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  • August 24, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Special Spencer

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Spencer Tracy classic, Father’s Little Dividend. To mark the occasion, John Farr suggests a trio of pictures from his all-time favorite screen actor, the very special Spencer Tracy.


    Libeled Lady (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The ever-smooth Powell plays Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper to squelch a libel suit brought by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To do this, Bill must make Connie fall in love with him and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he melts her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What’s a smitten newspaperman to do?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway’s underexposed screwball comedy is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their pairing in “The Thin Man.” Playing Haggerty, the newspaper’s frantic editor, and Gladys, his continually jilted fiancée, Tracy and Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest.


    Woman of the Year (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Two columnists on the same newspaper–Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn), a female world-affairs commentator, and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), a down-to-earth sportswriter-start a feud in print over the pointlessness of sports, but fall in love after Sam takes Tess to her first baseball game. This leads to a blissful walk down the aisle, but both soon find that married life together involves responsibilities which are at odds with their other priorities.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This is romance cinema at its best, exposing with subtlety and humor the phenomenon of two people, opposites in every respect, falling head over heels for each other. The issue then becomes figuring out how to make it work. Watching the picture today, it’s no surprise that Tracy, a gruff, blocky Irish Midwesterner, and Hepburn, a refined, patrician New England beauty, started their famous romance on this movie. Their differences create their unique chemistry and we can’t help but fall in love with them.


    Inherit the Wind (1960)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend’s disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Kramer’s spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March’s larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you’re sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You’ll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.


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  • August 17, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Late Kate

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn classic, Bringing Up Baby. To mark the occasion, John Farr suggests a trio of late, great Katharine Hepburn pictures.


    Adam’s Rib (1949)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), an otherwise happily married pair of lawyers, find their relationship sorely tested when they end up opposing each other in court in an attempted murder case involving another husband (Tom Ewell) and wife (Judy Holliday, in her debut).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    George Cukor’s “Rib” may just be the ultimate battle of the sexes comedy, waged both in and out of the courtroom. Perhaps Tracy and Hepburn’s best overall film, their on-screen chemistry was never more effective than here. The script by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon is razor sharp and supporting performances from newcomers Ewell, Holliday and David Wayne are uniformly inspired. Judy’s turn as a wronged wife put her career in overdrive.


    The African Queen (1951)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Coarse-tongued, boozy steamer captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a supplier of trade goods to East African villages during WWI, offers to take prim, imperious Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) back to civilization after her husband, a British missionary, dies during a German attack. Charlie and Rose have an oil-and-water rapport, but over the ensuing days, as they face a gauntlet of perils on the arduous journey home, their mutual hostility softens and then turns much sweeter.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scripted by James Agee, Huston’s hugely entertaining “African Queen” pairs a grizzled Bogart with the lovably straitlaced and ever-haughty Hepburn for a bumpy ride down a treacherous river, where a German gunboat is lurking, along with leeches, rapids, and (surprise!) romance. According to Hepburn’s memoir (and several books), it was a hell of a shoot for everyone concerned, but DP John Cardiff managed to render the humid environs of East Africa in majestic, eye-popping Technicolor. Sterling performances by Hepburn and Bogart (who nabbed the Oscar for his turn as the cantankerous river rat) are the best reason to revisit “African Queen,” though. Opposites attract!


    Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Set during one long summer day in 1912, this film focuses on the Tyrones, a family that has seen better days. James (Ralph Richardson),once a fine Shakespearean actor, has emptily played the same offstage role for years, while eldest son Jamie (Jason Robards), a failure on the boards, drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Budding writer Edmund (Dean Stockwell) is recovering from TB, and mother Mary (Katharine Hepburn), recently released from an institution, is slowly losing her grip on reality to the ravages of drug-addiction. As the day wears on, resentments surface-and ultimately consume-this tragic clan.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sidney Lumet’s slow-burning adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play depicts a theatrical family’s slow disintegration with haunting precision. Ralph Richardson is ideally cast as the fading family patriarch, while both Robards and Stockwell (O’Neill’s proxy) are superb as the two sons, each consumed by their own afflictions. Hepburn executes a tour-de-force as the fragile, brain-addled Mary Tyrone, a spectral symbol of the family’s decay from within. Lumet wisely sticks to the letter of the play, and the results are unforgettable.


