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DVR Theater, Assortment 1 July 14, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies, Television.
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popcornWith the new HDTV and digital cable set up, I’ve been filling the new DVR with all sorts of old movies, mostly from one of my favorite channels, Turner Classic Movies.

Fox has a movie channel as well, but they don’t fully exploit the Fox library they own and repeat a lot of the same crap. AMC, once a commercial-free channel for quality film, now concentrates more on developing TV like Madmen, and while I get the HD version of AMC, it still has commercials and annoying ads crawling around the screen. Meanwhile, NBC/Universal owns the gigantic Universal & early Paramount libraries as well as a ton of classic TV and has NO quality channel running any of it a la TCM, despite owning a ton of channels on the cable dial. Only in Hollywood can you find the rare combo of having no artistic taste AND no business sense rolled up into one suit sitting behind the boss’ desk. Did it ever occur to the same people who make millions running the most commercialized studio tour in the biz that they could have their own cable outfit constantly building equity in stuff they already own that gets promoted via the longevity of their brand? Never mind all those great movies that go un-rerun – how about the enormous amount of classic television? Or the Walter Lantz cartoon library that no one is running on television anymore? It’s all just sitting there, doing nobody any good while Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman take up hours of programming daily.

Morons.

So, the DVR has been savin’ up the TCM for the most part. In between re-watching some old favorites, I’ve made a point to watch some old titles that have flown under my radar all these years, and I’ll provide some capsule and extended reviews of those periodically under this wonderful new blogseries. Here’s some material from the last few weeks.

Let’s start with the comedies I’ve seen – first up to bat was His Girl Friday, one I hadn’t seen since college and remembered fondly, though I must admit that it’s more fun to watch with an audience, especially at college, especially where the audience is largely made up of dating couples who can react according to gender at the endless banter between Grant & Russell. Watching it by myself, it seemed less funny, a little more forced, and I didn’t find sufficient motivation for me to enjoy Ralph Bellamy as Grant’s rival being treated like a total schmuck. Following this, I watched the first two Thin Man movies, The Thin Man and After The Thin Man, both enjoyable pieces of fluff mixing comedy (mostly based on witty drunkenness, a schtick William Powell had down perfectly – no wonder they give him a drunk scene in the wonderful My Man Godfrey). The mysteries in both are rather silly, but they hold your interest and the marital relationship between Powell & Loy is a wonderful one to see, although Nora gets shunted aside when the investigatin’ gets serious towards the end, something that would not work its way into a more modern take on a husband/wife detective bit.

Ninotchka holds up very well, even if it’s obligatory 1930s comedy drunk scene feels a tad forced (and evidently Garbo did not want to do it) – what struck me here was how similar a lot of the Billy Wilder co-scripted comedy based on the Russian commies being seduced by the comforts of the west would be repeated in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three more than twenty years later. A film I had never seen that disappointed me somewhat was Born Yesterday – it came off as stagey and predictable, with blonde bim Judy Holliday’s gradual blossoming as a more self-assured woman under the tutelage of William Holden seeming perfectly expected. It was cute, but just not that funny – and Holden’s character seemed rather boring.

Yes, I know I am supposed to like it, but I could not get through all of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I love silent film, I love physical schtick, I love when Buster Keaton or Mr. Bean or Benny Hill do silly silent movie gags…. and this one just bored me. The gags don’t go anywhere, they don’t build on one another, they do not trick the audience (a Keaton specialty), they just lay there as gentle absurdities. Sorry, but as the old joke about Schindler’s List goes – “Not funny!”

