Essential: THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (1949)

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The title of this screwball western comedy is a real tongue twister. But it’s a good way to describe Betty Grable and the character she plays. Although Winfred “Freddie” Jones is beautiful, she’s anything but bashful. Especially when using firearms. In the opening segment she learns to fire a gun at her grandpappy’s knee.

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In fact little Freddie is not allowed to play with her favorite doll until she has completed her shooting practice each day. Grandpappy won’t always be around and these skills might come in handy.  Take that. Bang! And that. Bang bang!

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Flash forward to Freddie as a saloon singer twenty years later. She now has considerable skill with a gun. She’s in love with a good-for-nothing gambler named Jobero (Cesar Romero). While performing a musical number she leaves the stage, goes into the crowd then up a long staircase. The scene shows off her trademark legs. As she works her way up the stairs, the crowd below thinks it’s part of her act.

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Jobero is in one of the rooms above the saloon with another girl, and when the song ends Freddie hurries down the hall to pump him full of lead. Unfortunately she hits a judge in the backside who was in middle of a romantic rendezvous of his own. This is a Preston Sturges movie where characters do crazy things. The production code never seems to interfere with Sturges’ stories, since the scenarios are depicted as broad farces. Perhaps this lax “morality” is why the film did not do well with audiences in 1949. Seeing a gal solve her problems by shooting people is a lot to accept.

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In the next part Freddie gets out of jail and takes a train with her friend (Olga San Juan). She intends to start a new life and assumes the identity of a schoolmarm. While working as a teacher she puts the fear of god into some wicked kids with, what else, her gun. This kind of stuff would not fly today given the amount of school shootings that have occurred. The supporting cast includes character actors and actresses that worked with Sturges on earlier films. They’re experts and make the most of the contrived premise. None of them ever react to the situations or to each other. They are too busy hamming it up and setting up the next gag. It gets wilder and wilder.

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THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND may currently be streamed on Starz.

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Essential: FORT DEFIANCE (1951)

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FORT DEFIANCE is everything an independently produced B western should be. Peter Graves is fantastic as Ned Tallon, a sightless man who senses the dangers that go on around him. Ned is waiting for his brother Johnny (Dane Clark) to return home from the war. But Johnny doesn’t show up until the 34 minute mark. So the entire first act of the story involves Ned, their uncle Charlie (George Cleveland) and a drifter named Ben Shelby (Ben Johnson) who shows up to kill Johnny.

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We gradually find out why Ben wants to kill Johnny, while Ned learns about Johnny’s desertion from the army and his life of crime as a bank robber. This shatters Ned’s perfect image of his wayward brother. So all these men have emotional baggage they are carrying with them. At the same time there’s a relocating of natives by the cavalry at nearby Fort Defiance.

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The natives fight back, steal cattle from the Tallons and make things difficult for the men. Also making things difficult is a rancher who thinks Johnny is responsible for his brothers’ deaths in the army, which is also why Ben is here. The rancher won’t wait for Johnny to get back and decides to kill Ned instead (an eye for an eye, or in this case a brother for a brother). But Ben takes Ned away while Uncle Charlie tries to hold the other men off with his rifle. Needless to say Uncle Charlie does not last long and ends up with a Christian burial.

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This is when Johnny finally shows up. He’s on a mission and quickly kills Charlie’s assassins, then goes off in search of Ben and his brother Ned. Once he catches up to them, Johnny and Ben have a series of standoffs. The natives are still on the warpath and attack a stagecoach coming in through the canyon with a woman who was run out of another town. So we have another character with emotional baggage.

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About eighty percent of the story is filmed outdoors on location so it feels very realistic, despite the melodramatic contrivances. There are a lot of great action scenes in this movie. The dialogue is hard-hitting, yet the men remain vulnerable.

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There’s a scene where Ned turns from his loyalty for Johnny to form an even stronger bond with Ben. Johnny and Ben frequently quarrel about who will look after Ned. It’s like they both are fighting for the right to be the better “brother” to Ned.

