Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dorothy Arzner Series Opens Friday at UCLA

UCLA will honor the career of pioneering woman director Dorothy Arzner beginning this Friday evening, July 31st.

The series Dorothy Arzner: A Retrospective runs through September 18th. All films will be screened at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.

The series, which for the next few weeks will run parallel to the ongoing Frank Borzage tribute, will feature 14 films directed by Arzner.

The series includes Rosalind Russell in CRAIG'S WIFE (1936), Fredric March in the pre-Codes HONOR AMONG LOVERS (1931) and MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932), and Arzner's final film, FIRST COMES COURAGE (1943) starring Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne.

The series also includes Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball in DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940), reviewed here in July 2010.

Although I have calendar conflicts with some of the films, I'm hoping to see at least a couple of the interesting titles in this series.

There are also still 16 films ahead in the Frank Borzage series! Those of us in driving distance of Los Angeles certainly have it made when it comes to great opportunities to see classic films on a big screen.

July 30th Update: Kenneth Turan has written about the Arzner series for the Los Angeles Times.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Affair in Reno (1957)

John Lund is one of my favorite actors. He made 28 films in his film career, which spanned 1946 until his retirement in 1962. I've seen nearly half of his films and have collected most of the remaining titles.

My latest Lund acquisition is AFFAIR IN RENO (1957), for which I'm grateful to reader Maricatrin.

Lund plays Bill Carter, who works for wealthy J.B. Del Monte (Thurston Hall). Del Monte sends Bill to Reno to dissuade his daughter Gloria (Angela Greene) from marrying mobster Tony Lamarr (John Archer). Bill's instructions are to buy off the unscrupulous Lamarr if he can't get Gloria to see reason, and he's carrying $100,000 sewn into his coat to make the payoff.

Lamarr's goons (including Alan Hale Jr.) attack Bill as soon as he lands at the Reno Airport, hoping to swipe the money they believe he's carrying. Upon hearing this news, Del Monte hires a bodyguard for Bill; to Bill's shock, the person assigned to keep him -- and the money! -- safe is a woman, Nora Ballard (Doris Singleton). Bill is dubious but gradually grows to appreciate Nora, as she not only protects him but helps him in his dealings with both Gloria and Lamarr.

AFFAIR IN RENO is watchable, with just enough going for it to keep it from being boring, but unfortunately that's about all that can be said for it. Its style is along the lines of a weak TV sitcom, and the excruciatingly bad stock music score adds to the "TV" feel. One senses the filmmakers were going for something bright and perky with this movie, but there's no bubbly fizz, just a fairly leaden story.

Lund is good in this role reversal scenario, where he's constantly in need of a woman's protection, but he has zero romantic chemistry with Singleton. She's confident and forthright yet, between script and actress, there's also a lack of depth to her character, and I just couldn't see her as an appealing romantic lead, no matter how much Bill claims to be falling for her.

Greene and Archer's characters are unlikeable, and there's not much more to be said for this 75-minute film, which is short on plot and characters. Some location footage in Reno might have jazzed it up a little, but stock footage of the well-known "Biggest Little City in the World" sign in downtown Reno is all we get.

AFFAIR IN RENO is a Republic film which was directed by R.G. Springsteen and filmed in Naturama by Jack Marta.

I'm very glad to have had the chance to see it, but this one is for Lund completists only -- and I'm one of them!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Around the Blogosphere This Week

Miscellaneous bits of news and fun stuff from around the internet...

...Happy Birthday to actress Lupita Tovar, who turns 105 today! Tovar was born in Mexico on July 27, 1910. She starred in Universal's Spanish-language DRACULA (1931). She was reviewed here in a George O'Brien Western, THE FIGHTING GRINGO (1939). She was also in SOUTH OF THE BORDER (1939) with Gene Autry. Tovar is the mother of actress Susan Kohner (IMITATION OF LIFE).

...Illeana Douglas, a regular at TCM events such as the TCM Classic Film Festival, has a memoir coming out in November, I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER: AND OTHER STORIES FROM A LIFE LIVED IN AND OUT OF THE MOVIES.

