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Objective, Burma! (1945)
A long but quality WWII film ...
...probably one of the better ones about WWII made during WWII. In it a group of American paratroopers are dropped into the Burmese jungles to destroy a Japanese radar station. Things don't go as expected, of course, and instead of being picked up by an airplane after their mission is completed they are forced to trek through the jungles and battle the elements to make their escape.
Director Raoul Walsh was in good form when he directed this overlong but effective film which adopts a semi documentary approach. James Wong Howe also scored well with his striking photography which really adds to the film's realistic credibility. Howe captures the scorching heat of the jungle in this production, whose principle photography was largely done on "Lucky" Baldwin's Santa Anita ranch. There was also a fine musical score by Franz Waxman, including a impressive military march theme.
While the characters are the usual army stereotypes, the restrained performances of the cast add to the film's sense of realism. This includes Errol Flynn, who well portrays an ordinary guy who's in command. His commanding officer is not the belligerent macho type to be found in many military films but, instead, a humane officer who cares about his men who, in turn, respect him. Flynn regarded this film as one of the best of his career. Also look out for the terrific performances by several actors that later went on to well known TV roles such as George Tobias who played Mr.Kravitz on Bewitched and Hugh Beaumont who was The Beaver's dad.
The film has one dated over-the-top diatribe by Henry Hull as a newsman accompanying the soldiers in which he rants about the Japanese as "stinking little savages" who should be wiped off the face of the earth. Oh well, I guess if I'm going to watch the films of 1945, then I should be prepared to deal with the values of 1945.
At the same time, however, the film has some great dialogue. For example, after a soldier named Hollis is found dead, one of the paratroopers, in retrieving the soldier's dog tag, says, "So much for Mrs. Hollis's 9 months of pain and 20 years of hope." In speaking of the pain that a mother will feel when she receives the news about her son, the film briefly touches upon a common humanity we all feel with the grief and tragedy of war.
Ernest Borgnine could have easily continued talking for another hour
I was really impressed with Ernest Borgnine, at age 92, who laughed and talked like a man decades younger. He could easily have kept talking for another hour.
Robert guided the interview, but Mr. Borgnine was just bursting with stories so prodding was not necessary. One interesting thing that came out was that his mom was a countess who apparently wanted to be on the stage, so after WWII when Borgnine was trying to find a direction in his life his mother suggested acting. Without that prodding he said "for two cents I would have reenlisted in the Navy, stayed another ten years and at least had a pension". I say his mother was a countess, but Borgnine obviously came from middle class roots from his description of his childhood.
He was a guy with no Hollywood roots in his family and knew no contacts in the industry. So when there was a casting call he would just show up for it. He got his first film role in "China Corsair" in 1951 when he was 34.
He talked about being in "Bad Day at Black Rock" with Spencer Tracy, and how Spencer complimented his acting style. While on location, he left early one day to do a reading for "Marty", and Tracy kidded him about him being the only one they let leave the set early. The great irony was that Borgnine beat Tracy the following year for the Best Actor Oscar for that same role in Marty, Tracy being nominated for "Bad Day at Black Rock".
The most interesting story about Marty was that it was never meant to be finished. It was to be made as a tax loss to offset the successful movies that Burt Lancaster's production company was making. At the last minute, the law was changed so that you must finish a film and release it in order to take the tax loss, so Marty was completed and released, and it surprisingly turned out to be a hit.
Borgnine only talked about his most famous marriage to Ethel Merman because Robert brought it up. His marriage was basically finished after the honeymoon because Ethel Merman's ego could not take the fact that wherever they went people recognized Borgnine from the popular "McHale's Navy" and would only sometimes recognize her. Years later when Merman wrote her autobiography the section on Borgnine was a blank page. Talk about undying bitterness!
You can tell Borgnine really didn't have a bad word to say about anybody, but did enjoy praising the actors he'd worked with. He particularly mentioned the acting skills of Gary Cooper and Bette Davis.
His final words on his career were that making people laugh was what it was all about.
