Monday, April 29, 2013

The Stratton Story (1949)

The career of baseball pitcher, Monty Stratton, is the basis for 1949's The Stratton Story.  With Jimmy Stewart in the title role, and June Allyson as his wife, this Sam Wood film---which won a Best Writing Academy Award---features Frank Morgan and Agnes Moorehead in supporting roles.

The film begins in Wagner, Texas, in the early 1930's, as cotton farmer, Monty Stratton, is pitching for the local amateur baseball team, the Wagner Wildcats.  Agent Barney Wild (Frank Morgan) happens upon the young man and, impressed, informs him that he has a chance to play baseball professionally.  With Barney promising to do what he can to get him a tryout and his cousin agreeing to take care of the farm, Monty heads west to California, where he meets up with the Chicago White Sox.

The Sox are impressed enough to offer Monty a contract, and after a bit of a rough start, he settles in and becomes not only an all-star, but the leading right-handed pitcher in the American League.  With coaches making statements such as "What a future that boy's got" and "Right now, I wouldn't trade him for any other pitcher in baseball," Monty enjoys great success in the years 1934-1938.

At the height of his career, though, tragedy strikes, as, while on his property hunting, Monty's gun discharges, sending a bullet into his leg.  In order to save his life, doctors must remove Monty's leg; for a man whose legs are his life, the loss of the limb is a bitter blow, and for a time, Monty is overwhelmingly depressed and without a will to do anything.  Eventually, however, he comes to terms with his handicap and, with a prosthetic leg, seeks to pitch in the big leagues once more.

The Stratton Story isn't a spectacular movie, but it is interesting, touching, and inspiring.  I count it among my top 5 baseball movies.  Jimmy Stewart is terrific in the role, and his chemistry with June Allyson is wonderful.  (The two of them would be paired together twice more---in The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command.)  I adore both Jimmy and June...although I can never watch a single June Allyson film without hearing "Christopher Columbus" every time she utters a word.  (She is and always will be Little Women's Jo March to me.)

A few real-life baseball players make appearances in this film...Bill Dickey, Gene Bearden, and Jimmy Dykes.

Out on DVD as part of the James Stewart Signature Collection, The Stratton Story ought to be fairly easy to track down.  It is also on the TCM schedule for Sunday, July 21st, at 8:00 a.m. (ET).  If you like Jimmy Stewart, baseball, or inspiring, uplifting stories, you're sure to enjoy this.  I give it 4 stars.

Happy viewing!!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

Another film in which Doris Day has an opportunity to show that she's more than light, fluffy comedies is Love Me or Leave Me, a musical romantic drama from 1955.  Also starring James Cagney and featuring Cameron Mitchell, Robert Keith, and Tom Tully in support, this Charles Vidor film is based on the life of 20's and 30's singer, Ruth Etting.  The film received six Academy Award nominations in all, coming away with the win in the Best Writing category.

In 1920's Chicago, taxi dancer Ruth Etting (Doris Day), tired of being pawed by men and wanting to embark on a singing career, is hoping for her big break, which soon arrives, in the person of Marty Snyder (James Cagney). Called "The Gimp" because of the limp he has, Marty---who is a local gangster---uses his connections to get Ruth first a dance gig, then a singing one.  Although Ruth's piano player, Johnny (Cameron Mitchell), warns her that Marty is bad news and that his help will come with a price, Ruth blows him off.  She knows she could eventually make it on her own, but since doing so means success won't come as quickly as she wants, she's willing to let Marty pave the way for her.

With Marty as her manager, Ruth soon finds herself on the radio and part of the Ziegfeld Follies. She has become the sensation she always dreamed of being, but Marty, wanting to maintain control of Ruth's career, makes a scene, which embarrasses Ruth and brings her to the place of trying to break from him.  For Marty, though, it's time for Ruth to payoff---he brought her where she is, and he won't be pushed aside any longer.  The two marry and head to Hollywood, where Marty has obtained a picture deal for Ruth.

As the film plays out, Ruth is reunited with piano player Johnny, causing the angry, hot-tempered Marty to explode in a jealous rage.

Neither lead character in this film is particularly likable.  While Day's character is not physically abusive as Cagney's is, I, nevertheless, found her to be an unlikable sort.  Ruth was a user, taking Marty for what he could do for her career, then dumping him when she no longer needed him.  I found it hard to root for her.  Despite unlikable characters, however, Love Me or Leave Me has many other things going for it.

First of all, the acting is brilliant.  Both Miss Day and Mr. Cagney are magnificent. Mr. Cagney received his final Academy Award nomination for his work here, and Doris, while not being recognized by The Academy, was praised by Mr. Cagney.  In his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney, he says "She had matured into a really exceptional actress, and I told her so.  I said, "You know, girl, you have a quality that I've seen but twice before.  There was a gal named Pauline Lord who created the title role in Eugene O'Neill's, Anna Christie, and I'm also thinking of Laurette Taylor.  Both these ladies could really get on there and do it with everything.  They could take you apart playing a scene.  Now, you're the third one."   He further went on to say that "After Love Me or Leave Me, Doris went into the Pillow Talk things, and I for one have always considered that one hell of a waste."  Doris had to be thrilled with those words.  To have James Cagney---whom I think may be the finest actor there has ever been---praising one's abilities has to be almost as wonderful as receiving an Academy Award.

