broadsword, calling danny boy

Turner Classic Movies runs a Memorial Day marathon of war movies – but, given the somber nature of the holiday, they run a sort-of-surprising variety of movies within that genre. Yesterday, the emphasis was on service comedies, including both Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, as well as “No Time For Sergeants.” I wonder if they ever get any complaints.

Tonight in prime time, they’re running “Where Eagles Dare,” one of my all-time favorite movies, but it’s a slam-bang, over-the-top spy thriller.

I am sure most of you have seen it, and I’ve blogged about it before, but in case you’ve somehow missed it, it stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton, of course, is known for heavier dramatic fare, but his son challenged him to do an action movie as a change of pace, and to prove his versatility. “The Guns of Navarone” (which will also be on TCM today) had been a big hit, and so Burton wanted to adapt another Alistair MacLean spy novel. But all of MacLean’s novels were spoken for, and so MacLean agreed to write a new, original screenplay, which he then turned into a novel. Eastwood, who was riding high as the star of Sergio Leone westerns, wasn’t sure about taking second billing, but agreed to it anyway, and the two of them make a fantastic team – the bombastic Brit and the cool, laconic American.

This is one of those movies that you don’t want to spoil, but I can give you the basic setup. An American general, with knowledge of the D-Day plans, has been shot down and captured by the Germans and is being held prisoner in a remote mountain castle. A British commando team, headed by Burton, with Eastwood as a token American member, is dispatched to rescue him.  But events soon make it clear that the situation isn’t what it seems and that no one can be trusted.

Supposedly, Spielberg is a fan of this – when he was asked about it by an interviewer, he immediately started parroting Burton’s radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Once it gets going, the last two-thirds of it have the same sort of slam-bang action-serial pace as Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” There’s a fight on top of a skylift car.

Anyway, I love it. I have it set to record (I also have the DVD around here somewhere), but I’ll probably watch it live if I’m here tonight.

buona sera

Watching TCM just now while waiting to go in to work, I saw a promo for their annual film festival (a bucket list item for me, but not this year). One thing they mentioned was that Gina Lollobrigida would be there for a screening of “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (1968).

Sometimes, the films they show at the festival get screened on TCM before or after the festival takes place. If “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” pops up on the schedule, I will try to let you know – but it would also be worth setting a DVR search for it if you commonly do such things. I’ve only seen it a couple of times, but it’s a hilarious comedy.

The movie takes place in a small Italian village. Years before the movie takes place, during the American occupation of Italy following World War II, a young Italian woman has flings with three different American soldiers. After they leave, she has a daughter – and she writes each of the soldiers, without telling the other two. All three have been supporting her in the years since, which has allowed her and the daughter to live quite well compared to the other villagers. She has told the other villagers that she is the widow of a (fictitious) American pilot named Campbell, the name inspired by a soup can.

Now, though, there’s a complication. The military unit in which the soldiers served has decided to have a reunion – in Italy. Naturally, each of the three soldiers (Telly Savalas, Phil Silvers and Peter Lawford) wants to meet the girl he believes to be his teenage daughter. So the mother (Lollobrigida) is in a panic.

A terrific comedy with a terrific cast. Watch it if you get the chance.

A study in contrasts

In between working on my lines Monday night, I was watching two movies on TCM — one I’d seen before, the other I hadn’t. Both were part of a month-long TCM focus on art in the movies.

The movies were about as different as you can imagine. “The Art of Love” was a wacky comedy starring Dick Van Dyke, James Garner, Elke Sommer and Angie Dickinson, and it was a lot of fun (although I missed more of this one while working on my lines than the other one). Van Dyke and Garner are Americans living in Paris. Van Dyke is a struggling artist on the verge of giving up. Garner tries to talk him out of it.

Van Dyke, through a weird coincidence, is seen by Garner jumping off a bridge and is presumed to have committed suicide — the tragic story of which sends his existing artwork skyrocketing in value. When Garner discovers that his friend is still very much alive, they hatch a plan — Garner sells Van Dyke’s artwork and gives Van Dyke the money while Van Dyke remains in hiding, letting everyone believe he is dead while he cranks out new paintings for Garner to sell. But then Garner starts moving in on Van Dyke’s fiancee (who doesn’t know about the ruse), and so when the police start to think Van Dyke’s death was murder instead of suicide, and blame Garner for it, Dick lets his friend sweat for a while as punishment. He even plants some incriminating evidence. I wasn’t familiar with this movie at all, but I would watch it again. It’s an over-the-top farce, so don’t think about it too hard. Ethel Merman and Carl Reiner are in it too, and Reiner was one of the co-writers.