Highly recommended if it ever shows up on TCM or youtube. Currently it is not on DVD, and with the death of Robert Osborne, I don't know if encore presentations of Private Screenings will be as common as they have been in the past, or if they will even happen at all.
The Last Warning (1929)
A mystery dressed up as a horror film
Essentially this is part "Cat and the Canary" and part "Phantom of the Opera" - also silent Universal properties. It has some slack parts but the visual atmosphere helps to cover them up, and it has some very inventive title cards where the writing may be initially blurry and come into focus, or the writing may start up clear and then appear to melt down the page, or it may appear to be underwater.
The film is about an actor, John Woodford, in a theatre on Broadway, who dies suddenly when he gets to the part of the play where he is backed into the fireplace by another actor and picks up a candlestick. The lights go out, and when they come back on there is Woodford dead on the floor. The police come to question everybody who was present, then Woodford's body disappears before the coroner gets there. It is discovered by the police that Woodford and another actor, Richard Quayle (John Boles) were arguing in actress Doris Terry's (Laura LaPlante's) dressing room, and both were suitors of hers.
So without a body, the investigation cannot go on, the theatre is closed, and the papers are shown having a field day with the "love triangle" that is insinuated to have something to do with the killing. Several years later, Woodford's close friend (Montagu Love as Arthur McHugh) decides to reopen the theatre with the same cast as the night of the killing and the same play. Why does the entire cast return? Because to not return would make them look guilty.
But somebody does not want the play to open. Heavy scenery comes crashing down. Smoke bombs go off. Threatening letters are written to members of the cast that they perform at their peril, and some mysterious masked figure is running and jumping about the place and even stealing Doris' purse and putting her personal possessions in strategic places to make her look like she is in on all of the strange happenings. Is it the ghost of John Woodford trying to avenge himself? Well of course not. But it might be the real John Woodford, having faked his own death, and still mad at Boles and LaPlante for his romantic rejection. Watch and find out what is behind all of this.
The visuals are just great here. The opening scene reminds me somewhat of 1929's Broadway with all of the pictures of the Broadway nightlife of 1929. Also, the theatre, from the outside, looks like the face of some frightening creature complete with eyes, a nose, and mouth. I just wish better prints were available.
The Power and the Glory (1933)
A good story backed up with an innovative presentation
...distinguishes this film from many of the other Fox films from 1930 to 1935. Add fine actors like Spencer Tracy and you have a great show. It was quite something to watch the "American Dream" become the "American Nightmare" for Tracy's character, railroad magnate Tom Garner, and for that matter his wife Sally (Colleen Moore) as well.
Preston Sturges had been writing dialogue for films since 1930, but this was his first original screenplay. He scrambled the chronological sequence of events in a story told in flashback for a corrosively ironic effect. The viewer is able to leap across decades of time in a cut and see how the characters have lived up to or more often failed to live up to our and their own expectations.
Tom Garner's story is told by his executive secretary and lifetime friend, Henry (Ralph Morgan), after his funeral, in response to Henry's wife's cutting remarks about what an evil person Tom was and why he was a suicide because of his conscience. Henry disagrees. Now Fox was not Paramount in 1933, so some of the story is a bit eye-rolling, especially when Henry praises Tom's bravery as a child for jumping from a great height into a local stream that almost led to his death. Being dared to do something stupid and then taking that dare is not something that is a test of future greatness. But the story improves from there.
Tom never went to school, and as an adult went to the local schoolteacher, Sally, to read the letters for him from Henry. She offers to tutor him in basic reading, writing, and math, and they fall in love and marry. The marriage proposal involves a cute scene that is completely narration by Henry. Young Tom is happy being a "track walker" for the railroad and has no ambition. Sally, though, sees sparks of future greatness in Tom and comes up with a way where she supports the two of them by track walking in his place and he goes to engineering school to get a job with more potential on the railroad.
But Sally has created a monster. Tom evolves from being an enthusiastic engineer after graduation to becoming all consumed with being the most powerful railroad magnate in the U.S. and loses his earlier gentle giant attributes. Actually, Sally creates two monsters. The second is their son, Tom Jr., who she spoils rotten so that he becomes an amoral loafer, getting kicked out of Yale. This sets up the potential for all of the disasters that come afterward.