The music in this film is spectacular!  Doris sings close to a dozen songs, including "It All Depends on You" and "You Made Me Love You."  It's always a joy to hear her beautiful voice in song. Additionally, Miss Day's gowns are simply stunning, though definitely not the "girl next door" type fans had come to expect to see her in.  According to Doris's autobiography, Love Me or Leave Me was the film she considered to be her best.

Mr. Cagney was enamored of the script for Love Me or Leave Me at first glance.  According to his autobiography, it was one of those "rare, perfect scripts that needed nothing added to it, nor nothing taken away from it."  It was a role that had at first been offered to Spencer Tracy, who turned it down.  Mr. Cagney never knew why Mr. Tracy had turned the role down, saying that "it was a damned good part."

According to Robert Osborne, when this film was originally in the works, George Cukor was to have directed and Ava Gardner was to have been the female lead.  For whatever reason, those roles went to Vidor and Day, and when Cukor and Gardner saw the film, they were wowed, and Ava said something to the effect of "We made a big mistake" to which Cukor responded, "No, we didn't.  If we had made it, it wouldn't have been that good."

Even if you've never heard of Ruth Etting, this film is definitely worth seeing, especially for Doris Day and James Cagney fans.  It's easily a 4-star film in my mind (more like 4.5...and extremely close to 5 stars).  Out on DVD, it should be fairly easy to track down.

Happy viewing!!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

In recent weeks, I have bumped Fredric March from one of my top-10 faves to one of my "beloveds."  (I now have 8 great loves, with over a dozen more hovering just below that status.)  I have been an appreciator of Mr. March's talents since the first time I ever saw him---in The Best Years of Our Lives; however, the more I see of his works, the more impressed I am with him and the more I love him.  I have come to completely adore him!!  Thus, I've been on a quest to see as many of his films as I can, and Death Takes a Holiday was one I was dying to see (pun intended).  A romantic drama from 1934, the film also stars Evelyn Venable, with Guy Standing, Henry Travers, and Helen Westley taking on supporting roles.

Fredric March is Death, and in an endeavor to discover why mortals fear and hate him, he takes a 3-day holiday from that role, and, inhabiting the body of a prince, becomes a mortal himself. Spending his holiday at the home of Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), he finds himself falling in love with the beautiful Grazia (Evelyn Venable).  While some of the duke's house guests find him odd and even fear him, Grazia does not.  She loves him and is willing to follow him anywhere.  But does anywhere mean leaving the land of the living?

This is an interesting, well-acted film...and Fredric March is more handsome than I have ever seen him. Except for that early-1930's "lipstick look" which makes the men a bit too feminine-looking for my taste, I think he is completely gorgeous here!  Looks aside, Mr. March's acting in Death Takes a Holiday is completely over-the-top, something I happen to think is spot-on.  Given that he was playing an other-worldly character, I think the overacting goes with the territory; however, I know others who think he was actually laughable in this role.  Each viewer will need to make up his own mind.

The supporting players are all a real treat.  I would have liked to have seen their characters fleshed out a bit more, though that is hard to do in a 78-minute movie.  Had the film been longer and more developed, I might have rated it higher.  As it is, I'm calling this a solid 3-star film.

The film is out on DVD and part of the Classic Flix inventory (that's how I caught it); however, it is also available in its entirety on YouTube (HERE).

Happy viewing!!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Keep Your Powder Dry (1945)

From 1945, comes Keep Your Powder Dry, a WWII drama starring Lana Turner, Laraine Day, and Susan Peters, with Lee Patrick, June Lockhart, Natalie Schafer, and Agnes Moorehead taking on minor roles.  Though a drama, there is a bit of comic relief.

The film chronicles the WAC experience of three women, each of whom joined the organization for different reasons---including selfish ones.  First, there's Valerie Parks (Lana Turner), a spoiled heiress, who must prove herself to be a mature, responsible adult in order to have access to her trust fund.  Val's plan is to join the WACs, look presentable enough to obtain her inheritance, then get out as soon as possible---feigning illness if she has to.  Ann Darrison (Susan Peters), whose Army husband is being shipped overseas, wants to do her part to win the war so that the two of them can be together again.  Leigh Rand (Laraine Day), is the daughter of an Army officer and has grown up with an Army mindset.

Confident that she is Army material because of her status as "Army brat," Leigh gives off a snobby, bossy air, which immediately puts her at odds with the strong-willed Val.  With kindhearted, easy-going Ann acting as a buffer between them, Leigh and Val are continually at each other's throats.  If they don't learn how to put their dislike for each other aside and learn how to get along, neither of them will graduate.

