Saturday, November 29, 2008

Doubting Thomas

With the exception of Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, I haven’t logged in a lot of movie action lately (the pickings on TCM have either been slim or scheduled at a non-convenient time) so fortunately I try always to keep on hand some public domain TV-on-DVD’s to keep myself entertained. The nice things about these discs is that they run about two hours in general, and can be watched if I have only a limited amount of time (say, a half-hour)—much better than starting a movie and having to pause it and come back to it later.

Previously on the blog I reviewed some of the contents of a Mill Creek collection entitled Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes, which contained several episodes of the old Danny Thomas sitcom, Make Room for Daddy. Most of the PD episodes are culled from the 1953-56 seasons (though there’s an exception that I’ll get to here in a sec) when the series was on ABC-TV and co-starred actress Jean Hagen as Margaret Williams, Thomas’ long-suffering wife. I’ve expressed my opinion in the past that I prefer the Hagen shows only because even when she was given absolutely nothing to work with (an all-too frequent occurrence) she demonstrated a captivating charm that I just was never to find in Danny’s better-known TV wife, Marjorie Lord (1957-64). Fortunately, I’ve been able to score a handful of DVD collections containing these classic shows—I reviewed one volume of these back in June 2006 and I watched the second volume this past week. Here’s the content on Volume 2:

“The Visiting Englishman” (11/10/53) – Probably the earliest Daddy installment available on DVD (it was the seventh show of the first season). Danny invites an English friend, Montague Brooks (John Hoyt), to spend the night in the Williams’ household when the hotel loses said friend’s reservation. “Uncle Monty” soon stretches this out to a three-week stay, and begins to get on everyone’s nerves (something I noted, without a trace of irony, Hoyt would also do when he played the grandfather on Gimme a Break!). This one is pretty gooey with the sentiment (Danny’s agent—played here by character great Jesse White—reveals that Montague’s family was killed in the Blitz (Margaret, feeling awful about mistreating Monty: “Where does a girl go to her get her throat cut?” Danny: “When you find out, get a rate for two.”). But the interesting thing about this episode is that the opening titles are nothing more than a big tobacco leaf (a nod to Daddy’s sponsor, the American Tobacco Company [Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, etc.]) with Hagen is billed as “His Wife” and Sherry Jackson and Rusty Hamer “Their Children.”

“Family Troubles” (09/28/54) – Rusty asks Danny if he can start getting an allowance, and Danny (predictably) blows his stack. Margaret learns from Jesse the agent (he’s got his ear to the ground, doesn’t he?) that Danny is upset because his act didn’t go over too well with an audience the other night and now her husband has lost confidence in his abilities. So she and the kids conspire to help the family breadwinner get over the jitters. This one starts off kind of slow but gains ground toward the finish; Thomas’ performance in front of a group of kids (who paid a nickel to get in) is a lot of laughs. Interesting sidebar: in Daddy’s earliest seasons, the part of Louise the maid was played by actress Louise Beavers, who replaced an ailing Hattie McDaniel on the Beulah sitcom (and who herself was replaced by Amanda Randolph). When Beavers left Daddy…the producers went again to Randolph to replace her.

“Danny Goes on USO Tour” (04/20/56) – Danny’s all set to travel to Japan for the USO, but he desperately needs an accompanist. Margaret suggests that he ask songwriter Harry Ruby if he’s interested, but Danny is too embarrassed to ask him—the trouble is, Ruby very much wants to go…but because Danny didn’t ask him, he ends up in a feud with Danny.

This episode is, I think, the highlight of the DVD…not because it’s anything approaching knee-slappingly funny, but because of Ruby’s appearance (Ruby’s best-known song might be “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers [1930]) and funny turns from three other guest stars. Peter Leeds plays a jazz pianist auditioning to be Danny’s accompanist and most of their dialogue sounds like what may have ended up on the editing floor of a Stan Freberg recording (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing.”) There’s a particularly funny moment when Thomas starts imitating Leeds’ bebop style and in comes daughter Terry, grooving to the beat (“Once I get started I just can’t stop, Lester!”). The next piannah player who auditions is Billy Gilbert, who uses his “Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen M.D., A.D, D.D.S, F.L.D, F.F.F und F” accent to hysterical effect. Finally, Mabel Albertson (of Bewitched’s Mother “I think I’m coming down with one of my sick headaches” Stephens fame) plays Mrs. Ruby for a grand slam of great character comedy. (I will warn you, though: the song that Thomas and Ruby perform at a nightclub is not entirely politically correct.)

“The Schoolteacher” (01/07/57) – Here’s a curio: an episode from the fourth season, post-Hagen and pre-Lord. (Hagen quickly grew tired of playing second banana to Thomas and the enmity was apparently mutual in Thomas’ case—so they killed the character off, which may have been a sitcom first.) Danny gets a bee in his bonnet about the way Rusty’s teacher (Monica Lewis) wants his son to sing in the Glee Club; he pays her a visit at school (Teacher: “Don’t mind these small little chairs, but, uh…we don’t have any boys as big as you are in the fifth grade.” Danny: “They did when I was in it.”). Ms. Lorraine Andrews takes a rather dim view of Danny’s career and in what’s pretty much a textbook example of the show’s modus operandi, he challenges her to do what he does at a nightclub venue (not knowing, of course, that she sang in nightclubs while putting herself through college) and ends up looking like a complete schmuck. Again, the opening credits provide the novelty: only Thomas, Jackson and Hamer are billed (Danny hadn’t apparently met Kathy O’Hara-Williams yet).

“Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to…”

When I was a mere sprout growing up in Ravenswood, WV, Thanksgiving morning meant watching the parades on television—marveling at the balloons and floats that presented my favorite cartoon characters as big as life. Then, once that celebration petered out, it was time for another timeless tradition: a watching (which was more like re-watching with the passing of the years) of the 1947 holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street.

I went searching for this movie on Thanksgiving while I was at sister Kat’s house. She’s got DirecTV, and something like two bazillion channels. In fact, she even tossed the remote at me and said something along the lines of “Here, go watch your black-and-white,” which is the phrase she uses to describe my classic film obsession. I checked every single channel she got (even the ESPN packages)…and came up empty.

Why doesn’t anyone show this marvelous movie at Thanksgiving anymore? I thought that since 20th Century-Fox owns the rights to the film that they would surely give it a berth...but they were too busy spending time on the Planet of the Apes. (I swear I'm not making that up.) Oh, sure—I suppose it will eventually turn up during December but it really should start on Turkey Day, since that’s when the events of the movie take place. In the past, getting the opportunity to see Miracle was dicey at best; if it wasn’t the colorized version (which should honestly be hunted down like a rabid dog in my humble opinion) it was the 1994 remake (which I’ll refrain from discussing on the off chance that some of you might be eating as you’re reading the blog). Fortunately for me, I bought Miracle on DVD many years ago (along with the other holiday perennial, It’s a Wonderful Life) so if I’m overcome with nostalgia all of a sudden, I can take the film out for a long drive in the country, so to speak. And that’s pretty much what I did last evening, since it was nowhere to be found on Thanksgiving Day.

I’m going to assume that many of you are familiar with the plot but for those of you who aren’t—here’s the skinny. A man (Edmund Gwenn) who believes himself to be Santa Claus (he even insists that his name is Kris Kringle) just happens to be available when the woman (Maureen O’Hara) in charge of the annual Macy’s Department Store parade needs a replacement for the Santa (who’s stewed to the gills) she originally hired. He’s chosen (at the insistence of Macy himself, played by Harry Antrim) to be Macy’s full-time Santa, and wows Macy and his underlings with an insistence on directing customers to other department stores if Macy’s doesn’t have what they want—creating both a good will campaign and shrewd sales policy that spreads to Macy’s rivals.

