Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Notable Passings: Roger Moore and Dina Merrill

Sad news today, with the passings of Roger Moore and Dina Merrill.

Moore's children announced his death on his Twitter account earlier today. He was 89.


Roger Moore was the first James Bond I ever saw, and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) remains my favorite 007 film to this day. He's seen below with costar Barbara Bach (aka Mrs. Ringo Starr).


Over the years I've come to greatly appreciate Sean Connery's Bond, but Moore's Bond will always have a special place in my heart. I especially love his sly good humor and the consequent feeling that I don't need to take the movies too seriously. They're simply great fun.

More importantly for me personally, he was the last of the Mavericks. (And for knowledgeable fans of the show, no, I don't count Robert Colbert.) Moore starred as Cousin Beau Maverick on my all-time favorite TV series, MAVERICK, from 1959-61. Moore had big shoes to fill with James Garner having left the show, but he and Jack Kelly carried on wonderfully.


He's seen below in the MAVERICK episode "Kiz" with Kathleen Crowley, who passed away last month.


In addition to his acting career, which spanned a remarkable seven decades, Moore was a longtime goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

Here are Roger Moore obituaries from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and USA Today.

Dina Merrill has passed away at the age of 93.


Merrill was one of a costars of one of my all-time favorite comedies, OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959). That film, with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis leading a great cast, has given me great joy over many years, as I wrote about last year.


Merrill also costarred in DESK SET (1957), one of the best films teaming Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Merrill was the daughter of E.F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post; she was married for over two decades to Cliff Robertson before they divorced in 1989.


Additional obituaries of Merrill were published by Variety and the Washington Post.

I'm very grateful for the great pleasure Moore and Merrill's work have given me over the years, and I send sincere condolences to their families.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE (1939) is a 12-chapter Republic Pictures serial, recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

The heroes of the serial are a trio of carnival performers, played by Charles Quigley; a real-life stuntman, David Sharpe; and a real-life Olympic athlete, shot put silver medalist Herman Brix, who would soon be better known as Bruce Bennett.

A prison escapee, No. 39013 (Charles Middleton), is methodically destroying properties owned by Horace Granville (Miles Mander). Our three heroes become involved when 39013 attacks a Granville amusement park where they're performing. The men save the life of Granville's granddaughter Blanche (Carole Landis), but the little brother (Robert Winkler) of Gene (Quigley) is killed.

Little do the men and Blanche know that 39013 has imprisoned the real Mr. Granville and is diabolically managing to impersonate him...

I loved the pristine Blu-ray print, the chance to see Bennett and Landis early in their careers, the California locations, the stunt work, and some of the cliffhangers. The Chapter 1 cliffhanger, with a motorcycle racing ahead of a huge wave of water filling a tunnel, is quite impressive and considered a classic of the genre.

The acting and story itself I found only so-so. The three guys are congenial but there isn't much to differentiate the characters from one another; they're more cogs in the serial machinery, there to experience whatever the filmmakers can dream up to throw at them, courtesy of No. 39013.

Landis similarly is a pretty run-of-the-mill heroine, not yet the charming star she would prove to be just a couple of years later in Fox films such as MOON OVER MIAMI (1941) and I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941). She's pleasant but not a standout, though she does get a chance to pitch in and help the men, including driving in a chase sequence near the end of the serial.

Plotwise, I didn't really care for the far-fetched notion that 39013 could put on a mask and pretend to be Mr. Granville. And the story gets quite dark at times; as Michael Schlesinger noted in his commentary, who expects a little kid to be bumped off in the first chapter? Not me!

The story does go on and on...though I recognize that my experience of it was quite different, of course, than would have been the case seeing it chapter by chapter spread over many weeks! The 12 chapters run 211 minutes; although I couldn't watch the chapters spread a week apart, as they were shown in theaters, I did break my viewing into three different days.

Excepting the cliffhangers, some of the story was fairly humdrum. Overall I think my biggest issue, mentioned above, was that I didn't become particularly invested in the heroes as individual characters.

DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE was directed by John English and William Witney. It was filmed by William Nobles.

Film historian Michael Schlesinger contributes a commentary track to four chapters. Schlesinger fills in the names and backgrounds of everyone in the cast down to the bit character players, identifies locations (which included Rincon, California, and the Standard Oil Plant in Baldwin Hills), and explains a bit about serial conventions for the uninitiated. He also periodically offers amusing commentary on some of the decisions made by the characters, such as pondering why they don't use the car to break down the wooden garage door when they're trapped!

