Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar

During the golden age of the studio system, Hollywood studios were very protective of their stars’ images. The last thing any studio wanted to happen was to have one of their prized stars’ images tarnished by a scandal. To keep bad publicity at bay, studios would hire people to put the kibosh on stories before they made their way into the gossip columns. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is one of these “fixers” for Capitol Pictures and the time and energy he has to invest into protecting the studio’s stars takes a toll on his personal life.

First of all, Capitol Pictures is in the middle of production on their latest prestige picture, Hail, Caesar!, when its star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) suddenly disappears. Baird has a reputation for womanizing and going off on benders for days at a time, but this time, he’s been drugged and kidnapped by a couple of extras who are working as part of a group of Communist sympathizers. The group sends a ransom note to Capitol Pictures, demanding $100,000 for his return. When Baird wakes up in the home of a Hollywood big shot, he actually begins to side with the Communists, not realizing his fellow Capitol Pictures star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) also has ties to the organization.

Then there’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the musical star with a wholesome image who is expecting a child out of wedlock. Not willing to go along with a studio-arranged marriage, she is willing to go along with Mannix’s other idea of putting her child up for adoption, then adopting it back.

Not quite as scandalous is the matter of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the singing cowboy star whose career is being forced in a new direction. While Hobie was right at home with a lasso and a horse, he’s hopelessly struggling with his latest role in a more sophisticated period film. He desperately wants to be out of the picture, but Mannix insists he finish the movie and insists he start being seen with starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) to continue building his new image.

In the midst of all this, Mannix is struggling to decide whether or not he ought to accept a job offer from Lockheed Martin.

When the trailer for Hail, Caesar! hit the internet back in October 2015, I, like many people, was really excited about it. Unfortunately, I liked the trailer more than I liked the movie. Hail, Caesar! wasn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; I got some good laughs out of it, liked many of the performances, and thought the sets were fantastic. And any fan of classic Hollywood is bound to have fun picking up on all the references to real stars and incidents that inspired its various storylines.

However, the direction felt unfocused and the movie felt longer than its 100 minute runtime. With so many different characters involved and so many storylines going on in such a short amount of time, there just wasn’t a whole lot of time to develop any of them into anything I was genuinely interested in. For example, the DeeAnna Moran story was clearly inspired by the ordeal Loretta Young went through to cover up the fact that her daughter Judy Lewis was fathered by Clark Gable. The real story of that is one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals and could certainly be a movie unto itself, but it’s actually one of the least interesting storlyines of Hail, Caesar!

All in all, there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes, but it’s ultimately a lot of missed potential. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’d be worth checking out if you can catch it at a cheap show.

What’s On TCM: February 2016

Claudette Colbert Shirley Temple Oscar

Happy February, everyone!

As always, February is TCM’s annual 31 Days of Oscar celebration. In addition to the fact that every movie shown during the month of February (plus a couple days of March) are Oscar nominees and winners, TCM usually has another theme as to how the movies are scheduled. In past years, they’ve had nights of movies dedicated to nominees and winners from specific years, other times, there have been days of movies that all deal with a certain topic or theme. This year, they’re going with a spin on the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. Each movie features a star along with another star, and the other star is also in the movie that follows it, and so on and so on. So, by the time the 31 Days of Oscar, the final movie shown on March 2 will have a star in common with the 1st movie shown on February 1.

I know February isn’t everyone’s favorite month on TCM and I’ve spent so many years glued to 31 Days of Oscars that I don’t tend to discover many new things during this month anymore. But there are always a lot of days on the schedule that make it a pleasure to revisit some old favorites. So, let’s take a closer look at the schedule…

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The Phynx (1970)

Before I get into this review, let me just say one thing about what I am about to describe: I’m not making any of this up. I’m well aware of how bizarre this is all going to sound, but I promise you, all of this actually does happen.

When several influential world figures such as Colonel Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Dorothy Lamour, Xavier Cugat, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), and Johnny Weissmuller are kidnapped to Albania, a band of secret agents gets together to find a way to bring them back. This band of secret agents is led by some guy with a box on his head and the band of secret agents includes hookers, the KKK, some guys who work on Madison Avenue, and some boy scouts. One of the boy scouts suggest they ask a computer named MOTHA (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans) what she recommends. MOTHA comes up with the elegantly simple and failproof plan of manufacturing a rock band and have them become successful enough be invited to perform in Albania so they can free these world figures.

