End of an Era: THE ROARING TWENTIES (Warner Brothers 1939)

Warner Brothers helped usher in the gangster movie era in the early 1930’s with Pre-Code hits like LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and at the decade’s end they put the capper on the genre with THE ROARING TWENTIES, a rat-a-tat-tat rousing piece of filmmaking starring two of the studio’s top hoods, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart , directed with the top down by eye-patch wearing macho man Raoul Walsh for maximum entertainment.

The film’s story was written by Mark Hellinger, a popular and colorful New York columnist in the Damon Runyon mold who based it on his encounters with some of the underworld figures he knew during that tumultuous era. Hellinger was later responsible for producing some of the toughest noirs of the late 40’s: THE KILLERS BRUTE FORCE , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, and THE NAKED CITY. Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, and Robert Rossen adapted Hellinger’s story for the screen, and the film has a novel way of moving through the decade via montage, nine of them to be exact!

WWI vets Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart (Cagney, Bogie, Jeffrey Lynn) return home to vastly different circumstances. While Hally returns to saloonkeeping and Hart begins a law career, Eddie finds himself an out-of-work mechanic. Pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) gives him a job driving hack, but when the Volstead Act goes into effect, Eddie becomes a bootlegger. He joins forces with saloon owner/hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George), and soon buys a fleet of cabs to deliver the hootch. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, and Eddie is off and running in the illegal booze business.

Sweet Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who once sent Eddie her picture during the war (she was a teen at the time), is trying to break into show business, so Eddie gets her a job as a singer in Panama’s joint. He’s infatuated with Jean, but she only has eyes for Lloyd. Meanwhile, competition in the rackets causes violence to escalate between Eddie and rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). George is working as Brown’s lieutenant, but double-crosses him to join forces with Eddie. Pal Danny’s body is dumped in front of Eddie’s nightclub, and the mobster goes for revenge against Brown, only to be double-crossed by that double-crosser George!

Times change, the stock market crashes, prohibition’s repealed, Lloyd and Jean get married, and Eddie hits the skids, crawling into a bottle with only loyal Panama by his side. Jean searches for and finds Eddie in a run-down gin joint and asks for help. Lloyd is now with the DA’s office, and George, still a top hood, wants to put him on ice. This last segment has the look and feel of an early Thirties Warners gangster pic, as the studio pays homage to itself and its  films. The famous final scene featuring Cagney, pumped full of lead and dying on those snow covered church steps, with Panama uttering the memorable last line “He used to be a big shot”, is one of my favorites in cinema history.

The casting is perfect. Cagney is Cagney, and can do no wrong far as I’m concerned. Bogart is thoroughly despicable as rotten George, the kind of villain you want to “boo and hiss” at. Priscilla Lane is all sweetness as Jean, and even gets to sing some period songs like “Melancholy Baby”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, and “It Had to Be You”. But it’s Gladys George who steals this one as Panama, the proverbial “tough-dame-with-the-heart-of-gold”, a part usually reserved for the likes of Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, or Claire Trevor. Gladys was better known to audiences for “woman’s pictures” like VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE and MADAME X, but here she gets down-and-dirty with the best of ’em. I don’t think Joan, Glenda, or Claire could’ve done it any better than Gladys, she’s that good, and should’ve been Oscar nominated. Gladys later reunited with Bogart as Miles Archer’s widow in THE MALTESE FALCON.

As you’d expect in a Warner Brothers film of this era, there are tons of Familiar Faces floating through the plot, way too many to mention them all here, so I’ll just list Elisabeth Risdon, Joe Sawyer, John Hamilton, Jack Norton (as a drunk, of course!), Eddie Acuff, Abner Biberman, Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!), Maurice Costello, Wild Bill Elliott, Bess Flowers, Donald Kerr, George Tobias, Ben Weldon, and Frank Wilcox, and let you find the rest! Happy hunting, film fans!

 

 

Say Goodbye to Hollywood: RIP Robert Osborne of TCM

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne”.

Those four words, delivered in a smooth-as-honey voice, were delivered to classic films lovers watching TCM for over twenty years. Now that voice has been silenced, as fans learned today of Osborne’s death at the age of 84. He had been off our screens since early 2016 due to an undisclosed ailment, and we all eagerly hoped and prayed for his return. Alas, it’s not to be.

