Monday, April 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DANCING LADY (1933)

There's something of a kitchen sink feeling about Dancing Lady (1933) that is bound to pique the interest of any classic film fan. You want Busby Berkeley style musical numbers with lots of skin? Done. How about Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone in a steamy love triangle? Yes, you can have that, too. But wait, you say you want more? How about the official screen debut of Fred Astaire? Dancing Lady has that covered, as well. Just for kicks, it also throws in the Three Stooges yukking it up, Nelson Eddy singing, Sterling Holloway pitching a fit, and Eve Arden and Lynn Bari making early uncredited appearances. If it's not the best of the 1930s musicals (and it's definitely not), all of these goodies at least make Dancing Lady one of the most jam-packed, and certainly entertaining enough to be worth watching.

Joan Crawford stars as Janie Barlow, an aspiring dancer who gets a lucky break when a wealthy admirer named Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) helps her escape the burlesque shows for more legitimate theater. Tod has plans to make Janie the star of his bedroom as well as the stage, but Janie's gratitude only goes so far, especially after she meets Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable), a temperamental director who realizes that Janie has real talent. Tod ups the ante by proposing marriage, but Janie feels torn between her dreams of stardom, her feelings for Patch, and her opportunity to trade everything else for a life of leisure as Mrs. Tod Newton.

The story works well enough as a romantic drama, although Franchot Tone's character is rather hard to pin down; should we think he's a manipulative heel or a smitten guy just trying to get the girl by any means necessary? The real chemistry is clearly between Crawford and Gable, but there's still enough heat coming off of Crawford and Tone to keep things up in the air. In real life, Crawford carried on affairs with both Gable and Tone, and she actually married Tone in 1935 (they would divorce in 1939). Crawford is at her best in passionate clinches with both of her leading men, but her brief scenes with Astaire reveal the limitations of her abilities. He floats away, while she stomps out a hoofer's heavy beats, leaving the audience wondering exactly what kind of talent the show's managers think they see in her.

In keeping with its kitchen sink ambitions, Dancing Lady throws in musical numbers and comedy in more or less equal amounts with its drama. Imitating the successful 42nd Street (1933), which had come out earlier the same year, the movie offers a lot of chorus girls in weirdly suggestive outfits doing some very improbable dance routines, and this is certainly entertaining in its own way, although the choreography is not as eye-popping as that done by Busby Berkeley. Equally weird, and perhaps more entertaining, are the scenes featuring Ted Healy and the Stooges, especially the "brush-off" segment with the Stooges wrecking Janie's audition. Janie's sidekick, Rosette (Winnie Lightner), also provides some memorable laughs, as does May Robson as Tod's mostly deaf grandmother. Eve Arden and Lynn Bari appear only briefly, although Arden does get a few good lines. Sterling Holloway enjoys a more noteworthy role in which he huffs and puffs in vain at Clark Gable's Patch.

If you want to see more films directed by Robert Z. Leonard, try The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and In the Good Old Summertime (1949). For other Joan Crawford films with Clark Gable, see Possessed (1931), Love on the Run (1936), and Strange Cargo (1940). Franchot Tone earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), in which Gable also stars, but you can also catch him with Jean Harlow in The Girl from Missouri (1934) and with Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935). If you can't get enough of the early 1930s musical style, move on to 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: PAT AND MIKE (1952)

Following Adam's Rib (1949) in the progression of Hepburn-Tracy pictures, Pat and Mike (1952) reunites all of the key players who had made that film such a success; we have our two stars, of course, and also director George Cukor and writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, who were apparently inspired to write the story because of Katharine Hepburn's real talent for athletic pursuits. While this outing for the collaborators lacks the snap of the earlier picture, fans of the leading couple will find it worthwhile, although the most enthusiastic viewers will probably be those with an established interest in sports stars of the 1940s and 50s, since many of them make cameo appearances and demonstrate the sports for which they were known. Pat and Mike is not the best of the Hepburn-Tracy movies, but it features several solid performances and reveals a surprisingly quirky sense of humor that most people will appreciate.

