449699281Philip Carey

(Oct. 1, 1921-Feb. 6, 2009)


tr-jameswhitmoreJames Whitmore

(Oct. 1, 1921-Feb. 6, 2009)

February 28, 2009 · Posted in Exits  

We’ve enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s monster hit Batman movies as much as anybody – okay, anybody over 30 who doesn’t still live with his mom – but public acceptance of Christian Bale’s angst-ridden Drano-gargling version of the Caped Crusader doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy a lighter take as long as it’s well done.

Cartoon Network’s animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold has been very well done this year, and more entertaining than half of the stuff we’re currently being offered by the major broadcast networks.

This is a team-up show that pairs Batman with a different unlikely partner each week, earning laughs through the contrast of personalities with second-string characters like Plastic Man and Blue Beetle. It not only works in time-honored buddy movie fashion, it also allows some fresh air into what’s become an increasingly constricted and constipated franchise by making it possible to laugh at Batman again. Produced by DC Comics’ parent Warner Brothers, the series doesn’t go so far as to question the goofiness of the whole capes-and-masks thing that pays the bills, but it does have occasional fun with the grim self-righteousness that’s come to encase the Batman character like a straitjacket in recent years.

The show works best when it adds a touch of retro charm to the fun. A good example is the two-parter beginning Friday (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT) with the episode “Deep Cover for Batman.” This is a walk into the parallel-worlds concept that gets a lot of play in DC Comics these days, in this case a world where the good guys we’re familiar with have evil counterparts and the customary villains are beleaguered heroes.

552a019Batman counterpart Owlman is head of the parallel-world Injustice Syndicate, a group whose depredations are barely held in check by a handful of heroes spearheaded by the mysterious Red Hood. When the Syndicate learns the existence of other worlds like theirs, they plan to descend on our Earth like Vikings on a long weekend. Fortunately, Batman gets the drop on Owlman and infiltrates the gang disguised as his own…uh…bad self.

It’s an entertaining episode, and a good setup for next week’s conclusion that sees Owlman turning the tables and doing some serious public relations damage to Batman by terrorizing Gotham City in a bat-suit, setting the law and our hero’s friends against him.

Pursued on all sides, Batman reluctantly makes a devil’s deal with the Joker, who’s miffed at having been deprived of his ongoing game for mastery of Gotham. In some of the series’ most cleverly scripted exchanges, they set out to counter Owlman’s war on our Earth while struggling with their instinctive desires to betray each other in the process.

Here’s where the retro stuff is most effective. Fanboys will enjoy the 553b009episode’s brief tour of the Batcave and its old-school souvenirs. The big-time batfans will surely give themselves points for noting that Owlman’s version of the bat-suit is the same one that Batman wore in his 1939 debut. And best of all – at least for boomer parents – is the design work on the Joker, a deliberate throwback to the highly stylized work of beloved 1950s comics artist Dick Sprang.

Yes, it’s another superhero cartoon series, but one that’s imaginatively produced and written with the whole family in mind. It’s sure to stay around in reruns, and has already gotten the nod for a full season. Even those who prefer their Batman hardboiled like the current big-screen incarnation will find it a refreshing palate cleanser among the superguys who are following The Dark Knight’s lead into adventures that are increasingly gritty and decreasingly fun.

February 27, 2009 · Posted in Family TV  


For three years, Frank Ballinger was the most dangerous man on television.

Starting in 1957, Ballinger prowled the streets of Chicago in the hardboiled cop series M Squad. A detective lieutenant assigned to the Windy City’s special homicide detail, Ballinger was the essential tough-as-nails cop – more relentless than Joe Friday, more brutal than Elliot Ness and more unflappable than Peter Gunn.
When he took the role of Ballinger, Lee Marvin was 35 years old with hair already going distinctively white and a respectable string of tough-guy roles under his belt in movies and TV shows. Playing an assortment of military men and villains, he’d proven himself a reliable and occasionally memorable supporting player; but it was M Squad that made Lee Marvin a leading man, and the years following his run as Ballinger saw his rapid ascent to major stardom.

M Squad and Marvin were made for each other. He stalked through the show’s three-season run with the grace of a panther and the cold-eyed assurance of a hard man with nothing to prove, lending rawboned credibility to the occasional implausibility and wild coincidence of the scripts. At the same time, the series’ tightly focused world of brutality and callous betrayal provided the perfect setting for the actor’s patented aura of barely-controlled violence. A hungry tiger in a flimsy cage, Frank Ballinger wouldn’t have fit in any other police show of the era, and few that have been produced since.

