When I was growing up, back in the 1970s and 80s, one of the constant companions of my teenage movie viewing life was Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. In those pre-Wikipedia and IMDB days, Maltin's book of capsule movie reviews was one of the few ways to easily access and cross-check information about movies seen on TV and early VHS. I always remember the lingering sense of disappointment when the (otherwise estimable) Mr. Maltin would dismiss or castigate a particular favorite film of mine. One of his reviews that has always stuck with me was his brief comment about one of my all time favorite films (not just westerns), The Big Country. It came down to one word - "overblown" - and what, to my mind, still is a grossly conservative three-star rating.
That word, "overblown," annoyed me then and still does today. Though I suspect there are many out there who may tend to agree with Maltin, I take strong exception to that word. The Big Country is indeed big. It's long, no doubt (2 hours and 46 minutes, to be precise.) Epic, yes. Dramatic...certainly. Sprawling, even. But overblown? I beg to differ.
Sometimes it's all too easy to listen to the general critical consensus and avoid a movie that has a reputation of being bad or a bit of a misfire. Often times, where there's smoke, there's fire, and the movie lives down to its bad reviews. But occasionally I watch a film and am surprised by the negative reaction. Case in point is Legend of the Lost, a visually sumptuous adventure film that kept me captivated throughout. Despite my lifelong love of John Wayne movies, I had relegated this one, sight unseen, to the Duke's small pile of "duds," along with things like The Conqueror and Jet Pilot. I should have known better.
It was only after recently acquiring the DVD from friend and film scholar, Stuart Galbraith IV, that I decided to give it a "what the hell" spin, and I'm very glad I did. Contrary to what seems to be the generally-held opinion, it's actually quite a good film, and gives Wayne an edgier than usual role, while still allowing him to stay true to the sort of rugged, manly character type he did so well.
It's a simple story, straightforwardly told: wealthy Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi) comes to Timbuktu in West Africa, following the trail of his father, who wrote of a wonderful treasure and a fabled lost city in the Sahara. Bonnard has pluck, determination and blind faith on his side, but he needs an experienced guide. Enter rough-and-ready American, Joe January (Wayne), who has serious doubts about Bonnard's enterprise but cheerfully agrees to guide him when Bonnard ponies up enough cash to get Joe out of hock to the corrupt local prefect (Kurt Kazner). Joe is a carouser and frequenter of the seedier side of Timbuktu, and has spent some time in the company of a gorgeous gypsy prostitute, Dita (Sophia Loren). Dita despises Joe and other men like him but, after spending a chaste night talking to the gentlemanly, spiritual Bonnard, is moved enough to change her life to the straight and narrow. Here is a man who seemingly wants nothing from her, someone more interested in her soul than her body.
Fascinated by the righteous Bonnard, she follows the two men into the desert. Joe wants to send her back to Timbuktu, reckoning she's nothing but trouble and having no wish to drag her along, but Bonnard agrees to take Dita with them, and since he's paying the bills, Joe reluctantly acquiesces. He's skeptical of Bonnard's piety and do-gooder ways (he plans to use the treasure to open a hospital for the poor and needy), but Joe grows to grudgingly respect the man's courage and tenacity. Similarly, he begins to look at Dita in a new light. The rest of the film is taken up with pure desert survival adventure, intermingled with the drama of a burgeoning romantic triangle. The trio eventually do make it to an ancient Roman city, find the promised treasure, and learn the fate of Bonnard's missing father...but will they manage to make it back to civilization alive?
From 1950 to 1955, James Stewart made 8 films with director Anthony Mann, five of them westerns. Everyone always talks about those westerns, and they are all undeniably wonderful, each in their own way, but the colorful adventure drama Thunder Bay usually gets overlooked whenever the Stewart/Mann collaboration is brought up, and it's a shame. Perhaps it doesn't quite hit the heights of their best films together, such as The Man From Laramie or Bend of the River, but it's an exciting, absorbing film in its own right, and deserves to be better known.
