25 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
The Thing (I) (2011)
Prequel? No.
11 October 2011
First of all -- and my most important reason for writing this review -- let's get one thing straight. This is not a prequel. Repeat, it's not a prequel, and I don't know why they're saying it is.

What it is, simply, is a variation. A variation on John W. Campbell's original story "Who Goes There?", and as such it's not bad. The first half is the best; the director really captures some of the who's-human-and-who-isn't tension of Campbell's original story. Too soon, however, that tack is abandoned and the movie goes whole-hog for the animatronic/CGI stuff, and it becomes more ALIEN than the original story. Still not bad, but I do think they were on to something better in the first half.

John Carpenter's 1982 THE THING remains the most faithful retelling of Campbell's story (although Carpenter tweaked the ending, perhaps to leave room for a sequel), but just for the record I still think 1951's THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, despite changing the story almost completely, is still the best movie (overall) made from "Who Goes There?" Still, this one's entertaining enough. Just don't expect it to be a prequel.
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Lost No More!
13 September 2010
I've got good news at least for the three (so far) commenters here, and perhaps for others as well: THE ANIMAL WORLD has survived intact, and is available from the Warner Archive.

I bought it, not surprisingly, for the dinosaur sequence; I too got those ViewMaster reels in 1956 and have wondered ever since what the movie was like. The movie as a whole is a pretty-good nature documentary, akin to (though not quite as good as) the Walt Disney True-Life Adventures of the 1940s and '50s. The O'Brien-Harryhausen animation scenes are justifiably the main draw here, and they alone are worth the price of the DVD.
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Hollywood (1980– )
Early Hollywood Lives Again!
1 September 2010
I have nothing to add to all the appreciative comments here except to second them all: This is, hands down, the greatest documentary on Hollywood AND the second-greatest documentary series ever created for television -- second only to Ken Burns's THE CIVIL WAR, and that only because of the comparative triviality of the subject. What Kevin Brownlow and David Gill have done is nothing less than a noble service to posterity. (How I would love to see the uncut versions of ALL the interviews used in this series; I understand they're on deposit at the British Film Institute.)

A note to all those who plead for the series to be released on DVD: I join you in those sentiments, and so does Kevin Brownlow. Unfortunately, as he said in an interview a few years ago, any DVD release is being stymied by the monumental task of getting clearance for the hundreds of film clips used in the series; evidently some of the rights-holders are being quite obstinate about it. A shame.
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The War of the Worlds (2005 Video)
Spectacularly inept
26 October 2009
Despite my enormous affection and respect for George Pal's superlative 1953 update of H.G. Wells's 1898 novel, I've always wished that someone had produced a "period" version of the story, setting it in Victorian/Edwardian times, as Pal himself did when he filmed THE TIME MACHINE in 1960. Thus I was intrigued when I found this DVD in a friend's collection, boasting on its cover blurb of being "the first true adaptation" of Wells's story.

Well, it IS set around the turn of the 20th century. Otherwise, I feel sure Wells would be as appalled as I was, and would turn to me and ask, "I say, old bean, do you have a copy of that version where you Yanks placed the story in Southern California?" This movie, which runs a mind-numbing THREE HOURS, is...well, as I said in my headline, it's spectacularly inept. As others have mentioned, there are interminable shots of this character or that stumbling along some English country lane or other (actually the country outside Seattle). The CGI effects are less than bare-bones; they look like they were programmed on a Commodore 64 in 1982. Director Timothy Hines can't even match the simplest shots one to the next -- and since he is credited as editor and cinematographer as well as director, he's got no one to blame but himself. Acting can be charitably described as energetically amateurish (the best performance is from Susan Goforth as The Writer's Wife, but she gets points off for having collaborated on the plodding, lifeless script).

Poor acting, no action or suspense, super-cheap effects, truly ghastly cinematography -- this thing is a seminar in bad film-making. Avoid, avoid.
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The best of the best
9 February 2009
The commenter who called "Never Send a Boy King to Do a Man's Job" an homage to THE STING was on to something; I would add only that THE STING should have been half this good. This two-parter, taken as one feature-length episode, is quite simply the best single installment of the best private eye series in the history of television.

Jim Rockford was always at his best (from the viewpoint of the series' audience) when he was running a scam on someone ("There's One in Every Port" was another winner), and here he runs a game to end them all, helping his pal Richie Brockelman (Dennis Dugan) get half a million bucks from a cutthroat businessman who bilked it out of Richie's father (Harold Gould, the one cast member who was also in THE STING). A pox on anyone who spoils one word of this one; suffice it to say there are games within games, and it's a swell ride all the way.

Special kudos to writer Juanita Bartlett, too.
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Classic hour of TV comedy
17 October 2008
I saw this special once, when it was broadcast in February 1970, and I don't believe it has ever been seen from that day to this. Too bad, because it's one of the most brilliantly funny hours in the history of television. Two Adamses (Don and Edie) and two Dons (Adams and Rickles) starred in a series of wonderful parodies of classic movies, each one funnier than the last. All three of the stars (and if I recall correctly, they were the entire cast except for narrator Charlton Heston) were very gifted mimics, and they gave witty impressions of a roster of classic stars -- Edie did her famous Mae West, Don A. his equally famous William Powell. And Rickles and Edie did a dead-on spoof of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND.

