Naughty or nice

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Jeanette MacDonald once played a girl named Marietta who was very naughty.

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Dick Powell learned Gale Page and Ann Sheridan were naughty, but that could be a rather nice thing.

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They could drop the question mark on this title. Nobody’s nicer than Deanna Durbin.

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Russell Crowe & Ryan Gosling prove you don’t have to finish last.

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Some westerns are a bit naughty. I mean knotty. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Appreciating Elizabeth Montgomery

Recently I watched some of Elizabeth Montgomery’s TV movies and had a great time. I will go more in depth with individual reviews on some of these titles in the Essentials forum. But I do want to provide a general overview and get things started:

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The Legend of Lizzie Borden has to be her most shocking and most memorable portrayal. It’s actually more of an ensemble drama, because for lengthy sections, she just sits in court while others testify and we flashback to the various scenes in Lizzie’s past. But she does so much with her eyes and facial expressions that we see a completely unhinged woman who somehow manages to evade justice and gain sympathy by the end of the story. It takes considerable skill to make a cold-blooded axe murderess “likable” or “pitiable” on some level. (This film can be purchased at Shop TCM.)

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She plays a much less pitiable character in Belle Starr, which was made five years later. Liz perfectly captures the evil outlaw ways of a woman who marauds with a ruthless gang and fits right in as one of them. The filmmakers try to show us more vulnerable aspects of the character in relationship to her two children. But she’s much more unredeemable in this picture than she was as Lizzie. And the death scene at the end is a real shocker, which she does expertly. (This film can be purchased at Shop TCM.)

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The Victim was her first TV movie after Bewitched. She was 39, still more youthful in appearance and since it’s a modern story where she plays a wealthy woman, she has nice clothes and a fancy foreign car to drive. This was a reworking of an earlier episode of the old Thriller anthology series which Boris Karloff hosted. They seem to be stretching the material out to fill an hour and a half running time. But she’s so convincing as a woman trying to find out what happened to her sister that she carries it along by virtue of her star power. Despite the more routine horror elements of the plot the ending is very dramatic and satisfying. The production also benefits from Eileen Heckart in a supporting role as a strange housekeeper and George Maharis who plays a shady in-law.

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The next one I watched, Second Sight: A Love Story, is probably not her best TV movie. But I can see why she selected the script as she gets to play a blind woman who has the chance to recover her eyesight, but has to overcome more than a few obstacles along the way. It’s based on a very popular book by a British writer who was also blind and regained her sight. It’s obvious that Liz painstakingly researched how to play the scenes where she must rely on a guide dog. She makes the character so believable you would think she was blind in real life. She totally submerged herself in the part.

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The Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story was produced two years before her passing (and she made two more telefilms after this which shows she worked right up to the end). Blanche is another one of those villainous characters in the vein of Lizzie and Belle, and again Liz shows how brilliant she is at etching a portrait of real life women who do monstrous things. She was 60 when this one was filmed, and she’s very sexy amping up the nymphomaniacal traits of a woman who seduced men, married them, bilked them and killed them. It’s a scenery-chewing role but she doesn’t exactly chew the scenery. She reigns it in, and during some of Blanche’s most outrageous exploits we still manage to see a woman who conveys intelligence and a sort of strange common sense despite being a serial killer. (This film can be purchased at Shop TCM.)

*****

Elizabeth Montgomery really seems to understand what drives the women she plays. Her choice of roles in TV movies probably reflected her desire to work against type and disassociate herself on some level from the sitcom material she was so famous for playing (she never did another weekly series, not even as a guest star). Of course who doesn’t love her as Samantha Stephens. But a deeper appreciation of her skill as a dramatic actress can be found in the dozens of telefilms she made from 1972 to 1995.

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Essential: LADY ON A TRAIN (1945)

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LADY ON TRAIN is airing Friday on TCM. It’s a Christmasy crime yarn that Deanna Durbin made in 1945. She was married to Felix Jackson the film’s producer. Five years later, after she retired from motion pictures and moved to France, she married Charles David, the director. Both men had a hand in guiding her performance, and LADY ON A TRAIN is one of her better films.

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There’s a clever plot (about a young woman who witnesses a murder while traveling on a high speed locomotive); stunning set pieces; atmospheric lighting; and memorable musical selections. Tunes include Deanna’s rendition of ‘Silent Night’ as well as ‘Night and Day.’ Plus as we’ve come to expect, Universal throws in a top-notch cast of supporting players. These performers include Edward Everett Horton; Ralph Bellamy; Dan Duryea; Elizabeth Patterson; and William Frawley. It would be Bellamy’s last film for ten years; and Horton was about to take a short break before transitioning to television.

