Essential: SILENT NIGHT LONELY NIGHT (1969)

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SILENT NIGHT LONELY NIGHT aired a week before Christmas in 1969. Robert Anderson wrote the play that served as the basis for this TV adaptation. In the story two lonely souls connect over the holidays after their marriages to other people have fallen apart. Universal cast Shirley Jones and Lloyd Bridges in the lead roles. These performers were typically associated with lighter fare, so it’s interesting to watch them handle a story that requires more serious acting.

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Jones gives one of her best performances. She captures the restlessness and uncertainty her character faces with great skill. We learn early on that she and an absent husband are at an impasse about something, and she is using their son as a buffer. There are one-way telephone conversations that Jones plays with raw emotion, and we do feel her ambivalence about spending the holidays apart from her husband. He’s in London and she has decided not to join him but will send their son in her place.

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For his part Bridges displays his acting chops more than usual. He gives us a portrait of a middle-aged man who’s been stuck in a loveless marriage for over five years. He’s decided to end the marriage, even if it will push his fragile wife over the edge. Which it does, because he gets a call from a doctor that she’s just tried to kill herself. He has to deal with his overwhelming feelings of guilt, mixed with his desire to break free and start a new life.

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Given the circumstances it’s no wonder Bridges and Jones seek each other out for company at an inn where they are both lodging overnight. Their suites are next door to each other, and there’s an adjoining sitting room between the suites. My guess is the play, which I have not seen or read, was probably done with most of the action taking place in the rooms where the characters are staying. I should mention this inn is said to be located near the campus of Amherst College.

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Universal decided to film the exteriors on location in Massachusetts, so we get a variety of outdoor scenes that open up the story a good deal. In fact the college becomes a character that binds them, much as it binds the characters in Anderson’s other play TEA AND SYMPATHY. This is because Jones’ son is a student there, and Bridges’ wife is a patient at a mental hospital on campus. A few times they venture outside the inn, and we see shots of the surrounding area. Places like a movie theater, or a snowy field where people have fun on snowmobiles; and at one point they go into a local record store.

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For most of the story Bridges lies to Jones that his wife is dead, because the truth that his wife is a mental patient is too much to explain. But there’s a great scene mid-way through the picture where they go out for a ride and she sees a building with lights on at an off hour. He explains it’s a mental hospital with great anguish; he knows one of the rooms in that building has a light on to keep his wife from feeling alone in the dark. There is also a flashback where Bridges recalls experiencing his first kiss sledding with a girl. We see the memory with young Jeff Bridges playing his father at that age. It’s very effective especially when the director revisits this later and re-shoots the flashback as a fantasy of lonely Bridges kissing lonely Jones.

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Another interesting scene occurs when they have tea with a college-aged couple (Robert Lipton and Carrie Snodgress) and talk about wedding days and about sex in marriage. The younger couple does not know the older couple’s not married to each other. We see different attitudes about being together reflected across the generation gap. With all this philosophizing and talk it is easy to think the whole thing will just be a mental exercise but it does become physical.

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Both Jones and Bridges play the sex scene with dignity and respect. It is established earlier in the story that she has no intention of ever divorcing her husband. So we know this affair is just going to be a one night stand. But it becomes something deep, because we’ve seen it build on screen for more than an hour. It’s not a case of instant gratification. The scene at the end where they go off on their separate ways reminded me a lot of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It has that sort of wistfulness to it.

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The year 1969 gave us changing mores about sex, marriage and relationships. As well as women like Jones who still wore fur wraps, and men like Bridges who still drove big cars. Obviously there were no cell phones. At one point they are both in the hall outside their rooms and hear a phone ring. They try to figure out whose phone is ringing inside which room. Today they’d both be pulling cell phones out of their pockets to see who was getting a call. Watching this production really takes us back to a simpler time when things were not very simple at all.

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SILENT NIGHT LONELY NIGHT is directed by Daniel Petrie and may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: STAR! (1968)

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Some films are “lost” in re-editing. That’s what happened to Robert Wise’s 1968 musical biopic STAR!, about the life of British-American stage performer Gertrude Lawrence. The genre had experienced a resurgence a few years earlier, thanks to the director’s previous hit THE SOUND OF MUSIC. So it seemed logical he would choose to reunite with Julie Andrews for a follow-up film. But this time the production was troubled.

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STAR! had a lavish budget. There were extravagant sets and costumes galore. There were elaborately choreographed numbers, and songs that Lawrence had made popular in her day were used. The producers had paid for the right to dramatize anecdotes contained in Lawrence’s autobiography as well as material from her husband’s biography about her. So no expense was spared.

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The studio, 20th Century Fox, expected another big hit from Wise and Andrews– figuring STAR! would easily recoup its costs. But it did not do well with preview audiences and underwent extensive re-editing. It even underwent a title change before it was re-released. The second run at the box office was a little more successful, though the film was still in the red. And as Wise later lamented, it had been hacked to bits with some of the best parts cut out.

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Because it failed to make a profit STAR! was largely considered a flop. However, some reviewers had positive things to say about the film. They enjoyed Andrews’ performance, and they felt her costar Daniel Massey was excellent. STAR! actually received a half dozen or so Oscar nominations though it lost in every category. The film was seldom shown on TV in the years that immediately followed, and after Julie Andrews had another flop (DARLING LILI) she took a break. STAR! was something she probably wanted to forget. And something other people tried to forget, but fortunately for us, it was rediscovered later.

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When Andrews’ career experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, a rekindling of interest in her earlier films occurred. This coincided with the advent of VHS and DVD. The original footage for STAR! was still located in the Fox vaults, and to Wise’s great relief, it was reconstructed and eventually saw a home video release in its intended form. Not every “lost” film gets another chance. But for every unmitigated disaster there’s a STAR! that rises again from the ashes.

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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.

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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