Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day!

Doris Day and son Terry Melcher

Looking for some great classic movies featuring some famous movie mom’s? Click here for some great suggestions for Mother’s Day movie viewing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

10 Things You May Not Know About Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea (1905 – 1990) was one of the most underrated stars from Hollwyood’s Golden Age, in my opinion. Unfairly labeled as the poor man’s Gary Cooper, McCrea was a talented actor in his own right. Here are some things about McCrea that you may not know.

1. Joel McCrea was Cecil B. DeMille’s paperboy.

I wonder if Cecil B. DeMille was a good tipper.

2. As a high school student he worked as a stunt double for silent movie cowboys William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

3. He was the first actor to play “Dr. Kildare” on the screen in Internes Can’t Take Money (1937).

McCrea was the first actor to portray Dr. Kildare.

4. When Gary Cooper turned down the part of the hero in Foreign Correspondent (1940), McCrea got one of his best known roles in the iconic Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

5. Writer-director Preston Sturges wrote Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) with McCrea in mind for the male leads.

6. He starred in six films with Barbara Stanwyck; their first film together was the pre-Code Gambling Lady (1934).

7. McCrea married actress Frances Dee in 1933; they were married for 57 years (his death).

McCrea and Dee were considered one of the most glamorous couples in Hollywood.

8. He and his wife had three sons: David, Peter, and Jody.

9. Due to his shrewd financial and real-estate investments, he was a multi-millionaire by the end of the 1940s.

10. McCrea was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1968.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Book review: “Jimmy and Fay: A Suspense Novel” with a classic movie backdrop

If you enjoy mystery novels and classic movies, Michael Mayo’s Jimmy and Fay may be right up your alley. Set when the 1933 version of King Kong is premiering at Radio City Music Hall, the novel concerns actress Fay Wray and blackmail. Blackmailers have some pictures of a lookalike in some compromising positions and they’re ready to send them to the press if the RKO movie studio doesn’t pay them off.

Enter Jimmy Quinn, the hero of The Jimmy Quinn Mysteries, a tough guy with a limp who operates a speakeasy in New York City. Quinn knows just about every crook and bad guy in the city so of course Wray comes to him for help. Quinn works his contacts to get to the blackmailers, but discovers an underground producer of stag films in Chinatown. Are the blackmailers and the underground filmmakers working together? And then there’s a goat—you have to read the book to understand!

Michael Mayo’s first-person narrative is smooth, easy reading. He has a good ear for authentic, film noir-style dialogue that fits in well with the plot. According the acknowledgments page, Jimmy and Fay is “fiction based on fact.” A year after she starred in King Kong, Wray was the victim of a extortion threat. The kind of threat Wray was subjected to in this novel was probably common during the days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Fortunately for Wray, the studio was able to mitigate that real situation and successfully kept it out of the press.

Publicity photo of Fay Wray around the time of the release of King Kong

If you enjoy mysteries set against a historical fiction background, Jimmy and Fay may be the book (and series) for you.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this novel from the publisher.

Series: Jimmy and Fay: A Suspense Novel (The Jimmy Quinn Mysteries)
Paperback: 250 pages
Publisher: Road (October 4, 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1504036077
ISBN-13: 978-1504036078
Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Richard Widmark "kills it" in Road House (1948) #Villains2017

Richard Widmark made a dazzling debut in Howard Hawk’s Kiss of Death in 1947. His characterization of Tommy Udo caused a sensation. For the early part of his career, Widmark played bad guys and lunatics. One of his best bad guy roles was as Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins in Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948).

You can have a drink or two while bowling at Jefty’s Road House!
Set at a roadhouse with a bowling alley, the movie revolves around Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), a singer that Widmark’s character Jefty hires as new entertainment for his roadhouse. Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), Jefty’s childhood friend, and business manager, is suspicious of the new singer and Jefty’s motivations for hiring her. Lily sees the gig as just a job, but Jefty quickly develops romantic feelings for her.

Jefty (Richard Widmark at right)  is infatuated with Lily (Ida Lupino).
Lily’s singing is a success, which softens Pete’s attitude toward her. All seems like smooth sailing ahead, with Pete and Jefty, working well together and enjoying each other’s friendship just as they always have. But slowly things begin to change and Jefty’s attachment to Lily grows obsessive. With this obsession comes a change in Jefty’s personality that is unsettling. When Jefty asks Pete to teach Lily to bowl, Pete originally declines, but Jefty insists. His demeanor and voice changes; he looks and acts like a entirely different person. The abrupt change scares Lily, but all is smoothed over, it seems, once Pete changes his mind and agrees to teach Lily.