Katharine Hepburn plays Patricia "Pat" Pemberton, a widowed university athletics teacher whose talent for sports dissipates whenever her pushy, condescending fiance, Collier Weld (William Ching), is on the scene. Determined to prove herself to herself if not to him, Pat accepts the offer of management from promoter Mike Conovan (Spencer Tracy), even though it's clear that Conovan has a slightly crooked idea of professional sports. They embark on a tour of tennis and golf matches, where Pat performs brilliantly until Collier shows up. Mike's evolving affection for Pat, meanwhile, inspires him to go straight, even though his investors take a dim view of any practice that hurts their chances of making money.

Pat is a different sort of character for Hepburn because of her nervousness around Collier, which is revealed to the audience through Pat's habit of putting an uncertain hand to her lip every time she spots Collier in the crowd. Away from his life-draining effect, Pat is confident and strong, even to the point of upsetting Mike by saving him from his mobster investors. Some viewers will find Pat's weakness irritating, particularly because Hepburn is playing her, but the story means to warn us against yoking ourselves to partners who undermine our abilities instead of nurturing them. We understand that Mike, class differences aside, is a better partner for Pat because he believes in her and wants her to succeed, while Collier only wants her to settle down and be a good little wife.

Hepburn is in particularly fine physical form, displaying her athleticism and looking much younger than she had in the previous year's The African Queen (1951). Tracy, however, appears older than his 52 years, and in this picture the age difference between the pair is at its most glaring. By Desk Set (1957) they would look well-matched again, the seven years between them not really being that much by Hollywood standards. Pat and Mike was their seventh picture together, and reportedly Hepburn's favorite, although most viewers prefer their first film, Woman of the Year (1942), and Adam's Rib (1949), their sixth, as the best of the nine movies they made together. Their last movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), is hard to watch because everyone on set knew that Tracy was dying, and the real-life emotions bleed through to give the picture a powerful but almost unbearable pathos.

Classic film fans will appreciate supporting and walk-on performances from Aldo Ray, Jim Backus, Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, while sports enthusiasts will enjoy seeing legends like Babe Didrikson and Alice Marble. Gordon and Kanin earned an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, the third nomination for their collaborative work. See more of George Cukor's work with Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). You'll find Aldo Ray in We're No Angels (1955) and The Green Berets (1968). Look for more of William Ching in D.O.A. (1950) and In a Lonely Place (1950).

Monday, April 22, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE BARON OF ARIZONA (1950)

We associate Vincent Price with certain kinds of roles, although generally speaking he played villains in both his early dramas and his later horror films, sliding from oily Sir Walter Raleigh in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) to the deranged anti-heroes of Corman's cult classics in the 1960s. Price's character in Samuel Fuller's The Baron of Arizona (1950) lies somewhere in between those ends; he's a morally ambivalent but imaginatively ambitious protagonist whom we grow rather fond of in spite of his dirty deeds. At once a Western, a heist adventure, and a romance, The Baron of Arizona succeeds on all fronts because Vincent Price so perfectly captures both the good and the evil that exist within the main character, whose grandiose scheme involves swindling the entire state of Arizona right out from under the United States government.

Price plays a fictionalized version of real-life con man James Addison Reavis, who really did try to claim Arizona through a series of elaborate forgeries and deceptions. A rogue and a swindler by nature, Reavis takes in and raises a young girl (Karen Kester) whom he purports to be the heir to the Spanish land grant; when she grows up (to be played as an adult by Ellen Drew), Reavis marries her and begins styling himself as the Baron of Arizona. Aiding him, to some degree unwittingly, are the girl's foster father, Pepito (Vladimir Sokoloff), and governess, Loma (Beulah Bondi). All the while, the government struggles desperately to poke holes in Reavis' claim, with forgery expert John Griff (Reed Hadley) at the forefront of the effort.

The movie streamlines and romanticizes the historical account, but the omissions strengthen the narrative and encourage our sympathy with Reavis, even when we know he's up to no good. Price walks a very fine line in performing the character as a theatrical scoundrel who still possesses enough credibility for us to hope for his eventual redemption. We have to be able to understand why Sofia falls in love with him and why other women find him so irresistible, and we also have to believe that the steadfast love of a woman like Sofia might actually inspire an alteration in Reavis' deeply devious heart. Ellen Drew does a particularly good job embodying this transformative devotion; her elegant features and soulful eyes work on the audience much more quickly than they do on Reavis himself, and we want Reavis to change because we want him to deserve her misplaced faith and affection.

