Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Cozy Up with Acorn TV

When I'm not watching movies, there's a 90% chance that I'm watching a cozy murder mystery. I'm obsessed with them; I read a lot of cozy mystery series and enjoy them, but I love seeing the characters and stories embodied in television series. For the most part, the murder mysteries that I like best hail from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. I'm not a fan of dark police procedurals or crime shows "ripped from the headlines." I want a cast of quirky, interesting characters, a distinctive and detailed sense of place, and an unusual murder (or three) for the audience to solve along with the detectives. Thankfully, the streaming service Acorn TV dishes up a wide variety of cozy mystery series from several different countries.

UK offerings include the venerable and beloved Midsomer Murders and the adorably quirky Agatha Raisin. I've watched every episode of Midsomer so far, but if you're new to it you've got enough entertainment ahead to last most of 2020. The show is famed for its dry sense of humor and hilariously dreadful murder methods (hint: never go on holiday in Badger's Drift!). Agatha Raisin has a delightful Scooby gang vibe with middle aged romance added to the mix; the relationships between characters on the show are dynamic and interesting without being maudlin. With only one season so far, Queens of Mystery is a newcomer that started very strong and has lots of room for future development, and its particularly knowing treatment of the genre is great fun for cozy fans. The British fare also includes a solid collection of Agatha Christie adaptations, especially the excellent Agatha Christie's Marple, featuring first Geraldine McEwan and then Julia McKenzie as the iconic sleuth.

Australia is ably represented by Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, starring the fabulous Essie Davis as a 1920s private detective who lives and loves with equal abandon. Adapted from a wildly popular book series (I've read them all, and they're terrific), the Miss Fisher series is currently getting a second life with a feature film sequel that should appear on Acorn later in 2020. A spin-off, called Miss Fisher's Modern Mysteries, is also available on Acorn, with Geraldine Hakewell as a relative of the original Miss Fisher living in the 1960s. I enjoyed the spin-off but wasn't quite as enchanted by it as the original show, perhaps because the four episode series had less time to develop all of the interesting supporting characters. If you're looking for a particularly funny Australian murder series, Acorn also offers all 13 episodes of the tragically short-lived Mr. and Mrs. Murder, in which married crime scene cleaners solve murders and get entangled in ridiculous situations along the way.

My last recommendation hales from New Zealand, where police detective Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) solves murders in The Brokenwood Mysteries. Great leads, lots of fun recurring characters, and gorgeous scenery make this series one of my current favorites, with new episodes dropping on Acorn each week as the latest season is released. The show has a surprisingly strong first episode that hooks the viewer immediately, and later seasons build on that solid foundation. If you've exhausted Midsomer Murders and want something with the same mix of dry humor, murder, and detective work, this New Zealand show is the perfect choice.

Acorn TV has dozens of mystery series and other programming to choose from, but these are the shows I have especially enjoyed since I first subscribed to the streaming service in 2019. With new shows and seasons regularly appearing, Acorn has been well worth the cost of $6 a month or $60 a year. Do check it out if you're looking for great cozy mysteries to keep you warm through the winter!


Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Acorn TV and received no payment of any kind for this post.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953)

Marilyn Monroe became a true star thanks to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the Howard Hawks directed adaptation of the Broadway musical hit in which Carol Channing had originated the role of Lorelei Lee. Monroe's take on "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" remains one of her most memorable moments, with numerous imitations, homages, and parodies, but the best way to appreciate the number is to see the whole film, in which Monroe and costar Jane Russell light up the screen as a pair of entertainers on a cruise ship full of attentive men. Notable costars include Tommy Noonan, Charles Coburn, and Elliott Reid, although child actor George Winslow proves the scene stealer of the lot as the youngest of Lorelei's admirers.

Monroe plays Lorelei Lee, a gorgeous opportunist who "can be smart when it's important" but knows that rich men aren't looking for intellectual genius in a bride. When her besotted millionaire boyfriend (Tommy Noonan) proposes, his father tries to break up the match by hiring a private detective (Elliott Reid) to keep tabs on Lorelei as she and her friend, Dorothy (Jane Russell) sail to France. On the ship Dorothy falls for the charms of the detective, while Lorelei falls for the diamonds of "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn), an elderly wolf with an appetite for Lorelei's assets.

