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Tag Archives: Ginger Rogers

Roku Rabbit Hole

Every once in awhile, we adjust our home entertainment system to keep up with our changing needs. For the past three years, we’ve been using a TiVo Premiere DVR with an antenna carrying over-the-air local channels. It was a nice and affordable setup, but the hardware was unstable, the antenna reception was glitchy, and increasingly we found ourselves using the TiVo merely to watch Netflix streaming. That’s why we’re transitioning to a Roku streaming player (which works fantastically, unlike the buggy TiVo) along with a monthly subscription to Hulu Plus. Hulu carries most current fare from the over-the-air networks, although CBS is bizarrely absent from it or any of the other digital channels Roku users can download and watch. We may just have to tune into CBS live, with all the commercial breaks. How very 1988.

The Hulu is intended to replace the Netflix streaming, although that may change since Hulu doesn’t have as much variety as Netflix. Their movie selection is lacking, although they do have the fabulous Criterion Collection. With a decent selection of current television (no CBS, however, a point worth repeating), we’ve been using it to watch network shows that everybody else watched 5-8 years ago (Heroes; Community). The television has brief commercial breaks, but I can live with that. Digging deeply enough, one can also find lots of interesting TV from other countries (Canada, Australia, Korea) and a few obscure older series.

The various channels one can download on the Roku also offer a lot of tantalizing viewing options – some free, some on a pay-by-the-month basis. One of our favorite things is the Nowhere TV channel, which allows us to watch the never-ending contents at Archive.org. I knew that the site had a lot of vintage commercials, industrial shorts, public domain and ephemeral films to enjoy, but I was also surprised to find a number of vintage TV shows on there. A couple of failed sitcom pilots caught my eye, which are outlined below:

  • The Ginger Rogers Show aired as part of ABC’s Vacation Playhouse, a summer variety series used to air unsold pilots (why don’t they do this any more?). Ginger plays a pair of identical twins – one serious, the other frivolous, both sporting the same unique swoopy hairstyle – in this 1963 production. Although Rogers lacks the chops for convincingly playing two separate characters against each other, the pilot at least had some interesting possibilities. At the end of the program, Rogers appears as herself to explain that the series will alternate between comedy and drama, one week with her as the lighthearted sister, the next with her as the serious sister.
  • Maggie was another fascinating sitcom pilot, produced in 1957 but not broadcast until 1960. This one starred Margaret O’Brien as the overly curious, offbeat teen daughter of parents with a theatrical background. The family’s arrival in a conservative Connecticut enclave causes a stir, not the least of which is due to Maggie’s meddling and quirky behavior. What struck me the most about this marshmallowy domestic comedy was how obviously it was done to capitalize on O’Brien’s best-known role as Tootie in the classic musical Meet Me In St. Louis. The actress may have been older (she was 20 at the time, playing a 17 year-old), but her character’s overactive imagination and cutesy, borderline annoying mannerisms are pure Tootie, updated to contemporary times. O’Brien’s St. Louis dad, Leon Ames, even plays her father once again here. It’s a cute, moderately well-written show that makes me wonder how it would have come out had it been expanded to the 30+ episodes a season commonly produced back then.

In case it wasn’t obvious, stuff that barely made it to the air in 1960-63 interests me a lot more than 99% of the stuff on the air in 2013. Should anything else that’s worth mentioning here pop up, I’ll let you know.

Flick Clique: March 25-31

Boardwalk Empire: Season 1 (DVD, 2012). I love this show! Great acting, great production design and a plot that keeps you guessing about what will happen next. Like Mad Men, it took a few episodes to truly suck us in. It might be that the idea of Steve Buscemi as a powerful treasurer who rules 1920s Atlantic City takes some getting used to – but he adds the right amount of snark to the role. I could even believe him as a chick magnet (power is a great aphrodisiac). There’s also a ton of interesting supporting characters – Shea Whigham as the police commisioner/Buscemi’s brother, Michael Pitt and Gretchen Mol as a mother/son with a weirdly incestuous relationship, Michael Shannon as the IRS agent with borderline psychotic puritanical values, Kelly Macdonald as the “not as virtuous as she appears” suffragette widow … can’t wait for the next season.
The Million Dollar Duck (1971). Over the past few years I’ve been exploring Disney’s live-action comedies from the ’60s and ’70s, this Dean Jones/Sandy Duncan opus was the last (and definitely the least). This one concerns a special duck that, through a combo of radioactive exposure and a toxic applesauce recipe, winds up laying eggs with yolks made of pure gold. The hijinks involving the main couple’s greedy pal Tony Roberts and the U.S. Treasury are lame and totally unbelievable. I could see why Gene Siskel walked out of it, but at least the climactic chase scene (filmed in and around Burbank and Toluca Lake, near the Disney studio) was kind of fun – and the duck was cute.
A Night To Remember (1958). Reviewing this for DVD Talk (the first Criterion disc I got from them!). I won’t elaborate too much — this wound up being much better than I remember. Criterion gives this film, still the most realistic telling of the Titanic disaster, the classy treatment it deserves. I enjoyed comparing/contrasting this with James Cameron’s Titanic – although the more recent film conveys the enormity of the shipwreck better (Night‘s obvious use of miniatures and models are a slight hindrance), this one has a better grasp on the events as they really happened. In the end, the decision of the filmmakers not to focus on any particular character works out for the better and ultimately makes it the more touching, emotional experience of the two.
The Straight Story (1999). Also known as David Lynch’s most atypical film, this heart warming drama tells the real-life chronicle of Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin Straight, an old Iowan who undertakes a multi-state journey to visit with his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton, only seen in the final few minutes). Unable to drive and unwilling to have someone else transport him, he decides to travel on a vintage 1966 tractor with a specially fitted trailer. The slower mode of transport allows him to meet a variety of folks along the way, including a sulky runaway, a kindly couple and a fellow WWII vet. Lynch seems to enjoy conveying the quirkiness of these salt-of-the-earth folk, but it’s rarely condescending. The film is rather slow and talky at times, but Farnsworth delivers an excellent performance, aided by Sissy Spacek as his learning-disabled daughter. I also enjoyed the long, loving pans of midwestern farmland, the homey soundtrack, and the bit with the woman who was distraught at her car hitting a deer
The Thirteenth Guest (1932). A harmless little quickie, this early Monogram Studios production has Ginger Rogers in one of her earliest roles as a young woman who revisits an old house left vacant from a party she attended 13 years earlier. At the party, various members of a family were invited to find out who inherited the mansion owner’s estate, but the 13th guest failed to show up – and the host croaked. All these years later, someone is murdering the other guests. Will detective Lyle Talbot find the killer before Ginger and the rest become worm food? Silly, hard to follow, occasionally fun. The nicest thing about films of these vintage is that they’re short — barely over an hour, in this case.

