Saturday, August 27, 2016

“And now it’s time for another special feature…”

Hello, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful.  Honest Ivan here again...but not to sell you anything.  When the DISH Austerity Program first went into effect in the House of Yesteryear, I was a little crabby…and I may have even whined a little.  (How do I know this?  Well, when about half a dozen people say to me “Will you stop whining, ferchrissake?” that’s a little hard to ignore.)  I had reached a point where I started to sound like Karl Swenson in The Birds: “It’s the end of the world!”

But a month into our whittled-down package…I’m beginning to think that Nietzsche guy was right.  I speculated that when I first announced the DISH news this experience might be a positive one for TDOY, in that such a removal of this distraction might provide the impetus for more prolific blogging.  At the risk of tooting my own piccolo, I have been en fuego in the month of August.  While the ‘rents search in anxiety for something with which to be entertained (Mom is so sick of Dad’s constant watching of MSNBC that I think she’s on board with Giant Meteor in November), I sit smugly in Count Comfy von Chair with my tablet, composing blog post after blog post.  I’m not going to lie to you.  Occasionally, when I get wind that a movie I wanted desperately to see is playing on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, I tear up a little.  But it passes quickly.

This post is going to serve as sort of a guide to the “new” Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—what you can expect in terms of content and such.  Not all of what I write about will appeal to everyone, so if you have an idea of what will appear on the blog on a daily basis you can plan your visits accordingly.  (In a perfect world, of course, you would not only read every utterance you would pledge complete and unwavering fealty to TDOY…but alas, we do not live in such a Utopian existence.)

Mondays – Book reviews.  Again, because I’m under oath—or am I?—I must truthfully admit the few times I reviewed a book here at TDOY in the past is when someone graciously sent me a free copy for the blog.  (No money exchanged hands, I cannot emphasize this enough.  It’s more “quo” than “quid”—if I may indulge in a little pun.)  In most cases, there were books that I paid for myself with TDOY funds simply because it was something I was excited about reading.  Since I invested in the new computer three years ago and it came equipped with Kindle. I have found that it’s relatively inexpensive to build an electronic library if you just keep an eye peeled for book bargains.  (BookBub is a great resource in giving you a heads-up on this.)  So I’m going to make a concerted effort to read more than I have previously (the Kindle allows me to effortlessly sit in Count von Comfy and accomplish this task), and we will see where that takes us.

Tuesdays – It was Todd at Sweet Freedom who first instituted “Overlooked Tuesdays” and in the beginning, I tried my darndest to structure TDOY so that movies that don’t always receive the greatest number of electrons here in the blogosphere would be featured on “Overlooked Films on Tuesdays.”  My track record for participating, sadly, was the very definition of “spotty”; I blame this on the fatigue and ennui I experienced after completing Serial Saturdays and Doris Day(s) on Mondays.  (More on this in a bit.)  Nevertheless, I have seen the light, brother, and am committed to making certain an overlooked motion picture gets its due on Tuesdays, be it an edition of “From the DVR” or “Grey Market Cinema.”

Wednesdays – If you’re going to place a bet in the pool of “Which feature will have the shortest shelf life at TDOY”, this might be the nominee that will pay off big time.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good shoot-‘em-up, it’s just that the number of economically-shot oaters in the Dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear Archives has diminished in recent years: many of my B-Westerns were relegated to the trash can (I decided about a year-and-a-half ago that I was going to stop recording movies at anything lower than SP speed) and the others wound up on the eBay runway.  I know I’ve got some on hand; it will just require my digging through a—what I call for lack of a better word—“pile” of DVD-R discs.  Still, B-Western Wednesdays is back with a vengeance, baby—so saddle up for some good ol’ rootin’-tootin’ fun (in memory of my dear departed Facebook compadre Lloyd Fonvielle).

Thursdays – Thursdays will be devoted to “silent cinema”; it can take the form of comedy shorts that I’ve acquired over the years (my recent review of Steve Massa’s Lame Brains and Lunatics no doubt inspired this) …or “On the Grapevine,” which spotlights DVDs purchased from Grapevine Video.  There may also be silent films both unknown and well-known tossed into the mix (discs purchased from Flicker Alley and Milestone Films).  And there may be an occasional “talkie” featured as well (I’ve socked away quite a few Alpha DVDs.).

Fridays – It’s Forgotten Noir Fridays!  (Don’t tell me you’ve relegated yesterday’s post to ancient history already.)  VCI Entertainment and Kit Parker Films’ acclaimed DVD series will be examined on a weekly basis, one movie at a time.  By the way, I made a lulu of a boo-boo yesterday in my review of I’ll Get You: according to friend of TDOY/film historian Richard M. Roberts, the Lippert film library was never “orphaned.”  “Robert Lippert Sr. sold the rights to those films to the Weiss Brothers in the early 60's, where Weiss Global International kept them in perpetual television syndication into the early 80's,” Richard wrote me in an e-mail.  “When Adrian Weiss passed away in the early 00's, the rights and materials to the Lipperts and all other surviving Weiss product was sold to Kit Parker, who has made them available ever since through VCI.”  I am so grateful that Richard is around to keep me honest.