Lorelei is definitely ditzy, but Monroe invests her with sweetness and vitality in addition to mercenary instincts, and Russell makes a great "smart cookie" counterpart. Their musical numbers together are lots of fun, even if Monroe's big solo proves the real showstopper of the picture. Russell's solo, "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love," is also a highlight, thanks mostly to Russell's lusty, winking performance but also partly the spectacle of exposed man flesh gyrating, flexing, and thrusting all around her. Russell has another big moment when Dorothy impersonates Lorelei in a French courtroom and derails the proceedings with her own rendition of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," the funniest part being her imitation of Lorelei's mannerisms and conniving but clueless behavior. All of the male actors provide solid support, with Tommy Noonan swooning at Lorelei's kisses and Charles Coburn constantly on the run from his overbearing wife, but the movie belongs to Monroe and Russell just like every room belongs to Lorelei and Dorothy the minute they enter it.

The persistent question that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes seems to be asking is whether a gold digger can still be a good woman, to which Dorothy and Lorelei emphatically say yes in spite of Lorelei's obsession with wealth and dalliance with Piggy. (It's the same question that How to Marry a Millionaire also asks, although Monroe's character in that picture is much less devoted to money than Lorelei). Dorothy has no interest in rich men, and even rejects the detective, Ernie, when she thinks he's a wealthy playboy, but she doesn't hold Lorelei's materialism against her. Lorelei argues that having money is the only way to ensure a happy marriage, and she even compares a man's wealth to a woman's beauty as equally valid requirements for a union.The "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number might overstate the case, but Lorelei has a point about money being the root of much marital unhappiness, and in a time when women were expected to be financially dependent on their husbands it was definitely better to marry a good provider than endure poverty yoked to a bad one. Lorelei, after all, isn't making any calculation that generations of careful mothers and ambitious debutantes hadn't been making for centuries before her, she's just more willing to admit that the cash and the jewels are the big attraction.

For a look at Marilyn's earlier roles, see The Asphalt Jungle (1950), All About Eve (1950), and Monkey Business (1952), the last of which Hawks also directed. Charles Coburn has particularly memorable roles in Bachelor Mother (1939), The Lady Eve (1941), and The More the Merrier (1943), and he also appears in Monkey Business with Monroe. Catch Jane Russell in The Outlaw (1943), The Paleface (1948), and His Kind of Woman (1951), as well as the sequel Son of Paleface (1952). In 1955, Russell starred Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, but the title is the only connection to the original film, and Russell plays a completely different character in the later story.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Ida Lupino and THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Ida Lupino is not as familiar today as screen icons like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but classic film fans know and love her work as both an actress and one of the few women directors working in Hollywood during the mid 20th century. If you're not familiar with Lupino in either capacity, you can get a quick introduction to her work thanks to The Twilight Zone, which features one episode in which Lupino is the star and one that she directs. Both are worthwhile episodes of the show, with Lupino proving that she had just as much to offer behind the camera as in front of it. Early 2020 is a particularly good time to see these Twilight Zone episodes because you can currently find four seasons of the series streaming on Netflix.

Ida Lupino started out as a young actress in England and then made her way to Hollywood, where she enjoyed her greatest success as a performer in films like They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Her acting career tends to overshadow her directorial work, partly because it was so difficult for women to succeed as directors during the studio era, but Lupino had better success directing episodes of television series. According to IMDB, Lupino achieved 106 screen acting appearances and 41 credits as a director, including eight episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel, five of General Electric Theater, and nine of Thriller. Although she worked on only two episodes, The Twilight Zone is an especially good introduction to Lupino because you can see her work on both sides of the camera with just a Netflix account and about 45 minutes of free time.


The first episode, "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" from Season One, features Lupino as the protagonist, a middle-aged movie queen named Barbara Jean Trenton. Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950), Barbara is a difficult woman unwilling to confront reality and obsessed with her own films, but unlike Norma Barbara actually manages to escape from that ugly reality by entering the world of the pictures flickering on the screen. The expected twist of the story occurs quite late, and since Barbara's wish gets fulfilled without ironic subversion it's not one of the show's more famous episodes. Lupino, however, looks great in it and gives a very solid performance playing a character type she certainly knew in real life. (For more Twilight Zone actress stories, see "Ring-a-Ding Girl" and "Queen of the Nile," both of which are also in the Netflix collection.)


The second episode, "The Masks" from Season Five, shows Lupino's skill as a director. The story focuses on a dying old man who gets revenge against his greedy, awful relatives on the night of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In order to get their expected inheritance, the relatives are required to wear hideous masks until midnight, at which point the old man dies and they discover that their true selves have been revealed. As the director, Lupino does a wonderful job conveying the shallow selfishness of the relatives and their growing horror as they finally remove their masks. The camera frequently focuses on the faces of the relatives in close-up; we see the ugly masks with their frozen mouths, but we also see the increasingly anxious eyes of the wearers. Vulture lists "The Masks" as #18 in its top 50 Twilight Zone episodes, and Rolling Stone puts it at #25 on their best-of list, making it an episode any fan of the classic series should definitely see.

