Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Rustlers (1949)

RUSTLERS (1949) is a strong entry in the series of postwar Westerns made by Tim Holt and Richard Martin for RKO.

This time around Tim plays Dick McBride ("Ricardo" to Chito); Dick and Chito are nearly broke when they ride into Bisbee, Arizona. They hope to find work at a ranch owned by Frank Abbott (Addison Richards), but Abbott is having trouble staying in business due to cattle rustlers.

Steve Brodie and Frank Fenton play members of the cattle rustling gang, which is headed by the sheriff (Harry Shannon)!

Chito unexpectedly wins a large sum of money which he and Dick want to invest in Abbott's ranch, but a series of circumstances leads Abbott to believe that Dick and Chito are the rustlers.

The supporting cast includes a young Martha Hyer in an early role as the rancher's tomboy daughter. She also appeared with Holt in THUNDER MOUNTAIN (1947) and GUN SMUGGLERS (1948).

Lois Andrews has an even bigger role than Hyer, playing Trixie, the saloon gal who's sweet on Chito. It's an especially good part and Andrews sparkles, making the most of it.

Some interesting trivia is that at the time the movie was made, Andrews was married to one of the movie's villains, Steve Brodie!

This 61-minute film was directed by the reliable Lesley Selander and filmed by J. Roy Hunt.

This is a very good-looking movie, with pine trees aplenty. According to David Rothel's book on Tim Holt, it was filmed at the Garner Ranch in Idyllwild, California.

RUSTLERS is available on DVD in the Warner Archive's Tim Holt Western Classics Collection Vol. 2.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Brimstone (1949)

BRIMSTONE (1949) is an enjoyable, if overly complicated, Western about a lawman (Rod Cameron) working to bring down a family of cattle rustlers and robbers headed by Pop Courteen (Walter Brennan).

Brennan, channeling Old Man Clanton from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), has a grudge against local settlers which motivates his crime spree with eldest son Nick (Jim Davis) and idiot son Luke (Jack Lambert).

A third son, Bud (James Brown), is not allowed to ride with his father and brothers, but kept at home cooking and shoeing horses. Bud is secretly in love with a settler's daughter, Molly (Adrian Booth, aka Lorna Gray).

One day the Courteens are themselves robbed by a masked man called "the Ghost." Roundabout that time Johnny Tremaine (Cameron) shows up in the area and is accused of being the Ghost, but he ends up signing on as deputy to the mysteriously weasely sheriff (Forrest Tucker).

I'll stop here and not attempt to further describe the dense plot, as it gets a bit hard to follow at times, what with a huge cast, a masked bad guy robbing other masked bad guys, one brother going by another brother's name, multiple people accused of being the Ghost, a good guy turning out to be a bad guy and a bad guy turning out to be a good guy, and so on. And I haven't even mentioned the marshal (Jack Holt) who shows up for a handful of scenes! You almost need a scorecard to keep track of who's who.

And speaking of confusing, there's this publicity still of Rod Cameron and Adrian Booth, who emphatically do not have a romance in the movie! Yet the L.A. Times says it's from BRIMSTONE. The costumes look right for BRIMSTONE, but could it possibly be from Cameron and Booth's OH! SUSANNA (1951) instead? I haven't seen that one yet.

All confusion aside, any time Rod Cameron is in a Western I'm happy, and he's surrounded by an excellent cast, with Brennan a wicked, wicked man who would contemplate killing his own son. (I wonder if Pop Courteen helped inspire the Burl Ives character in THE BIG COUNTRY?) The best advice is simply to enjoy their company and not be overly concerned about following every minute detail of the plot! The Thames Williamson screenplay was based on a story by Norman S. Hall.

Guinn "Big Boy" Williams has a nice role as a genial deputy. I got a particular kick out of a light scene he shared with Cameron at the Old West version of a food truck.

The cast also includes Will Wright, David Williams, Harry Cheshire, and Hal Taliaferro. This was actor-stuntman Chuck Hayward's very first stuntman credit.

BRIMSTONE was filmed in Trucolor by Jack Marta. Parts of the movie are absolutely gorgeous, with lovely Trucolor blues, but there are also some really odd shots; for instance, an action sequence at the start of the movie is in a pale sepia tone, almost black and white. I suspect this was due to stock footage being cut into the movie.

The movie runs 90 minutes and was directed by Joseph Kane.

Many thanks to John Knight for making it possible for me to see this movie.

