Fitzwilly (1967)

The holidays may be almost over, but there’s still time to talk about one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Fitzwilly.” As usual, this post contains spoilers. This probably won’t be a problem for you, though, as “Fitzwilly” is a notoriously difficult movie to find. Released briefly in 1998 on VHS, never on DVD, and only rarely shown on TCM, it’s likely you’ll never even see this film. And that’s a shame, too, because “Fitzwilly” is a charming light-hearted romantic comedy that never pretends to be anything else. It’s simple and refreshing, and probably one of the few “family friendly” movies I’ll ever review here. Charles Fitzwilliam is “Fitzwilly” (Dick Van Dyke), indispensable butler to the slightly batty, wealthy, philanthropic and elderly Miss Vicky (Dame Edith Evans). At first Fitzwilly seems like the perfect butler, but soon we realize there’s a layer of deception surrounding him. While ordering expensive silverware from a local luxury store, Fitzwilly dons a fake name and feigns a British accent — Van Dyke sounds just like Michael Caine here, with his accent much improved over the iffy accent he used in 1964’s “Mary Poppins” — and has the silver sent to a false address. He repeats this with different items in different shops, and his contacts in the mail rooms of all the largest department stores in New York happily intercept these packages and relabel them to be sent to the St. Dismas Thrift Shoppe, a fake thrift store that’s really storage for all the stolen … Continue reading

In Memoriam

Monday was the premier of TCM’s annual memorial reel, “TCM Remembers.” The reel is now available on the TCM website here. As always, it’s a beautiful memorial. Sadly, I learned today of the passing of John Harkness, film critic, author, poker player, and music reviewer. John was someone I knew on Usenet for over a decade. His posts, online articles and blogs were extremely influential in my conversion from a casual movie viewer to an amateur critic. John studied under Andrew Sarris and was a founding member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He wrote for Now since 1981, and contributed to Sight and Sound, Cinematheque and Take One. His book, The Academy Awards Handbook, is an essential reference source on the Oscars and has been through many printings. Recently I discovered John Harkness was also a well-known member of BARGE, the “Big August Rec.Gambling Event” poker tournament. If you’re going to read just one article about John, read this one from NOW Magazine Online. It’s strange calling him “John”, because I usually called him “Harkness”, but that just doesn’t seem appropriate right now. His recommendations and opinions on film and film books were always valued, and while he could be brusque, his candor was usually appreciated. I hate having to write this. John will be missed. LINKS:Torontoist article on John HarknessandPOP headline articleJohn Harkness Remembered on Northern Stars NewsNicholas Kohler remembers John Harkness on photo from claudia1967 at flickr

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Like most of my film entries, this post contains spoilers. “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is a science fiction adaptation of the Daniel Defoe classic. Set sometime in the future, it’s a surprisingly modern and compelling imagining of space travel between the Earth and Mars. The Criterion Collection DVD of this film was released in September; the previous laserdisc and VHS versions are long out of print. If the title and the subject didn’t already seem campy enough, the opening scene features Adam West and a trained monkey. Despite initial appearances, though, the film and set are quite understated. West plays Colonel Dan “Mac” McReady, the captain of a two man ship also occupied by Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper, played by Paul Mantee. Mantee is probably best known for his recurring role on “Cagney and Lacey” or his dozens of guest starring roles between the 1960s and 1990s. Mona, the monkey in a monkey-sized space suit, is their test subject, but Draper has become fond enough of her that he’s decided to take her back to Earth with them instead of leaving her behind on Mars as planned. The effects in “Crusoe” are quite good for the time. The minimalist interiors of the spaceship are extremely well-done, and avoid the temptation to crowd buttons and flashing lights into the scene to make everything look more “sciencey”. The grey paint on the ship even has a few wear spots and chips, making the ship look used. The exteriors of the ship and … Continue reading