...Here's a recipe for Katharine Hepburn's Brownies, published in the New York Times.

...The New York Times also just published an article on how Netflix is managing its shrinking discs-by-mail business.

...Coming to DVD in September, Season 6 of HILL STREET BLUES.

...Carley Johnson has written about supper clubs in classic movies at The Black Maria.

...Kristen is hosting a Summer Under the Stars Blogathon at Journeys in Classic Film.

...There's another thumbs up for RIFFRAFF (1947) by Wade Sheeler at The Black Maria. Glenn Erickson liked it too. I suspect that title, which stars Pat O'Brien and Anne Jeffreys, will make my 2015 Favorite Discoveries list!

...The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine just opened a new exhibit, "The Films of Northern Inyo County," focusing on movies shot around Bishop and Big Pine.

...The Formosa Cafe, where annual bloggers' gatherings have been held prior to the TCM Classic Film Festival, has been remodeled.

...Raquel of the blog Out of the Past did a fun "Classic Film Book Haul" video.

...Reviews, reviews, and more reviews: Glenn Erickson on Bill Williams and Barbara Hale in THE CLAY PIGEON (1949) at DVD Savant...Kristina on Rod Taylor in WORLD WITHOUT END (1956) and Robert Sterling and Edward Arnold in THE PENALTY (1941) at Speakeasy...KC on animal films from the Warner Archive, BANJO (1947) and GYPSY COLT (1954), at A Classic Movie Blog...KC also wrote about Richard Dix in MAN OF CONQUEST (1939) for ClassicFlix...Colin's reviewed THE MOONLIGHTER (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray at Riding the High Country...Elisabeth writes about MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) at The Second Sentence...and Caftan Woman writes on TWO IN THE DARK (1936) and its remake TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945).

...Attention Southern Californians: A tribute to director Dorothy Arzner opens Friday at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater.

...Notable Passings: Theodore Bikel, the original Captain Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC on Broadway, passed on last week at the age of 91. His film credits included THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) and THE ENEMY BELOW (1957). I had the privilege of seeing him interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. His official website is here...Nova Pilbeam, the star of Alfred Hitchcock's very enjoyable YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), aka THE GIRL WAS YOUNG, has passed away at the age of 95.

...For more recent links of interest, please visit last week's roundup as well as this month's Disney news.

Have a great week!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Iron Man 2 (2010)

There's a plus side to never having watched a Marvel movie in the past seven years: Watching the films for the first time now, I'm able to immerse myself in the Marvel world and watch a number of them in a relatively short time span.

Marvel film No. 4 for July, following CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014), and IRON MAN (2008), was IRON MAN 2 (2010).

I was warned by multiple people not to expect much from IRON MAN 2, so I seem to be in the minority: I thought IRON MAN 2 was a terrific movie, and indeed, it was my favorite of the four Marvel films I've seen to date.

It's been six months since Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealed he's Iron Man to the public. Congress is pressuring him to turn over the technology to the U.S. military, but Tony is more concerned with other problems, such as the fact that the reactor implanted in his chest to keep him alive is slowly killing him via blood poisoning.

The depressed Tony acts out in childish ways at times, with his distraction from important business frustrating his loyal aide Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony solves this problem by promoting Pepper to CEO of Stark Industries.

At the same time, there's a Russian (Mickey Rourke) named Ivan building an Iron Man himself; Tony's competitor, weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), wants to sell Iron Man technology to the U.S. military and enters into an uneasy partnership with Ivan.

Meanwhile, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of SHIELD, who knew Tony's father Howard (John Slattery), shows up with some important information for Tony...

I thought this film had so much going for it; although there's a villain and plenty of action, including an exciting sequence at the Monaco Grand Prix, at its heart this is a film about Tony's relationships with the various people in his life, including his dead father. His relationship with Pepper reaches a point where it will go forward or end, and his friendship with Rhodey (Don Cheadle, a big improvement on Terrence Howard) is strained by Rhodey's commitment to his employer, the U.S. military.

