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Clint Eastwood’s Comedic Timing

I’m not best pleased that one of America’s greatest filmmakers, Clint Eastwood, has chosen to throw in his lot very publically with America’s worst political party, and at what is possibly the lowest, most appalingly stupid time in its history.  In fact, Eastwood’s appearance at the RNC convention is likely to be the only highly-praised Eastwood performance I never see.

But I am kind of fascinated, from a geek/interwebz observer perspective, with the publicity/search engine optimization going on around it. Do a Google search on “clint eastwood comedic timing” and you get a full page of entries all with exactly the same heading:

Republicans Praise Clint Eastwood’s Speech: ‘His Comedic Timing 

I thought all the dot commies and Google code monkeys were on our side, but there are clearly some effective, interwebs-savvy publicists working for the RNC.

Anyway, there’s no way his performance at the RNC could match his gifted timing in such classics as Kelly’s Heroes or Paint Your Wagon

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Cowboys & Aliens. And Han Solo. And Indians. And yet a little dull.

A few minutes into Cowboys & Aliens I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Smurfs movie instead.  I was taking the sons of a friend to the movies, and I knew that the violence in the opening scene was more than she would have approved. For that matter, it was more than I was expecting from a PG-13 film.

Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes in the desert with no boots, a wound in his side, a weird metal contraption strapped to his wrist and a bad case of amnesia.  Three men ride up while he is trying to get the thing on his wrist off.  Lingering close-ups of bloody scalps hanging from their saddles tell us that these are not nice guys.  A fight ensues, during which we get more bloody close-ups, this time of a knife stuck in one of their legs, and then of Lonergan’s face as it is splattered with blood from the head he has just bashed in.

It wasn’t anything to which I would have objected normally, but it seemed unnecessary and perhaps a tad overly nasty, and certainly not something I really wanted those boys to see, or their mum to hear about. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to register much with the boys. Based on their comments after, they’d been more engaged by the aliens’ second set of hands, and by a cowpoke taking a dump in the river, than by the nastiness that discomforted me. But I was still a bit bothered…

After that bloody opening, Lonergan rides into town, where he is recognized as a wanted fugitive and arrested.  As he is being loaded into a prison wagon, the aliens show up in insectile flying craft. They blast up the town and start hauling off townsfolk with metallic ropes that lash out and grab them. It’s one of the few moments of real wit in the movie, seeing the aliens lassoing townspeople like cattle.

The thing on Lonergan’s wrist activates, and he is able to use it to blast his way out of the prison wagon, and then to shoot down one of the alien craft. The alien pilot escapes and some of the townsfolk set off in pursuit, hoping it will lead them to where the lassoed people have been taken. They are accompanied by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the local cattle baron, whose ne’er–do–well son was one of those taken. Lonergan initially abandons them, but later comes back when his memory starts to return and he recalls that the aliens had kidnapped him and his wife and killed her.  Also along for the ride is a mysterious woman (played by Olivia Wilde, seen most recently on Tron:Legacy and the TV show House), who seems to know something about the aliens and have her own cause for revenge. The group meets up first with Lonergan’s former gang, and then with a tribe of Apaches, both of whom ultimately join them in their assault on the aliens.

It’s fun to watch Harrison Ford as a cowboy—the last time we saw that was probably The Frisco Kid (1979), a fairly fun comedy Western directed by Robert Aldrich and co-starring Gene Wilder.  We’ve seen him on a horse since, in the “Indiana Jones” movies, but he would have been good in more Westerns. And Daniel Craig is good, too—looking surprisingly gaunt after his sleek foray as James Bond, and appropriately haunted, making a fairly effective “man with no name” lone cowboy hero. But gaunt as he is, he’s still a bit too gym-toned for me.  Think of the great movie cowboys—the long and lanky James Stewart, the even leaner Henry Fonda, solid (later chunky) John Wayne, and perhaps most particularly the rangy, languid menace of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Westerns. Craig’s eyes have got it, and his lined face, but somehow the body and moves seem more martial arts than open range.

The film lives up to its title. Cowboys happen. Aliens happen. And yet it all seemed a little… dull. The pursuit of the aliens is a bit hard to believe. No one riding around the hills, not even those Apaches, noticed that huge alien structure with spacecraft flying out of it? And there are so many subplots along the way—the outlaws, the Apaches, the mysterious woman, Dolarhyde’s backstory—that there isn’t much room for the things we most enjoy about movies with cowboys and movies with aliens, so it ends up feeling like, despite all those subplots, not a whole lot happens.  There’s a ridiculous showdown between the Apaches and Dolarhyde before the final battle. And that final battle with aliens ends up offering nothing really new and no real surprises.