BRIMSTONE can be streamed via Amazon Prime.

Tonight's Movie: The Navy Comes Through (1942)

THE NAVY COMES THROUGH (1942) is a well-done patriotic film released in the first year after America's entry into World War II.

THE NAVY COMES THROUGH stars Pat O'Brien and was directed by A. Edward Sutherland. Sutherland and O'Brien would later team on a film I thoroughly enjoyed, SECRET COMMAND (1944), as well as HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME (1945). HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME reunited O'Brien with George Murphy, his costar from THE NAVY COMES THROUGH, and also with Carole Landis of SECRET COMMAND. I hope to watch HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME in the near future.

In THE NAVY COMES THROUGH Murphy plays Lt. Tom Sands, who resigns his commission as a Naval officer circa 1940, after he's found responsible for a fatal shipboard accident. The incident also puts an end to Tom's romance with Myra (Jane Wyatt), a nurse who is the sister of his commanding officer, Mike Mallory (O'Brien).

After Pearl Harbor Tom enlists in the Navy as an ordinary sailor, and he ends up under the command of a shocked Mallory, who is deeply bitter towards Tom.

The men are part of a small Navy crew serving aboard a merchant marine vessel, protecting it as it traverses the Atlantic. Mallory comes to grudgingly respect Tom as they take on German ships, and eventually he also learns the truth about the accident which had led to Tom's resignation.

I am developing quite an appreciation for O'Brien, who strikes me as similar to Lloyd Nolan in his ability to imbue his characters with personality and give interesting line readings even when there's nothing much going on.

The best scene in the movie is when a young sailor (Jackie Cooper) tries to play it cool saying goodbye to his mother when he's about to embark on the ship, and O'Brien orders him to go back say goodbye to his mother "right," after which the young man kisses and hugs his mother in an emotional goodbye. Then, once the sailor is on the ship, O'Brien further goes over to the mother and hugs and reassures her. It's a lovely little moment.

The film is further made enjoyable by an excellent supporting cast. The ship's crew includes the young Desi Arnaz (left), Frank Jenks, and Carl Esmond, with Ray Collins as the captain of the merchant marine ship.

The only problem I had with the film was that I found Murphy colorless as Tom. His character starts out on a negative note, going through the inquiry regarding the accident, and he's remote and impassive through most of the movie. We never get a sense of what he's feeling or who he really is. I felt like the role was tailor made for someone like O'Brien's SECRET COMMAND costar Chester Morris, who might have brought more shadings to the character, along with conveying a sense of longing toward Myra which was completely missing here.

I seem to be watching films with Jane Wyatt and/or a Navy theme with some frequency of late! Last week I saw Wyatt in WE'RE ONLY HUMAN and watched the Navy movie WINGS OF THE NAVY (1939). Wyatt and the Navy were also both part of TASK FORCE (1949), seen a couple of weeks ago.

THE NAVY COMES THROUGH runs 82 minutes. The story was by Borden Chase, who would go on to write many fine Westerns. The movie was filmed by Nicholas Musuraca. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects.

THE NAVY COMES THROUGH is an RKO film which had a VHS release as part of the RKO Collection series. It has not been released on DVD.

I saw THE NAVY COMES THROUGH thanks to Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Macahans (1976) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

The final screening I attended at the 25th Lone Pine Film Festival was THE MACAHANS (1976), the TV-movie which was the pilot for the HOW THE WEST WAS WON miniseries and TV series which followed, continuing production until 1979.

THE MACAHANS was not filmed in Lone Pine but was featured in honor of festival guest Bruce Boxleitner.

THE MACAHANS was one of the very first screen roles for the man who would go on to star in EAST OF EDEN (1981), BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE (1982-83), SCARECROW AND MRS. KING (1983-87), BABYLON 5 (1994-98), and the current Hallmark series CEDAR COVE, as well as Disney's cult film TRON (1982). TRON was revived nearly 30 years later with Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges starring in the 2010 sequel; it will have another sequel released next year.

Boxleitner was a congenial festival guest who was front and center interacting with attendees for the entire weekend. I especially enjoyed him in EAST OF EDEN with Jane Seymour, where his character exited shortly after she uttered the unforgettable line "You just slept with your brother's wife." Having seen him in so many varied projects over several decades, it was a lot of fun to meet him in person during the festival and even hear firsthand how he almost made a Western with Budd Boetticher.


