There isn’t a single scene in John Ford’s Wagon Master(1950) that I don’t enjoy.  It’s said that John Ford purposely avoided casting longtime collaborator John Wayne in the film for fear that his presence would overwhelm the story, and I couldn’t agree more. I enjoy the majority of Wayne’s films but he would have been a terrible distraction in this quiet, subtle masterpiece about the odyssey of a wagon train full of Mormons, a huckster, a couple of fallen women and an evil bank robber (Charles Kemper) and his psychopathic sons.

Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson in John Ford’s Wagon Master

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the unlikely and reluctant heroes who rise to the challenge in the most spectacular fashion. Ford’s genius here is that neither are quick draws or killers. They’re just a couple of young guys who only wanted to trade some horses and make a little cash. But they’re nice guys and when Ward Bond and his band of ostracized Mormons fail to heed warnings about the treacherous journey Bond is embarking on, Johnson and Carey do the right thing and help them out.

Ward Bond (center) is the leader of lost Mormons in Wagon Master

The movie is full of moments that make me smile. There’s a wonderful bit where the group is dancing and having a little celebration. It’s a sweet moment and one of the best dance scenes that I’ve ever seen in film. Full of joy and warmth and fun. And then there’s Kemper and his sons. Shown at the very beginning of the film robbing a bank (my favorite shot in the movie). What is so scary about them is that they seem like not so threatening amateurs who become frighteningly homicidal at the drop of a hat.

Ben Johnson and Joanne Dru fall for each other in Wagon Master

Another great moment is the introduction of huckster Alan Mowbray and his traveling companions Francis Ford and Joanne Dru. All of them drunk when Johnson stumbles upon them, having run out of water and forced to drink the alcoholic elixir that Mowbray was run out of town for selling. One of the greatest moments in the film is when Mowbray volunteers to ride his wagon over a treacherous trail. It’s a grand and poignant moment of self sacrifice as Mowbray realizes that he is nothing and the success of the journey is everything. The movie is about moments like that. The exhilaration and joy of finding water. The fusing of different kinds of people into a family. The relationship between Dru and Johnson is nicely underplayed and subtle. We see they love each other and Ford knows that we don’t need to be hit on the head with obvious scenes full of overwrought dialogue.



I also love Ben Johnsons character here. When the evil Kemper takes over the wagon train, hot head Carey is angry that Johnson doesn’t act to prevent it. Johnson wisely tells him that they need to live because if they get killed, the group of people will be lost and will probably die. He’s responsible for them, and waits to act until they’re safe. Johnson is a true hero in this. The scene reminds me of an old Spider-Man comic from the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era when Peter Parker finds himself in a similar position to that of Ben Johnson when Spider-Man must let himself be seen by others as afraid or as a coward by running from a fight with the Sandman in order to stay alive for the welfare of his sickly Aunt May. It’s a type of heroism that is not often seen in film or in the black and white style of heroism seen in comic books for that matter. When the hero must sacrifice his ego and let the villain have his small victory in order to live and save the lives of others, to fight for something bigger than yourself. Ford gives us that kind of transcendent heroism in Wagon Master.

Peter Parker has much in common with Ben Johnsons western hero of Wagon Master

Johnson’s character is also smart enough to be scared. There’s a scene where Ward Bond asks him if he’s afraid of Kemper and Johnson says yes. Then Bond asks Carey, who doesn’t want to admit his fear and is about to make a posturing remark when Bond cuts him off and says “that makes three of us.” It’s a wonderfully honest moment. There are also some great moments of suspense. When the group is treated to Navajo hospitality and one of Kempers sons attempts to rape an Indian girl. Bond has him strapped to a wagon wheel and whipped to placate the Indians. Kemper is silently outraged and it sets up a strong tone of suspense that carries through the rest of the film until we see the violent finale.

Some of Bert Glennon’s stunning photography in Wagon Master

 Wagon Master reminds me of movies such as Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven. There is that examination of morality and violence handled with a level of subtlety, realism and sensitivity that we often only see in some of Eastwood’s films and in some of the best Western films. There’s also some lovely photography by Bert Glennon. This film just looks great and is shot almost entirely on location. There’s also an enjoyable musical score by Richard Hageman. Terrific movie from top to bottom with top notch performances by all.  Plus, you just know that when John Ford and Merian Cooper get together it’s going to be great.  I’ve seen Wagon Master probably a dozen times at least and every time I enjoy it more than I did the last.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Wagon Master on Friday July 12, at 12:15 PM Eastern. Don’t miss it!

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This week Turner Classic Movies is showing Devotion(1948), a highly fictionalized yet very entertaining story of literary legends, sisters Emily and Charlotte Brontë. The story begins with the Bronte siblings, Emily (Ida Lupino) Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) Anne (Nancy Coleman) and Branwell (Arthur Kennedy) spending a day out on the moors. Kennedy’s Branwell Bronte is a tortured, darkly cynical, self defeating alcoholic, living in the shadow of his more driven sisters. Lupino plays Emily as stoic, practical and shy about her work. She is haunted by dreams of a dark, mysterious stranger on horseback riding the moors. De Havilland plays Charlotte as the driven, ambitious romantic who dreams of literary success for her and Emily. Younger sister Anne is the perky sister played by perky Nancy Coleman.

