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Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a successful food writer for Smart Housekeeping (a popular magazine such as Family Circle), writes about her idyllic life on a farm in Connecticut with her husband and baby. Her readers and her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) love her columns and believe them to be true.

The truth is Elizabeth is unmarried, has no child, lives in a New York City apartment, has never lived on a farm, and can't cook. Elizabeth is well paid and loves living in New York. But both her position and her lifestyle are threatened when Yardley decides it would make wonderful publicity for Elizabeth to invite Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) into her home at Christmas. Jones is a war hero who had spent weeks at sea in a lifeboat after his ship had been sunk. To complicate matters even further, after Yardley is put on an extremely restrictive diet, he decides to invite himself to Elizabeth's farm.

How Elizabeth copes with her dilemma leads to very funny film. You'll roar with laughter at times and the romance that develops between Elizabeth and Jones is both comic and heartwarming. This is one of my favorite Christmas films.

Night Passage

Night Passage (1957)Night Passage is an action packed western about former railroad troubleshooter Grant MacLaine (Jimmy Stewart), who lost his job after letting his outlaw brother, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), escape. After spending five years wandering the west and earning his living playing the accordion, he is given a second chance by his former boss. The train has been robbed several times by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), the Utica Kid and their gang.

This film is like a wonderful meal that is full of both contrasts and surprises. There’s the obvious contrast between MacLaine and the Utica Kid of good vs. bad and older vs. younger. In addition, Whitey is nervous and constantly on edge while the Kid is calm and collected. MacLaine's former loves are also a contrast. Verna, a blonde, chose an older and wealthier man over MacLaine preferring security to romance, and Charlotte, a brunette, has chosen the younger and wilder Utica Kid over MacLaine.

There is one unintended contrast in the film. Two TV dads have small roles in the film: Hugh Beamont, the Beaver's dad in Leave it to Beaver and Herbert Anderson, Dennis' dad in Dennis the Menace. Both men play railroad employees but one of them is honest while the other is not.

Among the surprises, the film features two wonderful songs, a beautiful romantic ballad "Follow the River" and a lively jig "You can't get far without a railroad." Stewart plays the accordion and sings the latter song. Besides Duryea, the film also features character actors Robert Wilke and Jack Elam. All three of these actors made careers out of playing sadistic killers. And the photography is gorgeous.

There is a lot to like in the film. So check it out, get some popcorn and sit back and enjoy.

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (1999) R
This Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci borrows characters and the setting from Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but otherwise bears no resemblance to the story. Although I am usually unhappy when Hollywood drastically alters a classic, I was happily surprised with this film.

Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a New York City police detective rather than Irving’s schoolmaster. The time is 1799. Crane is despised by the New York authorities because he uses scientific methods to solve crimes as opposed to the old-fashioned methods of beatings and torture. To get him out of their hair, he is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate three grisly murders. All of the victims have been decapitated.

The film is very atmospheric and you get the feeling of gloom that sets in during the late fall after all the leaves have fallen from the trees, the days are short and dark, and winter will soon arrive. The Oscar nomination for best cinematography is well earned.

Sleepy Hollow is not for young children or sensitive viewers as there is a lot of blood and gore, but everyone else should enjoy this film – especially if viewed in late October or early November and of course at night.

Ghost Town

Ghost Town (2008) PG-13
This delightful romantic comedy stars Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, and Tea Leoni. A dentist named Bertram Pincus (Gervais) has zero people skills and in fact despises people so much, it is surprising he didn't choose a different career such as hermit or public executioner. And as though life isn't tough enough for Pincus, he acquires the ability to see and speak with ghosts as a result of faulty anesthetic.

The ghosts are people who had unresolved issues at the time of their deaths and they all want Pincus to help him. For a man like Pincus, this is a disaster, as he has spent most of his life avoiding the living and now he's being haunted almost nonstop. However, things get even more complicated when one of the ghosts, Frank Herlihy (Kinnear), pesters Pincus into helping him break up his widow's engagement. This is a particularly difficult task since her fiancé is handsome, fit, wealthy, and a great humanitarian, whereas Pincus is plain, plump, and spectacularly obnoxious. In addition, Pincus has offended and antagonized Gwen several times in the past.