THE MACAHANS starred James Arness as frontier scout Zeb Macahan, with the always-wonderful Richard Kiley and Eva Marie Saint as his brother and sister-in-law, Timothy and Kate Macahan. Boxleitner played their oldest son, Seth (the character name was later changed to Luke), with the other children played by Kathryn Holcomb, William Kirby Cullen, and Vicki Schreck. It was also fantastic to see character favorites Frank Ferguson and Ann Doran as Arness and Kiley's parents.

I was very fond of HOW THE WEST WAS WON "back in the day," and in fact I will admit to still having a mint-condition lunchbox such as seen here tucked away in a cupboard. I received it as a gift and it looked too nice to use so I always had it on display on a shelf instead! I was thus quite enthused to see THE MACAHANS for the first time since it originally aired.

Revisiting it for the first time in the better part of four decades, I have to admit I didn't think it held up all that well. It might have played better on TV, broken up with commercials or spread over a couple of nights, but seen in one sitting, it seems like a pioneer version of THE PERILS OF PAULINE! The Macahans attempt to move west before their family can be caught up in the Civil War, but every bad thing that could possibly have happened to the Macahan family did happen!

I was glad to have the chance to revisit it and especially to reacquaint myself with the work of some favorite veteran actors, but I was becoming impatient for the film to end by the time it finally wrapped up.

THE MACAHANS was written by Jim Byrnes, directed by Bernard McEveety, and filmed by Edward R. Plante.

As was the case with GUNGA DIN (1939), what followed the screening was very enjoyable, as Boxleitner was interviewed by historian Ed Hulse, and I was certainly glad I went.


Boxleitner felt that James Arness really enjoyed THE MACAHANS because he had just come off his long run on GUNSMOKE, and playing untamed mountain man Zeb Macahan let him cut loose and play a character a little wilder than he'd been playing for the previous couple of decades.


He also shared that it wasn't until years later, watching an archival interview with Arness on YouTube, that he learned that the network had been insisting on another young actor but Arness went to bat for Boxleitner to be cast, and prevailed. He said that in doing so, Arness completely changed his life, and he continues to be very grateful.


He said that the veteran actors in the film were all extremely supportive and helpful to the younger cast members, who for the most part had little experience; he said Richard Kiley was especially helpful playing their emotional final scene together, not moving after they rehearsed it but staying in position and in character until they completed the work. He was quite effusive in praising Kiley's professionalism and kindness, which was wonderful to hear about a man I have always admired as both a singer and an actor.

Boxleitner said he never knew why Saint later left the project, replaced in the series by Fionnula Flanagan as Kate's sister, and that he was very sorry she left.

Boxleitner didn't mention it in the interview, but he married Kathryn Holcomb, who played his sister Laura, and they had two sons. They later divorced and she married British actor Ian Ogilvy. He went on to marry Melissa Gilbert -- their son Michael is named for Michael Landon -- but they split after many years together, and she is now married to actor-director Timothy Busfeld (THIRTYSOMETHING). Some Hollywood trivia!

THE MACAHANS is on DVD as an extra in the Season One set of HOW THE WEST WAS WON.

Prior to THE MACAHANS a charming foreign-language short was shown titled FAR FROM THE WEST (2013), about a Brazilian man who has an amazingly huge collection of Westerns. I loved the way he rhapsodized in Portuguese about his happy childhood memories of Allan "Rocky" Lane, especially as I recently reviewed the new biography of Lane by Linda Alexander.

He also said that as a child he didn't know what "directed" meant but that he recognized early on that if he saw the name William Witney at the start of a movie, good things would follow.

Coincidentally I purchased Witney's autobiography at the festival, which has the crazy title IN A DOOR, INTO A FIGHT, OUT A DOOR, INTO A CHASE: MOVIEMAKING REMEMBERED BY THE GUY AT THE DOOR.

The documentary includes footage of a visit to the Lone Pine Film Festival. I know my fellow Western fans would also enjoy seeing FAR FROM THE WEST (2013); there's a bit more information on the festival website, including a brief clip.

For more on the Lone Pine Film Festival, please visit The 25th Lone Pine Film Festival in Review, which includes all links to all of my festival coverage at the end of the post.

The Lone Pine Film Festival: Anchor Ranch and More

The third tour I took at this year's 25th Lone Pine Film Festival, following the DYNAMITE PASS bus tour and the "Backlot" car caravan tour, was the Anchor Ranch car caravan tour.


