Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: Johnny Come Lately

Discovering the James Cagney film, “Johnny Come Lately,” was a bit like finding an old family photo I had never seen. In it are familiar faces, younger and in their prime, along with faces I never knew.

“Johnny Come Lately” is a little, independent film from 1943 starring Cagney and produced by his brother William.

Different in many ways from Cagney’s Warner Brothers movies, “Johnny Come Lately” is a quiet, nostalgic picture about a kindly older woman who has been running a small-town newspaper, but who is about to be run out of business by a corrupt mayor and his cronies.

Cagney enters the fray as a free-spirited vagabond who turns out to be an experienced reporter. To help the lady, he takes on the job of running her paper and running the mayor and his flunkies out of town.

The film has tons of charm but struggles against itself. Cagney’s natural personality is too energetic for such a leisurely film. Viewers may grow impatient with a movie that is in no rush to get going and takes too long before bringing Cagney into the story.

Co-starring with Jimmy is Grace George, a stage actress who spent much of her career on Broadway and made only two films, this one and a previous one in 1915. For an actress with nearly no film experience, Grace George is wonderful, and she is the reason anyone might forgive this movie’s slow pace.

Also in the picture in supporting roles are the lovely Marjorie Lord, as the woman’s niece, the great Hattie McDaniel as the woman’s sympathetic cook, Edward McNamara, who antagonized Cagney in several Warner’s pictures, as the mayor, and the loudly exuberant Marjorie Main as the madam of a thinly disguised bawdy house.

“Johnny Come Lately” was based on a novel called McLeod's Folly by Louis Bromfield. It was directed by Hollywood veteran William K. Howard, released through United Artists as a William Cagney Production, and is now available on DVD.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Movies & TV: Remembering James Garner

Following up on the recent tributes to James Garner, the film and TV star who passed away last year, I would like to add a few thoughts on the popular actor.

Garner was much more than just a handsome movie star of yesteryear. He could play the hero, he could play the comic hero, he could play the cowardly hero. He could hold his own with Marlon Brando in one of his earliest movies, “Sayonara.” He could be the comic foil to Doris Day in two films.

Garner could play the cool, scavenging rogue in “The Great Escape.” He could also play sympathetic, bewildered victims in “36 Hours” and in “Mister Buddwing.”

He did some of his best work in “The Americanization of Emily” playing a cowardly naval officer and handling all that great Paddy Chayefsky dialogue. He also starred in some excellent TV movies, including "Barbarians at the Gate," "Heartsounds," and "Promise."

Garner did something few could pull off and that was moving easily between films, made for TV movies, a television series, and commercials, without diminishing his popularity or star power.

Off the screen, in what could have been a career-ending move, Garner in 1960 sued Warner Bros. for pay owed him for the show Maverick. He not only won against the studio, but also went on to become an even bigger star.

James Garner passed away in July 2014 at age 86. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Dam Busters

By coincidence, less than a week after viewing a DVD of the 1955 war film, “The Dam Busters,” the news reported the death of former RAF pilot John Leslie Munro, one of the last surviving members of that WW2 British air force raid on Germany.

The story of the bombing mission is told in the movie in three sections. In Act 1, Dr. B. N. Wallis, a scientist played by Michael Redgrave, works endless hours on the seemingly impossible problem of bombing three dams in the Ruhr Valley of Germany. Those dams supplied water and electricity to an industrial area used by Nazi Germany to build war weapons. Knocking them out would knock out those factories. But destroying the dams was proving to be difficult. Earlier attempts failed. Dr. Wallis figured that a bomb released at low levels and designed to skip across the water, the way a stone can be skipped over the surface of a pond, could hit a dam at exactly the right place to blow a hole in it. His theory worked well enough in scale models to get the green light from the military.

In Act 2, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, an ace bomber pilot played by Richard Todd, is recruited to form a squadron that will train to fly at low levels, come at their targets over water and drop these special bombs. His problem is getting his planes to fly at the right speed and at the right height. Flying over water is tricky. Gibson and his men have to create a simple, crude but accurate device to achieve it. In the meantime, Dr. Wallis is trying the patience of the brass with test after test of full sized bombs that fail by breaking apart on hitting the water. Before the plan can be cancelled, Wallis creates a bomb that works and can bounce along the surface of the water.

Act 3 is the bombing raid itself. This section is all Gibson’s. Dr. Wallis, the scientist, is at RAF headquarters sweating it out, while the squadron flies off to hit the heavily defended dams.

Even though most viewers will know the outcome, the tension created by the tests and preparations is very effective in this picture.

