Thursday, July 30, 2009

ON A PERSONAL NOTE, I need to mention my dear friend Peg Loiacono who died last night of cancer at the age of 76. I first met Peg when the Sizzler I worked at closed down and I transferred to the nearest one. As usual my shyness was a barrier to making new friends but Peg somehow knew how to draw me out with her sense of humour and easygoing nature. Peg could size up people pretty fast and she must've somehow seen through my normal miserable bastard facade. Soon, not only were we good friends but also she became like a second mother to me. Peg was the traditional Italian mother who would welcome ANYONE into her home and immediately try to feed them. Within five minutes of entering her front door, you felt like you were family. That's the kind of person she was; she was a giver. Peg had gone through a lot in her life: she lost her husband to cancer 25 years ago and, in 2000, her son Richard was killed in Colorado. The last decade has also seen the death of a brother and two sisters. The loss of her son shattered her but she still managed to go on.
On top of all this, Peg was also a lot of fun and a million laughs. I have to say that, for those of you who never met Peg -- you was robbed! She was a soul worth knowing. Every visit was punctuated with laughter. Even at her age, Peg always seemed young. One of her favourite songs was Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" and she loved to dance around the living room when we played one of the mix cds I had made for her. Peg was always joking and laughing -- and boy, she could curse like a sailor which would send the whole room roaring with laughter. Every time I would drive up to her house, I would sit down at her kitchen table and we'd talk over a cup of coffee while she would usually be making a big pot of homemade sauce. I can't even begin to estimate how many movies we watched. "What've we got today", she would ask as I'd plop down a bag full of videos and, later, dvds. Or how many card games of rummy or "Spite and Malice" did we play . . . everytime she'd lose she'd always call me a "cheatin' bastard" while she laughed. It's the laughter that I'll remember most. We did so much laughing over the years.
It was only a couple months ago when she discovered she had cancer and her daughter Donna (who had now moved back into Peg's house to take care of her) told me the prognosis was poor. The last time I saw Peg was when Donna and her family invited me over for dinner. But 99% of the time I spent sitting next to Peg's bed holding her hand and talking. As the night was over, I gave her a kiss and said goodbye. As I stood up from my chair, she kept holding on to my hand as if she didn't want to let go. I think somehow deep down she must have known we would never see each other again and we were really saying goodbye. Despite all the evidence, I never let myself think that she would go and tonight, when I got the message that she was gone, I was still shocked and devastated and totally unprepared. Peg, I loved you so much. You truly were like a second mother to me and I can't think what I'm going to do without you. I only know that the world is a much bleaker, emptier place for me now. My heart is broken and I can't stop crying. I'm going to miss you so much.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Friday, July 17, 2009

Hometown Tales: The Town on Fire

What could be better than a ghost town that officially no longer exists? A ghost town that's been on fire for over 40 years! Here longtime favourite podcast HomeTown Tales provides a vidcast of Centralia, PA.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Sunday, July 12, 2009

NEVER AS A KID DID I HAVE THE SLIGHTEST INTEREST IN WATCHING TARZAN MOVIES AND GOD KNOWS THEY WERE ON ALL THE TIME. That's why it was such a pleasant surprise when our friend Weaverman sent me TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942). This was one of the series of Tarzan movies featuring Johnny Weissmuller in the title role and frankly, even though I did watch an episode or two of the 60's Tarzan TV series with Ron Ely, Weissmuller will always be Tarzan to me. This despite his rather oddly uneven nipples. Seriously, take a look next time; one of Weissmuller's nipples is noticeably higher than the other. This is the first thing I noticed about a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie. The second thing I noticed about it was that it was pretty entertaining. It ain't CITIZEN KANE, of course, but neither is THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. This Tarzan film is is one many typical 40's movie series that succeeded in getting bums in seats for years.
Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan is thankfully still paired with Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane and the erotic playfulness is in full force. Particularly in the scene where Tarzan scoops Jane up in his arms and carries her into the jungle treehouse's bedroom! No nude swimming in this one (O'Sullivan DID swim nude in the earlier TARZAN AND HIS MATE which I definitely need to see!) but the pair do take a dip along with their adopted son Boy (Johnny Sheffield of the later Bomba the Jungle Boy series). In fact, the studio must've liked the swimming scene so much that they re-insert it at the end of the film -- the exact same scene! The family's normal jungle idyll is disrupted by the arrival of a gruff, not-to-honest safari hunter who manages to piss off Tarzan almost immediately. As if that wasn't enough, he then manages to kidnap Boy and fly him to New York. Tarzan and Jane have been previously knocked out in a huge jungle fire and are rescued just in time by their faithful chimp Cheetah. When they find out Boy has been taken, Tarzan and Jane gather together some gold and head for New York. The nice touch is that, owing to Jane's previous knowledge of civilisation, Tarzan allows Jane to take the lead and he follows her. Various comic and serious adventures ensue -- from Tarzan taking a shower fully clothed to a suspenseful courtroom custody battle to Tarzan's leap off the Brooklyn Bridge. Tarzan eventually tracks Boy down to a travelling circus and frees him with the aid of some friendly elephants.
TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE is directed by Richard Thorpe with economy and snappy pacing. Thorpe's early directorial efforts include several "forgotten horrors" like MURDER AT DAWN (1932), SECRETS OF WU SIN (1932) and GREEN EYES (1934) as well as a couple other Tarzan flicks and THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1944) with William Powell & Myrna Loy. Then Thorpe apparently was given bigger budgets and colour when he helmed the adventure films IVANHOE (1952) and KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1953) as well as a rather good Esther Williams musical ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU (1948). However, he will always be best known to me for directing one of my all-time favourite musicals: THREE LITTLE WORDS (1950) starring Fred Astaire, Red Skelton and Vera-Ellen. Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan by this time appear to have their roles down cold and they have developed a really nice chemistry together full of humour and affection (and the aforementioned sex). Child actor Johnny Sheffield as Boy isn't even annoying. Hell, they must've caught me on a good day. The supporting cast features three-time Oscar nominated (SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943), THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER (1947) & JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) character actor Charles Bickford as nasty hunter Buck Rand. Bickford's credits include 1939's OF MICE AND MEN with Lon Chaney Jr. and King Vidor's DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) otherwise known as "Lust in the Dust". Paul Kelly plays pilot Jimmy Shields who first goes along with Buck Rand and then turns against him and aids Tarzan. Kelly is probably best known for his real-life prison term for manslaughter in 1927 when he was involved in a love triangle and, after pummeling the cuckolded husband in a fistfight, caused the guy's death. Kelly began his acting career as a boy in 1911 and successfully managed to not only keep working from teenager to adult but ALSO managed to still have a career AFTER his jail term. That career also included classic gangster film THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939) with James Cagney, the Inner Sanctum series entry DEAD MAN'S EYES (1944) with Lon Chaney Jr. and classic film noir THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN with Barbara Stanwyck. Also aiding Tarzan is Connie played by Virginia Grey -- whose long and varied career includes a small role in 1939's THE WOMEN (as a perfume counter clerk), the Marx Brothers' THE BIG STORE (1941), WHISTLING IN THE DARK (1941) with Red Skelton and Conrad Veidt, Universal's HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946) with Rondo Hatton and Martin Kosleck, the Abbott & Costello comedy MEXICAN HAYRIDE (1948), Budd Boetticher's THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951), Douglas Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955) with Jane Wyman & Rock Hudson and even Sam Fuller's THE NAKED KISS (1964). The supporting cast is rounded out by veteran Oscar-nominated character actor Chill Wills who also provided the voice for Francis the Talking Mule! Wills' credits include MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) with Judy Garland, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) with Gene Tierney, John Ford's RIO GRANDE (1950) with John Wayne, GIANT (1956) with James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor & Rock Hudson, and the 1970 episode of Rod Serling's NIGHT GALLERY entitled "The Little Black Bag" in which a futuristic medical bag is sent back in time. Sharp-eyed genre fans will note walk-on cameo roles by Miles Mander (RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, the Sherlock Holmes films THE PEARL OF DEATH and THE SCARLET CLAW, the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, classic film noir MURDER, MY SWEET and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY), Willie Fung (MASK OF FU MANCHU), Darby Jones (as the memorable gaunt walking dead in Val Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and the wonderful, spectacular, marvelous, beloved Mantan Moreland!
TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE was a surprisingly entertaining hour and change; especially when Tarzan decides to stop pussyfooting around New York society and to do things HIS way. Then the action truly amps up. Now if only I can get my hands on TARZAN AND HIS MATE. . .

Saturday, July 11, 2009

BLAND BLAND BLAND. I try to focus on the good whenever I talk about movies here but there's just not that much to praise about MR. ROCK 'N' ROLL: THE ALAN FREED STORY. Apparently this was a 1999 made-for-TV movie; I was unaware of that fact when I first started watching it but it soon became abundantly clear to me. But here I was tuning in blissfully unaware. Here, I thought, is a biopic starring Judd Nelson as legendary 50's radio DJ Alan Freed: the guy who supposedly coined the term "rock and roll". The poop is that Nelson wanted very much to play the part since he was so into that classic 50's rock and roll music. So why is he so completely bland and almost preoccupied during most of the movie?!? Granted, Judd Nelson is not Spencer Tracy but I kinda like the guy and expected something more than basically a walk-through. I can't really be too harsh on Nelson, though, since he probably realized that he was starring in a mediocre property.
I'm tempted to write that the teleplay by Matt Dorff (based on the probably better John A. Jackson book "Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll") rushes through too many events; but the truth is that the film on encompasses a few years and there isn't THAT much ground to cover. So why does the film seem like the rushed Cliff's Notes version of the story?!? Director Andy Wolk (whose career seems to be solely in the realm of TV writing and directing) somehow manages to make the viewer feel like the movie is glancing over every single event depicted while, at the same time, scenes seem to drag on and overstay their welcome. The main problem, I think, is too much time is devoted to the "love story" angle between Judd Nelson's Alan Freed and his girlfriend/wife (played by TWIN PEAK's Madchen Amick). While Amick provides more of a performance than Nelson does, it's the screen time devoted to their romantic ups and downs that feels like wasted screen time (as well as feeling to THIS viewer probably made up out of whole cloth). This, of course, is a major weakness in the script. Surely there is more than enough eventful scenes to be gotten from the early history of rock and roll and the struggles Alan Freed had with radio stations, sponsers, communities, television, stage shows, censorship, juvenile delinquent riots and the payola scandal without wasting valuable screen time on a frankly lukewarm-written romantic angle. Sadly, the very moment Nelson meets Amick, the viewer can predict every single event that will occur in their relationship: the meet cute, Freed will "charm" her into marriage, she will feel neglected when Freed hits the big time and spends less time with her, they'll grow farther apart as she rots in her big house with the kiddies while Freed travels all over the country, eventually he will have an affair with a hoyden (Hi, Paula Abdul!) and she will leave him. Nothing new here so why devote SO MUCH screen time towards showing us what we've already seen 100 times before?
As far as the performances go, Judd Nelson does have one or two moments when he seems to wake up from his somnambulism to provide a little fire. However, the distressing thing is that there is absolutely NO attempt to make Nelson sounds even remotely like the real Alan Freed. The Moondogger himself had a rather gravelly voice while Nelson speaks in quite a high register. This, in itself, isn't too bad but Nelson demonstrates absolutely zero personality as a radio DJ; the radio voice he uses is no different from his everyday voice. Now, we all know how bombastic and animated classic radio DJs were; but here Nelson introduces these so-called explosive, dangerous new rock and roll records like he's reading the school closing notices on a snow day. I can only hazard a guess and say that maybe Nelson had become disappointed by the project, the script and the director, by the time the cameras rolled and was merely putting in his time. There is, however, no real excuse for that. No matter how silly or insipid the film, troopers like Peter Cushing, Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff still didn't walk through a part but gave it their all regardless. Madchen Amick as Freed's wife Jackie is rather better but one wonders what such a looker is doing with nebbishy Nelson. The aforementioned Paula Abdul appears as "the other woman" and her character serves no other purpose but to break up Freed's marriage; at least that's how it all plays out to this viewer. 50's teen idols Fabian and Bobby Rydell also have cameos. The famous musicians of the era are impersonated, of course, by other actors. The best of the lot is Leon portraying Mr. Excitement himself Jackie Wilson. Probably the only warmth in the film is the genuine friendship that can be felt between Leon and Judd Nelson in their scenes together. Particularly good is a scene in a restaurant where some rascist guys at the next table are grumbling loudly about Freed sitting at a table with a black man. This is one of the few instances where Judd Nelson wakes up long enough to confront the two bigots. Leon seems to make something of a mini-career portraying famous musicians; besides Jackie Wilson in this film, Leon has also portrayed Little Richard and David Ruffin of the Temptations. Other famous rock-n-rollers appear in smaller roles. Walter Franks as Little Richard and Joe W. Davis as Buddy Holly are pretty good in their micro-appearances in the film. James C. Victor as Jerry Lee Lewis is horrendously over the top; granted, The Killer was known for mugging at the camera but not THIS much! The portrayals of Bill Haley (Michael Daingerfield), Bo Diddley (Michael Dunston) and Frankie Lymon (LeRoy D. Brazile) are less successful. Alan Freed's career is backed by mob boss Morris Levy (David Gianopoulous) whose performance, shall we say, reminded me of the similar sleazy character in Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield" video -- in other words, slimy and cartoonish.