As a Western, The Baron of Arizona depicts a fascinating chapter in the history of the West, and James Wong Howe's cinematography offers plenty of dust and frontier scenery to help things along. The monastery scenes in Spain are also a highlight, with Reavis biding his time as a novice monk for several years just to get a chance to alter one critical manuscript. There's a lot of adventure and derring-do involved in Reavis' magnificent scheme, including escapades with gypsies and encounters with angry lynch mobs, and Price carries it all in grand style. It's hard to imagine another actor capable of playing such a role, except perhaps for Tyrone Power, but it's a part tailor-made for the talents of Price.

For other more ambiguous Price roles, try Laura (1944), Dragonwyck (1946) or the very strange Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), or see him in an unusually heroic mode in His Kind of Woman (1951). Look for Ellen Drew in Preston Sturges' Christmas in July (1940) and Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead (1945). Character actress Beulah Bondi turns up in many classic films, but you're most likely to remember her as Ma Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Writer and director Samuel Fuller also made Pickup on South Street (1953), The Naked Kiss (1964), and The Big Red One (1980).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940)

As a piece of classic cinema history, They Drive by Night (1940) makes an excellent study in the different ways in which some of our most celebrated actors became certified stars. Raoul Walsh's dramatic noir film about truck-driving brothers launched twenty-two year old Ida Lupino into stardom and helped build the career of the forty-one year old Humphrey Bogart, perhaps the most notable late bloomer in Hollywood history. Although its split plot gives the picture something of a multiple personalities complex, They Drive by Night makes the most of its excellent cast and offers viewers a very exciting, if somewhat convoluted, ride in the dark.

Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother, Paul (Humphrey Bogart), work long hours as truck drivers in California. Paul would just as soon take a regular job, but Joe, the dominant brother, yearns for independence and success. When an exhausted Paul is maimed after falling asleep at the wheel, Joe goes to work for an old friend, Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), to support himself and his brother, but Ed's devious wife, Lana (Ida Lupino), becomes obsessed with Joe. Even though Joe has already found love with another woman (Ann Sheridan), Lana hatches a twisted plan to win Joe for herself.

George Raft gets top billing, and the role of Joe is a noteworthy departure from his usual gangster type. A real straight arrow, Joe's only weakness might be his relentless desire to succeed on his own terms; he flatly rejects Lana's attempts at seduction and doesn't even drink, and his stand-up character attracts Ann Sheridan's frank, unsentimental heroine. Sheridan serves as a perfect foil to Lupino; where Lana Carlsen is needy, weak, and destructive, Sheridan's Cassie Hartley embodies feminine strength and support. Together they make a provocative variation on the usual good girl/bad girl dichotomy of film noir. Lupino, however, enjoys the best scenes in the picture, from her murderous moment with the automatic garage door sensor to her brilliantly deranged courtroom scene near the movie's end. Bogart has to take a backseat to most of this action revolving around Raft and the women, but he gives a very solid performance; Alan Hale, a go-to guy for loud, brassy characters, also has some excellent scenes as Lana's ill-fated spouse.

As a story, They Drive by Night proves less a straight road than a series of unexpected curves. At first, the plot focuses on the hard lives of truckers, promoting a pro-labor agenda and encouraging us to see Joe's independence as heroic. Later, it seems that Joe's refusal to work for a company was mere hubris, since his boss is a good guy who gives Joe every opportunity to do well, even though Joe only takes the job out of guilt over his brother's injury. The third act moves into the territory of women's melodrama with the love triangle between Raft, Lupino, and Sheridan, further supported by a subplot in which Paul's wife, Pearl (Gale Page), yearns to have a baby and rejoices in her husband's accident because it finally makes him stay at home. The mixed nature of the story has something to do with the fact that They Drive by Night is partly an adaptation of A.I. Bezzerides' 1938 novel, The Long Haul, and partly a remake of the 1935 film, Bordertown, which stars Paul Muni and Bette Davis in the Raft and Lupino roles.

