Essential: BELLE STARR (1980)

Some films don’t make much of an impression. Watch them and they spend a few days in your short-term memory but are soon forgotten. The 1980 production of BELLE STARR is not that kind of film. It stays in your long-term memory, because of Elizabeth Montgomery’s fantastic performance.

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Previously Fox made a feature in 1941 with Gene Tierney playing the famed outlaw. Jane Russell also took a turn in RKO’s MONTANA BELLE. But Liz Montgomery’s interpretation is much grittier; and it is clearly a continuation of the roles she took to distance herself from the Samantha Stephens image of Bewitched. As Belle she’s a woman who likes danger. She rides with Cole Younger, the James Brothers and other gunmen. And when she aims her rifle she means it.

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Interestingly this version was produced by Hanna-Barbera, a company known for animation projects. There’s extensive outdoor filming, and the attention to period detail is outstanding. Cliff Potts, who costarred in an earlier film with Liz, is cast as Cole; and it is revealed that he is the father of Belle’s youngest child, which historians would probably dispute. In fact there are several liberties taken with actual details of the main characters’ lives, but I think the general sense these were kindred spirits who marauded and reveled together is fairly accurate.

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There’s a feminist angle to this story I enjoyed very much. The Belle in this picture sees the prim and proper townswomen for the hypocrites they are. Ironically, she is forced to entrust the care of her daughter to one of the stuck-up women who intends to turn the girl against her. Belle’s motives are always pure with her daughter. And she’s more of a woman than those snobs will ever be.

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Belle’s relationship with an older son is depicted in a more incestuous way. Again, not sure if historians would agree with some of the liberties taken…but it gives Liz plenty of juicy material to play. There are two particularly effective scenes. One is when locals burn Belle’s farm to the ground in an attempt to drive her from their community. She carefully surveys the damage and knows what must be done.

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Then there’s the final scene where Belle’s dramatic death is depicted. After encountering trouble on a robbery, she returns to the farm to find her son. As she dismounts, ties her horse and goes inside the house, she is unable to find him. She is still looking for the boy moments later when an unknown assailant is heard approaching off-camera, shoots and kills Belle. It is left ambiguous who her murderer might be. Did her son shoot her?  It’s a powerful ending for a woman whose life of crime comes to a sudden end.

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BELLE STARR is directed by John Alonzo and can be found on DVD.

 

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Essential: THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975)

This month I’ve chosen to highlight Elizabeth Montgomery. Though she made feature films, Liz enjoyed far greater success on television. Of course, she is most remembered for playing Samantha Stephens on the long-running sitcom Bewitched. And when the program ended, she decided the best way to deal with typecasting was to take an axe to it.

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In the mid-1970s Liz left comedy behind, determined to reinvent herself in more serious dramatic roles. Though she didn’t know it back then, genealogical studies later proved she was related to Lizzie Borden. One guesses she wanted to play Lizzie for a less personal reason– because the part would be shocking and something her fans (and critics) would not expect. Rendering a masterful performance from start to finish, it is impressive the way she captures the spirit of the real Lizzie Borden.

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Lizzie was a troubled woman. She was exonerated by a Massachusetts court in 1893, nearly a year after the gruesome double murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby Borden. William Bast’s script uses information from the actual case, though some dramatic license is taken. The telefilm is divided into several segments– presenting the discovery of the bodies; followed by the investigation, inquest, trial and subsequent acquittal.

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We first glimpse Lizzie the day the killings take place, when she is disoriented. The film’s direction and cinematography keep us disoriented as viewers; where we are confused like Lizzie and involved in her coverup. It’s a great way to start the story, and as the investigation into the deaths of her father and stepmother are launched, she seems to emerge quickly as the main suspect, but the police gather mostly circumstantial evidence. The washed handle of the murder weapon, plus a burned dress that couldn’t have had any blood stains on it complicates matters. Much eyewitness testimony is contradictory, including comments from a dimwitted Irish maid (Fionnula Flanagan).

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Lizzie’s sister (Katherine Helmond) returns from a trip, and she believes in Lizzie’s innocence. One thing I especially like about the film, besides its gradual build to the courtroom scenes, is how the deaths affect people who know Lizzie as well as others in the community who don’t know her at all. This includes two lawyers that will argue the case (Don Porter and Ed Flanders). In some ways, the main character is made to sit back and watch them all debate her guilt, before the trial even begins.

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Of course once the trial gets underway, she is never called to the stand. So she must remain seated and look on as testimony is given for her and against her. There are lengthy scenes where the others have considerably more dialogue, and all we get from Lizzie are cryptic looks and a countenance shielding the horrible truth of what she’s done. Liz Montgomery does so much with her facial expressions in these scenes, it’s remarkable.