If you watch and enjoy these two episodes of The Twilight Zone, track down some of Lupino's other work. In addition to the films mentioned before, you can find her acting in Moontide (1942), The Man I Love (1946), and Road House (1948). The Trouble with Angels (1966) is probably the most available of the films Lupino directed, but she both directed and stars in The Bigamist (1953), and her other directorial efforts include Not Wanted (1949), Never Fear (1950), and The Hitch-Hiker (1953).



Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Movie Log in Review

2019 was a year for big changes. My only child turned 18, finished high school, and headed off to college, a process that took up much of my mental energy as we finished our last year together. We moved to a new house in a new neighborhood and added a new kitten to our house cat collection. The disappearance of classic movie streaming services and classic offerings on the mainstream services meant that I had to work harder to watch old movies I hadn't seen before, which means I saw fewer old movies this year and was more likely to watch things I owned on physical media and had seen before. With our move accomplished and my new nest empty except for cats, I hope that 2020 will bring more time and bandwidth for classic films and blogging. I'm not making any resolutions, mind you!

Happy New Year to everyone who keeps up with me here at Virtual Virago. Here's the 2019 Movie Log of every feature film I watched this past year.

January
The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)
That Night in Rio (1941)

February
Tower of London (1939)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Dark Waters (1944)
9 to 5 (1980)
The Harvey Girls (1946)

March
Dragonwyck (1946)
Captain Marvel (2019)
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Dumplin' (2018)
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
On the Town (1949)

April
House of Wax (1953)
Shazam! (2019)
Death at a Funeral (2007)

May
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
The Comedy of Terrors (1963)
Spirited Away (2001)
The Cat Returns (2002)
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Detective Pikachu (2019)
Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Rim of the World (2019)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

June
Rocketman (2019)
Toy Story 4 (2019)
Casanova Brown (1944)

July
Merry Maids of Madness (2016)
Spiderman: Far From Home (2019)
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
The Vault of Horror (1973)

August
Shazam! (2019)
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
The Witches (1990)
Addams Family Values (1993)
Muppets from Space (1999)
The Last Unicorn (1982)
Airplane! (1980)

September
The Old Dark House (1932)
A Bump Along the Way (2019) - My first film at TIFF!
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Thor: Ragnarok (2018)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962)
Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

October
National Velvet (1944)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
We Have Always Lived at the Castle (2018)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Dolemite is My Name (2019)

November
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Let It Snow (2019)
Charlie's Angels (2019)
JoJo Rabbit (2019)
Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
Love, Actually (2003)
Klaus (2019)

December
Knives Out (2019)
Die Hard (1988)
I Lost My Body (2019)
The Court Jester (1955)
Bundle of Joy (1956)
Noelle (2019)
White Christmas (1956)
Frozen 2 (2019)
Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
The Muppet  Christmas Carol (1992)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Scrooged (1988)
Babes in Toyland (1961)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Little Women (2019)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

That's a total of just 80 movies this year, probably my lowest annual number since I started keeping a movie log in June of 2009! 15 of those were new films seen in theaters, not including new films seen on streaming services like Netflix. Hopefully I can get back up above 100 in 2020, but I will probably have to commit to buying more classic movies on DVD in order to do that. We already have more streaming services than I want to pay for, but not one has the classic movie content I want to watch (my current favorite streaming service is AcornTV, which specializes in British and Australian programming and has lots of cozy murder mystery shows that I love).

What did you watch in 2019? What are your movie resolutions for 2020? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: BUNDLE OF JOY (1956)

If you've already watched all of your regular Christmas classics, you might consider trying out some less familiar holiday fare, including the 1939 comedy Bachelor Mother and its 1956 musical remake, Bundle of Joy. Although the original movie is generally considered the better picture, Bundle of Joy has plenty of color and music to make it a satisfying seasonal sweet, especially with the adorable Debbie Reynolds stepping into the lead role first filled by Ginger Rogers. Bright, cute, and cheerful, Bundle of Joy makes for a nice break from heavier holiday classics like It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and the supporting cast includes extra gifts for classic movie fans with appearances by Adolphe Menjou and Una Merkel.

Reynolds stars as Polly Parish, a department store salesgirl who gets fired just before Christmas. While hunting a new job she picks up a crying infant on a doorstep, only to be mistaken for the child's mother.  The foundling home arranges to get her rehired on the condition that she claim and care for the baby, which Polly is at first extremely reluctant to do, but nobody will believe the truth. She catches the attention of the store owner's son, Dan (Eddie Fisher), and the two begin a sort of friendship that quickly snowballs into something more, but soon enough Dan finds himself on the wrong side of the bassinet as his father (Adolphe Menjou) believes that the baby is a joint production by Polly and Dan.