While there apparently was at least some attempt to evoke the era of the fifties, that attempt fails rather badly. People (including Madchen Amick) don't behave the way people did in the 50's; they act more like people from the 90's who are at a 50's-themed dance. Madchen Amick stops short at the Arsenio Hall "whoop whoop" propellor arm . . . but only just. The career of Alan Freed is well-deserving of a true major motion picture biopic but this isn't it. There have been one or two but they strangely were not very successful either. Maybe someday.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931). Paleocinema's Terry Frost has a pet peeve. . .and that is blogger's who do movie lists of "The Top 10 Remakes" and ignore things like the 1941 MALTESE FALCON directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart -- which IS a remake, folks, but people often forget that fact. The truth is that Dashiell Hammett's classic detective story of the fabled black bird was made TWO TIMES before the 1941 version we all know and love. That version, in fact, is one of my favourite films. So why am I talking about the OTHER version??? Well, what could I possibly say about the 1941 classic that hasn't already been said. But the first version from 1931 has not had nearly as much said about it so I thought what the hell.
As I said, the 1931 MALTESE FALCON was the first film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel. The second, a couple years later, was the rather light-hearted SATAN MET A LADY featuring Bette Davis and Warren William (of Universal's THE WOLF MAN as well as Perry Mason and Philo Vance movies). Naturally, neither of these films can hope to compare to the classic 1941 version. But the 1931 film (awkward, flimsy and routine as it is) isn't a total loss. The screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes sticks relatively well to the original novel; you'll be surprised when you watch it to hear quite a few direct quotes from the novel that would also be used in Huston's 1941 version. It's also interesting to note the scene in which Sam Spade is awaked by a phone call saying his partner Archer has been murdered; the same scene in John Huston's 1941 version is shot very similarly to the same scene in the 1931 version. The direction by Roy Del Ruth isn't much to write home about; it suffers from the long, awkward silences and forced badinage which many early talkies display. Roy Del Ruth (1893-1961) wasn't exactly known for his mystery/suspense credentials; other than the horror B-picture THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE , I know Del Ruth mostly for directing the Eleanor Powell musicals BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 and BORN TO DANCE. As an early talkie detective movie, THE MALTESE FALCON plays out only slightly better than average. There is never any sense of danger or, indeed, any mystery or suspense. In fact, the players mostly behave rather flippantly; perhaps in style at the time but today it can be a little annoying. One interesting note is the added-on final scene of the film which finds detective Sam Spade (newly appointed to the District Attorney's team) visiting femme fatale Ruth Wonderley in her prison cell. There is none of the sense of tragedy or emotional wrenching which Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor evinced in 1941. Instead, Spade is rather cavalier towards the woman he's turned in and comes across as quite the bounder.