It’s actually a bog standard fantasy novel plot. Lonergan’s amnesia makes him the orphan with a mysterious past. His alien wrist device is the magic ring, sword, oracular pig, whatever. He goes off to hunt down the evil force in its lair, being joined along the way by a band, a fellowship. Together they defeat the evil, and harmony is restored in the kingdom. It’s not bad to follow that archetypal storyline. Lots of great books and movies have been made from it.  Unfortunately, it feels like this movie ran out of inventive steam shortly after the elevator pitch one imagines got it started: it’s a Western—with aliens! and Han Solo!

In the beginning, there were moments that suggested it might have more to offer than that elevator pitch. The local preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown), had that real, authentic Western feel initially, but his character degenerates into caricature pretty quickly. He’s there to bang on about absolution to the film’s other figures, particularly Lonergan and the town saloon keeper, Doc (played by Sam Rockwell, Zaphod Beeblebrox in the lamentable film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a few years back). Doc’s name should have warned us that the scriptwriters were running out of ideas fast. The fact that the town’s name was Absolution, and that this emerged as a key thread in the script, might also have been a warning.

If Sergio Leone had made the film, no one in Absolution would have been absolved; damnation would have been more likely. But instead, we get the safe restoration of all the alien kidnap victims—though there seems to be no real reason they were taken, much less kept alive—and absolution for all the bad guys—Dolarhyde becomes a good citizen and his son is reformed; Lonergan is effectively pardoned by the sheriff, and even his outlaw gang seems to have been integrated into the community. It’s a “one big happy family” scene at the end, with all of them drinking together in the saloon. With one exception.

The Indians aren’t part of the celebration. The group of Apaches that the rescue team encounter join them in attacking the aliens because their loved ones have been kidnapped as well. But while the nasty outlaws get invited to the wrap party at the saloon, the Apaches seem to be absent. I guess it was easier to imagine vicious, smelly murderers getting recuperated by the shared experience of vanquishing alien hordes than it was Indians.

Maybe because there is a real fracture line in the film around Indians and the West, and Westerns.

Like most Westerns—like almost all Westerns—Cowboys & Aliens is set in the period between the end of the American Civil War and the “closing of the frontier,” when the last groups of free and independent Indians were brought under the heel of the federal government.  And as in many of these Westerns, the Civil War lurks in the background, here in the form of Colonel Dolarhyde whose power and violent nature were shaped by that war, and whose war stories get told in the course of the movie’s quest.

Another great theme/setting for Westerns is the conflict between cattlemen and townsfolk, the range wars, and this is clearly also at play in Cowboys & Aliens, between Dolarhyde and the townsfolk—particularly in the beginning, when Dolarhyde’s son Percy rides into town and starts shooting things up. It’s straight out of any number of Wyatt Earp/OK Corral-inspired movies, with the confrontation between the forces of law and order and the unruly cowboys. The only twist is having Lonergan the outlaw stand up to the cowboy.  (The cowboys riding into town to free one of their own from the sheriff’s hoosegow was the whole plot, really, of one of my favorite Westerns, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.)

So the filmmakers were aware of the West, of at least of Westerns.  And were not without wit and intelligence, as in, for instance, the “lassoing” of the townsfolk, and the earlier scene where they “mutilate” some of Dolarhyde’s cattle. But given all of that, you might have expected something more to come out of the fact that aliens have invaded the West to mine gold, and that this makes them obvious stand-ins for the Europeans invading Indian lands for resources (land, buffalo, gold). But instead, the fallout (literally, of gold) from the defeat of the aliens means the town will grow rapidly, and while it brings the cowboys and townsfolk together, the absence of the Apache from the closing celebration is a clear token of things to come as far as they are concerned.

There’s a certain amount of irony around the title here. The title suggests that the aliens occupy the space of the Indians—Cowboys & Aliens instead of the normal “cowboys and indians”—but in fact, by invading the land to take the resources, they are more like cowboys. And the attack by the film’s cowboys—Lonergan, Dolarhyde and co., joined by the Apaches—on the alien structure is a bit like an Indian attack on a fort in an old western. It’s really the cowboys who are the Indians, not the aliens.  But only until the closing. Then it is back to business as usual: the cowboys are cowboys again, and the Indians are missing in action.

The filmmakers missed a real chance here to be a bit wittier and smarter, and make more of a revisionist Western, by highlighting these ironical reversals, developing them more and having them lead somewhere.  It’s clear that this was on their minds—or at least some of their minds, to some extent. Maybe it died on the cutting room floor to make room for the romance angle between Craig and Olivia Wilde, which frankly I thought was another unnecessary distraction from what I’d come to see, what the title promised: cowboys and aliens.