The Blu-ray case says there are trailers on the disc but I didn't find any in the bonus features.

All in all, it's a beautiful presentation from Kino Lorber, and I found viewing both the serial and the accompanying commentary to be an educational experience. That said, I suspect this one will be most enjoyed by fans of the serial genre.

A DVD edition of this serial is also available from Kino Lorber.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Tonight's Movie: Challenge to Lassie (1949) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

CHALLENGE TO LASSIE (1949), one of several Lassie films from MGM in the '40s, was released on DVD earlier this year by the Warner Archive.

CHALLENGE TO LASSIE was written by William Ludwig, adapting the classic Eleanor Atkinson novel GREYFRIARS BOBBY. It was Ludwig's third Lassie film in a two-year period, following HILLS OF HOME (1948) and THE SUN COMES UP (1949), the latter of which was reviewed here in February.

CHALLENGE TO LASSIE is the story of a Scottish shepherd, Jock Gray (Donald Crisp), who adopts Lassie when she's a wee stray pup.

After Lassie grows up and is trained to herd sheep by Gray, they return to Edinburgh, where Jock is tragically murdered on the streets. The devoted Lassie is determined to sleep each night on his grave, to the consternation of those who say a dog isn't permitted in the churchyard.

Lassie is threatened to be put down as a "stray." A court case ensues. Lassie is helped by Gray's friend John (Edmund Gwenn), a tavern owner who tells her story to the court; his son William (Ross Ford), a law student; and Susan Brown (Geraldine Brooks), whose father manages the churchyard.

This is a pleasant little film, with its bittersweet story made more watchable by its fairly short 75-minute length and the way characters come to Lassie's aid. It's also enjoyable for those who love good character actors, as the passing parade of faces in this one is rather remarkable.

It's interesting to note that Donald Crisp appeared in four of MGM's five '40s Lassie movies; he played a character with the same name in SON OF LASSIE (1945), which I haven't seen. Donald Crisp and "dog movies" seem to go together. When Disney filmed the original GREYFRIARS BOBBY story in 1961, he also starred in that! GREYFRIARS BOBBY was Crisp's next-to-last film -- his final appearance being in SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN (1963), reviewed here just last night.

Cast members Edmund Gwenn, Alan Napier, Reginald Owen, Arthur Shields, and Lumsden Hare had also appeared in one or more of MGM's previous Lassie films! MGM made one more Lassie film after this, THE PAINTED HILLS (1951), with a completely unique cast headed by Paul Kelly, Ann Doran, and Gary Gray.

Young Geraldine Brooks is lovely and sweet as Susan. I've previously enjoyed her in films such as CRY WOLF (1947), THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949), and especially EMBRACEABLE YOU (1948), which I hope will have a future Warner Archive release.

I've been curious about CHALLENGE TO LASSIE since seeing the nice still at the right, which accompanied Brooks' entry in one of my favorite film books of the '70s, HOLLYWOOD PLAYERS: THE FORTIES by James Robert Parish. I acquired the book as a kid, and now I've finally seen the movie!

More great faces in the CHALLENGE TO LASSIE cast: The wonderful character actor Henry Stephenson, in his last feature film; Kathryn Beaumont, Disney's ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951); Jimmy Hawkins, one of the Bailey sons from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946); and in a very small role, Sara Allgood, Crisp's wife from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941).

CHALLENGE TO LASSIE was directed by Richard Thorpe. It was filmed in Technicolor by Charles Schoenbaum. The movie combines some nice-looking location shooting in the sheepherding and other sequences with a pretty but very make-believe matte painting standing in for Edinburgh.

The film's attractive score was by 20-year-old Andre Previn, who started at MGM as a teenager!

The Warner Archive DVD is a lovely color print. The trailer is included on the disc.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

The 2017 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival: Sunday

Our long weekend at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs flew by! Almost before we knew it, it was Sunday morning and time to start watching the last few titles of the festival.

There were three films shown on May 14th; the final Sunday screening at this festival is at 4:00 p.m., which makes it easy for Southern Californians to travel home from the desert by early evening!

The 10:00 a.m. film was DESPERATE (1947), which I had previously been fortunate to see as part of an Anthony Mann festival at UCLA.

DESPERATE stars Steve Brodie and Audrey Long (above) along with Raymond Burr, plus there's a fun supporting turn by Jason Robards Sr. as a police detective.

