charles Laughton. There's a nice dotty cameo from Elsa Lanchester as a dizzy artist while Maureen Sullivan is adequate if nothing more as Milland's patient wife. If you look closely you'll see Margaret Field (Sally Field's mom and star of the sci-fi classic "The Man From Planet X") as a secretary and Noel Neill (Lois Lane herself) as an elevator operator. A terrific little noir that I've always liked quite a lot. Beautiful chiaroscuro photography. Tautly directed by John Farrow (that's right; Mia's dad).
Next came a little sleeper hit from 1945: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS starring Nina Foch in the best role of her career. Journeyman director Joseph H. Lewis surprised everybody (including probably himself) by making this picture; it began life as the forgettable bottom of a double bill but got such a buzz from audiences and critics at the time that it leapt to "A" status. Foch is the title character who takes a job as a live-in secretary to an old lady and her odd son (played by Dame May Whitty and George Macready respectively). She wakes up (after having been drugged) in a seaside manor in Cornwall with everyone insisting she is Mrs. Hughes; Macready's mentally ill wife. She naturally insists she's not Macready's batty wife but they insist she is -- and that her memory of being "Julia Ross" is just another of her delusions. She tries many times to escape the house and fails. Naturally the Hughes (mother and son) are up to something diabolical. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because this basic setup was remade in 1986 for the Mary Steenbergen thriller "DEAD OF WINTER" co-starring Roddy MacDowell. For some reason, this film saw something of a mini-marathon of George Macready movies because the Big Clock and the next movie both feature this wonderfully slimy character actor.
The third film on my hit parade was the 1946 noir classic "GILDA" starring Rita Hayworth in her star-making role. Glenn Ford plays her old love and George Macready plays her new husband. Who knows exactly what the plot to this one is; it doesn't matter. It's the three stars who are riveting and the reason to watch the film. There's some ho-hah about Tungsten monopolies in Argentina and former Nazis. But we just roll with it. Hayworth displays some real acting chops while Ford and Macready are no slouches either. No one can ever hear the song "Put the Blame on Mame" without thinking of Gilda. And yes, Gilda Radner's mom named her after this movie.
Fourth outta the (DVD) box was another noir classic from 1947: OUT OF THE PAST starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and a surprising Jane Greer. This one was directed by Jacques Tourneur and is in the running as possibly his best film. Mitchum is at his best as a former private eye who is hiding from his former employer (Kirk Douglas) for double-crossing him. Daniel Mainwaring's screenplay was adapted from his own novel and is sheer noir poetry; possibly because he was helped (uncredited) by James M. Cain. The entire cast is flawless and Jane Greer has the role of her career as a woman whom you're never quite sure where she stands. One of the quintessential films noir ever made.
The fifth film went backwards a little in time since THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS" was, in fact, Kirk Douglas' first movie. Here we have another classic (if little known) film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas and Lizabeth Scott (in my favourite role for the actress) as well as a small role for Dame Judith Anderson as Stanwyck's rotten aunt (perfect casting since the two actresses LOOK like they could be related). The plot to this one is too extensive to go into here; let's just say it's another noir where someone's past catches up with them (in fact, almost the entire cast). Stanwyck is perfect as the cold-hearted, manipulative wife of twitchy Kirk Douglas (who does a remarkable job in his first film role up against these acting heavyweights). Lizabeth Scott pouts like no other and Van Heflin is the quintessential rough and tumble gambling man with a heart of gold. Wonderful little film!
Sixth is possibly Edgar G. Ulmer's best film: 1945's DETOUR (only the Universal Boris Karloff - Bela Lugosi vehicle THE BLACK CAT rivals it). This film illustrates the classic noir idea that, no matter what you do you cannot escape what fate has in store for you. This is Tom Neal's most famous role (in fact, his ONLY famous role) as a pianist hitchhiking to California to meet his girlfriend. Along the way, he is picked up by a man named Haskell who died during the trip. Unfortunately, Tom Neal opens the car door and the dead or sleeping (it's never clear which) Haskell falls out and cracks his head on a rock. Believing the cops would never believe he didn't kill the man, Tom Neal buries the guy in the desert, takes his car, I.D., money and clothes and continues on to California. When he finally reaches California, Tom Neal has the even MORE unfortunate luck to meet Vera (played savagely by the aptly named Ann Savage) and things REALLY begin to heat up. There's absolutely nothing Tom Neal can do to get out from under the vicious joke fate is playing on him -- and that's the heart of film noir. Strangely, Tom Neal's real life would follow much the same path as his character in this film. His real-life on again/off again romance with actress Barbara Payton (Four Sided Triangle) resulted in his almost beating actor Franchot Tone to death. Later, Neal was jailed for murdering his wife. Even more bizarrely, DETOUR was remade in 1992 starring Tom Neal's real life son in the same part. This movie is an unforgettable experience in ultra-low budget filmmaking. Oh yeah. . .and the song of the movie? "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me". Can't never hear that song without thinking of this movie. No how.