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The plot for this movie was borrowed by Agatha Christie for one of her later stories. But the original idea for LADY ON A TRAIN was conceived by British author Leslie Charteris. He’s the same guy who created Simon Temple a.k.a. The Saint.

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Deanna’s character is unlike other movie detectives. She totally involves herself in the drama, using ingenuity to stymie crooks and persuade a debonair mystery writer to help with her sleuthing. Maybe the film’s greatest strength is its deft handling of more than one genre. It works as a musical, a holiday film, a romantic comedy, and a murder mystery. There are even elements of horror, which Universal did so well in the 1930s and 1940s.

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Deanna comes of age in this movie. She sheds her school girl image but still manages to maintain her wholesomeness and charm. And by the time the picture ends, she has tracked down the killer. Just as if she had been trained to do it.

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LADY ON A TRAIN is directed by Charles David.

Essential: SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947)

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SOMETHING IN THE WIND features an even more grown-up and even more charming Deanna Durbin. She costars with Universal’s equally popular Donald O’Connor. It was O’Connor’s first film in two years, as he had been drafted into the military. He’s in fine acrobatic form performing a very athletic number with Deanna, plus he does two solos. The other tunes are handled by Deanna, whose voice never sounded better.

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The plot is somewhat formulaic. She plays a disc jockey with her own radio show, and she’s looking for a sponsor. When a rich young man (John Dall) comes to the station she thinks he’s interested in supporting her musical program. But of course there has been some sort of mix-up; he is under the impression she had a baby with his late departed grandfather. Yes, only in a Deanna Durbin flick. The zany premise allows for her to be “kidnapped” by Dall and his cousin (O’Connor) who then take her to meet the rest of the family.

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At their palatial estate Deanne meets a stern aunt (Margaret Wycherly) whose main concern is keeping the scandal out of the papers. She attempts to buy off the pretty interloper with a million dollar check. Deanna goes along with the situation to teach them all a lesson. There is a nutty uncle played by Charles Winninger, who previously costarred as Deanna’s father in the Three Smart Girls series. And Dall’s snooty fiancee (Helena Carter) shows up to complicate things. All of this occurs during one eventful weekend while the family waits for an attorney to arrive to make the payoff legal.

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In the meantime Deanna finds herself falling for Dall and O’Connor offers to help. Of course, there’s something in it for him (he wants his cousin’s fiancee). We don’t have to worry about how things will turn out, since everything usually gets properly sorted in these kinds of pictures. Hijinks, complete with a wacky operatic jailhouse number, give way to more romantic tenderness. Plus the family’s begun to change for the better. And that’s what always happens in a Deanna Durbin picture. Things always seem better by the final fadeout. Probably because Deanna holds the key to everyone’s heart.

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SOMETHING IN THE WIND is directed by Irving Pichel.

Raft & Sidney seek glory in political romance

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Margaret Wyndham Chase (Sylvia Sidney) intends to become the first woman elected governor of her home state. Her husband and a professor from her alma mater object to her plans. Mr. Ace (George Raft) objects, too, but for another reason. It doesn’t matter to Margaret because she’s determined to prove them all wrong and succeed anyway.

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Raft and Sidney had appeared in two films at Paramount in the 1930s. They share a very natural chemistry, and their scenes together come across easy and beautiful. I’ve watched the film several times and what I notice each time is how much respect Raft has for Sidney. It’s like he appreciates working with a top-notch actress, and he treats her very well. It’s Raft’s film; he plays the title character and he had greater clout at the box office– but he hands it to her every step of the way. And Sidney really shines and gives a very confident performance. We believe she can be a fully self-actualized woman because of him.

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Benedict Bogeaus, an independent producer, made this film. And the set design rivals anything you’d find in a large scale studio production from this era. The rooms in Sidney’s hotel suite are elaborately furnished. Her country estate is as fine as any country estate in the movies. And then there’s the other stuff. Sidney’s clothes are fabulous. So are her jewels and her carefully formed hair.

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The dialogue is often coy. There’s a scene when they’re on the way home from a night out together and he steals a kiss when she’s fallen in sleep in the back of the car. He says he had to see if there’s any woman in her. After the smooch ends, she asks if there was any woman in her, and he says plenty.