El Brendel

Much of my information came from online sources (listed below) and the book pictured here, Anthony Slide’s Eccentrics of Comedy. Originally, my plan had been to thrill you all with a quick one-two punch, er, I mean series, of El Brendel-related posts. That is, until my plans were waylaid by an uncooperative fact that involved a few days of research… but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s nowhere else to begin but at the beginning. Elmer Goodfellow Brendel was born March 25, 1891, in Philadelphia, PA. Louie of the fabulous El-focused blog Give Me The Good Old Days! has a terrific run down of El’s first years and of his family. Both that post and the entire blog are highly recommended. When I first heard of El Brendel many years ago on the Usenet group alt.movies.silent, I thought El Brendel was a Latin name which meant something like “The Silly Person.” Imagine my relief when I discovered “El” was short for “Elmer”. Contrary to his famous stage and screen persona, Brendel did not come from a Swedish family; his father was German and his mother was Irish, and Brendel spoke with with no descernable accent. In 1913 Brendel started in vaudeville as a German dialect comedian. However, because of anti-German sentiment during WWI, he changed his shtick to a faux Swedish accent. This characterization became known as “The Simple Swede” and, by all accounts, was a success. His trademark accent routinely swapped a “y” sound for “j”, which lead to … Continue reading

Turner Classic Birdman

Well, hello there, handsome! Before I begin, I’d like to call attention my new layout, if you haven’t noticed it already. This terrific blog design is courtesy Kathy at Moxie. They’ve designed several blogs I enjoy, and were kind enough to take my little personal blog as a client. I couldn’t be happier with the new look. I hope you like it as much as I do. You may have noticed that posts are now wider than they were previously. This has caused some of my photos and post layouts to become rather… interesting. Please bear with me for a few days while I get everything back to normal. And now, on with the show: Every once in a while I like to get silly. Many of my posts are rather time-intensive and involve finding rare movies, digging up stills from crazy sources and buying books that have been out of print for a few decades, so I like to take a break occasionally. That said, this is a post I’ve wanted to do for a long time, because it’s about one of my favorite people, Robert Osborne. Osborne began his career in Hollywood as an actor. He was under contract with Desilu studios and was close friends with Lucille Ball until her death, despite the fact that she greatly intimidated him. Osborne has remarked that training as an actor under the studio system was preferable to what actors have nowadays, and mentioned Desilu taught their contract players how to … Continue reading

Just Imagine (1930)

In July I participated in the 2007 Blogathon for charity. During the 24-hour Blogathon I “live blogged” two movies, one of which was “Just Imagine” (1930). I didn’t finish it that night, so I decided to finally do the film justice and finish it here. You can read my two Blogathon entries about “Just Imagine” here and here. The film is not available commercially, but it does show on Fox Movies occasionally. The copy I have is borrowed from a friend who taped it off the Fox Movie Channel a few years ago. “Just Imagine” is a unique American film. Made in 1930, it’s a romantic musical science fiction comedy set in the then-futuristic year of 1980. It was designed to be a vehicle for comedian El Brendel, as well as an entertaining, uplifting version of the future for audiences in the middle of the Depression and Prohibition. The problem with “Just Imagine” is that it pretty much fails as romance, musical, and comedy. It was a solid hit in its day — modern accounts that claim the film was a flop are simply incorrect — but Fox rightly realized that while El Brendel was popular, he certainly couldn’t carry a film as a leading man by himself. They took a risk using Brendel as the lead in such an expensive project, and it paid off this time; it probably wouldn’t pay off again. The film begins with one of its more interesting features: title cards. This holdback from the … Continue reading