Many have said that this form of storytelling was what inspired Orson Welles to write "Citizen Kane" in the format that he did, but even if it didn't, there is an overarching mystery in both films. The first from Kane, is well known. How did anybody know Kane's final words since it appears he died alone in his room? The question for this film is how was Henry privy to all of the details of what made Tom commit suicide, as well of the private details of his life unless Tom was some kind of chatty Kathy with his old friend and secretary? Just wondering.
Frontier Days (1945)
Mildly entertaining BUT...
... I hope there were no schoolchildren in the theatre when this little short ran back in 1945. The thing is, the voice over, everything about this short, might lead somebody to believe that this is how history played out.
The short talks about real things - the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, the Indian attacks on the settlers to try and save their food supply, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the wild west days of some of the cow towns in Kansas.
Into these real events some completely ridiculous and fictional events are inserted. First there are the fictional villains of the piece - "The Stacy Gang" - who apparently are almost single handedly responsible for the slaughter of the buffalo and imprisoned for it. In fact, nobody went to jail for killing buffalo. For a long time, the country's highest generals, politicians, even then President Ulysses S. Grant saw the destruction of buffalo as solution to the country's "Indian Problem." Then there is the joining of the pieces of the Transcontinental railroad that in this piece occurs in Kansas not Utah. Then there is a town growing up around the place where the sections were joined called - Civilization, Kansas??? There is no such place, and why would a town grow up around where a spike was driven and for no other reason? But then those Stacys are loose again, killing the sheriffs of Civilization, and the grown daughter of one, Dorothy Malone as Martha Mercer, decides she will be the law and avenge dad's murder. Hold it? She just thinks she can inherit the office? Actually, this is one piece of logic brought up by Marshal Jim Blake (Robert Shayne). Well Martha winds up being more a hindrance than a help as self appointed sheriff when she accompanies a gold shipment on a train robbed by the Stacys, gets cornered in a shoot out, and when Blake and his men try to stop the robbery she warns them too late AND gets taken hostage by the Stacys just long enough so they can get away.
Blake puts her in the Civilization jail, but leaves her with her gun and bullets, and heads off to confront the Stacys. This might account for her running around loose a short time later. All of this leads to a face-off between Blake and Stacy in a wild west saloon that turns into a free for all bar fight that actually looks like it was taken from the WB western "Dodge City".
The whole thing is great fun, just don't believe a word of it as fact. And as for Dorothy Malone, she has only been in film for two years, has dark hair at this point, and I wouldn't even have recognized her if it hadn't been for the credits. She hasn't developed her "look" yet.
One Day at a Time: Happy New Year (1976)
One number is worth the price of admission
Back when there was no cable, just about every network show did a Christmas show either the week before or after Christmas. Many of them were quite forgettable, but 41 years later I still remember this one. In 1976 "One Day at a Time" did an episode that was basically a variety show, put on by the characters, for a retirement home.
I was a freshman in college at the time and I remember this one all these years later for just one number - Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli performing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" dressed up as Elton John and Kiki Dee. That was one of the popular rock tunes of 1976. There are pieces of the episode on youtube including that number, which was done quite well.
The weird part about all of this is that Jerry Perenchio, Norman Lear's business partner, was partly responsible for bringing Elton John to the United States. Norman Lear was the creator and producer of One Day at a Time. Season one of this show is on DVD, but season two did not make it, so as far as I know there is no way to get a complete copy of the episode unless you know somebody with one of the earliest VCRs who taped it and retains a working copy.
If you get a chance to see it, it is definitely a blast from the past.
Family Plot (1976)
quite enjoyable and comical
This last Hitchcock film may seem out of step with all of the others, but then it has to be. The sexual/cultural revolution is over. The cynical 70s are in full swing. You can't just insinuate "the act" anymore and cut to the seashore.
Into this environment comes "Family Plot". It is basically two sets of crimes, one minor and one major, hitting an intersection with one group of criminals having no idea what the other group is up to.
Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is a fake psychic. She has her cabbie boyfriend get information for her based on the hints she gets from the séances. In this case a wealthy woman, Julia Rainbird, claims her sister's spirit and her own conscience torment her because in 1933 she made her sister put her illegitimate child up for adoption because of the scandal that would have occurred given the conventions of the times. Nobody knows what happened to him since the adoption was closed. Now Julia Rainbird, in her old age, wants to accept her nephew into the family and leave the entire estate to him. There is 10K in it for Blanche if she can find him.
What Blanche and cabbie lover George (Bruce Dern) don't know is that the long lost heir is basically Lex Luther with hair - William Devane as Arthur Adamson, a true sociopath who loves thumbing his nose at conventions and loves crime. Together he and his girlfriend, Fran (Karen Black) kidnap wealthy people in exchange for jewels. Adamson has a legitimate business as a jeweler as a front.
The misunderstandings come in when Adamson discovers that somebody is digging into his past, specifically his faked death which was a cover for the murder of his adoptive parents back in 1950. Blanche and George can't figure out why they would be getting attempts on their life. Adamson has no idea of his true identity and has no idea why these two amateurs are trying to find him, figuring it has either to do with his current kidnappings or the past murder of his parents.
It all comes together in a suspenseful and comical way. I'll let you watch and find out how.
Blanche and George are a hilarious couple just perfect for 1975. In one scene, at the end of the day, she is basically ordering him to come inside the house and sexually service her. George replies she is wearing him out and he has to work tomorrow. She asks "what are you saving it for?". This is a long way from the stolen glances, passionate kisses, and hand holding in "Dial M For Murder", but this is a different time and they are just right for it.
Even at the end Hitchcock did know how to change with the times. I'd recommend it.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Excels as a Gothic exercise in atmosphere and dark humor
Director Tim Burton's elaborate take on Washington Irving's tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman doesn't have much in common with Irving but excels as a Gothic exercise in atmosphere and dark humor.
This rich visual feast demands a viewer's attention with its stunning photography and art direction, with countless memorably framed shots of 18th Century New York, with its foggy woods and small town cobblestone streets. Lurking about, too, of course, is the legendary Headless Horseman who seems to be collecting an increasingly large number of heads of his hapless victims.
This brings about the arrival of Crane, transformed by Burton from Disney's spindly school teacher of animation fame into an analytical would be Sherlock Holmes type detective. Only this detective is decidedly squeamish about blood (not to mention spiders) and, on at least one bloody occasion, will pass out. The role is an ideal showcase for Johnny Depp, whose Crane is both darkly handsome and a bit prissy. Depp is truly endearing in his part, an engagingly idiosyncratic individual who will eventually turn reluctant hero.
None of the rest of the cast, while capable, make much of an impression next to Depp. A few old timers occupy that cast, however, including Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and Martin Landau. However, Christopher Walken also appears, chillingly, in a significant role.
It's a shame, of course, that Burton's skills with narrative story telling are not nearly as effective as his flair for visual dramatics (as unquestionably impressive as the latter are here) and, as far as the story itself is concerned, the film is confused and falls a bit flat. Nor are the horror elements of the story all that horrifying, though this is a film in which the decapitations by the Horseman will keep the heads a rolling. Burton largely treats these moments of bloodshed and "terror" as darkly humorous more than anything else.
More than any of the special effects involving the Headless Horseman, what stays with me are Depp's performance and, particularly, the Gothic elegance of this production. That alone makes Sleepy Hollow well with the investment of a viewer's time.
Special Investigator (1936)
Special Investigator is not that special...
... because it basically throws just about every crime drama cliché and plot device from the 1930s into a bowl, mixes, and bakes until done, with one rather interesting exception which I will get to later.
Richard Dix is the titular "Special Investigator", but first he is a defense attorney for guilty gangsters, Bill Fenwick. He gets the big checks from the acquitted gangsters, he has the stereotypical bleached blonde "moll" type for a girlfriend covered in furs, and he has a little brother who is a Fed. Little brother George comes into Bill's spacious office right before he is to be part of a raid to get Bill to see the light of what he is doing by putting crooks back on the street. Then George goes right out and gets killed by 'Eddie' Selton (J. Carrol Naish) in that raid. The gangsters fought back with everything they had because they had half a million in gold bullion.