This was an absolutely classic hour of TV comedy, and I dearly hope it still exists somewhere and will become available on video one of these days.
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Great Performances: Show Boat (1989)
Season 18, Episode 4
The definitive production, one for the ages
25 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Let me make one thing clear right off the bat: I yield to no one in my admiration for the 1936 version of SHOW BOAT. It's one of the great movie musicals, and in getting the unforgettable performances of Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan and Charles Winninger on film, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director James Whale did a service to posterity that future generations will be grateful for for centuries to come.

However, it was the nature of film-making in 1936, as in 1951 when MGM did their glossy remake, that the show had to be cut down to size to fit the medium. As much as I love the 1936 and like the 1951 versions, I never really understood what the big deal was about SHOW BOAT -- not until I saw this Paper Mill Playhouse production on Great Performances in 1989.

Here is SHOW BOAT restored to its lavishness of production and the epic sweep of its story. Like the original production, this one takes us through 40 years, from 1887 to the "present day" (i.e., 1927) -- from the post-Civil War South through the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the dawn of the ragtime era to the Charleston-dancing Jazz Age. It gives us the changing face of show business seen through the lives of the people who work in it, and the effects of time (and "the times") on four marriages: Magnolia and Gaylord, Capt. Andy and Parthy, Steve and Julie, and Queenie and Joe.

Performances are uniformly excellent. Is P.L. Brown Paul Robeson, or Shelly Burch Helen Morgan? Well, no, of course not -- but who is? Still, their performances are first-rate, both vocally and dramatically. Eddie Bracken was born to play Capt. Andy; it's a pity, perhaps, that he didn't do it 20 years earlier, but here, at 74, he still has the presence and energy the part calls for. Rebecca Baxter has probably the most demanding role in the show, aging from her teens to her 50s (plus, in this production, playing Magnolia's grown daughter Kim), and she's truly affecting; I dare anyone to sit dry-eyed through the scene where Magnolia learns that Gay has run out on her. Richard White as Gaylord, Ellia English as Queenie, Lee Roy Reams as Frank, Lenora Nemetz as Ellie, Marsha Bagwell as Parthy -- all are wonderful and can hardly be improved upon. The same goes for the huge chorus, whose vocal power on such songs as "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" is often thrilling. Add to this the excitement of seeing them all performing live, without prerecording, before a large and enthusiastic audience.

SHOW BOAT is the greatest work in the history of the American musical, and while most productions don't do the show justice (the less said about Harold Prince's dismal revival the better), this one proves it. It really is a shame that this truly great performance has never been issued on video or DVD (it's not too late; how about it, Paper Mill and PBS?). But those of us who had the foresight to tape the broadcast in 1989 have a SHOW BOAT for the ages, one we can enjoy and cherish to the end of our days.
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Simply the best
6 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I have little to add to the comments already here; this is simply a great movie and that's all there is to it. It is, in fact -- though it's seldom credited for this -- the best movie ever made from any work by Charles Dickens. Meaning no disrespect to David COPPERFIELD ('35), GREAT EXPECTATIONS ('46), or any other -- but this is the only film that actually IMPROVES on the original, with scenes that Dickens himself would surely have written if he hadn't been in such a hurry to get it published.

I will, however, boast that I was there before almost anybody: This has been my favorite version of the CAROL for 50 years, long before the general adulation kicked in (for example, it wasn't until the 1980s that Leonard Maltin's book bumped its rating from three stars to four).

One question I have (and this may be more appropriate for the message board, but I'm putting it here just in case someone can answer it and make the addition) is: Who played Martha Cratchit? She has a substantial part, yet for some reason she's not listed here. Anybody know? In any case, whoever she is, she's perfect, with her bright little heart-shaped face and chipper voice, and she deserves to be remembered (if she is still among us, will someone please relay to her the thanks of a grateful world for her contribution?).

I'll say it again: A great movie.
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Great Performances: Long Day's Journey Into Night (1995)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
Did someone say there's a video?
8 July 2007
I had never heard of this production until I looked up William Hutt after seeing his titanic performance in Season 3 of SLINGS AND ARROWS, in which he plays the dying actor cast as King Lear. I see that Martha Burns of SLINGS is in this production too, as Cathleen the maid.

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY is one of my favorite plays, and the 1962 production with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson is one of my favorite movies. The 1973 Laurence Olivier-Constance Cummings I found almost as good, the 1987 version with Jack Lemmon and Bethel Leslie rather less so, despite a first-rate cast. This production sounds like it might have been just about perfect, and I'd love to see it, but I can't find it on Amazon (US or Canada) or any other source. Does anyone know where it's available?
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Hell Below (1933)
First-Rate Early Submarine Drama
2 June 2007
As I type these comments I'm watching a DVD of this movie that I just got from a mail-order dealer, and I'm finding that it holds up extremely well, with strong characterizations, believable situations, and well-staged action scenes.

It's been a good 45 years, maybe 50, since I saw HELL BELOW, but the one scene that made an extremely deep impression on me was Sterling Holloway's death scene, which several other commenters have mentioned here. I haven't gotten to that scene yet on this viewing, but I can vouch for what other comments have said: once you see Sterling Holloway's death scene in this movie, you will absolutely never, ever forget it. Judging from how strong the film so far is holding up, I fully expect that scene to live up to the memory of it -- as unquestionably one of the greatest death scenes in movie history. The movie's worth seeing for that moment alone, but even without it, it would be a first-rate early submarine drama.
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A genuine classic
20 October 2006
This is one of the best and most suspenseful thrillers, sci-fi or otherwise, ever made. I could go on and on, but my main reason for submitting this comment is to observe that for some reason the cast list is hidden on the IMDb listing. I don't know why, and I hope this oversight is corrected soon.

