Take a Trip in the Hollywood Time Machine

Time MachineCancel your Saturday night plans, because I’ll be guest co-hosting the inaugural episode of Hollywood Time Machine with Alicia Mayer live tonight at 9 p.m. (ET) on L.A. Talk Radio.

Guests include Victoria Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, Steve Anderson from the Humphrey Bogart Estate, TCM Party founder Paula Guthat, Susan King from the Los Angeles Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Community, and Cassandra Majors from the Classic TV Lovers Haven group on Facebook.

Your host is Alicia Mayer, film historian, book editor, and grandniece of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer. She also sings, dances, and does a delightful mime act, which you probably won’t be able to fully appreciate on radio.

And the best part of Hollywood Time Machine is, you don’t need a time machine to listen to it, nor do you need to be in Hollywood (in any era). The show broadcasts live on the Internet, and you can also listen via L.A. Talk Radio’s app. And if you’re not available to listen while it happens, each episode will be archived for streaming (unless I say something stupid, which will result in the master tapes being retroactively burned in the 1967 MGM vault fire.)

You can also connect with the show on the website and Facebook, and follow Alicia on Twitter and at her website, Hollywood Essays.

I’m excited to help launch the Hollywood Time Machine, and I hope you’ll join us.


Posted in Classic Film, Classic TV | Tagged | 3 Comments

Remembering Richard Kiel (1939-2014) in EEGAH (1962)

Richard Kiel as JawsRichard Kiel was unforgettable as the steel-toothed villain Jaws in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) and MOONRAKER (1979). But 15 years before he put the bite on James Bond, Kiel chomped on the scenery in a delightfully terrible drive-in classic.

In EEGAH (1962), the 7 foot, 3 inch-tall Detroit native plays a pre-historic giant who simultaneously threatens a California town and put the moves on a hot chick. The low-budget horror/sci-fi/musical epic stars pompadoured Elvis wannabe Arch Hall Jr. (WILD GUITAR, THE SADIST) as the crooning, dune-buggy-driving hero Tom Nelson, with Marilyn Manning as Roxy, the object of Tom’s – and the title character’s – affections. But the real creative genius behind EEGAH was Arch Hall Sr., who wrote, produced, directed (using the pseudonym Nicholas Merriwether), and acts in the film (using another pseudonym, William Watters), playing Roxy’s inappropriately pimp-ish father. Hall Sr. also wrote two catchy pop ballads for his 19-year-old son to warble in the film: “Vicky” and “Valerie” (not to be confused with “Vallerie,” the Monkees hit that made it to #3 on the Billboard charts six years later).

If Arch Hall Sr. didn’t get Father of the Year Award for 1962, I hope he at least demanded a re-count.

postEEGAH was Kiel’s first major film role after a few years of TV work, most notably the To Serve Man episode of The Twilight Zone, which aired just a few weeks before the movie’s release. Kiel makes the most of a part that might have otherwise been given to an anonymous stuntman, as Eegah grunts his name Groot-style, wields a giant wooden club, and engages in lengthy “conversations” with the calcified corpses of his relatives. Despite his character’s aggressive method of courting his new crush, Kiel deftly manages to keep the audience on his side, and the scene in which he knocks Hall Jr. cold with a right cross undoubtedly elicited cheers at drive-ins across America (assuming the kids were actually watching the movie, which they probably weren’t).

Hall Jr. has to speak actual, scripted dialogue and he, unfortunately, does not fare as well. Despite the good intentions of his dad, the 19-year-old has zero charisma, wandering through most of his scenes like he’s looking for the men’s room. Manning (who was apparently Hall Sr.’s secretary) isn’t much better, but at least she’s given interesting things to do. Hall Sr.’s story (with a script by Bob Wehling) takes Roxy in hilariously unexpected directions, including a scene in which she seductively shaves off the title character’s beard, propositions him in order to save her father, and looks wistfully back at him as she is driven off to safety(?).

And if you had any doubt that EEGAH was aping KING KONG, you need only wait for the scene in which the title character sniffs Roxy’s scarf while whimpering for his lost love. It’s a magic moment, just one of many in this unforgettable movie.