Robert Osborne wanted to be an actor when he first arrived in Hollywood in the 1950’s. He signed a contract with Desilu Studios, and soon began a close, lifelong friendship with superstar Lucille Ball. Osborne had small roles in episodic TV, and a couple of films (but I’d be hard-pressed to pick him out in SPARTACUS or PSYCHO), but his acting career went nowhere. Ball suggested he put his journalism degree from the University of Washington to good use, along with his extensive knowledge of Hollywood history. He wrote “Academy Awards Illustrated” in 1965, then used his newfound credibility to become a television and newspaper entertainment reporter. His seminal work “50 Golden Years of Oscar”, first published in 1977, has become must-reading for classic movie lovers, and has been updated every ten years.

By this time, Osborne was a regular columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. He hosted films on the fledgling The Movie Channel until Ted Turner came calling. Turner held the rights to the MGM library and was eager to compete with AMC. He brought Osborne on board, and it was a match made in heaven. Osborne’s easy going style and vast familiarity of Hollywood history made him welcome in millions of homes. He was comfortable as a slipper, relaxed and gracious, never talking down to his audience. The classic film community will miss Robert Osborne’s presence in our living rooms, and I think this “TCM Remembers” clips says it better and more eloquently than I ever could:

Godspeed, Mr. Osborne. Job well done.

For the 10 Year Old in All of Us: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (Warner Brothers 2017)

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Before I start this post, allow me to introduce you to today’s co-reviewer:

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This is my young friend James. I first met him when I was working with his mother. He was a shy three-year-old whose father had disavowed him. He was mistrustful of most adults, but for whatever reason, he took a liking to me, and “adopted” me as his best friend. I’ve become somewhat of a mentor to him, and we have lots of fun going places like Chuck E. Cheese, the park, the zoo, and the movies. He’s ten now, and a big Lego fan, so naturally we saw THE LEGO MOVIE together. When I asked him if he wanted to see THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, he got super-excited. I must admit I was too, being a huge Batmaniac myself.

So today we went to check it out. James told me his school friends said it was “cool” and “wicked funny”, and you can’t get any better recommendations than that from a bunch of ten-year-olds! We arrived at the theater early, purchased our tickets, and proceeded to spend lots of my money on video games like “Terminator Salvation” and “Fast & Furious”, as well as numerous claw machine games, which the boy is really good at! Then, after buying our popcorn and sodas (and a pack of Oreo Minis for James’ sweet tooth) at the snack counter, we settled in to watch the show.

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THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a visual treat, a film that both kids and adults will enjoy. The Lego Universe is different from Batman’s DC Universe, and takes a lot of liberties with the characters. Batman (voiced once again by Will Arnett) is an egomaniac who has difficulty letting anyone into his life, due to the loss of his parents. He can’t even commit to calling The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) his “greatest enemy”, which hurts the Clown Prince of Crime’s feelings. So much so that Joker decides to turn himself in to the authorities, along with the rest of Gotham’s Rogue’s Gallery. New Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) declares there’s no longer a need for a masked vigilante now that all the super-villains are locked in Arkham Asylum and wants Batman to work as part of a team, which really sticks in the Caped Crusader’s cowl.

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But The Dark Knight thinks Joker’s up to no good, and decides to steal Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector to banish the baddie forever. Then he discovers he’s unwittingly adopted a young orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, who’s pitch perfect). He orders faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to send the child back, but instead Alfred brings the boy into the Batcave. So Batman trains Dick (now clad as Robin) to bust into the Man of Steel’s Fortress of Solitude to grab the Projector while he keeps Supes occupied.

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The Dynamic Duo accomplish their goal (with a funny cameo by the entire JLA!) and send Joker to the Phantom Zone, only to be locked up for their trouble by an angry Barbara. But the still-on-the-loose Harley Quinn manages to steal the Projector and free Joker, who in turn unleashes the World’s Greatest Villains from the Phantom Zone (including Voldemort, Sauron, Dracula, King Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the shark from JAWS, The Wicked Witch of the West, and assorted Gremlins and Daleks!) to destroy Gotham City once and for all.  Can Batman learn to get along with everyone in time to stop the carnage??