Now I see that I haven't reached the minimum number of lines for submitting a comment. So I will simply observe once again that this is one of the best and most suspenseful thrillers, sci-fi or otherwise, ever made, and that for some reason the cast list is hidden on the IMDb listing. I hope the cast list will be made visible, and if after doing so, IMDb administrators choose to delete this comment, it will be all right with me.

Anyhow, it's a terrific movie.
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Delightful fantasy, once seen never forgotten
17 October 2006
I saw this episode of GE THEATRE on TV when I was nine years old, and I've never forgotten it. I don't know why my folks let me stay up that late on a school night, but they did, and I thought it was hilarious. If I remember correctly, Fred Astaire plays a Madison Avenue executive who one day gives a panhandler some change and the bum, supposedly in gratitude (but really to get rid of it), gives Fred his "imp on a cobweb leash." Fred says yeah, right, whatever, thanks, and goes his way. But all day he's shaking his hand like he's trying to get something off his fingers, and he starts doing weird stuff. I remember he has a bunch of big-shots from work over for a barbecue and he makes them sit around slurping their martinis through straws, then he barbecues their hamburgers until they're little charred bricks. I don't remember much beyond that, but the story, and the idea of an imp on a cobweb leash, has always stayed with me.

At the time, I didn't even know who Fred Astaire was. In fact, later, when I started seeing his movies on TV, I remember thinking, "Hey, that's the guy from 'Imp on a Cobweb Leash.'" Anyhow, I remember GE THEATRE as one of the very best of the anthology series from the 1950s; they always had big stars in great stories, and this is one I still remember. Hopefully some enterprising distributor will someday gather some of these episodes into a DVD package.
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A neglected near-masterpiece
9 October 2005
Everybody's heard of this movie because of the famous title song, but almost nobody's ever seen it. It defies genre classification -- both a musical drama and a sort of missing link between the Warners gangster movies of the 1930s (mugs, molls, and rat-a-tat dialogue) and 1940s film noir (femme fatale, dark shadows, smoky atmosphere, seamy underside of life). It's a genuine one-of-a-kind movie that deserves to be much better remembered than it is.

However, one commenter here needs to refresh his memory; BLUES IN THE NIGHT has nothing whatever to do with the career of Jimmy Lunceford or any other famous musician of the period. It's about a small jazz combo, not a big band, and they begin and end the movie as obscure journeymen living from hand to mouth between gigs.
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War and Peace (1956)
A Worthy (Though Flawed) and Much-Underrated Effort
19 September 2005
Given that trimming Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE down to the length of one feature film (even at three-and-a-half hours) is probably a fool's errand to begin with, this 1956 version deserves more respect than it's generally gotten -- though the comments here indicate that the film may actually be gaining the respect that critics and film historians have so long denied it.

The movie does suffer from two undeniable shortcomings. First is the atrocious sound recording that has blighted virtually every Italian movie ever made. As some of the comments have noted, movies shot at Rome's Cinecitta had their sound post-dubbed rather than recorded on the set. But actually, this practice was then (and remains) very common. The sound in Italian movies stands out simply because they were so bad at it. The brutal truth is, even the greatest masterpieces of Fellini, De Sica, Rosselini, etc. are less than they might have been because Italian sound technology was so slipshod. And so it is with WAR AND PEACE: it's hard to suspend disbelief when soldiers struggling across a river sound like someone dropping quarters into a toilet.

The other shortcoming is the appalling miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezhukov. It's the worst performance of his career, and he looks and sounds about as Russian as a slice of pumpkin pie. One commenter here said Alec Guinness should have played Pierre. It's an intriguing suggestion, and of course Sir Alec was always good. Even better, I think, would have been Peter Ustinov. In 1956 he was Pierre to the very life.

But the rest of the casting is genuinely inspired. Oskar Homolka as Gen. Kutuzov, Barry Jones as Count Rostov, Jeremy Brett as Nikolai, Herbert Lom as Napoleon -- all could hardly be improved upon. And Audrey Hepburn was simply born to play Natasha. And Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei ... well, he did have his faults as an actor (to say the least!), but at least he looked the part.

Beyond that, the movie has lavish production values, impressive battle scenes, and one truly great and powerful sequence, the French Army's disastrous retreat from Russia, that takes up much of the last hour.

There's no substitute, of course, for reading the novel (I've read it three times myself). But this 1956 movie makes a worthy introduction, and even helps to keep Tolstoy's complex plot straight when you do get around to reading it.
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Sir Norbert Smith, a Life (1989 TV Movie)
Impish send-up of British films AND entertainment documentaries
15 August 2005
NORBERT SMITH, A LIFE is an absolutely priceless send-up not only of British films over the years, but of the worshipful documentaries that cable and public TV companies crank out from time to time. (Using Melvyn Bragg as the narrator, doing exactly the kind of thing he was doing at the time on "The South Bank Show," was an inspiration, and kudos to Lord Bragg for being a good sport.) The film parodies are all spot-on, but the scene from the World War II action flick (with Sir Norbert finding an excuse to guzzle a glass of wine in every single shot), and the identical scenes from each of Sir Norbert's composer biopics (BEETHOVEN, MAN OF MUSIC; LIZST, MAN OF MUSIC; ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER, MAN OF MUSIC) are especially hilarious.