I’ve made the decision that with the exception of an occasional post (like this one) or the announcement of swag to give away, weekends will be kind of quiet here at TDOY.  (Hey, I have book reports to write.)  Which means that Serial Saturdays will be retired (though I had two chapters left in The Black Widow—if I can locate the DVD I’ll try to wrap those up) and as for Doris Day(s)…well, again—a little honesty is in order.  I have to watch these episodes in order to transcribe the dialogue…and then a second time (I generally speed this up if I’m in a hurry) for the screen grabs.  I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude for this anymore (and my recent diabetes diagnosis doesn’t help, either—Doris is awful gooey at times).  Maybe if MeTV decides to add it to its schedule (I’ve seen the traffic for Mayberry Mondays shoot up since they started airing RFD reruns, and I think I thank them for that) I may apply some paddles but for now you’ll just have to settle for memories of Leroy B. Semple Simpson.  (Andrew “Grover” Leal keeps insisting I’ve lost the Doris DVDs…this is simply not true, though I sometimes wish it were.)

So there you have it: the new Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  (I feel like I just participated in a network upfront.)  Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and meet me back here Monday.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: I’ll Get You (1952)

In 2007, VCI Entertainment released the first of several DVDs in a series they chose to dub “Forgotten Noir”; the films featured were for the most part titles furnished by Kit Parker Films after KPF acquired much of the orphaned movie library of Lippert Pictures, an independent motion picture studio that operated between 1945 (when it was originally known as Screen Guild Productions) and 1955.  The movies were produced with an eye toward economy (read: “low-budget”), and while a good many of them rarely rose above programmer status a few releases stand-out; for example, Robert L. Lippert gave novice director Samuel Fuller his first opportunity to sit in the director’s chair with three films Sam also wrote: I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951).

The first of VCI’s “Forgotten Noir” releases was a double feature of Portland Exposé (1957) and They Were So Young (1955)—both of which I wrote up in a “Where’s That Been?” column at ClassicFlix.  After the “Forgotten” volumes were released individually, they were then bundled in a series of “Collector’s Sets”—three of which I purchased many, many moons ago and had planned to watch for the blog.  But those collections were eventually sacrificed in what I frequently refer to as The Great DVD Purge before I had the opportunity to free them from their shrink wrap prison.  (Not an uncommon occurrence here in the House of Yesteryear…which is why a lot of the discs that laid down their lives in the Purge were sold as brand-new.)  I later re-purchased Exposé/Young from another vendor around the end of 2014, and when VCI had a “flash sale” on the other “Forgotten” volumes I snapped those up quickly (I think only one of them wasn’t on sale, and I acquired that so as not to break up the sets).

So that’s a longwinded explanation of how TDOY’s newest regular feature came into being.  Our initial entry is I’ll Get You (1952—a.k.a. Escape Route), a cloak-and-dagger mellerdrammer with George Raft as Steve Rossi, one-half of a comedy duo that was quite popular in the 1960s.  No, hang on a sec…I’ve confused him with someone else.  Rossi is an FBI agent investigating the kidnappings of several scientists by a mysterious gang, who ship the eggheads off behind the Iron Curtain.  Rossi travels to Old Blighty to track down a man named Michael Grand (Clifford Evans), who apparently has knowledge of the organization’s activities.

To make certain Grand knows he’s in the country, Rossi slips past immigration upon his arrival at Heathrow, making himself a person of interest where Scotland Yard is concerned.  Rossi eventually comes into contact with British intelligence, who assigns an MI5 agent named Joan Miller (Sally Gray) as his keeper.  While the duo doggedly pursues Grand, they also fall in love…because movies is magic, ma chere.

In my ClassicFlix review of Portland Exposé and They Were So Young, I prefaced the piece by observing that many classic film fans are predisposed to label crime movies as “film noir” regardless of whether they actually conform to that particular style or not.  “Personally, I think the tent is big enough to encompass a wide range of crime films without getting bogged down in a tedious debate,” I wrote.  But I’m not all that convinced that I’ll Get You meets the criteria; I’d be a little more charitable if this film actually lived up to its title card hype (“IT’S LOADED…with searing, screaming, suspense!”).  I get the impression that the reason why George Raft has his mouth agape in surprise is because he’s finally recognized the farce his movie career has become.