The Anchor Ranch tour was offered several times during the festival, and we went on Saturday afternoon. The car caravan tours begin in a parking lot south of the museum, with different rows coned off for each tour, and volunteers are available to make sure everyone gets in the right line. It was obvious they've been doing this for a while because it was very well organized!


The volunteers also helped people who needed transportation line up rides. When we went on the Backlot tour, we took a couple who came to the festival in a motorhome along in our van, as their vehicle wouldn't have been appropriate for some of the bumpy, narrow roads.

The Anchor Ranch is on the left side of Highway 395 as you drive north just before you reach Lone Pine; on previous trips up the 395 I had never noticed this anchor near the ranch gate!


Our volunteer guide for this tour had also worked as a state and federal parks guide, including a few summers at the ghost town of Bodie further up the 395, an area we know well. She pointed out that when mining dried up in Bodie and the town was abandoned early in the 20th century, the businesses which had supported Bodie, including Sierra ranches and farms, needed to find another way to make money.

Russ Spainhower of Lone Pine's Anchor Ranch, seen below, found plentiful work with the film industry.


Spainhower helped film crews scout locations, hired riders to work as extras, and provided film companies with wagons and livestock.


Spainhower used lumber left from the GUNGA DIN (1939) set in the Alabama Hills to build a hacienda set on his ranch. Years later, in the spot right below, he also built a Western town set on the Anchor Ranch; the street set was dubbed Anchorville.


Anchorville was designed so that one end of the street opened looking toward Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak; the other end faced the direction as seen above.

Anchorville appeared in many Tim Holt and Hopalong Cassidy Westerns; portions of the hacienda set can be seen in a post I found with screen captures of a BONANZA episode filmed at the ranch.

The Anchorville sets were three-sided sets, with the backs exposed to Lone Pine's harsh weather, and between that and a lack of maintenance, as Western filming gradually dried up, the sets fell into disrepair. Eventually the sets were dismantled as they were no longer safely usable.


Prior to the tour, I enjoyed a talk by William Wellman Jr., author of THE MAN AND HIS WINGS: WILLIAM A. WELLMAN AND THE MAKING OF THE FIRST BEST PICTURE and the forthcoming WILD BILL WELLMAN: HOLLYWOOD REBEL which will be out in 2015.

I also had the pleasure of hearing Wellman speak at a screening of SAFE IN HELL (1931) at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival, and it was a pleasure to hear him talk again. He shared many interesting stories about his father in the museum theater.

One of the stories which I enjoyed the most was learning that Fred MacMurray was one of his father's closest friends, but his father refused to work with Fred again after MEN WITH WINGS (1938) because Fred muffed his lines frequently and took too long to get usable takes. He felt it was better for their friendship not to work together! Wellman Jr. said he thought for years that his father had exaggerated the issue until he himself had a small acting role in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (1967) and saw MacMurray work firsthand. He said Greer Garson was endlessly patient with the retakes of her scenes with Fred and that what MacMurray put on film was superb, it just took a while to get there.

Wellman described Garson as "a perfect person" and said she was always professional, friendly, and elegant. He also particularly mentioned his love for his father's friend Clark Gable, who took him fishing when he was a boy.

Late in the afternoon we saw a talk by Edward Faulkner, who gave an hour-long extemporaneous talk on "the Duke" in the high school auditorium. Ed was engaging and articulate as he told several stories about working with John Wayne, always mentioning how kind and thoughtful Wayne was.


He particularly remembered when they were shooting on location in the middle of nowhere and he was supposed to call the hospital to speak with his wife after she had a c-section -- those were the days when men weren't necessarily expected to be there! -- and although he had never mentioned it to Wayne, Wayne had his driver take Faulkner from the location back to town so he could make that all-important long-distance call.


Faulkner's credits with Wayne included McLINTOCK! (1962), in which he played Bruce Cabot's son; THE GREEN BERETS (1968), HELLFIGHTERS (1968), THE UNDEFEATED (1969), CHISUM (1970), and RIO LOBO (1970).

Faulkner was also full of praise for Richard Boone and Andrew McLaglen; Faulkner's first role in Hollywood was on Boone's HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, which McLaglen often directed, and he appeared on the show an additional dozen times.

On Saturday I also saw part of the enjoyable documentary BROTHERHOOD OF THE POPCORN (2014), about a group of men who've been watching movies together for 35 years; I received a review copy of the film in last week's mail and expect to review it here in the near future.