Eddie Muller and Foster Hirsch shared the stage to jointly introduce the film, as seen at right. They commented on the film being a rare star turn for supporting player Brodie, who was "natural" but had "no star quality."

They also described how in his early films Mann would focus on doing a few key scenes really well, to show what he could do, but he tended to be more perfunctory about the rest of the film.

It was my husband's first time to see DESPERATE, and he had some trouble with the story and Brodie's choices, while I find I like the movie more each time I see it. The movie would be worth seeing simply for George Diskant's photography of shadows, swinging lights, and staircases, but I also really enjoy Brodie's rare leading man role, and I'm a huge fan of lovely Audrey Long, seen at left with Carol Forman.

I hope to review Long soon in Robert Wise's A GAME OF DEATH (1945), recently released by Kino Lorber, and as it happens Wise directed the next film of the day, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

THE BODY SNATCHER stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, and the appealing child actress Sharyn Moffett, who the next year appeared in the classic film noir THE LOCKET (1946).

Karloff's daughter Sara was on hand to narrate home movies before the film and be interviewed by Alan Rode afterwards. I'll have more on that in a separate post on the film in the near future. Being a scaredy-cat, it's not really my kind of movie, but I enjoyed Sara Karloff very much -- and guess what, she's a scaredy-cat too!

Sara Karloff is seen here on the right, photographed Sunday afternoon with Eddie Muller, Monika Henreid, Victoria Mature, and Alan Rode.


The final movie of the festival, introduced by Alan Rode, was NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), directed by Jules Dassin.

I saw this Richard Widmark-Gene Tierney film as part of UCLA's Hollywood Exiles in Europe series in 2014 and was a bit baffled by it. It's a dark film about an unsympathetic loser, which also left me with too many questions about the characters.

However, I had a feeling I would appreciate it more on a second viewing, as I'd know better what to expect going in, and that proved to be the case. It won't ever be a favorite, but I'm glad I gave it a second chance, as I got more out of it this time around. (Except for the brutal wrestling scene near the end...I shut my eyes!) And as someone who loves London, you can't beat the incredible photography of that city by Max Greene.

Additionally, I now know that Gene Tierney's character, who I perceived as an "afterthought" the first time around, really was just that! She was written into the picture at the studio's behest, to give her a chance to get away and work in Europe when she was going through a difficult time.

As Alan Rode described NIGHT AND THE CITY, "It's pure noir filmed in the back streets of London...the most appropriate way to close the festival."

With the conclusion of NIGHT AND THE CITY it was time to leave behind the festival's appealing mix of noir darkness and desert sunshine and head for home! We hit the In-N-Out Burger in Cabazon, not far outside Palm Springs, and then headed back to Orange County.

It was a fantastic weekend, and I very much hope to return in 2018. It would be wonderful to see more of my readers there next year!

Coming soon: Individual reviews of three films seen at the festival, plus a photo tour of a side trip to Desert Memorial Park.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Spencer's Mountain (1963) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara star in SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN (1963), a movie predecessor to THE WALTONS, which debuted on TV nearly a decade later. SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN is now available on a lovely Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

Earl Hamner's novel SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN provided the basis for the film, which was written and directed by Delmer Daves.

Hamner's Spencer/Walton family had a slightly convoluted screen history. SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN kept the character names used in the novel, but Daves relocated the story from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.

When THE HOMECOMING (1971) was filmed for TV, followed by the 1972 debut of the long-running THE WALTONS, most of the family and character names were changed; Clay and Clayboy Spencer became the names we know better today, John and John-Boy Walton. The number of children was reduced and their names were likewise changed, and the setting was returned to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN Clay Spencer (Fonda) and his wife Livvy (O'Hara), his parents (Donald Crisp and Lillian Bronson), and his children live on the mountain named for their family.

Clay is one of nine brothers, who are played by actors including Med Flory, Victor French, Mike Henry, and O'Hara's brother James O'Hara (aka James Lilburn). Clay also has nine children himself! The eldest, Clayboy (James MacArthur of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON), is the first in his family to graduate high school. Clayboy wants desperately to go to college, but his family doesn't have the money.

How Clayboy finally makes it to college is the movie's central theme, but more than that, it's a portrait of a community: the kind quarry owner (Hayden Rorke) Clay works for; the teacher (Virginia Gregg) determined to see her star pupil make good; the new minister (Wally Cox) who overcomes an awkward introduction to the town and is there to lend the family a helping hand.