There are a lot of laughs in this movie and it is very definite feel good romance.

Check out other reviews from The New York Times, CNN, Roger Ebert, and The Seattle Times.

Breakheart Pass

Breakheart Pass (1975) PG
Starring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and Ben Johnson, Breakheart Pass is a combination of mystery and action and is set in the old West. It was adapted from an Alistair MacLean novel. Many of his titles have been adapted for film – The Guns of  Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone, and Where Eagles Dare are among the most famous.

A crowded troop train is on its way to Fort Humboldt to relieve the fort. At a brief stopover, two of three officers on the train mysteriously disappear and the train acquires two new passengers, John Deakin (Bronson) an accused murderer and arsonist and in the custody of marshal Pearce (Johnson). Along the way, more people disappear or die mysteriously. Who is the killer and why are people being murdered?

I think this is one of Bronson's best films and one of the best murder mysteries I have ever seen. (Do not read the back of DVD because you will the find the film more enjoyable and the mystery more difficult to solve.)

The photography in this film is beautiful and the film score gives the feeling of a moving train. The film may also interest sports buffs as Archie Moore (former light heavyweight champion), Doug Atkins (former Chicago Bear), and Joe Kapp (former Minnesota Viking) all have supporting roles – and all three performed well in this film.

If you like mysteries or westerns, you will enjoy this film.

Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning (1947)
This 1947 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott is a fine example of film noir at its best. It is one of Bogart's best and I rank it at almost as good as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

The time of the film is near the end of World War II. Captain "Rip" Murdock (Bogart) is seeking to find out why his army pal Sgt. Johnny Drake has chosen to disappear rather than receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

He trails Johnny to Gulf City USA. When he gets there, he finds that Johnny expected him, but he can find no trace of Johnny. Instead, he finds more mysteries and a very intriguing woman, Coral Chandler (Scott).

Rip falls in love with Coral and the feeling is mutual. The romance between Bogart and Scott is excellent and will remind viewers of the relationship between Bogart and Bacall, and one has to wonder why Lauren Bacall was not in this film.

There are also some historical shots in the film. The actual city is not named but the shots were taken in the late 1940s. If anyone knows the actual city, I'd love to know.

This is tense thriller with plenty of surprises.

The Sheepman

The Sheepman (1958)
This 1958 comedy western stars Glenn Ford and Shirley MacLaine.  There are a lot of funny moments in this film.  In one scene, Ford tells Edgar Buchanan that he is looking for a man who is completely without honor, a man who is willing to sell out anybody and everybody for as little as fifty cents.  Buchanan tries to look offended but when Ford starts to walk away, Buchanan says, "My price for that sort of thing starts at least a dollar."

The story is pretty familiar to western fans but the first 15 minutes are full of surprises.  (Do not read the back of the DVD case or you will spoil the surprise.) The chemistry between Ford and MacLaine is delightful. The photography in this film is beautiful and the musical score is both tender and heartwarming. If you like westerns with a bit of romance and a lot of laughs, this movie is for you.

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1954)
This is not a western. It is set in the West, but the time is shortly after World War II. Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed veteran with a final “mission” to perform. He gets off a train at Black Rock, a very small town with a terrible secret, and is confronted with a trio of bad men and one bad woman who are determined to keep their evil secret and willing to kill to do so.

Tracy’s character is emotionally worn out and feeling sorry for himself. He has to cope with an evil Robert Ryan, a sadistic Lee Marvin, a bullying Ernest Borgnine, a cunning Anne Francis, and a drunken and unsympathetic sheriff played by Dean Jagger. The only man willing to help is Walter Brennan, the local doctor, who is also threatened when he tries to help. The other townspeople are slightly sympathetic toward Tracy but are either too apathetic or too afraid to help. Also, Tracy is unarmed, whereas his opponents are not.