The seventh film is Alfred Hitchcock's favourite of all his films: 1943's SHADOW OF A DOUBT starring Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie and Teresa Wright as niece Charlie. Evil comes to small town America . . . and Hitchcock loved it! Not really noir but it's what I felt like watching next. While my opinion of the film is not quite as high as Hitchcock's (my favourite of his films has got to be REAR WINDOW), this is indeed a fascinating study of suspicion and trust. There's a killer on the loose who offs wealthy widows by strangling them. The law isn't sure who the fiend is but they've got it narrowed down to two men . . . and one of them is Uncle Charlie; the favourite uncle of Charlie (Teresa Wright). The young girl finds life in typical middle America deadly dull and wishes her Uncle Charlie would visit and liven things up. Coincidentally, Uncle Charlie is coming to visit on his own. While she is initially thrilled to have her uncle visit, young Charlie soon begins to suspect something isn't quite right with her uncle. The appearance of two government investigators (Macdonald Carey and perennial character actor Wallace Ford in probably the most subdued and understated role of his career) serve to further freak young Charlie out. In the meantime, Uncle Charlie is beginning to suspect that his niece suspects HIM. Let the suspense begin. I always thought that SHADOW OF A DOUBT would make an interesting double feature with the B-grade little Francis Lederer horror film THE RETURN OF DRACULA which always seemed to me to be something of a cross (pun intended) between SHADOW OF A DOUBT and DRACULA. Watch 'em both and see.
The eighth film brings us into the downbeat 70's with Robert Altman's 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "THE LONG GOODBYE" starring Elliott Gould as detective Philip Marlowe. This is a perfectly odd adaptation which some people don't like at all. It's true that this is unlike any other Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe movie made before. I in fact didn't particularly like it the first time I saw it -- I didn't dislike it either. However, it's grown on me since then and I can appreciate the new take Gould brings to the character. It's also got a great ending. There is also an amazing performance from Sterling Hayden as a kind of drunken surly (and more than slightly unhinged) writer in the Ernest Hemingway mold. There is also Henry Gibson (sans giant flower) as a bizarre mental doctor. Definitely worth a look.
Ninth out of the gate is the late Bob Clark's 1979 film MURDER BY DECREE which brings us the hoary pairing of Sherlock Holmes with Jack the Ripper. Once again we have the (pretty much disproven) theory that the royal family had something to do with the Ripper murders -- more precisely the Duke of Clarence Prince Eddy secretly married Annie Crook and had a child with her. Then the royal physician and another man went about murdering all the prostitute friends of Annie Crook who knew about the baby. The freemasons are also added to the mix. Regardless of the unlikeliness of this theory bearing any semblance to fact, this Ripper film is classy and fairly well-made (until the rather weak final confrontation). The black contact lenses worn by the Ripper(s) is genuinely unsettling in shots. Christopher Plummer as Holmes is very serviceable while James Mason's Dr. Watson is rather the same doddering cliche that appears in many movies. Genevieve Bujold's one scene as Annie Crook is genuinely affecting. The appearance of Sir John Gielgud as "The Prime Minister" provides a face to face meeting of two Sherlocks: Gielgud played Holmes in a rather good radio series during the 1950's with Sir Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson. There is also a small role for Donald Sutherland who is fairly wasted as a psychic. All in all a solid if unspectacular Holmes/Ripper film.
The tenth and last film in my weekend barricade movie marathon is an installment of the Brian Clemens' 70's horror anthology show THRILLER entitled "FILE IT UNDER FEAR". This 1973 made-for-tv movie is not my favourite of the series (that would be my oft-discussed fave SOMEONE AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS) but it's got a really nice atmosphere of the early 70's that I quite like to revisit again and again. The mise en scene is a public library around which someone is murdering . . . shall we say. . . "loose" women. It's like the Ripper all over again only this time someone's strangling them. The cast is lead by Maureen Lipman as head librarian Miss Morris -- I kept thinking "I know this actress from somewhere but where the hell is it?" Well, not only was she in the bizarre little filmed Christmas play "Absurd Person Singular" but she also appeared in the new Doctor Who series episode "The Idiot's Lantern" in which she sucks people into television sets in the 1950's. Also in the cast is veteran British character actor John LeMesurier. This is a nice and creepy way to end my little (LITTLE?!?!) big barricade movie marathon. I wonder what the NEXT marathon theme will be???

