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Wagon Train: The Sacramento Story (1958)
Wow! What a cast to wrap up the last show of the first season!
My partner and I have been enjoying watching again this great old program that we grew up watching in the early 1960s. Good old fashion storytelling with a mix of old stars and interesting stories. Like William S. Hart the silent film star said of westerns, you could tell all of Shakespeare stories in an old west setting. This particular show was a season ending wrap with several "special guest stars" including: Linda Darnell, Marjorie Main, Dan Duryea, Margaret O'Brien, Roscoe Ates, and George Chandler! If you get a chance see it with the whole family and explain to the young ones who the old ones once were in the hey day of Hollywood's Golden Era.
Always let your conscience be your guide.
Following the overwhelming success of the studio's first full-length animated feature, Snow White in 1937, Disney set out to make an even better follow up. Years in the making, Pinocchio is still considered to be one of the company's finest achievements for its production value, charm, beauty and Academy Award-winning music. Technicians developed an enhanced multiplane camera that could dolly in and out of an animated scene (similar to live-action photography), as opposed to Snow White's vertical method of shooting.
A lonely woodcarver named Geppetto creates a marionette he names Pinocchio. That night he prays upon a star that puppet would become a real boy. The good Blue Fairy hears his wish and brings Pinocchio to life while Gepettto sleeps. She then tells the little wooden fellow that he can become a real boy if he is brave, truthful and unselfish and learns to tell right from wrong. She appoints Jimimy Cricket (the narrator of our story) as Pinocchio's conscience to help him along the way. The overjoyed Gepetto sends his new son to school the next day, but the newness of everything overwhelms the boy and he is soon led astray on a series of frightening adventures.
All About Eve (1950)
A back stage, back-stabbing dark satire about an ambitious young actress who tries to take over a star's career and love life.
All About Eve tells the story of maturing Broadway diva Margo Channing (Better Davis) and the plot to usurp her crown by the seemingly adoring stage-door Jane, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve first gets herself hired as Margo's PA, then understudy, and is soon after Margo's director-boyfriend and her circle of theater friends. A short story, "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr that ran in Cosmopolitan magazine was the source of the script. Orr based the character of Margo Channing on German/Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner (The Rise of Catherine the Great) who once had a would-be Eve in her life; a young actress named Martina Lawrence who (according to Orr) " lied to her, deceived her, did things behind her back, and even went after her husband."
In a rare Academy occurrence, both Davis and Baxter were Oscar nominated in the same category (Best Actress), which is generally believed to have canceled each other out. (Judy Holliday took home the award for BORN YESTERDAY.) The film garnered a record 14 nominations and seven wins including Best Picture in 1950. Look for ravishing Marilyn Monroe, typecast as an aspiring starlet in the party scene.
So folks, fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!
Named to the National Film Registry in 1990.
His Girl Friday (1940)
An unscrupulous editor plots to keep his star reporter and ex-wife from remarrying.
In this second film version of the hit play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur The Front Page, New York newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (played by Pat O'Brien in 1931) is now a sassy, confident woman (Rosalind Russell). Hildy has had enough of the newspaper life and is going to quit and marry dependable (boring) Bruce Baldwin (never-gets-the-girl Ralph Bellamy) and move to Albany. The thing is, her editor and ex-husband Walter Burns Cary Grant) doesn't want either thing to happen and tricks Hildy into covering just one more story that of a deluded radical charged with murder. What follows is a super-charged side-splitting satire of the headline-hungry newspaper business and of course, a bit of romance.
Howard Hawks directs his stars and a brilliant cast of supporting players (Billy Gilbert, a real scene-stealing stand-out) at a breathless pace, using overlapping dialog to increase the feeling of frenzy. You'll want to watch this one again and again to catch all of the terrific dialog. Some of those witty lines (at least as legend has it) were improvised, such as when Grant describes Bruce Baldwin, saying that he "looks like that film actor, Ralph Bellamy." Later, during a rapid-fire telephone exchange, Grant responds to another actor's line with "The last person to say that to me was Archibald Leach just before he cut his throat!" (Archibald Leach of course, being Grant's real name.) Named to the National Film Registry in 1993.
Gunga Din (1939)
The ultimate Hollywood action-adventure epic in which three British soldiers seek treasure during an uprising in India.
