A Salute to ‘Kissin’ Cousins’—Sort Of

kissinopenerOver the years, Kissin’ Cousins has grown on me—sort of.  Elvis Presley’s fourteenth feature film, which airs next Sunday (March 30) on TCM at 8:30am, is a musical comedy that is even more ridiculous than most of his films. And yet, Kissin’ Cousins manages to be interesting—sort of. It is the only one of his 31 narrative films to feature the King in a dual role. In KC, Elvis stars as dark-haired Josh Morgan, a member of the Air Force aerobatic team the Shooting Stars, and blonde Jody Tatum, a member of the hillbilly Tatum clan of rural Tennessee. Josh finds out that he is a distant cousin to Pappy Tatum, so he is assigned to persuade the stubborn patriarch into allowing the Air Force to build a missile base on his mountain. While the story doesn’t seem like it would inspire much to sing about, the 96-minute film includes eight musical production numbers.

Kissin’ Cousins marks an important but dubious point in Elvis’s Hollywood career. The musical is his first film with Sam Katzman, known as “the King of the Quickies.” Katzman had been producing low-budget, rock ‘n’ roll musicals since the 1950s, and he was notorious for his short shooting schedules and penny-pinching methods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that his films are not entertaining or enjoyable; I love his teen musicals (Get Yourself a College Girl; Twist Around the Clock) as well as some of his other productions (Your Cheatin’ Heart). But, when Elvis’s manager, the equally notorious Colonel Tom Parker, teamed up with Katzman, it represented a turning point for Parker’s approach to Elvis’s film career.  Parker was unhappy with Elvis’s previous film, MGM’s Viva Las Vegas—which would be released after Kissin’ Cousins—because its budget surpassed a million dollars, and it went over its shooting schedule. He felt that the money spent to ensure high-quality production values was unnecessary. Though Elvis would make only two films for Katzman, thereafter, Colonel pursued deals with other small production companies, because he was determined to keep production costs down and increase Elvis’s salary by asking for a percentage of the profits. He also learned other methods for decreasing production costs, which he employed on Kissin’ Cousins. While on location near Big Bear Lake in California, he struck deals with local hotels and restaurants to put up the cast and crew at a cut rate in exchange for promotional opportunities.

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How to offend everybody in one easy step

Last week I posted an essay about 1930′s comedy star William Haines, and ignited some impassioned responses in the comments area from some Haines supporters who took umbrage at what I wrote.  I like to provoke intense feelings—I can’t see much point to wasting my life writing about movies if I don’t generate some kind of response.  I could be spending my time playing with my kids, or drinking. . . or drinking with my kids.  So, I think angry comments are better than no comments at all—but this particular firestorm has encouraged me to write a sequel.

This week isn’t about Haines, though, but is about the issue that informed last week’s controversy: how changing cultural attitudes influences how we react to comedy.  And the touchstone I’ll be using for this week’s discussion is blackface comedy of the 20s and 30s—I use the term “blackface” broadly, to cover not just white actors playing blacks but black actors playing crude black stereotypes.  If you click on the “read more” button, you will be greeted with some images and film clips I fully expect to be offensive.  Proceed advisedly.

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Luck of the Drew

Lillian Travers (Edith Story) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Dr. Cassadene (Sidney Drew).  But the surprise is on her when she catches him in what sure seems like a comprising position with a wealthy widow.  He makes the requisite apologies, they make up, and it all goes pear shaped again when he blows their next rendez-vous, once again caught with the same widow.  She gives him a third chance—and as she comes out of her house to meet him, there he is, entangled in the clutches of three fawning women.  If this were any other movie, you’d expect Lillian to blow her top and walk out on him, continuing the cycle of sitcommy complications that you’ve come to expect by this point.  Oh, but A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT is not any other movie.  And let us uncover its fabulousness in stages:

Smoochy!

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Through the Devil’s Doorway: Hollywood Looks at Racism

This month on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, TCM will offer “Race in Hollywood: Native American Images on Film,” a series that has culled the archives to spotlight both positive and negative images of American Indians. The films will be hosted by Robert Osborne and Professor Hanay Geiogamah, the director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA and the editor of American Indian Culture and Research Journal, among other accomplishments. The series begins tomorrow, May 4, with “The Westerns of John Ford,” continues throughout the month, and then concludes on May 27, with “Films about Native Americans from Outside Hollywood.” Much like a museum exhibition of photographic stills or fine art, the series offers a window into American history and culture as well as a showcase of craftsmanship and artistry. To support this unique, well-curated series, the Movie Morlocks will blog this week on topics related to American Indians on film. Please check back each day this week for a thoughtful, engaging article by my knowledgeable and insightful colleagues.

On May 20, three films are scheduled to illustrate “Indians Dealing with Racism.” The evening opens with one of my favorite westerns, Devil’s Doorway, a 1950 black-and-white western directed by Anthony Mann starring Robert Taylor as a Shoshone who loses everything because of the racism inherent in the coming of civilization. Taylor plays Broken Lance, whose white name is Lance Poole; his dual name signifies his status as a man stuck between two worlds. Lance has returned to his home near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, after serving honorably in the Civil War and earning the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Lance finds that civilization has been encroaching on Medicine Bow in his absence, with lawyers settling in town, homesteaders looking to stake claims, and residents working to make Wyoming a territory. Based on his experiences back East, Lance also has progressive ideas to bring to the territory, particularly in regard to his family’s land, which is the richest in the region. But, with civilization comes laws and social institutions designed to protect and reward the dominant culture, which is that of white men.  The new laws have made Lance’s land vulnerable to homesteading, because his father didn’t have a deed to the land, like most of the original generation of ranchers who settled the West.  He seeks the help of a woman lawyer to work within the system to obtain a legal right to his own land, but the laws were not designed to help him. Instead, the new laws designate Indians to be wards of the government and, therefore, non-citizens with no rights.

IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE FILM, LANCE WEARS ATTIRE ASSOCIATED WITH WHITE COWBOYS. AS WHITE LAWS WORK AGAINST HIM, HE RETURNS TO NATIVE DRESS.

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Helen Walker: A Well Kept Secret Part II

This is the second part of a profile of actress Helen Walker. The first part can be seen here.

“No wonder so many actors are out of work,…considering all the lousy scripts the agents hand you…with such big build-ups. They’re nearly all tripe. The dialogue is all the same. Everything’s been done before. I’ve read 15 or 20 scripts in the last three weeks and only one was any good.”

Helen Walker, in one of her more impolitic public comments to a reporter in the 1940s.

After almost three years in Hollywood, Helen Walker‘s life and career came to a turning point by the mid-1940s. As seen in the first part of this two part blog on the actress, found here, Walker had proven that she could hold her own in fast comedic company with popular successes such as Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Murder, He Says (1945).  She had also shown an untapped capacity for drama evidenced by her effectiveness in The Man on Half Moon Street (1943). Critics had begun to describe her as a “charmingly different personality,” noting her poise and ability to uncover a laugh or a character nuance–sometimes despite the quality of the rest of the production. Still, Paramount persisted in using their contractee’s services in several B movies destined for Broadway grind houses and a dismal spot on the lower halves of double bills. Walker refused to appear in one more ill-conceived comedy, (1945′s all-star melange, Duffy’s Tavern (1945), based on a popular radio show), followed by another, Follow That Woman (1945). She also made the tactical error of bluntly pointing out to a Los Angeles Times reporter that she felt “stymied…while waiting confidently for ‘grown-up’ parts.”

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The Rising of the Moon (1957)

Tyrone Power introduces the first of three stories told in the film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with the wry comment that “This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything.”

For the director John Ford, this roughly 84 minute black and white movie, made in Ireland, which he did for free and “the sake of my artistic soul,” may be among his most personal films–even though today it is probably the least seen of this celebrated filmmaker’s movies from the sound era. As revealed in a piece by the New York Post’s film critic Lou Lumenick last year, even the director’s grandson, Daniel Ford, has only a videotape of this now rare movie, and the exact copyright ownership of the movie appears to be a bit mysterious. Preoccupied, as almost all of Ford’s movies were, with the inevitable dissolution of traditions, communities and ties, it was not a realistic movie, having about as much to do with “life as we knew it in the ’50s in Ireland as Prince Valiant did to life in the Middle Ages,” as one Irish-born friend pointedly told me once. The stories woven in this anthology film also feature magnificent casts, with Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Frank Lawton, Dennis O’Dea, Jack MacGowran and Eileen Crowe giving life to these off-hand tales.

The quirky The Rising of the Moon (1957) looked back nostalgically through Ford’s somewhat foggy, affectionate lens at an imagined world as it might have been or as the director wished it to be. Originally entitled The Three-Leaf Clover, (as well as Three or Four Leaves of the Shamrock, according to some sources), it tells a trio of stories, all related to the theme of personal freedom, in a loose-limbed way. Each of the segments adapted by longtime Ford screenwriter Frank S. Nugent for scale, unfolded, in their seemingly ramshackle way, and celebrate the rituals of comradeship, tradition, chaos, and wholesale blarney that underpinned Ford’s vision of Irish life. These casually told and seemingly rambling stories are all tinged with the melancholy that a child of immigrants might feel about a romanticized past he could never fully experience first-hand.

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Hattie McDaniel’s Path to Her Oscar

Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave’s first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South’s biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory’s oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her.  I don’t mean Scarlett Katie O’Hara, either.

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Two Seconds (1932)

My dictionary gives the definition of a cri de coeur (krēt kër) as “a cry from the heart, an impassioned protest, complaint, etc.” If you really want to see that term translated onto film, the Warner Brothers movie, Two Seconds (1932) could fill the bill.

Crude, raw and disturbing, Two Seconds (1932) is being broadcast on TCM on Thursday, Jan. 21st, at 11:45am. First released in the middle of 1932, audiences flocked to see this financially successful but dramatically grim tale about the thoughts and memories that flash through the mind of a man just as he is about to die in the electric chair. Perhaps some of them felt as though they were walking the last mile too. After Americans had witnessed 13 million jobs evaporating into thin air since 1929, watching nationwide unemployment rise to 23.6 %, wouldn’t logic tell us that most people might want to go to the movies to escape a reality they could not control? Apparently not, especially when Warner Brothers had the good fortune to have several talented individuals involved in this film. [...MORE]

Vladimir Sokoloff: “The Hell with ALL the Acting Theories”

When I realized that both Method Acting and the Shadows of Russia were being explored on Monday and Wednesday nights respectively for the next few weeks on TCM, all I could think was:

“Why, oh, why, isn’t character actor Vladimir Sokoloff around to sit down with Robert Osborne for a chin wag on these two fascinating topics?”

Such is our fate. As latter day observers of both cultural phenomena, we may ponder the origins of The Method as well as the sometimes wondrous (and just plain odd) movies that emerged from American perceptions of Russian history in the 20th century.

For Sokoloff, these topics were part of his life. He had trained at the Moscow Art Theater as a youth, seen the Russian Revolution sweep the world he’d grown up in aside,  become a prominent actor in German silents during the Weimar years, moved on to a career in France when the Nazis came to power, and finally landed on his agile feet in America.

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Knock on Wood

“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
-Joel McCrea

I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters.  Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His “one-note” as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.

Those fellows whose presence I’d like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor’s clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on “The Death of the Method” in The Wall Street Journal last week.  The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking “Tennis, anyone?”, lit a leading lady’s perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails.

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