The cast itself handles the proceedings, on the whole, adequately. Sam Spade is no Humphrey Bogart here; instead we find Ricardo Cortez (1899-1977) cast in the role of Hammett's detective. The aforementioned flippancy is amped up considerably by Cortez's performance; which is a shame since one gets the feeling that Cortez's Sam Spade COULD have been better had he been reigned in. Cortez plays Spade as a ladies man which, frankly, could have worked if not for the over-played flippancy. Ricardo Cortez was a silent film actor (appearing in the silent SORROWS OF SATAN) who would go on to appear in the sound films THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, THIRTEEN WOMEN (a personal fave with Myrna Loy, Irene Dunne and the Hollywood-Sign-leaping Peg Entwhistle) as well as the Boris Karloff horror-meller THE WALKING DEAD. The femme fatale role of Ruth Wonderley (the character is never known as Brigid O'Shaunnessey) is played by decidedly NON-femme fatale type Bebe Daniels (1901-1971) who would be more at home when she appeared in the musical 42ND STREET. Daniels is not terrible but she seems outmatched by the role which Mary Astor would make her own a decade later. A pleasant surprise is finding the wonderful Una Merkel (1903-1986) in the role of Spade's secretary Effie. Merkel, as usual, gives the most naturalistic, unaffected performance of the film with her easy-going breeziness. Merkel appeared in Roland West's sound remake THE BAT WHISPERS (more on Roland West in a minute) as well as DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (with James Stewart & Marlene Dietrich), the classic ON BORROWED TIME (with Lionel Barrymore), 42ND STREET, BORN TO DANCE (again with James Stewart & Eleanor Powell), THE BANK DICK (with W.C. Fields) and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (with Lionel Atwill). Merkel is probably one of two actors who would've fit right in with the cast of the 1941 MALTESE FALCON (more on the second in a minute). The wife of Spade's partner Archer is played by noted comedienne Thelma Todd (1905-1935) who would be found dead several years later inside her car. Whether it was suicide or murder is still not known; however director Roland West was considered a suspect for years. Todd is probably best known screen roles nowadays are probably her appearances in the Marx Brothers' comedies MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS.
How can one compare the performances of Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet as Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman respectively to the 1931 version's Otto Matieson and Dudley Digges. Again, Matieson and Digges aren't bad in the roles; just undistinguished. In a pre-code movie like this, one would expect Joel Cairo to be played rather floridly but Matieson barely shows us any dandified behaviour. Effie tells Sam that there's a "beautiful" client waiting in the outer office that's a "knock-out"; Otto Matieson doesn't really fit THAT bill! Otto Matieson (1893-1932) would only make one more film after this (MEN OF THE SKY) before he would be killed in a car crash. Dudley Digges (1879-1947) as Casper Gutman can hardly be called fat but here he is as "the fat man" played by Sidney Greenstreet a decade later. Admittedly, Gutman is never referred to as "fat" in the 1931 film so that's merely a minor quibble. Digges does sport a rather amusing pair of spit curls encroaching upon his male pattern baldness. Dudley Digges (also seen as the "chief detective" in James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN) does play up the possibility of a homosexual relationship with his gunsel Wilmer "who is like a son" to him. The 1941 film really doesn't go there but here in pre-code 1931 the acting and script really seem to be stating this relationship unambiguously. And here, Wilmer is played by the incomparable Dwight Frye (1899-1943) who was all over those classic Universal horror movies from DRACULA (as Renfield) to FRANKENSTEIN until his untimely death from a heart attack. Frye is certainly the second actor from the 1931 version who would have fit right into the cast of the 1941 version. Elisha Cook Jr. was perfect as Wilmer but, had he been somehow unable to appear in the film, Frye would've been an apt replacement. Frye as Wilmer was also luckier in the sense that he isn't humiliated at every turn the way Bogart's Sam Spade humiliated Elisha Cook Jr.
Is the 1931 MALTESE FALCON worth watching. Well, yes. Will you be disappointed by it? Most certainly. Especially if you know and love the 1941 classic. But for any true fan of the book or the movie (which admittedly is essentially the book filmed), the pre-code 1931 MALTESE FALCON is worth a look. Although it REALLLLLLLLLLLLY should have been much spicier -- being a pre-code film and all. Ah well. If it (and SATAN MET A LADY) had been any better, we may never have gotten Huston's 1941 version. And THAT would've been the TRUE crime of the century!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

WISHING GLORIA STUART A HAPPY 99th BIRTHDAY!!! James Whale dressed her in a long satin-y gown so that, when she was being chased through the Old Dark House by Boris Karloff, she would give the appearance of a flame flickering through the darkened halls. Here's to 99 flames on the candles of Gloria Stuart's birthday cake this July 4th.