EEGAH first came to my attention in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way), Harry and Michael Medved’s seminal 1978 book. Like many other films in that book (and its follow-up, The Golden Turkey Awards), EEGAH is enjoyably awful, and never stops surprising. I wish I could say that for the tragically predictable action blockbusters of today.

In honor of Kiel, who died on September 10 at the age of 74, the nostalgia-themed Retro TV will broadcast the 1993 Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of EEGAH on Saturday at 8 p.m. (ET) Retro is available in more than 61 million U.S. homes, in most cases as a free, over-the-air, digital broadcast sub-channel. You can see if you get the channel here. The non-MST3K version of the film is available to stream at Amazon Instant.

Rest in peace, Richard Kiel. And wherever you are, make sure you watch out for snakes.


Posted in Classic Film, Retro TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Friday on the Couch with Will

stanwyckOne of the great things about being freelance, unmarried, and childless is, I can pretty much do whatever I want, whenever I want.

For example, if I choose to stay home on a Friday and watch movies all day long in my jammies, I can do it – without apology or explanation. And that’s exactly what I did yesterday; I binge-watched Turner Classic Movies from the moment I awoke to the minute I collapsed in a bleary eyed heap, with only a quick break to shower with the volume cranked up to a level that, no doubt, incensed my neighbors. (Ask me if I care.)

Between 9:45 a.m. on Friday morning and 2:45 a.m. on Saturday I watched 12 films, ate two diner deliveries (both featuring French fries), consumed seven cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, ate a batch of Slice + Bake chocolate chip cookies, and otherwise pushed the limits of health, waistline, and eye strain to a level that might earn wrist-slaps from at least two of my healthcare providers (if you know them, don’t rat me out, particularly because I haven’t filled my new prescription for eyeglasses yet). It was a lifestyle befitting Hollywood’s decadent Pre-Code Era, the four-year period of unfettered creative freedom the major studios enjoyed during the early days of sound filmmaking, until Taliban-esque censorship guidelines ruined everyone’s fun (at least for the next three decades).

As regular viewers of the channel know, on Friday TCM kicked off a month-long Pre-Code festival, with 67 films spread out over weekly 24-hour marathons, beginning each Friday at 6 a.m and continuing through the primetime hours, with hosts Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin (who, according to Osborne, participated in the programming of the series).

NormaWatching movies from Hollywood’s most notorious era may not be for everyone, particularly if you’re a reformed drinker, smoker, or hooker. (I’m only one of those; I’ll let you guess which.) But for me, it’s a no-brainer; I’ll pretty much watch anything released between 1930 and 1934, even if it’s not a great movie, because I find this era in American filmmaking unendingly fascinating. “Pre-Code” has become shorthand for sexy, and there was plenty of that on display on TCM yesterday, but what I love about the period goes way beyond the salacious. There’s a refreshing, almost disconcerting candor to these films that was largely lost after enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in July of 1934. The best titles in this series demonstrate that, and still resonate with audiences today.

Lots of my “friends” on social media expressed jealousy yesterday regarding my ability to cast responsibility to the wind and plunk myself down on the couch for 17 hours, non-stop. And to you haters I say, we all make our own decisions in life. Someday, when you’re happily retired and living off your pension/401(k), you can enjoy old movies all day with your grandkids, while I’m living alone in a refrigerator box under the 59th Street Bridge – my own private Hooverville.

I kid. Or maybe I don’t. Regardless, here’s the best news of all: you don’t have to be home every Friday to watch these movies, nor do you have to run out and buy a gigantic, new 5,000-hour DVR to record them all.

Thanks to Watch TCM, the streaming app the network launched last November, cable subscribers can watch every one of the 16 movies that aired Friday on-demand, on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. And the films that aired in primetime include Osborne and Baldwin’s wrap-arounds. (I know some people can’t stand Baldwin, but he and Osborne have excellent co-host chemistry on-camera.)

If you love Pre-Code movies, this is a chance to love your favorites over and over and over again (sorry, I got carried away there). If you’ve never seen a film from this era, TCM is offering the equivalent of a Pre-Code 101 course on-line and, if you already pay for the channel, it’s entirely free. It’s a perfectly way to immerse yourself in the era, and track the subtle evolutions in production methods, studio “house style,” and acting technique over the first four years of the Sound Era. (Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable does not yet support the app, but all other cable and satellite providers do, and it’s extremely user-friendly.