The other movie, which I have seen before, was the fascinating documentary “F is for Fake,” directed and hosted by Orson Welles. In the early 70s, a Spanish TV producer was working on a documentary about the world’s greatest art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and brought Welles in as a consultant. At the same time, a writer named Clifford Irving was working on a book on Elmyr. The two projects were separate but on good terms with each other; the documentarian shot some footage of Irving interviewing Elmyr and also some talking-head footage of Irving speaking as an expert on the subject.

Then, Irving sold a magazine article in which he claimed to be an acquaintance of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Eventually, the story was debunked and Irving was exposed as a fraud, in one of the biggest news stories of its era.

Welles was fascinated by this — the man who, just a few months earlier, had been dispassionately reporting on the topic of art forgery turned out to be a faker himself. Welles, working with the Spanish TV producer, took the footage shot for the documentary, shot new footage featuring himself, his girlfriend at the time, and others, and created an ingenious look at art, deception, and the relationship between the two, referencing Welles’ own experience with the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. A couple of Welles’ former Mercury Theater colleagues make an appearance, and there are also some “Citizen Kane” references.

The documentary comes complete with a clever surprise ending. (The next time TCM airs this, pay close attention to Welles’ opening narration and see if you can figure it out in advance.)

Each of the movies is fun, but they couldn’t have possibly been more different.

Executive Suite

When I got home from work today, “Executive Suite” was on, and I watched I guess the last hour or so of it. I’d watched the whole thing once before.

It’s a 1954 movie, directed by Robert Wise and the debut of legendary screenwriter Ernest Lehman. I find it interesting because it is, or winds up being, a movie about capitalism, which is not a common topic for popular entertainment.

The movie was pitched as an all-star drama, and for most of the movie, it manages to be that. The long-time chairman of a major furniture manufacturer has died, and various parties are jockeying to take his place. At first, McDonald Walling (William Holden) is watching this from the sidelines, trying to figure out how changes at the company might affect him. He’s more interested in design and research than in the operatic backroom bargaining, and his wife (June Allyson, who seemingly always played the supportive wife) wants to encourage him to follow his passion as a designer, even if it means leaving Treadway Corp.

But Walling becomes dead-set against Loren Shaw (Frederic March) taking over the company. He sees Shaw as one of the forces that has led the company to cut back on research and innovation and to put out a shoddy product line in hope of short-term profit. The conflict between the two men turns into a climactic scene in the boardroom as the board gathers to vote on a new chairman.

Shaw believes that a company’s overwhelming responsibility is to its stockholders, period, and that means cutting out anything wasteful that might cut into the profit margin here and now. Walling argues, passionately, that the company has to take a longer-term approach. He argues that Shaw’s approach demoralizes the employees and ultimately destroys the company and harms the stockholders. He argues that there may be a place for a value-priced furniture line, but it should be based on innovation rather than simply on cutting corners and turning out a second-rate product. He invokes the company’s responsibility to its own employees and says that they need to produce a product of which they can be proud.

It’s a surprisingly academic discussion to be the climactic standoff of a Major Motion Picture, but it’s played with surprising passion. And the basic arguments are, if anything, even more relevant in 2016 than they were in 1954.

At the height of the Red Scare, a critique of American corporate culture apparently raised some eyebrows, so much so that, according to Ben Mankiewicz’s outro to the film, producer John Houseman (Professor Kingsfield from “The Paper Chase”) was asked to sign a loyalty oath. But this film is virtually a celebration of capitalism – it simply holds that there’s a good kind of capitalism, one which serves the customers (and values intangibles like pride of workmanship) because that’s in the long-term interest of the stockholders, and a bad kind of capitalism, one which puts too much emphasis on maximizing short-term profit without considering the long-term consequences.

Logan’s Run

I see that I already have a blog post tag for “Logan’s Run,” so I must have blogged about it at some point in the past. But I don’t feel like going back and looking.