I’ve got to say both James and I were enthralled by the action unfolding onscreen. I know I do a lot of complaining about CGI on this blog, but the graphics were just great. James’ friends were right about this being “wicked funny”, but I think I laughed more than him, mainly due to all the in-jokes and references to Batman movies, comics, and TV shows past (anyone remember Bat-Shark Repellent? Zan and Jana?). All the major Bat-villains are well represented here – my personal favorite was the Vincent Price-inspired Egghead! And the “Who’s the (Bat) Man” song is without a doubt the greatest Batman tune of all time! Big name stars like Mariah Carey, Hector Elizondo, Seth Green, Jonah Hill, Eddie Izzard, Brent Musberger, Conan O’Brien (an inspired choice for Riddler), Channing Tatum (Superman), and Billy DeeWilliams lend their voice talents to the cast, and video game composer Lorne Balfe delivers a jaunty score.

In THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, the Caped Crusader learns that it’s okay to let people into your life, and that families can be made of more than blood ties. Just like me and James.

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Experience Matters: THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia 1966)

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A quartet of macho mercenaries – Lee Marvin Burt Lancaster Robert Ryan , and Woody Strode  – cross the dangerous Mexican desert and attempt to rescue a rich man’s wife kidnapped by a violent revolutionary in writer/director Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS, an action-packed Western set in 1917.  The film’s tone is closer to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns than the usual Hollywood oater, though Leone’s trilogy wouldn’t hit American shores until a year later.

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Rich rancher J.W.Grant (screen vet Ralph Bellamy ) hires the quartet to retrieve wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from Jesus Raza (Jack Palance ), formerly a captain in Pancho Villa’s army, now a wanted bandito. Marvin is the stoic leader, a weapons expert who once rode with Raza for Villa, as did Lancaster’s explosives whiz. Ryan plays a sympathetic part (for a change) as the horse wrangling expert, while Strode is a former scout and bounty hunter adept with the bow and arrow. The four men face huge odds but successfully pull off the job and rescue Maria, only to discover she hadn’t been kidnapped at all – she’s Raza’s long-time love, and it’s Grant who stole her from Raza! But Marvin, ever the professional, gave his word to Grant the job would be completed, and they trek back to Texas with Maria in tow, pursued by Raza and his minions. There’s a twist ending and a classic final line delivered by Marvin with style.

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Richard Brooks doesn’t get a lot of attention these days, but he’s a seminal figure in classic films. He wrote the screenplays for the noir gems BRUTE FORCE and KEY LARGO before becoming writer/director on films like the juvenile delinquent drama THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, the psychological Western THE LAST HUNT, the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, the Oscar-winning ELMER GANTRY, the groundbreaking true-crime IN COLD BLOOD, and the dark 70’s masterpiece LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, among many others. Brooks is one of the few filmmakers who bridged the gap from studio contractee to independent auteur, and has earned his place in the conversation on great directors.

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This was Brooks’ first film with cinematographer Conrad Hall, who perfectly captures the action in Nevada’s oppressively hot Death Valley and Valley of Fire State Park. They would team again for the black and white IN COLD BLOOD, and Hall quickly became one of the era’s top DP’s, with films like COOL HAND LUKE , BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, John Huston’s FAT CITY, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, and MARATHON MAN to his credit. Hall took a decade-plus break to work with Haskell Wexler in a television commercial production company, but returned to Hollywood in the 80’s with TEQUILA SUNRISE, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and ROAD TO PERDITION. In all, Hall was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three.

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THE PROFESSIONALS is a fun adventure with plenty of action, humor, and star power, made by professionals who knew their stuff when it came to putting together an entertaining film that audiences would enjoy. If you’re not familiar with Richard Brooks’ or Conrad Hall’s work, go seek out some of the films I’ve cited. You won’t be disappointed.

A Quickie on a Quickie: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (Monogram 1941)

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KING OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1941 Monogram horror quickie that does not star Bela Lugosi. Apparently, the great Hungarian actor was too busy at the time. I don’t see how, it’s not like he was making A-list epics that year.  Looking at his 1941 output, Lugosi starred in the studio’s THE INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD with the East Side Kids, and had small roles in Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and THE WOLF MAN . That’s what, about 4-5 weeks worth of work? Anyway, the part of zombie master Dr. Sangre was taken by Henry Victor, best known as strongman Hercules in Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

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What KING OF THE ZOMBIES does have is black comic actor Mantan Moreland . In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Mantan, this film would’ve been long forgotten. I know many people today find his pop-eyed, mangled English, “feets do yo stuff” scairdy-cat schtick offensive and stereotypical. But it’s that very schtick that carries the film and rescues it from the abyss of obscurity. Besides, he’s treated more as an equal among his white cohorts, regardless of being called the nominal hero’s “valet”.

