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Calamity Jane (1963)
Carol Burnett and cast of Broadway stalwarts almost save silly show
The 1953 Doris Day movie CALAMITY JANE with its essentially second rate Sammy Fain/Frances Webster score is one of the most famous "closeted" westerns around - with many feeling Day was pretending not to play a lesbian heroine thanks to a non-credible "love interest" tacked on with Howard Keel for the 50's middle America audience.
A decade later (12November1963) CBS television capitalized on the popularity of singing comedienne Carol Burnett with a 90 minute remake stocked with strong Broadway performers (a slightly over-the-hill Art Lund from Frank Loesser's MOST HAPPY FELLA as Bill Hickock, comedian Bernie West of Julie Styne's BELLS ARE RINGING as saloon keeper Henry Miller, Don Chastain of Richard Rodgers' NO STRINGS as secondary love interest Lt. Gilmartin and Cathryn Damon of John Kander's A FAMILY AFFAIR and soon to be in his FLORA THE RED MENACE - probably best known for the Off-Broadway revival of Rodgers' THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE as the illusive feminine ideal, Adelaide Adams). Those who enjoyed them here should check out their Cast Albums in better shows! The excellent Katie Brown as the comic maid mistaken for Ms. Adams does not have significant Broadway credits but her voice is indistinguishable from ANNIE's great "Miss Hannigan" (a role Ms. Burnett would play in films) Dorothy Loudon!
This TV movie essentially tracks the earlier color film and shoehorns in most of the songs - including a couple ("Whip Crack-a-Way" and "Once I Had A Secret Love") which had passing popularity when first exposed in the film. The TV kinescope making the rounds (to my knowledge it has never been formally issued on home video) has the commercials from sponsors Lipton Tea and Monsanto, and only credits for the score's composer or lyricist in the crawl at the very end - apparently supplying a few songs for popular Disney animated films like PETER PAN and others didn't rate with the TV producers like Broadway "names" with bigger hits. It's a pity because, while undeniably second tier, the score is consistently enjoyable. The silly "Woman's Touch" sounds like something written for that Disney PETER PAN! It's also interesting in that final crawl that the TV production was based on a "Stage Adaptation" by Charles K. Freeman and orchestrations by the great Philip L. Lang! Both apparently are still available through Tams-Witmark. It gets done from time to time.
Ironically, Carol Burnett's broad comedy as the "tomboy" Calamity - even with her breast-emphasizing costumes - removes any sex or even any closeted sexual innuendo from the production. This despite the pass made at a clueless Calamity by a chorus girl back stage in Chicago where she is looking for Adelaide Adams and the hysterical fit thrown by the undressed maid when she mistakes Calamity for a man (or even the maid deciding to move IN with Calamity when they get back to their western town!).
The musical show remains less than top tier entertainment, but worth the time for stage-star gazing and die hard Carol Burnett fans. The production values are high for a 60's TV musical and this was the main musical offering Burnett was involved in between her star-making triumph in Mary Rodgers' ONCE UPON A MATTRESS and the initially smash star turn in Julie Styne's FADE OUT FADE IN (which ended her initial Broadway career when she walked away from it for her TV career - leading to threatened suits and a lost arbitration with her own union).
The romantic denouements in CALAMITY JANE remain totally 60's sexist and foolishly unbelievable, but suspend disbelief and you'll have fun. In many ways it's more enjoyable than the original film.
Old English (1930)
A master class in an earlier generation's stage craft
OLD English and especially the tour de force performance of George Arliss in his final original role for the Broadway stage, is here meticulously preserved, if in slightly truncated form, for a grateful nation (the film was a major hit in its day, confirming a distinguished film career for the aging Arliss) by Warner Brothers' Vitaphone film department as the movies started to talk in earnest.
Of course Arliss' transition from stage to film can be accused by 21st Century "know-it-alls" as being too much a filmed stage play as Arliss, playing a shipping magnate nearing the end of his life cuts questionable deals to make sure the family of an illegitimate son from earlier in his life is left well provided for (and some folk claim this story is somehow "dated"?!?). That very faithfulness to the origins in Galsworthy's stage play was one of the film's major virtues when made, and whatever performance technique Arliss displays that children today may find "arch," in 1930 was a virtual masterclass in carefully crafted subtlety compared to the acting style which dominated the time on stage and screen - hence Arliss' major, well earned - and well remembered even today among the genuinely knowledgeable - film stardom from 1921 to 1937 when he deigned to commute in from his London home.