Things get hot between Pete (Cornel Wilde) and Jefty when it comes to Lily.
Pete and Lily’s once antagonistic relationship quickly changes to romance, unbeknownst to Jefty. Jefty keeps pursuing Lily even though she’s given him no reason to believe that their relationship is anything more than that of boss and employee. As Pete and Lily’s relationship becomes more serious, Pete decides to tell Jefty. Jefty becomes enraged and throws Pete out of his house.

Lily isn’t buying what Jefty is selling.
Realizing that Jefty has become irrational, Pete and Lily decide to run off together. Pete takes $600 owed to him and a note explaining that he and Lily are leaving the roadhouse. While Lily and Pete are waiting at the train station, the police show up to take Pete into custody for stealing the roadhouse’s week’s receipts totaling $2600. Pete tells the police he only took the $600 owed him. It becomes obvious to Pete and Lily that Jefty has set Pete up. Jefty puts on quite an act for the police, pretending to be hurt and worried about Pete.

Jefty has Pete arrested for stealing; Lily and Susie (Celeste Holm) know he is innocent.
Pete is tried and found guilty of grand larceny. Jefty convinces the judge to parole Pete to his custody, therefore making him Jefty’s prisoner. Pete gets to keep his job, but he has to pay back the money he “stole.”
Jefty enjoys tormenting Pete and Lily and he descends into madness.
Jefty plans a trip to his hunting cabin, insisting that Pete, Lily, and Susie, (Celeste Holm) who works as the roadhouse cashier, come along. While at the cabin, a drunk Jefty taunts Pete and Lily. He becomes more maniacal, while messing around with a rifle. Lily accuses Jefty of taking the money. He smacks her and Pete knocks him out. Pete and Lily decide to make a run for the Canadian border, leaving Susie behind to keep an eye on Jefty.

Lily takes aim, but unfortunately, the gun is not loaded.
After a while Jefty comes to. Just before that, Susie discovers the deposit envelope and the cashier’s receipts in Jefty’s jacket. While Jefty is still a bit wobbly, Susie runs out of the cabin and tries to follow Pete and Lily. Jefty quickly pursues her into the woods. Susie catches up to Pete and Lily, but is shot in the arm by Jefty.

Susie confronts Jefty about the cashier receipt and deposit slip she found in his jacket
Pete sends an empty motorboat into the fog-covered lakeside as a decoy. Jefty shoots at the boat, thinking that he’s foiled Pete and Lily’s escape. Pete fights Jefty to get his gun, In their struggle the gun falls and Lily grabs it and points it at Jefty. Lily tells Jefty to stay away, but he doesn’t listen. She shoots, killing him, when he is about to throw a large rock at her. Pete, Susie and Lily leave the woods heading back to the roadhouse and we assume vindication from Jefty’s treachery.

Lobby card for Road House
Widmark’s performance in Road House is brilliant because it isn’t immediately obvious that he’s crazy. Through little incidents in the beginning of the film, we see his character slowly change. He begins to become unhinged that he almost seems drunk, even though we know he’s not. By the end of the movie he is absolutely crazy. He’s got the nuthouse laugh going full tilt and he’s mesmerizing; you can’t keep your eyes off of him.

Widmark made a spectacular movie debut playing the maniacal Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947).
It’s a tribute to his talent that Widmark was able to avoid being typecast as a crazy person or bad guy, which happened in the early part of his career. During the 1950s, he was able to get more traditional leading man roles as well as playing a variety of character roles, most of which were fairly normal. But, oh, did Widmark make a great villain—and Jefty Robbins in Road House is one of his best.

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon for 2017. It is hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy. Visit these blogs during the blogathon for some great entertaining and educational reads.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (#TCMFF) Recap: The Fourth Day

Hollywood, Sunday April 9
Sunday! The last day of the festival! The last day is always bittersweet. Plenty of good movies to see, but you know it’s going to end and you don’t want it to. I had plenty of good choices for morning viewing, but once again, I opted for a comedy.