1946, Louisiana. Ex-G.I. buddies Steve Martin (Stewart) and Johnny Gambi (Dan Duryea) have spent all their mustering out pay to gamble on a wild scheme: Steve is convinced that there's oil out in the bay, and he knows how to get it. With a mix of hucksterism and the passion of a true visionary, Steve convinces the lease holder, oil tycoon Kermit "Mac" McDonald (J.C. Flippen), to bankroll the building of an offshore oil rig. Mac, a former wildcatter with a hardscrabble background himself, senses a kindred spirit in Steve and agrees to fund the extra $1 million to complete the project, against his company's financial adviser's (Henry Morgan) and board members wish' with one condition: they have to build the derrick and strike oil before Mac's lease runs out...in three measly months away.
Getting the funds proves the least of Steve and Gambi's problems, however, as the town's shrimp fishermen, experiencing several years of bad luck and poor catches, soon come to resent the oil men's presence, starting with their dynamiting shrimp beds to test for the best location for the rig. One of the more vociferous opponents is Stella Rigaud (Joanne Dru), daughter of veteran fisherman Dominique (Antonio Moreno). Stella once left her little backwater town for life in the big city and was burned badly in a relationship with an oil man not so unlike Steve. More amenable to the pair - especially the affable, boisterous Gambi - is Stella's pretty younger sister, Francesca (Marcia Henderson). Gambi is soon in hot pursuit, enchanting Francesca and luring her away from her stolid boyfriend, Philippe (Robert Monet). Also in the mix is local tough guy and charming blowhard Teche Bossier (Gilbert Roland), who's happy enough in lean times to take the oil men's money, but changes his tune when he feels the shrimp business that is his, and the town's, heart-and-soul is threatened.
To make his dream of being the first person to strike oil offshore come true, Steve drives Gambi and his crew of workmen hard - but he's even harder on himself, pursuing his plan with a single-minded determination that at times borders on obsession. Despite her bitterness over her past experience, Stella gradually begins to thaw towards Steve, but when a disgruntled Phillippe, reluctantly assisted by Teche, tries to blow up the rig during a big storm, Steve is incensed, convinced that Stella had something to do with it. Meanwhile, Gambi's growing more and more tired of Steve's hardcharging management style, and is on the verge of quitting. With time running out, the board's funding pulled, and nearly everyone (town and workers alike) turning against him, it seems Steve's chance of a big offshore oil strike is disappearing before his eyes...
When people think of classic husband-and-wife detective duos, what probably first leaps to mind are Nick and Nora Charles, the loving, gin-sozzled and sophisticated pair so memorably portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy in six films for MGM, starting with The Thin Man in 1934 and ending with Song of the Thin Man in 1947. The series was so popular that others tried their hand at similar movies featuring chic couples involved with murder and mayhem. Powell himself was roped in for two enjoyable one-offs - Star of Midnight (1935) with Ginger Rogers as Powell's fiancee (not wife), and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (also 1935), this time with Jean Arthur as Powell's ex-wife, who always lures her exasperated hubby into solving crimes. Later examples include the 1942 film Mr. and Mrs. North (with Gracie Allen as Pam North!) and the later TV series of the same name (starring Richard Denning and Barbara Britton) - both based off the novels written by Francis and Richard Lockridge; and, in the 1970s, McMillan and Wife, featuring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James as a charming pair of married detectives, one of the hubs of the original NBC Mystery Movie wheel, alongside Columbo and McCloud. But there was one more short-lived movie series which arguably comes closest to capturing some of that old Nick and Nora / "Thin Man" magic: Fast Company (1938), Fast and Loose (1939) and Fast and Furious (also '39). All three feature the rare book seller-turned-amateur sleuth Joel Sloane, given assistance (and occasional hindrance) by his glamorous and playful wife, Garda, and all three were produced by MGM in the hopes of filling the gaps between their "Thin Man" films.