I really, really, really wanted to like I’ll Get You.  There’s just one problem: it is dull.  Sweet baby carrots, is it tedious.  The filmmakers should have been brought up on charges of felony ennui…which, to be honest, would have made a much better noir when you think about it.  (And, really—if you can’t make an espionage movie exciting, perhaps you should pursue another line of work.)  The first twenty minutes of this movie literally consists of George Raft’s character stopping by various places and residences looking for the elusive Grand, and the always polite British apologizing that, sorry, they can’t assist him with his inquiries.  (There is a risible moment in the movie’s prologue, however, where the kidnappings of the scientists are filmed in the same fashion as a Monty Python sketch.)  I’ll Get You doesn’t really start to pick up speed until the halfway mark, and by the time you get to a moderately exciting climax with Raft and Evans duking it out on an elevator platform, chances are you’ll have forgotten why Raft was looking for him in the first place.

Star George Raft is mostly the reason why I’ll Get You is so boring.  George had to be one of the luckiest actors in the history of motion pictures.  He wasn’t particularly good at what he did for a living (very wooden and unconvincing), but he did have a knack for playing heavies (his finest hour might be 1939’s Each Dawn I Die) …which he didn’t want to do anymore, and so he left Warner Brothers in the early 40s to freelance.  For every success like Johnny Angel (1945) and Nocturne (1946) there were critical and box office duds like Nob Hill (1945) and Christmas Eve (1947), so by the 50s George’s stock in the film industry had taken quite a dip.  I’ll Get You was the second feature in a three-picture deal he inked with Lippert, preceded by Loan Shark (1952) and followed by The Man from Cairo (1953).  (Both of these movies are on “Forgotten Noir” sets, which means I’ll have to slog through them eventually—the trailer for Loan Shark looks promising, though.)

British actress Sally Gray is the other “big name” in I’ll Get You, best known for appearances in Green for Danger (1946) and The Hidden Room (1949—a.k.a. Obsession).  It’s Sally’s cinematic swan song, and while I’m tempted to speculate that having to fake romantic scenes with Raft (the two honestly have zero chemistry) is what scared her off from future appearances in front of a motion picture camera, she actually made the decision to retire on her own (she married into nobility as the wife of Dominick Geoffrey Edward Browne, the fourth Lord Oranmore).  There’s an unintentionally funny moment in I’ll Get You where Gray pulls a gun on Raft, and Raft tries to disarm her with a bit of malarkey: “You better be careful…you might hurt somebody…I knew of a couple of fellas one time…”

He lunges for the gun, and she quickly executes the old arm-behind-the-back maneuver.  “Go on about your friends, Mr. Rossi,” she says to him.  “What happened?”

“Never mind…it doesn’t matter,” he says in an “I-know-when-I’m-licked-fashion.”  I was hoping against hope that this movie wouldn’t resort to the usual romantic clichés…and in a small way, it really doesn’t since the romance between the two is most unconvincing.

Scripted by John V. Baines (with a dialogue assist from Nicholas Phipps), I’ll Get You was co-directed by Seymour Friedman—a name I recognized from a pair of Boston Blackie movies that I wrote up for the Radio Spirits blog (Trapped by Boston Blackie and Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture).  We’ll be hearing from Mr. Friedman again at this space, since a number of his efforts listed at the [always reliable] IMDb are also present and accounted for in future “Forgotten Noir” volumes.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Phat boys

In his book Lame Brains & Lunatics, film historian Steve Massa describes the comedic trio known as A Ton of Fun thusly: “{T]he idea being that if one fat guy was funny, then three would be a riot.”  The corpulent threesome was comprised of Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Hillard “Fatt” Karr, and Bill “Kewpie” Ross, with Alexander and Karr the silent comedy veterans. (Karr had a starring series of “Funny Fat Filbert” comedies for Josh Binney Comedies before moving on to Fox and then Universal; Alexander was a Mack Sennett veteran in addition to stops at Century and Vitagraph.  He then worked as a foil for Larry Semon for nearly a decade.)  From 1925 to 1928, the plus-sized mirthmakers appeared in thirty-six two-reel comedies for producer Joe Rock and his Standard Cinema Corporation.  (That’s why seeing “A Standard Comedy” at the bottom of some of the comedies’ title cards is often funnier than the content in those two-reelers.)

I sampled some of A Ton of Fun’s clowning this week in an Alpha Video Classics release available from entitled Three Fatties (the alternate name for the chubby trio).  The DVD box boasts that it’s an “exclusive collection of nine vintage shorts” which is a bit of an “expedient exaggeration,” to quote Cary Grant’s character from North by Northwest.  I’d seen two of the two-reelers previously in other collections: Heavy Love (1926) is available on the American Slapstick DVD, while Three of a Kind (1926) is among the many comedies spotlighted on Slapstick Encyclopedia.  Fatties does include the first Ton of Fun collaboration, Tailoring (1925)—and while I’ll freely admit I don’t have the inside skinny (sorry about that) on how Alpha decides which shorts will make their DVD’s final cut, they might have wanted to strike this from the list.  The print is in abysmal shape, so bad it’s a chore reading the title cards at times (which is a shame, since they actually provide a few laughs; one describes a character as so cheap he “fired a shot Christmas Eve and told his children Santa Claus committed suicide”).  Tailoring is a pretty incoherent affair with a Katzenjammer Kids vibe; one of the Fatties (the print is so bad I can’t tell which member it is) is made up to look like “The Captain” from that classic comic strip while the other two are dressed like overgrown children.

