Friday, August 1, 2014

These features will be transcribed for posting at a more convenient time

And here I thought I’d run out of excuses as to why I’m having so much difficulty getting back into the groove of both Serial Saturdays and Doris Day(s).  Seriously, I thought about using that Ebola thing that’s been in the news lately.

But I’m postponing both of these until next week only because I have commitments to two blogathons over the weekend, and a deadline on an outside project as well.  I can’t promise I’ll be back in regular feature mode by next Friday, but I will do my darndest.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guest Review: Warner Bros. Night at the Movies – The Sea Hawk (1940)

By Philip Schweier

A couple of years back I got a Kindle, and I immediately began filling it with books in the public domain (cuz I’m cheap). Among these were some swashbuckling adventures such as Captain Blood, and keeping Errol Flynn in mind, I also added The Sea Hawk, both books by Raphael Sabatini.

However, I recently got a copy of The Sea Hawk (1940) on DVD, and was surprised to learn the story is nothing like the novel. The movie is instead based on Beggars of the Sea by Seton I. Miller. Sabatini or not, it still makes for an interesting film.

In the aftermath of the success of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk attempted to reunite many of the principals. Michael Curtiz returned to direct, as well as actors Flynn and Claude Rains. Erich Wolfgang Korngold provided music once more. Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone, having been featured opposite Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), chose to pass.

Flynn portrays Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, a roguish captain whom Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robinson) employs as one of her Sea Hawks, specialized captains who form an elite group of commanders. As Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Rains) of Spain journeys to England to assume his duties as ambassador, his ship is accosted by Thorpe’s Albatross. Of course the Albatross emerges the victor, and Don José and his niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) are taken aboard to be “escorted” to England. Also taken aboard are a number of English prisoners who had been serving as rowers in the hold of the Spanish ship. Freeing these slaves justifies Thorpe’s attack on a ship flying the flag of a nation with whom England’s relations are tenuous at best.

During the voyage to England, Thorpe schmoozes Dona Maria, but she is inclined to give him the cold shoulder. By the time of their arrival, she has thawed somewhat. Nevertheless, the queen’s advisor, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), is eager to see Thorpe removed. It seems Wolfie is conspiring with Don José to undermine the queen, allowing King Phillip of Spain to conquer England.

In a private audience with the queen, Queen Elizabeth and Captain Thorpe hatch a plan to send the Albatross to Panama, the source of Spanish gold, and hijack as much gold as the ship can manage. All this wealth is intended to finance the development of the British Navy, as a means of defense. But Don Jose and Wolfingham have eyes on Thorpe, and are able to suss out from Thorpe’s chart maker his next objective. They manage to lay a trap for Thorpe and his men, which results in them being chained to oars of a Spanish galleon.

In true swashbuckling fashion, Thorpe is able to lead his men to freedom, and return to England to challenge the traitorous Lord Wolfingham. Dona Maria recognizes the treachery of her uncle, and succumbs to Thorpe’s romantic advances. The film ends with a rousing speech by Queen Elizabeth that, in 1940, could easily have been an allegory to the rising tide of war.

By 1940, some of these adventures had become old hat, especially when starring so many of the same actors. Other veterans from Robin Hood included Alan Hale and Una O’Connor, repeating the same types of roles as before.

The DVD I watched featured a “Warner Bros. Night at the Movies,” which included an intro by Leonard Maltin. I have never cared for Maltin, not since he did movie reviews for Entertainment Tonight back in the late 1970s. He’s always come across as a bit pompous to me, so I skipped the intro.

I did watch the newsreel, and the cartoon (a black and white Porky Pig episode). What I really found charming was the short, entitled Alice in Movieland, written by Ed Sullivan (yes, THAT Ed Sullivan). It chronicles the rise of a young contest winner from Nowhere, U.S.A., (played by Joan Leslie) who wins a contest for a trip to Hollywood and the chance to become a star. After bidding good-bye to her town amidst much fanfare, she journeys to Hollywood, where she is met with equal fanfare. She makes the rounds of a number of nightspots before her screen test. The crew is less interested in her, and more in getting another contest winner out the door so they can move onto the next one in time for lunch.

Nothing comes of her screen test, and on the verge of going home, she opens a letter given her by her grandmother (Clara Blandick). “Open it only when you feel you have to come home,” Gramma said. Instead of a train ticket home, Alice finds a letter, encouraging Alice to stick it out despite her frustration. It finishes with the line, “…and if you come home without making it as a star, I’ll wring your neck.” Whoa! Grandma’s showing some tough love.