Then there are new relationships with members of SHIELD, including Nick Fury, the Black Widow (the awesome Scarlett Johansson, whose character seems to be a direct descendant of Mrs. Emma Peel), and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg); I suspect Coulson's milquetoast looks and mild demeanor hide a dangerous man inside. Coulson's interactions with Tony are quietly hilarious, especially the scene where Coulson announces he's leaving for New Mexico. The scene where Tony learns the Black Widow is more than just a secretary at his company is also wonderfully amusing.

It seems rather daring to feature a character as egocentric as Tony Stark as a superhero, but in Downey's hands it works because he's a fully rounded character -- who has enough self-awareness not to argue when Nick Fury tells him he's been assessed as narcissistic. Although Tony grew up a lot in the first IRON MAN film, it's a slow process. What makes the character really interesting is the contrast of scenes where Tony is a flamboyant showman -- the scene where he testifies in front of a Congressional committee is priceless -- with quietly affecting sequences where Tony watches old movie footage of his father, struggles to develop a new invention, or grasps at ways to repair his relationship with Pepper. Downey also brings a lot of humor to the role as the quick-thinking Tony.

Gwyneth Paltrow is pitch perfect as the most important woman in Tony's life. I really felt for her in the scene where she's just learned Tony donated away the art collection she'd spent years curating; on the other hand, the moment where Tony first sees Natalie (Johansson) and turns to Pepper and says "I want one" was very funny, while the fact he could even joke about that to Pepper illustrates their close bond.

As the saying goes, there's a lot more to unpack. Take, for instance, the way that the old footage of Howard Stark (John Slattery) is clearly inspired by Walt Disney's presentation of Epcot; note that at one point there are Stark Expo posters behind Howard, just as there were World's Fair posters in some vintageWalt Disney footage.

The Stark Expo also seems more than a little inspired by the '64 World's Fair in which Disney played such a big role -- in fact, Richard Sherman, who wrote "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" for the World's Fair, wrote "Make Way for Tomorrow Today" for IRON MAN 2! Great stuff for the Disney nerds in the audience.

(And speaking of interesting allusions, what was with that Captain America shield Agent Coulson was holding in Tony's basement lab?)

All in all IRON MAN 2 was a highly enjoyable film which gives its many characters time to breathe and lets their relationships move forward. A very well-done film I'm certain to return to in the future.

IRON MAN 2 was directed by Jon Favreau, who also appears onscreen as driver/bodyguard Happy. (I loved the scene where Happy "helps" the Black Widow.) It was filmed by Matthew Libatique.

Paul Bettany returns as Jarvis, the voice of Tony's robot. Gary Shandling makes his first appearance as Senator Stern, a role he would reprise in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Leslie Bibb returns as a "journalist" which leads to a very amusing scene with Pepper.

Parental Advisory: IRON MAN 2 is rated PG-13 for intense action sequences and brief language. As with the other films, there are lots of explosions but no graphic or disturbing violence.

I had some promotional credits and streamed IRON MAN 2 in HD from Amazon Instant Video. It looked great. It's also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tonight's Movie: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944) was released on DVD by the Warner Archive earlier this year. The release was part of a "wave" of Fredric March titles which included ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN (1941), previously reviewed here.

THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is a moderately entertaining fictionalized biography which benefits chiefly from a good performance by Fredric March in the title role. At 130 minutes it attempts to cover too much ground at far too leisurely a pace; at the same time, despite the running time, the film remains a surface presentation of the famous man which lacks much emotional depth.

The film begins with Twain's fabled birth during the appearance of Halley's Comet. We see him as the child Sam Clemens (Jackie Brown) playing in the river and as a young boy (Dickie Jones) learning to pilot a steamboat. We then meet the adult Twain, a steamboat captain who gives up working on the river to try to make a fortune in California.

The "jumping frog" contest receives extended screen time, after which Twain writes his famous story.

We next follow him as he meets the love of his life, Olivia Langdon (Alexis Smith in a lovely performance) and they struggle through ups and downs: the loss of their son, the success of TOM SAWYER. And on and on it goes.