Massa describes the Ton of Fun comedies as “a clever and fun series” …though I think the jury is still out on the “clever” part.  He further observes that “[t]he usual format for the shorts consisted of putting the Fatties in situations and locations where fat men should fear to tread and then milking all the weight-related gags possible...”  Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh (or maybe I haven’t seen the Fatties at their best) but I didn’t find many of the shorts on the collection particularly outstanding…though they do provide some amusement from time to time.  The aforementioned Heavy Love features the plumpish threesome as carpenters, building a house for Lois Boyd (another Sennett veteran, and a frequent leading lady in their comedies); I examined Boyd during Love, and she didn’t seem to exhibit any signs of mental illness—so why she employed these jamokes in the first place is a complete mystery.  Heavy Love does wrap things up with a funny closing gag involving an eccentric who informs Lois and the boys the house has been built on the wrong lot and will have to be moved.

There are some risible moments in Old Tin Sides (1927)—the porcine trio help out in a general store—including a little old lady who somehow gets a leaping fish down her skirt (it’s a long story) and goes through some hysterical gyrations and leaps courtesy of a stuntman.  The two-reeler also features hilarity as the TOF and their boss flood the cellar with homemade applejack and drunkenly break out in a chorus of “Sweet Adeline.”  In addition, I liked Standing Pat (1928)—the penultimate Ton of Fun comedy—in which our heroes use a miracle cleaner to destroy both suits of clothes and cars of unfortunate customers, then later have to deliver a crated piano to a music professor (one of their earlier victims).  The stunt work featuring the team losing control of their car and then the runaway piano as it meanders down steep hills will appeal to anyone who enjoys physical comedy.

The cleaning fluid plot in Standing is reminiscent of the “Bright-O” gags featured in the Three Stooges short Dizzy Doctors (1937) …and to be honest, much of A Ton of Fun’s shtick is similar to that of the later comedy trio who made a cottage industry out of face-slapping and eye-pokes.  Both teams relied on physical destruction for comedy, and as someone once observed of the Stooges, at times the titles of their shorts were funnier than the finished product (the Ton of Fun comedy The Heavy Parade [1926] is a take-off on the 1925 M-G-M classic The Big Parade.)  Two of TOF’s shorts are titled Three of a Kind and Three Wise Goofs (1925), which could easily be appropriated for Stooges shorts.  (They actually do share one title: A Ton of Fun’s Three Missing Links [1927] features the boys as motorcycle patrolmen…though the Stooges’ similarly-titled comedy in 1939 has Moe, Larry, and Curly loose in the jungle making a movie.)

I did get a kick out of seeing a few familiar names in the credits of these shorts: Tay Garnett, who would later direct films like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), is credited with the title cards on Three Wise Goofs, while Raymond McCarey (brother of Leo) and Pinto Colvig are credited as writers on Standing Pat.  Ray would go on to direct such funsters as Laurel & Hardy (Scram!), Our Gang (Free Eats) and the Three Stooges (Three Little Pigskins), while actor-animator Colvig is best known as the voice of Goofy in those classic Walt Disney cartoons.  Harry Sweet was in the director’s chair for Three of a Kind; he also acted in silent films but is perhaps best remembered for starting up the shorts department at R-K-O and helming many of the early Edgar Kennedy two-reelers until his untimely death from a plane crash in 1933.

I picked up Three Fatties during the continuing-in-perpetuity 5 for $25 sale (though I think it’s now 10 for $39.90), and while the print quality isn’t particular sparkly (the screen grabs probably tipped you off to that) the comedies are mostly watchable (Tailoring is the only one that’s really terrible).  If you’re looking for a way to sample the work of a forgotten comedy trio for pennies on the dollar, this is the advisable way to go.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957)

Hey, the last time I did one of these was back in June of 2012…I don’t know how long the second feature oaters will last, but let’s give one a try for old time’s sake.

There are two reasons why I decided to sit down and watch Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957).  First, the one and only MISTER John Dehner receives top billing—something mighty unusual for a thespian who was mostly practiced in the art of character acting.  The second reason was the title; future Perry Mason star Raymond Burr starred in a short-lived radio western entitled Fort Laramie, but the actor who played Burr’s role as Cavalry Captain Lee Quince in the show’s audition was…you guessed it, John Dehner.  So a Western entitled Revolt at Fort Laramie is bound to make me smile; I had a mental picture of Dehner and Burr duking it out in front of a microphone as Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, and Jack Moyles looked on.