In the meantime, Doris Walker (O’Hara) is being romanced by junior law partner Fred Gailey (John Payne), who cannily enters Doris’ life by becoming chummy with her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Susan behaves a little differently from other kids of her age; Doris insists on being truthful with the little tyke and refuses to fill her head with fairy tales and make-believe (including the existence of Santa Claus). Because Doris has questions about Kringle’s sanity, arrangements are made for him to stay with Fred in order to keep an eye on him; in turn, Fred and Kris conspire together to “work” on Doris and Susan by getting the two of them to loosen up a bit. When Kringle has an encounter with the store’s “psychologist” (Porter Hall), he finds himself having to defend his sanity (with Gailey’s help) at a hearing presided over by Judge Henry Harper (Gene Lockhart) and prosecuted by D.A. Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan). Just when it seems that all hope is lost, Gailey—through a stroke of movie luck—proves that Kringle is the real Santa Claus, melting the cynicism of both Doris and Susan and paving the way for the three of them to live happily ever after.

Miracle on 34th Street is a film that’s been accused of being overly gooey and sentimental, and I think that’s a fair charge to make (I’m usually puddling up myself by the end of the movie). But what I’ve always marveled at is that there is a thin coating of cynicism surrounding Miracle, and how the characters in the movie are motivated to do the right thing—for the wrong reasons. Take Fred Gailey, for instance. It’s not stretching things to say that he’s very interested in Doris, and that what may appear to be selfless acts (inviting Susan to see the Thanksgiving parade from his apartment [or what Doris’ maid calls “the fifty-yard line”]; inviting Kringle to stay with him so that Doris need not worry about the old man running into a beat cop who may not be amused that he answers to “Santa Claus”; or choosing to defend Kris at his hearing) are really just a series of ploys to worm his way further into Doris’ good graces. Doris is no slouch at this herself—she believes that Kringle, while a nice old gentleman, might be a bit dangerous…but she keeps mum about it in order to continue in her lofty position at the department store. R.H. Macy, when asked by the D.A. at Kringle’s hearing if he truly believes Kringle to be Santa Claus, replies in the affirmative (particularly after having a vision of newspaper headlines trumpeting that “Macy Believes Santa Claus to Be a Fraud”). Judge Harper gives Fred a good deal of leeway at the hearing only because he’s facing a tough re-election campaign and is advised to do so (so as not to offend any potential voters) by ward heeler Charlie Halloran (William Frawley). Even the evidence that “proves” Kringle to be the genuine article arrives via an ulterior motive: bags and bags of “Dear Santa” letters from the Post Office that are delivered only because some smart employee (an unbilled Jack Albertson) suggests it would be an ideal way to get rid of the clutter in the Dead Letter section.



Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1947 and ended up taking home three (it lost in the Best Picture race to Gentleman’s Agreement): Best Writing/Original Story (Valentine Davies), Best Writing/Screenplay (George Seaton) and Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn). (The old observation of “Dying is easy…comedy is hard” has often been attributed to Gwenn, who supposedly uttered it while on his deathbed.) I think both the supporting actor and writing awards were justified (Miracle is a very funny movie, with plenty of jokes directed towards the adults in the audience) but I also think the entire cast give outstanding performances—particularly the aforementioned Albertson and Thelma Ritter as the woman absolutely gobsmacked by Macy’s new sales policy (“I don’t get it”). Ritter’s unbilled here, but it wasn’t too long before she became one of cinema’s outstanding character actors (a list of her most memorable film appearances would eat up quite a bit of bandwidth, let’s just say). Every time I watch Miracle I take away something new from it—it had previously escaped my notice, for example, that the actor playing the soused parade Santa is none other than Percy Helton (his voice was a dead giveaway)—and I was also able to spot cameos from Jeff Corey, Snub Pollard and Theresa Harris (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s lovely girlfriend in Buck Benny Rides Again [1940] and Love Thy Neighbor [1940]). When Miracle ended, I was so filled with Christmas cheer that I whipped out It’s a Wonderful Life and watched it as well…but that’s a post for another day.

It's the pictures that got small...


Friday, November 28, 2008

TV-on-DVD news and sales

Odds are you’re probably not reading this right now, but instead are mingling with the throngs of shoppers celebrating the biggest shopping day of the year, colloquially known as “Black Friday.” If by some chance you’re one of those people who refuses to venture out to the stores on the strong-held belief that that way lies madness (take for example...me), I’m going to let you in on a pair of online DVD stores who are offering some nice bargains (or as a former landlady of mine used to say, BAH-GENS).

DVD Pacific is a site where I often find myself purchasing TV-on-DVD releases because they offer great prices, friendly customer service and now free Media Mail shipping. Granted, this store may not be everyone’s choice (I received an e-mail from a curious TDOY reader asking me if I had ordered the complete color season of Wagon Train from Pacific yet…and was it taking as long as his order); I like it because despite the “DVD Pacific” moniker it’s actually based in Florida so it usually doesn’t take long for an order to be mailed to the Peach State. N-E-wayz, they’re having a Black Friday sale from now until Monday, with some pretty nifty deals and markdowns on their TV-DVD box sets…so if you see anything that strikes your fancy, let me remind you that fancy-striking carries stiff penalties if committed in the state of Florida.

VCI Entertainment is also having a 50% off sale (coupon code: PGLJEH) until Monday as well; I’ve participated previously in these blowouts (a doffing of the TDOY chapeau is in order to Laughing Gravy, the resident flashlight-wielder In the Balcony for the heads-up) and have really reaped some nice bargains. Needless to say, I couldn’t pass up the chance to grab Burke’s Law: Season 1, Volume 2 and the 1955 Jacques Tourneur/Joel McCrea oater Stranger on Horseback (this is the restored Kit Parker version, whereas previously the film was available only in a black-and-white version). Serials fans and vintage TV buffs can get goodly-sized discounts from everything to Honey West and the Dick Tracy Republic serials.

Speaking of In the Balcony, one of the Balconeers mentioned that Amazon.com is having a sale on some of the western TV shows released to DVD by Timeless Media Group. These titles—Cimarron City, The Deputy, Laredo (Season 1/Volume 1, Season 1/Volume 2 and Season 2/Volume 1), The Restless Gun, Riverboat, The Tall Man and Tate—are all part of the sale, with each set ringing up at $13.99. Now, I had toyed with the idea of buying the three Laredo sets but when I journeyed over to Amazon this morning I noticed that they’ve marked down the Little Rascals box set to $38.99. (That’s a price I can live with, flawed prints or no.) So I guess Reese Smith and Company will be in a holding pattern for a while.

Finally, TVShowsOnDVD.com has an announcement that 20th Century-Fox will finally unleash the fourth and final season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with a Season Four, Volume One release scheduled for March 31st of next year. It is with great humidity that I take full credit for this turn of events, because you just know those essobees were waiting for me to unload my Season 1-3 copies on eBay before trumpeting the Season 4 news. I should be bitter about this…but I’m not. I’ll just console myself with the knowledge that I finally have the Little Rascals set.

That old Black Friday has me in its spell...


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving…have some tortilla chips!


Since I’m taking the day off to spend time with the fam and eat until I’m practically sick, I guess that means the blog will sort of be on hiatus until tomorrow. In the interim, I want to wish all the faithful readers of TDOY (all eight of ya) the happiest of holidays. (By the way, the above cartoon is a subtle dig towards my good friend Sam Johnson, who’s on his “Why do white people eat green bean casserole?” kick again.)

Thanksgiving dinner is a sort of strange tradition in my household. Sure, we recognize the significance of this day, and we are truly thankful for gifts we receive, etc. I feel ashamed to admit this, but the main reason we sit down to dinner every time around this year is so we can have turkey sandwiches later on. Honest to my grandma, we’ll eat this afternoon at about 1:00, and then five hours later the turkey sandwich trek to the kitchen begins. (There’s nothing like getting a hoagie roll, slappin’ a big hunk of white meat and slavering that baby up with mayo…with a crisp, green lettuce leaf for color.)

This is why my contribution to the later menu will be whipping up a batch of my famous Atomic Bachelor Nacho Dip™. It’s no big secret that I admire the man known as Elisson because the guy is like the Deep South Graham Kerr; while I’m struggling to tear the foil off a Pop-Tart, he’s in the kitchen whipping up things like Apple-Scented Roasted Turkey with Cider-Calvados Gravy. (What the !@#% is a calvados, anyway?) So, though my culinary skills are on the same level as those of a fry cook at your local fast food jernt, here is my simple (emphasis on simple) recipe for a tasty nacho dip to eat with copious amounts of white corn tortilla chips.