51qn0mcufl_ss400_Thanks to Timeless Media Group, the entire series is now available on DVD, a whopping boxed set of 117 episodes on 15 disks. To their credit, when TMG discovered that they possessed an incomplete set of episodes, they put out the word to collectors – who dug through their stacks of dusty 16mm reels to provide the missing shows that made this complete collection possible.

The result is uneven; some of those reels were in less than prime condition, and the occasional episode has seriously blown-out contrast or distorted sound. Others suffer from bits of choppy editing, most noticeable in the jarring jumpcuts from Ballinger’s concluding narration to the final credits. Even so, there isn’t a truly unwatchable episode among them. The set would have benefited from the kind of loving restoration that the show’s contemporaries The Untouchables and Perry Mason have enjoyed recently…but, though M Squad is another cult favorite, its following is considerably smaller. Financial realities make it likely that this is the best collection that the adventures of Frank Ballinger will ever get.

Even so, make no mistake: TMG’s M Squad collection is still one hell of a ride.

These are mean little stories of murder, depravity and human desperation 1231084914_1that have been packed into fast-moving half hours stripped down to the bare essentials of storytelling, yet they rarely seem rushed or truncated. Nor is it all violence; held together by Ballinger’s hardboiled narration, the stories frequently take time to economically introduce the victims and perps of the week before plunging them into grief and horror. The investigations are often classic procedurals, with Ballinger interviewing witnesses and relying on proto-CSI forensic science for important leads from fiber analysis or ballistics. And you can always rely on a few minutes of laconic shoptalk with the show’s only other regular performer, the wonderfully hangdog Paul Newlan as Captain Grey.

There’s a distinctive blue-collar look to the series that can’t entirely be ascribed to its budget. The interior sets representing the homely apartments or workspaces of the struggling characters are often dingy and soulless. One of the show’s virtues is its departure from the back lot, incorporating authentic Chicago locations for scene transitions. Viewed back to back, the episodes’ repeated use of the same shots of Ballinger stalking down a sidewalk or stepping out of his Ford sedan becomes the stuff of a drinking game.

1231085080_11Though shot in black and white, which was simply TV’s coin of the realm at the time, these shows aren’t truly noir any more than West Side Story is a classical opera just because its characters sing a lot. Instead, M Squad is a particularly good example of the older and more straightforward hardboiled school pioneered and refined in pulp magazines by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Paul Cain. Ballinger’s world is a nasty place where people do terrible things to each other on a regular basis, and he responds with equal violence. The lucky bad guys are the ones who simply get the crap beaten out of them. More often, the last thing they see is Marvin taking aim with one eye shut just before he wipes them out with a volley from his snubnose .38. Our last glimpse of a murderer is frequently that of him sliding down a wall to die seated on the ground with legs splayed out in front of him.

The set offers only one extra, but it’s choice. That’s a 16th disk, containing a ballingerlpreissue of the 1959 LP Music From M Squad. Utilizing the talents of composers like Benny Carter and John Williams, the show featured the coolest jazz tracks this side of Peter Gunn. And the new theme song contributed by Count Basie for the series’ final two seasons is a bona fide classic.

There’s a fair amount of fun to be had by recognizing up-and-coming actors like DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, Angie Dickinson and Burt Reynolds among the supporting cast, as well as the familiar faces of Grant Williams, John Hoyt, J. Pat O’ Malley, Sid Melton and others.

castBut ultimately, it’s Lee Marvin’s show all the way. Endlessly chainsmoking sponsor Pall Mall’s product, pausing from his examination of a murder scene to check out a nubile young passerby on the street, maneuvering one desperate thug after another into lethal showdowns, his Frank Ballinger remains one of TV drama’s essential hardboiled heroes…and the reason the show still holds up today.

February 22, 2009 · Posted in DVD, Vintage TV  

A movie that truly couldn’t win when it was released, Oliver Stone’s W. is now on DVD.

2008_w_017It’ll be interesting to see what people think of this film years from now, after the anger and defensiveness surrounding the George W. Bush administration have evaporated. Judging by the similar reactions that result to this day from mention of Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, it’s likely that the question won’t be resolved within our lifetimes.

It’s safe to say that people on both sides of the political fence expected something considerably snarkier from Stone, who confounded expectations with this relatively sympathetic portrait of a man struggling to emerge from his father’s shadow. But if he managed to create a film that should have embarrassed the right-wing knee-jerkers who were decrying it sight unseen, he nonetheless failed to deliver a movie that most people wanted to see.

Stone pretty well sticks to the record in laying out W’s journey from aimless loser to leader of the free world. While he may have been going for admirable restraint, his approach ends up telling us nothing we didn’t already know and leaves out a lot that would have made this picture more satisfying. Avoiding the snark may have been a walk on the high road, but it’s effectively pulled the movie’s teeth and left us a pallid version of the tale that impotently gums its subject without ever breaking the surface.

