Oct 29, 2020

On Blu-ray: Doris Day Breaks Out in Romance on the High Seas (1948)

 In Romance on the High Seas (1948) Doris Day made one of the most impressive film debuts in Hollywood history. In that performance, she emerged as a fully-formed star, ready to top the box office in the decade to come. Now this light-hearted musical, with its charming supporting cast and ridiculously catchy tunes is available in all its perfect pastel glory on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Janis Paige and Don DeFore set the scene as Elvira and Michael Kent a wealthy New York couple suffering from mutual delusions of marital infidelity. Elvira is also frustrated because Michael constantly cancels anniversary trips for business. 

When Michael ditches Elvira yet again to work on a merger, she decides to announce she’s going on their spoiled Cuba trip alone, while sending underfunded nightclub singer Georgia Garrett (Day) as a decoy in her place so she can spy on Michael and his new secretary at home. The also suspicious Michael hires detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to follow “Elvira” on her trip. To complicate matters, Georgia and Peter meet on the ship to Cuba and quickly become smitten with each other.

While director Michael Curtiz is perhaps best known for drama and action hits like Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), he did helm several musicals, including working again with Carson and Day on the also charming My Dream is Yours (1949) the following year. However, Busby Berkeley was hired to direct the musical numbers, and while in this film he doesn’t oversee the kind of massive, leggy productions that brought him fame, his unusual framing of movement and faces is evident in performances like that of the delightful calypso tune The Tourist Trade, led by the engaging Broadway and Cotton Club star Avon Long.

Jack Carson also has his moment with Run, Run, Run, his amusingly Caucasian take on Calypso, but for the most part the music belongs to Day. She mostly sings in casual settings: a bar, a restaurant, a windy ship deck. The tactic surely saved money, but it’s also clear that Day could provide ample spectacle by herself. 

The soundtrack is full of winners: in addition to Long and Carson’s numbers, Day’s renditions of Put 'em in a Box, Tie 'em with a Ribbon (and Throw 'em in the Deep Blue Sea), It's You or No One, and the instant classic It’s Magic are rhythmic perfection. One of the most fascinating aspects of the songs is that the latter two are reprised to reflect Day’s character development.

Day transforms into the unique star audiences would come to love over the course of the film. In her early scenes she is as scrappy as an early Barbara Stanwyck character and similarly a bit of a con artist, but only because her survival demands it. The daisies and sunshine aspect of her persona is always there; she is an instant star and entirely lovable as this character, but from that she evolves into someone more intriguing right before your eyes.

It happens during a mid-film reprisal of It’s You or No One. In her previous rendition of the tune she’s having fun with a fresh-faced combo, showing cheerfulness at odds with the mournful lyrics. When she returns to the tune she has lived the lyrics. With upswept hair on a windy cruise ship deck, she croons with that throb in her voice and ability to embody the emotion in a lyric that would distinguish her as a vocalist. In this moment she escapes being a type and becomes unique, the kind of person who could be a major star.

S.Z. Sakall and Oscar Levant round out the cast with their reliably assuring shtick. There’s also a heightened level of fussiness as both Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn make appearances.

While it may not have the glitz and spectacle of the other musical extravaganzas of the time, Romance on the High Seas is just as satisfying as those films and is in some ways more charming in its simplicity.

The Warner Archive disc includes the vintage musical short Let’s Sing a Song from the Movies and the cartoon Hare Splitter. It’s also got a handy menu that lets you skip directly to the songs in the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 27, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: October Round-up

 I didn't have as much time as usual to listen to podcasts this month, but the shows I did catch were extra delightful. All of these episodes are packed full of love for the movies, from great memories, to interesting film recommendations. Episode titles link to the shows:

Warner Archive Podcast
October 23, 2014

With the recent passing of the marvelous Rhonda Fleming, I wanted to re-up this fantastic interview the actress did in 2014 with George Feldenstein of Warner Archive. She packs a lot of memories into this twenty minute talk. Fleming is the rare star who was found by Hollywood, rather than reaching out for stardom herself. While she didn't like the superficial nature of the Technicolor Queen label she carried, she nevertheless had a varied, interesting career and came out of it a lot happier than many stars. This is a must-listen.

Ticklish Business

In this high-energy conversation with host Kristen Lopez, Carroll Baker (Giant, Baby Doll) reflects on her years as a Hollywood star with delightful affection and enthusiasm. In her retirement she’s been keeping busy writing everything from her memoirs to murder mysteries. It was fun to listen to her reminisce and great to see that she’s clearly thriving in her later years.