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

NEW LINK OVER THERE. Yeah, over there. In the recommended links list on the right hand side. Go look under TV Intros.com and you will find a wacky little site that has a strange little credo: "Where all that matters is how the show starts." You guessed it; they have countless videos of TV show theme songs. I mean, come on . . . we all know that the best part of most TV shows is the theme song -- once the actual programme starts it's often all downhill. So here we have the beginnings of MUCH TOO MANY shows where you can see anything from the theme song to SILVER SPOONS (Hi Fink!) to the godawful duet singing that opened JOANIE LOVES CHACHI. Oh, and another favourite is the several BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS show openings on offer on the very same site. And they've got THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN too, folks! And it looks like every damn season of SURVIVOR (Hi Cheeks!). But there's just one thing I wanna know: how come I've never heard of BATFINK until I saw it on this site?!?!?! And why haven't we seen MORE of him?!?!?!?
So, go on have a look. You know you wanna. After all, we can't all be sitting around a Rustler Steak House table listening to a TV Toons tape and talking about that old show SMOKE GUN. . .

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"BALL TOOK A BAD HOP!" There's real life and there's the MGM musical; and never the twain shall meet. "THREE LITTLE WORDS" is one of my favourite musicals: it's about the "true" life story of songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby who wrote such standards as "Who's Sorry Now", "Nevertheless", "Thinking of You", "I Wanna Be Loved By You", "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" and many more. And naturally, being an MGM musical from 1950 there is a LOT of artistic license brought to bear. Nevertheless (pun intended) I like to think this is EXACTLY the way the songwriters' lives played out. "THREE LITTLE WORDS" is one of Fred Astaire's favourites of his own films (and he knew both the songwriters from his days in vaudeville). However, the film is less a Fred Astaire vehicle than a musical biopic; Fred is always in service to the story even though we do get to see quite a few Astaire dance routines thrown into the film at appropriate moments.
Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) and his fiancee Jessie Brown (the incomparable Vera-Ellen) are vaudeville hoofers -- and quite a successful dance team at that. Despite the great success, Kalmar pines to become a stage magician. He in fact secretly performs a (very bad) magic act in a run down vaudeville theater under the assumed name of "Kendall the Great". During a particularly abyssmal performance, Kalmar's magic act is botched by stagehand Harry Ruby (the also incomparable Red Skelton -- oh yeah, and by the way, Astaire is incomparable too I just forgot to mention it) who would rather be playing baseball than pushing geese and rabbits through trapdoors for a hack magician. After the show, Kalmar is furious and Ruby gets fired. Jessie and Kalmar's agent Charlie (Keenan Wynn) find out about Kalmar's "magic act" and gently tease him about wanting to be a third rate magician when he's a first rate dancer. There is talk of Bert and Jessie finally tying the knot. But as fate would have it, a backstage accident smashes Bert's knee and the dancer is laid up indefinately -- he may never dance again. Since Bert has "finally stopped moving long enough", Jessie finally accepts his proposal of marriage -- however, Bert is too proud to marry her without being able to support her and he doesn't want to hold her back from a successful career -- so Jessie departs in tears to become a solo while Bert decides to attempt songwriting to make a living (a task he's toyed with in the past but never took seriously).
While visiting a Tin Pan Alley building, Kalmar overhears a songplugger playing a song he wrote on a piano. Naturally, it's Harry Ruby -- but Kalmar doesn't recognize him as the lout who spoiled his magic act. He looks familiar though... The song Ruby is playing (for which he has no lyrics yet) will one day become the standard "Three Little Words"; however, this song becomes a running gag throughout the movie. Kalmar thinks it's "a nice enough little tune" but asks Ruby "what else ya got?" All throughout the movie (long after the two have become a successful songwriting team), Ruby will play this tune whenever Kalmar asks if he's got any new tunes. As the two become fantastically successful as songwriters, Bert eventually reconciles with Jessie and marries her. Besides Kalmar's fondness for magic, he also has a yen to become a playwright. Unfortunately, the play Bert spends years writing is not very good and Ruby is told of this. For Bert's own good (because he's going to sink everything he's got into this turkey of a play and will almost certainly lose his shirt), Ruby warns off the only possible investor and the play dies unborn.