If the point of the film is to show George W’s journey as a tragic high-stakes2008_w_011 version of The Peter Principle – and one would be hard pressed to interpret it any other way – it would have benefited from more in-depth portrayals of the Washington insiders we see manipulating him after he’s landed in the White House. Instead, these important figures are portrayed as superficially as the doofus buddies W is seen hanging out with in the film’s early scenes. Only Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney makes a lasting impression, but his scenes are written with such operatic villainy that he occasionally appears to be in a different movie.

2008_w_016James Cromwell turns in a solid job as the elder Bush. He creates a figure who’s perhaps more centered and articulate than the genuine article, but it’s an interpretation that’s necessary to drive home the point that W has a lot to live up to. Cromwell is asked to do little more than register exasperation and disappointment at his constantly failing offspring, but he does it with authority that’s born out of love for a child who seems incapable of living up to expectations. He also contributes the only important male figure in the film who doesn’t appear to have achieved success through manipulation and outright falsehood.

Brolin carries the film with an amusing nuanced performance that rarely crosses the line into caricature, even when he’s called on to reproduce the real W’s meandering and gaffe-filled public addresses. It’s a far cry from the classic presidential turns of Raymond Massey and Charlton Heston, painfully and frustratingly human.

The bottom line, of course, is that this president is a man woefully unprepared for the job and too consumed by demons to detect his own shortcomings. Convinced that he’s doing God’s will and too superficial a thinker to understand that he’s being manipulated into cavalierly causing the deaths of thousands, the potential is there for a tragic final act of Shakespearean proportions. Unfortunately, Stone’s W is simply too dense to come to the necessary realization.

Stone’s film is uncharacteristically bland-looking, and loses little by being seen on a home screen. Watching W. on DVD may allow viewers to zero in on Brolin’s fine delivery of a difficult role, which is a good thing. It’s too bad that he’s on his own so much of the time; if the rest of the film had risen to his level, it could have been a rare and satisfactory take on an administration that’s sure to join those of Hoover and Nixon as a continuing sore point in the national debate.

DVD Extras: A brief documentary on the real W’s presidency, commentary by Stone and a guide to the script’s research. The Blu-ray version also offers a short on the making of the film and a few deleted scenes.

February 14, 2009 · Posted in DVD  





Coraline, Neil Gaiman’s creepy 2002 novella, comes to the screen with 3-D animation, a colorful production scheme and even a catchy little tune added to the mix, but still retains the essential creepiness that makes it a first-rate horror tale for all ages.

At first glance director Henry Selick appears to have adapted the story with a lighter approach than the bizarre designs of his previous films The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. But though the screen Coraline and her world are cuter and rounder than the unsettling versions which illustrator Dave McKean contributed to the original book, it’s a stealth cuteness that sets us up for the scary stuff lurking on the other side of the wall.

As in the book, young Coraline and her parents have moved away from oldCoraline friends and taken up residence in a shabby old boarding house. Lonely, bored and feeling ignored by her busy parents, she kills time by exploring the rooms of the apartment…and discovers a mysterious little door under the wallpaper.

Readers of Gaiman’s stories know that the divisions between our world and more exotic realms are tissue thin – step over a stone wall or take an unfamiliar subway stop and you aren’t in Kansas anymore. In Coraline’s case, that odd little door leads to a mysterious tunnel that opens onto a world just like the one she came from. But way cooler.

Here the apartment and surrounding grounds are attractive and magical, the food and entertainment are sumptuous, and the parents are loving and endlessly attentive. The Other Mother and Other Father are better-groomed dead ringers for the ones who raised her, and the only thing keeping them from being the perfect parents are the big black buttons that have been sewn over their eyes.

In fact, everybody on this side of the wall has buttons stitched onto their eyes, a state of affairs that our heroine mostly takes in stride because she’s having so much fun…until the Other Mother informs Coraline that she can stay in this lovely world forever if she’ll just submit to the needle herself.

This is where Gaiman and Selick get under our skin and Coraline becomes a true horror story.

There’s a moment late in the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers when the film takes a chilling leap from talky old thriller to a moment of genre-transcending fright. When Dana Wynter awakens from her involuntary nap and stares at Kevin McCarthy with the hollow eyes of a woman no longer human, we’re jarred by the full realization of what’s at stake. Forget your pods in the basement and your Eisenhower-era paranoia, forget the usual Hollywood gambit of threatening our surrogates with the loss of life or limb. What we’re witnessing is the loss of the self, the eradication of the soul…and if Coraline comes to that same realization in less melodramatic fashion, it’s every bit as frightening.