The film is mysterious, frightening at times, and thought-provoking. It was nominated for three Oscars, including Spencer Tracy for Best Actor. Although the film didn’t win any Academy Awards, it featured three past winners and two future winners.

I have seen this film many times and I strongly recommend it.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
The title of this movie put me off of it for years. It is neither a “chick flick” nor a “girly film.” It is one of the best Barbara Stanwyck films ever and probably the best film Van Heflin ever made. It also costars Kirk Douglas in his first film, and oddly enough he plays a lovesick alcoholic wimp, but he does it very well.

This film shows how fear and guilt can twist and destroy a person. Stanwyck is strong, powerful, and successful, but is tied her weak husband due to a terrible incident in their past. She owns and controls a huge factory in Iverstown and with Douglas controls the town and the police. When Heflin returns to Iverstown, he becomes both a threat to Stanwyck and a strong attraction as she believes he may be manipulated to remove her husband.

If you haven’t seen this movie before, try it, and if you have seen it, watch it again as it seems to get better each time I see it.

Join us! This film will be shown at Indian Prairie next Friday – November 6. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. -- movie starts at 7:20.

Spotlight: 1939

Spotlight: 19391939 – the most celebrated year in American film history – produced more outstanding films than any other 12-month period. It was impossible for the Academy to nominate or honor all the rich, outstanding films of the year.

Some of the movies that came out that year: Gone With the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, Beau Geste, Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Of Mice and Men and many others.

Quite a list, isn’t it?

TCM commemorates the 70th anniversary of Hollywood's greatest year with "39 examples of the great filmmaking that abounded in this golden era." Visit their website for more on 39 movies from 1939.

Union Pacific

Union Pacific (1939)
This epic starring Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston tells the story of the building of the Union Pacific railroad which met the Central Pacific in Promontory, Utah, in 1869. There is plenty of hard-hitting action and some very impressive special effects (which garnered the film an Academy Award nomination). McCrea is the troubleshooter for Union Pacific and sees to it the company succeeds despite the efforts of Preston and his cohorts to sabotage the railroad.

It’s also a romantic triangle between McCrea, Stanwyck, and Preston. Preston loves Stanwyck but she loves McCrea. However, she agrees to marry Preston to save McCrea’s life.

Union Pacific is not the best movie I ever saw, but I enjoyed it more than any other movie I’ve seen this year. Somehow this movie has been overlooked, probably because it came out in 1939, which is certainly the most celebrated year in American film history.

Check back on Friday for a more about the movies of 1939.

Suddenly

Suddenly (1954)
Starring Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra, Suddenly is set in a small town (also called Suddenly) out west. Sheriff Tod Shaw (Hayden) gets word that the president of the United States is coming into town on the train. John Baron (Sinatra) and his cohorts are planning to assassinate the president. They take over a widow’s house. It’s very tense. I strongly recommend Suddenly – it keeps you on your toes throughout the whole movie.

An interesting side note: Suddenly came out about eight years before The Manchurian Candidate where Frank Sinatra is trying to prevent an assassination.

Rawhide: Season 2

Rawhide: Season 2 (1959-1960)
Somehow I missed this exciting western when it was on television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I am glad that I did, since I now have a new western television series to watch.

This TV series is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Eric Fleming brought a lot to this series, as did his young costar Clint Eastwood, along with a very able supporting cast. Some of the stories are very fresh and creative, and even the more traditional plots are done very well. Season 2 (32 episodes) has a surprising number of stories dealing with the supernatural, with almost a Twilight Zone feel. Some of the villains are females and they are very good at being very bad.

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters, The Night of the Hunter is the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton. The mood of the film is unusual; Laughton features unique photography and haunting music. Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a preacher with the habit of murdering his wives. When Harry’s cellmate tells him about money he hid, Harry goes after the man’s family. Lillian Gish gives a great performance as a mother figure who helps out the children.

This fascinating movie didn’t get much play when it came out in the 1950s – and it still isn’t widely known. Roger Ebert’s explanation? Its “lack of the proper trappings.” I very strongly endorse The Night of the Hunter – not a lot of people know about it, but those who do are really impressed by it.