As I have said so often ‘round these parts—I’m simply not that lucky.  In Revolt, Dehner plays Major Seth Bradner—the commander of the titular fort, and a native son of The Old Dominion.  Bradner has pressing issues to deal with: one, he’s trying to negotiate a peace treaty with Sioux chief Red Cloud (Eddie Little Sky).  There is mutual distrust between the two men, and matters aren’t helped when a few of Red Cloud’s warriors attack a supply wagon en route to the fort; Bradner’s second-in-command, Captain James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer), is convinced that Red Cloud wants to steal a gold shipment on the wagon so that Red Cloud can fortify his tribe without having to deal with all that bothersome red tape that accompanies treaties.

But the largest item in Bradner’s inbox is that talk of a war between the North and South is brewing; in fact, during a dance at the fort where the Major is set to announce that his niece Melissa (Frances Helm) will be pledging her troth to Tenslip, he is sidetracked with a bulletin that Fort Sumter has been fired upon.  A number of Johnny Rebs plan to resign their Cavalry commissions to join up with the Confederate cause…and they announce these plans to Major Bradner.  They’d also like to take along that gold shipment and deliver it to a Confederate fort in Texas to ensure the South has adequate capital to fight “the war of Northern aggression.”

The Civil War subplot of Revolt at Fort Laramie is an intriguing one, and I kind of wish writer Robert C, Dennis (who later enjoyed a prolific career scripting small screen fare like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, and Perry Mason) had explored it in a bit more detail.  But there’s no room for any of that boring character development; this is a Western, damn it, and it’s far more important to concentrate on the skirmishes between the Cavalry soldiers and the Sioux…and later on in Revolt, a tense situation in which Bradner (who announces to any soldier hailing from the South that they will receive honorable discharges so that they can fight for the Confederacy) and some of the soldiers have to hold off Sioux warriors with a dwindling ammunition supply.  All in all, Revolt boils down to 73 minutes of typical "cowboys-vs.-injuns" shoot-'em-up.

My admiration for Dehner knows no bounds…but unfortunately in this oater, he’s got precious little to work with.  There are a few familiar faces here and there: Don Gordon is a half-breed Indian scout named Jean Salignac, and either his ma or pa was French because he uses a Gallic accent throughout the movie.  Kenne Duncan is also on hand, and (Harry) Dean Stanton has one of his earliest motion picture roles as a Southern recruit named “Rinty.”  The majority of the cast manages to say their lines and refrain from bumping into the furniture—there aren’t too many standout performances here.  There is, however, an interesting continuity boo-boo: another Southerner (Bill Barker) answering to “Hendrey” lets Tenslip in on the soldier’s plans…and when he returns to his bunk, he finds the others lying in wait for him.  They quickly dispatch him to the Happy Hunting Ground to a chorus of “Dixie” (a bloody knife is wiped clean on the blanket of one of the bunks); later in the movie, it’s reported that Hendrey’s dead body has been found outside the fort…he’s been scalped to make it appear he was killed by the Sioux.  Tenslip tells Bradner that he suspects Hendrey was killed because he knew too much, and Major Seth says he’ll look into it.  The investigation goes no further.

Directed by journeyman Lesley Selander (who helmed many of the Hopalong Cassidy programmers in the 30s/40s), Revolt at Fort Laramie was an independent effort of Bel-Air Productions (the company produced one of my favorite B-pictures, Big House U.S.A.) and distributed through United Artists.  Bel-Air later teamed Dehner with a cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Mamie Van Doren, and Marie Windsor in a classic piece of WTF cinema, The Girl in Black Stockings (1957) …which is available on MOD DVD.  (Sadly, Revolt at Fort Laramie is not—I caught this one on MGM HD.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

“Want to get away from it all? We offer you…Escape!”

“Escape” is what I planned to offer you as this week’s entry of Overlooked Films on Tuesday; I had selected the 1948 feature starring Rex Harrison and Peggy Cummins, because I recently purchased a DVD copy from my very good friend Martin Grams, Jr. at his Finders Keepers website.  I have not seen the film—I’m not all that familiar with the movies that have aired on FXM/The Fox Movie Channel, so it might have turned up there at one time.  I did see it listed once among the offerings on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, but we didn’t have TCM then.

Saturday morning, I popped the DVD into the player…and the first thing I see is Leo the Lion, growling as though he missed breakfast.  Which I thought sort of odd, because I knew that Escape was a 20th Century-Fox release.  As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now…this Escape was the 1940 motion picture based on the best-selling book by The Bitter Tea of General Yen author Grace Zaring Stone (under her nom de plume Ethel Vance…which she used in order to protect relatives still living in Germany).  In the distance, I could hear a faint chortling…as if the Classic Movie Gods were suffering from a severe case of having their sides split as a result of enjoying my experience.  (They’re a regular riot, Alice.)