While Arliss' 25 films are today not particularly well distributed because of the changing tastes of the times, there are three PAGES of them listed on DVD on Amazon at this writing, every one of them worth considering! Galsworthy's "The Forsythe Saga" would be a massive hit twice for the BBC and PBS television many years later trading on the same cultural values - but it was free on TV and the remake was in color, yet it never achieved the classic status that OLD English on stage and film held for over a decade in the 20's and 30's.
This beautiful document in a must-see for any serious student of the modern stage and early film; while probably not for the pseudo-film fan or latter day dilettante who expects car chases, sex and explosions as their "entertainment," it is required viewing for those who thus far only know Mr. Arliss for his justly famous (and Oscar winning) interpretation of DISRAELI the year before, repeating one of his most famous stage roles for the SECOND time on screen!
One of the most important "lost" films to seek out!
This last year (2015-16) has been a remarkable year for finding films previously thought "lost": not only have the original William Gillette SHERLOCK HOLMES (a 1916 masterpiece) and the 70's Othello rock opera CATCH MY SOUL resurfaced and been issued on Bluray, but the long ignored kinescope of the original broadcast of Mary Martin in PETER PAN (SO much more exciting than the 1960 videotape) has seen formal issue! In that atmosphere, the October 1915 SAPHO has to rank as one of the top two or three "lost" films historians long to see re-discovered (along with the 1932 G. Bernard Shaw ARMS AND THE MAN - lost when GBS declined to renew the 5 year license on the underlying play because sound technology in film had advanced so far by 1937 that it felt "archaic" - and the 1912 short on the TITANIC filmed with one of the survivors a month after the tragedy).
SAPHO was clearly a subject which resonated with film makers at the start of the last century; no less than six films in the last years of silent film and the earliest years of sound were built around the legend of the Greek poetess who continues to inspire despite the vast majority of her work having been effectively purged by a combination of time and censorious early Popes.
The value of and desire for THIS rediscovered SAPHO is hardly limited to the desire to see the leading lady, Florence Roberts, a diva of the touring stage and pioneer woman manager as another reviewer suggests - but even more so as one of only two records (the other was a 1919 short, AN HONORABLE CAD, made for the Stage Women's War Relief Fund shortly before his death) of one of Broadway's great leading men at the beginning of the last century, Shelley Hull (brother of Henry TOBACCO ROAD Hull and husband of Josephine ARSENIC AND OLD LACE/SOLID GOLD CADILLAC Hull!) who not only starred in the first play to win a Pulitzer Prize (WHY MARRY?) but at only 34 ended his bountiful, hit laden and all too brief career in the middle of another major hit run (UNDER ORDERS) when he died suddenly in the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic!
Here's hoping SOMEONE can find a print of this work. It was important work from people film aficionados and historians need to see.
The Sea Ghost (1931)
Worth while "B" movie from early sound era
There certainly was a fascination with submarine films between the wars! Even such distinguished actors as the great Charles Laughton made his U.S. film debut in one of them (THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP) opposite Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant set in one of those ubiquitous North African submarine bases!
This effort with the great Laura LaPlante (here with a remarkably modern look - the basic hairstyle Angela Lansbury assumed for MAME - but probably best known for her role as "Magnolia" in the first film of SHOW BOAT in 1929) and Alan Hale (the spitting image of his son, the skipper of the Minnow wrecked on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) is the somewhat silly tale of a crooked attorney in the old fashioned melodramatic mustache twirling villainous person of Clarence Wilson (you'll recognize him in dozens of films from THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER CASE to THE FRONT PAGE!) trying to either cheat Ms. LaPlante out of what may be her legitimate inheritance or marry her, but in a bid for a remarkably sophisticated approach for 1931, everyone including Ms. LaPlante is given a dark underside or at least more than a single motive or back-story! The director keeps the action swirling at a highly pleasant pace once the crew gets back to shore after retrieving the two conflicting wills which may or may not disinherit Ms. LaPlante, but getting there, with the only actual submarine involvement in the picture - early on the actual U-67 is shown in real life WWI footage (possibly added for the 1939 re-release?) and is supposed to have sunk the "Altania" on which the wills were - the going can be a bit slow.
Also on board are another attorney - a British chap (Claude Allister, a refuge from BULLDOG DRUMMOND who hung around long enough to play the butler, Paul, in KISS ME KATE!) not representing anyone but somewhat strained comic relief, but handy to throw Mr. Hale a life line or two when he needs one - and the German u-boat commander who sank the Altania (Peter Erkelenz, who may actually give the best performance in the film) who turns out not to be the villain Hale expects. The film lays this on a bit thick - not being content to show him as a professional doing his wartime job, but adding yet one more final piece of irony to the film - but over all, whether screened as THE SEA GHOST or U67, this minor studio effort (Peerless Pictures - distributed by at least a dozen different companies including Astor Pictures for the 1939 re-release) tries to be more than your average "B" picture and occasionally succeeds.