In 1956, audiences would have been expected to know that Reynolds and Fisher were newlyweds in real life, making the onscreen pairing especially appealing, and Fisher was a big singing star himself at the time. Those watching the picture today will immediately recognize Reynolds as the real star of the show and probably view the romance with Fisher as ironic, given his scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor and the couple's divorce in 1959. The pair's first child, actress Carrie Fisher, was born the same year that Bundle of Joy appeared, and in fact Reynolds was pregnant with her daughter during the making of the picture. Those biographical details color a modern viewing of the movie and lend it an edge that it doesn't contain within itself, where Reynolds' mega watt charms obliterate all shadows, even the social taboo against unwed motherhood.

Eddie Fisher strikes me as a bit flat in his role, there for his singing ability and marriage to Reynolds and not for his acting talent, but I might be biased by all that biographical baggage. More amusing than Fisher are the supporting players, especially Adolphe Menjou as the aspiring grandfather and Una Merkel as Polly's understanding landlady. Both of their characters are more than ready to fit Dan up for fatherhood, with Merkel's landlady giving Dan a very shrewd squint when she sees him and the baby together. Menjou lands the funniest line of the film when he exclaims, "I don't care who the father is, I'm the grandfather!" Tommy Noonan is also memorable as the irritating opportunist, Freddie, who refuses to be shaken off by Polly and hopes to benefit from her relationship with Dan. Nita Talbot has some fun scenes as Polly's friend, Mary, who helps to shoo Freddie away whenever he turns up to pester Polly at the store.

Bundle of Joy was directed by Norman Taurog, who won an Oscar for Skippy (1931) but is probably better remembered for Boys Town (1938). For more of the delightful Debbie Reynolds, see Singin' in the Rain (1952), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). You'll find Eddie Fisher with his next wife, Elizabeth Taylor, in Butterfield 8 (1960), but after that his career fizzled. For more classic Christmas romance, try Holiday Affair (1949), It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and The Bishop's Wife (1947).

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Silver Screen Standards at Classic Movie Hub

If you enjoy my classic movie posts here at Virtual Virago, you might also enjoy my new column, Silver Screen Standards, at the fabulous Classic Movie Hub. Each month I have a new post there about a different film, star, genre, or other topic. So far I've written about The Wizard of Oz (1939), Margaret Rutherford, Boris Karloff, Lassie Come Home (1943), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), with more posts to come every month in 2020. I'm delighted to be part of the CMH community and have really enjoyed reaching new readers with the Silver Screen Standards column.

While you're visiting CMH, be sure to check out regular columns by the other fantastic contributors to the site, including Noir Nook by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Classic Movie Travels by Annette Bochenek, and Silents are Golden by Lea Stans. You'll find a full list of the CMH monthly columnists here!

My next post for Classic Movie Hub will be about the significance of the kitten in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). I'll also be posting more this month here at Virtual Virago - my move to a new house in October has kept me away from the computer much of the fall, but things have settled down now!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Tallulah Bankhead's Huntsville Roots: Maple Hill Cemetery

Tallulah Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on January 31, 1902, and evidence of her Huntsville roots can still be seen around town, even though the infamous stage and screen star is long departed. There are numerous places and historical markers bearing witness to her family's impact on the city, but one of the more somber sites is the grave of Tallulah's mother, Adelaide Eugenia Bankhead, who died shortly after Tallulah's birth. Mrs. Bankhead is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery near Huntsville's historic district and downtown, not far from the house where Tallulah entered the world and her mother left it.

Perhaps Tallulah's life might have been different had her mother lived. Perhaps the early loss, which devastated her father, William, drove some of the darker elements of Tallulah's personality. It's impossible to say for sure, but knowing the dizzying heights and terrible lows of the actress' life one can't help but wonder when standing beside her mother's grave. In 1902 the infant Tallulah was baptized next to her mother's coffin, and she and her elder sister, Eugenia, were packed off to be raised by their paternal grandmother, their maternal grandmother having also died just after giving birth to their mother. Tallulah's mother was just 22 years old when she died; Tallulah died too soon at 66, but she packed a dozen lifetimes of success and suffering into those 44 years her mother never had.

Tallulah returns to Huntsville each year in spirit as one of the resident "ghosts" of the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, though she herself is buried in Maryland, where her sister lived. You'll find a costumed performer inhabiting the role of the iconic star near her mother's grave, waving a long cigarette holder and holding forth about her family and her own legendary exploits. The event is well worth a visit if you're in the area.

For more posts about Tallulah, see "Southern Voices on the Silver Screen," "Classic Films in Focus: LIFEBOAT (1944)," and "Classic Films in Focus: 101 DALMATIANS (1961)."