A Forgotten Film to Remember: Kind Lady

ethelopeningEver since reading Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of John Barrymore by his comrade in revelry, Gene Fowler, I have been fascinated with the Barrymore family. Handsome, tragic John has become my favorite Barrymore, because he was so flawed and yet so talented. Equally talented but not flawed was his older sister Ethel Barrymore. Next Saturday, February 28, at 9:15am, Ethel stars in Kind Lady, part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming.

Before noting Barrymore’s contribution, I would be remiss if I did not mention Kind Lady’s narrative pedigree. Originally a short story by Hugh Walpole titled “The Silver Casket,” it was turned into a beloved stage play by Edward Chodorov in 1935. The first film version was released in 1936 and starred Basil Rathbone as Elcott and Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Herries. The screenplay for the 1951 version, which was credited to Chodorov, Jerry Davis, and former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, made changes to the original material. Characters were eliminated to streamline the story, a key murder was moved toward the end of the film, and an exciting climactic sequence was added (a Hitchcockian approach). The film was aided enormously by the direction of John Sturges, who has earned a place in the history books for his widescreen, Technicolor films that exploited spectacular outdoor settings (Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). Released in 1951, Kind Lady is a black-and-white thriller with a claustrophobic set, but Sturges seemed equally adept within these perimeters. He milked the limited setting to its full advantage to create tension while adding visual interest through camera movement.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.

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15 Favorite Films From 2014

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I know what you’re thinking. Another list?! Forgive me my trespass but as a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists I’m asked to compile a list of my favorite films each year and I wanted to share some of my viewing highlights with you. These are the films that have been occupying my thoughts in recent weeks and many of them haven’t gotten the critical attention that I think they deserve. What follows is an alphabetical list of my 15 Favorite Films from 2014 along with some comments. I had hoped to write more about them all and why I find them worth recommending but I managed to sprain my hand last week, which has limited my typing abilities so some films only get a sentence or two. That said, I hope you’ll find some of my viewing suggestions worth investigating further.

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Saying Good Night to Brian G. Hutton (1935-2014): Night Watch (1973)

taylorhutton1Last week this blog started to resemble the obituary section of my local newspaper and while I hate to continue that trend I couldn’t let Brian G. Hutton’s demise go unmentioned. The New York born director and actor is best remembered today for his work on two popular big-budget WW2 films, WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and KELLY’S HEROES (1971) but he also appeared in some memorable films such as John Sturges’ GUN FIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) and the Elvis vehicle, KING CREOLE (1958) as well as many popular television shows including GUNSMOKE, PERRY MASON, RAWHIDE and ALFRED HITHCOCK PRESENTS. The last film Hutton helmed was the Indiana Jones inspired HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983) and soon afterward he retired his directing chair. According to the fine folks at Cinema Retro, Hutton’s self-deprecating sense of humor often led him to criticize his own movies and he didn’t look back all that fondly at the time he spent in Hollywood but many film enthusiasts like myself appreciate the eclectic body of work he left behind.

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The Plumber

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I can’t let a month featuring a Friday Night Spotlight on Australian Cinema go by without putting in a plug for a small gem coming up later this week; Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979). Shot on 16mm and made for TV, this quickie project shot in under three weeks was a middle step-child between Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (1981), and as such is often overlooked. Interestingly, water plays an important and ominous role in all three films.  [...MORE]

Ancient Evil is Now a Modern Industry: THIRST (1979)

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In Rod Hardy’s THIRST (1979) we’re introduced to Kate (Chantal Contouri), an attractive waif-like young fashion designer with a pet cat and a serious problem. Kate’s the last descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, often cited as history’s first and most prolific female serial killer, and she’s been kidnapped by a group of power hungry aristocratic vampires known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who need her blood so they can fulfill their diabolical plan to turn the rest of us into human cattle. Will Kate outwit her sinister captors and survive her ordeal or succumb to her baser instincts? Thanks to a new Blu-ray package from Severin Films you can discover the answer to that question for yourself.

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January 25, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

George C. Scott unwittingly trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States

Mike Nichols was a veteran comedy director of stage and screen, not to mention a comedy performer of no small renown.  He would go on to become of the few people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony (the fabled EGOT)—all but the Emmy being won for his comedy work.

Buck Henry was a prolific comedy writer whose career had taken him from the writing staff of The Steve Allen Show to co-creating Get Smart with Mel Brooks to updating Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby for a new generation under the title What’s Up Doc?  In the years to come he would become a recurring host of Saturday Night Live, a contributor to The Daily Show and a guest star on 30 Rock.

Together they had collaborated on The Graduate, and Catch 22.  They had a contractual obligation to producer Joseph E. Levine for a third film—and so in 1973 Mike Nichols and Buck Henry made a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a plot to use talking dolphins to assassinate the President.  This is a not a joke.

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KEYWORDS: Buck Henry, George C. Scott, Mike Nichols, The Day of the Dolphin
COMMENTS: 12
SUBMIT

LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

Adults Only: House on Straw Hill (1976)

lhIn the early 1980s British home video stores found themselves in the center of a storm when moral panic swept through the U.K. Religious leaders, parents and politically motivated individuals created what’s now known as the “video nasty” scare after discovering that stores were renting graphic horror films usually reserved for American grindhouses and indiscriminate drive-ins. Most of the objectionable movies were made in the U.S. or Italy where excessive violence and nudity had few problems getting past censors if it was properly rated but in Britain film censorship tended to be much more restrictive. Movies with explicit content and titles that often intended to shock such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) caused widespread outrage throughout the U.K. that led to them being removed from video stores, criminally prosecuted or cut for British audiences. The only British film that was apparently singled out during the video nasty scare was James Kenelm Clarke’s THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka Exposé; 1976). For decades this notorious erotic thriller has had the reputation of being one of the sleaziest films ever produced in Britain during the 1970s, which made it difficult to see. Badly cut or edited video copies circulated among the curious but the quality was always questionable. Thanks to the efforts of Severin Films I recently had the opportunity to catch up with this infamous film on DVD but it didn’t exactly live up to its seedy status. Is it an unsung cult classic waiting rediscovery? Or is it one of the most depraved movies ever made? In truth it’s neither of these things but I’m glad that Severin has saved the film from obscurity and given it a new life on DVD.

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The unexpected comedy stylings of Alfred Hitchcock

A while back, when I was preparing the audio commentary for To Be Or Not To Be, I found myself making repeated allusions and references to Foreign Correspondent. The more I made them, the more I found them not just useful but essential–and before long I had started to discover an entire network of deep structure connecting the two films. Not all of that was relevant to a discussion of To Be Or Not To Be, and the commentary track was already overstuffed so I had to jettison some material. This month’s celebration of Hitchcock seems a perfect opportunity to explore Foreign Correspondent‘s secret twinship with To Be Or Not To Be. (Sorry I couldn’t align this with last week’s cablecast of Foreign Correspondent–I wanted to get the Edwin S. Porter post in as close to the start of The Story of Film cycle as possible)

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