Finally, my day included the purchase of the 2014 edition of Lone Pine in the Movies, which includes articles on Lone Pine and Tim Holt, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), and GUNGA DIN (1939). It has many photos and is the size of a softcover book. Highly recommended.


A final note, when you're in Lone Pine, be sure to eat at the best place in town, the Alabama Hills Cafe. I also wrote about it in July. Consistently outstanding meals and service, and be sure to buy some chocolate chip cookies for the road! Unfortunately they're only open for breafast and lunch, and we have yet to find a good dinner spot in town.


I have one more Lone Pine post coming, on Bruce Boxleitner and THE MACAHANS (1976), and then that will be a wrap on the festival coverage!

For more on the Lone Pine Film Festival, please visit The 25th Lone Pine Film Festival in Review, which includes all links to all of my festival coverage at the end of the post.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Around the Blogosphere This Week

Miscellaneous bits of news and fun stuff from around the internet...an extra-long edition, as I didn't post last week due to being out of town at the Lone Pine Film Festival. You can find all my Lone Pine coverage linked here!

...Here's a great-looking new book coming for Christmas: CECIL B. DEMILLE: THE ART OF THE HOLLYWOOD EPIC. It's by DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, who I had the pleasure of seeing introduce a 2010 screening of CLEOPATRA (1934), and Mark Vieira, author of many excellent coffee table books including HARLOW IN HOLLYWOOD, HOLLYWOOD DREAMS MADE REAL: IRVING THALBERG AND THE RISE OF MGM, and MAJESTIC HOLLYWOOD: THE GREATEST FILMS OF HOLLYWOOD, which I reviewed earlier this year.

...Speaking of new film books, at her blog Out of the Past Raquel has put together a really fantastic long list of upcoming books on classic films. There are many titles I'm looking forward to learning more about and possibly adding to my shelves! CHARLES WALTERS: THE DIRECTOR WHO MADE HOLLYWOOD DANCE is a must, as is WILD BILL WELLMAN: HOLLYWOOD REBEL. I heard William Wellman Jr. speak about his father at last weekend's Lone Pine Film Festival; more on that soon! Many thanks to Raquel for providing so many tantalizing previews and a great resource to use in the months to come.

...My appearance yesterday on the online radio show Hollywood Time Machine can be heard at the program's archive page; scroll down and click the arrow for Show 6. It was a lot of fun, and I really appreciate Alicia Mayer and Will McKinley inviting me to be on the program.

...Attention Southern Californians: This year's centennial of the birth of Tyrone Power will be celebrated by A Century of Power on November 14th and 15th. Two Power films, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (1938) and CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE (1947), will be screened at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The Friday night screening will be attended by Taryn and Tyrone Power Jr., along with Coleen Gray, Terry Moore, and Jane Withers.

...That same weekend, November 14-17, I'll be contributing a piece on Power and Moore in KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES (1953) to the British Empire in Film Blogathon hosted at The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.

...So cool: A sphinx from DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923) has been unearthed in dunes where location filming took place near Guadalupe, California.

...A book review by Robby at Dear Old Hollywood: HOLLYWOOD FRAME BY FRAME: THE UNSEEN SILVER SCREEN IN CONTACT SHEETS, 1951-1997 by Karina Longworth. The book looks quite interesting; thanks to Robby for calling it to my attention!

...Over at Speakeasy, Kristina has a gallery of vintage advertising with movie stars. So much smoking going on! My favorite ad is Alexis Smith sitting on a diving board singing the praises of Royal Crown Cola.

...And if you missed it during the O Canada Blogathon, here's Kristina's tribute to the great Yvonne DeCarlo, born in British Columbia.

...Exciting news from Kimberly Truhler at GlamAmor: She's begun work on an authorized biography of designer Jean Louis, with the cooperation of his family, including the family of Loretta Young, who married him a few years before his passing.

...At the Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick had a very interesting post on the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina.

...Here's an interview with Paula Guthat all about @TCM_Party on Twitter, by Kimberly Lindbergs of the TCM Movie Morlocks.

...Here's a fun map showing in graphic form how the U.S. roots for college football.

...A Broadway revival of the musical ON THE TOWN has drawn positive reviews.

...Cliff has a very interesting post on MEN AGAINST THE SKY (1940) at Immortal Ephemera; I reviewed the film with Richard Dix, Wendy Barrie, and Kent Taylor in June. Cliff provides extensive background information as well as his critical perspective.