In late 19th-century India, an incoming telegraph message from the outpost at Tanipur to the British fort at Muree is abruptly cut off. Major Mitchell sends three of his best, the resourceful but rowdy sergeants MaChesney (McLaughlen), Cutter (Grant) and Ballentine (Fairbanks) to investigate. Accompanied by their loyal native water boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffee), they find the outpost strangely deserted and soon discover it's the work of the savage Thuggee cult who are out to ambush the regiment. Plenty of action, adventure and a large measure of comedy ensues. One on-going gag (borrowed from Screenwriters Hecht & MacArthur's hit play The Front Page) involves MaChesney and Cutter's attempts to thwart Ballentine's plan to resign from the army in order to marry his sweetheart (Joan Fontaine) and go into the tea business. ("The TEA business!!!") Plans had been in the works to make a feature film based on Kipling's poem as early as 1928 by MGM. Finally RKO acquired the rights and Howard Hawks was assigned to the project. RKO replaced Hawks with George Stevens before shooting began in the Sierra Mountains in California. The script was still being tweaked and written during the filming and many bits were improvised, including the entire bugle scene between Grant and Jaffe. Gunga Din was the most expensive film made to date by RKO and the money shows in the big battle finale, which includes 1500 men, several hundred horses and mules, not to mention the four elephants. The three sergeants are ideally cast with the dashing and under-rated Douglas Fairbanks Jr. giving the best performance of his career. Cinematographer Joseph H. August was nominated for an Academy Award.
Duffy's Tavern (1945)
For fans of Old Time Radio and Hollywood in the 40's
"Hello - Duffy's Tavern where the elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speakin', Duffy ain't here. Oh, hello Duffy." This greeting, preceded by "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" played on a tinny piano, announced to millions of radio listeners that it was time for DUFFY'S TAVERN. Fans of this popular program knew they were in store for laughs, big-name guest stars, sometimes a little music and always their favorite characters holding forth at the New York dive headed by Archie himself. Ed Gardner, a former piano player, salesman, talent agent and radio director (in that order) created the program and cast himself in the lead when he couldn't find an actor that spoke "New York bartender" as well as he did. The series ran from 1941-1952, premiering on the CBS Radio Network and later moving to NBC. Each episode opened with the proprietor Duffy, who never appeared, phoning his manager and setting up the action that would follow in the next half hour. Archie was known for insulting his guest stars and his Damon Runyanesque speech. (In fact Abe Burrows, co-writer with Runyon of GUYS AND DOLLS, got his start on DUFFY'S TAVERN.) Regulars included Eddie Green as the wise-cracking Eddie the waiter and Charles Cantor as the intellectually-challenged Finnegan. Gardner's wife Shirley Booth originated the role of Miss Duffy, the ditzy, man-hungry daughter of the owner. At least a dozen other actresses played the role during the series 11 year run. Though DUFFY'S TAVERN made the transition to television in 1954, it only lasted for one season. The program inspired future TV shows with a friendly neighborhood bar as the setting, most notably Jackie Gleason's "Joe the Bartender" sketches with Crazy Googenheim (Frank Fontaine) filling in for Finnegan, ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE, and the 1980's sitcom CHEERS. Lucky for us, at least 100 episodes of the radio series survive and are available on cassette and MP3.
Attempting to duplicate the success of other radio programs that made the transition to the big screen (FIBBER MCGEE & MOLLY, THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE, HENRY ALDRICH, etc.), studio executives at both MGM and Paramount set their sites on Duffy's for their next radio crossover picture. Paramount's proposal of a "stars-go-all-out-for-the-war-effort" variety film in the vein of Hollywood CANTEEN and THANK YOUR LUCK STARS caught Gardner's fancy. And so it was that contract players Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken, Robert Benchley and more than two dozen others were signed up for cameos while the radio actors (save for Broadway actress Ann Thomas as a new Miss Duffy) reprised their familiar roles.