All three leads are lovely and quite good in their roles.  I already adore Lana, but I really took notice of Laraine Day and Susan Peters here.  They were both excellent.  Susan Peters has such a fragility to her in every film she's in (even as "the other woman" in Random Harvest).  Her life was so very tragic---After this film was made, but before it was released, she was involved in a hunting accident, resulting in permanent paralysis from the waist down.  From then on, until her death a few years later at the too-young age of 31, she suffered from kidney disease, depression, and anorexia nervosa.

Having minor roles as other WACs and officers are Lee Patrick (always a great wit), June Lockhart (who looks virtually the same here in 1945 as she does as the Lost in Space mom in the 1960's) and Agnes Moorehead.

This film has some touching moments...I got teary-eyed on three different occasions, even cried heartily one of those times.  While not the same caliber as some of the other female WWII movies (like So Proudly We Hail), Keep Your Powder Dry is definitely enjoyable, interesting, and worth watching.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Out on DVD, the film ought to be fairly easy to track down.  Also, it is on the TCM schedule for Tuesday, June 25th, at 2:00 p.m. (ET)  I hope you get a chance to see it.

Happy viewing!!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Though Doris Day is most commonly associated with musicals and light comedies, she could definitely hold her own (and more!) in dramatic films, as evidenced in Alfred Hitchock's 1956 political thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Also starring James Stewart, this film is a remake of Mr. Hitchcock's 1933 film of the same name.

Vacationing in French Morocco are Americans Ben and Jo McKenna (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) and their young son, Hank.  While on a bus enroute to Marakech, they make the acquaintance of Frenchman, Louis Bernard, and although the man's intrusive questions about their lives are disconcerting to Jo, the McKenna's make plans to meet him for dinner and drinks a bit later.  

After a sinister-looking man comes to his door, however, Mr. Bernard cancels his dinner plans with the McKennas, leaving them to make the acquaintance of a vacationing British couple. Taking to one another immediately, the two couples become friends and even visit an outdoor marketplace together the next morning.

While in the market area, a stabbing takes place, and just before dying, the stabbed man---who turns out to be Louis Bernard---approaches Ben and whispers information about an assassination soon to take place.  Immediately, Ben and Jo are whisked off to the police department, while their new friend offers to keep their son for them.  Although Ben might consider telling the authorities what he knows about Bernard's killing and the man's final message, he is soon made aware that Hank will be harmed if he does.  By the time Ben and Jo return to their hotel (from the police station), Hank has been kidnapped.

It's every parent's worst nightmare, as the McKennas travel from Morocco to England in order to rescue their son, all the while knowing that sometime, somewhere, an assassination will be attempted.  How everything plays out is the balance of the film.

Very suspenseful, with much political intrigue, The Man Who Knew Too Much is an interesting, enjoyable, well-acted film.  Both Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are extremely believable in their roles, and they play well off each other.  The part of the assassin (Reggie Nalder) is perfectly cast.  With burn scars on his lower face, Mr. Nalder certainly presents a mysterious, almost sinister-looking figure, making him completely perfect for his role.  The Albert Hall scenes are magnificent, with Hitchcock brilliance evidenced throughout.  Finally, there are a couple opportunities to catch Doris Day's lovely, melodious voice, as she sings the film's Academy Award-winning song---"Que Sera Sera." 

Since I have never seen the original version of this film, I can't compare the two.  However, I really enjoyed this and am giving it 4 out of 5 stars.  Out on DVD, it should be easy to track down.

Happy viewing!!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

In honor of William Holden's birthday, I decided to revise and expand one of the very first reviews I did here at They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To---1950's magnificent Sunset Boulevard. Directed by the fabulous Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is a mature, hard-hitting drama, which features totally stellar performances by its two stars...Gloria Swanson and William Holden, both of whom were nominated for Oscars for their roles.  Featuring the Academy Award-nominated support of Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, this terrific movie is my favorite William Holden film, my 2nd favorite film of the 1950's, and among my 5 favorite films of all-time.

The story begins when Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck, unemployed Hollywood screenwriter receives a visit from the men who have financed his car. (Actually, this isn't where the story begins, but it is the point from which I am starting.) With no payment in hand, and no job on the horizon, Joe attempts to evade the finance guys, and in so doing, he races down Sunset Boulevard in said car. After blowing a tire and realizing he needs to hide the car from the men who want to repossess it, Joe pulls off the road and into the garage of a dilapidated, abandoned-looking old mansion.

Before long, though, Joe realizes the house is not abandoned. Someone is peering at him from an upper window, and a butler is standing at the door as if he had been expecting Joe's arrival. Joe is whisked to a second-story bedroom, where he comes face to face with an eccentric middle-aged woman and her deceased chimpanzee. After assuring the woman he is not the undertaker she had been expecting, Joe attempts to leave, but then he realizes that he actually recognizes the woman...she is Norma Desmond, a major star from the silent era of movies (Gloria Swanson).