Before I venture into this any further…I need to let you know that I e-mailed Martin about this snafu, and because he’s a stand-up amigo he is rectifying this error as you read this.  (We will visit with the 1948 Escape another Tuesday.)  But I thought: well, I’ve already rented the hall, and the motto on the coat of arms for Castle Yesteryear reads (from the French): “Quand la vie vous donne des citrons, faire de la limonade.”  And it’s a good thing I like limon…er, lemonade because two of my classic film bête noires are in Escape (1940): Robert Taylor and Norma Shearer.

In the case of Mr. Taylor, he portrays Mark Preysing, who journeys to pre-World War II Germany (the time is 1936, and the place is the Bavarian Alps) in search of his mother, renowned actress Emmy Ritter (Nazimova).  Madame Ritter is in a concentration camp; she was pronounced guilty of treason after trying to smuggle money out of the country after the sale of her husband’s estate (strictly verboten) and she’s sentenced to be executed.  An understanding doctor at the camp, Ditten (Phillip Dorn), has promised Emmy that he will get a letter out to her son…but only after she’s shuffled off this mortal coil.  (Compassion only goes so far whenever Nazis are involved.)

Preysing isn’t able to get any answers as to his mother’s whereabouts, and he keeps running into walls where the bureaucracy is concerned.  Even the old family retainer, Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart), claims not to know Preysing; he attacks him with a whip when Mark stops him on the road.  The only person to offer a sympathetic ear is Ruby von Treck (Shearer), an American-born woman who married German nobility (she’s a countess) and now runs a finishing school out of her home.  Yet Ruby demonstrates the same willingness to help Mark as does Fritz and his handy horsewhip.

There’s a reason for Ruby’s reticence.  She’s heavily involved in a romantical way with General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), a top Nazi officer who spills the beans to his paramour that Madame Ritter is languishing in a concentration camp…but not for long.  Ruby’s loyalty to her adopted country will be tested when she finally agrees to help Mark and his mother…and the wheels are set in motion for the titular crashout with a chance meeting between Ruby, Mark, and Dr. Ditten at a concert.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Escape.  Here’s the irony: I actually DVR’d this one when we still had TCM…and then for some reason deleted it.  So it’s as if I got a reprieve from the Governor.  Escape was one of M-G-M’s first anti-Nazi films, and it was a gutsy move for the studio whose most daring attempt to tackle social commentary at that time was the never-released Andy Hardy Gets a Cold Sore.  The reason why the major studios were reluctant to make these kind of motion pictures is because they didn’t want to miss out on that sweet, sweet overseas box office money.  As you can predict, Escape was banned in Germany…and other anti-Nazi efforts from M-G-M (The Mortal Storm) would soon receive the same cold shoulder.

I have to be honest: Escape has not made me a Robert Taylor convert (I’m sure, with application of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™, there must be one movie he was in that I like—Devil’s Doorway is pretty good, so maybe I just answered my own query)—I’ve just always found him a bit too stiff and wooden.  But he’s fairly decent in this (even if he is wearing the moustache that normally belongs to Conrad Veidt), and Shearer gives an equally solid performance as the woman who slowly starts to realize that Veidt’s Nazi is not the man for her (many Shearer fans consider her turn as the Countess one of her finest performances).  (I like a lot of Shearer’s silent films, but for some odd reason I’m not nearly as wild about her “talkies.”)

Speaking of Veidt—this is how I like my Conrad, cartooners; he’s at his nasty “Major Strasser” best and provides the movie much needed menace (the only nitpick I have is that they saddle him with a heart condition…which they have to do in order for this film to have a somewhat happy ending).  Director Mervyn LeRoy wanted Veidt from the get-go, but when the actor was unavailable LeRoy had to go with Plan B and Paul Lukas.  Lukas lasted a week as von Kolb; he wasn’t terrible but he just wasn’t interpreting the role the way Mervyn had envisioned…and once Lukas was out, Veidt was then available.

Felix Bressart is also first-rate as a sniveling coward who finally does what’s right at the risk of his own life.  In addition, you not only get Albert Bassermann in this picture (a small role, but a most effective turn) but Mrs. B as well—Elsa Bassermann, in her film debut, plays the wife of Bassermann’s character, a lawyer.  Bonita Granville is great as a cute little Nazi-in-training ready to rat out any of her fellow finishing schoolmates who refuse to toe the line, and OTR veteran Edgar Barrier appears in one of his earliest film roles as a German official who is of little help to Taylor in his desperate inquiries to locate his mama.

Purportedly, producer Leonard Weingarten wanted Alfred Hitchcock to sit in Escape’s director chair…and though the Master of Suspense was intrigued with the idea of working with Shearer he ultimately took a pass (I’d gamble he wasn’t too keen on having to deal with the M-G-M style of moviemaking).  Mervyn LeRoy got the tap (he also got the producer credit), and while it would have been interesting to see a Hitch version of Escape I can’t deny that Merv does right by the material; the last half of the film is nail-bitingly suspenseful.  The script was co-written by Lights Out maven Arch Oboler, who sneaks in a little propagandistic speechifying in Nazimova’s character at the very beginning before wisely tapering off and letting the film continue its gripping premise by its lonesome.