The story is a pretty basic "let's put on a show to save the __________." Unbeknownst to his boss Duffy, soft-hearted Archie has been providing out-of-work veterans with free meals and spirits. The servicemen had worked at a phonograph record company owned by Archie's pal Michael O'Malley (Victor Moore) before the war. The factory was forced to close because of a war time shortage of shellac and the bank turned down a loan to O'Malley to reopen the plant. O'Malley's daughter Peggy (Marjorie Reynolds) works as a switchboard operator at a hotel where a number of celebrities are staying. In due course the stars are persuaded to help raise funds to reopen the plant by performing at a block party hosted by our favorite barkeep. There are some yucks along the way, a little romance between Peggy and soldier Danny Murphy (Barry Nelson) and plenty of entertainment at the big show.
Betty Hutton is a tornado of energy performing "Doin' it the Hard Way" and Cass Daly, the gangly gal with the overbite, sings a rousing number, "You Can't Blame a Gal for Trying." Bing and Betty parody the Oscar winning song "Swinging on a Star" from Paramount's 1944 hit GOING MY WAY and Bing shares a scene with his four young sons Gary, Lin and twins Phillip and Dennis.
Variety posted a mixed review, finding the translation of weekly audio program to celluloid "stale," but they praised the vaudeville portion of the film. Eddie Bracken was singled out for " .playing the double role of a cowboy here, taking successively a beating by a bandit mob, a water dunking and some pies in his face, all constituting a nostalgic throwback to the good old Mack Sennett days and as hilarious a sequence as one will find in any film-comedy."
Admittedly, DUFFY'S TAVERN may not hold up well with most present-day viewers who haven't known the wonder of old-time radio and have little or no knowledge of Betty Hutton and Bing Crosby, let alone Cass Daley. Fans of movies from the 40's and Olt-Time radio buffs however, should find DUFFY'S TAVERN an elite place to meet many of their favorite old stars and have a great deal of fun along the way.
Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)
A really GOOD sequel!
Film sequels were a novelty in 1925, when DON Q, SON OF ZORRO marked a big profit for United Artists. Then and now, it is considered to be a better film than the original, THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920), which made star and producer Douglas Fairbanks the personification of the Swashbuckler five years earlier.
Since his screen debut in 1915, Fairbanks had always been cast in contemporary comedies as a fun-loving, never-say-die, go-getter who gets the girl and catches the bad guys all the while exhibiting his athletic prowess and bravado. He was a major film actor, but his popularity was beginning to wane due to the monotony of his roles and vehicles.
The formation of United Artists Corporation in 1919 gave founders Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith control over their own projects. Fairbanks chose this opportunity to risk reinventing his image by starring in this film adaptation of The Curse of Capistrano. The serialized novel written by Johnston McCulley had been published that year in a popular pulp magazine. It introduced the character of Zorro to the world. The magic of the movie assured Zorro's place among fictional super-heroes. The character lived on in several more film versions as well as books, comics, cartoons, Halloween costumes, toys, and in the popular 1950's television series starring Guy Williams.
In THE MARK OF ZORRO, set in early 19th century California, Fairbanks came up with an ingenious concept showcasing his likable contemporary stock character into an action/adventure period costume picture. He plays Don Diego Vega, the milksop son of an affluent rancher who, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, dons a disguise to defend the impoverished townsfolk from the tyrants in power. His alter ego Zorro's, (Spanish for fox) trademarks are the black cape and cowl mask he wears and the master swordsmanship he displays. He is known to brand his victims with a "Z" made with three fast strokes of his blade. At the end of the film, after Zorro's greatest triumph, his identity is revealed. He throws his sword into the air. It lodges into a high spot on the wall, as Zorro shouts, "Till I need you again!" Though it was probably not Fairbanks' intention at the time, this line was a prime set-up for a sequel if there ever was one.
After the tremendous financial and critical success of ZORRO, Fairbanks continued to give the public what it wanted the charismatic Fairbanks persona in lavish period epics. THE THREE MUSKETEERS, ROBIN HOOD and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD were all released in the years between the two Zorro epics.
As one can easily discern by the title of this follow-up, Doug is back as Diego's son - namely Don Cesar, aka "Don Q." The screenplay is based on the novel "Don Q's Love Story" by Hesketh Prichard and Kate Prichard which had no relationship to Zorro at all. But by making Don Q the offspring of the famous hero, it cashed in on the audience's familiarity with the original and made it possible for Doug to play a dual role as both father and son.
