TopBilled

TopBilled’s Essentials

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Essential: LAKE PLACID SERENADE (1944)

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It's interesting to see Vera Ralston when she was younger, playing a character modeled more closely on herself. As some people know, Vera was an Olympic ice skater from Czechoslovakia who caught the attention of Republic talent scouts in 1940 when she was on tour with a ice show in the United States. She would also catch the attention of studio boss Herbert Yates, but that's a story for another time.

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At first Vera was signed with other performers from the Ice Capades show. They made a picture called ICE-CAPADES, then a sequel called ICE-CAPADES REVUE. These productions were inspired by the wildly successful ones that had been made at 20th Century Fox with Sonja Henie. Vera was featured in group numbers in her early Republic films, skating her heart out, and she did not have many lines. She was just there with the other skaters to provide some glittery entertainment while established Hollywood stars took on the main acting duties.

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But a screen test convinced Yates that Vera could become a star, and he quickly gave her an image make-over. Her hairstyle was changed, her name was changed (from Hruba to Ralston), and she was given acting lessons. In the 1940s she did not always play the lead female character in her movies. Sometimes she was featured in support of bigger stars. But with LAKE PLACID SERENADE, Yates handed the neophyte actress her first leading role.

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It should be noted that while her ethnicity is referenced in these early films, it is not mentioned at all in the films she made during the 50s. Probably by then, after she had married Yates, she became more Americanized. Gradually she was featured in dramatic "A" pictures opposite the studio's top leading men. But when she made LAKE PLACID SERENADE, the idea was to give the wartime public something fun, something to make them forget about the fighting overseas.

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I expected LAKE PLACID SERENADE to be more than a bit derivative of Sonja Henie's vehicles, and it certainly is. But that is to its advantage because these types of movies are always enjoyable. I especially like the way the screenplay alludes to Cinderella and has Vera losing one of her ice skates. Because Vera winds up with the guy at the end, and comic sidekick Barbara Jo Allen also lands a man, I suppose we can assume the two evil sisters (played by Stephanie Bachelor and Ruth Terry) remain unlucky in love. Considering how ruthless Stephanie Bachelor's character is, it might be poetic justice.

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A major highlight of the picture is a guest appearance by Roy Rogers and his rendition of 'Winter Wonderland.' The production notes for the film on the TCM database indicate he and Vera Ralston made a special appearance together in Lake Placid, New York where the film premiered in December 1944.

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Another thing I like is the way the scenes are lit. John Alton was one of the better cinematographers of the 40s and 50s, and Republic had Alton work on several pictures, including LAKE PLACID SERENADE. His skilled use of lighting creates a sense of warmth which nicely complements the dreamy music on the soundtrack during the skating sequences. And the warm lighting and use of steam (which seems to be a recurring motif), enhance the exterior scenes. This creates a luminous effect amid snowy landscapes and ice. Put a wintertime ballerina in the middle of it, and the audience is sure to be dazzled.

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Essential: VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES (1946)

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Ironically there are no zombies in this film, but that shouldn't keep audiences from enjoying it. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES is one of Republic's more entertaining B-horror films. It starts when a man in a black cape climbs on top of a roof  where the office of Dr. Rufus Maynard (Charles Trowbridge) is located. He soon enters the doctor's office and asks for blood, because he is desperately in need of some. We learn he's a former mental patient named Ormand Murks (Ian Keith) who died in 1941.

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Murks had a brain disorder and while he was locked up he would request blood transfusions. Apparently his death has not curbed his appetite for such things. It is suggested that Murks is a zombie, but he's probably a vampire. Since Dr. Maynard has no more blood in the refrigerator Murks gets it from the next available source-- the doctor himself. The scene where he approaches Maynard in order to extract blood from him is quite horrifying. It isn't shown how he takes the blood, just that he takes it. The weird "transfusion" results in Maynard's death.

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Maynard's handsome young assistant, Dr. Terry Evans (Robert Livingston) tries to figure out what happened. Evans is in love with an attractive nurse (Adrian Booth). Despite there being no discernible motive, a dimwitted police detective thinks they teamed up and killed Maynard. There's a great interrogation scene when the nurse and young doctor are questioned at the local precinct. They're released due to lack of evidence, but decide to solve the murder to clear themselves of any suspicion.

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Livingston, who normally starred in B westerns at Republic, is quite good as the innocent doctor in this suspenseful tale. Booth (sometimes billed as Lorna Gray) worked across genres and seems to enjoy playing a woman scared of her own shadow. Together, the leads are very appealing. Philip Ford's direction gets the job done, and the story is aided immeasurably by Reggie Lanning's chiaroscuro lighting. In fact Lanning's skill as cinematographer reminded me of John Alton's work from this period.