And by the way, chalk me up as another member of the I Used to Have This on Videotape But I Lost It Somehow Club. What I wouldn't give to find a copy to replace the one I had!
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Seabiscuit (2003)
This horse opera is a turkey
24 July 2003
Warning: Spoilers

I see the comments posted here, like many of the early reviews, are already going into transports of ecstasy over Gary Ross's film. But don't be fooled: it stinks. There IS a great movie in Laura Hillenbrand's book, but this isn't it, not by a long shot. Ross falsifies the story at every turn, garbling and changing facts for no good reason.

A few examples (POSSIBLE SPOILERS if you don't know what happened in real life):

Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was not a bicycle repairman in New York in 1910. He moved to San Francisco in 1903 and soon branched from bicycles to Buicks. He struck it rich in 1906 when the great earthquake left him with the city's only reliable transportation. By 1910 he was a wealthy San Francisco automobile dealer.

Tijuana was a mecca for Prohibition Era racing fans in the 1920s, but not in 1933; by that time, Prohibition was on its way out and racing had been banned in Mexico.

Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was not kicked out of the house by his poverty-stricken parents.

Charles Howard and his first wife had five children, not one.

Howard's son Frankie died in 1926, not 1931. He was 15, not 10. He was with two friends, not alone. He swerved to avoid a rock in the road, not another truck.

Howard did not pick up his second wife, Marcela, at a Tijuana racetrack in 1933; they were introduced in San Francisco by his son Lin, who was married to Marcela's sister.

Pollard lost the vision in his right eye in a riding mishap, not in the boxing ring. He kept it a secret from everyone, except possibly his wife, all his life. He knew that if word got out he would be banned from racing. He certainly would never have shouted it out to Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) in the jockeys' locker room.

Tom Smith did not see Seabiscuit for the first time at five o'clock on a foggy morning; it was on a `sweltering' June afternoon.

The fictitious Tick-Tock McLaughlin (William H. Macy) describes Seabiscuit as `the hottest thing on four legs since Hope and Crosby' presumably sometime in 1937. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made their first movie together, "Road to Singapore," in 1940, after Seabiscuit retired.

McLaughlin, again, refers to jockey George `Iceman' Woolf by saying, `The Iceman cometh' – a clear reference to Eugene O'Neill's play. This is in 1938; "The Iceman Cometh" didn't appear until 1946.

Pollard suffered two near-fatal spills from a horse, not one. The first, not shown in the film, was during a race and was by far the worst.

There was never any question of Seabiscuit being put down over a ruptured ligament; no one with any knowledge of horses will buy this scene. At worst he would have been retired from racing and put out to stud.

Tom Smith, not Red Pollard, took charge of Seabiscuit's recovery.


All of these points (with the possible exception of Pollard's first spill) could just as easily have been correctly filmed, at no greater expense or trouble. Instead, Ross shows a complete disregard for the letter AND spirit of Seabiscuit's story. What one commenter here called the film's "eye for detail" is, in fact, nonexistent.

(And spare me the "dramatic license" lecture. By using historian David McCullough as narrator, Ross is clearly -- and fraudulently -- pretending to be as accurate as a documentary.)

All of this MIGHT have been acceptable -- or at least forgiveable -- if the movie simply MOVED. But it lumbers, for two-and-a-half endless hours. Ross lingers over scenes with hushed reverence, as if they were stations of the cross.

And the racing scenes are almost totally botched. Ross resorts to slow-mo too often, for too long, and at the worst possible times. In the great match race with War Admiral, Ross inexplicably cuts away from the start of the race to show a succession of anonymous Americans huddled around radios; the race is half over before he comes back (to be fair, the film does justice to the wonderful "So long, Charlie" moment as Seabiscuit pulls away in the stretch). Worst and most inexcusable of all, in Seabiscuit's other great triumph, the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, Ross ENDS THE FILM AND DISSOLVES TO THE CREDITS BEFORE SEABISCUIT EVEN CROSSES THE FINISH LINE!!! What kind of idiocy is this? The man must be mad. (And let me chortle, just in passing, at those ridiculous patched-in closeups of Tobey Maguire on his darling little bobble-head hobby horse. They don't even match the horse in the long shots.)

Laura Hillenbrand called the 1946 THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT "unforgiveably bad." This one may not be as bad, but it's even more unforgiveable. Don't bother with this bloated, leaden travesty. Read Hillenbrand's great book instead -- or see the PBS "American Experience" documentary, which gives you more of the story, gets it straight, and is less than half as long.
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Joking Apart (1991–1995)
Hilarious. So where's the video, already?
18 June 2003
I don't wish to take anything away from such excellent British sitcoms as "Keeping Up Appearances," "Waiting for God," and "Are You Being Served?", which appear on PBS in the States. But those shows run and run and run AND RUN, whereas "Joking Apart" was shown only once (in my area at least) then vanished without a trace. With every PBS catalog that drops through my mail slot, I search desperately through the "British TV" section, but no luck. I even searched through some British video stores when I was in London on vacation. PLEASE, PBS: if you can't offer videos or DVDs of this wonderful, quirky series, at least broadcast it again so that those of us with VCRs can at least have it to savor over and over again.