As for that also unnecessary nastiness which bugged me in the beginning, it continued, like an irritating, intermittent whine.  The cowpoke dropping his drawers to take a dump in the river, which the boys found so interesting, didn’t do much for me, and I was even less impressed with the subsequent scene of Dolarhyde torturing this cowboy because he somehow suspected… what? That the cowboy was responsible for a whole herd of cattle being blown up, fried and eviscerated? How would that have worked?

Ford’s Dolarhyde is at the center of much of the nastiness that follows the first scene—with the torturing of the cowpoke and then a gruesome story he tells a kid about cutting someone’s throat.  I don’t mind violence and blood.  In their place, they can be crucial to a movie.  I just didn’t think the nastiness was crucial to this movie, and didn’t see what it added. I suppose I was just super-sensitive because I knew how much flak I was going to catch from those boys’ mom when she found out. But no—it didn’t add anything, and took up screen time that could have been much more profitably and appropriately  used.

I’m sure I would have been much more miserable at The Smurfs, and felt even more guilty about inflicting on the boys what I am pretty sure would be a really stupid movie rather than some blood and violence which was more upsetting for me, thinking of them and their mom, than it was for them.

The British Board of Film Classification gave Cowboys & Aliens a 12A classification, meaning that the film is not considered suitable for children under the age of 12, though they may go if accompanied by an adult. The wording for the American PG-13 rating seems a bit less strict, merely holding that “Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.”  I might have thought twice about taking these kids, both of whom were under 12 (albeit just), to this movie if I’d know it had a 12A certificate, but the truth is, finally, that it was my bad.  I grew up watching movies with cowboys and aliens—and Harrison Ford—and I thought this would be more like them. I should have known better, really.

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More Star Specials on TCM – Grand Illusion, Red River, Cary Grant… and Dobie Gillis

After today’s Bogart marathon—all day today, 13 films and 1 documentary—TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” with Jean Gabin on Thursday, Debbie Reynolds on Friday, Montgomery Clift on Saturday and then Cary Grant on Sunday. The program then continues for the remainder of the month (full schedule here).

With stars like that, and more than a dozen of their films each day, there’s no shortage of highlights. Here, though, are some of the highlights of the highlights:

Grand Illusion (1937) – directed by Jean Renoir, with Jean Gabin as a French prisoner in a WWI German camp, commanded by Erich von Stroheim – showing Thursday, Aug 18 at 7pm. One of the great classics of world cinema, Roger Ebert called it “a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization.” It’s followed by another film by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabim, La Bete Humaine (1938), based on the novel by Emile Zola.

Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and starring Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds – showing Friday, Aug 19 at 11:15pm.  Kelly and O’Connor play a couple of song and dance men who are trying to make the transition from silent movies to sound. Reynolds is a club dancer and movie fan. A sparkling script by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green. Roger Ebert says Singin’ “is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” Leonard Maltin called it “the greatest movie musical of all time.” Selected as one of top ten films of all times in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll.

And yet… And yet… You’ve probably already seen it, so maybe you should check out The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) with Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van, Hans Conreid (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and Bob Fosse – showing first in the Debbie Reynolds marathon, at 3am. The film on which the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, featuring pop culture’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs, was based.

Red River (1948) – directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in one of the greatest Westerns of all time – showing Saturday, Aug 20 at 10am.

Saturday, August 21, features 13 movies starring the incomparable Cary Grant, including many of his greatest. The top picks:

4:30am: I’m No Angel (1933) – with Mae West

6 am: My Favorite Wife (1940) – with Irene Dunne

12:30pm: The Philadelphia Story (1940) – directed by George Cukor, with Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart

2:30pm: North By Northwest (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock once said that Cary Grant was the only actor he ever loved. The two made four films together, and this is the last.  It might also be the least. It’s spectacular, with some amazing cinematography—including the wonderful shots at UN Plaza and the scene with the crop duster. But it also has Hitchcock’s weakest blonde, Eva Marie Saint—though perhaps she only seems weak in comparison to Grace Kelly, who’d been in Grant and Hitchcock’s previous outing together, the sparkling To Catch a Thief. Still, immensely satisfying.

7:15pm: Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – another one directed by Howard Hawks, and a personal favorite of mine – with Jean Arthur.

1:15am: Bringing Up Baby (1938) – an another by Howard Hawks, probably a personal favorite of just about everyone. The classic screwball comedy starring Grant as a mousy professor and Katharine Hepburn as a scatterbrain heiress. Clearly TCM wanted to finish their day of Cary Grant on a very high note.