L to R: Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino and Nancy Coleman as the Bronte Sisters in Devotion

Enter Paul Henried as Reverend Nicholls. Emily and Nicholls strike up a friendship but to Emily it’s more than that. They roam the moors and she takes him to the foot of a hillside where stands a dark, abandoned house. Emily is haunted, yet attracted to the site, which she has named “Wuthering Heights”. Over time, she becomes more infatuated with Nicholls. Not long after, Emily’s siblings return home. One night, Nicholls escorts the three sisters to a party thrown by one of the town elites. Nicholls is immediately attracted to Charlotte, but the feelings are not reciprocated. There is a wonderful scene where the three sisters, all in a row, pull out their fans, flip them open, smile, (all in unison) and enter a huge ballroom, chomping at the bit to do some dancing.  Charlotte is not deterred by Nicholls’ advances. She is trying to save money for her and Emily to go to Brussels to teach English in return for an education at the school.

Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy and Nancy Coleman out on the Moors in Devotion

Once in Brussels, a lovesick Emily pines for Nicholls and the moors. Charlotte meanwhile has become swept off her feet by a married professor. During this time, both sisters work on their novels….Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. After a bout of disillusionment, Charlotte returns home and reevaluates Nicholls as Emily helplessly watches. There is a great scene between Emily and Kennedy when he deduces from his sisters novels that they are both in love with the same man. To one Nicholls is Rochester, to the other, he is Heathcliff. Eventually, Nicholls realizes that the developing triangle can not continue and their relationship ends badly.  Charlotte, in a great scene, looks at her manuscript for Jane Eyre and says to Emily–“I know nothing. I understand nothing. Yet I have dared to write two hundred thousand words about life.”

Bedtime for the Brontë’s

This is a great, moody, gothic love story as well as being one of my favorite Ida Lupino films(coming in just a few films below The Hard Way). The film is enjoyable enough that you really don’t care about the staggering amount of historical inaccuracies. It starts off with rather disjointed pacing but it suddenly gels about a quarter of the way in and really takes off. It has a wonderfully complex musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The films photography looks great. My only nitpick is that the scenes on the moors are done on soundstage. These scenes would have benefited nicely from some location shooting.

Ida Lupino and Arthur Kennedy in Devotion

While I enjoyed the love story elements, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the relationship between the sisters and between Kennedy and Lupino. Lupino understands the brother in a way that none of the other family does. Kennedy is great as the drunk, dark, brooding and tortured artist. He knows he’s doomed and so does Lupino. But it’s that understanding and acceptance of each other and their fates that only they share that I found fascinating. Also adding to the enjoyment is Sidney Greenstreet as William Makepeace Thackeray. There is a funny scene when Greenstreet comes out of a book signing with De Havilland. A man says “Hello Thackeray” and Greenstreet replies “Hello Dickens”. De Havilland is upset that Greenstreet doesn’t introduce her. Greenstreet responds….”I shouldn’t like you to get involved with that kind of riff raff my dear”. 

The Brontë nightshirt competition.  My money’s on Ida.

Devotion was actually filmed in 43. However, De Havilland was in a contract dispute with Warners that lasted three years. During the dispute, Warners shelved the film, not wanting to give De Havilland any positive press. De Havilland won her case and was released from her contract with Warners. She then went on to do To Each His Own (1946) for Paramount for which she won a best actress Oscar. Wanting to cash in on that success, Warners then released Devotion.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Devotion on Wednesday at 2:45 pm Eastern. Don’t miss it!

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As I sat in the theater watching Man Of Steel, witnessing all of the all too real looking devastation taking place in the wake of the battle between Superman and General Zod, all I could think about was how it was going to take decades for that city to recover and rebuild. I guess that comes from living in a post 911 world. The destruction was so thorough and complete and so effectively portrayed with terrific effects that all I could think of was how these people were ever going to recover from this. I think to best sum up my feelings about Man Of Steel, I’d have to quote from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s film Team America: World Police. There’s a scene when the puppet version of Kim Jong Il tells one of the Team America agents “It will be 911 times a thousand.” The point being that Man of Steel is serious. Really, really serious.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman

The problem is that it maintains that tone throughout the film, never letting up once to give us a quiet moment of humor or to let us take a breath long enough to get to know the characters in this newest film version of the Superman mythos. Even when we get to the Smallville moments, it’s still so, so earnest! One good example of that is when we see how Clark Kent loses his father. Remember in the original film when the brilliant Glenn Ford gave us that terrific death scene when he quietly clutches his arm and has his heart attack? It was a tragic, touching and incredibly poignant moment. In Man Of Steel however, Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent doesn’t go out so quietly (nor with as much emotional impact). No, he is killed by a monstrously gargantuan and deafeningly loud tornado. And on it goes.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Jor-El and Lara

Superman is the last survivor of Krypton, a planet whose core is about to implode. Jor-El warns them all of course but everyone is too busy fending off General Zod who is trying to take over the planet. Jor-El, in an attempt to save his species and his newborn son, imbues the child with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race by zapping the genetic information stored in an old broken skull into Kal-El’s tummy before the child is sent off into space. Ok. Zod is eventually stopped and, along with his fellow traitors, frozen and shipped off to the Phantom Zone.