March is fine in the title role; indeed, it's a bit hard to imagine another actor of the era tackling the part. As I wrote in my review of ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN, I run hot and cold on March, and I thought he did a good job in this one. I felt the problems with the lack of depth were chiefly attributable to an uneven, episodic script which doesn't quite know which Mark Twain it wants to present.

For example, one of the peculiar things about the film is that although we see Twain's speaking and literary successes, he's treated as something of a ne'er-do-well throughout the entire film. Granted, he and his wife did have financial troubles, but it seems as though the filmmakers made a dramatic decision to treat him as a bit of a loser who, spurred on by his wife's confidence, manages to turn out some successful books.

March is well supported by Smith as his wife, who is charmed by his unconventional ways and the tales of his adventures, then won over by his devotion to her. She's exquisitely lovely in the early scenes, before the "aging" makeup is applied.

The large supporting cast includes Alan Hale (Sr.), John Carradine, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, William Henry, Robert Barrat, Nana Bryant, Walter Hampden, Joyce Reynolds, Kay Johnson, and Percy Kilbride. Look carefully in the Oxford sequence near the end of the film; Peter Lawford is clearly visible as an extra.

THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN was actually shot in 1942, but Warner Bros. had so many films in the marketplace during the war that it was held back from release until 1944. It was directed by Irving Rapper from a screenplay by Alan LeMay, based on a play by Harold M. Sherman. It was filmed by Sol Polito; curiously, IMDb lists four additional uncredited cinematographers, including future director Don Siegel. The fine Oscar-nominated musical score was composed by Max Steiner.

As a side note to allay any possible confusion, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN was released by the Warner Archive some years ago, but while Archive releases usually remain available indefinitely, it was later pulled from circulation for reasons which are unknown to me. Whatever the issue was has obviously been cleared up!

The Warner Archive DVD is a good-looking print. The disc includes the trailer.

For more on this movie, please visit posts by Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog and Cliff at Immortal Ephemera.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.

Book Review: Behind the Scenes of They Were Expendable: A Pictorial History

I have long felt that John Ford's THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), which I reviewed here last year, is one of the greatest war films ever made.

When I heard about Lou Sabini's new book BEHIND THE SCENES OF THEY WERE EXPENDABLE: A PICTORIAL HISTORY, I was amazed. An entire book of previously unseen photographs taken while the movie was filmed on location in Florida?! I could hardly wait to review it, especially as the movie stars some of my favorite actors, Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Ward Bond.

I'm pleased to say the book did not disappoint. It's filled with the work of former Navy photographer Nicholas Scutti, who took approximately 150 photographs during the month-long shoot. That's Scutti along with star Robert Montgomery on the book's cover.

Scutti was just 18 when he took the photographs; in fact, he relates that he learned a great deal from MGM's official still photographer, Bert Lynch, who was also on the set.

Scutti is still with us today and provided detailed information regarding each of the photographs in the book. He has a phenomenal memory of what he describes as "one of the highlights of my life." It's a truly fascinating chronicle of life on a working set on a tough, hot location shoot. The book also captures more lighthearted moments, such as a set visit by actor Richard Barthelmess, then a lieutenant commander in the navy.

In addition to the captions, there's a very interesting Q&A with Scutti. I loved reading what he had to say about various cast members:

*On Robert Montgomery: "I thought a helluva lot of him...I thought he was one of the nicest guys on the set. He was very quiet and, for the most part, kept to himself, but never would I say he was 'stand-offish'...He was a very nice guy...As a matter of fact, I think I would rate him as number one on the set." It's also interesting to read, given Montgomery's nice guy reputation, that he did not get along with Ward Bond, who was a fine actor but had a reputation for being, shall way say, immature.

*On John Wayne: "Friendly, happy, smiling, cooperative...always had time for us." Incidentally, there are some very interesting photos depicting Wayne interpreting Ford's directions in Spanish to Filipino extras.

*On actor Jack Pennick, who played "Doc" and also served as an assistant to John Ford: "Now, there's a guy I can't say enough about. I don't know what he got paid, but whatever it was, it should have been at least double! He worked more than anyone on the set...whatever Ford wanted, Jack Pennick would oblige him immediately and efficiently."