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There are haunting images and eerie music, along with plenty of ironic dialogue and jolts to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The story's running time is only 56 minutes so it all moves rather quickly and there are no dull moments. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES was made during a time when horror seemed more innocent but was just as deadly and gruesome as ever.

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Essential: FAIR WIND TO JAVA (1953)

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Martin Scorsese is a big fan of this film. In fact, Scorsese is such a fan he was responsible for the picture being restored, and later, for helping screen the restoration at UCLA. He told the audience at the special screening that this is '50s matinee movie watching in all its glory. The picture certainly does have a Saturday matinee feel to it.

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Filmed with Republic's Trucolor process it overflows with bright green, blue, red and orange. The script is sharply written, and we learn a lot about what makes sailors behave as they do. We're given the backstory of Fred MacMurray's character-- how he ascended the ranks, was assigned a ship of his own, and how he came to the sea near Java. During his travels he meets Vera Ralston's "slave girl" and frees her from captivity. Yes, it is one of those kinds of love stories.

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The supporting cast of FAIR WIND TO JAVA couldn't be better. Victor McLaglen, Claude Jarman Jr. and John Russell turn in fine performances as the men under MacMurray's command. So does Robert Douglas who plays a rival treasure seeker. As their individual tales are told, we get caught up in the excitement. Life at sea is depicted as romantic and adventurous.

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What's a good swashbuckler without rousing fights on board the ship? Or a hunt for diamonds on land that is soon obscured by debris from a very active volcano? The volcanic eruption occurs near the end and symbolizes the passion shared by the main characters. Herbert Yates-- Republic's boss and Miss Ralston's husband-- went all out to present the most spectacular special effects you could ever imagine. There's a reason Martin Scorsese had this gem restored. It's worth more than all the diamonds in Java.

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Essential: WHEN GANGLAND STRIKES (1956)

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I guess there's a bit of irony in the fact that a man who winds up dead after bowling a strike starts a movie called WHEN GANGLAND STRIKES. But the mob character on trial for this murder is striking back at society in another way. And he will do whatever it takes to avoid taking the rap, even if he has to blackmail a small town prosecutor in Rosedale U.S.A.

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This was a remake of Republic's earlier crime yarn MAIN STREET LAWYER in which Edward Ellis played the title character in 1939. Anita Louise costarred as his daughter. Both their characters' names have been changed for the remake. In many ways the "updated" version is not very updated at all and still feels like it takes place in the 30s. However, the folksy small-town atmosphere still translates well, and the slow moving plot which other reviewers criticized, helps provide some rich characterization.

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The stylized dialogue indicates the naivety of the times; and the use of highly idiomatic expressions feels like something from the studio's popular serials. In fact the strange dialogue gives the film considerable charm. Raymond Greenleaf who portrays the old prosecutor is a fine actor that delivers his lines perfectly. Richard Deacon is on hand as an opposing attorney, and he is similarly excellent. 

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Marjie Millar, cast as the lawyer's daughter, is given more emotional scenes than her costars. Especially when it is learned her character's birth was mired in scandal. This was Millar's third and final film. She had been a discovery of producer Hal Wallis a few years earlier. Previously she appeared in two Paramount "A" films for Wallis. An accident sidelined her career and she turned to teaching.

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One reviewer tried to link the film to television shows made at the time. Just because a few of the actors appeared on TV doesn't mean this is like an episode of Perry Mason. And I certainly wouldn't associate the town's values with those espoused by Judge Hardy or even Andy Taylor. The sentiments in this story are wholly unique, displaying a unique brand of down-home appeal.

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WHEN GANGLAND STRIKES may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Coming up in October...

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Katharine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy

I will be reviewing 

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)
KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)
WITHOUT LOVE (1945)
THE SEA OF GRASS (1947)
 

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Interesting that you are choosing three of their lesser known vehicles instead of the obvious "Big Four" (Adam's Rib, Pat & Mike, State Of the Union and Guess Who) plus Desk Set.

Unfortunately I could not find AMC's old documentary The Republic Picture Story online. Last saw it in the '90s, but it would be so much fun seeing it again. It probably didn't include clips of the four you recently detailed, since the focus was on the titles that average movie buffs (those who bother with the '30s-50s, that is) were more familiar with.

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10 hours ago, Jlewis said:

Interesting that you are choosing three of their lesser known vehicles instead of the obvious "Big Four" (Adam's Rib, Pat & Mike, State Of the Union and Guess Who) plus Desk Set.

Unfortunately I could not find AMC's old documentary The Republic Picture Story online. Last saw it in the '90s, but it would be so much fun seeing it again. It probably didn't include clips of the four you recently detailed, since the focus was on the titles that average movie buffs (those who bother with the '30s-50s, that is) were more familiar with.

I wanted to cover Hepburn & Tracy in the 40s and would have included ADAM'S RIB if there had been five Saturdays in October. I will go over the films in order since I think their relationship sort of evolves on screen.