Michael Shannon as a very angry General Zod

Meanwhile, on Earth, we are given a muddled series of flashbacks showing a young Clark Kent trying to cope with his powers and occasionally saving people, much to Pa Kent’s dismay. He fears that if his adopted son’s powers are exposed that Clark will be feared and hunted. He’s even willing to needlessly sacrifice himself to a gigantic tornado and force Clark not to save him in order to keep Clark’s secret (although one supposes that there might have been any number of easier ways to make his point). Oddly, the film borrows more than a little from Peter Parker and Uncle Ben with regards to Clark’s growth as a hero.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Superman movie without Lois Lane. I have been on record as saying that Amy Adams was miscast as Lois and after seeing the film I stand by that. I have nothing against Adams. I think she’s a talented actor. However, as Adam’s plays her, she’s subdued, subtle and has the annoying habit of over enunciating her words. I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady reciting “The Rain In Spain” for Rex Harrison. Adams has none of the moxy of Kidder or Hatcher or Noel Neill or even cartoon Lois Dana Delany. There’s no real explanation for why Lois makes her first appearance in the Arctic. She seems at first to be some sort of military or scientific consultant rather than a reporter trying to get a story. All we know is that she had to get a court order to get there and makes a “dick measuring“ comment to the officer in charge but does it with all the forcefulness and wit of a librarian on Xanax. She is fascinated by Superman (as a good Lois Lane should be) and he by her even though the film doesn’t‘ give them much choice as they are thrown together in a harrowing series of events almost from the moment the two meet until the films end. But, in the immortal words of Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom “No time for love, Dr. Jones!” There isn’t much of a relationship between Superman and Lois because there’s no time for one. Too much death and destruction and desperate battles going on. The film makers seem to realize this so even though there’s no time to actually develop their relationship in any way what so ever, they still have the two look dreamily into each others eyes when they get a breather. Fair enough.

Ayelet Zurer as Superman’s mother Lara

It’s an interesting experiment to recall the Superman vs. Zod scenes from Superman 2 and then watch this new film. There are a lot of similarities, even down to Zod’s two sidekicks, both knock offs of Superman 2’s Ursa and Non and both doing basically the same thing, only this time it’s less comic booky and much more serious. For example, we don’t get any interesting character quirks like Superman 2’s Ursa collecting buttons and patches from the men she had killed. Faora just kills people–with earnest. We don’t really get much of anything with regards to scenes at the Daily Planet even though Laurence Fishburne does what he can to make his limited screen time as Perry White count. There are nods to The Matrix, why I don’t know. There are scenes on Krypton that remind me of Avatar, what with all the flying creatures and things. Russell Crowe is watchable as Jor-El. Costner and Diane Lane are, well, earnest. For my money, the most quietly intriguing and interesting performance of the film was given by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as baby Superman’s mother Lara. In fact, I want to put her name up now as a possible contender for the role of Princess Diana if and when DC/Warner Bros ever make a Wonder Woman film. When it was all over, I found myself thinking of Ayelet’s performance the most. Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod is great(even though I kept having flashbacks of him as Kim Fowley from The Runaways). But he overshadows everything and everyone much like Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s first Batman film.

Lois and Clark: Not Fun

During the occasional 15 to 30 seconds when the action briefly lets up, Hans Zimmer’s score keeps the relentlessly serious and desperate tone of the film consistent. There is no doubt that director Zack Snyder has a flair for the visual if not the coherent. He proved that in Watchmen and 300. But both of those films had a sense of humor in spite of their bleak stories where Man of Steel does not. There is literally no sense of humor or a single ounce of wit to be found in this film. Anywhere. At all. Zip. After the film ended, I watched as the audience filed out of the theater, looking dazed and exhausted and expressionless. There was no “How about that scene when Superman did X or Y.”

Lois and Clark: Fun

  There was no laughter or cheering. I thought of how stark a difference this reaction was to when I saw the first Superman film where the audience virtually leapt to their feet and cheered or laughed. I was also reminded of Marvel/Disney’s The Avengers where the audience was much more invested and the audience experience seemed much more interactive. Here the audience seemed dumfounded. And with good cause. The collapsing buildings and death and destruction that takes place in Metropolis as General Zod terraforms the planet and fights with Superman is wholesale and complete and might make some feel kind of raw when it’s all over.

The winner and undefeated champ since 1978.  Christopher Reeve is Superman

I wouldn’t’ take a young child to see this film and that speaks to the main problem of Man Of Steel. It’s Superman. You know? Superman! Superman is the one comic book character where I can forgive a certain amount of sappiness and copious amounts of idealism and even a little bit of camp. You need a little bit of each in order to sell an audience on a flying alien in blue long johns and a cape. If Man Of Steel accomplishes anything it is to remind us how amazing Christopher Reeve was in the role. Christopher Reeve once said that, when it came to his portrayal of Superman, he let the costume, that silly, iconic costume, do all the talking while he just played it straight, just played a nice guy. That was the genius of his performance and that‘s why, in spite of all the silly things about that first movie, it continues to be the gold standard of Superhero films because it had heart, a sense of humor and a hero we cared about. Henry Cavill definitely looks the part and, with a script that lets him do more than brood and frown and simmer, he could potentially be a pretty good Superman. He’s no worse or better than Brandon Routh. But he’s no Christopher Reeve and Man Of Steel is no Superman The Movie. Superman the Movie made me smile, made me laugh, made me cheer. I left Superman The Movie feeling happy. As I did with Avengers and some of the other Marvel films. There was absolutely no joy in Man Of Steel and that’s a real problem when you’re doing a Superman movie. And I think that is DC’s problem when it comes to their Superhero films. A lack of humor, too much of an investment in shoehorning a comic book character into the real world. Or, at the very least, a really, really serious world.

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What I love about King Vidors H.M. Pulham, Esquire(1941) is that after all the times I’ve seen it the film never seems to lose it’s relevancy. The way the film goes about examining friendships, love, work and the day to day battle of life as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up with a loving family and who just lives his life trying to be a good person, always inspires me.

Robert Young contemplates the path not taken in H.M.Pulham Esq.