And if the word “app” sounds to you like Ginger Roger’s Pig Latin in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, fear not! You can always simply watch the films on your computer on TCM’s website. (The Watch TCM app is not available on your TV or via a streaming player like Roku, due to rights issues.)

Films appear on the website/app approximately three hours after they air on TV, and they’re available for 7 days to watch whenever and wherever you want. So if you’re a responsible adult (unlike me) you can still indulge in all the louche Pre-Code shenanigans this month at your leisure (preferably, draped over a divan wearing something sparkly).

Here are notes on three of my favorites that aired yesterday – films you can watch anytime until September 12: 


BABY FACE (1933 – Alfred E. Green, Warner Bros.)

With their gritty style and socially conscious sensibility, Warner Bros. was the preeminent producer of what we now call Pre-Code. And this one has come to be known as the CITIZEN KANE of the art form. Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly Powers, a self-described “tramp” who, as the trailer brags, “made IT pay.” For 76 sexy, sinful minutes, Lily uses her unassuming, girl-next-door good looks to seduce a parade of patsies on her way to the top, culminating in a climatic montage of all the men she bedded, just in case you lost count. Costume designer Orry-Kelly tracks her ascent in a menagerie of gowns that get fancier and fancier as she moves up the ladder.

Even though the Code wasn’t actively being enforced at the time of the film’s release in December of 1933, edits were required by the New York State Censorship Board. Thankfully, the original, unedited version remains, and that’s the version that circulates today.  Look for a young John Wayne as one of Lily’s early conquests, and the great Theresa Harris as Chico, Lily’s sidekick. The equality of their relationship was way ahead of its time.


FEMALE (1933 – Michael Curtiz & William A. Wellman, First National Pictures)

To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle,” says Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton), CEO of the Drake Motor Car Company. Allison prefers her romantic dalliances to be businesslike affairs, after hours, with underlings. Everything changes when she meets handsome Jim Thorne (George Brent) at a carnival and he rebuffs her advances. Things get even more complicated when Allison’s new engineer shows up the next morning – and it’s Jim. She continues her pursuit but her new hire wants no part of it. “I was engaged as an engineer, not a gigolo,” he scolds. “I’m a man. I prefer to do my own hunting.” Will Allison give up her wanton ways for true love?

Although I enjoyed FEMALE, it’s unfortunately the worst kind of false feminism. Allison is portrayed as an unapologetically powerful female executive who turns into a gushy girl when she meets the right guy. “I’ve been expecting this for some time,” her first lieutenant Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk) says when she goes gaga for Jim. “You’re just a woman.” Come on. I know this is 1933, but don’t attract an audience with a suggestive premise and then deliver a sermon about “traditional values.” “Marriage and love and children – the things that women were born for,” Jim preaches to Allison. This character would never go for such a regressive male chauvinist, even in 1933.


WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933 – William A. Wellman, First National Pictures)

Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are two small-town high school kids who take to the rails when the Depression strikes their parents. On the train they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan, the future Mrs. Wellman) who dresses like a boy and talks like a tough guy. The kids get off in Chicago to stay with Sally’s Aunt Carrie, who just happens to be a hooker, but the kids don’t care, because she just baked a cake. Yum!

When the brothel is raided by the cops, the kids head out once again, this time for Columbus, Ohio. There, tragedy strikes, Tommy is nearly killed by a train and another member of their growing community of wild boys (and girls) is raped. Finally, in New York, the kids end up unwitting accomplices in a crime. Will justice give them a second chance or turn them into criminals?

You can check out the schedule for the remaining films in the Pre-Code series at the following links: September 12 (17 films), September 19 (16 films + one documentary), and September 26 (17 films). I highly recommend you visit two essential websites for Pre-Code fans: Danny Reid’s Pre-Code.com and Cliff Aliperti’s Immortal Ephemera. Both feature reviews and essays on many of the films and performers featured in the series.You can also read my review of SAFE IN HELL (1931) here. And my thoughts on NIGHT NURSE (1931) are here. Notes on the films above appeared previously on this site, because I’m too busy watching movies to write a bunch of new shit. 

Posted in Pre-Code Film | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

Netflix Classic Film Comings + Goings – September, 2014

Netflix“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” said Seneca the Younger, or my freshman year guidance counselor, or the guy that sang “Closing Time” in the late ’90s.