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The flashback scene of how the killings took place is saved till the end, when they all reassemble in court after a verdict has been reached. We learn exactly how she did it, including how she didn’t get blood on her dress. The death scenes are harrowing to watch and suggest a lot of violence. As the foreman reads the jury’s decision, it is learned the jury has found Lizzie NOT GUILTY. Although we know the history of the case today, the not guilty verdict is still powerful. It should be said this story is not about a woman getting away with anything (she was forced to move). Instead, it is about a woman that people still felt sympathetic towards, despite the likelihood she was a cold-blooded killer.

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It is to the actress’ credit how much we feel sorry for the main character, instead of feeling sorry for her victims. The film doesn’t seem as if it’s been written to manipulate us that way. But Liz Montgomery’s performance is imbued with a strange tenderness and the idea that Lizzie must’ve been victimized at the hands of those she killed in retaliation. I’ve never watched something where a killer was so obviously guilty, but yet it somehow seemed fair she was acquitted. I wanted her to go off and be in peace. Perhaps because there was a different type of justice involved. Or maybe because Liz Montgomery had cast a spell on me.

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THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN is directed by Paul Wendkos and can be found on DVD.

Essential: THE CHEATERS (1945)

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For this review I thought I’d cheat and let TCM’s former host Robert Osborne guide us. THE CHEATERS aired on the channel for the very first time on December 24, 2008. According to schedule information, it was repeated on Christmas, the following day. But since those two initial broadcasts, it has not been seen again on TCM…until this year. Thank you to the programmers for bringing it back.

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During his on-air comments Robert indicated he was glad that TCM was showing viewers this film. He hoped it would become an annual tradition for TCM to broadcast THE CHEATERS every December. Robert called it the best Christmas film nobody’s ever seen. He then mentioned how it was produced by Republic Pictures.

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Republic typically specialized in westerns or films in other genres with limited budgets. And many of its most beloved movies starred people like Roy Rogers and Judy Canova. THE CHEATERS would be one of the studio’s attempts to make an A-sized holiday film. Robert said when it was released THE CHEATERS received great reviews. He went on to mention the film’s story, about how it takes place on Christmas Eve.

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Joseph Schildkraut plays Anthony Marchaund, or Mr. M, the lead character. He was already an Oscar recipient for his role in THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, and he would have Broadway success in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ Robert also discussed the supporting cast—people like Billie Burke and Ona Munson, plus Eugene Pallette. He closed the intro by urging viewers to give the film a try because it would make their day merrier.

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During Robert’s closing remarks, he talked about the different titles that had been suggested, before Republic’s executives decided to call it THE CHEATERS. He said that when the studio re-released the film in the early 1950s, it was renamed THE CASTAWAY. And when Republic sold it in a package for television, the syndicated print was cut down from the original 87 minute running time to fit into an hour of TV viewing. This meant a third of the scenes were removed. But TCM broadcasts the full 87 minute version.

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THE CHEATERS is directed by Joseph Kane and can be seen on TCM this Christmas Eve. Make sure you don’t miss such a wonderful holiday classic!

Essential: CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)

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A romantic angle develops between the characters played by Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in this film. Though it was made at the end of the war and Morgan is playing a soldier on leave, it is still kind of “fresh” and funny. Seeing them finally get together in the end is a real treat. Plus if you’re a fan of Dennis Morgan’s singing, there’s a nifty scene where he sits at the piano while she decorates the tree in her Connecticut “home.”

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We have to put the word home in quotations marks, because it’s not really her home. It’s the dwelling of a man (Reginald Gardiner) who’s asked her to marry him. And it’s also the place she uses as an inspiration for her Martha Stewart-type housekeeping tips. She’s actually a New York City gal who writes a column for a women’s magazine. It has become so popular that she is now asked to entertain a soldier in need of a home cooked meal and some holiday cheer. Somehow Stanwyck is able to keep up the pretense long enough to entertain her guest. She even manages to fit in a nice sleigh ride. How’s that for hospitality!

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Of course, the two end up falling in love, though he thinks she’s married to Gardiner. And so does her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) who’s finagled an invitation to ye olde house in ye olde Connecticut. Greenstreet is eager to see how she oversees domestic affairs and takes care of a baby. Yes, she invented a baby– there are two of them, different genders, which makes for a few good laughs. Plus Greenstreet is anxious to watch her flip a flapjack. Or as S.Z. Sakall says in a thick accent, “flip a flop-flip!” Oh, did I say she really doesn’t know how to cook?

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Anyone who says Hollywood stopped making screwball comedies in the 1930s is wrong. This charming holiday confection is about as screwy as it gets– especially with that scene where one of the babies swallows a watch (a whole watch); as well as the scene where the other baby gets kidnapped by its real mother. Stanwyck and company have a blast with the material.