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Finally they make it to Fort Defiance with the help of military troops. But the rancher who wants the Tallons dead is also there. He and his men surround Johnny, Ned, Ben and the girl. Johnny decides to be heroic and go out in a blaze of glory. He wants to make sure Ned has a more decent life than he did.

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It felt like most of the action had to be recorded on the first take because of the budget, so the energy seems very spontaneous. Any mistakes the actors make become part of the mistakes the characters are making. Dane Clark is obviously going off script in a few places, ad-libbing some of the dialogue. The other guys keep up with him and keep pushing forward. The great thing about Dane Clark is you never know just how he’s going to act when he opens the door to confront his character’s past.

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This film was made in the Cinecolor process. So the canyon rock looks extremely red, and the land has hues of orange and sandy brown. The coats the men wear are greenish blue and stand out against the rocks and land. The cheap color process actually gives the film an artistic feel. People tend to write off B westerns but this one defies the odds.

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FORT DEFIANCE may currently be streamed on Starz.

Essential: GOOD SAM (1948)

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Leo McCarey’s GOOD SAM is an interesting misfire. It could have benefited from better editing as some of the scenes really drag. I think McCarey’s goal was to give us a slice of suburban life, but there’s too much “down time” where we see minor things happening to the characters. It doesn’t help there are a lot of extra supporting characters who get long scenes that take us away from Sam’s family.

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It’s regarded as a huge flop which I think must be an exaggeration. On the film’s wiki page it seems to have made a lot of money (for 1948). So maybe postwar audiences needed this kind of simple meditation about life, but today’s audiences will probably find it somewhat tedious. A few reviews on the TCM database make it seem like an uplifting inspirational movie, which I don’t exactly think it is. It’s just a commentary on the foibles of suburbia and how one man is different from his neighbors.

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If I remember correctly, Robert Osborne was not a fan of GOOD SAM in his wraparound comments in December 2012. He said Ann Sheridan and Gary Cooper lacked romantic chemistry, something Sheridan supposedly validated years after the film was released. But I think that’s because McCarey’s story is so methodical and slow that any interesting moments between husband and wife are delayed. So to me the chemistry is there, it just never gets a chance to be properly explored.

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There are some charming moments in the picture. The opening sequence takes place during a Sunday church service and is very humorous. The two child actors who play Sam’s kids are very well directed by McCarey. Louise Beavers, Edmund Lowe, Ray Collins and a young Ruth Roman all turn in decent supporting performances; so does William Frawley who plays a bar owner in the last half hour. Cooper seems to be playing himself, which is not a drawback at all. Though I feel Ann Sheridan gives the film’s strongest performance.

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Sheridan is not playing a supportive wife, she’s kind of a nag, very selfish, a little too much the villain in opposition to all of Sam’s good deeds. But she plays it so well, almost sincerely, that we can’t really hate her. Rather we end up feeling sorry for her, because Sam is so good to everyone else that he ends up neglecting her needs. The film would have been better if it had been told more from her point of view, where Sam is the “villain” in her mind, then she gradually comes to see his goodness and is grateful she married him. That happens a little bit near the end, but I think if the whole film would have been set up that way, it would have had a lot more tension and would have been better.

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The running time is 114 minutes. It should have been around 90 or 95 minutes. McCarey’s original version was 128 minutes, so at least 14 minutes had been cut for reissue. GOOD SAM is a perfect example of a film made by an Academy Award winning director who had previous hits, but was allowed to be too indulgent in the telling of a story that should have been made much more simply.

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Essential: JONATHAN (2016)

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This German film is very different. The title character is played by Jannis Niewohner a relative newcomer to motion pictures. Niewohner does quite well given his lack of acting experience. He has the lead role, but he’s not playing a gay man. His character is not even questioning anything in life. He seems sure of everything– except his father.

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Jonathan’s father is dying of cancer. During these final days Jonathan learns his old man is closeted. At one point we learn the backstory– how the father had left Jonathan as a young boy to go off and be with his lover. But when Jonathan’s mother took ill a short time later the father left his lover to return home and care for the wife. Then he finished raising Jonathan. Jonathan grew up not knowing his father had this other secret life, even after the mother died.