Weekly Mishmash: March 28-April 3

Forgive me, I’m still feeling a bit woozy from the mild earthquake in Baja California this afternoon. The mishmash is bursting with movies this week, but I’ll have to be brief.
Big Night (1996). Another one of those critically acclaimed ’90s indies that I haven’t seen ’til now. On a vague promise that Louis Prima would visit his failing restaurant, Stanley Tucci arranges with his chef brother Tony Shalhoub to prepare a feast to end all feasts. A sweet, slice-of-life movie that is specifically tuned to actors and wresting good performances from its diverse cast (unsurprising, since Tucci directed along with Campell Scott, who also appears onscreen as a smarmy auto salesman). This film didn’t exactly bowl me over, with several talky and seemingly improvised scenes that didn’t add much to the proceedings, but it does have a fabulous sense of time and place. An actor who definitely doesn’t get enough leading roles, Tucci delivers in a role that speaks more of following one’s own standards of excellence than anything else.
Escape to Paradise (1939). Last night, we had a party with our “50 cheesy old comedies on 12 DVDs” set. On the menu was this cruddy little musical, a south-of-the-border vehicle for an unappealing Wayne Newton-esque juvenille singer named Bobby Breen. Set in a South American tourist town, Breen plays a perky kid who helps out an American guy wanting to — do you really need to know this, now? We only watched it for Joyce Compton, somewhat wasted in a supporting role that sets her character up as little more than a dumb stooge. Should you have an hour to kill, the film is viewable online at Archive.org.
Perfect Strangers (1950). Catch any Ginger Rogers flicks in Turner Classic Movies‘ month-long salute last month? This Warner Bros. courtroom melodrama was one of the few on the schedule that I’d never heard of, so I gave it a curious look. In it, Ginger plays a Los Angeles woman who is too busy with personal business separating from her husband to accept jury duty. She is recruited anyhow, and ends up falling for fellow jurist Dennis Morgan during deliberations on a complex murder trial. Although I was expecting this to be either a predictable romance or a predictable courtroom drama, it actually ended up being quite the absorbing film with a sharply written and observant script. The film mostly centers on the interpersonal squabblings among the film’s diverse jurors (which includes Thelma Ritter at her snarky early best — and the voice of Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed!). The Rogers/Morgan romantic subplot slightly detracts from a film that is essentially 12 Angry Men Lite. If only for the priceless scene of Rogers exiting a trolley car and strolling in front of the gorgeous 1950 vista of L.A. City hall, this is one underrated goodie worth seeking out.
Red Cliff (2008). An epic Chinese battle, 220 a.d. style, with armadas of CGI ships and one very talented white dove. This Foreign Language Oscar nominee was directed by John Woo and stars one of our favorites, Tony Leung. Although the film had several absorbing scenes, overall it came across as too ponderous (we watched the nearly three hour cut), confusing and so intent on showing how big everything is that it lost sight of its main mission. China is a culture that venerates its own history, and it probably resonates better with them. Americans, however, must beware.
Superhero Movie (2008). Here’s irony: we recently had a free weekend of several Showtime channels, but the only films that piqued our interest were Superhero Movie and that poppin’ and lockin’ masterpiece, Breakin’ (look out for that on the 11th). This movie was stupid and at times painful with its desperate-to-please ambiance, but it was fun enough and even had several laugh out loud moments. Best casting award goes to Leslie Nielsen and Marion Ross as the main teen-turned super hero’s elderly uncle and aunt (is the fact that both actors are old enough to be his great-grandparents part of the comedy?).
Up in the Air (2009). You already know about this one by now. Good, intelligent and wryly observant, pretty much what I expected. I thought Clooney was good, Anna Kendrick was a pleasant surprise and I have no idea why Vera Farmiga got an Oscar nom. Interesting to note that Clooney’s character and motivations mirror Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day.
Upperworld (1933). My other Ginger Rogers on TCM gleaning, this is a tasty and surprisingly cynical pre-Code potboiler starring Warren William as a smooth-talking industrialist (did he play anything else?). William is a successful mogul stuck in a rut with a shallow socialite of a wife (Mary Astor) and a bratty kid (Dickie Moore) whose life is turned around when he meets comely showgirl Rogers. The two have a chaste, flirtatious relationship at first, but things turn ugly when blackmail and eventually murder enter the picture. This is a smoothly made, beautifully photographed film with an excellent cast. Rogers is at her cherubic best here playing an unpretentious girl who is oddly the only likable character in the entire film. It comes as a shock when (spoiler alert) she gets shot and dies, then the film quickly wraps up in a hasty, happy ending. Bizarre, and worth a look.