Robert Bathurst plays Mark Taylor, a likeable sad sack of a stand-up comic whose brief, bittersweet marriage to Becky Johnson (Fiona Gillies) still provides most of the material for his nightclub act. Rounding out the regular characters are Mark and Becky's best friends Tracy and Robert (Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield) and Becky's new boyfriend Trevor (Paul Mark Elliott).

Every episode of the series (at least every one I saw) follows the same format: We open with Mark at work on a stage about the size of a card table in some tiny club, squinting in the glare of the lights, with a bare brick wall behind him. As he talks about "relationships" -- which means, of course, that he's really talking about one relationship in particular -- we can't help noticing that he's not very good at his chosen profession. Not bad, mind you -- not especially bitter or unpleasant, not ugly or vengeful. We sense that the unseen audience actually rather likes him and wants to laugh. It's just that he isn't very funny.

From this set-up, the show flashes back to scenes illustrating the points he's making, then we'll be back in the club, then back in Mark's former life. The flashbacks jumble chronology; we might get a scene from the tense final days of the marriage, followed by a scene of Mark trying to cope while Becky tries to move on with Trevor, then yet another scene from early in Mark and Becky's courtship. The show is always jumping around like that, yet it always works to shed light on the central theme of the episode. Credit Steven Moffatt for some truly fine writing, not only in structuring the episodes in a complex and surprising way, but in building laughs patiently to a crescendo. Not to mention how much comic gold he mined out of only five basic characters.

The beautiful irony of the show is that, invariably, Mark's life is so much funnier than his act. From the second episode on, every one, for me, would run the same course: I'd start out thinking, okay, now that I know how this show works, this is going to be more of the same tricks; it'll be old hat to me this time. And every time, without exception, I would wind up laughing till I cried -- in both senses of the phrase.

This is a wonderful, hilarious, perceptive, creative show. No doubt its scarcity is because there are only 13 episodes to show. I suspect the format would have been difficult to sustain over a years-long run, but that only shows the taste and intelligence of the producers in quitting while they were ahead.

I'd give anything to see this show again, to say nothing of having it on VHS or DVD. Can't SOMEBODY bring it back???
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An unjustly forgotten classic
20 January 2003
I'm told that when "Miss Tatlock's Millions" came out in 1948, it was a medium-size hit that had a small but extremely loyal cult following (sort of like the original "Bedazzled" in 1967). It's too bad that it's now almost completely forgotten -- a result of having never come out on video (except for a poor-quality bootleg dupe), a fate it shares with many late '40s Paramounts -- "The Great Gatsby," "The Big Clock," "Alias Nick Beal," and others. Like them, "Miss Tatlock's Millions" was long a staple of late-show TV but has now seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

"Miss Tatlock's Millions" is, not to mince words, a riot. Another commenter here compares it to Preston Sturges, something that had never occurred to me before but which is very apt. It has the same kind of screwball pacing, distinctive characters, and brilliant dialogue (of course, Sturges remains peerless, but this one is in the same tradition and a very respectable specimen).

John Lund is wonderful as the fake "Skylar" and it's a pity he didn't get more challenges like this. I think he was a victim of his own good looks; the gang at Paramount decided he was a wooden pretty-boy, so that's all they gave him to do. But he sure delivers the goods here.

And the rest of the cast! Monty Woolley, Ilka Chase, Robert Stack, Barry Fitzgerald, Dan Tobin, Dorothy Stickney. That bunch would be fun to watch in anything, but give them Charles Brackett's dialogue and the combination is unbeatable. (The film, by the way, has at least one line that was, for a while anyhow, quite famous and oft-quoted by people who had no idea where it came from. Spoken by Monty Woolley: "I hate California. It's the only place on earth where you can fall asleep under a rosebush in full bloom and freeze to death.")

As the comments here attest, there is no one who's seen "Miss Tatlock's Millions" who doesn't love it and remember it as one of the funniest movies they ever saw. The only reason it's not up there with the great comedies -- the only reason, for example, that it placed nowhere on AFI's list of the (supposed) 100 greatest comedies -- is that not enough people have seen it.

Bring it back!
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Another misguided Masterpiece Theatre "adaptation"
19 January 2003
Warning: Spoilers
What on earth is going on at Masterpiece Theatre? First they produce an adaptation of "Oliver Twist" that spends half its running time on the courtship of Oliver's parents -- something even DICKENS didn't care about. Then they turn Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga into some sort of Edwardian bodice-ripper. Now comes this...this...well, frankly, travesty of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mystery/horror masterpiece. I can't go into great detail without dropping spoilers; suffice it to say that there is just enough of Sir Arthur's plot here (including the culprit, who is given away MUCH too soon) to absolutely wreck the book for anyone who hasn't read it. Fans of the book would be wise to steer clear, lest they react so angrily that they wind up vandalizing their TV sets. The bad news is that the last ten minutes ruin everything that's gone before; the WORSE news is that what goes before wasn't that hot to begin with.