In the family tradition, Don Cesar is sent to Spain to continue his education and learn the traditions of his ancestors. His high-spirited ways and showmanship with a bullwhip make him a favorite of the Queen's cousin, Archduke Paul of Austria (Warner Oland). Cesar also makes an enemy of surly Don Sebastian (Donald Crisp), a member of the Queen's guard, and both men fall for the beautiful Dolores de Muro (Mary Astor). After Cesar is framed for murder, he fakes suicide and goes underground until he can prove the guilt of the real killer. Meanwhile, in California, Don Diego receives word of his son's predicament. He retrieves his sword from where it had stuck thirty years before, digs out his mask and cape and travels to Spain to help rescue his son. Father and son take on 15 soldiers in a sword fight during the film's exuberant finale.
Audiences and critics alike loved DON Q even more than the original. Film-making technique and technology had improved rapidly since 1920. The sequel had a stronger plot, higher production values and better pacing. What's more, Fairbanks has fine-tuned his swashbuckler persona to perfection. He was never was he more cocksure, flamboyant and amusing than he appears here. Though already 41 years old, he easily got away with playing a much younger character in no small part due to his physical fitness. He is shown to great advantage, engaging in sword-play, jumping on a horse or his specialty in this film - cracking a whip. Well known for performing his own stunts, Doug reportedly spent six weeks learning fancy whipmanship. He uses it to light a cigarette, extinguish a candle, slice paper, lasso a bull and swing onto a balcony. He also shows himself to be a dandy on the dance floor in a parody of a Valentino tango.
Donald Crisp, best known for his chilling performance as Lillian Gish's cruel father in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, does double duty in DON Q as both co-star and director. He plays Fairbanks' dastardly nemesis Don Sebastian while directing one of his best films. Crisp directed more than 70 films, including the Buster Keaton classic,THE NAVIGATOR. He got his start in the movies in 1908 with the Biograph Company and appeared on screen for the last time 55 years later as Grandpa Spencer in the 1963 film SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN that starred Henry Fonda. Crisp died in 1974.
The New York Times thought so highly of DON Q, SON OF ZORRO, that they named it one the 10 best films of 1925.
While enjoyable on TV or home video, the movie is twice the fun when watched with live accompaniment and an audience as I was fortunate to experience at Cinevent 2006.
Looking for Trouble (1934)
A rarely seen comedy/drama by Wellman
For whatever reason, LOOKING FOR TROUBLE doesn't show up on television and isn't available on video, but I was lucky enough to catch it at Cinevent in Columbus.
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE is given the genre classification of crime drama in the AFI Catalog, but there are healthy doses of wit throughout. With the affable Jack Oakie as second banana, what would you expect? Tracy and Oakie play easygoing telephone linemen troubleshooters with Constance Cummings and Arline Judge as their respective girlfriends. Tracy's disreputable ex-partner Dan Sutter gets fired for his involvement in an illicit gambling joint, and blames Tracy for squealing on him. Cummings sides with Sutter and ends up working for him at the real estate office he opens. She refuses to listen to Tracy's suspicions that her boss is a crook. All sorts of excitement follows as Tracy and Oakie investigate Sutter, including a fire, a murder and an earthquake! The earthquake sequence was a recreation of the immense quake that hit Long Beach on March 10, 1933 just seven months before filming began on the picture. According to Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide, which gives LOOKING FOR TROUBLE 3 stars, actual footage of the earthquake was used in the film. The AFI states: "The scene in which Tracy is caught in the quake has been included in numerous documentaries on both Hollywood film-making history and earthquakes."
Spencer Tracy got his big break in pictures in 1930 when director John Ford, impressed by Tracy's performance as a Death Row inmate on Broadway, got Fox to sign him for a prison movie he was making. Tracy made an impression with audiences in UP THE RIVER (along with fellow new-comer Humphrey Bogart), but the role got him type-cast as thugs for the next few years. He grew increasingly unhappy with the parts he was given and became difficult to work with. His Fox contract was coming to an end when he was loaned out to Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Pictures for LOOKING FOR TROUBLE (working title, TROUBLE SHOOTER) to be directed by William Wellman. Soon after he left Fox, Irving Thalberg signed Tracy to a long-term contract at MGM where his talents were put to better use.