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On TCM (Sep 27-Oct 3): noir Westerns, blaxploitation Westerns, Hammer Horror, and Terrence Malick

TCM can feel like an embarrassment of riches at times. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

For instance, as you may have gathered I take Westerns pretty seriously, and Delmer Daves is a serious director of Westerns. (Also a local boy who made good, born in San Francisco, who I manage to like even though he graduated from Stanford, one of my alma mater’s arch rivals). Daves directed the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) – a dark, noir version of the Wild West, rich and fascinating, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin doing some of their best work – and Broken Arrow (1950) with James Stewart, among other interesting films in the genre.

But he did other movies as well. He wrote An Affair to Remember (1957) – the movie with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr which was given a new audience when it featured prominently in Sleepless in Seattle. He also wrote the screenplay for The Petrified Forest (1936) – a terrific, dark picture, an important precursor to film noir, starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, with Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. And he wrote and directed the WWII submarine pic Destination Tokyo (1943), again with Cary Grant.

So he did a lot of top-notch films, but I tend to think his best and most important work was in the Western genre.  That said, should I try to catch a Daves romance pic I’ve never seen or read about, The Very Thought Of You (1944), on Monday (Sep 27) at 3:30am?  Would it add anything to my appreciation and understanding of him as a Western director? Probably not. Still, I did think about it.

Okay – enough ruminating. Let’s take a look at some genuine picks for the coming week…

I want you to know that I do watch movies other than Westerns. In fact, I prefer screwball comedies and musicals, and science fiction films. But Westerns are one of the key holdings of the TCM archives so they will continue to come up frequently in my picks from their schedule.

Monday evening (Sep 27), TCM’s “Prime Time Focus” is on range wars – an important aspect of western history and of the Western genre. They’re showing five features and one short – including the classic The Westerner (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring Gary Cooper, and another one of those movies that Howard Hawks and John Wayne made together in that productive decade (see my earlier post). This one, El Dorado (1967) with Robert Mitchum and James Caan, is the second of the three versions they made of the same story – still not as good as Rio Bravo, but fun.

This Monday night focus is followed on Tuesday morning by an incredible run of six Westerns, including one of the masterpieces of the genre, John Ford’s dark, magnificent The Searchers (1956) with John Wayne, showing at 10:30am PT (Sep 28). Among the other films showing on Tuesday is the weird and wonderful Johnny Guitar (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray, and the well-known Magnificent Seven (1960), starring Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).

An interesting (to me) bit of trivia: Wayne’s sidekick in The Searchers is played by Jeffrey Hunter, who would go on to play the role of the captain in the first pilot for the TV show Star Trek, the role subsequently taken on by William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk…

I really do watch things other than Westerns. And I watch movies made after 1968, too. Sometime in the late 60s, though, is often taken as the cutoff point for “classic” movies – the end of the classic era of Hollywood filmmaking and of the Hollywood studio system. In the 1970s, you have a new kind of American cinema emerge – with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas transforming the movie industry.

Less well-known than these three movie-making giants, but a crucial director from the early period of the new, more independent American film industry is Terrence Malick. TCM is showing his two “classic” movies from the 1970s this week: his stunning directorial debut Badlands (1973), with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, on Saturday (Oct 2) at 7pm; and Days Of Heaven (1978), with Richard Gere, on Wednesday (Sep 29) at 5pm.

Malick and these films are, I think, more remembered and well-regarded by cinephiles and film scholars than the general public. But even if you’ve never heard of him, you should check them out.

Among the many virtues of Days of Heaven is its extraordinarily beauty, with cinematography by two of the greatest names in the field, Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for the film, and Haskell Wexler. And here’s how Roger Ebert concludes his discussion of this “great movie”:

What is the point of “Days of Heaven”–the payoff, the message? This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us. That feeling is how a child feels when it lives precariously, and then is delivered into security and joy, and then has it all taken away again–and blinks away the tears and says it doesn’t hurt. (rogerebert.com)

Still from the 1970s and this new era of American film, but on an entirely different plane is my pick for Thursday (Sep 30): Buck and the Preacher (1972). It’s kind of a Western, but it stars Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, and was also directed by Poitier (his directorial debut). And it’s funny, and owes a lot to the “blaxploitation” genre that was popular at the time – both in terms of getting made and having some commercial success and also in terms of its story and characters. (One possible elevator pitch might have been “Mister Tibbs Goes West.”)