I chose The Egg and I (1947) as my first Sunday movie. It’s a movie I have on DVD, but haven’t seen in a long time. The movie was shown in a digital restoration in the Egyptian Theatre. It stars Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray and is based on the bestselling memoir by Betty MacDonald. Tiffany Vasquez interviewed Kate MacMurray, the daughter of Fred MacMurray and June Haver before the screening. MacMurray shared some insights into her childhood and what it was like having movie stars for parents. She had nothing but praise for her father and seemed to be a delightful person in her own right. MacMurray has a Master’s degree in film studies. She is an ambassador for Gallo of Sonoma’s MacMurray Ranch wines. Her family sold the MacMurray Ranch to Gallo in 1996. Back to the movie! The Egg and I is a funny film with its fish-out-of-water tale of “city folk” trying to turn a dilapidated, crumbling chicken farm into a thriving business. In the hands of comedy pros like Colbert and MacMurray, it’s hard to go wrong. This was the film that introduced audiences to Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) Kettle to movie audiences. There’s also a young Richard Long (Jarrod Barkley from The Big Valley) as Tom, the Kettles’s oldest son. This was MacMurray’s first time seeing The Egg and I on the big screen; she was excited to be able to see it in such a beautiful movie palace like The Egyptian, and so was I!

Next up for me was another comedy—The Palm Beach Story (1942)—at the Chinese. This Preston Sturges classic is one of my favorite screwball comedies. Film historian Cari Beauchamp introduced the film and interviewed Wyatt McCrea, star Joel McCrea’s grandson. We learned from Wyatt that his grandfather started parting his hair on the right side of his head halfway into production. He saw some of the rushes and thought his hair looked as if he was balding when parted on the left side. He didn’t tell Sturges and I had never noticed it before. In the audience were relatives of Mary Astor who played a much-married princess and sister to Rudy Vallee’s straightlaced and incredibly rich J.D. Hackensacker III. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea play a couple in financial straits, which puts a strain on their marriage so Colbert comes up with a crazy scheme to finance her husband’s inventions. Like The Awful Truth, the laughs were fast and furious, and once again, first-times missed about 20% of the jokes because of the continuous laughter. Presented in a beautiful digital format, The Palm Beach Story never looked better.

What’s Up Doc? (1971) was a movie I saw in the movies with my parents (I was 14). I thought is was hysterical. But now, knowing the movies—the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s—that inspired it has made me admire it all the more today. Director Peter Bogdanovich introduced the film and shared some of the behind-the-scenes goings on and the casting of Madeline Kahn as Eunice Burns. Even though the film stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, both at the peak of their popularity and fame, it’s Kahn who, in my opinion, steals the picture and in her movie debut no less. The laughs never stopped inside The Egyptian!

Oh no. It’s the last movie of the festival for me. I had the following choices: Casablanca (1942), Lady in the Dark (1944), Speedy (1928), Red-Headed Woman (1932), and Beat The Devil (1953). I’ve seen Casablanca a million times and I love it, but I’ve seen it on the big screen before. Speedy, a silent film that features Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and stars Harold Lloyd is a movie I would have liked to have seen. Red-Headed Woman I have on DVD and it’s far from my favorite Pre-code favorite. Beat The Devil is another movie I would have liked to have seen, but I chose Lady in the Dark for two reasons: 1. It’s rarely ever shown anywhere (I don’t think it’s ever been on TCM) and 2. it’s in Technicolor and it was the last of the nitrate screenings at The Egyptian. The Technicolor in Lady in the Dark was beautiful, almost eye-popping in its luminosity. The story concerns Liza Elliot (Ginger Rogers), the editor-in-chief of Allure magazine who seems to have it all, but is suffering from depression. She’s involved with the magazine’s married publisher (Warner Baxter) and she is constantly at odds with Charley Johnson (Ray Milland), second-in-command at Allure, who makes no bones about wanting her job. Liza goes to see a psychiatrist (Barry Sullivan) who suggests that something from her childhood has caused her to have such a serious take on life, which includes avoiding looking glamorous, even though she’s in charge of a fashion magazine. Putting it in the context of 1944, part of Liza’s problem is she hasn’t met the right man. And in today’s terms, she doesn’t have the proper life/work balance. The film directed by Mitchell Leisen has incredible production values. The costumes, the sets and Liza’s elaborate dream sequences are outstanding. The performances are uniformly good and Rogers is impressive and believable as Liza. The ending may be predictable, but it’s an interesting slice of life, love, and psychoanalysis 1940s style. I’m glad I saw it.

That’s it…until next year (Lord willing). Now it’s a rush to Club TCM to say goodbye to my fellow bloggers and social media pals, but not too late; I have to catch that early flight out of LA!