Norma lives in the past, surrounding herself with her old movies and dozens of photos from her "golden years." Stating that she is planning a "return" and not a "comeback," Norma mentions to Joe that she has written a script (in which she will star), and after discovering that Joe is a screenwriter, she requests that he do some editing for her. Not really wanting to be in the presence of this strange lady and her even stranger surroundings, Joe's initial response is to turn down the job offer; however, knowing that he really needs the money in order to keep his car and pay his back rent, he accepts the position...and is soon living in a room above Norma's garage and then eventually in a room adjoining hers in the main house.  Also living in the house is Norma's devoted, ever-present butler (Erich von Stroheim).

It's not long before Joe is quite unnerved by the situation in which he finds himself. Norma has become extremely possessive and controlling, barely allowing Joe out of her sight. She is buying all his clothes and paying his back rent. In short, he is a "kept man"...kept by a woman nearly twice his age...and he is uncomfortable to the hilt. Finally, on New Year's Eve, when he discovers that the "party" he thought Norma was having is just for the two of them, he storms out...ending up at a party a friend is having. Free from Norma's clutches, he enjoys a time of partying with people his own age. Joe's freedom is short-lived, however, as Norma's butler tracks him down and tells him that Norma has attempted suicide. Feeling guilty that Norma has attempted to kill herself due to her unrequited love for him, Joe returns to her house and ultimately begins an affair with her.

Since Norma continues to be determined to make a return to the screen, she and Joe make a trip to Paramount Studios, where she can visit with movie producer, Cecille B. DeMille. While at the studio, Joe runs into a girl he had been talking to at his friend's New Year's Eve party. She tells him she wants to re-write one of his scripts, and the two begin meeting together in the evenings to do that. In time, they begin to fall in love, but Norma, desperately jealous, will stop at nothing to keep Joe to herself.  How it all plays out is the balance of the film.

An amazing movie, Sunset Boulevard was one of the most honored films of 1950.  In all, it received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and both supporting categories.  In the end, as 1950 was also the year of All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard came away with only 3 wins, one of which was for Best Music (Franz Waxman).  Much as I like All About Eve, I think Sunset Boulevard was the superior film.  I also believe this to be the absolute best performance of William Holden's career (and he had many great performances, including one which won him an Oscar).  Since I grew bored with Cyrano de Bergerac and turned it off after less than 20 minutes, I have been unable to determine how Jose Ferrer snagged the Lead Actor win that year.  Although I'm not familiar with any of Gloria Swanson's other works since she was mostly from the silent era, I was beyond impressed with her performance in Sunset Boulevard. After seeing the works of each actress that year, I readily admit the Academy had a tough job in choosing the winner, for they all were fantastic.  In the end, though, I have come away believing that Eleanor Parker ought to have won for Caged, with Miss Swanson only a tiny breath behind her.  Her acting is completely and totally brilliant!

Out on DVD, Sunset Boulevard should be quite easy track down.  Additionally, TCM airs it very regularly---seems like about four or five times a year.  Definitely try to see it when you can.  It's not a feel-good movie, but it takes an honest look at not only the Hollywood climate, but at how most of us feel about growing older in a youth-oriented culture.

Happy viewing!!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Happy Birthday, William Holden!!!

Happy 95th birthday to one of my most beloved #1 guy---the sensational William Holden!!  (April 17, 1918 - November 12, 1981).  Five more years and I will throw him a centennial blogathon like I did for John Garfield last month.

As regular readers of this blog already know, the incredibly talented, fabulously good-looking Mr. Holden---who was born with the name William Franklin Beadle, Jr.---is one of my two #1 guys.  I completely adore this man!!   He has occupied #1 status for about four years now (though he shares that status with Robert Ryan).  I have Audrey Hepburn to thank for bringing him into my life, as my introduction to classic movies began with Roman Holiday As I sought out more of Miss Hepburn's works, naturally, I discovered Sabrina...which led to my discovery of the gorgeous Mr. Holden.  Completely taken with the incredible smile he flashed several times in that film, I simply had to see more of his works, and as I did, I fell more and more in love with him.

My five favorites of his films have changed only slightly since last year's birthday post (HERE). Still at #1 is Sunset Boulevard (with Gloria Swanson---reviewed HERE). Not only is this my favorite William Holden movie, but it is my second favorite film of the entire 1950's and among my top 5 movies of all-time.

Rounding out my five favorite William Holden films are:

2.  Stalag 17  (Mr. Holden's Academy Award-winning performance---reviewed HERE)

3.  Born Yesterday  (with Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford---reviewed HERE)

4.  The Bridges at Toko-Ri  (with Grace Kelly and Fredric March---reviewed HERE)

5.  Picnic  (with Kim Novak---reviewed HERE)

Sabrina is pretty much neck and neck with Picnic, but in the end, thanks to that beautiful, sensual dance scene Mr. Holden shares with Kim Novak, Picnic grabbed the #5 slot---but only by the narrowest of margins.