...Anyone who loves brightly colored Fiestaware, as I do, will enjoy this article. (Via a Tweet from Constance.)

...This week Raquel paid a visit to two classic film related exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She shares photos at Out of the Past.

...Coming from the Criterion Collection in January: One of the funniest movies ever made, Preston Sturges' THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) starring Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, Rudy Vallee, and Mary Astor.

...I'm sad that Joan Fontaine's family is auctioning off her 1941 Oscar, among other items. The proceeds will benefit the SPCA, an organization dear to Fontaine's heart.

...Anyone who's ever tried to work with a cat in the way will chuckle over this video.

...Reviews, reviews, and more reviews: Cameron reviews HIT THE DECK (1955) at The Blonde at the Film, a movie I enjoyed last May...Toby reviewed Randolph Scott and James Garner in SHOOT-OUT AT MEDICINE BEND (1957) at 50 Westerns From the 50s...Aurora reviewed the new Olive Films release of DRAGONFLY SQUADRON (1954) at Once Upon a Screen. It has a great cast including John Hodiak and Bruce Bennett, which John McElwee referred to as a "comfort cast" in his post on the film at Greenbriar Picture Shows...and Glenn Erickson also reviewed DRAGONFLY SQUADRON at DVD Savant.

...I love newspaper movies so I enjoyed Kendahl's post on newspaper pre-Codes for ClassicFlix!

...Have you checked out the great posts in the Jack Webb Blogathon at The Hannibal 8 yet? Click here to head on over to Dispatch for links.

...Attention Southern Californians: The Crest Theater on Westwood Boulevard will be screening Alfred Hitchcock's silent film THE LODGER (1927) with live music on October 25th at 5:00 p.m.

...Notable Passings: Sad news this week that Tim Hauser, founder of the Manhattan Transfer, has passed away at the age of 72. That group has brought me a lot of listening pleasure over the years, starting with their short-lived TV series back in my childhood. I especially like their 2005 Christmas Album...Actress Elizabeth Pena, who was in the very enjoyable TORTILLA SOUP (2001), has died at 55. She was the voice of Mirage in THE INCREDIBLES (2004).

Have a great week!

Tonight's Movie: The Desert Song (1953) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

In 1953 Warner Bros. remade the Sigmund Romberg musical THE DESERT SONG, which it had previously filmed in 1943. Both versions were very recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive; I reviewed the 1943 version last month and caught up with the remake this evening.

This version of THE DESERT SONG stars Gordon MacRae, Kathryn Grayson, and Steve Cochran in the roles played a decade earlier by Dennis Morgan, Irene Manning, and Bruce Cabot.

The story in the '40s version had been modified -- quite effectively, I thought -- so that Paul, a cafe pianist also known as the mysterious El Khobar, led desert tribesmen against the Nazis.

This time around Paul and the tribe he leads are battling evil tribesmen led by Raymond Massey and William Conrad. Paul, who has a different last name in this version, is a professor studying native tribes; his studies give him a plausible reason to disappear into the desert for periods of time. One of the strengths of the '53 version is how the movie effectively plays up a "Clark Kent" angle, with Paul as a mild-mannered, almost bumbling intellectual who removes his glasses and turns into the dashing desert chieftain.

MacRae and Grayson's singing is quite wonderful and reason enough for musical fans to own this DVD. The melodies are beautiful, and I expect I will be putting this DVD in at times just to enjoy the songs again.

Adorably handsome Steve Cochran is another plus for the later version; his role is really that of a secondary good guy and romantic competition for El Khobar, rather than the more ambiguous Vichy officer played by Bruce Cabot.

The production values for the 1953 version, on the other hand, are a definite negative. Whereas the 1943 version featured excellent location shooting in New Mexico and Arizona, keeping process photography to a minimum, the '53 production looks cheap; indeed, it must be admitted the first appearance of Gordon MacRae singing in the desert is downright cheesy, with blatant back projections. There is some location photography but the areas where filming took place, other than sand dunes, are not particularly striking.

The DVD seems to be in perfect condition, but the photography in '53 also cannot compare with the gorgeous Technicolor of the Morgan version, stunningly restored by the Warner Archive. The color is part of what made the '43 version a magical desert fantasy; here the photography by Robert Burks is pedestrian.