Alice’s stick-to-it-iveness pays off and she soon lands a role as an extra, only to endure the hazing of her more experienced cast mates. Chief among them is the assistant director (played by Martin Burke, who was also featured in The Sea Hawk). She chews him a new one in front of the entire crew, drawing the attention of the director, who immediately puts her on the fast track to fame and fortune. As she collects her Academy Award®, she hears people shouting her name. But it’s only the porter (Clarence Muse) waking her as the train pulls into Los Angeles.

Yes, kids, like most Hollywood fables, it’s all been a dream, but not without its truth. Hopefully, it made one starry-eyed teenager think twice before journeying to Hollywood, only to become another Elizabeth Short (look her up). As for the star of the short, Joan Leslie, she enjoyed steady work in Hollywood, being featured in such films as Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Eventually she moved into television in the 1950s before leaving the business. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s she returned to small roles on television shows such as The Incredible Hulk and Murder, She Wrote.

Anyone hoping for the same thrill from The Sea Hawk completes the Errol Flynn hat-trick, but anyone hoping for the same thrills as the Adventures of Robin Hood may be disappointed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Coming distractions: August 2014 on TCM (Summer Under the Stars edition)

Twice a year, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ offers its loyal fans a brief respite from their usual variety of scheduled movies by presenting two deviations:  31 Days of Oscar—in which Academy Award-winning and/or nominated films dominate from February 1 through March 3—and Summer Under the Stars, in which Tee Cee Em dominates each broadcast day with movies devoted to a single performer.  Suffice it to say, I’m not a huge fan of either event…but if I had to choose the lesser of two evils I’d go with SUTS, only because I don’t get as bored as quickly with it as I do 31 Days.

I thought perhaps Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence might serve up another SUTS blogathon like she has the two years previous…but it would appear that it’s all hands on deck on The Black Maria, as she sails off in search of cinematic plunder with co-captain Miss Carley of The Kitty Packard Pictorial and first mate Brandie, who as head of the animation department is probably getting to use the “batten down the hatches” joke more frequently than I.  I took a glance through the August lineup…and asked myself: “If I could sit down with only one of these movies for each day a star is being feted…which one would I choose?”

Here are my answers:

August 1, Friday – Jane Fonda.  I was tempted to go with The China Syndrome (1979; 5:45pm), a movie I loved as a young movie geek*…but I always find myself coming back to Klute (1971; 12:15am), one of my favorite suspense thrillers.

August 2, Saturday – David Niven.  Of the movies scheduled, I’ll go with Dodsworth (1936; 6am).

August 3, Sunday – Walter Pidgeon.  I think Pidgeon gave one of his best screen performances in Advise & Consent (1962; 2:15am)…but I’d be crazy not to go with How Green Was My Valley (1941; 8pm).

August 4, Monday – Judy Garland.  And it’s the movie for which she should have won the Best Actress Oscar, A Star is Born (1954; 12mid).

August 5, Tuesday – Barbara Stanwyck.  There are always so many great choices when Babs is in the spotlight…but my favorite of her movies has always been and will remain Ball of Fire (1941; 8pm).

August 6, Wednesday – Paul Muni.  Tough not going with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; 8pm)…but my favorite Muni film has always been Scarface (1932; 9:30pm).

August 7, Thursday – James Stewart.  The Naked Spur (1953; 8pm.)

August 8, Friday – Jeanne Moreau.  My love of Orson Welles films is trying to convince me to go with The Trial (1962; 8pm)…but even though I’m a fan of that movie I readily admit you need an urn of strong coffee at the ready to keep from dozing off.  So I’ll go with Elevator to the Gallows (1958; 10:15pm) instead.

August 9, Saturday – William Powell.  These are not getting any easier, particularly with The Thin Man (1934; 8pm) and After the Thin Man (1936; 9:45pm) (if they had moved After to Jimmy Stewart day I would have picked it).  Let’s go with Libeled Lady (1936; 1pm), because it’s a great screwball comedy and you get the bonus of Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

August 10, Sunday – Carole Lombard.  Oh, it was awfully hard not giving To Be or Not to Be (1942; 8pm) the nod on this day.  But since I’ve watched it recently, I had no problem selecting what’s probably my favorite Lombard romp, Twentieth Century (1934; 12:30pm).