Unlike the "Thin Man" series, which managed to keep Powell and Loy coming back for each film over a 13-year period, the studio couldn't quite seem to make up its mind with the "Fast" movies, and each feature a different pair of leading actors - Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in Fast Company, Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in Fast and Loose, and Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern in Fast and Furious. The kind of effortless chemistry shared by Powell and Loy is rare indeed, and while the casting in these films can't reach those heights, all three pairings work well in depicting the sort of flirty, bantering, playful married relationship that many audiences doubtless aspired to.
Apologies for the dearth of posts lately, folks. My little boy Kenji had open heart surgery recently (he came through it like a champion and is doing well), and with all the 10-12 hour days spent at the hospital, keeping him company as he recovers - well, let's just say I've been too tuckered out to muster up much energy to write. He's still got a few more weeks to go before the doctors will let him go home, so I can't promise anything of note until mid-March, when I will at least be contributing a piece for the Sleuthathon, being hosted by Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently. The event should provide lots of diverting reading, with a bunch of contributors covering a veritable smorgasbord of amateur sleuths, private eyes, crusading reporters and the like. I'll be talking about three super fun, quick moving gems from MGM, featuring the husband-and-wife bookseller-turned-detective duo Joel and Garda Sloane: Fast Company, Fast and Loose, and Fast and Furious (1938-1939). And who knows, something else might pop up before then. So please check back in a bit, and thanks again for stopping by!
I've been wracking my brain, but I can't ever remember going to an actual, honest-to-God circus. I vaguely recall a circus coming to the fairgrounds at my hometown, sometime back in my grade school days in the 1970s, with flyers and perhaps even tickets being passed out to students. For whatever reason, I never pestered my parents to take me, and so never got a chance to see a real live circus, which in a way, makes me just a teensy bit sad. The traditional circus, with its big tent, popcorn and peanuts, sawdust rings, elephants, barely-tamed big cats, clowns and high-wire acts and prancing ponies, seems a dying art now. (There is still the Cirque de Soliel, of course, but as physically amazing as those performers are, it just ain't the same thing.) Luckily there are movies out there like Circus World to remind us of the heyday of this venerable form of entertainment, when kids and their parents packed the stands when the circus came to town. Circus World is far from the best movie John Wayne ever made, but despite its many flaws, it does deliver some excellent big-top thrills.
Like El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and 55 Days at Peking, Circus World is another of those massive roadshow epics produced by Samuel Bronston, financed by Hollywood studios but filmed primarily in Europe. Circus World is arguably the least of the above movies in quality, but ironically is the one with by far the best-preserved film elements (King of Kings, another earlier Bronston release, also looks gorgeous in hi-def.) Circus World is out on a Region B Blu-Ray in Europe and looks amazing sharp and colorful, as does the HD presentation frequently shown on NHK in Japan.
Long a big John Wayne fan, I remember catching this one on VHS many years ago, where its 2:20 : 1 aspect ratio was hacked and slashed almost beyond recognition. (Circus World was filmed in an ultra widescreen process called "Super Technirama 70" and then advertized and shown at numerous Cinerama engagements, though it wasn't actually filmed with Cinerama cameras). I don't remember thinking much of the movie back then, but seeing it now, in its proper widescreen glory, all spic and span and looking its best, helps bring a little of the luster back. I don't think it numbers among Wayne's worst films, as some commenters on IMDB do, rating it alongside Jet Pilot and The Conqueror - unduly harsh, in my opinion. It does fall far short of its potential, however, and is overlong, often slow, with perfunctory characterization and rather flat melodrama bogging down the second half. But as a physical production it's still pretty impressive, and the restored transfer finally gives audiences the chance to really see the large scale of everything, including shots incorporating all three rings of the circus, the enormous circus tent like a cavern above the action, often filmed in long shot to give the audience a sense of depth and distance.
Like the previous year's Wayne film, Hatari!, there isn't much of a plot to speak of here, just a thin clothesline upon which to hang various circus acts and romantic shenanigans. Unlike Hatari!, though, Circus World is distinctly lacking in the action department, as well as missing the core, lovable group of professionals for Wayne to bounce off of, that helps make the former film such entertaining company. Wayne has proven himself time and again to be a top-notch reactor, but he's not given a lot to work with here. He's still the best thing about the picture, along with the nifty circus acts interspersed throughout.