Raoul Walsh went on to direct Bogart and Lupino in High Sierra (1941); he also directed the Cagney pictures The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949). For more of Ida Lupino, see The Man I Love (1947), Road House (1948), and On Dangerous Ground (1952). See George Raft in gangster mode in Scarface (1932) and Some Like It Hot (1959). You'll find Ann Sheridan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Kings Row (1942), and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). For more early Bogart, try The Petrified Forest (1936) and Dark Victory (1939). Alan Hale turns up in everything from Of Human Bondage (1934) and Stella Dallas (1937) to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Destination Tokyo (1943). With nearly 250 film appearances to his credit, Hale is one of those character actors film buffs can hardly avoid, but he's always a pleasure to find.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reel West: Old Tucson Studios

Take the stage to High Chaparral
If you love classic Westerns, Old Tucson Studios might just be your personal piece of heaven. The working movie lot has been hanging around on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, since 1939, when it was built for the filming of, naturally, Arizona, which starred Jean Arthur and William Holden. Since then it has been the home of some 200 productions for film and television, from Rio Bravo (1959) and Three Amigos! (1986) to The High Chaparral and  Little House on the Prairie. These days it also doubles as a Western movie buff theme park, with shows and attractions designed to tickle a John Wayne fan's fancy until the cows come home. In exchange for the cost of admission and few hours of your time, you can stride the streets where the Duke's boots kicked up dust and dozens of other silver screen cowboys have fought their showdowns and drunk their beer.

I admit I was nervous about visiting the place myself. I was afraid it would be tacky and crammed with cheap souvenirs at marked up prices. As it turns out, Old Tucson's biggest oversight might actually be a lack of shops. The place is decidedly uninterested in selling you anything beyond an entertaining day of shows and maybe some lunch and a cold sarsaparilla. In many ways, it's the exact opposite of Tombstone, which is all shops and no substance, and I suspect a lot of people who head to Tombstone would be better off checking out Old Tucson instead.

You can easily spend the entire day at Old Tucson, so don't get any fancy ideas about cramming in
I'm in the show!
the equally intense Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the scenic Saguaro National Park while you're on that side of town. The studio has shows that run all day long, and you more or less have to be there from opening to closing to catch them all. The schedule runs the gamut from funny skits to shootouts to musical revues, so there's something to suit every Western buff's preference.

Audience participation is a given at several shows. I was delighted to be picked for the stunt show (I admit to chatting up Ty, the actor, beforehand about being a classic movie blogger and author - did I stack the deck in my favor? You bet!). It's worth noting that you'll see the same group of actors throughout the day in different shows; by the end of a visit you might feel awfully fond of them, and you'll certainly appreciate their energy and enthusiasm. They have a dirty, sweaty, and dangerous job, but they really seem to love it.

Loop Rawlins
One of the highlights of the day is definitely a performance by Loop Rawlins, a Cirque du Soleil veteran and rope trick master. He also does some nifty tricks with guns and whips, but the lasso is his best instrument. If matinee Westerns were still in vogue today, Loop would be a huge star. He has the looks, the talent, and the charm of the old cowboy kings. All he really needs is a smart horse!

You can take a guided tour of the studios and learn all about the history of the location and the movies that have been made there. There's also a sentimental John Wayne tribute film and a really fun musical review of songs from classic Westerns. If you can sing the words to "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" you'll love it. You can also catch a stagecoach ride out to the High Chaparral set and learn why you really wouldn't want to ride the stage to Lordsburg, much less to San Francisco.

I didn't expect much from the food at the studio, but I was pleasantly surprised by a tasty sandwich at the pharmacy deli counter, and the prickly pear lemonade from the candy shop really hit the spot. The biggest restaurant on site is Big Jake's BBQ, but there's also Pony Express Pizza and an ice cream stand that sells raspados in addition to the usual cones.

First-time visitors might be wondering if the price of admission is worth it. If you really love classic
Little House on the Prairie costumes
Westerns, it's one of the best attractions you can visit anywhere, hands down. If you have kids who play cowboy all day, they'll love it, too. If, however, you love to shop and can't tell Tex Ritter from Randolph Scott, this probably ain't your kind of establishment, and you best mosey on down the road. Need to gauge your family's interest in a full day of such fare? Test the waters with a trip to Trail Dust Town in Tucson, and be sure to stay for the evening shootout show. If that leaves your group whooping and hollering with delight, then they're ready for Old Tucson.

