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Prince of Players (1955)
An offbeat film
Prince of Players is an offbeat film which did not do well at the box office when it was released. However, I think it's a must for Richard Burton fans and for those interested in Shakespearean acting. The movie interweaves the story of the Booth acting family and scenes from the Shakespeare plays they performed.
The father in the Booth clan, Junius Brutus Booth (Raymond Massey) was a noted Shakespearean actor, but he was also a drunkard. Massey is on screen too little, but he does get to do Prospero's great speech "Our revels now are ended" from The Tempest. Both Junius Brutus and his daughter Asia (Elizabeth Sellars) believe in the talents of his handsome younger son John Wilkes Booth (John Derek), but the genuinely talented actor is his son Edwin (Richard Burton). Unfortunately, Edwin also inherited his father's tendency to alcoholism. According to the film, because John Wilkes achieves greater fame in the South, he favors the Southern cause during the Civil War.
Edwin also finds love with a young actress in his company (Maggie McNamara), but her health is not strong. Charles Bickford plays a sympathetic theater producer who becomes a friend and mentor to the Booth family.
Shakespearean scenes: John Derek plays a snippet of one of Petruchio's early scenes from The Taming of the Shrew, and this demonstrates why John Wilkes was nowhere near the actor his brother was. I don't think Derek is deliberately trying to do a poor job, but Shakespeare isn't his strength, nor does Maggie McNamara make a particularly effective Juliet in her scenes with Burton as Romeo. Raymond Massey speaks the words of Shakespeare quite wonderfully. Richard Burton was considered the Hamlet of his generation, and we get to see him playing Edwin Booth as Hamlet, Romeo, and Richard III. In his pre-Liz years Burton was a first-class actor, and he makes the familiar "To be or not to be" seem fresh and deeply felt. As an added bonus, we get to see him play a scene as Hamlet opposite Eva Le Gallienne as Gertrude.
Both John Derek and Maggie McNamara are quite good in their non-Shakespearean scenes. Derek makes John Wilkes Booth a dashing, charismatic, and narcissistic figure, and McNamara brings sweetness and pathos to her scenes as Burton's ailing wife. Elizabeth Sellars also does justice to the complex figure of Asia, emotionally close to her brother John, but horrified by his actions.
Arguably, Prince of Players might have been better had it devoted more time to the Booth family dynamics and a bit less to the Shakespearean scenes, but those scenes provide it with much of its interest. Philip Dunne is better known as a writer than a director, and a stronger director might have made a stronger film, but I won't complain about the actors and the language being put front and center.
Jungle Cat (1959)
More jungle than cat
I give it a high rating considering that Disney was a pioneer in nature films as family entertainment. Decades before the Discovery Channel, Disney and his filmmakers were winning awards for these films. Cinematography has come a long way in the ensuing 58 years, but this film captures close ups and action shots of the wildlife without giving the viewer headaches. Just compare anything Disney did in the 40s and 50s to the entertaining 1974 nature film "Animals are Beautiful People". I loved the jokes, but I hated the headache I got from the blurred photography that simply could not keep up with the motion of the animals. Now back to the story.
The film's main focus is a spotted female jaguar living in the South American jungle who chooses a black male jaguar as a mate and produces two cubs - one being identical to dad and one identical to mom. They are portrayed as being a family unit throughout the film, probably to humanize them so people could relate, even though jaguars actually separate after mating.
To supplement the footage of the jaguars, there is a discussion of many of the animals living in this ecosystem including the otter, the capybara ( a rodent), the monkeys - who are vegetarians and live in the treetops - who tease the sloth, and the tapir, which is a favorite prey of the jaguar. It is these other animals who, though fascinating, act as filler for the story of the jungle cat. The finale of the film shows the adult male jaguar in a face off with a giant boa constrictor, and where they fight very definitely determines the outcome of the battle.
I'd recommend this one as it is still entertaining today both in its form and substance.
Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)
Half fast-paced comedy, half melodrama
The first half of this film is a fast-paced comedy that seems to have promise. The story has Don Ameche as director Mike Conners, who spots Molly Hayden (Alice Faye) one day and thinks this great beauty could be a big star. He signs her to a contract and she is set to make her debut in a dramatic film. However, Buster Keaton is on the set, cast as Molly's romantic interest in the film. He hurls a custard pie at her and a food fight ensues. Mike has discovered a new form of cinema - slapstick comedy. Molly is his big star, but he is ignoring her personally. At the point where he decides to make Molly a big dramatic actress instead of a comedian, the film also goes from comedy to melodrama. It's not that the movie is bad drama, it's just after the humorous first half I was hoping for more of a humorous second half.
This film is also notable for Buster Keaton's first appearance in an American-made feature film after he was fired from MGM in 1933. The intensity of Buster's pie attack on Alice Faye was quite a surprise to her. After the scene was shot apparently she grabbed her own pie and chased Keaton quite a distance before he could finally outrun her.
The Letter (1940)
The production code versus production values
This 1940 version of the film was made eleven years after the first sound version, but for what the film had to give up due to the production code, it more than made up in production values that weren't even possible in the 1929 version.
The production code version of The Letter is the slow peeling of a woman's plea of self-defense against an attempted rape into the cold-blooded murder of a lover who has become bored with her. Yes Bette Davis' Leslie Crosbie is peeled like an onion, but no tears are necessary.
Everyone fawns and gushes over Leslie and her plight of being arrested for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. The only one NOT falling all over himself over her is her lawyer. Howard Joyce (played by James Stephenson) has a rather cold, hard look like a leading man worthy of acting opposite the Warner Queen. He stands toe to toe with her. He asks questions that cast just a slight doubt as to the veracity of her story. He talks to the cop and asks him if attacking a woman sounds like Hammond's m.o. since he seemed to be a ladies' man. There's just enough doubt there give us pause.
I could talk about the lawyer's assistant who is intent on using blood money to subvert justice and rob an innocent husband, all so he can build his own law practice. Gale Sondegard's Eurasian widow never wanted the money, she just wanted the face off with Leslie. She has her own ideas of how to deal with her husband's death and it doesn't involve juries or blackmail. But, let's face it, Bette Davis owns this film. Slowly she reveals her true self and the truth of the events. Then she becomes the Legend we know her to be. She has a self-assured answer for everything until her lawyer brings up the letter. It's all in those Bette Davis eyes. She needs time to remember (to lie, she means). She faints when she runs out of excuses. Look at her tactic: she mentions how all of this will affect her husband. It's like a guy trying to get his wife to stay for the sake of the children. Her lawyer is her husband's close friend, and she correctly figures he'll do anything to protect the husband.
Now let's talk about Wyler's direction, particularly in that opening scene. Wyler could have used a series of cuts to show various aspects of the workers, but the flowing camera tells us that everything is connected together. It's almost like cause and effect. First the rubber tree, then those who work to harvest the trees, and only then the dramas of the owners. When you look at the film closely, you can't help but be impressed by Wyler's direction, which works hand in hand with Max Steiner's haunting score.
Now I'm also a big fan of the 1929 version of The Letter. But that film was made at the dawn of sound and is almost like this one in reverse. First the truth about Leslie Crosbie, then the subterfuge. In both cases her last words are the same - "With all my heart I still love the man I killed". But in this film it is the regret of a woman who realizes she is not good enough for her husband who loves and forgives her. In the 1929 version they are the words of a woman acquitted who is telling her bitter husband "If I am stuck with you, YOU are equally stuck with ME".
Watch this one. Over and over. You'll always catch something you missed before.
Private Screenings (1995)
Robert Osborne interviews film history...
...sometimes with unexpected results!
I'm giving this one a perfect score because I don't know how the well researched and empathetic host Mr. Osborne could have done a better job both of selecting and interviewing guests.