The 1976 movie “Logan’s Run” is airing right now, as I type this, on Turner Classic Movies. I remember it from my adolescence, although I only saw it edited on network TV, not in the theaters. It was followed in September of 1977 by a TV series, a relatively short turnaround for that sort of thing. It was right in the wake of “Star Wars,” which had come out that summer, and studios and TV networks were snatching up anything science fiction-related.

The original novel by by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, which I’ve never read, was a Vietnam allegory, published in 1967. By 1976, Americans were trying to forget the war – well, except for “M*A*S*H,” which was as much about Vietnam as Korea. So the politics were played down, although the central allegory – young people sent off to die because that’s what the system demands — remains.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic domed city – a seeming paradise, in which you work only a few hours a week and there are a lot of leisure options. There’s just one catch, and it’s a doozy. When you are born, a crystal is implanted in your hand. As you approach your 30th birthday, the crystal changes color and you are summoned to “carousel,” a ceremony in which participants float up into the air and explode. (The TV series substituted the explosions with a less-disturbing effect that looked like the transporter on “Star Trek.”)

The public is told that carousel is simply a first step to reincarnation, but there are some, called “runners,” who doubt the official theology and try to evade their pre-ordained fate. There’s virtually no other type of crime, so there’s no regular police force, but there’s a special squad called the “sandmen” who track down such runners.

Our central character, Logan 5, starts the movie as a sandman and is sent undercover to infiltrate a sort of Underground Railroad for runners. He, too, begins to doubt the line about reincarnation, ultimately pitting him against his former partner, who considers him a cop-gone-bad and is obsessed with tracking him down, even outside the protection of the dome.

Logan was played by British Michael York in the movie, and then by all-American Gregory Harrison (of “Trapper John, M.D.”) in the TV series. Jenny Agutter was the female lead — a runner who befriends Logan — in the movie, followed by Heather Menzies in the TV show.

The movie features a very brief cameo by Farrah Fawcett, but by the time it was released she was starting to explode from “Charlie’s Angels” and that poster, and so some theaters even advertised “Farrah Fawcett-Majors in ‘Logan’s Run'” or what have you.

IMDb still lists a remake as being bounced around. At one time, it was supposed to star Ryan Gosling; now, it seems to be limbo.

broken record, I know

Turner Classic Movies: TCM keeps running an (excellent) interstitial with Laura Dern talking about her admiration for Barbara Stanwyck, but when it ends they use it to promote an upcoming showing of Meet John Doe. Fine, fine. It’s just that the Stanwyck movie I *really* want to see this time of year is Christmas in Connecticut.

I just checked, and TCM will be showing it 11 a.m. (Central) on Sunday, Dec. 13. Go ahead and set your DVRs now; I certainly have.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever takes my classic movie suggestions. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard back, “Hey, John, I watched Topkapi on your recommendation and loved it.” But I guess I’m enough of a narcissist to keep putting myself out there anyway. I’m relatively harmless, in any case.

Although I have blogged about “Christmas In Connecticut” on multiple prior occasions, I guess I will go back and talk about it again. Narcissist, and all that. It was a bad day at work, and so I need to get my mind off things.

“Christmas In Connecticut,” despite its title, is really a straight romantic comedy which just happens to have a holiday setting. Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart – the ultimate cook and hostess, whose monthly column in “Smart Housekeeping” magazine is closely read by much of America. She vividly describes her idyllic life on her Connecticut farm with her husband and infant son, and includes her mouth-watering recipes.

There’s just one problem: It’s all a lie. She’s single, lives in a Manhattan apartment, and can’t cook. The recipes come from her restaurateur friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall, whom you know from “Casablanca” and who is billed in some movies as “Cuddles” Sakall), and everything else comes from her imagination and her talent as a writer. Her immediate supervisor knows the truth, but the publisher of the magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet, speaking of “Casablanca”) does not – and would be horrified at the deception.

Yardley receives a letter about a war hero (Dennis Morgan), who has no family and nowhere to spend the holidays. Yardley summons Elizabeth Lane and tells her that she and her husband should invite Jefferson Jones to their Connecticut farm for the holidays – and that he, Yardley, would love to join them for Christmas dinner and sample some of Elizabeth Lane’s famous cooking. It would be patriotic! It would be good publicity for the magazine! It would be in the spirit of the holiday!