His brother's death at the hands of Selton, recently acquitted of a murder charge due to the efforts of a lawyer just like himself makes him abandon his profession. He wants to join up with the Feds and help then grab the criminal responsible for George's death, but the question is where? That question is answered, oddly enough, by the criminal he just got acquitted who considers Bill a friend of his. He says that gold is not a good commodity. You can't ship it, you can't use it to buy anything. He says the only way you could ever get your money back would be to turn it into ore from a fake mine. This is the one interesting plot device I was talking about as I don't think I have ever seen this trick employed before.
So Bill does join up with the Feds and poses as a new small town lawyer near a mine that has recently struck gold owned by a bunch of outsiders that the locals had never seen before. But he needs to get inside that carefully guarded mine to figure out if it is indeed Selton's gang trying to launder their bullion. He finds a few excuses in the person of a female visitor to the ranch with whom he hits it off. She happens to be Eddie Selton's sister who has shown up concerned about her brother's health since he was wounded in the shootout with the Feds back in Chicago. Bill does not know she is Selton's sister, and she doesn't know this small time lawyer is in fact an undercover Fed. Yet they genuinely fall for one another.
In another subplot, the trigger happy meathead members of Selton's gang do not comprehend the word "subtlety" when dealing with the locals and are starting to think they don't need Selton after all, especially with him bed ridden.
How will this all work out? Watch and find out.
It's interesting to watch everybody going to Reno for their nightlife since Las Vegas won't even be started until after WWII. It is also interesting to see this "gold problem" among thieves in a western environment. It had only been two years before that gold coins went out of circulation.
I'd watch this one for Richard Dix who is a versatile actor who can play mouthpiece, special fed officer, and greenhorn lawyer all with great style. Honorable mention has to go to Erik Rhodes as Benny Gray, the guy Bill got acquitted in the first part of the film. He'd be a great guy if he wasn't a gangster. It's a departure from his parts as the comic relief in the Fred and Ginger films.
Cover Up (1949)
An interesting mystery with a few odd plot devices
Shortly before Christmas the most hated citizen in a small town dies by gunshot wound, declared by the law to be a suicide. Into town comes insurance investigator Sam Donovan (Dennis O'Keefe) to investigate the death and see if all loose ends are tied up since the deceased has a 20K life insurance policy - about 200K in today's money. Nothing could be less conclusive than this investigation. When Sam goes to talk to the town sheriff and ask about the weapon, the sheriff (William Bendix) says it is missing. When Sam asks about the bullets that killed him, the sheriff says the coroner left them in the deceased since it was obvious what killed him and how he died. Only when Sam threatens to get a court order does the sheriff produce the bullets.
In other words, if the sheriff was trying to deflect suspicion of this being anything but a suicide his obvious lies and stonewalling has had the expected opposite effect. In fact everybody in town is stonewalling Sam. Thinking this could be murder, Sam continues to dig, and continues to get furtive glances and obvious lies from everybody in the town. It also turns out that the deceased was just plain mean and everybody from the sheriff on down had a motive to kill him. Meanwhile Sam is having a serious romance with the daughter of the town banker who also had a motive to kill the insured.
What are the odd devices in this film? The hated deceased/insured guy is never seen. He is dead before the film begins and we never see him in flashback. There is another character who turns out to be important to the plot who is never seen - the town doctor who was out of town but has a heart attack shortly after returning who is talked about in the most glowing of terms by everybody. Again - never seen in live action or flashback.
So we have a death that may be murder against the backdrop of a small town Christmas post-war, the descriptions by the townspeople of two dead people who seem to have had opposite personalities but whom we never see for ourselves, and all of the townspeople acting like pod people when it comes to stonewalling the investigation, including the sheriff who is so obvious that he creates doubt rather than eliminates it. And why does the insurance company let their guy even try to prove it is murder when they will have to pay out double if it is? A reason is given, but I don't buy it, not even from corporations sixty years ago.
Watch this one if you can. It certainly will keep you interested and guessing.