Atomic Bachelor Nacho Dip

Ingredients:

1 can of RoTel DICED Tomatoes and Chilis (although it doesn’t HAVE to be RoTel, you can use a knockoff like Kroger’s brand...but make sure they’re diced, or you are going to have to chop, and that’s a pain...RoTel makes a hot version of this, too—and while I was up for experimentation Mom talked me out of it)

1 block of Velveeta Mexican Cheese (hot or mild, depending how much of a wuss you are...my motto is, if it doesn’t make your nose run, it’s not worth the effort...anybody know why the Velveeta Mexican is no longer sold in the orange boxes?)

Jalapeno slices (optional)

This is a very simple recipe – take the block of Velveeta and cut it into cubes...then open the RoTel (don’t drain it, or the dip will be very, very THICK and hard to stir) into a large, microwave-safe bowl (oh, you can also heat this stuff up in a saucepan, but if the recipe has “bachelor” in the title, isn’t that kind of a clue that you’re going to be using a microwave?) and add the Velveeta cubes.

Heat on HIGH in the microwave for 5 minutes, stopping the microwave after 2 minutes to stir...if the dip is still a little lumpy after 5 minutes, you can put it in for an additional minute or two. Dip should be a little bit runny...serve with tortilla chips (white corn kind is preferable) and if you really want to take a walk on the wild side, you can throw in some optional jalapeno slices to perk it up...unfortunately, we’ll be eating this sans white corn chips—Mom opted for Fritos Scoops instead, because sister Kat only eats whole wheat tortilla chips. (For the record, my sister is one of those “I treat my body like a temple” types—as opposed to those of us who treat our bodies like pool halls.)

Some people like to wait until the dip firms up a bit...personally, I like the challenge of trying not to get the dip on my shirt...but that’s why some folks likes chocolate, and some likes vanilla...either way, it’s fast, it’s easy and delicious.

Okay, people—we’ve got turkey sandwiches to eat, so let’s get started. And, hey…let’s be careful out there…

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Well, it looks like I’ll be keeping my left man-teat…

A few posts back, I mentioned the delight of getting the opportunity to see Payment Deferred (1932) with Charles Laughton on TCM’s “Star of the Month” festival and lamenting the fact that my very favorite Laughton film, Hobson’s Choice (1954), would not be a part of this.

And then—by gum!—I get this pleasant bit o’news from Criterion…

Choice has been available on Region 2 DVD since this past August, but as my sainted Papa Jack often said, “It only costs a few extra bucks to go first class”—so that’s why this Criterion purchase is a must-have for your humble narrator. (Would you believe the last time I saw this movie was when it ran on A&E? No, and you shouldn’t—I think I caught it on IFC in my Morgantown satellite days.)

What a day this has been! What a rare mood I'm in!
Why, it's almost like being in love!
There's a smile on my face for the whole human race!
Why, it's almost like being in love!
All the music of life seems to be like a bell that is ringing for me!
And from the way that I feel when that bell starts to peal,
I could swear I was falling, I would swear I was falling,
It's almost like being in love...

Thanks, and I hope I passed the audition.

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #3

For some odd reason, TCM showcased a mini-marathon of movies Monday afternoon (beginning at 1:45pm) featuring the talents of one Josephine Owaissa Cottle, who classic movie and television fans know much better as the irrepressible Gale Storm. Storm’s movie career started out with a sixth-month contract with RKO Pictures in the 1940s, but when that was up she was forced to secure work at the Monogram and Universal studios in that same period. The theme of this festival (with the exception of the last movie) seems to be “Make Mine Monogram”—and while it probably would have been prudent to save these mini-reviews for the annual In the Balcony celebration, I figured what the hey:

Foreign Agent (1942) – John Shelton (who, I have to admit, I’ve only seen in one other big picture, Abbott & Costello’s The Time of Their Lives) is a movie studio extra named Jimmy (he has no last name—Monogram couldn’t afford it) who tries to get reclassified to help out in the war effort…but is drafted to root out subversive elements in the movie capital instead (was it always that easy to land high-profile jobs like this, a la Kay Kyser?). Gale plays Mitzi Mayo, who’s a bit luckier landing work at the same studio (she also performs in a somewhat sleazy dive where her musical accompaniment is the bartender, playing an accordion)—her father, a lighting technician, has been murdered by Nazi agents looking for the plans to a searchlight filter he invented in his copious free time. Together, the young couple work together to unmask these Nazi swine (represented by Hans Schumm, a particularly nasty piece of work) and with the help (or hindrance, depending on your point of view) of comedy relief couple Patsy Moran and Lyle Latell. They get the job done in sixty-four minutes, aided and abetted by director William “One-Shot” Beaudine. Verdict: cheap, but painless.

Revenge of the Zombies (1943) – This “horror” film is absolutely from hunger—but if you sit back and view it as the subtle comedy masterpiece (yes, I'm being sarcastic) it is, you’ll get much more enjoyment out of it. John Carradine is a mad scientist who’s creating an unbeatable army of zombies for the Third Reich, but his grandiose scheme is stymied a bit when the brother (Mauritz Hugo) of Carradine’s wife (Veda Ann Borg) comes snooping around with a detective pal (Robert Lowery) to investigate Sis’ untimely death. Storm is Carradine’s loyal secretary, who refuses to believe that her employer could ever stoop to such shenanigans as reanimating the dead. For all intents and purposes, however, the show belongs to Mantan Moreland—whose ad-libs and “feets-don’t-fail-me-now” humor make Zombies much more entertaining than it should be (Moreland: “In about thirty seconds, I’m going to be eleven miles away from here”). Also in the cast are Bob “Trooper Duffy” Steele (who may or may not be a Nazi), Barry Macollum, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, James Baskett (and you thought Song of the South was embarrassing—though Baskett does demonstrate the first cinematic evidence of what inspired Don King’s ‘do) and Sybil Lewis. Warning: due to a generous dollop of stereotyping, easily offended audiences might want to think twice about sitting down with this one. (And the black actors don’t fare so well, either.)

Nearly Eighteen (1943) – Let’s be upfront about this: if you go into a Monogram musical with the intent of seeing some just like the wonderful movies released by MGM you’re in for some serious disappointment. Eighteen is a good example; Gale is Jane Stanton, a would-be chanteuse who lands work at a dive (they’re all pretty much dives at Monogram) run by Luis Alberni—but since she’s a month away from her eighteenth birthday, Alberni can’t hire her according to the law. Instead, he sends her to work for bookie Rick Vallin and sidekick George “Joe McDoakes” O’Hanlon, but she ends up in plenty of hot water when the cops raid the jernt. Her next step is to try and secure a position with a prestigious singing/dancing academy (run by Bill Henry) to bone up on her craft, but the problem is that they only grant free tuition to girls from eight to fourteen. No problem: she’s seen The Major and the Minor, and the next thing you know she’s “Janie” Stanton…and the wacky complications ensue. Hey…it barely runs over an hour—you could do much worse.

Campus Rhythm (1943) – Probably the best of the Storm offerings shown that afternoon—Gale is Joan Abbott, popular vocalist on a radio show sponsored by a breakfast cereal (she’s known as the “Crunchy-Wunchy Thrush”). Joan wants to quit radio for a while and fulfill a lifelong dream of going to college; her uncle (Douglas Leavitt) and business manager (Herbert Heyes) have other ideas, unfortunately—and since Unk is in charge of her contract he signs a new one to keep any funny ideas about the Halls of Ivy out of her mixed-up little head. So Joan rebels, swipes the name of the secretary—Susie Smith—and heads for Rawley College, a institute of higher learning that has enrolled some of the oldest individuals known to movie audiences as students, including would-be bandleader Buzz O’Hara (Robert Lowery again) and college newspaper editor “Scoop” Davis (Johnny Downs of Our Gang fame). The plot in this one is as thin as Kleenex (Joan hopes to get a college education but keeping out of the public eye…while she and Downs strike up a romance), but the musical numbers are well-done (if not particularly memorable) and I enjoyed this one especially because I got to see two old-time radio veterans strut their stuff: Candy “I’m feelin’ miiighty loooow” Candido (sidekick to Jimmy Durante on radio) and GeGe Pearson, who did the female characters on The Red Skelton Show (post-Harriet Hilliard and pre-Lurene Tuttle). Pearson has a pretty impressive set of musical pipes, but sadly, this was her only feature film appearance or which I'm aware. Third banana Tom Kennedy is also in Rhythm as a cop; he’s not listed in the entry at the IMDb but since he’s given so little to do I’m not surprised he was overlooked.