Elizabeth Lane, who has just bought a very expensive mink coat on credit, can’t afford to lose her job and can’t bring herself to stand up to the forceful Yardley and refuse his plan. So she has to come up with a farm, a husband and a baby, all on short notice.

If you know anything at all about romantic comedies, you know that once she has all of these things in place, she’ll begin falling head over heels in love with the veteran. Oh, what a tangled web we weave ….

Seriously, this is just a fun, funny movie, with great performances all around.

There’s also a TV movie from the 1980s with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, directed by …. Arnold Schwarzenegger (because when you think “romantic comedy,” you immediately think “Arnold Schwarzenegger”). I’ve only seen bits and pieces, but there’s no way it could measure up to the original.

Why haven’t you set your DVR yet?

where did we go right?

I turned over to Turner Classic Movies: TCM just now to see the last few minutes of The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Sellers. I loved the the book, by Leonard Wibberley, when I was a teenager, and we did the play when I was a drama student at Cascade.

The movie takes some liberties; the Grand Duchess, one of several characters Sellers plays on screen, is a flighty young woman in the book, but an old dowager in the movie.

It’s a very funny premise. At the time of the book and the movie, the Marshall Plan was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The story (and I’m going by the book version here) is about the tiny — and mythical — European nation of Grand Fenwick, more like a small town than a country. Grand Fenwick has fallen on hard times because an American vintner has copied its signature wine, which is its primary export. The leaders of the country note that the United States is quite generous in rebuilding countries it has beaten in war, and so they come up with an ingenious plan: They will declare war on the United States, surrender immediately, and then reap the benefits.

But the plan goes awry. For one thing, the declaration of war gets lost in the shuffle at the U.S. State Department. For another, the somewhat dimwitted patriot Grand Fenwick sends to lead their invasion force is not privy to the real plan; he thinks he’s supposed to win, even though he and his men are armed only with bows and arrows. The invasion force lands in a seemingly-deserted New York during a disaster drill, and blunders onto the campus of Columbia University, where they take as their prisoner an Einstein-like scientist who has invented a terrible new type of bomb – and who has the prototype in his possession. The U.S. government has no choice but to surrender, an outcome for which Grand Fenwick is stunningly unprepared.

It’s the first of a series of books about Grand Fenwick – I vaguely remember reading one or two others but I think the original was the best.

TCM is showing a series of movies tonight about fictitious ruritanian countries. It started with “The Mouse That Roared.” Right now, there’s “Romanoff and Juliet,” about a tiny nation whose vote on a key issue in the UN General Assembly is being sought by both the U.S. and the USSR. But coming up at 10:30 is one of my all-time favorites: Duck Soup, in which Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo lay waste to the fictitious land of Freedonia.

how he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know

Well, it was a little over a month ago that I was complaining about never getting to see most of the Paramount Marx Brothers’ films, and now I can’t complain anymore.

This Friday, as part of TCM’s “Summer Under The Stars,” they’ll be doing a day-long tribute to Groucho, which will include all of the Paramount Marx Brothers movies I wanted to see. I have already set my DVR accordingly.

Someday, I’d like to see this fellow, about whom Mark Evanier frequently gushes at his blog:

hail, hail freedonia

“Duck Soup” (1933) airs tonight at 7 p.m. Central on Turner Classic Movies, as this week’s installment of the family-friendly summer series “TCM Movie Camp.”

Marx Brothers fans – and I’m definitely one – know their work can be divided into two distinct eras. From 1929 through 1933, Paramount released films featuring four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. “Duck Soup” was the last of the movies the boys made for Paramount. Now, many people – and I’m definitely one – consider it their best, but at the time it was a flop, and Paramount dropped the Marx Brothers like a hot potato.

On stage, though never in the movies, there had been a fifth Marx Brother, Gummo (real name Milton). In the interim after the boys were fired by Paramount, Zeppo (real name Herbert) left the act and joined Gummo in starting a successful talent agency. Zeppo didn’t really have much of a comic persona anyway; he primarily played straight man to the others.

MGM, where boy wonder Irving Thalberg was still in a leading role, hired the three remaining Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – and their first MGM movie was 1935’s “A Night At The Opera.”