Here's a partial list of films and television shows shot at Old Tucson Studios:

Little House on the Prairie
Tombstone (1993)
How the West was Won
Wild Wild West (1999)
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Three Amigos! (1986)
Rio Bravo (1959)
McLintock! (1963)
Joe Kidd (1972)
The High Chaparral
Young Guns II (1990)
El Dorado (1966)
Rio Lobo (1970)
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Winchester '73 (1950)
Broken Arrow (1950)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
Hombre (1967)
The Villain (1979)
Last Train from Gun Hill (1957)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)

Directed by George Stevens, Woman of the Year (1942) offers us the first fateful pairing of that iconic Hollywood duo, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They would make nine films together, ultimately becoming one of the most famous couples in movie history, both for their onscreen performances and their enduring offscreen affair. This first outing together sets the tone for later Tracy and Hepburn pictures, and it's a thoroughly entertaining example of their unique romantic chemistry; the undertones of the heroine's inevitable comeuppance, however, might well prove troubling for modern women who struggle to balance their own professional and personal aspirations. Although its notions of gender identity reflect the limited views of its era, Woman of the Year is still a must-see film for Hepburn and Tracy fans.

Tracy plays sports writer Sam Craig, who spars with and then falls for celebrated political columnist Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn). Their marriage, however, is soon on the rocks because Tess remains more interested in pursuing her career and building her professional reputation. Sam feels neglected and frustrated, and his relationship with Tess is further tested when she unexpectedly brings home an orphaned Greek refugee. When Tess is named Woman of the Year, the tension between the couple reaches its peak, and Tess must figure out whether her ambition is worth the sacrifice of her chance for domestic happiness.

The stars fall into the character types that eventually defined their films together: Tracy is the man's man, affable, solid, and ultimately the winner of every romantic contest, while Hepburn is a brilliant New Woman, smarter and classier than her partner and yet destined to be reshaped according to his will. The film works hard to prove to the audience that this arrangement is right, with Fay Bainter giving a particularly nuanced performance as Tess' successful but lonely aunt, a warning to show what Tess' own fate will be if she can't hang on to Sam. Certainly there is some merit in the idea that people need to work at their relationships if they want to keep them alive, but it doesn't seem at all necessary in the movie for Sam to make any comparable sacrifices. Because Tess has been more successful and has worked harder, she also has to give up more, and that will strike most modern viewers as rather unfair. Her ultimate humiliation comes with the final kitchen scene, where she is depicted as so ridiculously incompetent that she can't even work a toaster.

The problems with the movie's sexual politics don't make it any less interesting to watch; they are, after all, common in its time period, and at least Tracy's character offers some hope for balance when, at the very end, he asks, "Why can't you be Tess Harding Craig?" If anything, it ought to make us grateful for more flexible arrangements today, when Sam Craig might well become a house husband, and Tess Harding might more easily pursue her work with some telecommuting and a good cell phone plan. In retrospect, the most troubling part of the movie is the fate of Chris, the little Greek refugee who gets returned to the orphanage by Sam when he realizes that Tess isn't interested in real parental obligations. Sam and Tess might be able to negotiate their relationship by the end, but poor Chris represents their greatest failure, one that they don't seem to recognize for the tragedy it is.

Take time to appreciate the supporting roles played by Fay Bainter, William Bendix, and Dan Tobin. Hepburn earned a Best Actress nomination for her role as Tess, and the film won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. For more of Hepburn and Tracy, see Adam's Rib (1949), Desk Set (1957), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). I'm also fond of the less familiar Without Love (1945), a film that explores the romantic possibilities to two people coming to share a passion for their work together. Two time Oscar winner George Stevens also directed A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), and Giant (1956). For different takes on Hepburn, see Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and The African Queen (1951). Don't miss Tracy's brilliant dramatic performances in Fury (1936), Captains Courageous (1937), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HOLLOW TRIUMPH (1948)

Sometimes good actors make bad movies, and such is the case with Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett in the dreadfully tepid crime picture, Hollow Triumph (1948), also known as The Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself. Both performers deserve to be celebrated for their roles in other films, but the ridiculous plot, limping pace, and all too obvious "twists" of Hollow Triumph make it a picture that only their most devoted fans might enjoy.