Robert Young plays the title character, born into wealth but with a work ethic and a sense of honor, going with the flow, not quite sure of himself but always a gentlemen in every situation, something that father Charles Coburn teaches him from a very young age. Young has a good relationship with his father and while their communication might seem superficial, there is a deep love and respect held by Young for his father(as is the case with most father/son relationships). It’s heartbreaking when Young’s father Charles Coburn tries to convince Young to stay with the family and work at the family company. We can see Young just feel horrible about it yet he sticks to his guns none the less.

Bonita Granville and Robert Young in H.M.Pulham Esq.

At the beginning of the film we see Young is married and in a comfortable rut with wife Ruth Hussey. Young is called out of the blue by an old college pal who invites Young to a reunion of his fraternity and asks Young to write some bios for some of the group, starting with his own. He’s not quite sure what to write until he gets a call from old flame Hedy Lamarr. That call forces him to examine his life and we see that life in flashbacks. There’s a humorous scene with Young as an officer in WW1 who goes into no mans land to talk to a German officer who offers Young some very honorable terms of surrender. Young is surrounded and out numbered. He politely turns down the German officer’s offer, telling him that, no matter what the outcome, that he’s been very nice about it all and thanks the German. It’s a brilliant scene. He ends up fighting and winning and getting decorated for his troubles.

Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr

He returns to his home where his college friend Van Heflin talks him into breaking away from the family and moving to the big city to go into advertising with Heflin. There he meets co worker Hedy Lamarr. This might be Lamarr’s best performance ever as the daughter of poor immigrants who builds a good career for herself and clings fiercely to her hard earned independence. She’s amused by Young at first, thinking he’s just a green doofus. But she soon sees that he’s anything but that. He’s a good, honest person who tries to be polite and not hurt others. It’s funny to watch Young not really understand the world of marketing and advertising yet shine when he has to promote a laundry soap to a low income housewife by just being honest and sensitive. And by doing her laundry. It’s a funny and charming moment as Lamarr (and the housewife!) falls in love with him for it.


Things get a bit difficult for Young when he returns home to visit his family. He returns because his mother is sick but it’s his father who is seriously ill. Heflin and Lamarr come to visit Young at his home and Lamarr is immediately intimidated by his wealth and his family who show each other the kind of love that she‘s never known. It’s an honest and warm kind of family bond that is so foreign to Lamarr it actually makes her recoil from Young. Ultimately this drives a wedge between them. The wedge is pushed in even further when Young’s father dies and he must take over the family business. But it’s a decision that Young makes because of love of family and out of respect for his father, not because he feels pressured. That difference is key because it makes Young’s decision all the more poignant.   

Van Hefflin, Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr

In the aftermath of his break up with Lamarr, Young starts to rekindle an old childhood relationship with Ruth Hussey. As we see in flashbacks, Hussey is both nerdy and forceful. They meet as children at a dance when Young heads for a pretty girl but gets detoured by Hussey. Young never really takes to Hussy growing up but now, as adults, with both having come off of relationships with people who were “opposites”, the normalcy and comfort of their sameness has a strong appeal for both of them. Neither is sure that they love the other but they love the idea that they “match”. But when Lamarr reenters Young’s life, he begins to question the important decisions he’s made through the years.

Ruth Hussey and Robert Young in H.M.Pulham Esq.

The dialogue in the film is smart, quick, subtle and refreshing and still holds up today. The players are all interesting to one degree or another but more importantly, they‘re all likable people. We aren‘t manipulated into not liking someone in order to emphasize the goodness of someone else. There are no villains in the film. We‘re simply given a group of people who are trying hard to live good lives, find self worth in their work and trying to just be happy. Suffering failures and achieving small and large victories along the way. Vidor gives us some amazing direction in this. His camera work is almost Scorsese like. There’s a scene at the very beginning where the camera zooms in on a bunch of mundane little activities that Young does for his morning routine that is evocative of Scorsese’s work in Age Of Innocence. The phone conversations don’t have the static noise to make it sound like a phone but instead sound like the person is in the room talking with them. The photography is beautiful, the pacing of the film is tight, the scenes have a wonderful economy to them.

Most enjoyable of all is Robert Young. What a superb performance he gives as the humble, awkward, kind, honest and at times charmingly oblivious Harry Pulham. Bonita Granville also has some fun moments as Young’s kind sister who shocks him by being just a little bit rebellious now and then yet sympathizing with the tough decisions and sacrifices her brother must make after their father dies. Hussey has what might have been a thankless role but she really sinks her teeth into it and manages to give the character a lot of depth. She’s supposed to be a bit abrasive and a bit patronizing but she manages to be both while remaining likable and sympathetic and their scenes together when they meet again after their respective break ups are fun and touching. Van Heflin is also very enjoyable as the college cynic who is repulsed by the obnoxious jock who tells football stories that Young is thoroughly  intrigued by. I’ve always felt the mark of a great movie is when you wish the characters of the film were real and you knew them and you were friends with them. H.M. Pulham Esquire is that kind of film.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing H.M. Pulham Esquire this Saturday at 7:00 AM Eastern time. 

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The classic Bronze Age Spider-Man story The Death of Captain Stacy has always been more about a moment than the three issues of story that lead up to that moment. The moment in question comes after yet another epic battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. It’s a great battle to be sure but it’s the battle’s collateral damage that is at the heart of the story.

Captain Stacy, father of Peter’s true love Gwen Stacy saves a little boy from being crushed by falling bricks and is mortally wounded as a result. Spider-Man picks up Capt. Stacy’s broken body and tries to get him to a hospital but Capt. Stacy insists that Spider-Man sets him down so they can talk while there’s still time. Stacy tells Spider-Man that Gwen loves him very much and that now there will be no one to look after her. He then calls Spider-Man by his real name, Peter. That Stacy knew who Spider-Man really was wasn’t that much of a surprise to readers. It had been hinted at in several issues prior to this story that Stacy had suspicions if not proof. However, it is a shocking and poignant revelation to Peter.