In all, there were 28 episodes of "Private Screenings". The first 27 were interviews conducted by Mr. Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, over a 15 year period, 1995-2010. Mr. Osborne was truly a profile in courage to continue these interviews considering how two of the early ones went. The first one went well, and how could it not, with Robert Osborne's long time friend Jane Powell as the interviewee.
Two of the most famous, that did not go as planned were in the early years of the show. When Bob interviewed Bob Mitchum and Jane Russell, the extremely ill Mitchum stonewalled Bob at every turn. According to Bob, he was very chatty off camera and the minute they were on film he would give terse grouchy answers. Ms. Russell did her best to try to smooth over things, but I do think I remember Bob saying "I could have killed him.". I do know that Mitchum, sick with emphysema to the point he needed a nurse and an oxygen tank, would raise his hand every five minutes - to go outside and have a smoke! Stay away from the cancer sticks kids, they'll hook you beyond reason and get you in the end.
The other one was the following year, in 1997, with Mickey Rooney. Apparently Rooney got so caught up in a case of reminiscing about a dust up he had with the director of Killer McCoy that he got angry all over again, 50 years later. Rooney was so animated that Bob stayed perfectly still and perfectly silent. He said later that he wanted to smile to try and take some intensity out of the moment, but was truly afraid if he did that Rooney would hit him!
In 2000 Bob interviewed Betty Hutton, once famous Paramount star who had become so reclusive the TCM staff who knew who she was thought she was dead! Bob brought in some tapes of her past performances to familiarize the staff to her talent prior to the interview, and the actual interview was endearing. Bob put Hutton completely at ease so that she really opened up. Bob said later that he thinks that episode of Private Screenings was responsible for Hutton being remembered by many people to the point that her death seven years later made the front page of the New York Times .
The very last Private Screenings was Robert Osborne as the interviewee and his past Essentials cohost Alec Baldwin doing the interviewing. Their chemistry was awesome and illustrated why their years on The Essentials had, IMHO, some of the best discussions I've seen between Osborne and anybody else. It was part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the channel.
Even though Bob was active on the channel for the next two years before taking an extended hiatus from the channel due to his health, unfortunately never to return prior to his death, he never did another private screening episode.
It is hard to get a list in one place - even on this website! - of the Private Screenings episodes. I've put together the list for you. The years are correct, but the order within years in the case of multiple episodes within a year may be incorrect. TCM has a Private Screenings listed for Olivia De Haviland in 2014, but I cannot find confirmation that this interview ever happened. It might have been planned because Bob and Olivia were such good friends, calling one another once a week for years, but Mr. Osborne's health may have prevented it.
In reverse order: Robert Osborne (2014), Liza Minnelli (2010), Ernest Borgnine (2009), Walter Mirisch (2008), Norman Jewison (2007), Jane Fonda (2007), Stanley Donen (2006), Child Stars (2006) former child stars Margaret O'Brien, Jane Withers, Dickie Moore and Darryl Hickman, Angela Lansbury (2006), Sidney Lumet (2005), Lauren Bacall (2005), Patricia Neal (2004), Shirley MacLaine (2003), Debbie Reynolds (2002), James Garner (2001), Rod Steiger (2000), Betty Hutton (2000), Tony Curtis (1999), Leslie Caron (1999), Anthony Quinn (1999), June Allyson (1998), Lemon/Matthau (1998), Charlton Heston (1998), Ann Miller (1997), Mickey Rooney (1997), Robert Mitchum/Jane Russell (1996,) Esther Williams (1996), Jane Powell (1995)
Odd factoid - Jane Fonda was married to Ted Turner when he started TCM in 1994. They had been divorced for several years and TCM belonged to Warner Brothers by the time Bob interviewed her in 2007.
Inside Nazi Germany (1938)
Interesting if viewed back to back with "The Last Voices of WWI"
Together with that documentary, which talks about how much the British suffered during WWI, losing a generation of young men, this newsreel and the indifference it brought from the American government and business interests makes more sense.