Henreid stars as Johnny Muller, a well-heeled hoodlum who plans an overly ambitious hit on a rival gangster's illicit gambling operation. Force to go into hiding, Muller stumbles upon his exact double, a doctor named Bartok (also played by Henreid). A romance develops between Muller and the doctor's secretary, Evelyn (Joan Bennett), even though she ought to be smart enough to know better. Muller decides that the best way to elude his pursuers is to murder Bartok and assume his identity, but he soon discovers that the good doctor had secrets, too, which thwart Muller's plans for his own happy ending.

It's hard to buy Paul Henreid as a gangster, and he never manages to be either sufficiently charming or evil to generate much interest in his character. He and Joan Bennett have very little chemistry together on screen, even though Bennett is as lovely as ever in the role of the emotionally conflicted heroine. The titular scar that marks Dr. Bartok is supposed to be the lynchpin of the film's ironic twist, but an alert viewer ought to see the "surprise" coming from a mile away, and the ending seems like a letdown after all the fuss.

Henreid actually produced this picture himself, so he must have thought it worthwhile, but director Steve Sekely doesn't improve the material, and none of the supporting performances really stand out, either. If you want to admire Henreid, stick with Now, Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1942). For better Joan Bennett pictures, try Little Women (1933) and Scarlet Street (1945). Steve Sekely is probably best remembered as the director of the 1962 cult classic, The Day of the Triffids. Hollow Triumph does have its admirers; try the well-written review at Film Noir of the Week for a different perspective from mine. If you really need to see this particular film for yourself, you'll find it available as The Scar on Netflix Instant.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Requiem for Roger

I always liked this book cover.
If you read movie blogs, you will read dozens of tributes to Roger Ebert in the coming days. You might even read hundreds, were you so inclined. More fortunate souls than myself will have personal encounters to relate, of chance meetings or lucky breaks that got them where they are today with Ebert's encouragement and help.

Alas, I grew up in rural South Georgia, far from Chicago and worlds away from Hollywood, but Roger Ebert found me there, too. Like so many members of my generation, I grew up with Siskel and Ebert, their thumbs up or down, their wisecracks and praise lighting up the balcony and telling me all I needed to know about movies that would probably never play in Jesup, GA. Long before I knew what literary criticism and scholarship were, their insights shaped my understanding of narrative, character, and plot. In later years I faithfully read Ebert's take on every movie I saw or considered going to see, weighing his reviews with my own evolving thoughts.

Given the way my life has turned out, Roger Ebert probably taught me more than many of my graduate professors, who thought I needed a tenure-track job to do what I wanted to do. Looking at Ebert's work, especially in the last years after his health declined, I came to understand that a writer - or a critic, of whatever kind - does not require a university or an office with a title on the door. Indeed, the great critics of the 19th century would have been perplexed at the very idea. A writer writes and finds a way to reach readers who will care. Roger Ebert could not even speak anymore, but he kept writing and embraced new ways of reaching out to readers. He was inspirational, not just in his words, but in the way he forged ahead and found ways to do what mattered the most to him.

While I'm envious of the people who met Roger Ebert, who got to shake his hand or tell him what he meant to them, I'm glad to be one of the many thousands whose lives were touched by his work and his passion for film. He had a very long reach from that balcony, and we're all the better for it.

Classic Films in Focus: PHANTOM STALLION (1954)

Fans of the singing cowboy genre epitomized by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry will remember Rex Allen as the star of a number of similar Westerns turned out by Republic Pictures in the 1950s, beginning with The Arizona Cowboy (1950). For the uninitiated, however, Phantom Stallion (1954) makes a perfectly serviceable introduction to the Rex Allen oeuvre, though it's light on actual singing aside from the opening theme. Like most matinee Westerns of its era, Phantom Stallion is short, only about an hour from start to finish, but it tells a good story, with all the action and peril one could hope for in such a small package.