Monday, April 17, 2017

2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (#TCMFF) Recap: The Third Day

Hollywood, Saturday April 8
Saturday may have been the best day of the festival. Two of my favorite comedies: The Awful Truth and Theodora Goes Wild were on the schedule and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Irene Dunne was the top-billed star of both films and she’s one of my all-time favorite movie actresses. Someone who I think was underrated—even though she received five Best Actress nominations—during her heyday. Dunne and Cary Grant, her costar in The Awful Truth, had a chemistry that is hard to analyze, but is truly magical. Many critics, including me think that they were at their best when together. The pair made two other movies: My Favorite Wife, a comedy and Penny Serenade, a drama, which won Grant his first Best Actor nod. Dunne received two of her Best Actress nominations back to back for Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937).

There were so many good film choices Saturday morning that it was another day of tough decisions. The Court Jester (1955), Red River (1948), The China Syndrome (1979), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Stalag 17 (1953), and This is Cinerama (1952). Of those films, I hadn’t seen The Court Jester or This is Cinerama. I decided to see The Court Jester in the Chinese Theatre, once again keeping with the festival’s comedy theme. The Danny Kaye comedy-musical comedy is a favorite to many. It features the classic “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” routine. The film was presented in a digital restoration that looked beautiful. Shot in Vista-Vision, Paramount’s answer to Cinemascope, The Court Jester looked brand new. The Technicolor looked vivid and crisp. Comedian Fred Willard and Illeana Douglas introduced the movie; it is one of Willard’s favorites. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and caught myself laughing out loud (I was in good company) during many scenes. The supporting cast was a dream: Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, and Angela Lansbury. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Fred Willard and Illeana Douglas introduce The Court Jester.
I already revealed that The Awful Truth was a movie I was anxious to see at the festival and even though there were some great films competing with it, I had to see this movie on the big screen at the Chinese. Competing with The Awful Truth was Rear Window (1954), The Last Picture Show (1971), David and Lisa (1962), and The Great Dictator (1940). There was so much laughter during The Awful Truth that first-timers missed at least 20% (my estimate) of the jokes; it canceled out some of the “follow-up jokes.” It was a testament to the writing, direction, and the performances of Dunne, Grant, and Ralph Bellamy, among others, that the film holds up 80 years after it was first released!

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne toast their “freedom” in The Awful Truth.
After The Awful Truth, I took a break and went to the “Conversation with Lee Grant” at Club TCM. Interviewed by critic Leonard Maltin, Grant recounted her early life and career, as well as the devastating effects of the Black List on her life and career. Grant’s husband, Arnold Manoff, was a communist. Grant was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and because she refused to testify against her husband, she was blacklisted from film for a dozen years. Her movie career started with such promise; she received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for her first film, Detective Story (1951). During this period, she found work on the stage and in television. Grant moved from acting to directing both small independent features and documentary films.

Melvyn Douglas, Irene Dunne and crew on location for Theodora Goes Wild
Next was another Irene Dunne classic, Theodora Goes Wild. Every time I see this movie, the more impressed I am with it. The writing, direction, and action are first rate. This was Dunne’s first foray into comedy, but you’d never know it. Her timing is impeccable and she was a great physical comedian as well. The plot surrounding a small town girl, who writes a scandalous best-selling novel, unbeknownst to the two maiden aunts who raised her is hilarious. Illeana Douglas introduced the film. Her grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, was Dunne’s leading man and perfect comic foil. The superior supporting cast included Thomas Mitchell, Thurston Hall, Elisabeth Risdon, Margaret McWade, Spring Byington, and Nana Bryant. Risdon and McWade are especially endearing as Theodora’s aunts. Their transformation by the film’s end is wonderful and incredibly amusing. And it was great to see this film in the beautiful Egyptian Theatre filled with uproarious laughter.

Stunning Technicolor sets Black Narcissus apart from other films of the period.
My last movie of the day (evening) was Black Narcissus (1947). This nitrate film was shot in breathtaking Technicolor; the print that we saw at the Egyptian was beautiful. The film stars Deborah Kerr as a nun sent to the Himalayas to open and establish a convent school. The psychological drama also stars Sabu, Flora Robson, and David Farrar. The film features an early screen appearance by Jean Simmons, cast as an Indian servant girl. Kathleen Bryon plays a troubled nun who is drawn to the estate manager (Farrar). Bryon’s character also believes that Kerr is in love with Farrar, and in her twisted mind considers her a rival for his affections. The film’s themes and story are complicated, but fascinating. I felt like it was “Vertigo with nuns,” since it explores some of the same themes, and has a similar climatic scene.

Hard to believe that tomorrow, Sunday, would be the festival’s last day, but there were still great movies to be seen!

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