The documentary talks about how Hitler did take Germany from the starvation that the rest of the world was suffering during the Great Depression and in five short years every worker has a job and hunger is gone. But at what cost? Wages are kept low so that industry has money to churn out as many arms as needed, food prices are kept high as the Nazis need farmers to be able to produce large amounts of food for the troops, every farmer must grow what he is told to grow, and no worker is allowed to strike. The German newspapers are full of stories of people freezing, starving, and rebelling in the streets in the U.S., and some of these stories may have been true in the depths of the Great Depression as the U.S. only could go as far as our democracy would let us, and even then Roosevelt was labeled a Communist for what he did do.
The short talks about how visitors will be surprised at how cheerful and relaxed the German people are, but then the narrator credits that not only to the recovery of the economy, but to the Nazi propaganda machine, and the "group think" that the Third Reich encouraged and actually exercised in German youth who were taught much about acting together, but whose school lessons kept critical thought to a minimum.
Precisely because Germany was so prosperous, the American captains of industry did not want to upset the apple cart - Hitler could have cut them off from trading in their economy with just a word. And because there had been so much seemingly pointless loss in WWI, politicians were afraid to once again point to Germany as the boogeyman. Note the large number of anti war films made from 1925 until up to 1939, including the ironically named "Idiot's Delight" from that latter year for examples of that.
I'd recommend this one. It is probably the best explanation you are going to get of life in Hitler's Germany before war actually broke out.
Double Door (1934)
When your fortune owns you rather than vice versa
The main character here is Mary Moore as Victoria Van Brent, the oldest sister and dominatrix in a family whose only remains are herself, younger sister Caroline, and baby brother Rip. They live together in an old creepy mansion full of reminders of the past but devoid of the present.
Victoria - age unspecified but clearly middle aged- always dresses in black, emotionally batters younger sister Caroline to the point where she is just a shadow of a human being, and has got baby brother Rip convinced that his late father is always looking down on him, and that his wishes are Victoria's wishes.
Let me straighten out one little matter. The synopsis says that the film is about Victoria threatening people with a secret torture chamber in the house. There isn't one, so if you are expecting Vic to go mad and don the red robe of the inquisitors and put somebody on the rack, then you will be sorely disappointed.
The film opens on Rip's wedding day to a "commoner" - a nurse named Ann. Her union to Rip will issue in new blood and life to the family. Victoria has her own idea as to who Rip should marry, and it isn't Ann, whom she assumes is after the family money.
Now this had me wondering, why did Victoria wait until AFTER the wedding to take any action to get rid of Ann? Wouldn't it have been easier if Rip was just beginning to see Ann to nip things in the bud? I guess Victoria figures she can get rid of Ann just as easily after she marries Rip as she could before. Now for a woman to never marry in 1910 - the time this film was set - was a big deal at that time. But Victoria doesn't seem to hate men, she just loves control. The family money just affords her that control. Marriage at the turn of the 20th century for a woman would mean ceding control, and she was not about to do that.
Victoria starts out with passive aggressive stuff to put a rift between Ann and Rip, but when that doesn't work, she turns to a more severe and permanent solution.
This film has great atmosphere, even if it is a bit claustrophobic. If it didn't say Paramount I'd swear it was a Universal horror with its secret panels and dark corridors. One funny thing about the film - you get a big dose of the thoughts and feelings of everybody in the cast except Victoria, who is the central character. Maybe this is to dehumanize her so the audience can look upon her as pure villain - I know I did.
One bit of trivia - This film was based on a play that was very loosely based on the wealthy Wendel family of 19th and early 20th century New York. The last generation -only the third in fact - consisted of one brother and seven sisters who never married. The brother ruled over the sisters with an iron fist, would not let them socialize or marry because he thought heirs would decentralize their fortune, and did not allow electricity or even a phone into the house. So they all lived together in gloom, prisoners of their wealth until the last sibling died in 1931 leaving a fortune worth 100 million in that day's money - two or three billion today. Ironically, with no direct heirs 2303 people came out of the wood work from all over the world claiming to be heirs including an entire village in Germany named Wendel and some actual distant cousins in Czechoslovakia. Eventually, just about every claim was disproven. However, brother John forgot one thing - if nobody knows what you HAVE been doing, then nobody knows what you HAVEN'T been doing either, thus there were many people among the fortune hunters claiming to be illegitimate children of the recluse siblings.