It’s not a great movie, but it is enjoyable – I tend to always enjoy Sidney Poitier, though for him in a blaxploitation-era film I prefer  the movie he made two years later with Bill Cosby, Uptown Saturday Night (1974) – or of course, in more general terms, in To Sir, with Love (1957). I think Buck and the Preacher is much more interesting and relevant as a blaxploitation film than as a Western, and deserves to be considered in that light, as part of that genre – as an attempt to take the popularity of that genre and reposition it in a vehicle that was no doubt seen as being more mainstream, a cross-over film.

Friday (Oct 1), it’s pretty much all Walter Matthau, all day, with seven movies starring him showing back to back (from 3am to 3pm). The obvious pick of the bunch would be The Odd Couple (1968), with Jack Lemmon, but much as I like this movie – and the TV show that was made from it – I’d be more likely to watch Ensign Pulver (1964) at 1:15pm. It’s a sequel to the John Ford film (which was actually mostly directed by Mervyn LeRoy), Mister Roberts (1955) – starring Henry Fonda (who made so many great movies with John Ford) and James Cagney . It’s not as good a film as The Odd Couple, but I like it better anyway.

But the thing to catch, other than that pair of Malick films, the treasure of the week really, is what comes on after this run of Walter Matthau films: a TCM “Prime Time Feature” focusing on Hammer Horror – four different Dracula films made by that cult studio between 1958 and 1969, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. These movies are a big part of the reason why Cushing was cast as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars, and Lee as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Cult classics. Camp sometimes, scary sometimes, always intensely pleasurable in a B-movie way.

One final pick, for Sunday night (Oct 3), an obvious classic: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the famous Frank Capra film about a political naif in the corrupt world of Washington politics. It stars James Stewart, but for me the standout performance in the film is that of Jean Arthur. She is, simply put, marvelous:

She remains arguably the epitome of the female screwball comedy actress. As James Harvey wrote in his recounting of the era, “No one was more closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it, that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without her.” Arthur has been called “the quintessential comedic leading lady.”(Wikipedia)

The contemporary actress Téa Leoni bears some interesting similarities to Arthur, beyond their obvious shared blondness and beauty. Both have unusual voices and really superior comic timing, and an odd combination of toughness and vulnerability. It’s unfortunate that Leoni hasn’t had the chance to flourish in the comedy genre, where she clearly belongs, and instead keeps getting cast in movies that don’t let her shine as well as she might (like Deep Impact), presumably because she’s so beautiful. She deserves to have her beauty overlooked in favor of developing her talents and proclivities. Leoni is perhaps an example of an actor who would have faired much better under the old studio system.

Mr. Smith was the last of three films Arthur did for Frank Capra, the previous two being Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), with Gary Cooper and You Can’t Take It With You (1938), again with James Stewart. She’s also terrific in the Howard Hawks film Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with Cary Grant – in which she plays yet another Hawksian woman who drifts into town and falls for the aloof professional hero.

While she really is pitch perfect as the screwball heroine, vulnerable and resilient, she did other films as well, and her final role was in – wait for it – a Western, and a classic one at that: Shane (1953), in which she plays the married woman the titular hero falls in love with and, arguably, dies for. You can read more about Arthur here: Bright Lights Film Journal :: Uneasy Living: Jean Arthur.

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On TCM (Sept 20-26): Michael Curtiz, Westerns!, and a Screwball Gem

Tomorrow – Monday (Sept 20) – is a big day on TCM, with great or interesting movies all day long, beginning with This Is the Army (1943) at 6:15am – a musical by the director of Casablanca, Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was very busy during WWII – directing four films in 1939, three each in 1940 and 1942 (including Casablanca) and two during every other year of the War. He’s not known for musicals, but in fact he directed a number of them in addition to this one, including one of my personal favorite films, White Christmas, as well as Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney and King Creole with Elvis Presley.  It’s a fairly impressive array of oddball musicals, and while This is the Army may be the least interesting of them, it’s still worth a look.

It’s followed (at 8:30am) by one of the greatest Westerns ever made, a classic of American cinema: John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. Not to be missed. Though if possible, try to see an actual print of the film in an actual movie theater first. UCLA (or possibly USC) has a particularly pristine print, which is shown pretty regularly at UCB, at the Pacific Film Archive. Try to see it.

Roger Ebert has a quite wonderful review of My Darling Clementine, one of the “Great Movies” for which he has posted reviews on his website:

Ford’s story reenacts the central morality play of the Western. Wyatt Earp becomes the town’s new marshal, there’s a showdown between law and anarchy, the law wins and the last shot features the new schoolmarm–who represents the arrival of civilization. Most Westerns put the emphasis on the showdown. “My Darling Clementine” builds up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, but it is more about everyday things–haircuts, romance, friendship, poker and illness. (via rogerebert.com.)