The Texas Rangers (1951) – Gale abandoned Monogram for Universal around the late 1940s, and in this oater she’s working for Columbia in a fairly impressive programmer (in color, no less) helmed by cult director Phil Karlson. George Montgomery—a bit of handsome beefcake whose acting isn’t particularly impressive—is a jailed outlaw who’s released and inducted into the Texas Rangers (along with sidekick Noah Beery, Jr.) in order to assist in smoking out the notorious Sam Bass (played with admirable charisma by William Bishop, who I last saw in The Boss). Gale, whose character is the editor of the Waco Star, is opposed to Montgomery’s release because he was involved in the shooting murder of her father (some people still carry a grudge, I guess.) If this film had beefed up Storm’s role a bit I’d easily call it the winner of the mini-marathon—but nevertheless, it’s a good solid oater that also stars John Litel (he doesn’t play a lawyer in this one…he just looks like one), Jerome Courtland, Douglas Kennedy, Mister John Dehner (as John Wesley Hardin), Ian MacDonald (the Sundance Kid), John Doucette (Butch Cassidy) and stuntman/supporting Stooges player Jock Mahoney. (Most rewarding bit in the film—for me, anyway—seeing serial and two-reeler stalwarts like Jim Bannon, Dick Curtis, Kenne Duncan, John Merton and Dick Wessel…in color.)

Based on a true story...


And here's the true story:

My late grandfather had two daschunds who would go stark raving gonzo whenever they heard the Jeopardy! theme (the Art Fleming version) on the TV. The reason for this was because "Papa Jack" was a creature of habit: he came home every day at noon from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah to his and my grandmother's apartment in Trustee Gardens (right smack dab next to the Pirates' House) for lunch. The dogs simply put two and two together and associated the theme with their master, who they knew was due home any moment.

One of the daschunds lived on for a little while after Jack passed away in 1987. I felt so sorry for her because she always seemed to be looking around, as if she were waiting for him to suddenly turn up. This was the point in my life when I realized that dogs are Man's Best Friend...and I'll never let anyone argue me otherwise.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

TV-on-DVD releases well calculated to keep me in…

TVShowsOnDVD.com now has the official press releases for the final season of The Partridge Family and the penultimate season (seventh) of Bewitched available for your perusal (both these DVD sets have a street date of February 3, 2009). But as Jolie himself used to say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

According to TVShows, apparently Amazon.com has a pre-listing in place for a possible release of the first season of Room 222 (the date is March 24, 2009), the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama focusing on the interactions between the instructors and students at the fictional Walt Whitman High. When it premiered in the fall of 1969, it faced steep competition from an older-but-still-potent The Beverly Hillbillies, so in its third season ABC shifted it to Friday nights, where it became part of a pre-TGIF lineup that included The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple and Love, American Style. I watched all of these shows during my formative years but in all honesty I never developed a real appreciation for 222 until it was rerun a good deal on the USA Network many years ago. The show was noted for its fine writing (many of the episodes were written by future director James L. Brooks) and superlative cast: Lloyd Haynes, the foxy Denise Nichols (I saw her in Blacula [1972] and thought “So this is what Miss McIntyre does on her nights off”), Michael Constantine and Karen Valentine. Though I’m sure much of 222’s content has dated badly, back then it was ten pounds of hip in a five-pound bag. (Both Constantine and Valentine took home Emmys for their work on the show, and the series itself won for Outstanding New Series in 1970.) I hope this news is legitimate, particularly since I put the series on my “I’d buy that for a dollar” list this past August.

TVShows also reports that a week before the alleged Room 222 release, Infinity Entertainment will roll out the third and final set of vintage Suspense TV shows, Suspense: The Lost Collection, Volume 3. If you’re not familiar with this saga, apparently Infinity obtained the rights to some previously missing kinescopes (ninety in all) from the TV version of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” and have released two previous sets (Volumes 1 and 2) containing thirty episodes each. These sets are positively fascinating to look at, giving the viewer a look at Television’s Golden Age at a time when many dramatic shows were broadcast live. (I’d still like to know the story as to how these kinescopes were uncovered—“Nah, I think my pencil fell right behind this cab…hey! Look what I found behind the file cabinet!”) Nevertheless, I’m really looking forward to this set’s release, slated for a March 17, 2009 street date.

Minding my peas and carrots and other items of (dis)interest

While the ‘rents and I were still living in Savannah, we would often throw caution to the four winds on rare occasions and order a Chinese takeout feast fit for royalty from a restaurant located in the neighborhood known as the New China Garden Restaurant (12322 Largo Drive). We loved this jernt, particularly since they made fried rice the way the Food Gods intended—without peas and carrots.

I’ve looked around on the Internets, and every single fried rice recipe seems to include these two ingredients. I’m no expert on the subject (Rick Brooks is known as the Half-Assed Gourmet, so I guess that makes me the other half) but…putting peas and carrots in fried rice is just wrong, man. It’s like eating a pastrami sandwich with mayonnaise; I’m sure it violates all known food laws and is just plain blasphemy when you think about it hard enough.

So I guess you can say it’s become my mission here in Athens to find a Chinese takeout place that doesn’t commit the deadliest of the food sins. It will take quite a while (it was years before I found a decent place in Morgantown, WV—The Great Wall) I know, and sister Kat…well, she’s not much help. (She hates fried rice. Of course, she also doesn’t like her foods to touch, but that’s a post for another day.) Her Chinese restaurant of cherce is the Peking Restaurant, which is the buffet-style place I’ve mentioned in a previous post or two. They do takeout, of course, but I’ve seen the fried rice on the buffet and it ain’t fried rice. They call it egg fried rice, but upon a cursory glance at the item you will see steamed rice…with fried eggs in it. That’s more like fried egg rice, and I’ll have none of that. I’ve also checked out the Golden Dragon (I made the mistake of asking Kat’s friend Gwynn as to whether it was good, forgetting that Gwynn has “food issues” of her own) and it’s pretty much the same deal.

The reason why I brought this up is that Mumsy and I went out to run errands again today (she shopped for the big feast this Thursday) and after dropping off eBay packages at the Post Office I stopped by the Food Court in the mall to get some Chinese for lunch. It was one of those food court places (Mandarin Express—which sounds like a train, I know) present in practically every mall, and while I was glancing at the cherces I saw the fried rice…with peas and carrots. Well, it looked a lot better than the stuff I’ve seen at Peking so I got the combo special with fried rice and egg roll. Needless to say, the search continues.

On a happier note, I finally got the PayPal snafu settled and was able to transfer the eBay money I’ve raked in so far to my bank account, which I’m guessing will get there by Friday or Monday (I’m hoping, anyway). Anybody in Athens who knows a place with fried rice sans peas and carrots, drop me an e-mail.

You can't go wrong with the classics...


Monday, November 24, 2008

Me and My PayPal

So, as I previously mentioned, I’ve returned to the waiting arms of eBay—where I have been welcomed back into the fold by being feted with wine, women and song…plus they have those little chicken wings you used to find on the buffet tables at Ponderosa, the mere presence of which makes me weak in the knees. I was, shall I say, overwhelmed by the response to my return.

PayPal? Well, that’s an entirely different situation altogether.

Well, that’s an entirely different situation…

Okay, funny people…apparently some of you have just seen Airplane! for the first time…let me just say this. PayPal is a bitch goddess who will rip out your still-beating heart, show it to you, and then lightly sauté it up in a pan while simultaneously preparing a salad and asking if you want ranch or vinaigrette. If I may paraphrase Chairman Charles McGraw, PayPal is “the sixty-five cent special…cheap…flashy…strictly poison under the gravy.”