The Republic Pictures Story used to be on YouTube. I'm glad you mentioned it so others will know about it. Perhaps it will be available again in the future. The good thing about that documentary is it interviews a lot of retired people who knew the ins and outs of the studio. I think those interviews were done in the late 80s. The documentary appeared on AMC in 1990-ish.

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers both talk about their films, from the technical side, including the difference between two of their main directors (Joe Kane and William Witney). Also Vera Ralston makes a rare appearance discussing her films. Ralston was rather reclusive so her participation is a big deal. And if remember correctly the documentary also focuses on the studio's serials and Oscar-nominated special effects. It's an interesting project and certainly is worth viewing.

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Back in the eighties and early nineties (a.k.a. MGM's When The Lion Roars came out shortly after that one), I got pretty comfortable seeing all of these veterans interviewed about working-at-the-studio, whatever studio it was. Now I miss them all since they have joined all of the other stars up in heaven.

Going off topic, my favorite series will always be the James Mason narrated and Ken Brownlow and David Gill directed Hollywood (mostly compiled in 1978-79), which successfully "canned" for posterity so many veterans of five to seven decades back. This included those who knew Valentino before he "became" Valentino. I especially loved Colleen Moore in all of hers, especially the one where she imitates a strongly accented buddy of hers ("oy oy oy") commenting on her first talkie tests and speech lessons.

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Yes, it would be great if TCM could do a monthly spotlight focusing on studio-based documentaries. I think everyone would appreciate it.

The one on Republic Pictures was done, of course, to preserve studio history. But also Aaron Spelling had bought the Republic Pictures library and his company was starting to release titles on VHS (some were released a short time later on Laser Disc). So the documentary was sort of a promotional tie-in, with Spelling making some of the films available on home video and also leasing them at that time to AMC for broadcasting.

Today Paramount controls the Republic Library since Spelling's estate sold the whole package to Paramount. More recently Paramount undertook the arduous task of transferring the titles to digital. Some of the original prints were in bad condition but fortunately there were much better prints in Britain which Paramount was able to use for the digital restorations. From 1935 to 1959 Republic turned out almost 1000 features, and I think around 800 of them have been restored, so the studio's output has been largely preserved thanks to Paramount's painstaking efforts.

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44 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

Tomorrow my review for

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Not suitable for General Exhibition?    Does anyone know what that means? 

If it means not suitable for kids (people under a certain age),   I find it odd to apply that to this film.

Maybe the producer meant not suitable for chauvinist?     (even though the film isn't as feminist as many think)

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3 hours ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

Not suitable for General Exhibition?    Does anyone know what that means? 

If it means not suitable for kids (people under a certain age),   I find it odd to apply that to this film.

Maybe the producer meant not suitable for chauvinist?     (even though the film isn't as feminist as many think)

Interesting observation. It seems to imply there was some monitoring, like an early ratings system of some kind. Did the studio put that label on the film, did the production code office, or did the exhibitors so parents would know it was an "adult" comedy and not exactly for kids...?

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2 hours ago, TopBilled said:

Interesting observation. It seems to imply there was some monitoring, like an early ratings system of some kind. Did the studio put that label on the film, did the production office, or did the exhibitors so parents would know it was an "adult" comedy and not exactly for kids...?

My guess is that this is just a marketing \ PR stunt;   i.e.  imply the film is very 'adult' as a way to create interest.

Now I'm very curious if other films during that era had something similar on their movie promo posters \ ads.

 

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Just now, jamesjazzguitar said:

Now I'm very curious if other films during that era had something similar on their movie promo posters \ ads.

Check out the poster for Vanity Fair from 1932 that I just posted in the "I Just Watched" thread. It also says "Children Not Admitted".

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3 minutes ago, LawrenceA said:

Check out the poster for Vanity Fair from 1932 that I just posted in the "I Just Watched" thread. It also says "Children Not Admitted".

Thanks.   Hey,  Vanity Fair was a pre-code!;  many of those are not suitable for children (wink).   

At least 'children not admitted' is clear,  while "Not suitable for General Exhibition"  isn't (but like I said in the prior post I have to assume they meant 'not suitable for non-adults').

If theaters really did prevent children from seeing these films,   how did they know which films to apply that too (since there wasn't a rating system)?          

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15 minutes ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

Thanks.   Hey,  Vanity Fair was a pre-code!;  many of those are not suitable for children (wink).   

At least 'children not admitted' is clear,  while "Not suitable for General Exhibition"  isn't (but like I said in the prior post I have to assume they meant 'not suitable for non-adults').

If theaters really did prevent children from seeing these films,   how did they know which films to apply that too (since there wasn't a rating system)?          