It is my goal to see Mr. Holden's entire filmography, and I am well over halfway there.  (I've got about 13 films left to go.) Given that he was making films in the 70's and even into the 80's, and given that he also made many Westerns, I realize that if I want to complete his filmography, I am going to have to watch films I wouldn't ordinarily choose to watch.  Such is the life of a #1 fan!  My hope is to be able to track down and view all the remaining films by the time I observe Mr. Holden's centennial in five years.

So, here's to you, Mr. William Holden, on your 95th birthday.  You were a wonderful actor who always gave a terrific performance.  I completely adore you and will always consider you one of my #1 guys.  And, in the words of George Eliot, "Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them."  Since we have not forgotten you (nor will we ever!), you do, indeed, live on! Thanks for enriching my life with so many incredible films!!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Send Me No Flowers (1964)

Regular readers of They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To know that I don't lean much to comedy.  Of my 40 all-time favorite movies, only five of them are comedies---and two of those I would classify more as dramedies than out-and-out comedies.  Despite my usual lack of tolerance for that genre, though, for some reason, the three romantic comedies pairing Doris Day and Rock Hudson quite appeal to me.  In fact, I actually love and 5-star two of them, one of which is 1964's Send Me No Flowers.  Also starring Tony Randall and featuring Paul Lynde and Clint Walker in small roles, Send Me No Flowers is the final of Rock and Doris's three pairings.

A hypochondriac to the max, George Kimball (Rock Hudson) is convinced he is dying. Although he had seen his doctor and had a complete check-up two weeks earlier, he is sure that the pain in his chest means he's on his last legs, so he makes another trip to his doctor's office.  After listening to George's heart, the diagnosis is indigestion, and George is sent home with another bottle of pills, to add to his already-burgeoning medicine cabinet.  At George's previous visit, the doctor had taken a cardiogram, the results of which have not come back yet.  While George is in the restroom, the doctor takes a phone call about one of his other patients---a man who is dying. Overhearing the doctor's side of the conversation, George is certain he is the patient being discussed and that the results of the cardiogram indicate it is he who has only a few weeks to live.

Determining that it would be best to not tell his wife, Judy (Doris Day), the horrible news---lest she go to pieces---George shares the news of his "condition" with neighbor/friend, Arnold (Tony Randall) and then sets out to be sure Judy will be taken care of after his "death."  He purchases cemetery plots, dictates a goodbye message, then attempts to set her up with another man (Clint Walker).  Through a series of misunderstandings, Judy comes to believe that George is actually having an affair with a neighbor lady, and she kicks him out of the house.  When he attempts to explain the situation, Judy doesn't believe a word he says, and George finds himself further in the doghouse.

Does George ever realize that the doctor was talking about another patient and that he really has nothing wrong with him?  Does Judy figure out why George is pushing her into the arms of another man?  Does she believe him when he insists he is not having an affair?  Those are the questions which play out in the remainder of the film.

For a variety of reasons, I find Send Me No Flowers to be a completely delightful film.  For one thing, the chemistry between Rock and Doris is awesome.  I know Rock was gay and that there was never anything more than deep friendship between the two of them, but, boy, they could have fooled anyone.  They are amazing together, and that is part of what makes this film work for me.

Another reason I love the film is that I completely relate to it.  Twenty years ago, I was the kind of hypochondriac George Kimball is.  I was continually convinced that I had every form of cancer there is and that I was going to die before six months was up.  I remember my son's 3rd birthday in November, 1994.  Though I wouldn't be diagnosed for a few more days, I had pneumonia at the time, and I was horribly sick.  I remember crying to my mother-in-law at my son's birthday party, telling her that that was the last of Garrett's birthdays I would ever see.  I was completely and totally convinced I was dying.  AND, my daughter has inherited this propensity to hypochondria, having every form of cancer there is herself.  A black and blue mark, and she's convinced she has leukemia, a headache, and she's convinced it's a brain tumor, etc.  So, as we watch George Kimball obsess about his ailments, my daughter and I howl with laughter, seeing ourselves in the entire situation, thereby making the film even more amusing to us.

Tony Randall, as the Kimball's next-door-neighbor, and Paul Lynde, as the cemetery salesman, are both quite hilarious in their roles.  Doris is her usual perky, lovely self.  She sports some beautiful outfits here, especially her bright green suit.  Rock is gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.   And, finally, Doris sings the film's theme song.  All those things combine to make this a film I absolutely love.

Out on DVD, Send Me No Flowers should be quite easy to track down.  If you like Pillow Talk, I'm sure you will enjoy this film as well.  It's a definite 5-star, "love it" film for me, and I highly recommend it.

Happy viewing!!

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Winning Team (1952)

Here at They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To, April is Doris Day month...with a little bit of baseball thrown in.  As it turns out, with 1952's The Winning Team we will get both!  Also starring Ronald Reagan, and featuring Frank Lovejoy in a supporting role, this 4-star film chronicles the career of early 20th-century pitching great, Grover Cleveland Alexander.