Whoever it was, it’s certainly true – and nowhere more so than on Netflix Instant. At the end of each month we mourn the lost titles and celebrate the new arrivals, like The Circle of Life. This digital sloughing off is also an important reminder for denizens of the brave new Streaming World: if you don’t own it, it can go away. People like me need to keep that in mind when we pontificate about the impending death of physical media, or mock people who still get DVDs in the mail (where rights windows never expire, and classic films are far more prevalent).

If you love to binge on contemporary episodic television, the Netflix news has been filled with high profile acquisitions recently, like nine years worth of CBS’s Criminal Minds, the entire run of Showtime’s Californication, the first seasons of NBC’s The Blacklist (coming September 7) and El Rey Network’s From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series, and recent seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead (September 29), the CW’s Arrow (September 14), ABC’s Once Upon a Time, CBS’ How I Met Your Mother (September 26), Fox’s New Girl (September 16) and Bones (September 16), NBC’s Parenthood, About a Boy (September 14), and Parks and Recreation (September 26), ABC’s Revenge and a bunch of reality shows I’m leaving out. And this is in addition to buzz-generating Netflix originals like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove, and The Killing (resuscitated from AMC).

TV series licenses are expensive, as Netflix’s record $2 million-per-episode acquisition of The Blacklist demonstrates. But, as binge-watching becomes the Next Big Thing, TV series will continue to draw both programming dollars and new subscribers. An individual film won’t win a new Netflix customer, but a TV series might.

And Netflix remains a reliable resource for classic TV shows, as well, though Hulu made the bigger news earlier this year, furthering a multi-year deal with CBS to stream more than 5,300 episodes from the CBS/Paramount library, including iconic series like the original Star Trek, Twin Peaks, and The Brady Bunch. Hulu rarely has complete series runs, though, and the maddeningly repetitive commercials can still drive some classic TV fans back to their DVD shelves. (Netflix Instant does not have ads.)

AptBut for classic film fans, the news has been less encouraging. Today, Netflix Instant lost essentials like THE MUMMY (1932), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), and THE APARTMENT (1960). In all, 29 pre-1990 titles left the service on September 1, with plans to add only 21 in the coming weeks - the vast majority from the 1980s, and none older than 1950. And while movies on Netflix tend to be more of a licensing hot potato than TV shows, with shorter rights windows that can reflect cable’s desire for short-term exclusivity (e.g. the ROCKY and STAR TREK films), the trend line is going in the wrong direction for classic films on Netflix.

It’s worth pointing out that the service already has far more old movies than you would ever get a chance to watch (unless you’re an unemployed insomniac), from FANTOMAS (1913) to BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980). A quick review of the ten sub-genre categories in Classic Movies brings up more than 650 suggestions, with an overwhelming majority of Dramas (187 titles) and a paltry showing for War Movies (only 17, including a few I’ve never heard of). But are they films you actually want to see? And if Netflix keeps registering aggregate loses in classic film titles each month, at what point will Old Movie Weirdos cut bait and fish in more specialized streams, like Warner Archive Instant?

UPDATE 9/2/14 6 p.m. (ET) I posted a comment on Facebook that I thought would be worthwhile sharing here:

I’m glad specialty streaming sites like Warner Archive Instant, Fandor, Mubi, and others exist, but those services preach to the film buff choir. The continuing tendency in modern media has been to relegate “old movies” into some sort of specialty niche category, instead of fostering an appreciation for all eras of filmmaking among mass audiences. With more than 36 million customers in the US alone (and 50 million worldwide), Netflix has (had?) a unique opportunity to expand access to, and awareness of, pre-1990 American film. It looks like that is not really happening. 
And that’s another reason why TCM is so important. It gives 85 million US homes an opportunity to stumble upon an old movie. It lowers the barrier to entry. I don’t want classic movies to be some sort of exclusive club that only the informed know how to find. I want them to be readily available to the masses, so that the subtextual message to uninformed viewers is that these films are worthwhile.