Pure Cinema Podcast
Horror & Thriller TV Movies
October 2, 2020
Half the fun of the Pure Cinema Podcast is reveling in the joy and sense of discovery hosts Elric Kane and Brian Sauer find in exploring movies. In this episode they are especially giddy as the pair dives into an area less familiar to both: classic TV movies. I love these films because they are often a great place to catch classic film stars in their later years. Despite having watched many movies of the week, there were several titles here that were as new to me as they were the hosts. As always, this is a show to listen to with paper and pen handy.

Cinema 60
Deadpan International Bond Satires in the 60s
September 22, 2020

In this episode Hosts Jenna Ipcar and Bart D’Alauro take an international approach to exploring the spy flicks inspired by James Bond in the 1960s. They cast a wide net, covering films from countries as diverse as Denmark, Japan, the UK, and France. It’s an interesting mix of the familiar and the rare.

Oct 21, 2020

On Blu-ray: In a Smashing Performance Spanky McFarland Steals Kentucky Kernels (1934) from Wheeler and Whoolsey

All the films I previously watched starring the Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey comedy duo were from earlier in the pre-code era and as I remember heavily reliant on scantily-clad chorus girls. The 1934 production Kentucky Kernels trades in shapely legs for the cute factor, a role perfectly filled by George “Spanky” McFarland who was at the time in the midst of his successful run as a member of Our Gang. On a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently enjoyed watching this little stinker wreak havoc for Wheeler, Woolsey, and anyone else in his path.

Kentucky Kernels falls near the end of the lengthy run Wheeler and Woolsey had as a comedy screen team. While this duo's humor has only slightly reached across time to me, they had a knack for physical comedy, and this production demonstrates how polished they had become in that regard.

The story is set in the South. This time the boys are unemployed vaudevillians who find themselves custodians of Spanky, who seems to have inherited an estate in Kentucky. As the pair attempts to claim the property, they find themselves in the middle of a family feud.

Mary Carlisle is sweet as the love interest, Margaret Dumont is allowed a bit more dignity than in her Marx Bros. films, and Noah Beery does his best Foghorn Leghorn bluster as the feuding Colonel Wakefield, but it is McFarland as a diligent little chaos agent who steals the film from Wheeler and Woolsey. He plays a boy with a penchant for breaking glass. He does it constantly: windows, light bulbs, bottles; whatever comes across his path.

This kid plays the kind of troublemaker that you would typically like to imagine at the bottom of a well, but Spanky is so darn charming and more nonchalant than devious about his mischief. He’s actually the most dangerous kind of troublemaker, with no conscience and no control, but it’s liberating to see him indulge in his appetite for destruction without a care in the world.   

Kentucky Kernels moves along at an efficient clip, buoyed most by McFarland, but also boosted by a musical interlude featuring the charming earworm One Little Kiss, and a magnificently goofy and inventive final slapstick sequence.

For more sensitive viewers, a heads up that Willie Best (billed as Sleep ‘n Eat) is featured as one of those dispiritingly lazy characters Black actors were so often required to play in the era. The disc includes three cartoons from 1934, the Popeye shorts The Dance Contest and Sock-a-Bye Baby, and Buddy's Circus which also heavily features racial stereotypes common for the time (Warners does include a title card with information about the inclusion of this 'toon).

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 7, 2020

On Blu-ray: Hepburn and Tracy Team up in Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952)


The nine films Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together may vary in quality, but it is always fascinating to watch these two together. I was reminded of that as I recently watched two of their collaborations on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive.  Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952) are in different leagues: one is a pleasant enough romance, the other is a classic, but the magic of Kate and Spence infuses both with the kind of intimate mood only these two could inspire.


Without Love is an adaptation of a play by Philip Barry. Hepburn had first performed the role on stage opposite Elliott Nugent. It was a lackluster pairing and the production did not do well. Perhaps Hepburn felt she had something to prove by giving it another go? With Tracy by her side, she undoubtedly felt she could do better.


Hepburn plays Jamie, an heiress in search of a caretaker for her massive home. Tracy is a government scientist who takes the job because he is in desperate need of space to conduct his experiments and housing is scarce in World War II D.C. They eventually enter into a marriage of convenience, which inevitably leads to love.


While it has its amusing quirks, I didn’t find the story of Without Love all that compelling. Basically, Tracy and Hepburn make something of the essentially decent material because they can’t help but be mesmerizing together. The pair rehearsed their roles extensively and they were so in tune with each other that you always feel you are intruding when they are deep in conversation.