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Mr. Ace is a political boss who runs the machinery in their city, usually determining who will or will not be elected. Despite their little romantic escapades, he doesn’t offer to support her in the election. She ends up withdrawing because of a scandal involving her husband. Later she re-enters the race as an independent candidate and Ace then does support her, without her knowledge. They’ve both found heart and real purpose.

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She is elected at the end and tells him that she is going to clean up the political corruption, meaning her first act as governor will be to send him to prison. But she’ll be there for him when he gets out. Not a typical Hollywood love story, but it worked for me. Also, I think this story succeeds where so many others failed during the studio era. Most women who espouse feminism end up surrendering everything, realizing they can’t win in a man’s world. But Sylvia Sidney’s character does win, in more ways than one, and she does it because of the man she betrays but will always love. In her quest for glory, she learns many ironic truths; and so does he.

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Out west with Fred MacMurray

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Recently I watched the Allied Artists western AT GUNPOINT (1955) on YouTube. It’s a modestly budgeted flick with a strong cast (Fred MacMurray, Skip Homeier, Dorothy Malone, Walter Brennan, Tommy Rettig and John Qualen). It has an effective score (by Carmen Dragon); striking photography; and an intriguing plot. It borrows a bit from HIGH NOON, but that’s okay.

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There’s a town afraid to stand up to a group of bullies; and MacMurray’s character is the only one who will do anything about it. But what makes it different from HIGH NOON is that he’s a lucky shot not an expert marksman. So he’s reluctant to defend himself and his family until his wife’s brother is brutally killed.

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Brennan plays a wise old sage who stands by him when everyone else would rather run off. Their scenes together are very well-played. Homeier does an outstanding job as a vengeful outlaw. At about 80 minutes we have plenty of time to get to know the people of Plainview before a climactic confrontation between MacMurray and Homeier. Fortunately the townsfolk come to their senses in the last few minutes to help MacMurray defeat their common enemy.

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AT GUNPOINT was released on Christmas Day in ’55, which seems like an interesting time of year for a new western to premiere. It made a tidy sum for the studio. There’s something very comforting about the values that are conveyed with this type of picture.

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We see a very specific way of life depicted here– a place where kids look forward to getting peppermint sticks at the local store; where men vote for a new sheriff while having a drink inside the saloon; and where the main street has its share of people (good and bad) blowing through town lik3 tumbleweeds. The minor cast and background players help provide atmosphere. Despite his limited screen time Harry Shannon stands out as a modest but doomed lawman.

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There are no surprises. With MacMurray front and center as a stalwart of justice, you know things will be set right. And after the film ends, you wish you could live in a place where Fred MacMurray is in charge. It doesn’t feel like 1880-whenever. It feels like 1955 populist views grafted on to the western genre; and I think that’s what the Hollywood community did so well in some of its most routine crowd-pleasing pictures. Life was held up to a certain kind of standard in those days even while people were being held

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Coming up in December

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Out west with Fred MacMurray…MacMurray attempts to restore law and order in a quaint western town.

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Raft & Sidney seek glory in political romance…George Raft and Sylvia Sidney had already made two features when they paired up again.

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Naughty or nice…some characters like to keep us guessing.

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A Christmas to remember…certainly one Glenn Ford would never forget.

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Appreciating Elizabeth Montgomery…known as the TV movie queen after her long-running role on Bewitched.

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2017 year in review…in memoriam; the year’s biggest hits; and a new year.

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Join me in December!

Honest writing and honest performances

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Recently I subscribed to Britbox, so I could catch up on some British serials. I soon discovered that one of the added perks of getting shows on Britbox was I could watch new British series that haven’t yet aired on American PBS stations.

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One series I binge-watched had an interesting title and an even more interesting premise. Broken stars Sean Bean as a troubled priest at a Catholic church in Liverpool. He and his parishioners deal with all sort of inner city problems, and I found myself drawn in by the writing and the performances.

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Very shocking things occur in the program. But it’s not the sensationalism that propels it forward. It’s how people try to put the pieces of their lives back together. We don’t need guns going off every five minutes, bombs exploding or gratuitous sex scenes before each commercial break. What we need are true-to-life characters struggling, failing and overcoming. And that’s what we get.