Peter’s secret identity always had more meaning to me than it did with other superheroes because it seemed there was always more at stake. This is due in part to the fact that we are so emotionally invested in the supporting cast in Spider-Man. We care about these people and we care if harm comes to them. We care about what Peter cares about. Peter loves his friends and family like we, the reader, love our friends and family.

Peter’s secret was almost revealed in Amazing Spider-Man 12

This was what was always so much more interesting about Spider-Man than other heroes whose secret identity really didn’t seem to matter. One doesn’t get the same sense of danger if say Superman’s identity is revealed. Or someone like Bruce Wayne who is more wrapped up in being Batman than Bruce Wayne and who’s family is basically comprised of other heroes. Peters circle of friends and family are more like regular people. Some, like Aunt May, are more vulnerable than say Robin the Boy Wonder(or Girl Wonder, depending on your Robin of choice). There was one incident in Amazing Spider-Man 18 when Peter’s Aunt May is deathly ill yet again. The Sandman has escaped from prison and is itching for a rematch with Spider-Man. Spider-Man actually hides from Sandman rather than engage him in a battle where he might be killed because if he dies there would be no one to look after his Aunt.

“I’m not chicken!  I just really care about my Aunt” Sure, Pete.  Sure.

Peter is so afraid of what will happen to his loved ones if his identity is revealed that he can’t even trust the secret with his closest friends or the woman he loves (at least at this particular point in time. Much has changed since the Bronze Age). This is why stories involving the Green Goblin were always so intense. He knew who Spider-Man was and taunted him with that information and went after his loved ones. Peter carries this burden by himself and most of the tragedy in his life is the result of that secret that he keeps.

So when Captain Stacy reveals that he knew all along, it’s a very powerful moment for us and for Peter. Peter tells Stacy “You must have always known! But–you never told! You never gave me away!” Stacy dies and Spider-Man is distraught, mourning the “second best friend” he ever had. The first being, of course, his Uncle Ben. That Stacy kept Peter’s secret and continued to be his friend, continued to let him love his daughter, let Peter know for the first time since he had become Spider-Man that someone sympathized with his plight and cared. I find this revelation to be much more powerful than the tragedy of Gwen’s death which is itself a powerful story. But the death of someone that Peter put in the same classification as Uncle Ben is unique and had a power and poignancy to it that, for me, has still not been matched to this day.

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This weekend Turner Classic Movies kicks off it’s annual Memorial Day Weekend marathon of classic war films with one of my all time favorites. First, I should say that I am a nut for films set against the backdrop of World War I. They’re not as prolific as films about World War II but that’s part of their appeal. They’re hidden gems and you never know when you’ll uncover a good one.

Abel Gance’s WW1 epic J’ Accuse (1919)

There are some very popular WW1 films to be sure. Lawrence Of Arabia, Paths of Glory, Sgt York, The Big Parade, All Quiet On The Western Front, La Grande Illusion, Dawn Patrol , Wings, Hell’s Angels and, one of my personal favorites, Abel Gance’s jaw dropping WW1 epic J’Accuse(possibly the greatest film about WW1 ever made). But there are a whole slew of rarely seen WW1 films that don’t get the press of those other more well known movies. Films like Leslie Howard’s Captured!(1933), the terrific Richard Dix film Ace Of Aces(1933) and the subject of this particular post, the 1933 film Hell Below.

Robert Montgomery in Hell Below

You couldn’t do much better in the way of casting. Walter Huston as the no nonsense submarine commander, Robert Montgomery as his hot tempered second in command, Robert Young as the loyal friend, Eugene Pallette as the gruff engineer. And a young Jimmy Durante and Sterling Holloway for comedy relief. The film also has some absolutely terrific Submarine action, aerial attacks and real footage of ships sinking. They even use a real WW1 sub for many of the scenes. Hell Below was the template for all submarine movies to follow, including films such as Das Boot.

Robert Montgomery and Walter Huston in Hell Below

The story starts with Huston taking over command of a sub that has just seen some heavy action. But before the next mission begins, the crew gets a well deserved shore leave. Montgomery and Young are the officers and are ordered by Huston to go to a party to pay their respects to the commanders in attendance and their wives. Just before Montgomery and Young plan their attempt to escape the dull party to have some fun, they meet pretty Madge Evans. After some playful rivalry between the two friends for the honor of dancing with her, Evans decides on Montgomery. They leave the party for a nearby carnival but their fun is spoiled by a spectacularly destructive air raid. Montgomery and Evans take refuge in a nearby flat and things heat up. But it turns out that Evans is married. Her husband is a kind British soldier who was injured and is now paralyzed from the waist down. But a paralyzed husband isn’t enough to throw cold water on Montgomery and Evans passions and this does not sit well with Evan’s father and Montgomery’s commander Walter Huston. Huston isn‘t about to let the affair stand. There’s a great scene where Huston, Montgomery and Evans are sharing a drink together and Huston gets a chance to do that thing that he does so well, make a major impact in the most subtle way. Huston raises his glass, gives that great disapproving scowl of his and says “To discipline. There’s nothing like it. And nothing without it.“ Montgomery raises his glass back and says “To discipline, it leaves almost nothing.”

Hell’s Angels (1930).  A classic WW1 film. 