Keenan Wynn does his familiar unreliable scamp shtick and he does it well, because he has some of the film’s funniest lines. As a calmly wise girl Friday, pre-TV Lucille Ball gives a remarkably controlled performance. She doesn’t waste a word or gesture; it’s beautifully disciplined and it is a pleasure to watch her. In the thankless discarded lover roles, Patricia Morison and Carl Esmond are both oddly alluring, the former for the force of her personality, the latter for a more laidback warmth.


Special features on the disc include the vintage crime short Crime Does Not Pay: Purity Squad, the cartoon Swing Shift Cinderella and a theatrical trailer.


Pat and Mike offers a complex cocktail of sprightly female athleticism and toxic romance. The role of multi-talented sportswoman Pat was a perfect fit for the athletic Hepburn, especially as written by her good friends, the husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (they also wrote the screenplay for Adams Rib).


Hepburn is Pat Pemberton, a phenomenal sportswoman, as long as her fiancé Collier (William Ching) is out of sight. Every time she locks eyes with him, her mojo fizzles. Right away you can see this fellow is no good for her. He picks apart her wardrobe, cringes at her behavior, and seems to think she exists to be an extension of him. No wonder she freezes up.


When sports promoter Mike (Spencer Tracy) shows up to woo Pat into a business relationship, it’s such a relief, because he looks at her like she’s worth something. Yes the something is money, at least in the beginning, but his respect for her talent quickly turns to love. He looks deeply into her eyes without a single thought of changing her and he shows his growing regard with little signs of affection, like an arm draped casually across her shoulders or his careful preservation of a handkerchief used to wipe her lipstick off his forehead.


That budding relationship is the core attraction of the film, but there are so many other delights. Jim Backus is a comforting presence as Pat’s supportive and perceptive friend, Chuck Connors makes a striking film debut in a bit part as a police officer, and Charles Bronson, in his Charles Buchinsky days, already shows perfect comic timing as a hood in his second film role. As a disgruntled boxer under contract to Mike, Aldo Ray is pleasingly unique with his gravelly voice and big galoot persona. The whole enterprise is bolstered by that witty, Oscar-nominated script and George Cukor’s sensitive direction.


The sports sequences are also a delight. In a lengthy, elegant scene on the greens, the camera drifts between long shots and close-ups as it observes the action at a golf tournament. The crowd reactions and the tension of the competition is beautifully woven into the drama of the film.


As Hepburn mingles on the green with several real lady golfers, or sets fire the court on fire with her powerful tennis game, she seems right at home. It’s also a lot of fun to watch the pros at work; what an excellent way to preserve the images of sports legends like Alice Marble, Gussie Moran, Babe Zaharias, and Betty Hicks.


The disc special features include a pair of trailers for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 1, 2020

Streaming Diary: Spooky Flicks for the Halloween Season


Happy Spooky Season! Since the list of spooky streaming picks that I compiled in 2019 is so comprehensive, I have decided to simply add to that selection this year with a few more titles that I have enjoyed recently. I’ve also linked to several more films below, so this is the post to bookmark for lots of creepy flicks!

 The City of the Dead (1960)

A college student (Venetia Stevenson) is convinced by her professor to travel to the tiny town of Whitewood, Massachusetts town to study witchcraft. Since that teacher is played by Christopher Lee, you know right away that she is doomed. This flick from the lesser-known Vulcan Productions (the team behind it would go on to form the more renowned Amicus Productions) combines modern settings and ancient horrors in a fascinating way. [available on Tubi, Vudu free, Kanopy]

Return to Glennascaul (1953)

Hilton Edwards was taking a hiatus from directing Orson Welles in Othello (1952) when he made this eerie, atmospheric short with his star. It’s a dreamingly drifting ghost story, as nostalgic as it is creepy, and gorgeous to look at. [available on The Criterion Channel]

The Haunted Strangler/Grip of the Strangler (1958)

In a story written especially for him, Boris Karloff stars as a social reformer who tries to prove the innocence of a man hung for a string of strangulation killings. The film can get a bit silly; Karloff contorts his face in a hilariously bizarre way for a few scenes, but it is fun to see the actor late in his career. [available on The Criterion Channel, Kanopy]

2019 picks

2018 picks from Kanopy

Other suggestions on disc (links go to my reviews):

Bad RonaldThe Mystery of the Wax MuseumTwo on a GuillotineThe Fearless Vampire Killers, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, From Beyond the GraveA Bucket of BloodDracula A.D. 1972Village of the Damned