Actors We Lost in 2019

31 Dec

I regularly keep a running tally of celebrity deaths during the year and what struck me about 2019 was the sheer number of actors I was familiar with who died, more, I believe, than any other year I’ve been keeping tab. There were 83. And this number was followed by a large number of actors from other countries whom I was unfamiliar with who died during the year, including many English ones (e.g., Nicky Henson). I’m astounded by the longevity of so many of these performers. I decided to pay tribute to the 44 actors on the list that I’m most familiar with, listed here in descending order by their age when they died, oldest first, with remarks on what I’ve seen them in and how I remember them. I realize that many of these actors are more famous for their work in recent popular TV series, but that’s not how I know them, so forgive me if I don’t cite those series.

Doris Day (97)

One of the biggest Hollywood movie stars in the 1950s and ’60s. I especially like her comedies with Rock Hudson, PILLOW TALK (1959) and LOVER COME BACK (1962) and her one musical drama with Frank Sinatra, YOUNG AT HEART (1954).

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Asians in TV Westerns: “The Virginian: Hour of the Tiger”

17 Dec

I recently stumbled across an episode about Chinese laborers in “The Virginian,” a long-running NBC western series that ran in a 90-minute time slot from 1962 to 1971 and is now running every weekday evening on the Starz Encore Western Channel. This particular episode was called “The Hour of the Tiger” (Season 3 / #16, airdate  December 30, 1964) and it turned out to be a suitable entry for my ongoing series on “Asians in TV Westerns.” Its chaste relationship between the title hero and a cultured Asian woman echoes those in other westerns I’ve written about here, including Laramie: “Dragon at the Door,” and two with Lisa Lu: Cheyenne: “A Pocketful of Stars” and Bonanza: “Day of the Dragon.” In all of these, the hero and the Asian character (Japanese in “Laramie” and Chinese in “Cheyenne and “Bonanza”) discuss their cultural differences at length, with the American suggesting that she doesn’t have to follow tradition, but can follow her heart and take advantage of the freedom possible in America. The Virginian episode shares a plot element with two of the others, in that the woman is promised to another man. In each case, respect is shown by the hero toward the other culture. He’s never condescending or critical, but simply offers the option of another way. (These episodes were made at a time when cold war tensions prompted frequent expressions of American values in popular culture to contrast the lack of basic rights in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Conversely, these episodes can also be seen as a way of inserting messages into network entertainment about racial prejudice and the civil rights battles of the time when TV executives were still timid about treating the topic directly. )

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Marie Windsor Centennial: Femme Fatale Extraordinaire

11 Dec

Marie Windsor would have turned 100 today, December 11, 2019. She was an unforgettable character actress who had a 50-year career in movies and television (1941-1991) and died in 2000 at the age of 80. She’s best known for playing femmes fatale in crime movies and film noir and outlaw women in westerns throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Her most memorable roles for me were in THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) and THE KILLING (1956) and the westerns, HELLFIRE and DAKOTA LIL. She also guest-starred in numerous TV shows, including four episodes of “Perry Mason.”

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World War II on Film: “Crusade in the Pacific” (1951)

26 Nov

I’ve been immersed in World War II research lately. What started it was the random discovery of tons of material on the war on YouTube. I began watching all sorts of documentaries and collections of original footage from the war. I then plunged into my collection of Hollywood movies on the subject, watching or re-watching 18 so far. Then, and most importantly, I pulled books about the  war off my history shelves and began reading chapters on the subjects I’d just seen in the films and documentaries. For example, after watching a TV documentary about Guadalcanal and then a movie in which the battle is featured, I would look for chapters on Guadalcanal in various books to get the full story. My emphasis has been on the war with Japan and I began reading The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945, written by eminent historian John Toland and published in 1970, in which the author interviewed many Japanese participants and read through Japanese transcripts and documents to get their side of the story. I’m over halfway through it.

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“Picture Parade” – The Films of 1949

6 Oct

Once upon a time I purchased a used book entitled Peter Noble’s Picture Parade. It turned out to be from the U.K. and was one of an annual series of pictorial books in which English film critic Peter Noble covered the year’s releases, concentrating mostly on Hollywood and British films. The volume I have is from 1949, 70 years ago, and features a mix of movie star head shots and scenes from different films that premiered in England in 1949, some of which are older Hollywood films, with brief captions. While most of the illustrations are in black-and-white, there are a good number of color pages and I was struck by how beautiful the color shots were despite being printed on ordinary book paper, rather than glossy pages. There are many obscure films and stars highlighted, but most of the Hollywood stars featured in the color shots are generally still well-known and embraced by film buffs and TCM viewers today, like Marlene Dietrich:

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White Heat: 70th Anniversary of an American Crime Classic

3 Sep

On September 3, 1949, 70 years ago today, Raoul Walsh’s crime thriller, WHITE HEAT, opened in the U.S.  Its star, James Cagney, was renowned in the 1930s for his gangster portrayals in such films as PUBLIC ENEMY, G-MEN, and EACH DAWN I DIE, but he hadn’t made a crime film at all in the ten years since the prohibition saga, THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), also directed by Walsh. During that time, Cagney made war films, comedies, melodramas and the flag-waving musical, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. By 1949, gangster fans were itching for the old Cagney, while younger filmgoers needed to be reminded what he was most famous for. The original trailer for WHITE HEAT is chock full of violent, graphic action, with Cagney a relentless, murderous force, snarling, punching and shooting his way through a quick, brutal rehash of the film’s plot in three minutes: train robbery, prison, daring escape, pursuit by the Feds, and an explosive climax at a chemical plant in Southern California. Older fans were beside themselves with gleeful anticipation, while the younger ones’ jaws dropped. As the trailer put it, “It’s your kind of Cagney / In his kind of story / Blazing his way to the top of the world!”

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The Cinematic Landscape of 1969: A Film Buff’s Coming of Age

28 Aug

I’d been planning a piece about the films of 1969, but I decided to wait until I’d seen Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD before finalizing my approach to it. I was curious to see what films from that period would be referenced and how that contrasted with my own experience at the movies that year. I was glad to see posters and marquees in the film highlighting films I’d seen back then, but his film takes place mostly on two weekends in 1969, one in February and one in August, so there was a limit to the references he could make. Besides, most of the film’s recreated production scenes focused on TV shows of the time, most of which I didn’t see because my household didn’t have a TV set for that entire year. More on OUATIH later.

For me, 1969 was the year I got an after-school job and was able to go to many more movies than I previously could on my meager allowance. It was also the year I started seeing movies in Manhattan by myself, usually in Times Square near my high school, the High School of Performing Arts (the “Fame” school).

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