Wayne stars as Matt Masters, head of a successful circus in America (the time period is unstated, but going by the fashions, likely sometime in the early 1900s). He decides to take his troupe on a tour of Europe, against the better judgment of his right-hand man, Cap Carlson (Lloyd Nolan, who stepped in when David Niven backed out over rewrites of the script reduced the size of the role). Cap remembers all too well the disaster that befell Matt's company the last time they went to Europe, some 14 years earlier, when one member of the high-wire act, the Alfredo Brothers, fell to his death. Lili (Rita Hayworth), the wife of the dead man, ran off in despair, leaving her young daughter, Toni, alone. Since then, Matt's raised Toni as his own, and now she's grown up into the gorgeous, va-va-voom form of Claudia Cardinale. Matt, who was in love with Lili, thinks it's about time to head back to Europe to try to track her down, for both Toni's sake and his own.
In case you might have missed it, over on my Books page I recently took a look at Scott Tracy Griffin's terrific book all about Edgar Rice Burroughs' world famous creation, Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration - The Stories, The Movies, The Art. Anyone interested in the Ape Man's exploits in novels, comics, movies, television, radio, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, fantastic art or just plain old-school jungle adventure should definitely seek this one out. For more, please swing on over to the review by clicking here or on the Cracked Leather Armchair header on the masthead above.
I grew up on westerns. From "Clint Eastwood nights" on Sea-Tac's KCPQ Channel 13, to countless John Wayne films airing Saturday afternoons, to Bonanza, The Big Valley and The Rifleman reruns in syndication, to Gene Autry movies on cable, I devoured whatever hoss operas were served up on television. But the older I get, and the more westerns I see, the more I realize that I've only just barely scraped the tip of the iceberg of this, my favorite genre. Especially when it comes to that most prolific decade for the western, the 1950s, which not only saw a proliferation of big-budget "A" westerns, but a veritable mother lode of smaller-scale, bottom half of the bill "B" flicks that - thanks to the likes of Warner Archives, Shout Factory and others - are only now starting to appear on home video. These fun little cowboy yarns featured actors who might never have made it to the big time, but were definitely stars in their own right in this specialized field.
Case in point is George Montgomery, who top-billed nearly thirty such westerns throughout the 50s and into the early 60s, and who is a completely new discovery for me. Somehow, I've never come across this guy or any of his movies before, but am glad to have finally made his acquaintance with these two neat little meat-and-potatoes western tales. Released by United Artists, Gun Belt and The Lone Gun were both directed with gusto by longtime genre workhorse Ray Nazarro, and while neither could be said to be groundbreaking or full of psychological or stylistic complexity like some of their more famous 50s counterparts, both deliver the honest western goods, with strong casts, fast-paced stories and plenty of action. In fact, it was just this sort of straight-up, rock-solid western entertainment that powered the Hollywood movie machine, and the low-key yet undeniable pleasures they deliver should not be underestimated.
Well, that's another year done and dusted. I rarely get too personal on this blog, but as this time of year tends to lead one to contemplation, perhaps you'll forgive me a bit of indulgent navel gazing. 2013 ended up being a bit of a rough year for me, in some respects. First, my baby son, Kenji, went through two surgeries - with one more, the biggie, still to come in early 2014. Fortunately, he came through them both like a champ and is doing great, with an excellent prognosis, but the stress of the overall experience surely shaved a few years off my life. This, coupled with my dear Grandma Mary passing away around Thanksgiving, made the past year a bit of an emotional roller coaster. My grandmother lived a good, long life (she was almost 90) and I feel lucky to have spent a lot of time with her over the years, and her death wasn't unexpected...but it was still a blow. These events, along with a busier-than-ever teaching schedule, have sapped some of my energy to write on this blog. I didn't fare too badly in the end, managing to scrape out 26 posts on this main page (not counting this one), plus 9 book reviews on my Books page, and a few more on my TV page. Not too shabby for my first full calendar year of blogging, but a far cry from what I had intended. I had hoped to write much more, but that's how things panned out. Best laid plans, and all that.