I chose to scrap the original title for this post—“Grey Market Cinema: Escape (1940)”—in favor of an old-time radio pun because Escape is available as a MOD DVD from the folks at the Warner Archive.  Of course, it also makes the occasional rounds at TCM.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Review: Lame Brains & Lunatics

It’s been said confession is good for the soul.  So here’s mine: I purchased a Kindle edition of my Facebook amigo Steve Massa’s Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy on August 9, 2013—if what says is true, and I have no reason to believe they would ever lie to me…he said, rather unconvincingly.  As you can see by the date of this blog post, it’s been three years since I’ve gotten around to devouring its contents.  So I’ll state up front: this is no reflection on Steve’s indispensable reference book.  I’m just lazy.

Not that I’m unfamiliar with Steve’s exemplary silent film comedy scholarship.  He’s one the very best, and if you’ve been thinking about investing in any of the Accidentally Preserved DVDs (collections of previously thought one- and two-reel comedies) from Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions, you’ll want to pony up the additional scratch (only $5.95—a mere bag of shells, as The Great One would say) for the companion guide, also co-written by Massa.  He put together a similar guide for The Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVDs, too.  (Some of the material in Lame Brains & Lunatics overlaps with the information provided in these guides, but that’s certainly understandable.)

Let me approach this from the viewpoint of someone who’s just been introduced to the wonders of silent movie comedy.  Steve’s Lame Brains & Lunatics goes beyond the parameters of what film historian and friend of TDOY Richard M. Roberts (and others) often calls “the big three”: Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  There were a number of unsung clowns who diligently worked hard to make audiences laugh in the silent era, and for various reasons (chiefly the inconvenient truth that a lot of their work has been lost to time and neglect) they’re not well remembered today.  You can make a strong argument that some of them are well-deserving of their obscurity (that’s whom Steve refers to with the “Bad” in the book’s sub-title) but too many of them were talented practitioners in the art of mirthmaking, and Massa has made it his mission to chronicle their careers in a respectful fashion.

Ever hear of Billie Ritchie?  Truth be told, I wasn’t well acquainted with him either until I picked up Steve’s book; I probably had him confused with Chaplin imitator Billy West.  Ritchie is often classified as in the same Chaplin-aping league as West, but as Massa observes “Billie had a long stage career before Charlie became famous.”  Ritchie was once a member of the Fred Karno company (as was Chaplin), and even claimed to have originated Charlie’s Tramp character.  “I was amazed to discover that not only is Ritchie different from Chaplin,” Steve writes, “but also that he deserves his own place in silent comedy history for presenting possibly the most low-down, despicable, and unlikable character ever seen on the screen.”  This is saying a lot: Billie Ritchie even outdoes well-known misanthropes as W.C. Fields (who at least had a twinkle in his eye when he was conniving and scheming).  Massa generously provides a filmography for Ritchie (in addition to other select funsters) toward the end of the book; I glanced at the titles and didn’t see anything I recognized other than Live Wires and Love Sparks (1916) so it’s clear I need to track down more of his films.

Funny ladies also receive prominent chapters in Lame Brains: Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Fay Tincher, etc. (which reminds me: Steve's next book will be Slapstick Divas...and it will be due out soon, so keep an eye out for it)—I’ve a passing familiarity with their work since a few of their shorts are spotlighted on the out-of-print Image Entertainment DVD set Slapstick Encyclopedia (released in 2002).  I particularly enjoyed reading a chapter on Marie Dressler, since I had the foresight to DVR a few of her features before Rancho Yesteryear’s DISH austerity program kicked in (I loved Marie in Reducing…Polly Moran—not so much).  In addition, the careers of Roscoe Arbuckle and his nephew Al St. “Fuzzy” John are examined…not to mention Max Linder, Marcel Perez (the subject of another book by Massa, and a companion guide to Undercrank’s The Marcel Perez Collection), and George Rowe.  The title of a section on one of my favorites here at TDOY, Charley Chase, reads “Comedy’s Best-Kept Secret” (so appropriate) …and you’ll not only learn about Our Gang but the myriad of kiddie imitators that attempted to duplicate the troupe’s success.

You know the old cliché about someone “knowing their onions.”  That describes Steve Massa to a “T”; Lame Brains & Lunatics is meticulously researched and sourced (a list of reference works is provided at the conclusion of the book), and Massa’s knowledge of his subject is nothing short of amazing.  I chortled out loud when I read a line attributed to Steve by one of his friends: “You’re more interested in the peel than the fruit.”  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  (I also enjoyed how he described the mantra to his childhood as being “movies, monsters, and comic books.”  That sounds awfully familiar.)