One could say that family and neighbors helping one another is really the movie's main theme, starting with the opening sequence when Clay's tall brothers all arrive for an early morning breakfast before helping him with a construction project on their day off from work. Indeed, Clay himself leverages the many kindnesses he's done for his neighbors to help set things right with how they treat the new preacher in town.

The movie is visually beautiful, from the opening credits shots of the Grand Tetons to the biscuits served at breakfast. Some critics have complained that the community -- especially the lovely O'Hara -- is too pretty for people eking out a hardscrabble existence, but I didn't have a problem with it, especially given how much there is to enjoy in the movie.

I've also read complaints that the film is maudlin, but Fonda's teary scenes, playing a man who lives for his "babies," seemed right on target to me and not overdone.

As a devoted WALTONS fan I used to have more trouble with the movie, particularly unnecessarily "un-WALTONS-like" crass moments which seem out of keeping with the film's overall tone. However, those scenes impacted me less revisiting the film for the first time in many years, while I enjoyed the film's look and its great cast more. I now set aside my WALTONS preconceptions and enjoy the original movie appearance of Hamner's family on its own terms. I've seen the film multiple times, but have never enjoyed it more than I did today.

Kym Karath is particularly adorable as one of the youngest Spencer children, Pattie-Cake, who idolizes her big brother Clay. Later that year she played Doris Day and James Garner's daughter in THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963). Her best-known screen appearance was as Gretl in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). It's fun to note that in SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN Karath's older sister Becky is played by Veronica Cartwright, while in THE SOUND OF MUSIC her older sister Brigitta is played by Veronica's sister Angela.

This movie was filmed in Panavision by Charles Lawton. It runs 118 minutes.

Blu-ray extras include the trailer, footage of the Wyoming premiere, and brief footage of Henry Fonda and James MacArthur being interviewed.

The widescreen Warner Archive Blu-ray is really beautiful. Recommended.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tonight's Movie: Upperworld (1934) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

UPPERWORLD (1934) is a snappy pre-Code murder melodrama with a terrific cast headed by Warren William, Mary Astor, and Ginger Rogers. It's available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

In this Ben Hecht story, scripted by Ben Markson, William plays railroad tycoon Alexander Stream. He and his wife wife Hettie (Astor) move in the rarefied "upperworld" circles of the very wealthy.

Hettie has come to treat her husband rather dismissively, focusing on her social "career," nor does she have much time for their little boy (Dickie Moore).

The lonely Stream takes up with a burlesque performer, Lilly (Rogers), who provides the companionship he's missing. She's genuinely fond of him, but jealous Lou Colima (J. Carrol Naish) wants both Lilly and some of Stream's money. Colima steals Stream's letters to Lilly, planning to blackmail him right as a huge merger deal is at stake.

During a confrontation over the letters Lilly takes a bullet Colima had aimed at Stream, who then shoots Colima in self-defense. (It's clear from the poster on the DVD case where the plot is going, so no spoilers here!)

Stream tries to cover his tracks, knowing that even though the killing was justified, exposure will risk his marriage and his merger. But there's a cop (Sidney Toler) who doesn't like him on the case...

I found this film quite enjoyable thanks to a brisk 73-minute plot and an excellent cast. William is best-known as a pre-Code villain in films such as EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE (1933), but I really enjoy him in warmer roles. He manages to maintain audience sympathy despite making a series of bad decisions, and the audience roots for everything to turn out well for him and his family.

Astor starts out playing one of her familiar "types," as a woman who belittles her husband's concerns as though he were a child, but she successfully navigates a journey where she wakes up and smells the proverbial coffee, suddenly realizing that her selfishness has jeopardized her marriage. Of course, her husband's choices aren't any help either!

Ginger Rogers is appealing as the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who cozies up to Stream, winning his affection with cooking, music, and her time. (Disney fans will be interested in Ginger's collection of three little pigs and her singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?") This being a pre-Code, their relationship is pretty clear as she moves into a much nicer apartment; Stream also intends to give her expensive jewelry, a plan which is foiled when his wife understandably thinks it's a surprise for her! She has a nice dramatic scene before her character's untimely demise.

The fine cast also includes Andy Devine, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Robert Greig, Robert Barrat, John Qualen, and Henry O'Neill.

Watch for future stars Bill Elliott and Dennis O'Keefe, two of the busiest bit players of the '30s, as crime scene photographers. I started wondering how many '30s films they were extras and bit players in together; it must be a significant number. If I find Elliott in a movie I start looking for O'Keefe as well, and vice versa, and very frequently it does turn out that they're both in it!