The more Westerns you watch the more powerful My Darling Clementine appears. Likewise, the more you read about the history of the West the more interesting it becomes. The church dance and in particular the appearance in town of a Shakespearean actor become much more important, the gunfight less – a coda, which is pretty much as Ford presents it.

At 10:30am, a minor film, but fun: Topper (1937) with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as a fun-loving couple who die in car crash and then haunt a stuffy, henpecked banker played by Roland Young. Based on a series of novels by Thorne Smith (which I read in battered Penguin editions when I was a kid), Topper was made into a TV series in the 1950s, with Leo G. Carroll doing a wonderful job in the title role.

Topper is followed, at 12:15pm, by Way Out West (1938) with Laurel & Hardy. It’s a pretty late outing for this classic comedy duo and by no means their best work, but still worth watching, short and sweet. (Laurel & Hardy films seem fairly common on TCM – there are a couple others showing this week.) After that, Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night (1946), with Nigel Bruce as his faithful companion, Dr. Watson. These two made a bunch of Sherlock Holmes films together, some based on the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, others on original scripts. Like Topper and Way Out West, this is a minor film, but with genuine charm.

Taken together, these three represent a crucial but not much discussed category of films – solid, well-crafted genre pictures, not B movies but not big hits or well-remembered classics either – the sort of movies that filled the theaters all through the 30s and 40s, and filled the programming of local TV stations – and my weekends – when I was a kid. These movies aren’t often discussed in books or courses on American film – unlike My Darling Clementine – but they are central to a fuller understanding of film culture – both films and their viewing – in America in its heyday.

But if these films are not exactly classics or masterpieces, my last pick for the day certainly is: The Red Shoes (1948), showing at 7pm – another film, perhaps the best, from the team of Powell & Pressburger, who made A Matter of Life & Death, which showed a couple of weeks ago. The Red Shoes tells the story of a young ballet dancer and the composer who falls in love with her and marries her. And it tells the story of a ballet about a magical pair of ballet shoes – the titular “red shoes.” The extended fantasy ballet sequence was something that hadn’t been seen in film before, and laid the way for similar sequences in later musicals, such as An American In Paris. Roger Ebert describes it as “the most popular movie ever made about the ballet and one of the most enigmatic movies about anything…. voluptuous…and passionate.” Enigmatic, certainly, and at times quite dark, but also deeply moving and beautiful. You don’t have to like ballet to like it, but if you like the art of film, you’ll love it.

I’m not going to watch it. I last saw The Red Shoes in a beautiful cinephile theater in Rome with an adoring audience that came out of the movie in stunned silence before bursting into extravagant Italian discussion. I’m not ready to diminish that memory by watching it on TV in my living room.

My pick as movie of the week last week was Ernst Lubitsch’s version of The Merry Widow, with Maurice Chevalier. This week, TCM is showing an earlier, silent version of the same story at 3am on Wednesday (Sept 22): The Merry Widow (1925), directed by the great Erich von Stroheim and starring that heartthrob of the silent screen, John Gilbert. I haven’t seen it – and I’m looking forward to catching it so soon after seeing Lubitsch’s. It’s followed (at 5:30am) by von Stroheim’s most famous film, Greed (1924).

Another movie I haven’t seen but am curious about is showing later on Wednesday, at 1pm: The North Star (1943) – about Ukrainian villagers fighting the Nazis, and starring Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Walter Huston and Walter Brennan. It’s a pretty impressive cast and I’m curious to see how the movie, made when the Soviet Union was still a heroic ally, not a Cold War nemesis, depicts the Russians. (Dana Andrews as a Ukrainian?!?)

TCM doesn’t show many foreign films, but Wednesday night has one of them (at 7pm), and it’s a big one: Rashomon (1950) – the film that brought Akira Kurosawa – and Japanese cinema – to the attention of Western audiences.

Wednesday night/Thursday morning (1:45am Sept 23) there’s a weird and unexpected surprise. Here’s the description TCM gives: ”Rocket scientists consider naming a space ship after Herman’s Hermits.” The film is Hold On! (1966). Not knowing anything about it but that, my guess would be that this is a 1960s teen flick featuring Herman’s Hermits, designed to cash in on the pop music scene and following on from the success of the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Significantly, it came out the same year as that other attempt to cash in on this phenomenon: the Monkees’ TV show. This movie may be a hoot or it may be wretched, but it is almost certain to have some camp appeal, as well as a modicum of film historical interest… If you’re looking for a subject for an article or essay on film, you could do a lot worse than to take this film on, in conjunction with the Beatles and Monkees material, and maybe think about about the space ship angle (1966 was the year the Apollo Program got off the ground).