*Jack Holt: "Another quiet guy. He really took his part very seriously." In a caption later in the book Holt is described as a "friendly guy" who was happy to chat.

Prior to the photos there's also an overview of the making of the film, which includes good quotes from historical interviews with Robert Montgomery.

BEHIND THE SCENES OF THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is a softcover which is 197 pages long, including the index. The many photos are printed directly on the book's non-glossy pages, but the print quality is good.

My only criticism of this book is that, like so many books published these days, it was not reviewed with care prior to publication, so we end up reading that John Wayne was born in Winterest, Iowa (rather than Winterset), that Robert Montgomery directed LADY IN THE LADY, and so on.

That said, it's easy to overlook those minor flaws as the book is otherwise a treasure trove, a valuable piece of film history which will be especially appreciated by those who love John Ford and the cast members. A recommended read.

Thanks to McFarland for providing a review copy of this book. The book may be ordered from McFarland at the company website or via their phone order line (800-253-2187). It may also be purchased from other sources including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Anniversary DVD Giveaway Winners!

The day has come for the drawing for the winners for my 10th anniversary DVD giveaway!

After winnowing the list of commenters down to those who live in the U.S. and adding in a couple readers who requested to be entered via comments on Twitter, everyone's names went into a bowl on strips of paper for my husband to draw the winners!


First, the winner of the film noir and crime collection of TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945), JOHNNY ANGEL (1945), and SPECIAL AGENT (1935):

Ashley Hinz


Next, the set of early James Stewart films, THE MURDER MAN (1935) and SPEED (1936):

Missy


Finally, the winner of Errol Flynn and Kay Francis in ANOTHER DAWN (1937) along with Greer Garson and Robert Mitchum in DESIRE ME (1947):

Terence Towles Canote


Since I happen to know everyone's Twitter handles I'll also be Tweeting their names to make sure they get word they've won. I'll need mailing addresses from the winners! Please either DM me on Twitter or use the "Contact Me" button at the upper left margin of this page to email it privately. Thanks!

Thanks again to everyone who entered the drawing, and more importantly thanks once more to all of you who have supported Laura's Miscellaneous Musings over the past decade. I value each and every one of you immensely.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tonight's Movie: The Proud Rebel (1958) at the TCM Classic Film Festival

NOTE: This post is one of an occasional series looking back individually at some of the 16 films seen at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. Links to my complete day-by-day coverage of the festival may be found here.

I was fortunate to watch 16 films at this year's 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. I liked all but one of the films; MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (1964) was worth it to see Sophia Loren in person, but not really my thing. Of all the films seen, four in particular were especially enjoyable or meaningful for me.

THE PROUD REBEL (1958), which I saw on the first full day of the festival, was one of those films I found extra-special. Somehow I'd never seen it before, despite the fact it stars two actors I especially like, Alan Ladd and Olivia de Havilland. We were very fortunate to see it in a lovely restored print.

The audience was also fortunate that costar David Ladd was on hand with Eddie Muller to introduce the film, and it was also lovely to hear that de Havilland's daughter Giselle was in the audience. David gives an outstanding performance in the film as his father's son. He spoke of his father with love and affection, saying that his father helped him keep his performance "real" and honest.

The senior Ladd plays John Chandler, a widowed Confederate veteran who is traveling with his little boy David (David Ladd) in search of a cure for the boy's inability to speak. David has been mute since witnessing the murder of his mother and the burning of their home.

Through no fault of his own Chandler ends up in a brawl in a Western town. A farm woman, Linnett, takes pity on the Chandlers, as she doesn't want to see David separated from his father if John is jailed. She pays John's fine, in exchange for which he's paroled to work on her farm; more accurately, she tells the judge she'll come up with the money for the fine eventually, and persuades him to do things her way through sheer force of will!

John and Linnett end up enmeshed in each other's problems; he tries to help save her farm from a mean landowner (Dean Jagger), and she agrees to take David to a specialist for treatment.