A telephone lineman in rural Nebraska, Grover Alexander (Ronald Reagan) and his fiance Aimee (Doris Day) are saving money so they can get married and buy a farm.  What Grover really wants to do, though, is play baseball, so when he is asked to pitch in a local game, he does Aimee's great dismay.  Although Aimee insists that baseball shouldn't be Grover's whole life...that it should just be something to help him relax---like checkers---when the manager of a semi-professional team approaches him about joining the team, Grover does so, and he finds success, which leads him right into the Major Leagues and, ultimately, to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

From his 28-wins rookie season in 1911, to his final season nearly two decades later, Grover Alexander made a name for himself as one of the pitching greats of baseball history.  Playing for Philadelphia, Chicago (Cubs), and St. Louis, over the course of 20 seasons, Grover---known as Alex the Great---fought the effects of a head injury which resulted in double-vision and seizure-type symptoms, as well as the demon of alcohol abuse, in order to become one of the greatest pitchers in baseball.  He was even instrumental in leading his team to a come-from-behind victory in the 1926 World Series.

This is an inspiring story, and the pairing of Doris Day and Ronald Reagan makes for a "winning team" for me.  There is great chemistry between them, and they both are strong and solid in their roles.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe a lot of people discount Ronald Reagan as an actor simply because they don't like his politics.  No, he's not the best actor who ever came down the pike, but he's certainly not the worst.  He's very capable and solid in several roles, not the least of which is this one.  So, set politics aside, put your "objective" hat on, and give him a chance in this---and other---dramatic roles.

The film also provides an opportunity to hear the delightful melodious voice of Doris Day, as she sings a couple lines of (what else) "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  Russ Tamblyn (billed as Rusty Tamblyn) has a very tiny role as one of Grover's younger siblings.  Finally, there's some real baseball footage, including shots of the now-destroyed Yankee Stadium.

The final innings of the final game of the movie (the 1926 World Series) are depicted fairly accurately, although not completely.  I checked in my son's book, 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, and found that things didn't happen exactly as shown in the movie.  The end result was the same, but Hollywood took a bit of license.  Be sure to check out what really happened....and should you be interested in learning a bit more about this Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher, HERE is an encyclopedia article about him.

Out on DVD as part of the Ronald Reagan Collection, The Winning Team should be fairly easy to track down.  Additionally, it is on the TCM schedule for Friday, July 19th, at 6:00 p.m. (ET). For baseball fans---especially those who are interested in learning about the all-time greats---I think this film is well worth a watch.

Happy viewing!!

Monday, April 08, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon---The Public Enemy (1931)

For the next five days, it's all things James Cagney over at The Movie Projector.  There are thirty bloggers participating in a salute to one of the most sensational actors there has ever been...or will ever be.  In conjunction with the blogathon, host R.D. is offering a giveaway of the 2-disc edition of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the film for which Mr. Cagney won his only Lead Actor Academy Award.  For more information about the giveaway and to read all the other wonderful entries in the event, go HERE.

My contribution to this fantastic blogathon is that quintessential gangster film from 1931, The Public Enemy.  Directed by William Wellman, The Public Enemy provided Mr. Cagney with his breakthrough role, as he was moved from a secondary character to the lead one before filming began. Though Jean Harlow gets second billing, she's really quite a minor player.  The film is all Cagney's, with supporting help from Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, and Joan Blondell.  Mae Clarke, Beryl Mercer, and Leslie Fenton also have feature parts in this terrific 5-star film, which in my mind remains the measuring stick of all gangster films, even now, some 80 years after its release.

The film begins in 1909 on the streets of Chicago, where two young boys, Tom Powers (who will grow up to be James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (who will grow up to be Edward Woods) are beginning down the road which will ultimately lead them to organized crime.  With Tom as the instigator, the boys are repeated troublemakers, even stealing for local gangster Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell).  Matt's sister, Molly, warns Tom that he's no good and will end up in jail someday.

As the years go by, Tom and Matt grow to manhood, getting involved in ever-bigger capers, now with guns in their hands.  When things go haywire during their robbery of a fur company and one of their own is killed, ringleader Putty Nose skips town, leaving the boys feeling double-crossed and desirous of revenge.  They soon join forces with another local gangster, Paddy Ryan (Robert O'Connor).

After their first big payoff, Tom and Matt delight in getting fitted for fancy suits and, afterwards, enjoy a night on the town.  Matt soon finds himself in love with Mamie (Joan Blondell), while Tom spends time with Kitty (Mae Clarke), before ditching her for Gwen (Jean Harlow).

As Prohibition becomes the law of the land in 1920, Tom and Matt are primed to become big shots.  Operating a bootleg beer business, Paddy joins forces with another local mobster, Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton). Gang warfare ultimately breaks out, and many are sure to get caught in the crossfire.  How it all plays out is the balance of the film.