"Wild Bill" Wellman (so-named for his daring aerial feats while in the Lafayette Flying Corps. in WW1) owed his start in films to his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks. Stories vary on how the two met (one account has it that Wellman made a forced landing on the actor's property), but it's a fact that after Wellman saw himself on screen in Fairbanks' film KNICKERBOCKER BUCKAROO (1919), he decided that he would rather be behind the camera. He worked his way up from prop man, to assistant director and finally to director of Buck Jones westerns at Fox. In the years before LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, Wellman directed such notable films as WINGS (1927), the first picture to win an Academy Award; BEGGARS OF LIFE (1928) with Louise Brooks and THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). The latter helped to launch the popularity of the gangster movie and the career of James Cagney.
It's always a treat to see the smart and striking Constance Cummings in a featured role. Like Tracy, the Seattle-born actress started in theater. She was discovered while on Broadway by Sam Goldwyn who brought her to Hollywood. Columbia signed her up and cast her as prison warden Walter Huston's naïve daughter in THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931). After 10 films in two years with the studio, Cummings went freelance. It was during this period that she made perhaps her best picture, MOVIE CRAZY (1932) with Harold Lloyd. She moved to England in the mid 1930's with her husband, English playwright and screenwriter Benn W. Levy. There, she continued acting in films and on the stage. In 1974, Cummings was made a Commander of the British Empire for her contributions to the British entertainment industry. She died on November 23, 2005 at the age of 95.
Remarkably, another member of the cast is still with us as of this posting. Hatchet-faced, bespectacled prolific American character actor Charles Lane (billed here as Switchboard Operator) turned 101 on January 26, 2006! Other notables to look for in uncredited parts are Bryant Washburn, star of early Essanay films from the 1910's, as "Richards, Long Beach Manager," and Jason Robards Sr. as "Shotgun Henchman."
Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times gave the film a mixed review, finding the amusing scenes with Tracy and Oakie "highly entertaining, but when it tackles the plot and the inevitable spat between the romantic couple, it slumps." He added that the earthquake scenes "
are done extraordinarily well."
An entertaining western "inspired" by Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane, legendary figure of the old west, has been portrayed on screen by dozens of actresses from the silent era (Ethel Grey Terry in Wild Bill Hickock ) through the present (Robin Weigert in the HBO series Deadwood). Memorable Janes include Jean Arthur in The Plainsman (1936); Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953); Jane Russell in The Paleface (1948) and Angelica Huston in the 1997 miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's brilliant novel Buffalo Girls. Not one of these movies came close to fact and Caught may be the furthest from the truth, but at least in this account, the robust middle-aged Louise Dresser looks the part. It seems Calamity runs a rough gambling joint and heads a gang of cattle rustlers on the side. The lovely Frances Dee plays a young innocent hired to work as a saloon girl. Richard Arlen as Lt. Colton arrives with his US cavalry troop to clean up the town and fall in love with Dee. But do Calamity and Colton have a past connection? Screened at Cinefest in Syracuse New York.
The Personality Kid (1934)
Lots of boxing and pre-code flirtation
The story of a chump boxer better known for fancy footwork and showmanship than his talent. Pat O'Brien as Ritzy McCarthy gets ahead through a series of, unknown to him, fixed matches. His ego swells and a romantic triangle soon develops between the fighter, his wife-manager (Glenda Farrell) and Claire Dodd as the other woman. The New York Times reported that Pat O'Brien was a former boxing champion at Marquette University and was trained for the film by boxer Jackie Fields. Also two former boxing champions, Mushy Callahan and Marvin Shechter provided opposition in the ring. The review followed this bit of information with the opinion "All this impressive statistical work adds up to zero. Mr. O'Brien and his various opponents in the film paw each other like long-lost brothers and some of the theoretical sleep-producing blows would hardly jar the script girl." The writer liked the picture overall though, calling it a "rather pleasant prizefight film that follows formula
acted with some proficiency and humor by Pat O'Brien and Glenda Farrell." Be on the lookout for silent era comedian Heinie Conklin as a heckler and "Queen of the Hollywood extras" Bess Flowers as a nurse. I screened this film at Cinefest in Syracuse, New York.