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CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT will air on Sunday December 17th and again on Friday December 22nd. Watch it both times on TCM!

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Essential: THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

Some films are totally flawless in their design. They are played with wit, grace and charm– and they leave you feeling something wonderful, something transcendent, has just happened on screen. Ernst Lubitsch’s THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is that way.

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Though filmed entirely on a Hollywood soundstage by MGM, Lubitsch manages to make the production feel European. We know it’s not really Budapest– there are no exteriors shot on location; and most of the accents are no different than those used in other Hollywood films set in foreign locales. But we believe in this story, and we believe in Matuschek and Company, the tiny shop where goods are sold around the corner. It exists in a time and place much less complicated than our world today.

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The emotional heart of the story is anchored by two would-be lovers named Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak. Mr. Kralik has worked for Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) for nine years, having advanced from his original position as a lowly clerk. As the film begins, Miss Novak comes in looking for a job, but Matuschek and Kralik are reluctant to take her on. By some miracle she is able to prove herself as a saleswoman and is subsequently hired. The story moves on from there. Kralik and Novak are now coworkers, and the two forge a bond despite often clashing with one another.

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Though much of the narrative’s focus is on the blossoming relationship between Kralik and Novak, there are plenty of moments that feature the other employees at the shop. All their lives are affected by the boss and by each other. This includes the villain of the piece Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) who we learn early on is having an affair with Matuschek’s never seen wife.

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Most of the romantic elements that occur between the leads are backgrounded during the film’s first half. But gradually it comes to the forefront, as we learn Kralik and Novak have been anonymously corresponding with each other. They’ve fallen in love through their letters to one another, but ironically have come to despise working together. He learns the truth first and withholds this information from her. The moment near the end when she finds out is truly sublime. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan perform so well in these scenes, there is never any doubt about the characters’ real feelings. They appeared in three other films, though this is certainly their most remembered collaboration.

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The success of Lubitsch’s picture cannot be underestimated. Critic Pauline Kael called it the most perfect Hollywood film ever made, praising its delicate pacing and skillful execution. MGM remade it in Technicolor as a musical with Judy Garland. In the 1990s it was re-filmed again, updated to reflect a love affair that occurs through emails. Neither one of the remakes have the splendor and grace of the original.

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THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER will air on TCM on December 15th.

A Christmas to remember

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Since it’s the holiday season I thought I’d look at Columbia’s MR. SOFT TOUCH. It pairs Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes for the sixth and final time, and is probably their best film together. It’s a film today’s audiences might not have seen, though it made a lot of money for the studio in 1949.

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Currently there are only a half dozen IMDb reviews. None of them seem to get it right. This is a story that combines several genres. Each review is written by a person who expects it to only be a comedy, to only be a romance, to only be a gangster picture, to only be a holiday drama, etc. You get the idea. But it’s not something that can be so easily classified. Anyone who thinks it should only please fans of one specific genre, or have a schmaltzy ending, will be very disappointed.

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MR. SOFT TOUCH exceeds my expectations as thoughtful entertainment. It’s never dull. The story is scripted in such a way that we want to know more about the two lead characters and what makes them do what they do. In the story Keyes’ father beat her as a child but said he loved her. Ford was a patriot who severed in the war. He’s mistaken for a man who beat his wife, which resonates with Keyes (though Ford’s character is not actually married, did not beat anyone, and is thus available for romance with Keyes).

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And so these two meet in a most unusual way and help each other during a fateful 36-hour holiday period. She sponsors his attempts to “reform” and he helps her at the settlement house where she works. He is not above blackmailing neighborhood crooks to also pitch in, or to buy things she needs with cash he stole from the mob that was his to begin with. Yes, this means the mob will reappear to get the dough back.

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There are several supporting characters who add charm to the proceedings. We have a teen gambler (Stanley Clements) and his buddies who get taught an expensive lesson by Ford who’s better at dice than they are. There is a talkative carpenter (Percy Kilbride) who has politically-informed opinions about everything, and there are two spinster busybodies (Clara Blandick & Beulah Bondi) who work with Keyes. A mob boss is played by the great character actor Roman Bohnen who died shortly after filming wrapped. And then there’s a tabloid reporter who pops in and functions as a Greek chorus– he’s played by John Ireland in what is a warm up for his reporter role in ALL THE KING’S MEN.

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What I love about MR. SOFT TOUCH is nobody is completely right, and nobody is completely wrong. There are no easy answers for any of them. Ford’s past catches up to him in what is probably the most classic ending of all time. Yet he manages to do considerable good in the hours leading up to his last few moments in this life.

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It’s a pensive character study that presents itself with humility. And what a gift that is.

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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.