PayPal does not forgive…or forget.

Let me back this up to the beginning. When I first started selling on eBay, it was originally planned for my father to do most of the selling since he had more junk in both our house and garage (at the former Rancho Yesteryear) than Fred Sanford could have collected in five lifetimes. Since I was already established on the online auction site (and had a healthy feedback due to many, many, many purchases) my father and I decided to use my account to sell his stuff so he wouldn’t have had to painstakingly establish a reputation for himself.

With every item purchased from Dad or me, the money went into a PayPal account that I had helped him set up. (I still don’t know why I agreed to this.) I’d leave enough money in the account to pay the eBay fees, and then transfer it to my own PayPal account…and then into my bank account.

Now, with the move to Athens in May of this year, I decided in June to change the information on the PayPal accounts, and I started with Dad’s…the only problem was, when I tried to change the e-mail address info (I had set up an e-mail account specifically for him through Bombast, and since I had closed my account I didn’t want e-mail bouncing back from a dead e-mail address) it repeatedly told me that I could not do this unless I could give them the bank account number assigned with his PayPal account—and also who recorded Billy, Don’t Be a Hero. Now, in retrospect, I should have called him in Savannah and asked for the info, but since I was a busy person I shoved it aside…and then, as is usually my wont, forgot all about it.

Flash forward to this past Saturday night. In the interim, I’ve fixed my PayPal account and have (or so I thought, anyway) tweaked the instructions in my eBay preferences to send all payments to my PayPal account. The auction begins…and I get a notice about twenty minutes later that someone has already purchased an item through Buy It Now.

Not so unusual—some people know what they want and they snap it up. I go to my PayPal account to see the payment and…

Nothing.

“What th’?” I make sure that I have the right account, log in again…and no sign of the payment.

Now…this makes no sense. There’s notification that I’ve received money. But when I go to the account…nada.

I tell myself to take a deep breath…the money has to be somewhere, and maybe it’s just in a holding pattern until a runway can be cleared.

Next morning, I get out of bed and think to myself—is it possible that the money is in my father’s account?

I log into his account, and with a Joey Bishop-like “Son of a gun” there’s the loot. With. Just. One. Snag.

PayPal is telling me I can’t access the money. I can accept payments, but I can’t transfer money out of the account…and furthermore, I can’t print shipping labels to send the purchases on their way.

So, I spend three hours fritzing with the damn thing, and finally learn that for security reasons, what I end up having to do is give them a new credit card number…they will institute a small charge to see if its legit…and when the charge is on the card, I must then enter a four-digit number that will be printed on the charge before they will release my account.

My money is being held hostage. I guess that’s the best way to sum it up.

So today, I had to take three packages to the post office to get postage because of the PayPal hostage crisis. My mother, who was making a quick stop at Publix anyway, gives me a lift and drops me off at a post office station inside one of Athens’ malls…where a sign on the entrance tells me they don’t open until 11:00pm. So we go back to Publix, get what shopping needs done (I needed some light bulbs, trash bags and a few other items), and return to the post office where I am forced to wait until a 900-year-old woman finishes her business with the USPS clerk. She wants to mail a package, but she doesn’t know the zip code—and instead is regaling both of us with stories of her grandchildren and the Christmas gift she’s sending them, which I’m sure you’ll agree wasn’t germane to the situation at hand.

She tells the postal lady that she thinks the zip code is in Pittsburgh, prompting me to groan in a Keerist-we’ll-be-here-all-day fashion. Her husband mumbles something about the destination only being about eight miles from some such town, and I start to look around the station to see if I’m being punk’d.

Finally, everything gets straightened out in 2011 and I’m able to mail my packages. And that’s why there was little activity on the blog today.

Tomorrow will be different, I’m sure.

It's hard out here for a blogger (pt 3)


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #2

I know, I know—there was precious little Alpo on the blog yesterday (more like a hell of a lot of meat by-product, to be honest)…but it’s not like anybody ever reads it on the weekend anyway. Instead, I spent a good bit of time working on putting together a little inventory to hawk on eBay, as you may have noticed by glancing at that little button marked “eBay” to your right. So with that out of the way, a few capsule reviews of what I managed to watch while in a seated position on the trusty TDOY sofa:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – TCM let famed science-fiction/fantasy writer Ray Bradbury program last Thursday evening’s film lineup…and I’m not just chastising Mr. B, but every other notable invited to pick their favorites for the classic movie cable channel. Is everybody’s favorite film Citizen Kane? I mean, I adore Kane as much as the next film geek but couldn’t we declare a moratorium on choosing “the greatest film of all time” any time celebrities play Program Director? Bradbury bragged during his interview with Robert Osborne that he’d seen “every movie ever made” (talk about hyperbole) but pushing aside that hot air and accepting that Ray has logged in quite a few hours in a front-row theater seat he must have seen a film at one time or another that was offbeat or unique enough to break the Kane/Rebecca mold. (On a related note, TCM needs to get over this obsession with scheduling friggin’ Cleopatra [1963] every single month. It’s a guess on my part, but I think they’re just too lazy to put two or three movies together and instead opt for this phenomenally boring four-hour epic, taking the rest of the day off to play golf or something.)

Still, it’s always encouraging to see TCM unspool a silent film in prime-time (rather than stay up God-knows-how-late to catch them in their imposed Sunday night ghetto) and since Ray’s a Lon Chaney partisan, he selected Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) to kick things off, back-to-back. I opted out of Hunchback because my eyelids were getting heavy but Phantom is still worth the effort: it was the Brownlow-Gill presentation of the restored 1929 re-release version (with the early Technicolor masked ball sequence), complete with that wonderful Carl Davis score. Opera still stands the test of time; a silent film of such grandeur and majesty that no self-respecting film buff should ever admit never having seen it.

They Made Me a Criminal (1939) – Why do I like this movie so much? Let’s face it, it’s a Warners B-programmer tarted up to look like an A-picture, Claude Rains is woefully miscast as a Dick Tracy-type flatfoot, and it sticks the Dead End Kids—the friggin’ Dead End Kids ferchrissake!—in the middle of dusty Arizona. But Criminal is redeemed with just one word, and it’s spelled G-A-R-F-I-E-L-D…and I’m not referring to that fershlugginer fat-ass cat from the comics, either. Julie’s a champion boxer who pretends to be the All-American Boy…but he drunkenly passes out during a wing-ding in his apartment as his sleazeball manager (Robert Gleckler) puts a nosy reporter’s lights out with the help of a bottle of booze, and leaves Julie behind to take the rap while he and Garfield’s girl (Ann Sheridan) take it on the lam. Sheridan and Gleckler later crack up Julie’s car to the point where they’re both burned beyond recognition…the cops find Garfield’s wristwatch on Gleckler’s corpse and, assuming it’s Julie’s, pronounce the whole sordid affair case closed. But Det. Monty Phelan (Rains), a veteran cop doing penance for sending an innocent man to the chair by pulling permanent morgue duty, is convinced that Garfield is still breathing and gets the okay from his skeptical superior (William Davidson) to investigate.

Meanwhile, Julie’s trekked out to Arizona by thumb, foot and rail—and faints dead away from hunger when he reaches some sort of camp for delinquents (enter the Dead End Kids). Take-no-guff blonde Gloria Dickson and feisty old Irish grandma May Robson take Garfield in, even though he’s kind of a bad influence on the kids (the highlight of the movie is a harrowing sequence where John and the Bowery Boys go swimming in a water tank and almost end up drowning when a hayseed decides to irrigate his fields). Inspired by an idea hatched by Dead Ender Billy Halop, Garfield decides to participate in a $500 a round exhibition against a fellow pugilist by going the distance and raising enough scratch to invest in a gas station. Wouldn’t you know it—one of the kids takes Julie’s picture for a newspaper photo contest…and that same Arizona paper just happens to wind up in the hands of Supercop Rains in New York City. Tipped off that Rains is on his trail, Garfield abandons his trademark punching style to throw off suspicion…but in the end, he puts Dickson, Robson and the kids first to win the prize money. Criminal is sloppy and sentimental—and the ending will have you saying “What the f**k?”—but I’m such a huge Garfield fan I’ll watch him in anything (and that includes Flowing Gold). Bonus: TCM followed Criminal with their documentary The John Garfield Story—a luscious cherry for any hot-fudge sundae.