The Public Enemy is a simply sensational film.  The direction is fantastic...the cinematography is appropriately stark and gritty...the acting---especially that of James Cagney---is brilliant.  He plays the cold, heartless, evil Tom Powers to absolute perfection.  Especially upon discovering that these gangster roles were just a way to pay the bills...that Cagney really preferred song-and-dance realize just what an amazing performance he gave here.  I think it's one of his best---though being honest, I think Mr. Cagney (whom I positively adore!) always gave a "best" performance.

One of the most haunting scenes in all of film history (to me) is Tom Powers' final arrival at his mother's door.  It's a sight that will stick with you for days.  (Can't say more, so as not to give away the ending to those who may not have seen this film yet.)

Probably my favorite scene in the film is the one which gives a little glimpse into the song-and-dance life of James Cagney.  It's short and, perhaps, unnoticed by most people.  After obtaining Gwen's telephone number, Tom does a little two-step on the sidewalk.  With Mr. Cagney's love for dance, I figure that was an improvisation to put a little of himself into the film.

When production of The Public Enemy got underway, Cagney was originally hired for the Matt Doyle role; however, by the time shooting commenced, it was realized that Cagney was the more dominant personality and, thus, ought to have the star part.  Mr. Cagney puts it this way in his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney, "Public Enemy was about two street pals---one soft-spoken, the other a really tough little article.  For some incredible reason, I was cast as the quiet one; and Eddie Woods, a fine actor, but a boy of gentle background, well-spoken and well-educated became the tough guy.  Fortunately, Bill Wellman, the director, had seen Doorway to Hell , and he quickly became aware of the obvious casting error.  He knew at once that I could project that direct gutter quality, so Eddie and I switched roles after Wellman made an issue of it with Darryl Zanuck."  This casting change had huge bearing on Mr. Cagney's career, because after The Public Enemy, Warners gave him star billing.

In his typical humble way, Mr. Cagney doesn't have a negative word to say about anyone in the cast.  He called Donald Cook, who played his brother in the film, "that good actor."  He also said, "Public Enemy had a fine cast:  Eddie, Donald, Mae Clarke, and the unforgettable Jean Harlow, whom, he said, was "very pleasant to work with."  The two never saw each other again after Public Enemy, but Mr. Cagney was, nevertheless, saddened by her untimely death.

One of the most memorable scenes in James Cagney's career is the infamous grapefruit scene, in which Tom, frustrated by his girlfriend's (Mae Clarke) nagging, shoves a grapefruit in her face.  According to Mr. Cagney's autobiography, the scene had been "derived from a real incident in Chicago when a hoodlum named Hymie Weiss took an omelet prepared by his overly-talkative girlfriend and shoved it in her face.  Of course, an omelet was a bit too messy to be repeated on the screen, so the grapefruit was substituted."

A little anecdote about that scene is that "Miss Clarke was once married to Monte Brice, Fanny's brother.  Mae and Monte divorced , and apparently with a little rancor, because every time Cagney pushed the grapefruit into Mae's face at the Strand Theatre, there was a guaranteed audience of one---Monte.  He would come in just before the scene was shown, gloat over it, then leave."

The Public Enemy is a totally brilliant movie...a definite must-see, as it paved the way for all gangster films following in its wake.  It is one of my 10 favorite films of the 1930's, my 2nd favorite James Cagney film, and among my 40 all-time favorite movies.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Out on DVD and soon to be released on Blu-Ray, the film should be very easy to track down.  It is also on the TCM schedule for Sunday, June 2nd, at 12:30 p.m. (ET).  Do try to catch it---you will absolutely not be disappointed.

Happy viewing!!

All quoted material derived from Cagney by Cagney, by James Cagney, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Young Man with a Horn (1950)

For the most part, when we think of musicals, we think of warm, fuzzy, feel-good stuff; rarely, do we expect a meaty, hard-hitting, incredibly-acted drama to fall within the musical genre. With 1950's Young Man with a Horn, we definitely get it all---powerful drama, fantastic acting, and terrific music.  Starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day, this Michael Curtiz film is not only loaded with music, but it has a riveting storyline, brought to life through simply sensational acting, especially that of Kirk Douglas.  Featuring Hoagy Carmichael and Juano Hernandez in supporting roles, Young Man with a Horn is a 4-star film for me.

Rather neglected by the older sister who is raising him, Rick Martin (Orley Lindgren) finds what he's looking for in music.  Fascinated by the piano in a local mission church, Rick teaches himself to play by ear.  Before long, though, needing a more affordable instrument---and one he can carry with him---he transfers his interest to the trumpet, and under the tutelage of blues musician, Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), Rick quickly masters the beautiful brass piece.

As the years go by and young Rick becomes a man (now played by Kirk Douglas), his love for music becomes his all in all.  He's an intense man, not much interested in having friends or a social life...just in hitting a note that has never been hit before.  Landing a job in a dance orchestra, he has a hard time adhering to the rigid rules of the bandleader, desiring, instead, to shake things up a bit with some jazzier tunes.