Huston and Montgomery continue to but heads as the missions become exponentially more dangerous. In one of the most gripping and suspenseful scenes of the film, a bombshell comes loose and starts rolling into the torpedoes. Holloway, new to the sub and very inexperienced throws himself in the path of the rolling bomb and his leg is crushed. Above, Montgomery detects a chlorine gas leak. Unable to pump any oxygen in, disperse any of the gas or surface to ventilate the ship for fear of being shot by German ships, the crew starts to give in to panic. As Huston and Pallette try to repair the ship they hear Holloway yelling. Seems he was left behind when they had to seal up several compartments to seal off the majority of the chlorine gas. It’s an incredibly intense scene as Huston and Pallette try to fix the engine as Holloway begs to be let out, the crew quietly looking on in horror. Before the film is over, we’ll get panic induced suicides, a court martial, a tense game of cat and mouse with German ships and a spectacularly violent finale that only pre-code Hollywood could deliver.

Jean Renoir’s WW1 opus La Grande Illusion. 

The film also has some very interesting camera work. Lots of “points of view” shots, cannons exploding into the camera. Some great overhead shots of the crew in the sub and out. The scene with Holloway getting crushed by the shell is shot in a very creative fashion with interesting lighting. The use of location footage aboard real subs and battle ships give the film a great authenticity.

Montgomery at the periscope in Hell Below

In spite of all my gushing, the film isn’t flawless. The shore leave scenes are too broadly comedic as pals Pallette and aspiring dentist Durante get into brawls and woo French girls. Durante is even tricked into boxing a kangaroo at the circus. These scenes tend to break the flow of the larger story and almost feel like they belong in another movie entirely. Luckily they’re at the beginning of the film and don’t seriously affect the films tone once the story proper begins. If they had been in the middle it would have been a big problem and would have undermined the pacing and drama. As it is, it’s simply a small bump on the road to an otherwise superb and suspenseful action/drama that had a lasting influence on future films of the genre.

Montgomery and Madge Evans between scenes on the set of Hell Below.

Turner Classic Movies will show Hell Below on Saturday at 6:00 AM eastern, launching TCM’s always entertaining Memorial Day Weekend Movie Marathon. Don’t miss it!

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I first saw The White Tower (1950) a couple years ago on Turner Classic Movies as part of a marathon of films about mountain climbing (God bless TCM and their wonderfully random-subject marathons!). This movie has so much working in its favor that it‘s just hard not to like it. Beautiful location, great mountain climbing scenes that are almost seamlessly blended with the sets and actors, a terrific cast all of whom give great performances and a plot that has a surprising amount of depth to it.

Valli and Ford in The White Tower

The cast of characters assemble at a lodge in the Swiss Alps just after the war. Valli has returned to climb the mountain of the films title, the White Tower. Just before the war, Valli and her father assembled a team to climb the mountain with disastrous results, leaving most of her team dead and her father missing. Cedric Hardwicke is a family friend who tries to council Valli about her obsession with the mountain. Hardwicke volunteers to go with her on the climb but after her and her fathers previous tragic attempt, no professional climber will climb with her. Also at the lodge is Claude Rains. Rains is a depressed, written out alcoholic trying to finish a book about the White Tower, a mountain he has always wanted to climb. Rains has a young wife who messes with his head and mocks his reputation as a great writer and former mountain climber.


Do I really have to put a caption for Claude Rains?  The Master!

Lloyd Bridges is a German with a devout Nietzschean philosophy. He wants to prove the “superman theory” by reaching the top of the white tower alone. But he’s not just a one dimensional villain. He’s helpful and nice and even saves the lives of several people but looks at the weaknesses of others with mild amusement. Finally, there’s Glenn Ford. Ford was a pilot who was shot down near the small mountain village during the war and fell in love with it’s beauty. He’s returned to enjoy some post war peace and quiet.

Bridges, Valli and Ford climb The White Tower

Ford is attracted to Valli immediately and she to him. But her obsession takes precedence and, unable to form a professional team of climbers, asks those at the lodge. Ford is immediately disinterested. His good nature and easy going demeanor masks his shattered beliefs in himself, his country and his fellow man. Rains jumps at the chance. He sees it as a way to overcome his lack of self worth and prove to himself that he was great once upon a time. Hardwicke joins out of loyalty to Valli’s father. But Valli takes an instant dislike to Bridges and does not want him along. Ford doesn’t see the sense in that since Bridges is clearly a pro who would be a great help to the team. Ford himself still refuses to go, saying that he’ll tag along to the first base camp. Then to the second base camp, then the third until his love for Valli finally commits him to the team.

As Ford gets higher, his belief in himself becomes stronger and his cynical “take it or leave it” attitude regarding who and what Bridges is and represents morphs into anger. There’s a great scene where Bridges, dedicated to his own beliefs, confronts Ford with his own lack of belief in anything. Ford tells Bridges that they are going to finish together or not at all. Before the movie is over, we lose several climbers but not in the way we might expect and it’s that element of surprise, along with a level of suspense built not just on the event of the climb but on how these characters will confront their demons and meet their destinies, that makes this film such a fun, suspenseful character driven adventure film. 

Just hanging out at the lodge, talking Nietzsche.  No big whoop.

This is one of those movies that makes you feel like you’re on vacation. Watching The White Tower gives me the same feeling I get watching things like David Lean’s Summertime or Mike Newell’s Enchanted April. With the exception of Bridges, all the actors play likeable people that I want to know and hang out with. They aren’t just caricatures and that carries a lot of weight. Ford and Rains and Hardwicke and Valli all have interesting things to say. I identified with the Ford character who clearly feels that he’s tried enough, gave it his best, and just wants to hide in his pretty mountain village. But there’s aspects of some of the others that I also identified with as well. This made it easier to feel that I was on the journey with them. Also making that easier was the great effects. It’s hard to get a feel for it from the trailer but on a HD screen in Technicolor, this movie looks terrific. I have to think that this movie must have been a big deal for RKO who almost never did Technicolor films because of the expense. I don’t know if this was a hit or not for them, but it sure looks like they gambled a lot on it given how amazing this film looks.  TCM shows The White Tower from time to time and the film is also available on dvd through Warner Archives.