Boomerang! (1947) – I can’t remember the last time I saw this one—I’m guessing it might have been during the time that AMC showcased a film noir festival (yes, I know, it’s hard to believe) but it still holds up fairly well despite some dated elements. A small-town Connecticut priest (Wyrley Burch) is murdered, and when the cops (represented by Lee J. Cobb and an uncredited Karl Malden) are stymied by the lack of leads in the case it turns into a political football between the two main parties in town, with State’s Attorney Dana Andrews as the poor schmoe forced to play quarterback under pressure from ward heelers Robert Keith and Ed Begley. A vagrant (Arthur Kennedy) is picked up by the authorities, who keep him awake until he signs a confession…but after talking with Kennedy, Andrews isn’t convinced the guy is guilty and risks a chance of becoming governor (plus future luncheons with the Rotarians) to prove his innocence.

The argument over whether or not Boomerang! is a legitimate film noir will rage on until eternity (just from where I’m sitting, any turn of events that involves railroading a guy for a crime he didn’t commit is pretty noirish to me) but you can’t deny the film isn’t competently directed (by Elia Kazan) or features a top-notch supporting cast that includes the previously named performers plus Sam Levene (as a cynical, smart-assed newspaper reporter), Jane Wyatt (as Andrews’ supportive spouse—poor Jane has bupkiss to do), Cara Williams (I always forget she’s in this film, she’s so young), Taylor Holmes and Philip Coolidge. There are also brief cameos and bits from Walter Greaza, Brian Keith, Arthur Miller (as a line-up suspect), Frank Overton, Anthony Ross, Edgar Stehli…and heavy-handed narration from Reed “Racket Squad” Hadley.

My foreign film experiences, pt 3


Friday, November 21, 2008

But is he up to it?

“Lazy” Fred Thompson is abandoning all future political pursuits and will instead be encouraging his flair for the buskin:

Thompson, best known on TV for his role as a gruff district attorney on NBC's "Law & Order," dropped out of the crowded GOP primaries in January after his much-anticipated presidential campaign failed to gain strong support among conservatives.

He campaigned heavily for eventual nominee John McCain, and had recently tried to gain support to be in charge of the Republican National Committee.

But his former finance chairman, B.C. "Scooter" Clippard, said Thompson told him Wednesday that he was returning to acting and dropping his RNC bid.

"He seriously considered it, but he called and said that it was not in the cards," Clippard said.

Clippard said he did not know which television programs might be interested in Thompson.

"He has some wonderful opportunities back in the television market that probably financially far outweigh being chair of the RNC," Clippard said.

Should we be surprised by this turn of events? Fred isn’t exactly what you would call a motivated individual. (“Maybe ah’ll campaign this mornin’…then again, maybe ah won’t.”)

If Dick Wolf will have him, maybe he could return to Law and Order and run against Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) for the office of district attorney. I know my Mom would watch it.

“If you wanna know—ask Joe…”

When I’ve written in the past about old-time radio anthology programs—like Lux Radio Theater and Screen Director’s Playhouse—I inevitably point out my disappointment with the broadcasts because, more often than not, I’ve already seen the movies. This hasn’t always been the case, particularly with Playhouse (which I listened to back in the 80s on Savannah’s WWSA as part of Victor Ives’ Golden Age of Radio Theater); the series allowed me to preview such films as Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), A Foreign Affair (1948), The Killers (1946)…and too many others to mention. But one such broadcast—from December 2, 1949—introduced me to Arthur Miller’s breakthrough play, All My Sons…all neatly wrapped up in half-an-hour, and starring Edward G. Robinson and Jeff Chandler (filling in for Burt Lancaster).

The 1948 film version was shown on TCM yesterday—not too surprising, in light of its recent stage revival featuring John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and Katie Holmes in the principal roles. I don’t have access to the big Broadway shows so it may be presumptuous of me to pass comment, but I can’t possibly see how any production can top a movie which features the likes of Robinson, Lancaster (becoming more and more self-assured with every screen appearance since The Killers), Mady Christians and Louisa Horton.

Joe Keller (Robinson) is a self-made big businessman whose son Chris (Lancaster) has invited his fiancée Ann Deever (Horton) to the family home for a visit—ostensibly to propose marriage. This doesn’t sit well with Kate (Christians), his mother, because Ann was engaged to Chris’ brother Larry—who’s been reported MIA and is assumed dead to all except Kate, who stubbornly insists her son is alive. There’s a bit of bad blood between the Keller and Deever households: Ann’s father Herbert (Frank Conroy) was Joe’s business partner—but both men were brought to trial when their company shipped a consignment of valued airplane parts (cylinders) that turned out to be defective. Joe ended up beating the rap (he was apparently bedridden with the flu at the time of the shipment) and Herbert continues to do his time in prison. Chris and Ann’s impending nuptials have also been jeopardized with the arrival of her brother George (Howard Duff), who’s starting to believe his father’s claims that Joe was involved to the same extent he was…and Chris, knowing that he’ll never be at peace with Ann until he learns the truth, sets out to uncover the real story—afraid of what he might find.

All My Sons was the first big stage hit of Miller’s long career, and the content of this melodrama contains many of the themes that would later resurface in what many consider to be his magnum opus, Death of a Salesman: how “the American Dream” often perverts a good man’s value system, how a father’s sins are (or are not) visited upon his son(s)…and how the “typical American family” acts as a façade for a decay and rottenness at its moral center. Some of Sons’ substance is probably old news in today’s jaded era (where bad business ethics is more-or-less an everyday thing and, regretfully, an accepted practice) but for me, both the play (and movie) still packs a pretty potent emotional wallop.

Edward G. Robinson has always been one of my favorite movie actors, and though he often complained about being typecast in gangster roles, occasionally he would get a plum part in movies like Sons (and House of Strangers [1949], in which he plays a similar character) to demonstrate his tremendous range. His Joe Keller is a fascinating individual, completely incapable of understanding how his unethical deeds are chiefly responsible for several deaths until the reluctant Chris is forced to rub his nose in the evil that he has done. His scenes with Lancaster are among the highlights of the film, as Burt plays a man torn between loyalty to his father and the unshakable certainty that Joe needs to atone for what his twisted business ethics have wrought. I was also mesmerized by Christians’ portrayal as Keller matriarch Kate—she plays Kate as a cold, distant woman who nevertheless can bend people to her will if she so desires. (Sadly, though Christians has a significant body of work in silent films, the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Letter From an Unknown Woman [1948], her last appearance on the silver screen.)

My favorite scene in Sons is the arrival of George Deever to the Keller home; he tells his sister that though he’s been estranged from their father for many years his new career as a lawyer has made him more flexible in examining both sides of an issue and, after having a heart-to-heart talk with Herbert is convinced that Joe knows much more than he originally told. There’s tenseness here between George, Ann and Chris—and then Kate enters the picture, softening George up with her motherly wiles (reminiscing on how she took care of him as a boy) and insisting that he stay for dinner, “just like old times.”

Later at dinner, George is being treated like the prodigal son—feted with all his favorite foods and receiving all the attention. Joe tells him he’ll talk with one of the respected judges in town to see about hiring George on as an attorney, while Kate coos over him and declares that her mission is to find him a wife. George is flummoxed and overwhelmed by all the consideration and declares the Kellers to be good people—pointing out that Kate hasn’t changed at all since the old days, and that Joe himself is the very picture of health. “Never been sick a day in my life,” Joe crows proudly.

You can almost hear the BOINNNNGGG! on the soundtrack. Joe backtracks and mentions that, of course, there was that time when he had the flu during the trial. But George isn’t buying it; his illusions have been shattered and he realizes what a schmuck he’s been—allowing himself to be played as a sap by a family he should rightly treat with contempt. (Were it not for Robinson’s wow performance, Duff would have walked off with the movie with this presentation alone.)