The band's singer, Jo Jordan (Doris Day), and piano man, Smoke Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael) look past Rick's driven, hard-to-get-along-with personality and become good friends.  When Rick's rebellious ways get him fired from the band, Jo helps him land another gig; however, Rick's passion for his music and his desire to do something that's never been done before, continue to consume him.

After getting involved with and marrying a troubled medical student (Lauren Bacall), Rick's life and career spiral downward, ultimately taking him to rock bottom.

Only with the love and support of true friends, Jo and Smoke, will this troubled man be able to pull himself up from the gutter and get his life in order.  How it all plays out is the balance of the film.

Young Man with a Horn is a completely riveting film, and it provides an opportunity to hear the lovely voice of Doris Day perform four different numbers.  Kirk Douglas's acting is sensational.  Up until about ten months ago, I would have said that I didn't much care for Mr. Douglas.  Since that time, though, I've seen a few of his films (including two which were among my 5-star film discoveries of 2012), and I have been blown away by the performance he gives. My appreciation for him has grown by leaps and bounds, and I've recently begun including him on my favorite actor list.  Here in Young Man with a Horn, he is so into the role that there are times the obsessive glint in his eyes is positively maniacal---completely intense and in definite keeping with his driven character.  Although Mr. Douglas's trumpet sounds were provided by Harry James, his playing looked authentic to me.

Appropriately hard and cold, Lauren Bacall plays her unlikable character to perfection.  Miss Bacall was 26 years old here---hard to believe...she looked significantly 35 or 40! Doris Day is her usual lovely self and is very solid in her role as well; having a chance to hear her sing is always a delight. And Juano Hernandez is wonderful!  I loved his character, and I think he brought him to life beautifully.  The music of the film is the icing on the cake---there is lots of it, and it is terrific, all made available in a separate soundtrack.

Out on DVD, this film should be easy to track down.  It is also on the TCM schedule for Thursday, May 30th at 3:30 a.m. (ET).  Fans of Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, or jazz music ought to really enjoy this one.

Happy viewing!!

Friday, April 05, 2013

Lots of Talent Born Today

April 5th has seen much talent coming into the world...3 major stars were born on this day.

Bette Davis (April 5, 1908 - October 6, 1989)

Spencer Tracy  (April 5, 1900 - June 10, 1967)

Gregory Peck  (April 5, 1916 - June 12, 2003)

Thinking of all three of these great stars on their birthday...and feeling thankful that we have so many wonderful movies by which we can remember them.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

While football may be the new favorite sport of most people, my family remains firmly in the baseball camp.  Yes, we do love college football, but when it comes to professional sports, baseball---especially Boston Red Sox baseball---is where it's at in our house.  For that reason, we gravitate to baseball films, and my favorite, bar none, is 1942's The Pride of the Yankees.  Starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright, this 5-star film tells the story of baseball great Lou Gehrig, who as probably everyone knows, was struck down with ALS---the disease which now bears his name---in the prime of life.

The movie begins when Lou is about ten, and it chronicles his early baseball years, his hazing by the team, his courtship of Eleanor, his "Iron Horse" years, the beginning of his descent into the world of ALS, and ultimately, his "Luckiest Man" speech.  While the film has many comical moments, at its core, it remains the story of a man afflicted with a devastating illness. 

As my regular blog readers know, I am a mega-huge Coop fan. It's rare that I don't like one of his movies, rare that I don't like the character he is portraying. But this film is just about my absolute favorite. The Pride of the Yankees is my third favorite Cooper film, behind only Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Ten North Frederick.

Coop and Teresa Wright, who would be paired together again two years later in Casanova Brown, have terrific chemistry in this movie.

Both Cooper and Wright were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances here. Neither won; however, Teresa was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category that same year, for her role in MrsMiniver, and she did win that Oscar.  In all, The Pride of the Yankees received 11 Academy Award nominations, coming away with the win in the Best Film Editing category.

In my mind, The Pride of the Yankees is not only the best baseball film of all-time, but it is a delightful breath of fresh air. In this day of scandalous baseball, with its obscene salaries and rampant steroid use, we need to be reminded of what a "true baseball hero" Lou Gehrig was. He was an honorable man both on and off the field. Instead of whining about the devastating hand he had been dealt, he exhibited strength and courage in the face of great adversity. Our world needs more men like him. I think this film ought to be required viewing for today's professional athletes (along with 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story).

Besides Cooper and Wright, the film also features Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea.  And the legendary Babe Ruth takes to the screen too, playing himself.  In my Red Sox-lovin' household, a watching of this film provides my one and only allowed opportunity to look positively on a man wearing the Yankee pinstripes.

A definite must-see, The Pride of the Yankees is out on DVD, so it should be very easy to track down.  Do keep the tissues handy, as you're sure to need them.

Happy viewing!!