Love Begins at Twenty (1936)
Bette Davis B'way vehicle (BROKEN DISHES) survives Hollywood
Say the name Bumpsted to movie goers today and they'll almost certainly think of Blondie and Dagwood BUMSTEAD of comic strip (and 1930's and 40's movie) fame. That may, in part explain the character name change in the central family ("Gillingwater" in the film) at the heart of the charming comedy expanded (and contracted) from Marvin Flavin's Broadway comedy BROKEN DISHES (178p., 5Nov29-April1930 at the Ritz and Masque Theatres) best remembered today as the show Bette Davis opened the same night Noel Coward's BITTERSWEET opened elsewhere on Broadway dividing the critics' attention.
The story is otherwise well preserved of the henpecked father (a wonderful Hugh Herbert) and his loyal daughter (Patricia Ellis in the Bette Davis role) overcoming the ghost of a past favored suitor of MRS. Gillingwater and marrying the daughter to her beloved (a handsome Warren Hull - not favored by her mother) for a generally predictable but happy ending. For a "programmer" - hour long film cranked out to fill studio owned movie houses - the piece is surprisingly well filmed and never lags. There's even a brief but exciting car chase scene in the middle of the well observed family comedy! All the touches which no one thought about at the time but made for what movie audiences accepted as NORMAL home life of the period make LOVE BEGINS AT TWENTY a fascinating glimpse of life in America in 1936. The film title is difficult to explain except that it must have sounded appealingly commercial in 1936 (and BROKEN DISHES, which was more plot related, sounded too much like a drama!).
Anyone looking for a 21st Century comedy will find themselves somewhat at sea watching LOVE BEGINS AT TWENTY, but for expert performances by the kind of repertory players and writers (the pre-blacklist Dalton Trumbo script is close to flawless) which made the height of the studio system such a reliable source of middle brow universal entertainment before being destroyed by right wing politics and well meaning anti-trust actions after WWII. One of star Hugh Herbert's best performances alone makes LOVE BEGINS AT TWENTY well worth giving a watch.
Maybe It's Love (1935)
Charming Slice of 1930's life from early Maxwell Anderson Play
MAYBE IT'S LOVE, a 1935 programmer, was taken from Maxwell Anderson's early success SATURDAY'S CHILDREN which starred Ruth Gordon and (late in the run) Humphrey Bogart at the Booth and Forrest Theatres for 326 performances from 26Jan1927 to April1928. The resemblance of the film's "Rims," Ross Alexander, to the very young Bogart is a delightful plus to a film possibly best remembered today as a vehicle for the young Gloria Stuart - of TITANIC fame late in life as Alexander's love interest.
Given the play's success - establishing Maxwell Anderson's reputation on Broadway - it is remarkable that it took this many years into the sound era for Warner Brothers to get around to using it as grist for their mill (changing the title and the character names along the way as if to disguise the origins). For a plot (up and coming boy and boss's handsome son wrangle over the affections of boss's secretary set against the background of the secretary's parents and meddling sister) which remains mild even after the ministrations of the usual crew of three Hollywood screenwriters, there are a bountiful hour (and three minute)'s charm, banter and surprises.
Don't expect a 21st Century comedy, but as a fairly honest portrait of a bygone era when Saturday wasn't a day off but a standard half day, with classic performances from the Warner Brothers' stock company (comedians like Frank McHugh and Henry Travers) and the ghost of a pre-Hollywood Bogart performance, MAYBE IT'S LOVE is hard to beat.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Is to Heinlein what film of I Robot is to Asimov
"Tweens" who thirst more for bright colored if shallow action/battle scenes and the occasional (you should pardon the expression) flashes of skin in their sci-fi rather than actual battles of wits and ideas should have a bright shallow good time at Paul Verhoeven's attempt to make Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile page-turner into a 90's genre action satire.
STARSHIP TROOPERS was one of Heinlein's few pieces of speculative fiction in which he let his 1920's naval officer persona (a promising engineering career was cut short by medical problems - TB? - more than a decade before Pearl Harbor) with its predictably pre-fascist presumptions creep through his usually more disciplined analytical facilities. The "red scare" years of the 1950's and the wave of early xenophobic science fiction that it engendered spawned the novel but couldn't make it filmable, at least then, but the more cynical (not to mention sexually open) 1990's made the idea of treating it as an enormous satire seem tempting. The only problem being the utter uncertainty what it was the film maker was attempting to satirize; Reagan era "might makes right" national policy? Overzealous military apologists, recruiters and trainers? It's difficult to tell from the film director Verhoeven made if he was satirizing or promoting these ideas, which may have limited the film's commercial success. It's pretty clear that in his original novel, Heinlein was promoting them.