This crushes Kalmar but Ruby can never let on about what he did. Concurrently, Harry is constantly falling in love with girls who are -- shall we say -- not the marrying kind. Ruby is constantly getting engaged to these hoydens while they are seeing other gents behind his back. Each time this happens, Kalmar arranges for Ruby to go down to baseball camp and practice with his friend's professional baseball team. By the time Ruby returns, the woman of the moment has already married somebody else. Ruby, unaware of each woman's philandering, believes the breakup was caused by his sojourn down at the baseball camp -- and he would be livid if he found out it was Bert that scotched his romantic aspirations. Of course, these two secrets among friends are BOUND to come out sooner or later. And they do. And it breaks up the songwriting team. The two men no longer speak and the years go by . . . until their wives hatch a scheme to get the two songwriters together again.

The songs in the film are naturally classics; arising as they do from the Kalmar and Ruby songbook. Richard Thorpe's direction is swift, enjoyable and to the point. Not too much time goes by without a song or a dance number appearing exactly where we want one. The cast, of course, is second to none. Fred Astaire and Red Skelton have a terrific chemistry together as Kalmar and Ruby. It's also always a huge treat to hear Red Skelton sing; it's another apparently little known fact about Red Skelton that he had a fine singing voice. Astaire in fact does some really fine acting in the film and he and Skelton make their characters quite real and complex; not cardboard cutouts at all. Add Vera-Ellen to this pair and the chemistry is even better; she also earns kudos for her acting job. All three get on so well together that you believe they've known each other for years. Later in the film, as the songwriting team has broken up and Kalmar is not there to prevent it, Ruby marries a singer/actress named Eileen Percy (Arlene Dahl). BUT it turns it this is finally the right woman for Ruby and the match is perfect. Dahl fits in perfectly with the other three cast members (if in fact possessing a little less chemistry than the others). There are also some very nice set pieces sprinkled all throughout the film with some effective cameos. The real Harry Ruby in fact appears as one of the baseball players Skelton throws a pitch to. Stunningly beautiful Gloria DeHaven appears in the film playing her own real life mother as she sings the new Kalmar-Ruby composition "Who's Sorry Now". And an incredibly young Debbie Reynolds appears as Helen Kane (better known the inspiration for Betty Boop); however when she sings "I Wanna Be Loved By You" it is the REAL Helen Kane who dubs her singing voice. And speaking of dubbed singing, Vera-Ellen's singing was dubbed (as was common at the time) by Anita Ellis; however, you'd never know it unless someone told you.
"THREE LITTLE WORDS" is one of those movies I've been watching again and again and again since childhood. The immense charm of the actors, the terrific songs and comedy, the classic dance numbers by Fred and Vera-Ellen -- all this makes it one of my top 5 favourite musicals of all time. A couple years ago the film was FINALLY released on DVD inside a box set called "Classic Musicals of the Dream Factory" and then released separately as a stand alone disc. The production values by MGM are, of course, superb and the DVD print is damn near spotless: vivid, saturated colours and wonderful sound. A few years before the DVD, I was also lucky enough to pick up the soundtrack cd (which was released in a very limited edition). It's a mystery to me why this film isn't better known but once seen it's hard to resist. Maybe because it's not too flashy and doesn't feature much in musical pyrotechnics. It's just pure joy to watch and one of the best musicals MGM ever made.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"I HEAR THERE'S TROUBLE IN SHANGRI-LA." It's probably just as well that I mention up front that I always preferred the film "SHE" to "LOST HORIZON". Both films are similar in style, mood and setting; both concern a hidden, lost city and eternal youth. However, where H. Rider Haggard's "SHE" (both book and movie) are thumping potboilers, James Hilton's "LOST HORIZON" is much quieter and more lyrical. "SHE" is jam-packed with conflict while "LOST HORIZON" features barely any actual conflict at all. I hadn't seen "LOST HORIZON" for several years and this time around I found myself appreciating it much more. However, I can't help being left with the feeling that the film could have been much more effective than it is. And there's a good reason for that. This isn't really the film Frank Capra made. Studio boss Harry Cohn had SIX REELS removed from the original cut -- then in addition made additional cuts here and there. Then, sadly, the original film negative no longer exists and several scenes in the restored DVD version only exist as a soundtrack; forcing restorers to use still photos in the actual movie while we hear the sound from the missing scenes. With all this going against it, "LOST HORIZON" should be a mess; but it still remains a good film and that's probably down to the skill of Frank Capra. It's not his best but it's well worth watching.