Sons features an eclectic supporting cast: Lloyd Gough, Arlene Francis (as a busybody neighbor who tells Ann that everyone in the ‘hood knows Joe is guilty—they just admire the way he weaseled out of it), Harry Morgan (the comedy relief), Elisabeth Frasier…and quick cameos from OTR vets Jerry Hausner, William Johnstone and Herb Vigran. If I have a quibble with the film, is that its dramatic punch comes to a halt with a tacked-on “happy ending” for Lancaster and Horton…but even this “necessity” doesn’t detract from what still remains a commanding, tragic statement of a family regretfully gone wrong.

My foreign film experiences, pt 1


Thursday, November 20, 2008

“I’m just waiting for Barry Lyndon to stop buffering…”

Here’s an article that I thought was odd:

The 10 movies you shouldn’t watch online
Movies are increasingly creeping online, as video sites like YouTube and Hulu are adding feature films to their extensive libraries.

At the Google-owned YouTube, there is the YouTube Screening Room, which every two weeks, adds four new films — mostly independent works — to the site. Hulu, the joint creation of NBC Universal and News Corp., has hundreds of films available for stream, from "Basic Instinct" to "Wuthering Heights."

Of course, many people download films illegally on BitTorrent sites, but movies are nevertheless becoming more populated — legally — online.

Hulu recently added 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia," which begs the question: Should anyone watch a nearly four-hour-long epic of sweeping grandeur on their laptop? Or, heaven forbid, their cell phone?

Some of the films mentioned are pretty much no brainers: Arabia, Lyndon, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, etc. But it’s nice to see movies like North by Northwest and The Third Man on the list.

As for You Got Mailfeh! Who cares?

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM (part 1 of an ongoing series)

Payment Deferred (1932) – This one has been on my “Must-See” list for sometime, and I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed. MGM adapted this from a popular stage play (by Jeffrey Dell, from a C.S. Forester novel) that starred Charles Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester—sadly, Elsa didn’t make the transition to the silver screen; she was replaced by Maureen O’Sullivan. Charlie plays William Marble, a likable soul who’s drowning in a sea of red ink—so when he’s presented with the opportunity to pull himself out of the financial hole he’s dug by offing his nephew (Ray Milland—who was 27 at the time but looks like he’s just been allowed to wear long pants) with a dose of cyanide he does so—and then plants Milland in the backyard. Sure and begorrah, Laughton is tripped up at the end…but not quite in the way you’d expect. The performances from Laughton (who’s amazing as a cold-blooded killer you just can’t help developing an affinity for), O’Sullivan, Milland, Dorothy Peterson (superb as Charlie’s long-suffering spouse) and Verree Teasdale are all first-rate; silent comic Billy Bevan also has a small role as a real estate agent chum of Laughton’s (and finished out his career in Hollywood playing assorted butlers, porters and constables—generally of the Cockney variety…though Bevan himself was an Aussie). Laughton, O’Sullivan and Milland would reunite sixteen years later for The Big Clock (1948), a nifty little film noir directed by Maureen’s hubby, John Farrow. There’s only one discordant note in this film: a minor character refers to Laughton’s position at the bank as a “clerk”—forgetting that they pronounce it “clark” (like the candy bar) in the U.K. (Deferred is one of the many movies TCM is showing as a nod to Laughton as “Star of the Month”…but I’d have given my left man-tit if only they had scheduled Hobson’s Choice [1954].)

Trail of the Rustlers (1950) – I’ll confess that when it comes to B-westerns, my education is woefully lacking—I usually find myself depending on folks like Boyd Magers or Chuck Anderson to fill in the gaps. So seeing my first Charles Starrett/Durango Kid western was quite a treat; this one gets three stars from Mr. Magers himself. The plot is pretty straightforward: a gang of malcontents are scheming to buy up all the ranchland in the sleepy little hamlet of Rio Perdido (Spanish for "lost river") because of the recent drought...and are able to speed things up a bit, saleswise, when one of them (Don Harvey) masquerades as Durango ('who's always worked outside the law...but never against it") and starts terrorizing the town. It's pretty much your run-of-the-mill B-oater stuff, but what I did notice that was different was that the villain (Mira McKinney) isn't the usual respected-by-all-banker but some dame what runs a hotel and is working alongside her two idiot sons (Harvey, Myron Healey). Smiley Burnette provides the comic relief (and musical interludes, along with Eddie Cletro and his Roundup Boys), but what I still can’t dope out is how Gene Autry protégée Gail Davis (later TV’s Annie Oakley) gets second billing while serial/western vet Gene Roth (as the town sheriff) gets bupkis…and Roth has more screen time than Gail! I have to say, though—Rustlers was a pleasant little diversion…I always thought that when it came to programmers, Columbia ruled the roost.

Ride the High Country (1962) – “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Still the best film Sam Peckinpah ever directed, and a western I never get tired of. Randolph Scott (in his final film) and Joel McCrea are friends and former lawmen who are hired to transport a shipment of gold from a godforsaken mining community (Coarse Gold) into town—Scott is secretly planning to make off with the bounty while McCrea insists on maintaining his personal code of ethics. Naturally, by the film’s conclusion, McCrea wins Scott over to his way of thinking (“Hell…I know that…I always did…you just forgot it for a while, that’s all”) when they’re forced into a final showdown between three of the most loathsome reprobates (James Drury, John Anderson and Warren Oates) in cinematic history. A conservative guess would be that I’ve seen this movie close to fifty times and I’m fascinated by its themes of companionship and honor—it sounds ludicrous, I know, but I’d dearly love to go out in this world just like McCrea does…in a blaze of glory.

TCM ran another Randy Scott western last night, Comanche Station (1960), and while I had every intention of seeing it other plans overtook the viewing. I’m not all that disappointed, because it’s one of five Scott classics available in the Budd Boetticher DVD box set that was released last week—it’s on its way to Rancho Yesteryear, hopefully sometime before the weekend. In the meantime, allow me to whet your appetite for these cinematic goodies by pointing you towards two reviews of the set—one from Lloyd's mardecortasbaja.com and the other courtesy of John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows (and a doff of the TDOY chapeau to Laughing Gravy for giving me a heads-up on the latter).

"Are you men SURE you know what you're doing?"


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"But I just wanna tell ya..."

Postage stamp planned for Bob Hope

WASHINGTON (AP) — The post office is telling Bob Hope: thanks for the memories.

The beloved entertainer will be honored on a U.S. postage stamp next spring.

The stamp design will be unveiled Monday at a ceremony on New York's Ellis Island, the entry spot for thousands of immigrants like Hope.

Born in England as Leslie Townes Hope, the singer, actor and comedian was a youngster when his parents moved to the United States. He eventually became one of the nation's most beloved entertainers and was known for his trademark song "Thanks for the Memory," which was on the album "Thanks for the Memories."

Though never a member of the armed forces, Hope dedicated much of his time traveling the globe to entertain men and women in uniform, beginning in World War II and continuing through Operation Desert Storm.

In 1997 Hope became the first person recognized by the U.S. Congress as an "honorary veteran of the United States Armed Forces."

Hope died in 2003 and becomes the first person to benefit from a postal rule change allowing individuals to be honored on a stamp five years after their death. Before the rule change in 2007 people other than ex-presidents had to wait 10 years to become the subject of a stamp.

R.I.P., Irving Brecher

Two days ago, we lost one of the last surviving writers of not only Radio’s Golden Age but the era of classic movies as well. Irving Brecher has gone on to his rich reward at the age of 94.

I’m saddened at the news of Brecher’s passing for many reasons. First off, I was fortunate enough to recently receive a galley copy of Brecher’s autobiography (as told to Hank Rosenfeld), The Wicked Wit of the West—due to be published by Ben Yehuda Press on January 17, 2009. The date would have marked the observance of Irv’s 95th birthday, so it’s devastating that he won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of his labor—a very funny book (I’m reading it now) containing scores of anecdotes about Groucho Marx, Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason, George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack Benny and many more (even Arch Oboler!).