Here are the Netflix Classic Film Comings and Goings for September:

177August 31 GOINGs:

1930s -1
The Mummy (1932)

1940s – 0

1950s – 2
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
The Delinquents (1957)

1960s – 4
The Apartment (1960)
El Dorado (1966)
Doctor Doolittle (1967)
That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

1970s -10
Black Mama, White Mama (1972)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Charley Varrick (1973)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
Bucktown (1975)
The Eiger Sanction (1975)
At the Earth’s Core (1976)
Midnight Express (1978)
Convoy (1978) – Sept 5
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

1980s – 12
Popeye (1980)
Stir Crazy (1980)
Cujo (1983)
Streamers (1983)
Fool for Love (1985)
O.C. and Stiggs (1985)
Just One of the Guys (1985)
Silverado (1985)
About Last Night… (1986)
Gothic (1986)
Star Trek: The Voyage Home (1986)
Dirty Dancing (1987)

roman-holiday-posterSeptember 1 COMINGs:


1950s – 2 
High Noon (1952) – Coming 9/12
Roman Holiday (1953) – 9/5

1960s – 3
Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – 9/12
True Grit (1969) – 9/5

1970s – 3 
Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)
Audrey Rose (1977)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

1980s – 13 
Ordinary People (1980)
The Blue Lagoon (1980)
The Elephant Man (1980)
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Mr. Mom (1983)
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Crocodile Dundee (1986)
The Believers (1987)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Spaceballs (1987)
Monkey Shines (1988)
The Presidio (1988)
Big Top Pee-Wee (1988) – 9/5

Sources: What’s On Netflix Now, The Huffington Post, Tech Times


Posted in Netflix, Technology | Tagged | 9 Comments

Update: Big Changes at Turner Broadcasting – Will They Affect TCM?

osborneUPDATE 8/29/14 9 a.m. (ET) 

The departures are beginning at Turner, with the announcement that TNT, TBS and TCM programming chief Michael Wright would be leaving the company after a decade.

Original Post – 8/27/14

According to Nielsen, the average U.S. household receives 189 TV channels, but regularly watches only 17 of them. If you’re an Old Movie Weirdo, however, that number may be closer to one: Turner Classic Movies.

TCM is the only U.S. TV channel airing classic films 24 hours per day, uncut, commercial-free, and in their original, theatrical aspect ratio. As such, viewers (like this one) tend to support the 20-year-old network with near-religious zealotry. And TCM returns the favor, connecting with audience members through an annual film festival, cruise, sightseeing bus tours, monthly magazine, specialty home video releases, original documentaries, and brilliantly curated programming, which has extended from a single, linear channel to multiple streaming and on-demand options.

For millions of loyal viewers, the people who work at TCM are like members of an extended family of film lovers. Sadly, that family is about to get smaller.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 12.57.09 AMOn Tuesday, TCM parent Turner Broadcasting offered a buyout to approximately six percent of U.S. employees, the first in the company’s 44-year history. While the “Voluntary Separation Program” for employees 55 and older with more than ten years of service was only offered to approximately 600 members of the company’s 9,000-member U.S. workforce, it’s just the first step in a company-wide cost-cutting initiative that is expected to yield extensive layoffs.

First announced by CEO John Martin on June 2, the “Turner 2020” initiative seeks to reduce spending and maximize growth and profitability, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the company a little more than five years from now. Layoffs throughout Turner’s more than 700 departments were only suggested in Martin’s initial communication, but they were confirmed in his follow-up memo on August 19:

“Division leaders now are reviewing the working groups’ reports on their respective areas of oversight. Over the coming weeks, they will work with me to finalize the organizational changes we will implement. Our plan is to begin communicating in the next two months both general and specific changes we will make to structures, models and roles,” Martin wrote.

In case you didn’t get his point, the next sentence sealed the fate of an as-yet-undetermined number of Turner employees:

“We’ll start 2015 a more streamlined, nimble and efficient company…”

When your boss starts talking about streamlining, it’s time to start packing your things.

So, how many Turner staffers will be cut? Speculation varied wildly on Tuesday, but Rodney Ho of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimates that the final tally could be as much as 15 to 20 percent of the company, with an aggregate loss of as many as 2,000 employees.