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Now the father is dying and of course his ex-lover shows up and they reunite. This throws Jonathan into a tailspin. He can’t accept his dad being gay or having to share him with any other person during these last few weeks.

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There’s a secondary story which covers Jonathan’s own romantic life. His aunt shows up at the family’s farm to help with chores while Jonathan’s father gets sicker and goes into hospice. She is attracted to Jonathan, and Jonathan is attracted to her. They begin an incestuous affair. There is more than one sex scene between them and the first one is very explicit. This secondary “love” story is meant to comment on Jonathan’s inability to accept his father’s forbidden affair with the other man, the way Jonathan’s forbidden relationship with the aunt might not be accepted.

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The father dies near the end, after affirming his love to his partner. There is a scene afterward where Jonathan buries the urn on a piece of land at the farm. The farm has now been sold and Jonathan is leaving. The final shot has Jonathan and the aunt riding off together to some unknown destination. What I enjoyed was how complex the relationships were that develop in this story. The are no easy answers and things are not exactly resolved, yet life goes on for Jonathan after his huge loss.

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JONATHAN is directed by Piotr Lewandowski and can be streamed on Hulu.

Essential: MAURICE (1987)

This Merchant-Ivory production was part of a cycle of films based on the works of British author E.M. Forster. Producer Ismail Merchant and his partner James Ivory had already adapted other material by Forster. Their most recent effort was A ROOM WITH A VIEW which had earned raves from critics and was successful with audiences. This time, instead of a trip abroad, the main characters went on a more inward journey.

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The story was first published in 1971. Forster had written it as a short novel several decades earlier but decided it shouldn’t be made available until after his death. The socio-political climate in Britain was such that authors might see their literary careers destroyed if they found themselves persecuted, or in Oscar Wilde’s case prosecuted, because of “crimes” that were homosexual in nature.

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Forster based the idea on friends he knew. But one gets the impression the title character’s longings stemmed from the author’s own longings. College-aged Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and his friend Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) form a somewhat unorthodox bond. Clive is gay at this time and starts to show affection towards Maurice. Maurice has reservations about all this unexpected business but soon falls in love with Clive. Something has been awakened inside him.

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However, Clive then reverses himself, deciding he can no longer be gay and needs the love of a woman. While Clive goes straight, Maurice is stuck in a sort of limbo. Clive ends up marrying a socially acceptable woman and yet maintains ties with Maurice. Maurice, for his part, undergoes hypnosis to be cured of his same-sex attractions. But something more is awakened inside him when he meets a man (Rupert Graves) that works on Clive’s estate. To say it’s become a full-fledged quadrangle– a respectable one– is an understatement.

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The film captures the feelings of young love. Love that is repressed and yet erotic all in one unique set of circumstances. If you’ve ever fallen for someone you can’t have, or have had to deal with someone falling you that can’t have you, then you will relate to this story. You will relate to the kind of emotional quicksand these characters find themselves in with not much of a way out.

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Forster’s story and this film present a happy ending (for Maurice) and a somewhat unhappy ending (for Clive). They don’t end up together, obviously. But the journey they take in discovering what their limitations are and what can release them, is extraordinary.

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MAURICE is directed by James Ivory and airs on TCM occasionally.

 

Essential: VICTOR VICTORIA (1982)

Blake Edwards’ gender bending classic is a remake of the German film VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. It’s actually the fourth remake. When the story was first told in 1934 another production was filmed in French at the same time– GEORGES ET GEORGETTE. The following year British movie makers turned out a version with Jessie Matthews called FIRST A GIRL. Then in 1957 the Germans redid it. Each time it was presented as a musical comedy; and of course, this is how Edwards presents it too.

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With Edwards it becomes more of a period piece. He’s cast his wife Julie Andrews in the lead, and again she is shedding the wholesome image she cultivated in the 1960s as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. Andrews’ professionalism, her skill and her perfectionism give Edwards’ picture something extra; and she earned her third Oscar nomination as Best Actress. Edwards was also nominated for an Oscar, for his adaptation; plus costars Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren netted Oscar nominations in the supporting performer categories.