August 11, Monday – Marlon Brando.  Even though I have multiple problems with Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s apologia for why they ratted out their friends and colleagues, Brando deserved the Best Actor trophy he received for On the Waterfront (1954; 11:45pm).

August 12, Tuesday – Alexis Smith.  I fought off the temptation to pick The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945; 6am)…and instead will pick one of Smith’s most underrated turns in The Constant Nymph (1943; 12mid).

August 13, Wednesday – Cary Grant.  I could have gone with just about any of the movies on tap today—but Grant’s comedic performance in His Girl Friday (1940; 9:30am) not only should have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but served up to him on a silver tray instead of his The Philadelphia Story (1940; 12:45pm) co-star James Stewart.  (Stewart’s Macaulay Connor would have set a world record for stammering if editor Walter Burns was in the same room.)

August 14, Thursday – Charlie Chaplin.  My heart aches at having to overlook so many classic films from one of cinema’s most beloved filmmakers—but I’m going to pass over both City Lights (1931; 12:30am) and Modern Times (1936; 3pm) for The Gold Rush (1925; 11:45am), the first film featuring The Little Tramp that I ever watched.  (But if it’s the 1942 re-issue, then I reserve the right to change back to City Lights.)

August 15, Friday – Faye Dunaway.  So many wonderful films of Faye’s on the schedule…but with Chinatown (1974) at midnight, it was pretty much a fixed fight.

August 16, Saturday – Herbert Marshall.  Like I need an excuse to watch Foreign Correspondent (1940; 8pm) again.  (And it’s on The Drewssentials Essentials!)

August 17, Sunday – Every once in a while the channel offers up movies by an actor/actress that simply makes me shrug and go “Meh.”  That’s the case with John Hodiak…and under normal circumstances I’d probably go with Lifeboat (1944; 8pm).  But A Bell for Adano (1945) is on the schedule afterward at 10pm, and since I’ve never seen it that is my choice.  So there.  Thbth.

August 18, Monday – Claudette Colbert.  A similar situation has cropped up with Claudette; I’d probably go with It’s a Wonderful World (1939; 4:15pm) because it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies…but I’m kind of curious to check out Remember the Day (1941) at 2am.

August 19, Tuesday – Paul Newman.  Tempted to go with The Prize (1963; 11:15am), because it’s a guilty pleasure…but Dad and I never miss an opportunity to watch Cool Hand Luke (1967; 5:45pm).

August 20, Wednesday – Thelma Ritter.  I have always championed The Mating Season (1951; 8pm) as my favorite movie with Thel, and I don’t plan to stop now.

August 21, Thursday – Lee Tracy.  I got a bit of grief from a commenter on my review of Repeat Performance (1947) back in January when I suggested that Turn Back the Clock (1933; 6:30pm) “covers similar ground.”  So I’m going to watch Clock again because it’s been a while.

August 22, Friday – Audrey Hepburn.  None of my favorite Audrey Hepburn movies made the TCM schedule, so I feel a little guilty about choosing The Lavender Hill Mob (1951; 8am) because Aud has but a mere cameo.  I’ll say a few novenas and feel better later.

August 23, Saturday – Ernest Borgnine.  Marty (1955; 8pm) might have The Essentials spotlight, but I’m going with The Catered Affair (1956; 9:45am) because it’s an underrated gem.

August 24, Sunday – Gladys George.  If I hadn’t watched Flamingo Road (1949; 10am) so recently I probably would have tabbed this as my Gladys pick.  Instead, I’ll go with The Roaring Twenties (1939; 6pm).

August 25, Monday – Dick Powell.  Murder, My Sweet (1944; 9:15pm).  No contest.

August 26, Tuesday – Sophia Loren.  None of the movies on the schedule really reach and shake my hand…but I’ve always had a preference for Two Women (1961; 8pm).

August 27, Wednesday – Edmond O’Brien.  I’m passing up White Heat (1949; 6pm) and D.O.A. (1950; 8pm) because An Act of Murder (1948) is premiering at 9:30pm…and I’ve never seen it.

August 28, Thursday – Arlene Dahl.  Kind of the female John Hodiak, to be honest.  But she’s in The Black Book (a.k.a. Reign of Terror – 1949; 2:30pm), so I’m going with that.