It must have been based on notes from the studio in tandem with the production code office. The exhibitors received catalogues from each studio, which told the exhibitors what the studio would be releasing in the coming season. These catalogues contained photos and articles with a lot of information about the films and how to promote them in certain neighborhoods (or rural areas).

I think studios made it very clear how to best market the films and certainly how not to market them. Such as making sure adult dramas and comedies were not aimed at kids. In a similar way, serials, cartoons and kiddie westerns would not have been marketed to adults.

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Essential: WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)

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It's a slow moving and methodical film, a lot slower than expected. It's more of a character study. Two character studies. It could've been called MAN OF THE YEAR just as easily as it's called WOMAN OF THE YEAR. Like PAT AND MIKE, or MIKE AND PAT, which one comes first doesn't really matter since they are so equally played. Though perhaps Hepburn's character is written a bit better than Tracy's character might be.

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Hepburn specifically wanted Tracy for her costar. It would be the first of nine motion pictures they made together. Hepburn had just come off her smash hit THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and was eager to prove her comeback was no fluke. She seems to be co-directing and quasi-producing this picture. Sometimes she stands off to the side in the shots watching/willing the character players to do their very best. It gives the film something different, something extra.

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Hepburn's quite luminous, more feminine, in this picture than she is in other studio assignments. Because she is so glam in this role, one almost has a hard time believing nobody married her character before Tracy came along. The aunt, played by Fay Bainter, has also not been married. In that case we have a gal who's older and very much set in her ways.

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Bainter and Hepburn had previously costarred in 1937's QUALITY STREET, which was also directed by George Stevens. As the plot moves along the audience expects the aunt to get together with Hepburn's widowed father (Minor Watson). But it is still impressive how economically this takes place. Without words Hepburn's father grabs hold of the aunt's hand during a public event. The camera then cuts to Hepburn looking on and noticing the loving act, even if she is not yet able to fully comprehend or approve. It's a marvelous scene.

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A wedding sequence occurs shortly afterward, and it is just as marvelous to watch. We glimpse the older couple's vows reflected on to Hepburn who's at a crossroads in her relationship with Tracy.  This is probably the best part of the whole film. All the repressed emotions of both women are finally released.

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WOMAN OF THE YEAR will air on TCM the 18th of December.

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Seen this twice but it has been a while and will have to see it again. George Stevens often had women who were stronger than the men in his films. I am thinking of I Remember Mama and Giant off the top of my head. Well... maybe Hudson and Dean could hold their own against Taylor in the latter but she was still "one tough Texan". Also handled Hepburn in Alice Adams.

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This is the first time I've poked my head into this section.

I don' t understand several components of these TCM forums so far, such as "Create a Star-of-the-Month calendar" or "Suggest a schedule" or "Create your Essentials" (or whatever all this is actually called). All this is Greek to me.

But taking a glance at this section of the discussion threads, I must say I spot some very fine prose skills. 'TopBilled' is a fine writer. This is a vanishing talent these days and I gladly doff my cap. These are some superb reviews.

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I have to admit this is my favorite Hepburn & Tracy film:

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Check for my review on Saturday.

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Essential: KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)

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For those used to seeing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in comedies, the somber tone of this story might be a bit of an adjustment. It's still a worthwhile film to watch. Hepburn has a lot of emoting to do as the widow of a well-loved man (maybe he was too loved?). It's never said what the late Mr. Forrest's greatest achievements were in business or the world of politics, but he made a powerful impression on many.

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There are lines about hero worship and people idolizing a dead man. Whenever the writer is stuck on how to convey Forrest as a figure from beyond the grave, characters suddenly lapse into speeches about how wonderful he was and everything he did for the masses. Forrest is a Christ figure they deify incessantly at the beginning, then eventually demonize before all is said and done.

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The best casting in the picture seems to be a real Forrest-- Forrest Tucker-- as Hepburn's moody cousin. He's handsome and mysterious. One wonders if Forest Tucker was director George Cukor's mentee (read that as you like), but he does give a convincing performance. The other assignments are handled with equal skill. I particularly liked Donald Meek as an inn proprietor who knows everyone's business B.F. (Before Forrest) and A.F. (After Forrest). If S.Z. Sakall had been cast in this role he would have been all cuddly; but Meek gives it just the right amount of shrewdness.

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It's a thought provoking picture that seems in several ways to be Metro's version of CITIZEN KANE. But there is no sled in this one. It's not about a dying man's last words. It's about what everyone says after he's gone.

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The death of Hepburn's character near the end seems a little too much and is obviously meant to increase the tragedy. And the coda where we learn Tracy wrote her life story instead of her husband's story feels rushed if not appropriately ironic. Hepburn starts out as the title character, the original keeper of the flame; but Tracy becomes the title character at the end, the new keeper of the flame.

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KEEPER OF THE FLAME will air on TCM the 29th of December.

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