This may sound like heavy going to parents of small children, but the action is so imaginative and eccentric that kids are likely to find it delightful even when it’s scaring the crap out of them. Selick’s employment of 3-D is charming, largely forsaking the old-school shock value of hurling things into our faces in favor of erecting layers of fluttering images that evoke a real sense of wonder. Don’t be surprised if you see young audience members reaching out to touch the glowing dragonflies instead of ducking and dodging from the standard visual assault that’s associated with the gimmick.

Kids and adults who aren’t tuned into the movie’s struggle for the soul will Coralinestill find plenty to keep them engaged. The characterizations are wry and offbeat, and what those characters get up to is frequently very funny. The action is lively and beautifully orchestrated. There’s a bizarre show-stopper moment featuring a circus of performing rodents, a skincrawling exchange in which the Other Mother snacks on chocolate-coated insects that are still alive, and a fast-moving double climax calculated to satisfy the action fans.

Dakota Fanning voices Coraline with a tart faux weariness that will ring true to parents of any preadolescent. Ian McShane turns in a robust eccentric performance as Mr. Bobinsky, the mouse wrangler upstairs. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are a hoot as the dotty retired actresses (apparently, though obliquely, veterans of the adult entertainment industry) who live in the basement. As good as everyone is, though – and they’re all very, very good – Teri Hatcher overshadows the lot of them with her slow transformation of the Other Mother from a warm and perky Stepford Mom into a terrifying demon.

Even without 3-D, Selick’s film would be a thing of beauty. The stop-motion animation technique is gorgeously executed, lending his movie the same idiosyncratic hand-made quality that’s a hallmark of Gaiman’s best work. It’s a film that’s sure to enjoy a long life on DVD…but the time to enjoy it is while it’s in the theaters, accompanied by a bag of popcorn and the laughter and sounds of awe emanating from rows of children and parents all around you.




Rating: PG (thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor)   

Running Time: 101 minutes




February 7, 2009 · Posted in DVD  


February 7, 2009 · Posted in SideBlog  

Two ranches stood off the road to Newhall, California – one, an austere little spread that barely covered three acres; the other, a sprawling hilltop estate called Horseshoe Ranch, the home of the great film legend William S. Hart. By contrast, the tiny place in the valley below had neither a fancy name nor a picturesque view … yet the man who lived there, literally in Hart’s shadow, would eventually become a legend, too. His name was Harry Carey.

harrycarey4Based on his work as a beloved character actor of the 1930s and ‘40s, Carey’s reputation is as secure and deserved as any in film history – yet the same historians who cemented that reputation have also shrugged off his early work as a cowboy star, unfairly keeping him in another man’s shadow by painting his silent Cheyenne Harry series as mere imitation Hart. But it isn’t that simple.

By the time the first Cheyenne Harry two-reeler appeared in 1916, Hart had been electrifying audiences with his “good badman” roles for two years. But dramatically reformed outlaws had been a staple of Western film since Broncho Billy Anderson invented the cowboy series hero in 1907, and D.W. Griffith’s numerous oaters (including several featuring Carey) had offered stories about good badmen as early as 1910.

Hart’s take on the convention, his emphasis on realism and dignity, was a major contribution to the form – but it takes nothing away from either man to note that by the time Hart made his debut, Carey had already begun projecting the same qualities in his own work. Being the men they were, how could either have done anything else?

But it was their differences for which we remember them now. Hart’s austere Victorian façade, his constantly reenacted transitions from poetic loner to vengeful scorched-earth avenger, struck a chord in the audiences of his time; today, though, he’s seen more as a museum piece than as the gritty realistic character for which he was taken during the WWI era.

Carey, on the other hand, registers with a persona that still seems largely contemporary to modern viewers. Some of what he’s called on to do is old-fashioned in dramatic terms, but his cynical antihero is the genuine article. He’d made the Bogart thing his own when Bogie himself was barely out of short pants, coupled with a prototypical American look that was a cross between Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln.

Most of the early films in Carey’s Cheyenne Harry series are among the lost works of the silent era, but one important effort remains: the 1917 Straight Shooting, which was not only the first feature-length Cheyenne Harry film, but also the first feature directed by John Ford.

As Ford’s biographer Tag Gallagher has noted, Ford was very much Carey’s 6a00d83451be5969e200e54f346eb88833-640wijunior partner on this production. Ford had worked his way up in the movie business as an assistant to his brother Francis – whose own sizable and once-popular body of early work deserves a new look – and had only recently struck out on his own as a fledgling director.

