Uninvited Guest: Stranger at my Door (1956)

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“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.

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Rabbits_(Night_of_the_Lepus)
February 28, 2015
David Kalat
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Kill da wabbit

So—later this week, TCM will be running Night of the Lepus. It’s been on TCM before—but usually relegated to the late night TCM Underground slot. This Wednesday it’s on at 6pm Eastern where decent folk might stumble across it unawares. Which is awesome.

There are few films as mocked as Night of the Lepus. You only have to mention the premise (attack of the giant bunnies!) and the derision sets in on its own. It’s a wonder the whole genre of horror didn’t just curl up and die in embarrassment. Legions of film critics, genre fans, and innocent bystanders have set up their tents in the let’s-make-fun-of-the-dumb-bunnies camp—all sharing the assumption that the problem here was the choice of monster. How could killer rabbits ever be scary?

But if it is self-evidently obvious that rabbits can’t ever be a scary monster… then what would motivate a motion-picture institution run by responsible adults to invest in a thing like this? What were they thinking?

Come on—click the fold and find out. I know you want to. I promise the answer will surprise you.

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KEYWORDS: Night of the Lepus
COMMENTS: 20
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February 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)

Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.

That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.

None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.

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KEYWORDS: Betty Grable, Preston Sturges, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend
COMMENTS: 4
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Cowgirl Diplomacy: Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)

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Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

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Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Lonely Rodeo: The Lusty Men (1952)

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The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.

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Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?” – Remembering Eli Wallach 1915-2014

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“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?”
- Tuco (Eli Wallach) in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)

We lost Eli Wallach on June 26th at the ripe old age of 98. The talented actor was beloved by film fans and fellow actors so quickly cobbled together obituaries as well as many heartfelt tributes have begun flooding the World Wide Web. It’s with much trepidation that I tip my own toe into these grief-filled waters but since hearing the news I haven’t been able to get Wallach out of my head. The Brooklyn born son of Jewish parents who immigrated to America from Poland appeared in over 150 films and television productions including BABY DOLL (1956), THE LINEUP (1958), SEVEN THIEVES (1960), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE MISFITS (1961), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), THE VICTORS (1963), LORD JIM (1965), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967), ACE HIGH (1968) and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970), which are just a few early highlights from his lengthy body of work. And while it’s difficult to point to a favorite role in a career as vast and varied as Wallach’s I can’t deny that his unforgettable turn as the grinning bandito in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY has had the biggest and most long-lasting impact on me. It’s a film I first saw nearly 40 years ago with my father when I was just an impressionable kid and much like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (another favorite Wallach film), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is a movie that I have returned to countless times and each viewing experience becomes richer and more rewarding.

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Oedipus West: The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.

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Remembering Buck Jones and the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942

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Today is Buck Jones’ birthday (b. Dec. 12th 1891) and although his name might not be familiar to modern movie audiences the much loved B-movie cowboy was once one of the most popular western stars in Hollywood. Jones began his career in silent films and successfully transferred to making talkies while working with some interesting talent including directors John Ford, William Wellman, W. S. Van Dyke, James W. Horne, Lambert Hillyer and Kurt Neumann and fellow actors such as John Wayne, Carol Lombard, Tom Mix, Gabby Hayes, Lon Chaney Jr., Susan Fleming, Anita Louise and Buster Crabbe (just to name a few). At the height of his fame (roughly between 1925 and 1938) Jones was making 6-8 films a year and his likeness, along with his white horse called Silver, could be found in comic books and on advertisements for many products that appealed to kids including Schwinn bicycles, Post breakfast cereals, Royal Crown Cola and Daisy air guns. His fan club, affectionately known as The Buck Jones Rangers, boasted over three million members and at one point in his career Jones was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood and supposedly received more fan mail than any star.
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