At its heart this is a relationship film about the slow, subtle development of a new family unit, with excellent performances by de Havilland and the Ladds. This is quite a different role for de Havilland; she was 42 when it was filmed, and she looks every inch a careworn, unglamorous farmer who has spent countless hours in the sun tending her land. It's a lonely life, and we quickly see how she is becoming attached to the little boy and his father, and in turn young David blossoms having the care of a mother figure in his life.

I would have like to see a bit more screen time devoted to the tentatively developing relationship of John and Linnett, but what did make it on screen is very good. de Havilland, incidentally, liked Alan Ladd very much, and the insecure actor was said to be moved when de Havilland told him she thought he would have been wonderful as Ashley in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).

David Ladd is excellent as the mute boy; he received a special Golden Globe for his performance. Casting David to act with his father was an inspired choice which worked out very well indeed. As a dog lover, I did have some difficulty with a section of the film where the little boy is separated from his beloved dog, but that part of the film is relatively brief, and the movie is so well done that it's worth sticking with it, as there's a very rewarding ending in sight.

THE PROUD REBEL reunited de Havilland with director Michael Curtiz, who had worked with her on numerous films, including the classic THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) two decades previously.

The movie was filmed in Technicolor by Ted McCord and scored by Jerome Moross, the very same year he composed one of the greatest film scores of all time, THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). The screenplay was based on a story by James Edward Grant, the writer behind ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), HONDO (1953) and other good Westerns. It runs 103 minutes.

The supporting cast includes Cecil Kellaway, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Pittman, Henry Hull, James Westerfield, and Mary Wickes.

THE PROUD REBEL has been released on DVD in multiple editions, and it can be streamed on Amazon Instant Video.

THE PROUD REBEL will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, August 2nd, 2015.

Highly recommended.

Tonight's Movie: Showdown at Abilene (1956)

SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE (1956) is a "darn good Western," a great exemplar of the '50s films put out by Universal. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

With the Civil War ended, Confederate veteran Jim Trask (Jock Mahoney) heads back to his hometown of Abilene. Jim discovers his sweetheart Peggy (Martha Hyer), thinking he was dead, is engaged to his old friend Dave (Lyle Bettger).

Although he has trouble firing a gun due to a friendly fire incident during the war, Jim accepts his old job as sheriff when he's pressured into taking it by Dave. Jim feels responsible to Dave because Dave lost his right hand in a childhood accident with Jim...and there are other reasons as well.

This is a well-written Western (screenplay by Berne Giler) with strong characterizations. Longtime stuntman Mahoney handles his role as the mentally tortured yet honorable Jim with confident ease. His background in stunt work shows as on two different occasions he takes a flying leap off a veranda or elevated sidewalk; the lack of edits, with Mahoney clearly handling both scenes himself, greatly increases the excitement of these action sequences. Very well done!

Bettger is always such a slimy villain, but he brings quite a bit of nuance to his role. Dave's on the verge of having it all -- money, nice house, pretty wife -- but he also could lose it all very quickly. The scene where his world crumbles is rather moving, even though he clearly has done some very bad things and doesn't deserve audience sympathy. It's the mark of good acting that Bettger makes the viewer feel for him.

Rounding out the cast in a nice, understated performance as Jim's deputy is David Janssen. Given that the previous sheriff (Ted de Corsia) was a no-good guy, it's unclear at first if the deputy will be friend or foe to Jim, and it's enjoyable to watch their respectful relationship gradually develop.

Martha Hyer, a leading lady in so many Westerns, does a fine job here as well; her first two scenes with Jim, as they are reunited after the war, are filled with regret and longing. I feel compelled to add she has quite a nice hairstyle in this; she's like a chameleon in her films, often looking quite different from movie to movie, and in Columbia's WYOMING RENEGADES (1954) she had a peculiar platinum blonde hairstyle which might have been a wig. She looks lovely here.

SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE runs a perfectly paced 80 minutes. It was directed by Charles Haas and shot by Irving Glassberg.