“(T)his is causing some significant angst and concern among employees,” he added, stating the obvious.

twIronically, “Turner 2020″ was planned long before Fox’s recent, much-publicized attempt to acquire Turner parent Time Warner, which made itself a takeover target (intentionally or otherwise) with the recent spinoffs of Time Inc. and Time Warner Cable. But Rupert Murdoch’s $85 per share offer, roundly rejected by Time Warner’s board, only puts more pressure on the company to increase shareholder value. The stock closed Tuesday at $76.98, up nearly $7 since Murdoch’s offer was first revealed on July 16. (21st Century Fox formally withdrew the proposal on August 6.)

Industry-wide, audience fragmentation is rampant, production and licensing costs are up, and expected mergers among cable and satellite providers – Time Warner Cable/Comcast and AT&T/DirecTV – are expected to reduce leverage in network carriage fee negotiations. While TNT is one of the most expensive channels for basic cable subscribers – and still one of the most profitable – it lacks a signature show with the channel-making buzz of Mad MenBreaking Bad, or The Walking Dead (all coincidentally on AMC, a channel that kicked classic films to the curb and dramatically increased its audience and profitability). Ratings are down at TNT, TBS, and CNN, and Turner is facing the expiration of its NBA deal in 2016, with the price expected to double from the $930 million annual license fee currently being split between Disney’s ESPN and Turner. If the new contact matches the previous in duration (8 years), the NBA could slam dunk their cable partners for $15-16 billion.

So how will all of this affect TCM? Hopefully, not substantially, considering the channel has a relatively small full-time staff and is known to be a lean and efficiently run organization. Ironically, much of the mainstream reporting on Tuesday didn’t even acknowledge TCM’s existence, likely owing to the channel’s lack of advertising revenue and minor impact on the bottom line. TCM may be able to continue to fly below the radar, but with Turner’s announced, company-wide focus on “monetization,” longtime viewers (like this one) can’t help but wonder if the network’s commercial-free days may be numbered.

“We’ve never had plans to add commercials; I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements,” V.P. of Programming Charlie Tabesh said at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. “We’re not trying to reach a broad audience. We’re not trying to maximize the demo. We’re not trying to get the 18-34, whatever it is. There’s none of that that’s considered at all.”

Hopefully those plans haven’t changed.

To read both the Martin memos, click here. Warning: there’s enough corporate speak to choke Francis the Talking Mule.


Posted in TCM, TCM Classic Film Festival | 17 Comments

Bogart + Bacall’s Rarely Seen Final Team-up – And Where to Watch It

picTurner Classic Movies announced today that they will preempt scheduled programming on September 15 and 16 for a 24-hour marathon honoring the life and career of Lauren Bacall, who died on August 12 at age 89.

Following Robert Osborne’s delightfully candid 2005 interview with the then-81-year-old legend at 8 p.m. (ET) on September 15, TCM will air eleven of Bacall’s films, including four team-ups with real life leading man Humphrey Bogart: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), her Howard Hawks-directed debut, sets sail at 9 p.m.; Hawks’ narratively inscrutable (but who cares) THE BIG SLEEP (1946) follows at 11 p.m.; Delmer Daves’ pulpy noir DARK PASSAGE (1947) un-bandages on September 16 at 10 a.m., and John Huston’s Academy Award-winning KEY LARGO (1948) blows in at noon.(September 16 would have been Bacall’s 90th birthday.)

The four Bogart/Bacall noirs are arguably her best-known films, but they don’t tell the whole story of the iconic duo’s on-screen partnership. Missing from TCM’s schedule is their final team-up, a production so rare that many classic film fans haven’t even heard of it, let alone seen it.

Laughing StarsOn May 30, 1955, nearly seven years after the release of KEY LARGO, Mr. and Mrs. Bogart reunited on-screen one last time for NBC’s live television remake of The Petrified ForestBroadcast in color – still a rarity at the time – Tad Mosel’s adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play for the RCA-sponsored Producer’s Showcase featured 55-year-old Bogart recreating the role of Duke Mantee, the Dillinger-esque gangster he played on Broadway two decades earlier and in the 1936 Warner Bros. film. Bacall, in a role originated by an ingénue-y Bette Davis in the film, is waitress Gabrielle “Gabby” Maple, daughter of the owner of the dusty roadside diner Mantee and his gang appropriate as a hideout. And for the lead character of ennui-afflicted Englishman Alan Squier (played by Leslie Howard on stage and screen), director Delbert Mann cast the decidedly un-British Henry Fonda.