It has been rightly said that "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is the only Sherlock Holmes story where the atmosphere overwhelms the character of Holmes himself. Well, it wouldn't take much atmosphere to overwhelm THIS Holmes -- Richard Roxburgh is too puny, pretty, and bland by half. As Watson, Ian Hart is too young, petulant (not to say petty) and short-tempered; the Holmes-Watson relationship is absolutely, entirely, one-hundred-precent wrong. Again, I want to avoid spoilers, but if you're a Holmes buff and MUST see this, just listen to Watson's last line and see if your jaw doesn't drop in amazement. How any writer could even THINK of putting those words into Watson's mouth is a mystery that will confound me to the end of my days.

Giving credit where it's due, the atmosphere of the moors, with the dank skies and howling wind, is well-done. But any virtue is offset by all the bird-brained changes and additions that writer Allan Cubitt and director David Attwood insist on cramming in -- a seance and a Christmas party are the only ones I can mention without, again, spoiling.

Come to think of it -- these guys can spoil "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and get away with it, but I'm not allowed to "spoil" their lousy movie. What a world.
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Back in all its glory
8 October 2002
I sat in the same theater (the Pacific Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd. in L.A.) on the same date as mk4 of Long Beach, but I'm happy to say I didn't see the same film; nor did I hear any murmurs of disappointment on the way out. At the screening I attended, when Lowell Thomas proclaimed, "Ladies and gentlemen -- this is Cinerama!" and the screen expanded to full size as the rollercoaster began, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. And there was sustained applause during the credits at the end.

This was my third viewing of "This Is Cinerama," having previously seen it at the Esquire in Sacramento in 1963 and the New Neon in Dayton, OH in 1996, and it was far and away the best. (I also saw the disappointing one-strip reissue in 1972 -- which should have been called "This Isn't Cinerama" -- but that doesn't count.) The folks at Arclight Cinema, or whoever is directly responsible for restoring this landmark film, are to be congratulated for having done everything exactly right.

The print at the Dome -- or prints, I should say -- were virtually flawless; I saw only a brief green emulsion line in the right frame for about a minute during the first "Aida" sequence, a very slight blue cast to some of the Cypress Gardens shots, one or two seconds of white speckling, and a single cracked frame during the Venice scene. Otherwise, the film was absolutely flawless, the 1950s Technicolor brilliant, vivid, and stunning. Yes, the seams between the frames were there, but that's a given with Cinerama, like black-and-white photography in many movies or subtitles on foreign films. More important is how the seams were managed by the projection apparatus and operators -- the picture was absolutely ROCK-STEADY, and I was pleased to notice none of the "rippling" that was always noticeable in a Cinerama film when someone or something crossed the seam. I don't know how they managed it, but the Cinerama picture never looked this good before.

As the title clearly implies, "This Is Cinerama" is nothing more or less than a demonstration of the process (which is why the single-frame 1970s reissue was such a dumb idea), and it took people to places they probably couldn't go themselves; travel was not nearly so common or so wide in 1952. Besides, even if someone did make it to La Scala in Milan, how many of them would actually have a chance to stand on stage among the performers? True, the choice of segments, and to a certain extent the narration, reflect middlebrow attitudes of 1952. Deal with it. If that makes "This Is Cinerama" look kitschy or dated now, it's as much a limitation in the eye of the beholder as in the film.

Lowell Thomas says in the prologue, "We truly believe this is going to revolutionize motion pictures," and the truth is, it did. Hollywood flirted with wide-screen processes in the early 1930s, then quickly gave them up. But after "This Is Cinerama," the wide screen was here to stay (and now it's even taking over television!). For that matter, so was stereophonic sound (a term that was actually coined for "This Is Cinerama"). Today it is a rare and cheap movie indeed that isn't shot for the wide screen and recorded in stereo. Cinerama itself may not have survived -- it was, after all, cumbersome and expensive -- but its influence was absolute, and continues to this day.

The restored screenings at the Pacific Cinerama Dome show why, and Arclight Cinemas have done a tremendous service in preserving and reviving the Cinerama experience. I look forward to seeing more (particularly "How the West Was Won," easily the best of all Cinerama movies), especially if they are presented as faithfully as "This Is Cinerama."
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One of the greatest films never seen
24 July 2002
"The Iceman Cometh" was part of American Film Theatre, an experiment by producer Ely Landau. The idea was for top-flight casts and creative talent to film classic plays. Then selected theaters would show one film a month, but only on two days (consecutive Tuesdays, if memory serves) before returning to their regular programs until the following month, when the next AFT release would be put up for two more days.

The program was nothing if not high-tone and ambitious. Productions included Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield and Lee Remick; "Lost in the Stars," the Maxwell Anderson-Kurt Weill musical based on "Cry, the Beloved Country"; Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder; and Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" directed by Laurence Olivier. Unfortunately, the project as a whole was an unmitigated disaster. For one thing, most of the films were uninspired, some were mediocre, and a few were downright awful. But most of all, the whole idea flew in the face of motion picture economics: how could any movie (or live play, for that matter) possibly break even when it ran for only TWO DAYS?

All things considered, it's a tribute to Landau's skill as a promoter that the AFT managed to limp through two "seasons," 1973-74 and 1974-75, before collapsing in a tangled heap of debts, lawsuits, and countersuits. But collapse it did, and the legal can-of-worms that it left, with the AFT's liabilities mixed with the rights of authors and their estates, is probably what keeps the films out of theatrical circulation and unavailable on video.