Rex Allen, playing himself as usual, rides into a hotbed of dangerous deception when he arrives at the horse ranch of old Reilly (Harry Shannon), an Irishman in Mexican dress who blames a wild stallion for stealing his best mares. As it turns out, Reilly's niece, Claire (Carla Balenda), and her scheming lover (Don Haggerty) are behind the vanishing stock, but they have even deadlier plans to take control of the whole ranch. Aided by his pal, Slim (Slim Pickens), Rex must get to the bottom of the plot and protect young Tony (Peter Price) from becoming the its next victim.

Most of the action here involves horses in one way or another, with the wild stallion and a young filly getting even more screen time than Rex's mount, KoKo, who actually enjoyed top billing with the star in almost all of his films. Young viewers might be upset by the trampling death of one character, but for adults the scene adds a seriousness to the business that enhances our investment in the story. It's a striking reminder of the power and potential ferocity of animals that are often rendered invisible by their ubiquitous presence in Western films.

Equally ferocious is the picture's femme fatale, played with subtle menace by lovely Carla Balenda. The matinee audience means that most of Claire's sexual power remains more or less restrained, but there's quite a bit going on in the subtext. As a straight shooter hero, Rex seems mostly impervious to her charms, but other men are deceived at their peril, including her unsuspecting uncle. Not content to be a horse thief, Claire becomes a murderess, as well, and Balenda packs all of the character's ambition, cowardice, and even lust into a few well-deployed glances and expressions.

Statue of Rex Allen in Willcox, AZ
Phantom Stallion is one of more than half a dozen Rex Allen films to feature Slim Pickens in the sidekick role. See more of the pair in The Last Musketeer (1952), Old Overland Trail (1953), and Shadows of Tombstone (1953). For Allen's pictures with his other sidekick, Buddy Ebsen, try Rodeo King and the Senorita (1951) and Utah Wagon Train (1951). In later years, Allen gained additional fame as the narrator of many Disney films, including The Incredible Journey (1963) and Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar (1967). He even sang the original theme song for Disney's Carousel of Progress and provided the voice of the father character.

You'll find several Rex Allen films, including Phantom Stallion, on Netflix Instant. To learn even more about the singing cowboy star, visit the Rex Allen Museum in Willcox, Arizona.

Westerns on Sale at Warner Archive

Warner Archive is running a sale on its classic Westerns this week, and all I can really say in response to that news is "Yeehaw!" Oaters are at the top of my list this spring, especially after a recent trip out West to see the haunts of legendary cowboys and lawmen, both real and Hollywood-made. I'll be talking about some of those places here and over at Examiner, in the National Classic Movies column, over the next few weeks.

Denise Darcel and Robert Taylor - Warner Archive

In the meantime, let me encourage you to pop on over to Warner Archive and check out the sale-priced Westerns now available (with free shipping, too!). The Archive sent me some publicity stills from one of the selected Westerns, Westward the Women (1951), quite a while back, and I'm thrilled to see the picture included in the current sale. If you think Westerns are a masculine domain, Westward the Women will change your mind in a hurry. I'm sharing one of the stills here in the hopes that it will encourage you to look up this fantastic women's Western, which is absolutely worth the current sale price of $12.95, especially because it's so hard to get anywhere else (you won't even find it on DVD from Netflix).

You can also read my full review of Westward the Women on Examiner, as well as reviews of plenty of other classic Westerns. Also included in the Warner Archive sale is the Clark Gable picture, Across the Wide Missouri (1951), which is worth watching not only for its star but for narration by Howard Keel and the spectacle of Ricardo Montalban as a half-naked Native American.

I think I'll mosey on over to the Archive and browse the sale one more time before I saddle up with Rex Allen for an afternoon of cowboys and KoKo on Netflix Instant!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Win Copies of BEYOND CASABLANCA on Classic Movie Hub in April!

My wonderful friend over at Classic Movie Hub is running a terrific series of contests this month, and the prizes are copies of my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching. If you haven't made CMH a regular stop in your browsing already, this is a great time to visit and get to know the site. CMH helps classic movie fans find blogs of interest and also serves as a treasure trove of knowledge about all kinds of classic film information. I especially enjoy the birthday section of the site and visit it pretty much every day to find out which classic film notables are marking birthdays, but CMH has articles about museums, films, and lots of other subjects, too.