No, I’m not kidding. Tom Joad as a British intellectual.

PFLike many live dramas from the Golden Age of Television, The Petrified Forest is stage-bound and talky, but you could say the same for Archie Mayo’s 1936 film, which makes very little effort to transcend the walls of Warner Bros. Stage 8. Still, the film is highly regarded by many classic film fans (including this one) for providing Bogie with his big break, courtesy of Howard, who insisted to Jack Warner that the actor reprise his stage role. (Bogart honored Howard posthumously for going to bat for him with the studio by naming his daughter Leslie. Howard died in 1943 at age 50; Leslie Bogart was born in 1952.)

The 1936 film edition of Duke Mantee was the world’s first glimpse of Bogart as a “complicated” gangster. The real John Dillinger was 31 when he was finally taken out by Melvin Purvis in Chicago in 1934 and Bogart, just a few years older, was virile, ruggedly handsome, and genuinely menacing in his film portrayal. Amazingly, he pulls it off again two decades later, and then some. Defying his age and the developing illness within him, Bogart gives an energetic, almost feral performance, matching the physicality and distinctive line readings that were so memorable in the film.

PBacall does not necessarily fare as well. While her youthful bravado allowed her to believably portray older women in her first few films, here the situation is reversed: she’s 30 playing a character supposedly in her late teens. Her older-than-her-years maturity seems wildly out of place; while Davis – Bacall’s idol as a youngster –was 28 when she played Gabby, she still pulled off a nervous, dewey-eyed innocence that Bacall had aged out of by 1955, or perhaps never had to begin with. (Except when she bops out of the bar with Bogie at the end of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, my favorite moment from her film career.)

Faring the worst is Fonda, whose casting necessitated changing Alan’s origins from (olde) England to New England. His folksy, uncomplicated charm runs counter to the Shakespearean fatalism of the character, and he and Bacall never seem to be doing anything but reciting lines of dialogue in each other’s general direction. And, at 50, Fonda’s too old for the part. Alan’s world-weariness has little to do with age.

Still, this is a must-watch curiosity for even the casual fan. While Bogart and Bacall don’t melt the screen like they do in their other pairings, seeing them together again so close to the end of his life is like the missing piece to a puzzle. The Petrified Forest also was the only pairing of Bogart and Fonda, two of the greatest stars of the Studio Era, and it’s Bogart’s only dramatic TV appearance (save for a very hip parody of his gangster persona Bogie did on The Jack Benny Program in 1953).

As an extra bonus, a few beloved classic TV figures show up in smaller roles in The Petrified Forest. Jack Warden is a far more menacing college football player than the harmless doofus played by singer Dick Foran in 1936, and he gets to spout some 1950s-style anti-Commie propaganda. Natalie Schafer, who would go on to three seasons (and countless reunions) as Gilligan’s Island’s Mrs. Howell, is the wealthy woman whose car is commandeered by the thugs. And 33-year-old Jack Klugman shows up as Duke’s henchman Jackie (played in the film by Joe Sawyer) delivering the film’s most famous line – “This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer. And he’s hungry.” – in a manner so Oscar Madison-y you practically expect a honking Tony Randall to walk through the door.

duoBut the real reason to watch The Petrified Forest, which aired just once and survived only in Bacall’s personal kinescope copy – available for viewing at the Paley Center in New York and L.A. and in a fuzzy You Tube posting – is Humphrey Bogart. Watching his ferocity here, you’d never imagine he’d be dead 20 months later from cancer.

Although Bogart appeared in four more films before his untimely demise (including his 1956 swan song THE HARDER THEY FALL, which I love), I’m now romantically regarding the 1955 version of The Petrified Forest as the bookend to Bogart’s film career. He came in tough and he went out tough, and Bacall– and the audience– loved him for it.

You can watch “The Petrified Forest” on YouTube here, but I strongly suggest you view it on a small screen (I watched on my iPhone) and use headphones (the sound is audible, but low). Bogart and Bacall also make a cameo as themselves in TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946), which you can watch here. A tip ‘o the hat to classic film historian and New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick for that piece of knowledge.