Perhaps Verhoeven was aiming at the then recent wave of Jean-Claude Van Damme exploitation films. Pretty boy Casper Van Dien as the high school football hero incompetent in any other role who miraculously becomes a successful military leader bears more than a passing resemblance to Van Damme's 1992 UNIVERSAL SOLDIER...right down to the requisitely kinky stripped-to-the-waist flogging scene. That really may be the only way this big budget CGI extravaganza makes sense. The ridiculously imposed "happy ending" certainly doesn't. The film might have been a bit more believable had it been told from the "Bugs'" perspective (as presented, can anyone really believe they could be defeated short of an inter-galactic "Raid" commercial?).
Whatever its other virtues, STARSHIP troopers provided an interesting training ground for Neil Patrick Harris, the best actor in the cast, giving a performance as the "smart" classmate who winds up in a command position in military intelligence indistinguishable from that he would give years later in TV's "How I Met Your Mother."
All this lack of respect for Heinlien's novel and the film Verhoeven came up with notwithstanding, anyone not familiar with the later science fiction novels of the Nebula and Grand Master Award winning author should not be put off by this "one swallow" anymore than viewers of the spectacularly unfaithful film of Isaac Asimov's definitive "I Robot" compendium should be put off from that master's robot novels and short stories. The films simply are not representative. As Heinlein got older and he was less and less constricted by the right wing ethos he had grown up in - and his earliest publishers demanded - he posited some of the most challenging and forward thinking ideas of the science fiction and social universe, unburdened with the sexism, mindless racism and imperialism which one would have expected from a retired 1920's naval officer.
Even in its worst shallows, this brightly filmed, excruciatingly silly STARSHIP TROOPERS has hints of the challenges Heinlein would later toss up for readers. It makes one wish a first tier director would tackle some of the writer's later, greater works.
Hints of Heinlein's lack of sexism were at least honored by director Verhoeven in his insisting on a universe where men and women serve and shower together in a military which accepts that disciplined soldiers seeing each other naked will not automatically result in their raping each other. Viewers familiar with Heinlein's work (especially his "Time Enough For Love" and "Friday") may be amused that this film of STARSHIP TROOPERS, in order to create some "romantic interests," has transmuted one or two of the characters in Heinlein's all male cast into women. The entirely straight but imminently rational Heinlein might not have bothered to make the sex-change.
Lord Camber's Ladies (1932)
Fine performances by all but rare chance to see Lawrence
Gertrude Lawrence made all too few appearances on film despite her overwhelming stage stardom, and far too few comedies where she excelled (rather like America's great Tallulah Bankhead, perhaps best remembered today in one of her last roles, Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT). This was Lawrence's one time working with Hitchcock, but not as director, merely as producer. Lawrence, master of the light comedy and musical (the very young may know her thanks to cast albums as the original "Mrs. Anna" in Rodgers & Hammerstein's KING AND I at the end of her life), may best be remembered on film for her serious dramatic performance in Tennessee Williams' GLASS MENAGERIE.
The film, not formally released on home video, is well worth tracking down for her lighter performance as the doomed ex-vaudevillian wife of a Lord as well as those of top billed Gerald Du Maurier as her doctor, Benita Hume as the nurse accused of her murder and Nigel Bruce as her wayward husband. Possibly even more worth seeking out is the film made four years later which showed Lawrence at her glamorous best as the wife of an actor sharing the London stage with her as the title character and Desdimona in Shakespeare's Othello (MEN ARE NOT GODS also starring top billed Miriam Hopkins). Lawrence gets to sing in both films.
One can only hope that *someone* finds a print of the next film Lawrence made after this one - 1933's light comedy NO FUNNY BUSINESS - which co-starred a very young Laurence Olivier and Jill Esmond who had co-starred with Lawrence and Noel Coward two years earlier in Coward's PRIVATE LIVES in both London and New York! Wouldn't that be something to see!!
LORD CAMBER'S LADIES is drawn from H.A. Vachelli's 1915 London hit THE CASE OF LADY CAMBER which starred Mary Bolard in the disappointing 1917 Broadway run (48perf. at the Lyceum, 26March-19May), and that extra level of background may peak mystery fans' interest - seeing in this early depression era filming what a hit murder mystery looked like at the height of WWI. This is something of a must for serious theatre aficionados.