A bit player of note: Pauline Moore, who was Ann Rutledge in John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), is a townswoman. She was off the screen after 1941, then returned to movies and TV for a few projects in the mid to late '50s.

Western fans will like this one. Unfortunately it's not on VHS or DVD. Thanks for John Knight for making it possible for me to watch it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Iron Man (2008)

This month's immersion into the Marvel world continues! Having watched CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014), tonight I watched the first film in the series, IRON MAN (2008).

Robert Downey Jr. plays industrialist Tony Stark, son of Howard Stark from the film CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. (Gerard Sanders plays Howard in newsreel footage and stills seen in IRON MAN; Howard was played by Dominic Cooper in CAPTAIN AMERICA and the TV series AGENT CARTER. Apparently John Slattery of HOMEFRONT and MAD MEN will play Howard in some of the films.) Wealthy inventors Howard and Tony Stark both seem to have been influenced by Howard Hughes; Tony is incredibly brilliant, but also a womanizing, unserious egomaniac -- until fate intervenes.

Tony is nearly killed in the Middle East; this part was rather humorous for me, as the scenes were shot in the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, California. I had a bit of hard time suspending disbelief due to my familiarity with the area, but it was also fun to see the location used in a newer movie.

Tony ends up held prisoner by terrorists, with another captured scientist implanting a weird device in the wounded Tony's chest to keep his heart going. The terrorists want Tony to build a weapons system, but instead he creates the first Iron Man, enabling him to blow the bad guys to smithereens and escape.

Tony's return home is greeted with joy by his loyal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his close friend, Rhodey (Terrence Howard). After seeing his company's weapons misused in the Middle East, Tony wants out of the weapons manufacturing business, to the consternation of his partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Meanwhile Tony slowly creates a new, even more elaborate Iron Man in his Malibu basement...just in time to realize someone close to him wants to kill him.

I found the evolution of Tony Stark in the film, from privileged brat to serious man with a mission, to be very well handled and believable. The casting of Downey was interesting for multiple reasons; Downey, like Stark, overcame his past and turned his life around, and it was also refreshing to have someone in his 40s cast as a superhero, with an age-appropriate leading lady.

The film's biggest flaw was that it was too long at 126 minutes; some of the sequences, such as Tony's time in a Middle Eastern cave or being tormented by his nemisis late in the film, go on and on and on. I think the film could have been trimmed down by a few minutes for a brisker pace.

I did like the prolonged development sequences where Tony interacts with his robot Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany); I suspect one of the reasons the development sequences were lengthy was to better ground the film in a sense of reality, and from that standpoint they work.

My other main criticism was I felt a lack of chemistry between Tony and Rhodey; the scene where Rhodey is in a situation room following Iron Man's flight and talking to him on his cell phone could have had much more humor and drama. It should have been an exciting high point as Rhodey realizes where his friend is and deals with it; instead it was just kind of flat. That was partly a fault of how the scene was written, but I also didn't feel the characters (or actors) clicked. I was thus quite interested to learn that Rhodey was recast in subsequent films with Don Cheadle (OCEAN'S 11).

On the other hand, I loved the relationship of Tony and Pepper and really enjoyed their banter and unspoken attraction. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing what might develop there in future films.

I understand I'll also be meeting Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of SHIELD in future films. As I mentioned in my review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, I do enjoy the "soap opera"/movie series aspects of these films, with long-running characters in interconnected stories.

The three Marvel movies seen to date have a nice old-fashioned sensibility, with heroes maturing and ultimately becoming selfless as they take on unexpected responsibilities for the good of the world. There are also strong roles for women and, for the most part, a lack of disturbing violence. And there was even an appearance by Lone Pine, seen in so many favorite Westerns and other classic films! I'll be back for more.

IRON MAN was directed by Jon Favreau, who also appears onscreen in the series as Hogan. It was filmed by Matthew Libatique.

As was the case with the CAPTAIN AMERICA movies, the music is sadly forgettable.

Parental Advisory: IRON MAN is rated PG-13 for intense action sequences and one very brief suggestive scene. There are a lot of explosions but no graphic violence.

IRON MAN is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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