MOTHA also gives the names of the people she has chosen to be in this fake rock band, which she has decided will be named The Phynx. Once they’ve all been officially recruited, they start training to be rock stars. Naturally, they end up being a huge success in America and in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, other world figures like Joe Louis, Busby Berkeley (and the original Gold Diggers), Maureen O’Sullivan, Patty Andrews, and Pat O’Brien have also gone missing. Luckily, by then, the band has gotten successful enough for the Albanian Minister of Culture to want them to perform at their national flower day event.

Once in Albania, the band sneaks into a castle where an Albanian leader and his wife, played by Joan Blondell, are keeping all these world figures. They’re also treating Colonel Sanders like a servant. It turns out they kidnap these stars because Joan Blondell’s character is American and misses American culture, so they bring it to Albania. In addition to all the stars already mentioned, they’ve also kidnapped George Jessel, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, Ruby Keeler, Cass Dailey, Rudy Vallee, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, just to name a few.

The Phynx decides to play a song for all the stars in hopes of inspiring all the stars to return to America. The plan is a success and the stars are moved by this song. First, George Jessel says they should leave and Butterfly McQueen seconds the idea. But how will they get out? Huntz Hall suggests they all sneak out by hiding in carts full of radishes and I guess nobody else had any other ideas, so they went with it, leading to a moment where Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan reprise their famous “Me Tarzan, Me Jane” lines in a radish cart. The plan is a success and all these influential figures return to America!

…No, really, I did not make any of this up. This actually is what happens in The Phynx. I have absolutely no explanation as to why this movie was ever made. I have no idea why all these people agreed to be in this movie. (In addition to all the kidnapped stars, people like Richard Pryor, Dick Clark, and Ed Sullivan all make cameos. Why? I don’t know.) It’s one of the most completely incomprehensible movies I’ve ever seen, but the fact that it exists at all absolutely delights me.

The Phynx didn’t have much of a release back in 1970 (now that, I can understand) and was never officially released on home video until Warner Archive released it on DVD a few years back. It’s kind of dull in the beginning, but if you stick with it to the end, it goes completely and totally off the rails with this cavalcade of movie stars and other celebrities. Some of the stars make total sense to have together like Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller; Pat O’Brien, Leo Gorcey, and Huntz Hall; and Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell (alas, there were no scenes where Berkeley, Blondell, and Keeler actually interact with each other). But somehow, it all seems so incredibly thrown together and random. As a fan of so many of these stars, I loved getting to see them all together, even if it was in such a nonsense movie. If nothing else, I was excited to see that Ultra Violet makes an appearance in this because it means The Phynx is a movie that appeals to my interests in Busby Berkeley musicals and Andy Warhol’s factory scene. Because, really, how often do I get to combine those interests?

I’m just going to leave you with a few screencaps of my favorite moments from this movie, if for no other reason than to prove that these things actually happened. This is definitely a movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Phynx Leader Box Guy

The leader of the band of secret agents.

Joan Blondell Colonel Sanders The Phynx

Joan Blondell with Colonel Sanders, which is my new favorite picture.

Joe Louis Johnny Weissmuller Colonel Sanders The Phynx

Joe Louis and Johnny Weissmuller looking serious with Colonel Sanders in the background.

Maureen O'Sullivan, George Jessel, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy The Phynx

Maureen O’Sullivan, George Jessel, and Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley The Phynx

Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley reunited

The Phynx Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Phynx Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller

Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller having a Tarzan reunion in a cart full of radishes.  (OK, this moment was cute.)

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall The Phynx

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall

Shout out to Danny from pre-code.com for bringing this movie to my attention and inspiring me to write my most baffling review ever.

What’s on TCM: January 2016

Fred MacMurray Double Indemnity (1)

Happy new year! Ready to start a new year of movie watching? I know I am.

Coming up in January, TCM will be showing a couple of movies I’m very excited to see included, Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean on January 5th and Don’t Bet on Women on January 12th. Both of these are movies I don’t think enough people know about, but they’re both well worth seeing. If you’re a big fan of pre-codes, you definitely won’t want to miss Don’t Bet on Women. It’s a really delightful movie where Una Merkel completely steals the show.

January’s Star of the Month is the great Fred MacMurray and on Thursday nights, TCM will be doing a spotlight on the work of legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies, both of which should be some fantastic tributes.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at what the first month of 2016 has to offer.

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What’s on TCM: December 2015

Frank Sinatra From Here to Eternity

Happy December, everyone! Ready to start watching your favorite classic holiday movies? If you are, you can count on lots of those coming up this month. On almost every Friday night this month, plus on weekends, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, you’ll have lots of opportunities to watch lots of Christmas classics.