August 29, Friday – Joseph Cotten.  Tough sledding when you not only have Citizen Kane (1941; 2:15am) on the schedule but also The Magnificent Ambersons (1942; 5pm).  Fortunately, I have no qualms about choosing The Third Man (1949; 12:15am).

August 30, Saturday – Betty Grable.  I’m not much of a Grable devotee, so I was tempted to go with The Nitwits (1935; 8am)—because I do love Wheeler & Woolsey.  Since I haven’t seen I Wake Up Screaming (1941; 11:45pm) in a while, I’ll pick that.

August 31, Sunday – The channel closes out SUTS with Alan Ladd, and for me there can be only one choice: The Glass Key (1942; 12:45pm).

I have to confess, I’m a little more stoked about this year’s Summer Under the Stars because of the three movies mentioned above that have been on my must-see list for some time now.  Next month, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will return to the standard presentation of Coming Distractions…but in the meantime, see you at the movies!

*Rich says I qualify as a movie geek…who am I to argue?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Epix picks

I had every intention of getting back into the blogging bidness this weekend…and then got distracted the moment I turned on the AT&T U-Verse Saturday morning.  Onscreen, I received a message to…check my other messages.

The first was a notice that U-Verse is adding that SEC Network of ESPN’s that will debut August 14; Mater and Pater were curious as to whether we would get the channel on our current package, and while normally an upgrade to the U-300 lineup would be necessary to watch SEC-ESPN…if you’re subscribed to U-200 (as we are) and, to quote the U-Verse folks, “reside in an SEC state,” no upgrade is needed.  (I’m pretty sure Georgia qualifies.)  The last time I spoke with Sater, er, sister Debbie on the Ameche she mentioned that she and my bro-in-law were going to get a satellite dish so that they, too, can have access to SEC.  (My brudder-in-law is a Vandy alum, and has vowed to watch their games by hook or by crook.  Snip also mentioned that they will probably throw in and get the MLB network so that she will know the pleasures of seeing an actual Braves game on a regular basis—the closest she gets is when the Bravos play the Cubs or the Cardinals.)

The news about the dish came quite as a surprise to yours truly only because my sister and her husband usually approach such matters with extreme caution—it’s not dissimilar to someone deciding to blow the rent money on lottery tickets or like that.  I think Snip has already broke ground on Project SEC; an e-mail I sent her over the weekend bounced back in that familiar Mailer-Daemon fashion.

But back to our story: the second U-Verse message announced the acquisition of pay movie channel Epix, and since they were nice enough to give us a free weekend (July 25-27) I decided to play hooky and get caught up on some recent movies I had not seen.  (I only wish I knew about this beforehand; I could have planned accordingly.)  The channel must have had some baseball promotion going on because they were spotlighting a number of national pastime-themed films including Major League (1989) and all three of the “Bad News Bears” movies.  I watched the first one—the good one—along with Eight Men Out (1988) and John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997), with the ‘rents.

I had seen Epix one time before; I got a free weekend several years ago when I was still in my bachelor digs and I sat down with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Walk-In Tub Skull (2008) and Star Trek (2009).  It seems fitting, then, that one of the movies I watched was Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).  I don’t consider myself a movie geek (others may have dissenting opinions) but I genuinely love the Star Trek movie franchise; I liked the old TV series (though I might be considered a heretic for refusing to read too much into it) and enjoyed the vehicles made with the original cast…and I even like the ones with the TNG people, even though I probably haven’t watched more than a dozen episodes of that show.  (I went with some of my nerd friends when 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection came out and was nearly hung for expressing my approval of the movie.  Fortunately, I was able to slip away when my chums were preoccupied calculating the equation involving my weight and the necessary dimensions of the gallows.)

In spite of Into Darkness’ excesses—you have the usual explodiations and stunts out the wazoo, which is par for the course with these films—I don’t regret tuning into this one; it’s well-made, has a fairly absorbing plot and the thesps playing the younger versions of the Trek originals are quite good.  (Though I’ll confess I had trouble watching Zachary Quinto in Margin Call since I saw that after Star Trek; I kept expecting his character to remark: “I find this volatility in our mortgage backed securities highly illogical.”)  Into Darkness possesses a sense of tongue-in-cheek fun (there are references to Tribbles and Harcourt Fenton Mudd); its only major stumble is casting actor Benedict Cumberbatch as a young version of Khan Noonien Singh, the Enterprise’s nemesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the Star Trek episode “Space Seed.”  (Cumberbatch is a great actor—but I think this is one role he should have taken a pass on, considering the original character—played by Ricardo Montalban—was of Indian descent.)