The story, of course, begins in war-torn 1936 China where British adventurer Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is helping to evacuate the last Westerners from a Chinese town while (presumably) Japanese invaders are closing in. The last group of Westerners boards the last plane and our core cast is neatly assembled: Conway's brother George (John Howard: Katharine Hepburn's stodgy betrothed in "THE PHILADELPHIA STORY" and star of the beautiful-looking but rather empty Fox werewolf movie "THE UNDYING MONSTER"), a presumably consumptive prostitute named Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell: of the 30's Bette Davis potboiler "MARKED WOMAN" as well as Val Lewton's "SEVENTH VICTIM" and "THE LEOPARD MAN"), a plumber turned financier named Henry Barnard whose financial empire has crumbled and who is now on the run from the authorities (Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell from "STAGECOACH" as well as "ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS" and Capra's own "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE") and crabby former teacher Alexander Lovett (the irrepressible Edward Everett Horton who appeared in everything from the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant classic "HOLIDAY" to "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show").
Sadly for our little group, their pilot is murdered by a mysterious fellow who essentially hijacks their plane and flies them deep into China and then Tibet before running out of gas and crashing in the snowy Himalayas. Not being a soccer team, the group is saved from having to eat each other by a passing band of folks who just happen to have extra parkas for them all and leads them back to their hidden city of Shangri-La. It quickly becomes apparent that Shangri-La is slightly magical as it is sunny and warm while all around is snowy . . . then there's that little thing about people in Shangri-La living an EXTRAORDINARILY long time. The leader of the band of hikers and a sort-of second-in-command in Shangri-La is Mr. Chang (venerable H. B. Warner who was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for this role; he dates way back to the silent era when he played Christ for DeMille in 1927's "KING OF KINGS" as well as the incredibly moving turn as the drunken druggist in Capra's "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE"). Almost immediately upon entering Shangri-La, Robert Conway catches a glimpse of the lovely, ethereal Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt -- who NEVER looked this good in FATHER KNOWS BEST). We just know that these two are destined to meet and fall in love and they do.
Our group is treated extremely well by the Shangri-Lalians (well what would YOU call 'em?!?) -- in fact the consumptive ho Gloria (who had previously been given only 6 months to live regains her health within the magical confines of the hidden city). However, slight clouds appear as the group realizes that they were essentially kidnapped and brought to Shangri-La and are being shown no real way to leave. When the group confronts him about this, Chang tells them that their leader, the High Lama, wants to see Conway. Quite an honour. Conway is ushered into the chamber and meets the High Lama (superbly played by Sam Jaffe). Conway realized that the Lama is none other than Father Perrault: the same man who founded Shangri-La way back in the 1700's. And he's still alive. Maybe not kicking -- but alive and sitting. The Lama reveals that Conway was purposely brought to Shangri-La because of his writings on utopian societies so they thought he "belonged" here. Everyone in the group slowly begins to like it in Shangri-La and soon forgets about leaving -- everyone, that is, except Conway's brother George who resists the place's charm and sourly grumps around complaining that they're prisoners. Even falling for the hot little Russian number Maria (played by Margo of Val Lewton's "THE LEOPARD MAN") doesn't soften the guy. In fact, Maria doesn't much care for the place either and eggs George on. Another meeting with the High Lama occurs in which the Lama hands over the care of Shangri-La to Conway and promptly dies. Robert tells Chang that his brother is adamant about leaving and taking Maria with him. Chang is aghast; even though Maria insists she's a sprightly 20 years old Chang tells Robert that she's been in Shangri-La since 1888 and will rapidly age if she were ever to leave the city. Robert resists his brother for a while until he and Maria harangue him into believing (or at least HALF-believing) that Shangri-La is an ossified, nasty place. Robert half-heartedly agrees to leave with the pair. Probably the most moving part of the film is when they are just about to leave the city. Ronald Colman's acting is top notch here as he sadly looks back at Shangri-La; the inner struggle between leaving and staying plays over his face with an economy and truth I've rarely seen the actor display. Of course, once out in the snowy wastes the trio has a bitch of a time. Maria naturally was lying about her age and morphs into an aged (and dead) old crone. George sees this, the cheese falls off his cracker, and he runs screaming headlong off a cliff. Robert Conway, now alone, struggles back to civilisation and collapses in a Tibetan town. He is returned to England with no memory of what happened to him in the year he was gone. Eventually, however, he remembers it all, realized what a terrible mistake he made in leaving and tirelessly attempts to get back to the hidden city.