In honor of his 100th birthday, Frank Sinatra will be December’s Star of the Month. Every Tuesday night, TCM will be showing many of his movies, plus classic televised specials. On Monday nights this month, there will be a series of films that deal with various types of friendships between women; some are genuinely close friendships while others are more complicated.

December’s going to be a busy month, so let’s get started with the schedule.

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Underworld (1927)

Underworld 1927

After pulling off  a big robbery, gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) crosses paths with a homeless, alcoholic man he nicknames Rolls Royce (Clive Brook). Bull likes Rolls Royce’s style, so he decides to make him part of his gang. Bull is a pretty big shot gangster who thinks he’s untouchable. With Bull’s help, Rolls Royce gets his act together and ends up becoming a valuable part of Bull’s gang. Before alcoholism took over his life, Rolls had been a lawyer so he’s got lots of knowledge that’s very helpful for Bull’s many schemes.

Not only is Bull extremely proud of his criminal enterprise, he’s also very proud of his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent). Things start to get complicated when Rolls Royce and Feathers start to fall in love with each other. One night at a party attended by every major gangster in town, Bull finds out he’s not as untouchable as he thought. When he discovers a rival gangster trying to get Feathers’ attention, Bull kills him, is caught, and sentenced to death.

Although Rolls and Feathers are conflicted about whether or not they should accept this opportunity to be together, Rolls comes up with a plan to break Bull out of prison. Unfortunately, the plan goes horribly awry and Bull thinks he’s been double crossed. But Bull escapes and ends up getting into a big standoff with the police while Rolls and Feathers try to set the record straight with him.

You’d be hard pressed to find a classic gangster movie that wasn’t influenced in some way by Underworld. The story might not be particularly complex, but Underworld effectively set the tone for all the gangster movies that would become hugely popular just a few years later. When you watch it, you’ll inevitably see see moments that make you think of Little CaesarScarface, and The Public Enemy. With Josef Von Sternberg at the helm, Underworld is a bit more stylish than the classic Warner Brothers gangster classics, but it’s no less brilliant. All three leads give excellent performances that really light up the screen. On the whole, Underworld has aged very well. If you’re a big fan of gangster movies, this is an absolute must-see.

The Freshman (1925)

Harold Lloyd The Freshman

More than anything else, Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) dreams of being able to go away to college and be a big man on campus. He works hard to be able to go to Tate College,  but since he’s not the coolest guy in town, he decides to see a movie called “The College Hero” over and over again and takes notes on everything the main character does. Once his parents see some of the things Harold is planning to do, like doing a jig anytime he meets someone new, they know this isn’t going to end well.

Once Harold arrives at Tate College, his behavior does make him popular, but for all the wrong reasons. He quickly becomes a target for other students to pick on and Harold’s tendency to try to buy popularity doesn’t do him any favors. The only real friend he has is girl named Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), who he had met on the train to Tate and just happens to be his landlord’s daughter. She sincerely has a crush on Harold for the person he really is, not the person he tries to be.

Eventually, Harold realizes that if he really wants to be popular, he needs to get on the football team. Of course, Harold’s try-out is a complete disaster, but the coach admires his persistence and when one of the team’s most popular players suggest they make him the team’s water boy and let him think he’s a replacement, the coach goes along with it. Thinking he’s made the team, Harold tries taking another step up the social ladder by hosting the school’s Fall Frolic, but the night ends up being another disaster when his tailor isn’t able to have his suit ready on time. Since his suit is only held together with very loose stitches, the tailor has to secretly keep stitching him back up throughout the night. Then things get even worse when Harold and a popular student get into an argument over Peggy and Harold finds out how the other students really see him.

But when Tate College is playing in a big football game, Harold finally has a chance to earn the popularity he’s always wanted. The players on the other team are so strong, all of Tate’s players are forced out of the game because of injuries. Harold is eager to get in the game, but the coach hesitates until he has no other choice. After he finally gets in the game, Harold nearly loses the whole game, but he manages pull through in the end.

I absolutely despise football, but watching The Freshman is one of the rare occasions I will gladly watch something football-related and have a darn good time doing so. Harold Lloyd is an absolute genius and The Freshman is one of his best movies. He was so perfect at playing sincere, likable, but kind of dorky characters; he had it down to a fine art. Not only is Lloyd’s performance excellent, it’s full of absolutely hilarious jokes but still has a lot of heart to it. This is everything a good silent comedy should be. The Freshman is an absolute delight, plain and simple. If you’re just starting to get into silent films and are looking for some movies to help you get started exploring silent comedy, The Freshman is one I would very highly recommend.