Zeppo isn’t the only difference between the Paramount Marx Brothers and the MGM Marx Brothers. At Paramount, the boys were more anarchic. But Thalberg – and those who followed him – put more of a story to the brothers’ comedy, and usually had them helping someone out. They were trying to help out young lovers in “A Night At The Opera,” trying to raise money to keep a hospital open in “A Day At The Races,” and so on. In some ways, this undermines the anarchy – part of the fun of the Paramount Marx Brothers is that lunacy is their first priority, and the plot is an afterthought.

Granted, “A Night At The Opera,” their first MGM movie, is one of their funniest – probably because of Thalberg’s craft as a producer. But Thalberg died during the making of “A Day At The Races,” and fans are in general agreement that the MGM Marx Brothers movies go downhill fast from there.

The trouble, of course, is that TCM’s parent company owns the MGM library, so TCM can show the MGM Marx Brothers movies as often as it likes. It has to pay for the rights to the Paramount Marx Brothers movies (strangely enough, it has to pay Universal, which at some point bought the rights to much of Paramount’s classic-era library). TCM shows “Duck Soup” fairly regularly, as well as “Horse Feathers,” and occasionally “Monkey Business,” but hardly ever shows “Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.”

Enough of my quibbling. “Duck Soup” is on tonight, and as I said earlier I think it’s the all-time best Marx Brothers movie. The movie takes place in the fictitious country of Freedonia. The country is badly in debt, and its wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, won’t loan it any more money unless Rufus T. Firelfly (Groucho) is appointed leader. Meanwhile, the ambassador for neighboring Sylvania is up to no good and hires Chico and Harpo as spies.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Whose faith is more misplaced – Mrs. Teasdale, who for some unexplained reason thinks Groucho can run a country, or the ambassador, who thinks Chico and Harpo can overcome their ADD long enough to collect any useful information?

Anyway, this is a Paramount Marx Brothers movie, so as I indicated earlier the plot isn’t really that important. The movie is loaded with all sorts of humor – from verbal jousting to the famous (and completely silent) mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo. It’s just funny, at so many levels.

for a few daleks more

A week from tonight, on Thursday the 28th, Turner Classic Movies will broadcast “Dr. Who and the Daleks.”

As you know, I’m a big fan of the TV show “Doctor Who.” I was first introduced to the classic version of the show in the early 1980s, when I was in college and Oklahoma Public Television ran Tom Baker or Peter Davison episodes every night.

I’m a big enough fan to know a couple of things:

  • “Doctor” is always spelled out in the title of the TV show
  • The primary character of the TV show “Doctor Who” is not called “Doctor Who.” That’s a rookie mistake. The character is “The Doctor”; the show is “Doctor Who.”

I have gone on at length in other blog posts explaining what “Doctor Who” is for those unfamiliar. I will, however, explain that the original version of the show (which ran from 1963 to 1989), a mid-90s TV movie, and the current version of the show (which started in 2005) are all part of the same continuity – one long storyline, if you will. The new version isn’t a remake or reboot of the original; it’s a continuation.

Anyway, “Dr. Who and the Daleks” is not an episode of the TV show. It’s one of two movies from the 1960s which attempted to launch a theatrical movie franchise. Both movies were adapted from stories that had already been done on the British TV show, but they made changes to the show’s basic premise and so the two movies are NOT considered part of that continuity I just spoke of. In the movies, “Dr. Who” is not an alien, he’s a human who just happens to be a brilliant inventor, the creator of a time machine (the TARDIS).

The Daleks, by the way, are the Doctor’s most-famous adversaries. They are like evil versions of R2D2 – not robots, actually, but cyborgs: living brains, bent on galactic dominance, in robotic, salt-shaker-shaped bodies.

The movies don’t hold up to the TV show, but fans may want to see them just out of curiosity. Peter Cushing stars as “Dr. Who.” The second movie, “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.”, features a very young Bernard Cribbins, who would turn up decades later as one of the most-beloved guest characters on the new version of “Doctor Who,” Donna Noble’s grandfather Wilf. I have seen “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.,” but I have never seen “Dr. Who and the Daleks,” so I have set to tape it next week on TCM. I don’t expect it to be very good, based on what I’ve read, but it could be fun just as a novelty.