I'd recommend this old spooky film if it ever comes your way.
Robert Osborne - the luck of the Irish...
... and the patience of a saint, at least when he interviewed Robert Mitchum back in 1996 who just clammed up every time the camera rolled during Mitchum's private screening.
Turner Classic Movies has been rerunning some of the Private Screenings that Bob did over the years in which he interviewed various stars and directors in memoriam of his passing, and this time, in 2014, the tables were turned and three year Essentials co-host Alec Baldwin interviewed Robert.
Robert may have grown up in the small town of Colfax, Washington, but he seemed to be never of Colfax. He said he always had a passion for film, even breaking both arms changing a marquee there at a theater where he worked as a teen, and wanting to move to a big city as soon as he could.
He really lived a charmed life as far as lucky breaks went. Even his unlucky breaks were lucky. Case in point - He was in ROTC in college because that meant only a two year commitment to the armed forced after graduation, and he was actually looking forward to going overseas during his time in the service. Well everybody he knew DID go overseas except himself, stuck in Seattle. One of the people he met while doing plays in his off time there recognized him 20 years later on the Dinah Shore show when he was a guest talking about Oscar trivia and that led to his job at the Hollywood Reporter. That job, in turn, led him to New York City, the place he'd always wanted to be. While eating dinner with Dorothy Lamour and two other fellows, one who happened to be the head of AMC, the group began discussing movies, and the AMC executive was impressed with Bob's knowledge. The head of AMC eventually left that channel to go to TCM when it first started and asked Bob to be the prime time host of Turner Classic Movies. The rest is history.
Bob started out in the entertainment business as an actor. I know I was amused to see him in commercials buying beer, drinking beer (he went straight from soda to martinis as an adult he said, never cared for the stuff), selling insurance talking about building a retirement cabin in the woods - where he came from not where he was going, and acting in the short running soap opera "The Young Marrieds" which he said he found almost unendurably dull because of the repetitive nature of the material. As a contract player for Desilu it was another lucky break - his friendship with Lucille Ball - which set him on the path to writing about the entertainment industry rather than acting in it.
At the beginning of the interview Alec Baldwin asked Bob if his success was due to luck, charm, or talent. As Bob's story unwinds the truth is Bob really was on the receiving end of some lucky breaks as far as meeting people at the right time and place who could help his career, but the fact is that Robert Osborne would probably never have caught the attention of those people if not for his charm and talent. Mr. Baldwin alludes to that fact at the end of the interview.
The outtakes at the end pretty much confirmed what I always suspected - Alec Baldwin was probably Bob's favorite Essentials co-host. The outtakes revealed a good natured running battle over whether or not 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty was an essential and Bob blowing a kiss to Alec in response to one of his remarks.
An empathetic guy, a scholar, a lover of cheese (in food, not necessarily film), and a man who still missed his dog Schroeder decades after the dog's death. Truly a unique and class act has passed from this earth. Catch this interview if you can. As in all cases, me repeating what Robert Osborne said is not in the same league as hearing him say it himself. Hopefully TCM will put all of the Private Screenings Bob did out on DVD someday.
The Velvet Touch (1948)
Rosalind Russell shows her versatility here
The beginning of the film shows how Broadway actress Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell) came to accidentally kill her mentor, producer, and past lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames). Yes, he was threatening to tell her fiancé, architect Michael Morrell (Leo Genn) about their torrid affair - exaggerating if he had to - so he could keep her around professionally, but this is really a personal obsession in his case.