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Boris Karloff as gangster Tony Ricca in the Columbia Pictures gangster drama The Guilty Generation

This week Turner Classic Movies is going to show one of my personal favorite early thirties gangster films The Guilty Generation (1931) starring Leo Carrillo, Boris Karloff, Robert Young, Constance Cummings, Ruth Warren, Leslie Fenton. This was a fantastic film and one of the best gangster stories that you’ve probably never seen.

Romeo and Juliet: gangster style!  Robert Young meets Constance Cummings in The Guilty Generation.

Carrillo and Karloff are mafia bosses waging a no holds barred war against each other.
Robert Young is Karloff’s son who has changed his name and become a respectable architect who wants nothing to do with his dads business which angers Karloff. Cummings is Carrillos daughter. Carrillo tries in vain to push her into high society, but high society wants nothing to do with her or her father.

Leo Carrillo in The Guilty Generation


By chance, in true “Romeo and Juliet” fashion, Young and Cummings, the children of the rival kingpins, meet and fall in love. Meanwhile, Carrillos and Karloffs gang war escalates and close family members start to die off. Even Carrillo’s and Karloff’s own people think the gang war has gone too far. Ruth Warren is a lot of fun as Carrillo’s PR girl, constantly trying to gloss over Carrillo’s many criminal activities. These two have some fun dialogue with each other. The Guilty Generation is witty, well written and surprisingly violent with an ending no less shocking than the finale of The Public Enemy. Carrillo is always fun and it’s interesting to see Karloff in a non “Monster” film that was released just days before Frankenstein.

The Guilty Generation will be showing on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday April 7 at 12 noon eastern time. Don’t miss it!

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Watching Terror In A Texas Town (1958) is a bit like watching a Twilight Zone episode. We get a bit of strangeness at the very beginning, then a slow build up to the main irony filled denouement that we tuned in to watch in the first place. Kind of like tapping your foot, looking at your watch, waiting for Billy Mummy to turn the “very bad man” into a jack in the box.  In Terror In A Texas Town, Sebastian Cabot plays a rich guy who wants other peoples land. Seems that only he knows the land is oil rich. Then a Swedish farmer played by Ted Stanhope finds out about the oil. But before he can warn the frightened farmers, he is killed by Cabot’s hired gun Ned Young. Young plays every black clad, cliché western villain all rolled up into one. But he does have a few special features. Like an iron hand which replaces the real one which he lost when it was blown off in a past encounter. This hand is covered by a black glove (most likely because the budget didn’t allow for a fake iron hand).

Enter Sterling Hayden. Hayden is the son of the dead Swedish farmer. He’s been at sea for the last 18 years doing a bit of whaling. It doesn’t take long for fish out of water Hayden to discover that Cabot and Young run the town, most likely killed his father and sees that anyone who stands up to them will be killed. Of course Cabot tries to have Hayden run out of town first. Young, a pragmatist, prefers to pay people off rather than kill them but ultimately we know it’s going to come down to harpoon carrying Hayden vs steel handed Young in one of the craziest showdowns in the history of the genre.

This movie was bad, but in a fun way. How can you not appreciate the giant Frankenstein like Hayden, walking down the dusty street looking to harpoon the bad guy? Ned Young as the villain is also kind of funny. He’s never faced a man who isn’t afraid to die and it drives him absolutely nuts to meet one for the first time. There’s also the implication that he feels impotent due to his iron prosthetic which he bludgeons people with as a form of therapy (this is told to us rather than shown, unfortunately). Carol Kelly is Young’s prostitute gal pal, a drunk who only stays with Young because he scares her. But Hayden has a good scene where he delivers a small but effective motivational speech to give her courage. TV level production and cast and unintentionally funny dialogue pretty much places this firmly in the “so bad they’re good” category. My favorite line is when Kelly interrupts a church meeting by saying…

“Pepé is dead and George Hansen is walking down the street with a harpoon. I just thought you’d like to know–and maybe help.”

Yup, that’s pretty much the movie in a nutshell.

Good old Sebastian “Mr. French” Cabot is an amusing villain the likes of which you might find in a typical episode of The Wild Wild West. He has some unintentionally funny scenes as his character seems to only exist to tell us (in hilariously smarmy fashion) the history of iron hand killer Ned Young as well as to push his buttons. I kept thinking how this was a bit of a variation of High Noon (picture Cooper with a harpoon) and then I discovered that Dalton Trumbo wrote the script. I can’t say it’s a great movie, but I can’t say it fails to entertain either. As I mentioned above, there is something about Hayden that makes him inherently watchable and kind of fun.  Especially when he’s carrying a harpoon.

Terror In A Texas Town is showing on Turner Classic Movies this Tuesday, March 26 at 5 PM Eastern.