The surviving print of "LOST HORIZON" is incomplete but still manages to stand up. The acting is great across the board with special kudos going to Sam Jaffe's High Lama as well as the previously mentioned Ronald Colman. Thomas Mitchell is given considerably less to do than he usual is given but does the best with what he's got. In fact, the relationship between he and Edward Everett Horton reminded me of a subtle gay courtship; the two start out bickering and soon end up acting towards each other like a married couple. Now, I usually don't read homosexual subtexts into movies as a rule (and if there really IS one here it is done very subtlely and without camp) but I really think the two actors at least half-intended it this way. The notion is helped along by the script (by Robert Riskin) which has Mitchell's character quickly shorten Horton's character's name from Lovett to "Lovey". Lovett first finds the nickname objectionable and annoying but soon comes to like it and even begins insisting others call him "Lovey" too. Later on in the film there is a brief and none-too-convincing attempt to suggest that Thomas Mitchell and the formerly sick prostitute Gloria will become an item but it's only in one scene and I just didn't buy it. The relationship between Mitchell and Horton seems the more natural and real to me. I'm telling you, if these two don't set up house together when they stay behind in Shangri-La, I don't know what the hell's going on! H. B. Warner as Chang was nominated for an Oscar, as I've said, and he is quite good as well but nowhere near as intensely moving as he was in "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE" where he just breaks your heart. Jane Wyatt is the best I've ever seen her in "LOST HORIZON"; although I've never been a fan of the actress here she is extremely likeable -- hey, she even does a nude scene. Although sadly the nude swimming longshots are a body double. Another nice touch occurs when the strange, otherworldly musical sounds we've been hearing in Shangri-La originate from the small little flutes that Sondra has attached to the birds constantly flying overhead.
Frank Capra was apparently very keen to direct "LOST HORIZON"; he apparently outbid King Vidor for the screen rights. The director was also adamant that Ronald Colman should play his hero. Colman was unavailable at the time and studio boss Harry Cohn tried to force "less-expensive" Brian Aherne on Capra but the director bided his time until Colman became available. Capra's first cut of the film was apparently about 5 hours long -- an epic indeed. But as previously stated, Cohn chopped 6 reels out of the movie to release it. Of course, all that removed footage is now lost to the ages; one wonders exactly what a full 5 hour print of the film would be like! With so little action or conflict, I suspect it would probably have been VERY overlong. The print we have now (about 130-some minutes) has been valiantly restored but one can only wish that Columbia had preserved the original negative. A little bit of unused footage HAS survived on original negative stock and they are shown in the DVD's special features -- and they look beautiful: sumptuous, stunning photography by Capra's favourite Joseph Walker. The print we have that's been restored look pretty good (mostly) but the original negative would've looked marvelous. The "LOST HORIZON" we DO have is a singular movie experience well-worth catching -- maybe someone might kidnap YOU and take you to the cinematic world of Shangri-La one of these days. I think you'll be happy they did.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"IF I LEAVE HERE TOMORROW WOULD YOU STILL REMEMBER ME?" The late Ronnie Van Zant was born sixty years ago today. As everyone knows, Ronnie was the lead singer of a little band called Lynyrd Skynyrd who was killed in a plane crash in 1977. So this is just to say that I still remember you. And happy birthday. You're as free as a bird now. . .

Monday, January 14, 2008

VAMPIRA: REST IN PEACE. It's with a sad and cobwebbed heart that I mark the passing of Maila Nurmi who rocketed to fame in the 1950's as wasp-waisted TV horror host Vampira: she died January 10th. Maila was briefly the most famous woman in the country -- until the TV station felt she was getting too big and took her off the air. Vampira has flitted in and out of the public consciousness ever since; from her mute appearance in the classically inept "PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE" by Edward D. Wood Jr. to the eponymously titled Misfits song "Vampira". Most recently, the 2006 documentary "VAMPIRA THE MOVIE" was released on DVD last year to some really good reviews and I agree; the flick is a now even more precious opportunity to hear Maila tell the story of her life in her own inimitable words. And trust me, Maila Nurmi was a character. A true original. We won't see her like again.
WHY YOU ALWAYS TRY TO RUIN THE MOMENT?!?!?!!!
"There's no desert that ain't felt rain,
Nobody here that ain't felt pain,
There's no bigot that ain't been clowned,
There's no treasure that I ain't found,
Ain't no cave they never explored,
Ain't no mother that ain't been ignored,
There's no leader that ain't been led,
There's no blood that ain't been shed,
There's no dish they never made,
Ain't no brick they never laid,
Everything left's been done before,
Nothing's new, nowhere to explore.
On the day when the wagons come
I just pray that you let me on.
On the day when the wagons come
I just pray that you let me on."