“The Dam Busters” delivers a lot of excitement and punch. In many ways it is similar to “Apollo 13,” in which three American astronauts face a life or death problem while in space and they, and the scientists and engineers at mission control, must race to find a solution.

The film was directed by Michael Anderson, who had a long and varied career in England and in Hollywood and who directed 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” and “Logan’s Run” in 1976. “The Dam Busters” was based on Gibson’s memoir and a book by Paul Brickhill (who also wrote the book on which the movie “The Great Escape” was based). The screenplay was by R.C. Sheriff, a long-time film and television writer who wrote the scripts for 1939’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and 1947’s “Odd Man Out.”

And two minor points worth mentioning: First, viewers with a sharp eye will spot a young Patrick McGoohan as a guard at the air base; Second, there is a disturbing note in the film in the offensive name of Gibson’s dog.

(For more overlooked movies, see Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Broken Gun

Louis L’Amour’s 1966 novel The Broken Gun is one of his rare modern day adventures and an Old West mystery all in one fast-paced story.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter, Dan Sheridan, a writer in Arizona doing research for a new book on the Old West, looks at a dead Native American man outside his motel. “Two police cars with flashing lights stood nearby,” started the second paragraph. Until reading those words, I did not know L’Amour had written any contemporary novels.

Sheridan is trying to find out what happened to two pioneering Texas cattlemen, brothers, who in the 1870s had driven a herd into Arizona and then disappeared. What happened to them? What happened to the cowboys employed by them? What happed to the herd?

Rumors said the Apache’s killed the men and stole the cattle. But Sheridan found a diary written by one of the brothers. Several pages of the diary were torn out and Sheridan later discovers them hidden in the barrel of a broken revolver. Those pages will help Sheridan solve the mystery.

In the meantime, a seemingly friendly rancher who does not want the writer poking around, invites Sheridan out to his spread for a visit. It is a visit Sheridan realizes too late that could end in his own mysterious disappearance.

But Dan Sheridan is not so easy to kill. He saw combat in Korea, he can ride and shoot, and he can handle himself with his fists. He also has an unexpected ally somewhere in the region. The dead man’s brother was in his army unit.

Along with the rugged southwestern men are two women: the rancher’s wife, who may be tougher than any of the cowboys, and a young woman who has inherited a neighboring ranch when her sister died in a strange accident.

L’Amour expertly weaves all these plot threads together with a dose of geography that, despite his knowledge of the west, were a little draggy. Thankfully, those sections were brief and L’Amour gets back to the problems at hand for Dan Sheridan – staying alive and finding out the truth about the brothers and the people now occupying the land.

The Broken Gun was an enjoyable read and a pleasure to spend time with a very good storyteller.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Movie: Tracy-Hepburn Noir “Keeper of the Flame”

The Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn films that first come to mind are the comedies, like “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike,” but of the nine films the famous couple made together, nearly half of them were dramas, and one of those could be considered film noir.

“Keeper of the Flame,” from 1942, is the story of the media circus caused by the death of a wealthy and prominent businessman and self-appointed spokesman for Americanism, Robert Forrest. Reporters from all over descend on the little town in which he lived, but none can get an interview with the grieving widow, Christine Forrest, played by Hepburn. The only one to succeed in getting through to her is foreign correspondent, Stephen O’Malley, played by Tracy.

Recently returned from Europe where he has seen too much death and destruction during WW2, O’Malley decides to write a positive biography about Forrest, a man much loved by the public. But while gently probing into the accidental death of Forrest in a car crash, O’Malley comes to suspect the death was not accidental. The more he investigates, the more skeletons he finds in Forrest’s closet. The hero worship fades as O’Malley realizes the great man was not so great.

“Keeper of the Flame,” an MGM picture, was directed by George Cukor, a great friend of both Tracy and Hepburn. He directed eight of her movies, and allowed Tracy to live in the guest house on his grounds. Cukor was known as an actor’s director and a director of comedies and women’s pictures, but he also did some serious dramas and several noirish crime films, like this one and 1947s “A Double Life” with Ronald Colman. The Cukor touch can be seen in the many long takes in which he allows Tracy and Hepburn to play scenes with no cuts. He also brought a low-key style to the picture, both in the quiet, subdued acting and in the deep, shadowy lighting, the later thanks to ace cinematographer William Daniels.

Also appearing in “Keeper of the Flame” are Richard Whorf (a good but overlooked actor who the same year played Sam Harris to James Cagney’s George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) here as the manipulative secretary to Forrest, Margaret Wycherly (who played Cagney’s mother in “White Heat”) here playing Forrest’s mother, Howard Da Silva, Darryl Hickman, and Forrest Tucker.