Film historian/archivist Eileen Bowser contributes a foreword to Lame Brains & Lunatics (as a one-time curator for the Museum of Modern Art, she tells a wonderful anecdote about the first she encountered Steve), while Sam Gill—co-author with Kalton C. Lahue of the seminal silent film comedy reference book Clown Princes and Court Jesters—has the final say.  In between, however, is the sensational work of Steve Massa; this book is essential reading for the silent comedy fan.  I only regret it took me so long to find out.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Those cold-cereal-and-footy-pajamas days

I’ve socked away enough movies and TV reruns on our DISH Hopper that I won’t be starved for entertainment soon…but I’m kind of anal-retentive when it comes to dubbing material to discs.  For example, if I record a movie that’s an hour-and-a-half long…I fret about that extra half-hour going to waste.  Ordinarily, I’d fill up the remaining time with the stray Tee Cee Em one- or two-reeler or TV rerun…but shorts on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ often run few and far between.  So I went looking for an alternative.

I found it in the form of KTV (Kids & Teens TV), a religious-family channel we’re still getting on DISH (Wikipedia says it’s a DISH exclusive).  Now, because I am a practicing heathen (well, technically—I no longer need to practice; I’m pretty darn accomplished at it now) I have little use for roughly 95% of KTV’s content.  But there are nuggets among the dross; I found a few shows that were favorites when I was a youngster, and revisiting them has been a splendid exercise in nostalgia.

But I need to issue a caveat here.  It was Thomas Wolfe who observed, “You can’t go home again,” and I think he hit the nail on the head.  When you’re a kid, you really don’t pay too much attention to the quality of the crappy made-for-TV animation (well, unless you’re Thad Komorowski)—you just want movement, supplemented with explosions if necessary.  As I have gotten older, I’ve looked back on various cartoon shows of yore (I’m talking to you, Cool McCool) and asked myself “Why was I watching this again?”

Here’s a good example: KTV currently offers The Mighty Hercules, a syndicated cartoon series that originally aired between 1963-66.  I talked a little bit about the show when it was announced in 2011 that a DVD release of some of the cartoons was eminent, but here’s all you really to know: the animation on this series was abysmal.  Plus, I never did figure out what the point was of Hercules having that creepy centaur sidekick around; he repeated himself like that mobster in GoodFellas (“I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers”).  The saddest thing about Hercules is that they’ve re-released his show with a brand new set of opening credits and song (despite the plus-side that the cartoons look like they’ve been restored), effectively destroying the only good thing The Mighty Hercules had going for it—the unforgettable Johnny Nash theme (“Hercules/Hero of song and story/Hercules/Winner of ancient glory”).  Let’s venture into the WABAC, shall we?

I watched the heck of this when I was a kid—it aired weekday mornings on WHTN (later WOWK) along with long-forgotten cartoon cobwebs like The Adventures of Sinbad, Jr. and the occasional stray Terrytoon (Hector Heathcote, Hashimoto-san, etc.).  I DVR’d one episode from KTV, watched it, and decided that some things are best left in the memory banks.  (Though I had forgotten about Hercules’ cry of “Olympiaaaaa!”—it’s a shame no one signed him up for a beer endorsement.)

But I can’t say that for all of the cartoon shows on KTV.  Case in point: Roger Ramjet, another limited animation classic that plays a lot better in retrospect due to its Rocky and Bullwinkle-like refusal to take things too seriously (I enjoyed the voice work on Roger, too).  KTV also has The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo on its schedule, which still holds up pretty well (it alternates with The Mr. Magoo Show, which I always looked forward to watching whenever I visited my grandparents as a kid).  I have a special affinity for the near-sighted character voiced by Jim Backus because when I was an infant, my grandfather proclaimed to my mother I was the spitting image of Magoo.

KTV runs a few classic shows that I don’t have a particular interest in: The Archie Show, The Secret Life of Waldo Kitty, Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, etc.—though I did DVR an episode of Space Academy for shits and giggles.  I also caught an edition of The Harveytoons Show the other day, which edited the old Paramount Noveltoons into a half-hour presentation that regretfully has removed the opening credits on each short (I hate when that happens).  The show was syndicated in 1998, and while I still think the Harvey characters were better served in comic books (jeez, did I have a lot of those as a kid) it’s a painless way to kill 21 minutes.  (Besides, Jerry Beck was a consultant on this show—it has some modicum of credibility.)

Which is the other benefit of KTV’s cartoon programming: they don’t interrupt these shows for commercials (I had my finger on the DVD Recorder remote, ready to spring into action).  I like that.  I like that a lot.  Though you have to take the bitter with the sweet; they do have that big honkin’ KTV logo superimposed over the cartoons—sometimes it’s so large I mistake it for a billboard in the background of the animation.