While Star Trek Into Darkness got a big thumbs-up from me I wasn’t quite as charitable toward The Avengers (2012); everybody and his brother has told me that it’s a great superhero movie…but here’s the problem—the folks who make these movies assume that I’ve seen all the prior films (Hulk, Captain America, etc.), and I have not.  (I think I saw the third Iron Man movie, which came out after The Avengers.)  So forty minutes into the thing I still can’t make heads or tails of the plot; I don’t know why Samuel L. Jackson is wearing an eye patch and I keep thinking a “tesseract” is that device in A Wrinkle in Time.  I gave up on the movie after that.  I don’t mean this as a criticism: it’s possible that I was too tired to watch any more of the film (plus I have sworn off any more superhero movies since I sat through The Dark Knight Rises and found it’s essentially a rehash of Batman Begins) and maybe if I gave it another chance with fresher eyes I might like it.  But not today.  (I stick to the one with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.)

Flight (2012) stars Denzel Washington as pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, who miraculously manages to land a plane that experiences an in-flight mechanical failure with minimal casualties (out of 102 people onboard, four passengers and two crew members perish).   The problem for Whip is that with the death of four passengers, there’s got to be a scapegoat; Whitaker is struggling with some inner demons (he has a substance abuse problem, and relations between his ex-wife and son are strained) and even though no other pilot could have duplicated Whip’s amazing feat, the evidence of his pre-flight drinking will surely send him to the slammer despite the help of a dedicated union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a savvy criminal attorney (Don Cheadle).  There’s a subplot involving a troubled woman (Kelly Reilly) who is helped by Whitaker and who tries to return the favor; Flight’s a good movie (the flying sequence is phenomenal) that’s essentially a cross between Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and Fearless (1993).  (John Goodman provides some lighter moments as Whip’s “connection.”)

I was really disappointed with Friends with Kids (2012); the only thing worse than an indie film that’s all too aware it’s an indie film is an indie film that also wants to be a Woody Allen movie.  Adam Scott (the owner of TV’s funniest deadpan on Parks and Recreation) and Jennifer Westfeldt (who directed, wrote and co-produced) are a platonic couple who decide not to make the same mistakes as their married friends (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd; Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm) and enter into an agreement to start a family (have a kid) without all the messy marriage bidness.  It takes them a running time of one hour and forty minutes to realize that they should be together all along, despite knowing each other for nineteen years.  Westfeldt’s Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) was a real delight (I saw it a month or so back) and I was hoping Friends would be its equal but despite a strong cast it’s shallow and only sporadically funny; I had difficulty relating to any of the characters, to be frank.  (Wiig is particularly wasted—they could have cast her part with anyone.)

I finally wrapped up this free weekend viewing with The Bay (2012), a novel ecological horror film directed by Barry Levinson that’s sort of a wry take on his previous “Baltimore trilogy” (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon).  A small Maryland coastal village experiences an outbreak of parasites identified as Cymothoa exigua (“sea lice”) that have become life-threatening due to the toxic pollution in the Chesapeake Bay (the water has been the recipient of the effluence of a nearby chicken processing plant…chock full of steroids in the feces).  Bay is not for the squeamish; it’s presented in what is called a “found footage” style which translates to a lot of shaky camera work…and that made me more nauseous than the idea of parasites eating people from the inside (though this will certainly put you off your lunch, too).  The Bay tells its cautionary tale in an economical 85 minutes and features a cast of mostly unknowns…but it would make for a great double-bill with The East (2013).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Baby, if you ever wondered…

If you’re a frequent habitué of Facebook, you might be familiar with the social media’s meme Throwback Thursday—in which FB denizens are encouraged to post photos taken of them in the past so that we might equally share in the glee of laughing hysterically at people’s hairstyles and asking: “What the hell were you thinking with that outfit?”  I don’t participate much in the festivities, only because I don’t have a lot of pictures of me from my irresponsible youth days…and what I do have on hand is collecting dust in my Dad’s storage area.