Much of the rest of Thursday is taken up by a six-pack of Mickey Rooney films, beginning with what would be the first of the Andy Hardy / Hardy Family films, A Family Affair (1936), also starring Lionel Barrymore. This series would end up continuing for two decades, with 16 films, three with Judy Garland – including the star of the series, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938).

Another important Western is showing late Thursday night (1am): The Man From Laramie (1955) with James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann, a terrific Western director. Thinking about the past few weeks, it’s clear that one of the great strengths of the TCM holdings is the Western, and if this is a genre that engages you – and it should – then you’ll be able to pick up a decent film education in the genre without ever changing the dial.

Saturday morning at 6am (early morning!) is a childhood favorite, The Mouse That Roared (1959), a comedy with Peter Sellers playing a bumbling fellow from a tiny European backwater nation that decides to resuscitate its finances by going to war with the United States and losing – and getting some of that wonderful war reconstruction aid money. Hilarity, as they say, ensues- Sellers accidentally wins the war. Jean Seberg – best known for Godard’s Breathless – is the love interest.

The last movie on TCM during this week that I want to single out is a wonderful screwball comedy showing very late Saturday/very early Sunday (3am) – Nothing Sacred (1937) starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March and directed by William A. Wellman. Though less known these days than many of her contemporaries, Lombard was a huge star in the 1930s, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. She’s probably best known now for two comedic masterpieces, Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). Tragically, she died in a plane crash in 1942, at the age of 33, but she left behind some of the best screwball comedies of the 30s – which is saying something indeed. While perhaps less known than the other two, Nothing Sacred is a knockout – with a script by the blacklist writer Ben Hecht – with help from Ring Lardner, Jr., Dorothy Parker (“Men seldom make passes…”) and Moss Hart, among others – and a musical score by Oscar Levant, who played Gene Kelley’s composer sidekick in An American in Paris.

This is a week full of pleasure, with some genuine masterpieces – My Darling Clementine, The Red Shoes and Rashomon – but my pick for film of the week would have to be Nothing Sacred. Few things in life are more guaranteed to give joy than the great screwball comedies of the 1930s.

Some other picks of the week:

  • Look Back in Anger (1958) – Tues (Sept 21) at 6:30am – with Richard Burton and directed by Tony Richardson
  • Irma La Douce (1963) – Tues (Sept 21) at 2:30pm – Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, directed by Billy Wilder
  • That Hamilton Woman (1941) – Tues (Sept 21) at 6:45pm – Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Wed (Sept 22) at 3pm – William Holden, directed by Billy Wilder
  • The Sting (1973)– Fri (Sept 24) at 6:45pm – the classic with Robert Redford and Paul Newman – what could be better?

Filed under: Movies, ,

This Week (Sept 13-19) on TCM: Westerns, Olivier, Lubitsch

It’s another busy week coming up on TCM, with lots of wonderful films, though perhaps nothing that quite measures up to some of the treasures of last week – particularly Playtime, A Matter of Life and Death and Touch of Evil. Still, lots of pleasure…

On Tuesday, Sept 14, TCM is showing a series of five Westerns with Tim Holt, starting with The Law West of Tombstone (1938) at 3am PT – a Western comedy also starring the great Harry Carey. Holt’s not really an actor that is much remembered, but he appeared in a lot of movies in the 1930s and 1940s, most of them Westerns, and some of them very good – the best being Stagecoach – John Wayne’s breakthrough film – and the magnificent My Darling Clementine (dir. John Ford). He has secondary parts in these films, but the ones showing on TCM feature Holt in bigger roles. The Law West of Tombstone was really his first leading role, and the following year Holt was in 5 movies. He was a busy guy. He’s brilliant in My Darling Clementine, but probably his best performance is as Bob Curtin to Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948):

Wednesday morning (Sept 15) it’s Jackie Cooper‘s turn for the omnibus treatment, with a massive eight films, again starting at 3am PT. Also again, the first is the one not to miss: The Champ (1931), starring Wallace Beery.

One of the more unlikely highlights of the week is on Thursday (at 12:30pm): Summertime (1955), starring Katherine Hepburn and directed by David Lean. What’s odd about it is that it’s not the frequently seen or much discussed – a sort of forgotten entry in the filmographies of both Hepburn and Lean.

Thursday also features one of the genuine highlights of the week: Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1948) at 6:45pm PT. It’s followed by Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring (1960). These two stand out from the majority of the fare on TCM and the other highlighted films of these week – as “classics of world cinema,” arty and sophisticated, rather than humble genre pics.