But the year definitely had many upsides as well, and I feel blessed in many ways. At 46 years old, I'm a wee bit paunchier and slower than before, but still remain generally hale and hearty, and haven't lost that bounce in my step that characterized my younger days. I'm lucky to have a great job (with the added bonus of a cool, hands-off boss) that I not only continue to enjoy but which allows me plenty of time off during university holidays, a rare gift indeed. Other than my late grandmother, my wonderful family (and equally wonderful in-laws) continued to hang in there and are doing well, for which I'm most thankful. My friends at home and abroad also prospered in 2013; I was especially gratified to see my longtime best bud, Clayton (who not only created the masthead and general design for most of this site, but maintains his own fabulously-varied and educational blog at Claytonology) make a much-needed move from a cold, inhospitable life in a west coast big city, to the slower pace and more human scale of small town living in the rural midwest, which has proven to be a life-altering, soul-enriching experience for him.
I'm also fortunate enough to have a lovely, kind and patient wife, who not only accepts my movie fixation, book, DVD and Blu-Ray buying habits and occasional late night blogging hours, but also even joins me in my old movie viewings, time permitting. And most of all, having Kenji in our lives has in all other respects been an absolute joy, his mere presence brightening not only our lives but those of my parents and other friends and relatives. While fatherhood has added a myriad stresses and worries to my life (and yes, some sleepless nights), it has also changed it for the better in so many other ways. Watching him grow and develop has been, simply put, fantastic. So far, his interest leans more to books than movies or TV (he's a big Dr. Seuss fan), but I'm working on him. He's showing a gratifying, burgeoning interest in The Muppets, and occasionally will sit still for Tom & Jerry and Moomin cartoons, so all is well on that front. It's early days yet...I can't wait to introduce him to the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, Tarzan, cowboy movies and Godzilla, to name just a few. Fun stuff to come in the future, to be sure.
I have a real soft spot for the "B" movie mystery series pumped out by the studios in the 1930s and '40s. They were often developed from established literary properties, like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes, etc., though frequently taken in a far different direction once adapted to the screen. Unlike those far more famous characters, the Falcon was pretty much hot off the press at the time. Created by Michael Arlen, the Falcon made his debut in short story form, in "The Gay Falcon," published in Town and Country magazine in 1940. RKO Studios quickly brought the character to the screen in the person of snidely suave, British George Sanders, fresh from The Saint series. Indeed, the first three Falcon films made with Sanders - The Gay Falcon, A Date with the Falcon (both 1941) and the Farewell, My Lovely riff The Falcon Takes Over (1942) - were basically Saint movies in all but name, with Sanders' Gay Lawrence a sort of gentleman adventurer (ala Simon Templar), always quick to step in to assist a lady in distress.
The typically indolent Sanders quickly grew bored with B movie work and handed the reins over to his older, lesser-known brother Tom Conway, as Gay Lawrence's brother, Tom, beginning with (appropriately enough) The Falcon's Brother (1942). This is a more action-packed entry than usual, and it's a real treat to see both real-life brothers briefly working together on screen. Conway, not in Sanders caliber as an actor, nonetheless proved a very genial presence, and in many ways was much better suited to the part of the Falcon, quickly making it his own. Conway lacked Sanders' barely-concealed contempt and smug sneer, but seemed just as cultured and suave. He brought a nice balance of smooth, worldly charm, aloof insouciance and leering sophistication to the rest of the nine Falcon films he would go on to star in over the next four years.
The Conway Falcon films are much of a piece, all spry, fun little mysteries with plenty of comedy, and graced with an impressive array of beautiful starlets as miscellaneous femme fatales and romantic interests for our hero. Two of the more unusual entries in the series are The Falcon and the Co-Eds and The Falcon Out West, both directed by William Clemens with the sort of polish and ease that seemed second nature to those who populated the old Hollywood studio system.
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema
Out of the Past -
A Classic Film Blog
Pretty Sinister Books
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
My Love of Old Hollywood
Tales of the Easily Distracted
Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
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