In the case of most AFT productions, truth be told, that's no great loss. But "The Iceman Cometh" is head-and-shoulders above all the rest put together (I suspect Landau knew it, too: that's no doubt why he put his best foot forward by making it the premiere production). It is, in fact, a great movie -- a great play with a once-in-a-lifetime cast (it was Fredric March's last movie, and Robert Ryan died even before it came out) under the hand of a fine director (John Frankenheimer) who cut his teeth on live drama during the Golden Age of Television.

Nobody connected with this film ever did better work -- not Ryan, who was brilliant and deserved a posthumous Oscar nomination for it; not March, one of Hollywood's greatest; none of the supporting cast; not even Jeff Bridges, who was only 23 and just at the beginning of his career (he once said that this was the film that made him realize he was serious about being an actor).

A special case is Lee Marvin in the pivotal role of Hickey; he was much disparaged by critics at the time, but the tone was one of

how-dare-this-B-movie-thug-lay-his-unclean-hands-on-a-role-that-belongs-now- and-forever-to-Jason-Robards. Meaning no disrespect, but Robards was hardly infallible; Lee Marvin never did anything as bad as Robards's Brutus in "Julius Caesar" (1970). An impartial viewing of Marvin in "The Iceman Cometh" shows he was entirely up to the role, even in the demanding, shattering 25-minute monologue where Hickey's self-loathing hypocrisy slips out against his will.

I was lucky enough to see this film twice in a theater -- once on its premiere in November '73, and again in the spring of '75, when Landau tried (in vain) to recoup his losses by giving a general release to selected AFT films. I've never forgotten it, and there are moments as fresh in my mind as if I saw them yesterday: Robert Ryan's anguish when he snarls, "You think you'll get me to admit that to myself?" and Marvin replies, "But you just did admit it, didn't you?"; Jeff Bridges's tormented profile as he sits at the table with Ryan trying to sort out his life; Fredric March as the doddering saloon-keeper venturing outside for the first time in years; Lee Marvin's ironic little dance as he calls himself "a happy-go-lucky slob like me." All, and so much more, unforgettable.

I am dismayed to read in another comment here that there seems to be a three-hour version of this film out there somewhere. This would be outrageous enough if the original version were readily available, but since the original is not, it's intolerable. Any cutting of this film (which already judiciously edits O'Neill's original text) can only be a mutilation. Accept no substitutes, and DO NOT watch this film, regardless of its length, if it is shown on TV with commercial breaks. See it ONLY in its 239-minute version, uninterrupted except for the two intermissions O'Neill intended (this was, by the way, the first movie with two intermissions) -- the cumulative power of the play demands it, and a movie this great deserves nothing less.
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Pleasant little boy-and-his-horse programmer
17 July 2002
This is an RKO B-picture from 1939 that will probably never make it to video, but it just might crop up on Turner Classic Movies or something one of these days. If it does, it's a nice, well-made, unpretentious family-oriented picture that, at just over an hour, certainly doesn't wear out it's welcome.

Jimmy Lydon (a juvenile actor who later starred in the popular "Henry Aldrich" comedies for Paramount) plays David, a teenage orphan who lives on a hardscrabble farm with his nasty, abusive aunt and uncle. When a valuable brood mare is stolen from a neighboring ranch, the mare's foal runs after the thieves but can't keep up. Eventually the young colt wanders tired and hungry into David's barn. David convinces his stingy uncle to let him keep the horse until they can find the owner and see if there's a reward. By the time he finds out where the horse belongs, however, David has grown attached to the animal and can't bring himself to let go. Meanwhile, Uncle Thaddeus is determined to sell the horse or work it to death...

Jimmy Lydon, in his first real role, carries the movie easily, and the rest of the cast is good, too. Marjorie Main as his aunt -- ugly, harsh, and mean -- is certainly a long way from Ma Kettle! Arthur Hohl, as the uncle, is one of those actors you've seen without noticing in countless movies; here he actually gives some human subtlety to a part that is 100% villain. It's a nice job, with probably some credit due to director Jack Hively.

Joan Leslie (billed under her birth name of Joan Brodel) is charming as the daughter of the horse's rightful owner -- and good grief, she looks so YOUNG! (She was only 14 at the time; incredible to think that in only 3 years she'd be playing James Cagney's wife in "Yankee Doodle Dandy"!)
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A '30s musical unlike any other
29 May 2002
You'll probably never have a chance to see this mind-boggling extravaganza from 1937; a colossal flop in its day, it's so completely forgotten now that it doesn't even appear in Leonard Maltin's book. I can't imagine it ever coming out on video. But if you do see it -- as I did at Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio this spring -- you're in for an experience I'll bet you won't soon forget.

In 1936 a new administration swept into Universal Pictures determined to remake the studio from top to bottom. "Top of the Town," released the next year, was part of that process and was obviously intended to be the musical to top all musicals. Well, it's not that, not by a long shot -- there are too many ghastly moments. But when "Top of the Town" is good, it's very good indeed, and much of it is hilarious (though sometimes unintentionally).