CMH will have five copies of Beyond Casablanca to give away to contest winners all this month. I really appreciate the help in letting people know about the book, and I hope that the winners will enjoy their copies! The final copy will be a signed edition, so look out for that one if you like your books autographed.

If you're not sure you want to win a copy of the book, you can find out more about it and even read preview pages at Amazon. You can also get crazy and buy the Kindle edition for $4.99, but you should still check out Classic Movie Hub and enter the contest.

Like Pinterest? You can check out the visual Table of Contents for Beyond Casablanca and follow Classic Movie Hub there for photos of classic stars and stills from films.

Thanks to CMH for running this promotion, and good luck to everyone who enters!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: MCLINTOCK! (1963)

Maureen O'Hara is classic Hollywood's poster girl for the battle of the sexes. With her beautiful face, striking red hair, and strong personality, she is both heroine and harridan, attractive to men as much for her fight as for her figure. In McLintock! (1963), her worthy opponent is frequent co-star John Wayne, although even he spends most of the movie on the run from the inevitable domestic showdown with his formidable feminine counterpart. Since this is 1963, you can probably predict how that combat will end, but it's a fun show in spite of that, with a cast of reliable Western stalwarts and a surprisingly sentimental subplot about the fate of the West's original inhabitants. In fact, McLintock! remains a great favorite among John Wayne fans, beloved for its feisty comedy and the Duke's particular charisma with his leading lady.

Successful cattle rancher George Washington McLintock (Wayne) is the boss of everything except his wife, Katherine (Maureen O'Hara), who left him several years ago, although McLintock has never figured out why. When their grown daughter, Becky (Stefanie Powers), returns from school back East, Katherine also comes back into town, even though she's still fighting mad at McLintock. Young Becky's affections are torn between a citified local dandy (Jerry Van Dyke) and a handsome new ranch hand (Patrick Wayne), while the elder McLintocks lock horns in a marital battle that encompasses the entire town. Meanwhile, McLintock tries to help the region's last Comanche warriors make their case to a tribunal of unsympathetic government officials.

The domestic comedy plays out as a frontier "Taming of the Shrew," where the male characters appreciate high-spirited women but see them as just another kind of wildlife that needs to be conquered and put to work, like more attractive versions of the horses and cattle that roam the open range. It's a sexist premise, but at least the women put up a good fight, and O'Hara's Katie is so ornery and venomous that some measure of comeuppance seems justified. Becky proves to have plenty of her mother's temper, and her courtship with Dev (played by Wayne's son, Patrick) reaches a comic highpoint when Becky demands that her father shoot the offending young man but ends up being subjected to a spanking herself. It's the kind of scene that many people now find rather uncomfortable, but such gender conflicts got big laughs in similar films like Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and, of course, The Taming of the Shrew (1967).

Countering this sense of domestic violence as comedy is an unexpectedly nostalgic and sympathetic view of Native Americans. The Comanches of the Old West are depicted as inhuman, marauding savages in many movies, including The Searchers (1956), which many consider Wayne's best film. In McLintock! we see Wayne's character defending and respecting the Comanche people, even though he fought with them in earlier days. The character of Davey, a young Native American who has been to college and who works in the town, also makes an interesting commentary about racial identity and the struggle for equality. Of course, like the film's women, the Comanches are doomed to lose to the white men, but they have a poignant final scene as they ride out into the desert, disappearing from the world like figures in a dream.

You'll find a whole round-up of Western veterans filling out the supporting roles, including Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Edgar Buchanan, and Hank Worden. Yvonne De Carlo has a plum role as the widowed mother of Patrick Wayne's character, and her drunk scene with the Duke is particularly funny. O'Hara and Wayne made five pictures together in all, including The Quiet Man (1952) and Big Jake (1971), but for more romantic sparring see her with Tyrone Power in The Black Swan (1942). Patrick Wayne can also be found costarring with his father in The Searchers (1956), The Alamo (1960), and Big Jake (1971). For more Westerns from director Andrew V. McLaglen, the son of veteran character actor Victor McLaglen, try Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966), and Chisum (1970).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.