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5 Reasons to Watch NIGHT NURSE (1931)

night-nurse-1931Tough broads, bootleggers, drug-abusing doctors, debauched rich people, and Barbara Stanwyck – William A. Wellman’s NIGHT NURSE (1931) has everything I love about Pre-Code movies.

Stanwyck is Lora Hart, a determined young nursing student in a busy metropolitan hospital in this lurid melodrama, released by Warner Bros. in 1931. Joan Blondell is Maloney, her wise-cracking, gum-snapping partner in mischief (think Lucy and Ethel, only sexier). And Clark Gable is Nick, a murderous chauffeur who will stop at nothing to get his boss’ money, including killing her children. 

High school-dropout Lora sweet talks her way into nursing school where she meets Maloney, an old pro who knows how to game the system– and fight off the amorous orderlies. Their lives are complicated by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the sourpuss head nurse who lies in wait for the pretty young things to slip up. And speaking of slips, Stanwyck and Blondell strip down to their skivvies so frequently it’s hard to keep count. Not that I’m complaining, because half-naked women bucking authority is what Pre-Code film is all about.

After graduation, Lora gets her eponymous assignment: caring for the inexplicably ill children (Marcia Mae Jones and Betty Jane Graham) of wealthy Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). There she meets Nick (Gable), who’s keeping his boss permanently plastered in hopes of killing off her kids and making off with her dough. (Another child has already died in a hit and run accident, and it’s strongly suggested that Nick is responsible.)

Lora fights to save the children, with the help of Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she rescued when he stumbled into the E.R. with a bullet wound. But will it be too late?

*music sting!*


william_wellman1. William A. Wellman

Unlike some other directors of the early Talkie Era, “Wild Bill” Wellman didn’t let the limitations of unwieldy sound recording technology get in the way of storytelling. His camera is remarkably fluid in NIGHT NURSE, in a year when many films were static and stagy. Wellman was one of the early proponents of the boom mic, and makes ample use of it here, tracking along with dialogue scenes. If you don’t believe me, look for the boom shadow in a wide shot of Stanwyck and Blondell running through a hospital hallway.

That’s another thing I love about Pre-Code films: lack of polish. The studios were figuring out how to navigate a paradigm shift in the industry, and the obvious experimentation on-screen and off- can be exhilarating, even when it doesn’t work (and there are plenty of Pre-Codes that don’t).

Stan_lyon2. Barbara Stanwyck

Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, Stanwyck represents everything I love about liberated Pre-Code women. As both the title character and hero(ine) of NIGHT NURSE, she dominates the film with street-smart moxie and an unglamorous sexuality that reached its apex two years later in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933), the prototypical Pre-Code.

And speaking of lack of polish, I’ll watch anything with Stanwyck, but if her teeth are still crooked, it’s a must.

Gab3. Clark Gable

If you only know Gable as the charming cad in iconic films like GONE WITH THE WIND, NIGHT NURSE will be an education. Here he’s an unapologetic child murderer, throwing punches at Stanwyck and staring down the camera with a feral ferocity that is genuinely frightening. Had the 30-year-old Ohio native been a Warner Bros. contractee, would the studio have allowed him to play such a villain? He wasn’t, of course, and within a year he was well on his way to name-above-the-title stardom at MGM.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 5.28.46 PM4. Fun with Dipsomania

Charlotte Merriam as the wealthy and dissolute Mrs. Ritchey has two great moments in NIGHT NURSE. When Lora reports to work on for the first time to care for little Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), she discovers their mom (Merriam) passed out drunk on a bearskin rug, an empty champagne glass dangling from her hand. Later, when Lora confronts her, Mrs. Ritchey shrieks one of the most memorable lines in in Pre-Code film:

“I’m a dipsomaniac, and I’m proud of it! Ya hear?” she slurs. “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it! I like it!”

5. The End

I’m not going to spoil it, but the happy ending of NIGHT NURSE involves a character’s murder. That’s the kind of thing you didn’t see anymore when enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934. And movies were the worse for it.

 NIGHT NURSE airs today on TCM at 10 PM (ET) as part of Summer Under the Stars. For the complete schedule and background on Stanwyck, visit TCM’s site. The film is also available on DVD as part of Forbidden Hollywood” Volume 2, available from Warner Home Video. You can read more about NIGHT NURSE at Pre-Code.com 



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