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The movie itself will scare nobody, though it does have a few atmospheric scenes courtesy of director Jean Yarbrough . It’s basically an “old, dark house” story with zombies, but the zombies aren’t very creepy, and the voodoo ritual scene is pretty blah. Madam Sul-Te-Wan tries to give it some oomph as voodoo priestess Tahama, but Henry Victor is no Bela Lugosi as Dr. Sangre, who turns out to be a mere Nazi spy. Marguerite Whitten has some good banter with Mantan as Sangre’s housekeeper Samantha; the two would work well together in several films. The “good guys” include John Archer, Joan Woodbury , and Dick Purcell (the screen’s first Captain America!), all of whom are much blander and less interesting than Mantan.

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So if your interested in seeing a spooky zombie movie, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for comedy, watch KING OF THE ZOMBIES and let the underrated Mantan Moreland entertain you with his brand of buffoonery. He was a very funny dude who starred in his own series of independent “all-black cast” movies, and saved many a low-budget studio effort with his comic support (especially those late 40’s Monogram/Charlie Chan efforts). He worked steady in films for years, transcending his stereotyped roles, and deserves to be remembered for his comedic talents.

OUTLAW GANG ATTEMPTS OSCAR ROBBERY!!

Extry! Extry! Here, hot off the presses, is a photo of the desperate outlaws trying to escape…

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Seriously, never in all my Oscar-watching days have I seen them give the Best Picture award to the wrong picture!! Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway looked befuddled, when a Price Waterhouse official came and straightened out the snafu. Seems Warren was handed the “wrong” envelope when he announced LA LA LAND as the winner instead of MOONLIGHT! The Academy has vowed to look into the whole sordid affair, and will call in Inspector Clouseau to investigate!

Congrats to both films. More Oscar musings:

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*LA LA LAND may have not won Best Picture, but did bring home six statuettes, including Best Actress Emma Stone, and Best Director Damien Chazelle. I really need to see this film!

*It was a good night for our local New England artists. Besides Providence, R.I.’s Chazelle, local boy Casey Affleck (from right down the Cape in Falmouth) copped Best Actor for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, while Viola Davis (across the border in Central Falls, R.I.) won Best Supporting Actress for FENCES.

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*Speaking of Davis, she gave the most emotional speech of the night on art, life, and love that was straight from the heart. Bravo, Viola!!

*Jimmy Kimmel was great in the host position, and thankfully he kept the politics to a minimum. What he did was funny (To Meryl Streep: “Nice dress. Is that Ivanka?”) without being overbearing. His running “feud” with Matt Damon is a modern-day version of the Jack Benny/Fred Allen shenanigans of the 1930’s-40’s and just as funny .

*The Oscar version of Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” was hysterical.

*Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson electrified the audience with his stirring rendition of “You’re Welcome” from MOANA! Just kidding.

*Justin Timberlake really did electrify everyone by opening the show singing “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from TROLLS, and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”. Best opening in decades!

*The part where the people on the tour bus were brought into Hollywood’s Dolby Theater would have been a lot funnier if the tourists were all wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, don’t you think?

*The women of filmland were all thinner than the mic stand! Ladies…this is not healthy. You all look like anorexic junkies! Please, go eat!! (Except you, Jennifer Anniston… you’re perfect!) (And you, Amy Adams. Ditto!)

*As usual I have issues with the “In Memoriam” segment. Apparently, so does producer Jan Chapman, whose picture was shown in place of costume designer Janet Patterson. Glad to hear you’re okay, Jan!!

*The Academy could’ve at least acknowledged the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, who virtually created an entire film genre on a $1.98 budget, though I knew they wouldn’t. But the fact they forget Madeleine LeBeau…

…unforgivable! Also omitted were Billy Chapin, Gloria DeHaven, Bernard Fox, Bert Kwouk, Theresa Saldana, William Schallert, Our Gang’s Jerry Tucker, Robert Vaughn, and Alan Young. I will give them credit for including Lupita Tovar, however.

*All in all, a better show than 2016. See you at the movies!

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PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS

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What’s with all the question marks, you ask? Good question!

Here’s the answer: I’ll be busy attending a week-long, job-related seminar and time will NOT be on my side! I’ve got a couple of posts almost ready to go, but I’m unsure of exactly when. I’m going to try and get something Oscar-related for tomorrow, after that you’ll just have to stay tuned! Meanwhile, feel free to roam the archives, check out the Facebook page, and oh, yes… watch classic movies!

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