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One thing I love about Broken is that even though I’m not a priest and I’m not a British man in my 60s, I could still relate to Father Michael Kerrigan. His life encompasses a dimension of the human experience that I see myself a part of in some significant way. He isn’t presented as the modern-day Messiah, in fact there is very little about him that seems messianic or holy. But there is a sacredness in the experience and what it means for him to be alive in the way he is alive. If the producers and writers had littered the screen with special effects the simplicity of what he goes through would entirely be lost.

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It’s best when a story brings about a little introspection and healing.

Essential: CAN’T HELP SINGING (1944)

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Deanna Durbin passed away in the spring of 2013, and in late December, TCM aired this film as part of its In Memoriam tribute. It made a memorable impression on me, and I still remember some of Robert Osborne’s wraparound commentary. He mentioned how it was her only Technicolor film, and it had the largest budget of any motion picture Universal had made up to that time. In other words, it was big and important in every way imaginable. But I think the smaller, more whimsical elements of the story are what make it so much fun to watch.

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The comedy is very well played– I would even go so far as to say the light humorous moments are as painstakingly choreographed as the musical numbers. There’s a smooth and airy feel to the proceedings that carries the story along from one grand show-stopping number to the next. Another thing that works in the production’s favor is that Deanna is obviously quite happy while making this film. From her very first moment on screen singing the title song in a carriage, she is full of joy. In previous films, her leading men tend to be comedians, but this time around she’s paired with Robert Paige who did plenty of musicals at Universal.

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Comic relief duties are handed over to Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey. They are a pair of lovable crooks who tag along as our heroine joins a wagon train out west. In Mr. Osborne’s 2013 commentary, he said these roles were originally planned for Abbott and Costello, the studio’s other big moneymakers. But there was a disagreement about billing; and the duo did not want to be regarded as playing supporting roles. I’d say the three roles are fairly even in terms of screen time but of course Deanna gets to play the love story and sing, so it really does become her movie. Nonetheless Tamiroff and Kinskey are able replacements for Abbott and Costello. In fact Tamiroff’s performance probably couldn’t have been topped.

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The film was shot largely in Utah. Notes in the TCM database indicate the producers chose Utah because of the lush green scenery, the cloud formations and the lack of modern technology in remote outdoor settings. Capturing the glorious landscapes are countless panoramic shots of the wagon train, and some excellent tracking shots.

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There’s a sequence where Deanna wanders off and performs a song in a forested area. It reminded me of the opening number in ‘The Sound of Music’ and is probably the highlight of the film. With Deanna singing and relating to her natural surroundings, it’s so sublime that you can’t help loving it.

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CAN’T HELP SINGING is directed by Frank Ryan.

Essential: IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941)

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When Universal decided to tinker with its winning formula, Deanna Durbin’s films lost a lot of their earlier charm. But it didn’t start with EVE. That’s because EVE starts off and ends quite well, thanks to smart musical selections and delightful romantic comedy. The team of producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster who guided Deanna’s earlier successes, were responsible for this confection. It was the last picture they did with her before Pasternak moved over to MGM.

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Critics consider this one of Deanna’s best motion pictures. Again she’s surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Robert Cummings is the love interest. He plays the son of a dying millionaire (Charles Laughton) who wants to please dear old dad before it’s too late, and introduce him to the girl he’s chosen to marry. Laughton is a rascally old coot who thinks a stranger from a train station (yes, you guessed it) is his son’s fiance.It wouldn’t be a problem, but Laughton’s health dramatically improves and of course he’s so taken with this girl that the real fiancee and her mother get shoved into the background. Deanna tries to run away from an impossible situation, until she realizes there’s a lot in it for her– so she decides to stay and fight for what should be hers. It becomes a farce of epic proportions, and they all have a blast with the material.

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One critic thought Laughton was very inventive as the elderly character who gets a miraculous second chance at life. And I would agree. Not only is Laughton inventing new ways to be funny in this film, he is doing it with remarkable restraint, which is certainly an accomplishment if you’ve seen his other exaggerated performances. Laughton and our young leading lady work so well together that Universal paired them in another story five years later– BECAUSE OF HIM. It’s clear they enjoy working with each other.

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What makes the film great, in addition to the concept and performances, is there’s a deeper meaning. We get the sense that father and son did not know how to live life to the fullest until this outside person came into their home. It might have seemed random in the beginning, but it probably was fate. They make a complete unit, and the word “in-law” takes on a very positive connotation. If she hadn’t shown up when she did, there would have been no merriment or joy for them. And there would have been no movie for us. To have no movie like this would just be so wrong on so many levels.

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IT STARTED WITH EVE is directed by Henry Koster.