However, Dunning actually is assaulting her and physically refusing to let her leave his office by grabbing her. It's not a stretch to think someone as off balance as Dunning was at that moment could have been capable of rape. So technically Valerie was within her rights to strike him as hard as she had to in order to get away. It's just unfortunate that when she strikes him with his own award statue that she kills him.
If Valerie had called the police right then, chances are she would not have even been charged. But no, she simply leaves the office - it is late, long after her final performance of this particular show - and descends the theater staircase and escapes the scene undetected. The ace in the hole is that she always wears long gloves - an idea of Dunning's - so ironically Dunning has set up his killer to leave no fingerprints.
To make matters even easier on Valerie, a woman who loved Dunning before Valerie came along and took him away, Claire Trevor as Marian Webster, finds the body, picks up the statuette, and cries out in horror and loss over the body of the man she has always loved but who has not loved her in a very long time. She is suspect number one, tied down in a mental hospital.
Valerie can leave the scene and allow the law to make the obvious judgment that a jealous Marian killed Dunning, but she cannot leave her conscience behind.
Rosalind Russell is terrific as a woman who basically emotionally unravels ... until she settles on a course of action. Sydney Greenstreet is the police detective sent out to see if this case is as open and shut as it seems. He plays the role with elegant charm, and you never know if, like Columbo, he has suspected what really happened all along. Genn plays the fiancé who turns out to be more insightful than he has been putting on, and nobody plays the mistreated woman who won't let go no matter what like Claire Trevor.
The score does not reflect a noir or a crime drama, but the elegance of Broadway as it is portrayed here - the restaurants, the parties, the rehearsals, and the ornate theaters that are shrines to great architecture. I'd recommend this one.
The Woman on the Beach (1947)
Leonard Maltin HATES HATES HATES this movie...
... and only gives it 1.5/4. Well Mr. Maltin is like any other critic - a useful tool as to what might be good or bad, but in this case I strongly disagree. It walks on the wild side where most American films did not tread in 1947 unless you were making a full-out noir with people who lived on the underbelly of life.
But this film has an American coast guard officer suffering from PTSD from his wartime experiences as a protagonist (Robert Ryan as Scott), back before they knew what PTSD was and just called it shell shocked. Scott is engaged to marry machinist Eve (Nan Leslie), but then he runs into Peggy (Joan Bennett), who is collecting fire wood near a beached wrecked vessel while he is riding his horse on the beach one day.
He goes back to her beach house where she lives with her blinded husband, Tod (Charles Bickford), a great artist before his blindness, which was caused by some rough sex and broken glass??? with Peggy, so Peggy feels responsible and trapped and Tod likes it that way. Exactly HOW Peggy could accidentally do what she did is unexplained but insinuated, and I assume is completely explained in the novel from which the screenplay is adapted.
The point is, Tod knows Peggy is attracted to Scott, and he seems to enjoy toying with both of them at dinner, yet invites Scott to return to visit them. Peggy and Scott share their unhealthy obsession with past demons, and to Scott this is more attractive than healthy all American Eve. In fact, he fails to show up for their wedding with no explanation, no apology. She has to come to him to get anything close to "Gee whiz I'm sorry".
On top of Scott's PTSD, he becomes obsessed both with Peggy, who understands him and doesn't try to "fix" him and his belief that Tod is really not blind. You see, Scott knows Peggy will leave Tod if it can be proved Tod can see. Tod does seem to follow light, is adventurous in where he is willing to wander alone, and seems to be looking people in the eye when he could not if blind. Can Tod see, and how far is Scott willing to go to prove he can? Watch and find out.
Ryan is always good as the troubled complex soul - you'll never see him play Santa Claus in these old films, but at least you can understand his character. As for Charles Bickford? He was always a giant talent who let his bluntness and temper get in the way of his career. Here he uses that bluntness and temper in his performance. This is probably the biggest role he is in this late in his career, and his characterization of the enigmatic painter is terrific.
I recommend this experimental and odd little film.