The plot, such as it is, centers on the opening of a luxury nightclub atop a 100-story skyscraper and the conflict over what kind of floor show to present. Bandleader George Murphy wants hot tunes, belly laughs, great dancing and razzle-dazzle, while the club's owner Doris Nolan (who has just returned from a trip to Russia filled with sympathy for the downtrodden masses) wants something artistic, deep and socially significant. Guess whose version sends the audience away in droves, and guess whose version brings them back singing and dancing.

But the plot is just an excuse to string together a wild variety of musical-comedy specialty numbers. "Top of the Town" is like an old-time vaudeville show, with some good comedy (like the Three Sailors, who combine their bodies in bizarre ways to "impersonate" camels and giraffes), some bad comedy (Hugh Herbert, a little of whom...), a lot of terrific songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson (including two big hits, "There Are No Two Ways About It" and "Where Are You?", the latter of which became a standard), some great dancing by Murphy and 13-year-old Peggy Ryan (in her first movie), and absolutely eye-popping Art Deco sets by legendary Broadway designer John Harkrider.

And above all, the last half-hour, which begins with the (intentionally) hilarious disaster of the Doris Nolan character's "entertainment" program and continues through George Murphy and the gang swinging to the rescue, is just about the most spectacular, cast-of-thousands-style toe-tapping production number in Hollywood history (the song, an infectious one, is called "Jamboree.") It's so irresistible that it easily erases any misgivings you might have had about the first 60 minutes.

The performers, like the film as a whole, are something of a mixed bag. George Murphy was clearly going places (though no one could have predicted the U.S. Senate), as was little Peggy Ryan (she became a popular star in the 1940s in a series of B-musicals with Donald O'Connor; they were Universal's answer to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland).

A little more problematic are the two female vocalists. Ella Logan has pep and obvious talent, and she really shines in "There Are No Two Ways About It," but her enthusiasm becomes a bit obnoxious at times. Gertrude Niesen was, frankly, a little too odd-looking to make it in movies -- stocky and rather hard-faced, with an unflattering Prince Valiant hair-do. Still, there are times when (thanks to Joseph Valentine's soft-focus photography) she suggests a younger, 1930s version of Bette Midler. And she does a rendition of "Where Are You?" ("Where are you?/Where have you gone without me?/I thought you cared about me...") that is absolutely unforgettable. Since Niesen (like Logan) would become a major Broadway star in the 1940s, I suspect that this is a case where a performer's film career suffered not from a lack of talent but simply because the camera didn't like her.

It's a real hodge-podge and definitely a mixed bag, but "Top of the Town," whatever its faults, is at least never boring. When it's good it's terrific, and even when it's bad it's entertaining. As I said before, you'll probably never get the chance to see it. But if you do, and if you enjoy 1930s musicals, you won't be sorry you caught up with this one.
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A gentle glimpse into another time
20 November 2000
While the years may not have been entirely kind to "The Human Comedy," they have certainly been kinder than some of the comments I've seen here, the venom and churlish malice of which frankly astonish me.

In 1943, M-G-M commissioned author William Saroyan to develop a screen story about the World War II homefront. The result was this, which Howard Estabrook turned into a screenplay and Saroyan himself expanded into a novel -- which explains why the film was released before the book was published.

Yes, "The Human Comedy" is propaganda, but with a difference. Most of the propaganda of WWII arose from anger and grim determination, and films like "Air Force" and "Operation Tokyo" look excessive and embarrassing now that passions have cooled. The propaganda of "The Human Comedy" rises not from anger but from fear -- the fear that the crucible of war might be too harsh for the spirit of small-town America to survive.

To be honest, much of "The Human Comedy" also looks excessive and embarrassing now the fears have been alleviated. But few films struck such a chord in audiences of the time by showing them, if not as they were, then at least as they liked to picture themselves.

The film's appeal now is more than just as a historical curiosity, however. Despite the Andy Hardy sentimentality and Saroyan's blue-collar pseudo-poetry, "The Human Comedy" has much to recommend it if you can resist viewing it through the prism of our own time, with the war safely won these 50 years. It has, for example, one of Mickey Rooney's best and most restrained performances and a charming performance by Jackie "Butch" Jenkins as his baby brother -- he became a child star on the strength of this film, but was never this good again.

Frank Morgan, too, is first-rate as a sad old man taking pride in his work and refuge in his bottle; Morgan was an idiosyncratic actor, but he was capable of great depth and deserves to be known for something besides "The Wizard of Oz." Director Clarence Brown, now sadly neglected, shows once again his sure touch with Americana and his sensitive handling of child and teen actors.

"The Human Comedy" is a bit cloying, perhaps, but it's also a compassionate and generous-spirited film. It deserves to be regarded with the same generosity.
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Silly and laughable
25 October 2000
I have to disagree strongly with WilPower-2; this movie isn't even worth seeing on video. There may be games that can serve as a metaphor for life, but golf isn't one of them, and as a spectator sport it's about as exciting as watching your fingernails grow. Also, I absolutely REFUSE to believe that any 10-year-old boy in 1931 Georgia would EVER call golf "the greatest game there is." Oh, please.

The actors are appealing but their performances aren't, since all of them play Symbols instead of characters, drawling in cornpone-and-magnolias accents until the molasses fairly drips from the screen. Will Smith is especially ill-served, having to recite sage homilies like "Yeah, a man's grip on his club's like his grip on life..." Oh brother.

Nice scenery, though. And WilPower is right about one thing: the actors playing Bobby Jones(Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) are more interesting than the stars.
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