But like the Borg, everyone is assimilated into Throwback Thursday, and resistance is futile…as witnessed by the photo above, which a dear FB chum of mine found in a Marshall University yearbook from 1982.  It features members of the staff of WMUL-FM 88—“the Mighty Mule,” as we called it—and the fellow wearing the hat may look familiar to some of you.  (I showed this to my father, who asked: “Why are you wearing a hat?”  I was stumped for an answer, so I returned: “Somebody had to.”)  I’ve talked about my experiences at the ‘MUL here in the past—once in a post about my paisan Jeff Lane and the other about a pledge drive I worked—and I just have to say that seeing this picture brought back a flood of wonderful memories for me, because hanging out at WMUL was unquestionably one of the best times in my life.  (My parents are not convinced of this, because my time spent at the student station was directly proportionate to the amount of time I didn’t spend in class.)  Another Facebook compadre (he’s the one looking away from the camera) said it so sweetly and succinctly: “No way to get people to understand just how much fun that place was…just very glad to have been there.”  Amen to that.

Once again, my eBay auctions have been taking up a good deal of my copious free time but the response has been truly phenomenal…and I’d like to thank some of the members of the TDOY faithful for finding things they like and taking them home: longtime friend of the blog Matt Hinrichs (of Scrubbles fame), The Lady Eve (positively the same dame!), my lowcountry paisan (and personal Ron Jeremy friend) B. Goode at Gonna Put Me in the Movies, and comedy writer-critic Stephen Winer (Late Night with David Letterman), a frequent contributor at and author of an essay included in that company’s The Freshman release…which I swear I’m going to open up once the eBay furor dies down.  (I promise.)  But a major shout-out is reserved for my Savannah homegirl Faustina, who was nice enough to drop a mention of my eBay auctioning into casual conversation on Facebook.  (Sales skyrocketed as a result.)

With the eBay stuff reaching its peak, I’ll be able to climb back into the ol’ blogging saddle this weekend with an edition of Serial Saturdays (and Doris Day(s) this Monday), but in the meantime I invite you to check out my latest “Where’s That Been?” column at ClassicFlix, A Life in the Balance (1955), and the latest installment of the Boston Blackie movie roundup, One Mysterious Night (1944), is up at the Radio Spirits blog.  I now leave you with a scene of a boy and his dog (namely, nephew Davis and Willie the Wonder Dachshund).

Friday, July 18, 2014

While I was out…

I’ll say this much for eBay: though they may be a wretched hive of scum and villainy, they occasionally redeem themselves by offering the occasional “free listing fees” promotion, and that’s why things have been so quiet here on the blog of late.  I worked like a fiend to get listings prepared for over 300 items that I am hawking right this very minute (click here if you’re curious and/or interested), which I don’t mind telling you decimated the holdings in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.  I told the matriarch in the Shreve household that this is it—any further requests for money and she’s going to have to do that “dancing for change” thing I mentioned in this previous post.  (This will not be easy, as her partner is notoriously tone-deaf and has to count out the steps when they’re tripping the light fantastic.)

The response to the auctions has been encouragingly positive: if on the off-chance that you bought something from me and I didn’t recognize you allow me to thank you here on the blog.  (Longtime friend of the blog Mike Galbreath procured a couple of discs for his collection, and I can share with you the knowledge that you not only tossed a few coins in my guitar case but the tin can of my BBFF Stacia, who was in dire need of extra funds herownself.  (Something cat-related—I didn’t get the full details.)  The painstakingly painful paperwork (dig the alliteration) involved in putting together the auctions has left me lazy and in need of a bit of R&R; I’ve got enough energy to complete a couple of outside assignments but it looks as if I’ll have to pre-empt Serial Saturdays for another week.  (If I’m able to complete my other work in time there might be a visit with Doris on Monday…but I make no promises.)

In the meantime, I thank you profusely for putting up with the dearth of witty, scintillating TDOY material and hopefully I’ll get things back on track soon.  If you’ve got a free moment, you can check out my birthday tribute to radio and TV’s “supermom” Harriet Hilliard Nelson at the Radio Spirits blog…and double feature reviews of The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) and Two of a Kind (1951) at ClassicFlix.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The John Ford Blogathon, currently underway from July 7-13 and hosted by Vulnavia at Krell Laboratories and Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed.  For a complete list of participating blogs and the films/topics discussed, click here.  And here.  (And herehereherehere…and here.)