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is an unconventional comedy directed by Preston Sturges. Not a great hit in its day, the movie has since seen a renewal of interest and is considered by many to be one of Sturges’ greatest films. I, however, consider it to be a confusing mess. Like most of my movie posts, this entry contains spoilers. Let me say up front that I read a few things about this film before seeing it. As a film buff I knew this was a film I should have seen years ago; references to “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the character name “Mr. Smearcase” pop up in my little world with regularity. One of the first things I read said that this film was, in a way, Sturges’ attack on Capra-esque films where the everyday man overcomes personal adversity. Sure enough, one of the first things director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) says he wants to do is make a serious film, “something like Capra”. Sullivan is known for his comedies like “Ants in Your Pants of 1939”. Sullivan has decided he wants to film a socially-conscious movie based on a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a title referenced by the Coen brothers for their 2000 film — that is to be an examination of the poor in this country and an “answer to Communism”. Studio executives tell Sullivan that he’s ill-equipped to explore the subject. Sullivan is a product of a rich family and Ivy-league education and … Continue reading

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon was, of course, a novel before it was a film. Written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1930, the novel was used as the basis of a film three times between 1931 and 1941. The first film, “The Maltese Falcon” (1931), starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, two mainstays of the silent era who managed to make a relatively smooth transition to talkies. The 1931 version of the movie was made in the pre-code days before the Hays office clamped down on so-called indecency, and therefore is notable for its many sexually suggestive scenes. Due to Hays code restrictions, the film could not be re-released until the 1960s except in edited form; when it was re-released, it was given the new title “Dangerous Female” to avoid confusion with the 1941 “Maltese Falcon” film. (The Warner Bros. DVD release of the film restores the original title.) Possibly because the 1931 film could not be re-released, Warner Bros. made a second version of the film in 1936, this time called “Satan Met a Lady”. Starring Bette Davis and Warren William, this second film based on the Hammett novel featured several plot changes, including a focus on humor rather than mystery and a ram’s horn instead of a falcon statuette; the film was a flop. In 1941, first-time director John Huston made “The Maltese Falcon”, again for Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart in a role that would define film noir detectives for decades, the film is considered an American classic. … Continue reading

Gloria Grahame

Much of my information on Gloria Grahame comes from the excellent book Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio. I definitely recommend this book for fans of Grahame. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found online in several stores. Grahame was a beautiful, troubled actress with a unique style that made her perfect for the part of the femme fatale, a role she most famously played in “The Big Heat” (1953). In that film she plays Debby, the sarcastic, childish, narcissistic girl of mob henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). After Vince scalds half of her face with boiling coffee, Debby seeks out revenge, nudged none-too-subtly by officer Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is also out for revenge. According to Suicide Blonde, director Fritz Lang was a tyrant on the set. He always needed a scapegoat to pick on during filming, and Gloria was the scapegoat on “The Big Heat”. Jocelyn Brando recounted that she was treated poorly, too, at one point being forced to do about 25 takes on a single short scene where she feeds her husband Dave a piece of dripping steak; Lang was never satisfied that Brando was dripping the juice just right. The stressful work environment may have actually helped Grahame flourish as an actress, as her characterization was well-received by most critics of the day. Curcio says of her performance, “One would have to look back to Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early seventeenth century to find a character … Continue reading

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953, dir. Fritz Lang) is the quintessential classic 1950s film noir. The film begins, as they say, at the beginning: The suicide of a police officer and his hard, greedy widow looking to cash in while the body is literally still warm. She reads the cop’s suicide note and calls crime boss Mike Legana. The dead man apparently was on Legana’s payroll, so the widow blackmails Legana with the note. Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is quick on the scene with the rest of the officers and a coroner. No one’s too concerned about the suicide, not until Bannion makes a stink. He interviews the widow and becomes more suspicious. Since the audience knows she’s up to no good, at first it doesn’t occur to us to wonder just why he is suspicious. We think perhaps he’s possessed of terrific instincts, or maybe this is a bit of a contrivance, and move along. Sure there’s something more to the suicide of a fellow cop, Bannion is excited when an unknown woman calls his home to tell him she knows something. He meets the woman, politely referred to as a “barfly”, and asks her hard, direct questions in front of a bar crowd that any experienced police officer would know is not friendly, not to him or to the woman. The barfly told Bannion that her boyfriend, the married cop who killed himself, had no reason to commit suicide. She’s sure was murdered. Bannion doesn’t trust the … Continue reading