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Despite seven total nominations only one Academy Award was bestowed on the picture, for Best Original Song Score. Andrews did earn a Golden Globe for her work. There was no Best Picture nomination. The year’s Best Picture Winner was GANDHI. Professor Drew Casper at the USC School of Cinema-Television considered this a huge injustice, feeling VICTOR VICTORIA deserved a nomination and deserved to be named Best Picture. He felt GANDHI was the safer, more politically correct choice for 1982; and he was probably right.

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The cast includes a group of people who had worked together on previous projects. James Garner is on hand as a macho Chicago gangster who falls for Victor/Victoria. He had previously costarred with Julie Andrews in 1964’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, where they played an entirely different couple. Meanwhile Robert Preston had acted with Andrews in Edwards’ S.O.B. a year earlier and they seem to enjoy their time together; especially during the famous cockroach scene in the restaurant. Oh, and I should also mention they both use the same costume in two separate musical numbers.

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Since it’s pride month, we might want to discuss the way Garner’s character finds out the object of his affections is really a female. Supposedly Edwards wanted the gangster to fall in love with the impersonator before knowing for sure what his/her gender was. But Edwards claimed he chickened out and inserted a scene where Garner sees Andrews bathing in a hotel bathtub and thus knows she is totally a woman. Without this scene, the plot still has to build to everyone finding out she’s not a man in drag, because fraud charges are filed later in the story.

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So eventually the gangster would have found out he was really in love with a female; and even if there had been no fraud charges, he still would have found out he was in love with a female when he went to bed with her for the first time. This was never going to be M BUTTERFLY where the true gender continued to be a mystery. In fact the only mystery is why TCM doesn’t air VICTOR VICTORIA more often.

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Essential: VICTIM (1961)

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I use creative ways to inventory my films. I had put this one on the same disc as a Jack Palance thriller called MAN IN THE ATTIC. I labeled it A Secret Life. Of course the secrets Palance keeps as Jack the Ripper are hardly like the secrets kept by Dirk Bogarde in VICTIM. Though you could say the lives of both men will unravel if certain indiscretions get ‘out.’

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VICTIM did not see a stateside release until 1962 but it premiered in Great Britain a year earlier. As expected the groundbreaking film faced censorship issues. It probably would not have been made if an “A” list actor hadn’t agreed to do it. Dirk Bogarde had been a huge star for over a decade, and this was a different kind of project for him. Risky in some ways because of the subject matter. Risky also because Bogarde was a closeted homosexual in real life. In those years it was still a criminal offense to be gay.

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Therefore Bogarde’s willingness to take on the lead role in this film is worth commending, even if he had to act “straight” while playing gay. The story’s quite simple. He plays a married man named Melville Farr who becomes linked with a known homosexual. Someone’s found out about it and they have begun to blackmail him. Eventually he realizes his wife must be told. Sylvia Syms is cast as Laura the wife; and she brings a very sympathetic understanding to her portrayal.

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The scene where he finally confesses the truth is expertly handled. Once everything is out in the open, the plot lends itself to a tidy resolution, where the character’s lust for other men is depicted more as a temporary aberration. Melville is not going to leave Laura at the end of the picture and live happily ever after with a lover, like we see in 1982’s MAKING LOVE. Instead he will remain faithful to their marriage and they will have changed and grown because of all this.

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During the early 1960s men found to be having sexual relations with other men could be prosecuted. This probably explains why the writers chose to have the character remain married to a woman, and thus he would not go on breaking the law. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Britain until 1967.

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In the summer of 2017 the British soap opera EastEnders commemorated the occasion when Johnny Carter (Ted Reilly) put a banner up outside his parents’ pub to mark the 50th anniversary. Johnny was not compelled to do this until he had become friends with a retiring shop worker named Derek Harkinson (Ian Lavender) who described having been arrested in the 1960s before the law changed. It was a way for one generation of liberated gay men to remind another generation of the strides that had been made and to not take these strides for granted.

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VICTIM is directed by Basil Dearden; it’s on Criterion Collection DVD.