-- Violent J and Shaggy
1999
THE TIME IS NIGH! VOTE NOW FOR THE 2007 RONDO AWARDS FOR THE BEST IN HORROR. See link a little further down (or over there on the right in the links list). See ya there.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

THE WINTER GUEST. Beautifully photographed. Wonderfully written. Flawlessly acted. Thoughtfully directed. Sorry, there aren't any car chases here. THE WINTER GUEST is a movie about human beings -- about relationships -- about emotions. It's winter time (although this week it's been pushing 70 degrees) so it's time to once again pop this DVD into the player. THE WINTER GUEST has less action than ON GOLDEN POND but slightly more than THE WHALES OF AUGUST and concerns people not quite as disfunctional as A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT -- but like these films (and NOBODY'S FOOL which I also always watch when the dead of winter closes in) THE WINTER GUEST is about how people relate to one another; particularly between the generations. It's a film about coping with grief, about aging, about discovery, about sex -- even about the dangers of rubbing "Deep Heat" on your penis. No, really.
THE WINTER GUEST was a play written by Sharman Macdonald commissioned by actor Alan Rickman (you know. . .the bad guy in DIE HARD, Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies, the dead guy in TRULY MADLY DEEPLY...). Rickman makes his directorial debut with this film and shows a surprisingly deft and subtle touch. The film concerns (basically) four sets of people (although they do interact with one another). First we have Frances (Emma Thompson) who is wallowing in grief over the death of her husband. We find her living in an unnamed, remote Scottish village on a day when the ocean has frozen solid. Frances is visited by her rather domineering mother (Emma's real-life mother Phyllida Law) who persuades her to grab her camera (Frances is a professional photographer) and spend the day with her walking on the frozen beach. The second pair in the film is Frances' teenaged son Alex (Gary Hollywood) and a local girl Nita (Arlene Cockburn) who has had her eye on Alex for quite some time. After several rounds of flirtations, Alex invites her back to the now-empty house while his mother and grandmother are out. The third pair are two old ladies Lily and Chloe (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) who spend their spare time going to funerals. The final pair are two young boys Tom (Sean Biggerstaff of the Harry Potter movies) and Sam (Douglas Murphy) who skip school to hang around the frozen beach.
The Phyllida Law/Emma Thompson scenes are mostly concerned with the daughter's dealing with her grief and the aging mother's failing faculties and fear that Frances is planning to move to Australia and leave her alone. The two old women focus mostly on gossip and funerals. The scenes with Alex and Nita naturally focus on adolescent curiosity about sex and the mystery of the opposite sex. The two young boys conversations revolve around the tribulations of childhood, the incomprehensibility of sex, the cruelty and seeming stupidity of adults . . . and quite the dangers of "Deep Heat". Law and Thompson are flawless but the two young boys match them and almost steal the movie. It's particularly nice when the final third of the film has Law and Thompson coming upon the boys on the beach.
THE WINTER GUEST is more interesting than the biggest Hollywood action flick simply because the emotions we see in the film are so real and grippingly familiar to us all. There isn't a cloying, soppy moment in the film; the characters are depicted realistically without any rose-tinted drivel. The film ends on a strangely triumphant moment (and I'm not exactly sure WHY it feels this way to me) as Tom (and his recently found kitten) walk out onto the frozen sea and disappear into the fog. It's a magical moment. The photography by DP Seamus McGarvey (ATONEMENT and HIGH FIDELITY) captures the breathtakingly beautiful desolation of wintery Scotland. For a film that was once a stage play, THE WINTER GUEST is anything but static and stagey. We are constantly moving to location after location: from the house to the streets to the endless beaches to the highways to a restaurant and church -- the scenery is constantly changing and the film never looks like a filmed play. THE WINTER GUEST is quite moving to me and provides a beam of light into the darkest winter. I can readily identify with quite a few of the emotions on display in the film. There also seems to be some question of exactly what "the winter guest" is: the easy answer is usually "Death". However, I don't really think so. Death is a part of the script but not, I think, the most important part. So, what or who IS the winter guest? Well, even director Alan Rickman doesn't seem to know (when he is asked during an interview in the DVD's special features). So, my answer as to what the winter guest is? It's a damn fine film, that's what.
HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY WILLIAM HARTNELL! Today is the birthday of William Hartnell who originated the role of Doctor Who back in 1963. So I just wanted to tell ya. Hartnell was cast in the brand new TV show after appearing in many British films including "Hell Drivers" and "Carry On Sergeant" (in my collection). Sadly, the first episode of Doctor Who went out on the eve of the Kennedy assassination; however the show was quickly to become an English institution (and the longest running science fiction TV show in history). Bill Hartnell gave up the role a couple years later and was replaced by the late Patrick Troughton. Hartnell died in 1975. But here's to the institution you helped begin, Bill. Happy 100th birthday!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

MAKE MINE MUSIC . . . ON DVD, THAT IS. Having lived through another year (dammit!), I wanted to draw your attention to a few music DVDs which I couldn't get enough of in the year that's just ended. Some were new releases and some I've had for years but seemed to watch over and over again. First for the new DVDs which I first got last year:
  1. JAZZ ICONS: SARAH VAUGHAN LIVE IN '58 & '64. This is part of a series of Jazz Icons DVDs which came out last year and, since I worship Sarah Vaughan, this is the one I got. These are B&W movies of Sassy in performance in Sweden and Holland (in 1958) and in Sweden again in 1964. The sound on these films is frankly astounding considering the fact that we haven't seen them before and they're such rare performances. The picture is very good, for that matter. Sarah is in top form in all 3 performances. The first (Sweden '58) was a live performance without audience for Swedish TV. Sarah demurely introduces each song and then gets down to it. Highlights include a rendition of her classic "Lover Man" as well as "September in the Rain" which she mentions she just recorded on her classic live "At Mister Kelly's" album. Next we find her in Holland in 1958; this time with an audience. The highlight has got to be her beautiful rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Finally, we find her in an actual concert hall in Sweden 1964 for the longest of the three performances. Here Sarah performs a simply ASTOUNDING version of "The More I See You" as well as her classic "Misty" and her favourite "Maria". The shocking thing about THIS performance is that she has a cold -- and you'd never know it if she hadn't mentioned it. How could someone sing that gloriously with a cold?!?!? This DVD is absolutely priceless and I've been playing it off and on since I picked it up last summer.
  2. ELTON 60 LIVE AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN. I'm quite an Elton fan so naturally I was going to pick this one up: a one night only performance at MSG on Elton's 60th birthday also marking his 60th appearance at that venue -- the most of any single performer. However, I bought the DVD with some trepidation; I feared the concert might be just the same old songs I've seen him perform countless times. . .and I was also afraid that, at 60, ole Elt might be running out of steam and sound a bit "wheezy". My God, was I wrong. This was simply one of the best Elton concerts I've ever seen (and believe me, I've seen a few). Predictably, he starts the concert with "Sixty Years On". The best aspect of the concert is that he performs a lot of lesser known songs that I love and he sounds great doing them: "High Flying Bird", "Empty Garden", "Roy Rogers", "Something About the Way You Look Tonight" and "Ballad of a Well Known Gun" are some highlights for me. "Empty Garden" in fact brought me to tears. The DVD is also chock full of rare Elton performances from the past. A wonderful package.
  3. MAKE MINE MUSIC. Yeah, that's right. This is the little known Disney movie from the 40's which didn't get as much attention as FANTASIA. Admittedly, this movie is considerably weaker than FANTASIA but it does contain Disney versions of "Peter and the Wolf" and "Casey at the Bat" as well as something I had on a record as a kid: "The Whale Who Wanted To Sing at the Met". However, the undisputable highlight has GOT to be "Johnnie Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet": the whimsical adventure of two hats who fall in love in a department store window sung by The Andrews Sisters. This is my doddy Cheekies' favourite so how could I not love it?!?
  4. SADE: LOVERS LIVE. This DVD I've had for years but in 2006 I played the hell out of it. It is simply one of the best concerts I've ever seen and I love this DVD! How can I pick the highlights when the whole concert is a highlight?!?! "Paradise", "King of Sorrow" and "No Ordinary Love" for sure but nothing can top her show-stopping performance of "Is It A Crime" which has also been known to reduce me to a mushy puddle. NOTE TO EVERYONE READING THIS: If Miss Thing (Sade) ever comes touring around these parts and no one tells me, there's gonna be hell to pay. This means YOU, Colding! I wanna go! I wanna go!
  5. BJORK GREATEST HITS VOLUMEN 1993-2003. This collection of videos is undoubtedly stunning and I found myself watching this constantly the past year -- even though I've had this DVD for years as well. Like the Sade DVD, I found myself constantly popping this into the DVD player all year long. Highlights?!?!? Oh come on! "Human Behaviour", "Venus as a Boy", "Big Time Sensuality", "Isobel", "It's Oh So Quiet", "Joga", "Bachelorette", "Hunter". . .I love 'em all.
  6. DEPECHE MODE: DEVOTIONAL. Here's another DVD I've had before last year but played the living snot out of this past year. And at maximum volume! This is the concert that got me into Depeche Mode in the first place and it's never been topped in my book. Another of the greatest concerts I've ever seen. Highlights?!?! Oh crap. Here we go again. There's so many: "Walking in My Shoes", "Behind the Wheel", "I Feel You", "Never Let Me Down Again", "Personal Jesus", "Enjoy the Silence". . .it goes on and on.

So, that's it. The most played music DVDs of the past year. I have a sneaking suspicion they're not going to go away anytime soon, either!