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The Five Doctors and K-9

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for going on 30 years now. The first Doctor that I watched, as it was for many fans my age, was the fourth Doctor played by Tom Baker. Like many American fans, I watched Doctor Who on public television. In the mid 80s, PBS finally aired nearly all available episodes of Who. This was an incredible experience as I was able to see all of the previous Doctors and take in the massive history and complex continuity of series. Some of my favorite episodes where those in which the Doctor met and teamed up with his previous incarnations. The first of these team-ups was in the episode The Three Doctors. The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) had been exiled to earth by the Time Lords, his knowledge of time travel and the ability to pilot his time machine the “Tardis” taken from him as punishment along with a forced regeneration (as we saw in the final Second Doctor episode The War Games). In The Three Doctors, the Time Lords of Gallifrey face the threat of Omega, a Time Lord pioneer who created the singularity that gives the Time Lords their power. Omega was thought long dead but had actually been trapped in a universe made of antimatter and had become quite insane. The only person the Time Lords can turn to is The Doctor. But the threat of Omega is so great that one Doctor isn’t enough. So they unite the Third Doctor with his first two incarnations. Together they stop Omega and save the universe. In return for their help, the Time Lords end the Third Doctor’s exile and return the use of his Tardis.

Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee in The Three Doctors

This wouldn’t be the last time that a Doctor would team up with his past selves. In the anniversary special to end all anniversary specials The Five Doctors, the power mad Time Lord Borusa kidnaps the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) along with Doctors one(Richard Hurndall replacing the late William Hartnell), two(Patrick Troughton), three(Jon Pertwee) and four(Tom Baker) and traps them in a game of death with their deadliest foes. We would see another team up a few years later between the Second Doctor and the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) as they take on the Sontarons.

Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker in The Two Doctors

Episodes of Doctor Who that united multiple Doctors was a special treat for fans. It gave fans a sense of the characters long history. These team-up episodes united Pertwee fans with Davison fans with Baker fans with Troughton fans and so on and so on, giving Who fans a larger and stronger sense of community. This is something that viewers who are new to Doctor Who have not been able to experience. We have not seen Doctors nine, ten and 11 team up and frankly, I doubt we ever will. It’s possible that we might see an episode that unites David Tennant(Dr.10) and Matt Smith(Dr.11) but I‘m not really holding my breath on that one.

William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee as Doctors 1, 2 and 3 in The Three Doctors

  Among older fans, those who grew up with the classic episodes of Doctors 1 thru 7, there’s this stubborn single-mindedness that we MUST see Tom Baker and that we MUST see those original actors who played the Doctor. Or at least those who are still living. This might sound heretical, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s time we said goodbye to those actors who played the first seven Doctors once and for all. We should say goodbye and recast Doctors 1 thru 7 with new, fresh actors, keeping in mind of course that they need to be recast with actors who resemble the originals to some extent in looks and to a large part, in spirit. I know, I know but hear me out. We have to face reality here. The first three actors to play the Doctor are dead. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvyster McCoy are simply far too old to reprise their roles without having to come up with some lame plot point to explain their age as we saw in Time Crap…er Crash. Sorry, but I did not like Time Crash at all. I thought the Davison cameo was poorly handled and frankly, insulting. It was a joke at Davison‘s expense and at the expense of classic Doctor Who. Look, I love Peter Davison. He was THE Doctor of my generation but we have to think of the show first and foremost and if the Doctor is to continue, if we want to see the tapestry of continuity that is Doctor Who continue on, if we ever want to see more of the Doctors past, his history in a way that makes it appealing to those currently producing and writing Doctor Who, then we must recast new actors to play the Doctors previous incarnations. It is the only way.

Time Crash.  Are you freaking kidding me?

New actors will allow us to see new adventures of the old Doctors. This will also free producers from having to make complicated and problematic deals with the original actors. New actors would give more freedom to current writers of Who to write new adventures with the classic Doctors that they can make their own. It would allow writers/producers, if they so choose, to make tweaks to old continuity and bring past tales more in line with the continuity of the new adventures. New actors would allow for the possibility of classic Who spin-off tales. Just think of the possibilities of new stories featuring classic Doctors! Been wanting to see an adaptation of The Dark Path, the Doctor Who novel that showed how The Doctor and The Master went from being best friends to mortal enemies? New actors could make that happen. Want to see the episode that shows the Doctor and Susan stealing the Tardis and beginning their epic adventure? Recasting the classic Doctors could make that happen. And speaking of The Dark Path, how about a new actor to play a young Roger Delgado era Master who fights ALL versions of The Doctor? That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

 Recasting new actors would also give more freedom to those actors playing the current Doctor who want to work on different projects but still want to work on Doctor Who. I’d like to see Matt Smith continue on in the role for a few more years but he’s getting ready to leave. If we did a couple seasons of Doctor Who that told new tales of Doctors one thru 7, that would allow Smith to go on hiatus for any length of time and return to the role having sewn his wild oats and sated his wanderlust. That safety net would allow actors to stay in the role of the Doctor for longer periods of time, something that I think is important in maintaining the longevity of the show.

I miss you Roger Delgado.  You really were The Master!

No one thought twice about it when Richard Hurndall replaced the late William Hartnell. There was no other choice. We are in that position again. Two more Doctors have passed away and three more are virtually unrecognizable. Paul McGann is the only actor that I would not recast. We have no idea how long the Time War lasts or in what shape Doctor Eight was in when he regenerated. This means that McGann, who still looks great based on what I’ve seen of his appearances in Luther, would still be the prime candidate to reprise his role. I want to see more classic Who episodes. I think it’s important for the series, for fans young and old and most importantly for the character. And just think of the marketing benefits. Not to mention the press the show would receive if they started recasting new actors to play the old Doctors. That would be the most historic casting call since the search for Scarlet O’Hara. The possibilities are literally endless. This is unquestionably the best possible thing for Doctor Who, for show creators and for fans. No one can steal your memories of your favorite Doctor or what he meant to you. We still have those old episodes. Recasting will allow fans to have their cake and eat it too.

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