(In later years, Ford would be known for driving tough leading men to tears, but during work on Straight Shooting, he deferred to Carey’s experience and slept with the rest of the company in bedrolls on the grounds of Carey’s home. To his credit, as an elder statesman Ford would take pains to acknowledge Carey as the man who’d taught him the essentials of working with actors and making films.)

Universal Pictures was evidently considering pulling the plug on the Cheyenne Harry series, but for Ford it was still a big break … and neither he nor his star was ready to ride quietly into the sunset. The picture had been planned as another modest two-reeler, but Carey and Ford saw more potential in the story and simply refused to stop shooting. The story has it that Ford wheedled more film and shooting time out of the front office by concocting a tall tale about losing the original footage in a river. When it became clear that he and Carey were turning in a final product that was over twice its budgeted length, studio officials were outraged … but the quality of the rushes convinced Universal that the savvy old pro and the ambitious kid were on to something.

By giving the story a full five reels to breathe, Carey and Ford could use its traditional ranchers-vs.-farmers setup as a backdrop for a compelling human drama dotted with little touches that lifted it above the run-of-the-mill oater. Some moments are simple throwaways, such as the blink-and-you-miss-it business of one of the bad guys turning on a Victrola for a little (silent) background music in the gang’s headquarters. Other moments are pivotal and striking, such as actor George Berrell’s transformation from a comical proto-Gabby Hayes figure to a heartbreaking grieving father.

At times, one has the feeling of discovering the recurring motifs of Ford’s mature work alongside him. His use of a claustrophobically narrow passage through a rocky outcrop seems a clear precursor of his later love affair with the anomalies of Monument Valley. And his constant use of open doorways in the interior sets, which lend an air of verisimilitude and parallel action to the scenes, would culminate four decades later in the final shot of The Searchers.

If Ford’s work on Straight Shooting seems less than polished today, it’s still one of the most compelling pieces of on-the-job training ever committed to film – and in its day it was electrifying.

straightEqually unforgettable is Carey’s virtuoso turn as a hard-bitten thug who’s hired to wipe out the sodbusters, only to switch sides after getting an unexpected look at the misery his kind of violence leaves behind. Carey swears off killing, but it’s not that easy; his new alliance with the farmers has made him a target of the gang who’d hired him. One of the film’s finest moments occurs just after Cheyenne Harry’s been forced to shoot a former compatriot down in a sad dusty street. To the frightened townspeople, he’s still just another killer, and he realizes that he has no one with whom to share his mixed feelings but his oblivious, tail-switching horse.

The whole film is resolutely unglamorous. Carey doesn’t even wear a holster, opting to carry his six-gun inside his rumpled shirt. At one point a young cowboy (played by an impossibly boyish Hoot Gibson) topples off his horse while galloping across a stream, a real-life gaffe that fit the film’s warts-and-all approach so perfectly that Ford left it in.

Straight Shooting cleaned up at the box office, and any notion of putting Cheyenne Harry out to pasture was forgotten. Over the next two years, Carey and Ford made another 15 feature-length entries in the series, some highly serious and others wildly whimsical, but few with any concession to conventional notions of heroism. From beginning to end, Carey remained a hard character with criminal tendencies and a talent for drinking himself into a hallucinatory stupor. He was one of the most complex anti-heroes in the history of Western films.

Eighteen years after the series ended, Carey resurrected Cheyenne Harry for the 1937 Ghost Town, a leisurely low-budget programmer set in the “modern West.” At 59, Carey was well into that flinty Dutch uncle phase of his career for which he’s most celebrated, and no longer the hardcase of his silent features. But his personal charm and unique no-frills style were as effective as ever, and as the villains learned in an explosive climax, a mellow Cheyenne Harry was still no one to cross.


It was Cheyenne Harry’s last ride, but even today those with their ears to the ground can pick up the vibrations of his silent mount’s hoofbeats. Carey never equaled Hart’s immense stardom, but neither did he become a prisoner of it – for Hart’s genius was so utterly personal that he became as much his own monument as that magnificent hilltop ranch, a towering bronze figure whose retirement in 1925 guaranteed that his image would be forever frozen in time.

Carey outlived Hart by a year, retired only by his death in 1947. He left a harry_carey1different but equally imposing monument behind, built of the enduring freshness of his work, and the long reach of his influence: in the achievement of his friend and student John Ford; in the career of John Wayne, who based his screen persona on Carey’s; and in every generation that re-invents the “adult” Western he helped pioneer.

It’s an achievement as big as they come in the movies, thanks in no small part to a half-forgotten scoundrel with the unlikely name of Cheyenne Harry.

February 6, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western