Secondly, the influence of Brecher’s Silver Screen contributions is simply immeasurable. He was the only screenwriter to receive solo credit for two Marx Brothers films: At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940). He scripted two of Lucille Ball’s best MGM features (and speaks very highly of her in Wicked Wit), Best Foot Forward (1943) and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). But his crowning achievement is probably the 1944 musical classic (for which he received a Best Screenplay Oscar nom), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)—a film beloved by so many that it’s become an annual event around Christmas time in the same vein as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). (Among his other notable screenplays: Shadow of the Thin Man [1941], Yolanda and the Thief [1945] and Bye Bye Birdie [1963]…he was also responsible for much of the comic dialogue of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz [1939].)

But lastly—being an OTR fan—I revere Brecher for taking a failed audition program (The Flotsam Family) for Groucho Marx and revamping it into one of the all-time great radio sitcoms: The Life of Riley, starring William Bendix. I have never made any secret of the fact that I’m a huge fan of this series, from its radio days to feature film (written and directed by Brecher, and one of the best radio-to-movie transplants ever) to television pioneer. Brecher adapted Riley—at his own expense—for TV in 1949 and gave audiences a quick glimpse at a future star on the tube by casting a then-unknown Jackie Gleason in the title role (Bendix was under contract to Hal Roach at the time, and Roach forbid him to do any TV). The series lasted only a season (despite winning an Emmy for Best Comedy Series) but later turned up again in 1953 on NBC when Brecher leased the show’s rights to the network (and that version succeeded, due to Bendix’s participation). (Brecher also tasted a brief bit of television success as the creator-producer of The Peoples’ Choice, a 1955-58 dom-com starring Jackie Cooper and a basset hound named Cleo.)

R.I.P, Irv. You’ll never know how much you’ll be missed.

Probably the same codger who told his grandkids that life was in black-and-white until Kodak was invented...


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

C’mon, get happy

TVShowsOnDVD.com has the skinny on the release of the fourth and final season of the kitschy family sitcom The Partridge Family, which will hit stores of February 3, 2009. There was a time when I was anxious to collect this series, it having been a staple of my Friday night viewing schedule during my formative years—but since there was a three-year gap between the release of the second and third seasons, I began to reevaluate the sitcom and realize that it wasn’t really all it was cracked up to be. (That, and the revulsion that I have for Danny Bonaduce—a “celebrity” who takes in far more oxygen on this planet than he’s entitled—kind of scotched any further Partridge purchases. I ended up selling the first and second seasons on eBay.) Nevertheless, I am pleased to see that they’re planning on finishing out the series on DVD for the fans out there.

Sony is also making progress on the classic domcom Bewitched, which will see its seventh (and penultimate) season released on disc the same day. It certainly looks like the Stephenses will go the distance on this one—but I suppose that since the company finished I Dream of Jeannie they were obligated to reciprocate with the more popular of the two “sorcery” shows. Now if only Sony would turn its attention to some of the other shows they started out *cough* Hazel *cough* but seem to have abandoned.

Later in February (the 17th to be exact), CBS-Paramount will follow up its current The Beverly Hillbillies releases with The Beverly Hillbillies: The Official Third Season (I like how they’re calling these “official” now, because Lord knows they sure as hell aren’t complete—I’m surprised the Flatt & Scruggs music survived intact). I was not aware that the show didn’t switch to color until its fourth season (I would have thought that as hot a property as the Clampetts were CBS would have gone to any lengths to cash in on color) but of course, when I watched the show it was always black-and-white. (We didn’t get a color TV set until 1976.)

Finally, everybody’s favorite Depression-era family, the Waltons, will kick off their penultimate season release to DVD with The Waltons: The Complete Eighth Season on January 6th, 2009, according to this press release at TVShowsOnDVD.com. Once again, I had a nice little collection of DVDs built up from this childhood favorite but I departed with them after hearing the siren song of eBay. (I pretty much stopped watching it after Richard Thomas left the show anyway.)

Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me...?


That's right...animation's most famous six-foot rat turns eighty today.

Happy birthday, Mickey!

"My favorite! Bologna with whipped cream!"


Monday, November 17, 2008

Like meat with a pause button

With the economy sliding further and further into the crapper, it’s reassuring to know that some inexpensive comestibles and foodage remain stable, price-wise:

Through war and recession, Americans have turned to the glistening canned product from Hormel as a way to save money while still putting something that resembles meat on the table. Now, in a sign of the times, it is happening again, and Hormel is cranking out as much Spam as its workers can produce.

(snip)

Spam, a gelatinous 12-ounce rectangle of spiced ham and pork, may be among the world’s most maligned foods, dismissed as inedible by food elites and skewered by comedians who have offered smart-alecky theories on its name (one G-rated example: Something Posing As Meat).

But these days, consumers are rediscovering relatively cheap foods, Spam among them. A 12-ounce can of Spam, marketed as “Crazy Tasty,” costs about $2.40. “People are realizing it’s not that bad a product,” said Dan Johnson, 55, who operates a 70-foot-high Spam oven.

(snip)

Spam “seems to do well when hard times hit,” said Dan Bartel, business agent for the union local. “We’ll probably see Spam lines instead of soup lines.”

Even as consumers are cutting back on all sorts of goods, Spam is among a select group of thrifty grocery items that are selling steadily.

Pancake mixes and instant potatoes are booming. So are vitamins, fruit and vegetable preservatives and beer, according to data from October compiled by Information Resources, a market research firm.

Speaking of beer, my mother was happy as a lark when she discovered that Georgia is now carrying Yuengling beer, the Pottsville, Pennsylvania brew many believe will be the next American beer champ. (She located it in her liquor store of choice.) I e-mailed Jim Leeds about this when she told me the news…and he was apologetic, apparently having known this earlier and neglecting to tell me about it. No harm done, Jim—trust me, Mom would have discovered this eventually

Care to come up and see my blogging?


Sunday, November 16, 2008

R.I.P., Reg Varney

A poster at In the Balcony notes that comic actor Reg Varney, star of the huge London Weekend Television sitcom hit On the Buses (1969-73), has passed away at the age of 92. I’m ashamed to admit, however, that I thought Varney had left us long before that.

Premiering on ITV in 1969, Buses starred Varney as Stan Butler, a bus driver for the Luxton & District Traction Company, who experienced constant aggravation at both home and the office. His best friend at the bus company was lecherous conductor Jack Harper (Bob Grant—not the infamous right-wing radio talk-show host, but a British actor who resembled a grotesque caricature of Eric Idle), and the two of them were constantly chasing after the female employees (“clippies”)—much to the consternation of their supervisor, Inspector Blake (Stephen Lewis)…a tyrannical martinet with a Hitler moustache nicknamed “Blakey” by Stan and Jack. (Blakey’s constant refrain of “I ‘ate you, Butler!” soon became the series’ popular catchphrase.) At home, Stan had to deal with his domineering mother (“Mum,” played by Dame Cicely Courtneidge and later Doris Hare), homely sister Olive (Anna Karen) and sponging brother-in-law Arthur (Michael Robbins).

Buses creators Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney pitched the show to the BBC in 1969 with a pilot called The Early Shift but the Beeb took a pass, allowing LWT to take the idea and run with it for seven series and seventy-four episodes. It was never a critical darling but audiences ate it up—it was so successful that it spawned three theatrical releases: On the Buses (1971), Mutiny On the Buses (1972) and Holiday On the Buses (1973)—the first one doing such boffo B.O. that it edged out the James Bond flick Diamonds are Forever (1971) that year for the number-one position. The series has since been released in its entirety in both Region 1 and 2 versions, and also served as the inspiration for a short-lived sitcom in 1973 starring Dom DeLuise, Lotsa Luck!

On the Buses wasn’t Varney’s first regular TV gig; he also co-starred in the BBC smash The Rag Trade (also created by Messrs. Wolfe and Chesney) from 1961 to 1963, and Beggar My Neighbour from 1966-68. His last sitcom was Down the Gate, which lasted two series from 1975 to 1976. In addition to the Buses movies, Varney also made appearances in films like The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1972) and Go For a Take (1972).

Cor blimey, Reg. You will be missed.