John Wayne and Howard Hawks loved making movies together. Or perhaps it might be better to say they loved making one particular movie. They did four movies together in a decade – and three of them are loose versions of the same story.  The first was the best: Rio Bravo (1959) – a weird and wonderful movie, ostensibly a Western but more importantly an archetypal “Hawksian” film. In addition to Wayne, it stars Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, who sing a duet – with some help from the wonderful Walter Brennan. Wow! This week’s is the last – and least – of the three, and sadly the last film Hawks made: Rio Lobo (1970), showing at 9am PT, Saturday, Sept 18 – immediately after the Bowery Boys in Crazy Over Horses (1951).

(The fourth film Hawks and Wayne made together in that decade, Hatari!, is barely a movie at all – more of an excuse for those quintessential men’s men to hang out in Africa together, to go on safari with a gang of right pals, with a couple of sexy women along for the ride. I’m deeply fond of it, of course – not a guilty pleasure but one that is hard to explain, and will always be inexplicable to people who aren’t into Wayne or Hawks.)

Saturday on TCM is a bit strange. At 3am they’re showing The Journey (1959), starring Yul Brynner as a Communist officer (coincidentally, Brynner was born in the Soviet Union) who falls in love with a married woman (Deborah Kerr) trying to escape from Hungary. That’s followed by The Big Clock (1948) at 5:30am – a crime thriller based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing, founding editor of the Partisan Review, a writer with pronounced communist sympathies. And then, at 11am, there’s Blood Alley (1955) – with that notorious anti-Communist John Wayne as an American sailor who breaks out of a Chinese jail and dodges Communist agents on the road to Hong Kong. It’s like another one of TCM’s “essentials” or features – only with Communists as the undeclared focus.

They do declare their Saturday night focus on Maurice Chevalier. The first of the five Chevalier films is the musical Gigi (1958), at 5pm PT, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold. It’s weird and somewhat creepy – with Chevalier and Gingold practically pimping a very young Leslie Caron to the older, wealthy aristocrat played by Louis Jourdan. The most remembered song from the musical is both fun and creepy: Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” My favorite song from this movie, though, is the charming duet with Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, “I Remember It Well.”

The standout film of TCM’s “Essentials: Maurice Chevalier,” though – and my pick for the “must see” movie of the week – is The Merry Widow (1934), showing at 11:15pm, directed by the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch and starring Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Edward Everett Horton and Una Merkel. The Merry Widow started life as an operetta by the Austro–Hungarian composer Franz Lehár, and it has been filmed a number of times – but never better than this. Likewise, Jeanette MacDonald appeared in a number of “operetta” films in the 1930s, including one that I have a personal fondness for, San Francisco (1936), with Clark Cable, but she was never more wonderful than here.

As a side note, TCM seems to have the occasional problem with their film classifications – particularly when it comes to films that are comedies based within the context of some other genre. Last week the famous Ealing Studio comedy starring Alec Guinness, The Ladykillers (1955), was misclassified as “Crime.” This week a goofy comedy/family movie starring Bill Bixby (of TV’s “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), is misclassified as a “Western”; sure, it takes place in the “Wild West,” but anyone expecting an actual Western would be in for a real surprise.

Two other highlights of the week:

It Happened One Night (1934) – one of the great screwball comedies, with Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert – 3:15am PT, Monday, 13 Sept
In Harm’s Way (1965) – weirdly compelling WWII movie about the War in the Pacific, with John Wayne, directed by Otto Preminger – 12 midnight PT, Monday, 13 Sept (or Tuesday – who knows with midnight?)

Filed under: Movies, TV, ,

“Paint Your Wagon” (1969) on TCM Tonight (Aug 30)

Some time ago, waxing a bit rhapsodic about Clint Eastwood, I mentioned the weirdness that is Paint Your Wagon (1969) – a musical Western starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin as two California miners who share a gold claim and a wife.  Let me lay that on you again: A musical Western starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. It really does take a while to sink in, doesn’t it?  Anyway, it is showing tonight/tomorrow morning on the TCM cable channel at 4:45am Pacific Time.

When it’s finished, you can catch a quick nap while Hang ‘Em High plays and then watch four of the best Eastwood westerns, including all three of the “Man with No Names” / Spaghetti Western pictures – oddly, not in order – over the course of Tuesday: For a Few Dollars More (1965) at 9:30am; The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966) at 11:45am; The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) at 2:45pm; and A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) at 5pm…  Or I suppose you could record them.

And looking for some of the music from Paint Your Wagon, I ran across a fun blog devoted to Clint Eastwood with a post on a whole bunch of records involving Eastwood: The Clint Eastwood Archive: Clint Eastwood related Vinyl Records from around the world.

Filed under: Movies, , ,

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zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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