I also wasn't particularly wild about Dick Wesson and Allyn Ann McLerie in supporting roles; although Faye Emerson didn't dance, I found her much more believable as El Khobar's spy than the heavily made up McLerie. McLerie and Wesson, incidentally, appeared in another Warner Bros. musical in 1953 which is a favorite of mine, CALAMITY JANE with Doris Day and Howard Keel.

THE DESERT SONG (1953) was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. The supporting cast includes Paul Picerni and Frank DeKova.

In a nutshell, musical fans should own both the 1943 and '53 versions of THE DESERT SONG, but it was Dennis Morgan's 1943 version which really spoke to my heart.

The DVD of the 1953 edition does not contain any extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Government Girl (1943) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

GOVERNMENT GIRL (1943) is an early entry in a string of mid '40s comedies about life in wartime Washington, D.C. It's a brand-new release from the Warner Archive.

The title role is played by Olivia de Havilland; she stars as Elizabeth "Smokey" Allard, who's assigned to be the secretary to Ed Browne (Sonny Tufts). Browne is newly arrived in the nation's capital; he's a manufacturing whiz charged with increasing production of bombers. The can-do Browne is frustrated by Washington bureacracy -- a theme which remains timely today -- and Smokey helps him navigate his way through alphabet agencies and social events despite their relationship initially getting off to a rocky start.

Smokey is romanced by too-slick Dana McGuire (Jess Barker) and newsman Branch Owens (Paul Stewart), but without realizing it she's gradually fallen under the spell of her big teddy bear of a boss, Mr. Browne.

GOVERNMENT GIRL is a bit of an oddity. It's not a bad movie -- indeed, it fully held my attention and for the most part I kind of enjoyed it -- but one has the sense throughout that it could have been quite a bit better.

Most of my discomfort with the film was due to Olivia de Havilland's performance. She's such a fine actress I have truly loved in so many films, especially THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), and HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941), that it's hard to know what to make of her acting in this one. It's extremely broad and at times almost disinterested; she seems uncertain how to play comedy and not entirely happy about trying it.

Curiously enough, after the movie was over I read in a couple of places that de Havilland hadn't wanted to make the movie, done on loanout to RKO, and her performance was the result. It's hard to imagine an actor wanting to self-sabotage one's career but perhaps that's the explanation.

By film's end her character has become more likeable, as she warms up to Mr. Browne, but it's simply an odd film for her, and it doesn't help that, other than a shimmering evening gown, she's poorly dressed. By contrast, the very same year she gave a glowing, lovely performance in the charming romantic comedy PRINCESS O'ROURKE (1943), where she looked stunning and gave her usual outstanding performance.

Tufts, who also starred that year in Paramount's SO PROUDLY THEY HAIL (1943), is pleasant if not particularly memorable. To date I have liked him best as a football player in Jacques Tourneur's EASY LIVING (1949), an excellent film which coincidentally also costarred Paul Stewart. Stewart is one of the more appealing characters in GOVERNMENT GIRL.

Anne Shirley is fun as Smokey's dizzy roommate, who marries the (considerably older) Sergeant Blake (James Dunn), but they can't find a hotel room for their honeymoon. Agnes Moorehead is a stitch as a perpetually hair-patting, self-important D.C. society matron. The excellent supporting cast also includes Harry Davenport, Sig Ruman, and Una O'Connor.

I was on the lookout for Barbara Hale in a bit role but didn't spot her, and apparently I also didn't notice Lawrence Tierney as an FBI man! Watch for Charles Halton, Ian Wolfe, Jane Darwell, and Emory Parnell in small parts.

GOVERNMENT GIRL was written and directed by Dudley Nichols, based on a Budd Schulberg adaptation of a story by Adela Rogers St. John. The movie was filmed in black and white by Frank Redman.

GOVERNMENT GIRL was released just days after the far superior wartime Washington film THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), which starred Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea.

The following year there were several more comedies focusing on the D.C. housing shortage or wartime work, including THE DOUGHGIRLS (1944), STANDING ROOM ONLY (1944), and JOHNNY DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1944).

GOVERNMENT GIRL is one of several recent releases from the Warner Archive starring Olivia de Havilland; I've also reviewed WINGS OF THE NAVY (1939) and anticipate reviewing GOLD IS WHERE YOU FIND IT (1938) sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Despite some negative comments above, I still had a pleasant time watching GOVERNMENT GIRL, as I enjoy films about wartime Washington. The GOVERNMENT GIRL DVD is a good print. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.

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