A famous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) from a reporter (Carlton Young) who’s listened with rapt attention at how tenderfoot-lawyer-now-Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) accomplished the titular task in that film sums up the oeuvre of director John Ford better than a thousand essays on his works: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Take, for instance, the 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine—the epic tale of lawman Wyatt Earp.  If you took your cues from a cherished Leave It to Beaver rerun—whereupon Beav writes a book report on Dumas’ The Three Musketeers merely by watching the 1939 Ritz Brothers romp—and used Clementine as your main source…chances are your history teacher would flunk you after s/he had gotten up off the floor from laughing.  Clementine is inaccurate as all get-out…and yet it’s far more entertaining than, say, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)—which does pay a bit more attention to the historical record (even though Corral, too, fudges a few facts).

Such is the story of The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), John Ford’s biopic on Dr. Samuel A. Mudd—history’s best-known victim of circumstance.  In the Ford film, the good doctor receives a visit one night from two strangers in need of medical treatment—one of the men has a badly broken leg.  Unfortunately for Mudd, that night just happens to be April 14, 1965…and the man with the busted limb is John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald), who’s about to achieve his fifteen minutes of fame after popping a cap in President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) in Ford’s Theater, not even allowing him the courtesy of seeing the end of the play.  The next day, as soldiers are engaged in a manhunt for Booth, two of them stop by Casa del Mudd…and discover the doc’s young daughter Martha (Joyce Kay) playing with the boot that Mudd had to cut off of JWB to attend to his leg.  Mudd is arrested for conspiracy in the assassination of Lincoln, and though convicted, escapes the execution sentence afforded the other conspirators—he is instead sentenced to life imprisonment at the East Coast “Devil’s Island”: Fort Jefferson, located in the Dry Tortugas Islands off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Fort Jeff is nicknamed “Shark Island” in the film’s title because the 75-foot wide, 35-foot deep moat surrounding the military prison is teeming with the critters—as described in a tutorial by one of the prison officials, a sadistic little piece of work known as Sergeant Rankin (John Carradine).  Meanwhile, Mudd’s wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart) and her father, Colonel Jeremiah Milford Dyer (Claude Gillingwater), learn from a judge (J.M. Kerrigan) that the doc’s conviction would never stand up in a civil court; if Peg and the Colonel can get Sam to Key West, a writ of habeas corpus could facilitate a new trial and win the medico his release.  So Peggy and Colonel Dyer wait by boat as Mudd and Buck (Ernest Whitman), a former slave working at the prison, attempt an escape.  Mudd manages to make it to the ship, but Rankin and his men quickly recapture the prisoner…killing Peggy’s pa in the process.

Redemption for Mudd arrives when he’s asked by the commandant (Harry Carey) to assume the duties of the prison doctor (O.P. Heggie), who succumbs to a bout of yellow fever courtesy of a colony of mosquitoes that have taken up residence at Fort Jefferson.  Mudd himself contracts the malady, but manages in his delirious state to command the fort’s gun crew to fire upon offshore boats carrying the medicine and doctors needed to cure the “Yellow Jack.”  For his actions in stamping out the prison’s epidemic, a recommendation of executive clemency is sent to the President on Mudd’s behalf, and the film ends with Mudd and Buck reunited with their respective families.

One of my favorite bits in The Prisoner of Shark Island: Our Ganger Matthew "Stymie" Beard plays one of Buck's (Ernest Whitman) dozen rugrats.

It’s true that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and it’s true that Booth sought medical treatment from Dr. Samuel Mudd while the actor was on the run.  It’s even true that Mudd was tried before a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Dry Tortugas after being found guilty of aiding and abetting Lincoln’s assassin, and that Mudd was eventually pardoned (though not exonerated) by President Andrew Johnson for his part in stemming the tide of the prison’s yellow fever epidemic.  Everything else in Shark Island…well, it would appear that director Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson started “printing the legend” with a roll of the opening credits (the notice that the film is “based on the life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd” should have a “loosely” inserted in there somewhere).

For example, Mudd’s wife Peggy and her Colonel dad never concocted a plan to provide the boat that intercepts Mudd once he breaks out of the prison (Mudd did make an escape attempt a couple of months after being sentenced to “Shark Island” by hiding aboard a visiting ship, but was quickly discovered before he got away).  Mudd’s father-in-law was already dead at the time of the film’s events, and his wife was named Sarah Frances, not Peggy.  Three of Mudd’s children disappear from the movie’s narrative (he had four at the time of his trial) and none of his actual offspring looked like the Cute Moppet from Central Casting in this flick.  Furthermore, Mudd was not thrown into an underground pit after being recaptured…and certainly not with his loyal retainer Buck, because none of his slaves were there at the prison to help him to escape.  And on and on and on.