Also not funny was my second Norman Krasna film in a week (after the disappointing Mr. & Mrs. Smith for Hitchapalooza), Who Was That Lady? where Janet Leigh walks in on hubby Tony Curtis kissing some bim and best friend Dean Martin needs to come up with some sort of con to convince her otherwise… I was thinking that had potential, but after about a half hour of only one laugh (a wonderful Jack Benny cameo, proving once again that Jack Benny is ALWAYS funny), I gave up. It struck me that Tony Curtis made a ton of movies in the early to mid ’60s where he played a swingin’ bachelor or a philanderin’ husband and wound up running around nervously trying to tell lies to all the women involved in a charming way – the sort of bickering over martinis romantic What Sort Of Man Reads Playboy? movie world that got blown out of the water by the counterculture only a few short years later – no wonder Curtis’ career changed so much by the late 1960s.

The rest of the DVR fest has been westerns & gangster films. I’ve caught some of the later Warners’ gangster films that I’ve never seen before, where the production code’s edicts on not letting us root for the bad guy re-cast tough guys like Cagney and Edward G. Robinson as good guys who tangled with mobsters. This way, we could still have the shoot outs and crime sprees, only our tough guy protagonist would not be one of the thugs, as in the earlier Public Enemy or Little Caesar. In G-Men, Cagney joins up with the FBI to avenge a friend’s death, and in Bullets Or Ballots, Robinson plays a cop going undercover to bring down the rackets. However, the Warner Brothers’ style remains the same in these films – the criminals are depicted as complex individuals, often likable and more often products of society. Society is shown as vulnerable to corruption, and the tough street kids turned men are the heroes. Oftentimes the true corrupt powers pulling the strings are supposedly respectable citizens and political leaders, something found both in Bullets Of Ballots and also in the Cagney vehicle Each Dawn I Die, (all 3 of these were directed by the same man, William Keighly) where he’s a muckraking newspaper reporter framed for murder by a corrupt politician and sent to prison. Gangsters are often sympathetic in this world – mirror images of our cop/reporter protagonists who only took a wrong turn somewhere, but are fighting the same people. This is explicitly stated in Each Dawn I Die, when Cagney’s ally is convicted gangster George Raft. In Bullets Or Ballots, the main gangster is a friendly would-be businessman whose weakness is an inability to control a gun toting hothead in his gang, played of course by Humphrey Bogart. In G-Men, Cagney’s old friend is a retiring gangster who cannot control the violent impulses of the lieutenants inheriting his empire. Similar themes of good guy gangsters versus true bad guy gangsters would be explored in other Warner movies of the period, notably The Roaring Twenties, made the same year by Cagney as Each Dawn I Die. And sitting in the DVR now is one of Cagney’s all time great films, White Heat. Top of the world, ma!

I wasn’t too crazy about the third of the three movies Cagney made in 1939, The Oklahoma Kid, an odd exercise in taking the Cagney versus Bogart dynamic and setting it in a western. It came across as slow moving and rather silly. A more enjoyable western from 1939, though somewhat anticlimactic by the end, was Dodge City, featuring Errol Flynn and his elegant accent as the respective saviors of Daffy Duck’s “lawless western town” from smilin’ sleazebag villain Bruce Cabot. There are some great moments in this one, in assorted action set pieces throughout – but the story is rather roundabout and has some annoying plot holes. Still – a beautiful technicolor film, the first color western, ably directed by Michael Curtiz. Funny – Curtiz and Flynn worked together a lot and very well (Robin Hood, Captain Blood) but supposedly hated each other.

Badmen’s Territory, with Randolph Scott fighting a corrupt marshall and befriending the historically inaccurate melange of famous outlaws (and Gabby Hayes, of course) populating a fictional town outside US territory, was a fairly entertaining B-movie that got my attention when I saw that none other than a young Lawrence Tierney was playing Jesse James. Scott plays the same role he always played, really – the emotionless long legged good guy, not all that different from The Tall T or Ride The High Country.

The other western out of the DVR was the wonderful Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne a star and is just plain fun from start to finish. I wonder if there’s a better print out there than the one TCM ran, or if Criterion could get a hold of this one and clean it up somewhat… a lot of it looked fine, but somehow other scenes looked a bit darker than I remember.

That’s all for now (I have to stop watching old movies and be productive sometime), but there’s more coming up in the next installment.

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