UPPERWORLD was directed by Roy Del Ruth and filmed by Tony Gaudio.

A couple bits of trivia, just for clarification: Although IMDb and some advertising give the title as UPPER WORLD, the actual screen credit is a solid word, which I've used here. There's also conflict within the film about the spelling of Rogers' character name; it's spelled both Lilly and Lily multiple places in the film. I utilized the opening credits spelling.

The Warner Archive picture quality is quite good and the soundtrack is crisp and clear. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

The 2017 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival: Saturday

After a fantastic Friday at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, we were back at the theater bright and early on May 13th for the first film on Saturday's schedule, SPLIT SECOND (1953).

SPLIT SECOND was a "nuclear noir" introduced by Foster Hirsch, and it proved to be one of my favorite films of the weekend.

This terrific thriller directed by Dick Powell also prompted us to hit the internet research trail looking for the gas station location seen early in the film, which was located in Cinco, California. I'll have more on SPLIT SECOND in a separate post.

We had just seen the 1:00 film, ADDRESS UNKNOWN (1944) with Paul Lukas, at the Noir City Hollywood festival in late March. It's a terrific, memorable film, but the subject matter is quite heavy, so we opted instead for a leisurely lunch at Sherman's Deli and Bakery. Great food.



Sherman's is definitely a place to check out when in Palm Springs!

The 4:00 film was MEET DANNY WILSON (1951), starring Frank Sinatra, Shelley Winters, and Alex Nicol. The movie was introduced by Eddie Muller.

I had just seen this one at the 2016 Noir City Festival, but it's one I was definitely ready to watch again. You can't beat the blend of Sinatra standards with film noir, including Raymond Burr as the bad guy!

The last film of the day was CHARLEY VARRICK (1973), directed by Don Siegel and starring Walter Matthau, Andy Robinson, and a host of familiar character actor faces. Robinson was Alan Rode's special guest for a post-film interview.

Although I tend to shy away from '70s crime films due to the increased violence, I thoroughly enjoyed the intricately plotted CHARLEY VARRICK. It was also great to have the opportunity to meet Robinson, who I'd seen on stage in a play my parents took me to when I was a teen. Like SPLIT SECOND, CHARLEY VARRICK will also be the topic of a separate post.

By Saturday night there were seven films down for me, with three still to come on Sunday!

Along with the films, it was great to have the chance to chat with several interesting people on Saturday, including Matt Patterson of the Warner Archive; film historian Jeremy Arnold, who has introduced films at the TCM Classic Film Festival and who did a terrific commentary track for Budd Boetticher's RIDE LONESOME (1959); and Victoria Mature, the daughter of Victor Mature, who was in the audience to enjoy the films. I love the way the festival brings together people who love movies in such a congenial and relaxed setting.

Coming soon: A recap of the final day of the festival, plus reviews of SPLIT SECOND, CHARLEY VARRICK, and THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), seen on Sunday with Sara Karloff in attendance.

A Visit to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

On our way to this year's Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival we stopped at the edge of town to ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.


The tramway, which opened in 1963, is the second-highest vertical tram in the world and the largest rotating aerial tram in the world.


Passengers are carried roughly two and a half miles up into the San Jacinto Mountains, a journey which takes approximately ten minutes. The floor inside the tram rotates slowly so that everyone's view changes periodically as the car travels.


Click any photo to enlarge it for a closer look.


The mountain station, at 8516 feet, contains restaurants, a museum, movie viewing areas, a gift shop, and more. I enjoyed our lunch, as well as an interesting movie about the construction of the tram. Hiking, snowshoeing, camping, and guided nature walks are available seasonally.


I hadn't ridden the tram since my high school choir sang Christmas carols in the restaurant, a very memorable occasion! I especially remember singing carols riding the car as it descended, with the lights of Palm Springs in the distance. It was my husband's first time to ride it, and he really enjoyed the experience.


Palm Springs viewed from 8516 feet:


At the top of the mountain it was roughly 40 degrees cooler than in Palm Springs, in the low 50s, but while cool, it was also sunny and pleasant.


Food and supplies for the restaurant are delivered in the aerial cars, which also have water tanks to supply the station above.


Here's a view of the other car coming up as we were headed back down:


This is the view just as we began our descent down. The ride is a tiny bit nerve-wracking, especially as the car "flies" off each tower station it passes, but on the whole I enjoyed it and would do it again.


The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a unique experience I recommend to my fellow Southern Californians, as well as to future visitors to the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.

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