Angora Ranch (2006)
Surprisingly observant "indie"/amateur film
The comments of a number of other reviewers on this site on ANGORA RANCH are worth noting for the issues they raise with some accuracy while missing the greater point of this film which achieves a surprising amount of credibility and satisfaction if you're willing to go with it despite obvious technical shortcomings.
Yes, the fact that it is set in a small town in the state which these days sends the more outrageous bigots to Congress (and presidential primaries) than any other, yet which is unexpectedly accepting of the "exotics" (read gays) in its midst might be presumed to be a fantasy, yet in my experience it DOES happen (and the smaller the town the more likely).
Similarly, the appeal of a thin, fit, handsome older man for another man young enough to be his son would ALSO likely be presumed to be a fantasy to those of limited experience, but the best marriage I know of (although admittedly between two straight people) was a second marriage of 30+ years duration where the bride was younger than her husband's youngest daughter. I've been with my own partner of 33 years (husband of 3) for all these years despite his being 7 years younger than I (we're BOTH woefully out of shape). He still claims I was standing in the way of the man he was really cruising that first night, but he did make the first move.
These presumed fantasies reflect the real world better than many children composing other reviews might suppose and the writing in this film sets these and other issues (the handling of the possible onset of Alzheimer's in a parent or the revelation of a distant parent's own personal secrets) with surprising sophistication and even grace.
As has been noted elsewhere, this film is an early (first?) effort of a group of Texas film makers with a modicum of talent, a high degree of ambition and a remarkable amount of drive. It was shot and marketed digitally on a literal shoestring with a budget smaller than many first rate urban film schools might be able to provide. The budget and lack of experience does show, but if one goes into viewing it understanding that, it may even add to the surprise of the film's ultimate emotional success.
The level of acting from the available cast (the writer/director Paul Bright as the owner of the titular ranch, and his partner/screen father Tim Jones, excepted - they are good by any standard) is not going to be breaking down agent doors for most of those involved, but it should be acknowledged that the actual lead of the film, Thomas Romano as the young advertising agent, gives a performance of considerable more polish than several eventual stars in their first professional outings (does the line "Yonder lies de house of me fadder" ring any bells?).
By the standards of a film intended for merely Festival release and then "straight to video," my "Four Stars" may even be on the conservative side. ANGORA RANCH is not a polished professional release, but it is a decent story remarkably well told under the circumstances and worth checking out if there's nothing more pressing on your schedule. I'd even like to see more from Mr. Bright.
Harbinger Down (2015)
Effective but unfulfilling remake of classic B-movie thriller
If people must keep remaking the iconic 1951 THE THING (...From Another World, from the John W. Campbell short story "Who Goes There?")- and people do seem to insist on doing that - the only effective way to do it is the way the RKO original did: to remove all the close-ups of the "monster" or their modern day CGI equivalents and let the viewers' imaginations supply the chills in classic B-movie fashion.
Writer/Director Alec Gillis seems to have understood this perfectly in his low budget but effective HARBINGER DOWN, which cuts right to the chase with his ANDROMEDA STRAIN inspired premise, setting up the origin if his particular "Thing" and then leaps forward 50 years in time to the ice bound body of his creepy tragedy. Cinematicly, Gillis gets maximum "bang for his buck," and the film's dark colors wrap the viewer in the desired cocoon of depression, mistrust and fear from the moment we board the crumbling "crabbing trawler" which has agreed to take on board a gaggle of graduate students (the team includes the daughter of a former partner of the boat's master) seeking to explore the effect of climate change on marine life - to give the film some modern validity - until the inevitable final rescue of a survivor "to tell the tale." The atmosphere is so strong that we ignore the incongruity of a martinet master allowing his ship to become so far from the "spit and polish" state which would keep it at peak efficiency (it wouldn't help the requisite creepy spirit of the film any more than brighter lighting would have). This kind of film is ALL about atmosphere.
Your rating may be higher than the five stars I give HARBINGER DOWN if you don't ask a horror film to do more than scare you with predictable regularity, but I'm inclined to feel that a good film of any genre has to justify its story on some deeper level. The audience should come away with something more than just the memory of some effective but passing chills. This HARBINGER DOWN, while effective at what it apparently sets out to do, offers nothing of value beyond temporary stimulation of a few lesser glands (isn't that one judicial definition of pornography?). No message of ecological ideals or scientific responsibility. No couching of scientific fact for broader consumption. Nothing, in fact, to make the film as memorable as the quality of the film making makes one wish it was, hence my lower rating.