Ford and Johnson argue the case for Mudd’s innocence by having the doctor challenge his accusers: “Does an assassin confide his plans to anyone?  Was I, a physician, in the plot because it was part of John Wilkes Booth’s plan to break his leg and need me?  Does a man, whose first devotion is no longer to a lost cause or to any flag that flies but to his wife and child, risk any act that could cause only misery and heartbreak on their innocent lives?”  Historians have been debating for decades as to whether or not there really was a conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination, and a strong argument could be made that following the event, enough hysteria was whipped up to ensnare Mudd in its web—a simple case of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But like any good defense attorney, Ford and Johnson omit from the narrative that the assassination was originally planned as a kidnapping (which suggests he could have participated in the plot)…and that Mudd and Booth were more than just casual acquaintances (the two men had a meet-and-greet during Booth’s visit to Bryantown, MD in the latter part of 1864, with the actor becoming the doc’s overnight houseguest on at least one occasion).  Mudd’s failure to report this friendship cast a storm cloud of doubt over his innocence at the time.

I guess the reason why most of these fellows are in uniform is that their kangaroo suits didn't come back from the cleaners.

Knowledge of these events, however, shouldn’t detract from the viewing enjoyment of The Prisoner of Shark Island; the biopic is made quite interesting as a result of Ford’s skillful filmmaking, featuring common Fordian themes of community (the movie commences with a parade that ends outside the White House, where Lincoln makes a few remarks) and one-man-can-make-a-difference sacrifice.  What makes Shark Island so interesting to me is that Mudd’s devotion to the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”) is responsible for both his downfall (helping the fugitive Booth) and vindication (eliminating the prison’s yellow fever epidemic).  The acting is also first-rate; Oscar winner Warner Baxter has one of his truly outstanding roles as the anguished Mudd—I kind of chuckled, knowing that the thespian would return to the medical profession in the 1940s as the star of the Crime Doctor franchise.  Gloria Stuart takes what is unquestionably an underwritten part and transforms it into something luminous; her Peggy Mudd never wavers in both her devotion to her husband and belief in his innocence, and her scenes with kiddie actress Kay are positively enchanting (particularly when she struggles to explain the death of the child’s grandfather).

There are also a lot of familiar faces from the Ford stock company (brother Frances plays one of the prison guards, once again demonstrating there’s no place like Hollywood for nepotism), most notably TDOY fave John Carradine—who gives one of his most memorable performances as the heartless Rankin.  The smoke rings constantly blown by the sergeant suggest a Satanic essence to the man, and Carradine isn’t afraid to pull out the stops with that maniacally wicked gleam in his eye.   Rankin eventually falls prey to the yellow fever, and must depend on his nemesis to save his life…and fittingly receives salvation for insisting that he be the first to sign the doctor’s clemency recommendation while he shakes Mudd’s hand in sincere gratitude after doing so.  Harry Carey, an actor who worked with John Ford in scads of westerns during the Silent Era, had gone the character route at this time in his career and performs most admirably as the tough but fair prison commandant.

I won’t lie—I do find a few elements of The Prisoner of Shark Island disturbing: it’s one of several films in the Ford mythology (Judge Priest, The Sun Shines Bright) that presents the post-antebellum South as an idyllic paradise oblivious to Jim Crow and those devoted to the Confederate cause are venerated even if they did lose the freaking war in the first place (Gillingwater’s Colonel Dyer prattles on about “the woah of Nawthun Aggreshun” being about states’ rights, which caused my eyeballs to do a triple lutz).  The depiction of both black soldiers and slaves is troubling, presented in that casual racism so prevalent in cinema at that time; I’m surprised Ford didn’t ask Stepin Fetchit to play the role essayed by Ernie Whitman, to be honest.  But despite all this and the discordant note sounded in the film’s “comic” ending, Shark Island is a most intriguing entry on the movie resume of John Ford, who famously introduced himself by intoning “I make Westerns.”  Fans of the director know this simply wasn’t so, and if you’re up to the challenge of watching one of Ford’s most underrated works without nitpicking like a historical scholar (guilty as charged), I recommend it highly.