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  • August 10, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Vintage Coop

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Gary Cooper classic, Meet John Doe. To mark the occasion, John Farr suggests a trio of classic Cooper vehicles.


    Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Simple country boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits an immense fortune from a wealthy distant relative he doesn’t even know, and must then navigate a sea of handlers and hand-out requests to make sense of his new life as multi-millionaire. But those who think they can manipulate this tuba-playing rube are soon in for a rude awakening.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Quintessential Capra charmer is one of Cooper’s most appealing comic forays, as his plain-talking homespun personification of rural America out-foxes all those smug and greedy city-slickers. Arthur is also terrific as Babe Bennett, the hard-nosed lady journalist who first ridicules, then falls for Longfellow, much to her own surprise. One of the screen’s authentic classics, this is pixilated comedy at its very best. Beware the Sandler re-make.


    Sergeant York (1941)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Incredible but true story concerns wild, hard-drinking Tennessee country farmer and crack shot Alvin York (Gary Cooper), who finally gets religion through a freak accident. When called to serve in the First War, his faith tells him to become a conscientious objector, but ultimately Alvin is forced to go overseas to fight. There, his marksmanship and gallantry help him kill, wound or capture over 100 German soldiers virtually single-handedly, making him the most famous and decorated enlisted man in the army.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Hawks’s timely patriotic biopic of this virtually forgotten hero provided Cooper with another seminal role (he won the Oscar, beating out Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”, among others), and helped to prepare our nation for the next impending world conflict. Prolific character actor Brennan (Oscar-nominated as well) excels as Alvin’s plain-spoken pastor, and ingénue Leslie makes an adorable love interest. A truly amazing story, unfolding on-screen with Hawks’s customary subtlety and skill. Don’t forget to salute this Sergeant.


    Friendly Persuasion (1956)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) and his minister wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) are happily raising their three children in the pacifist, hospitable ways of the Quaker faith. But as the Civil War looms close to home, their eldest son, Josh (Anthony Perkins), joins the Home Guard to defend their community against Rebel raiders, forcing them to examine their faith and conscience.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the popular novel by Jessamyn West, “Persuasion” is a sensitive portrayal of Quaker lifeways with flashes of merry humor, especially around Jess, who can’t resist racing a neighbor’s buggy or the allure of a new pump organ – both frowned upon by his stoic religion. Blacklister Michael Wilson’s progressive-minded script doesn’t shy from weighing militarism against Christian love, and Wyler’s solid direction of stars Cooper and McGuire makes their love for each other seem unfailingly genuine. Future “Psycho” star Perkins is also excellent as the gangly, intense teen who joins the Union defenders against his parents’ wishes. For a quaint, incisive look at old-time Quaker life, try a bit of “Friendly Persuasion.”


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  • July 27, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Poisonous Pictures

    by John Farr

    John Farr ponders poisonous pictures to play after this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Arsenic and Old Lace.


    The Court Jester (1956)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In merrie old medieval England, an obscure entertainer named Hawkins (Danny Kaye) ends up masquerading as the King’s new jester, and in this influential position, finds himself mixed up in the intrigues of one Sir Ravenheart (Basil Rathbone), a trusted court adviser who has designs on the throne. The plot only gets more comically intricate from there, but who cares when you’re laughing so hard?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The irrepressible Danny Kaye was gifted comic actor who not only touched and entertained millions of children, but at his best, brought out the child in all of us. A hilarious spoof on the swashbuckler picture, “Jester” is widely regarded as his finest hour on-screen. Rathbone does his usual villainous turn to perfection, and the young Johns makes a bewitching love interest. And who can forget that justifiably famous “Vessel with the Pestle” routine? With lots of color, action and excitement framing. A hilarious spoof on the swashbuckler picture, “The Court Jester” is widely regarded as his finest screen hour. With lots of color, action and excitement framing the immortal gags, this is family entertainment at its best.


    Romeo and Juliet (1968)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Shot on location in Verona, Italy, this vivid, unconventional retelling of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy is the story of two young people, Romeo and Juliet (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey), who discover a powerful love for each other, but whose union is rendered impossible by a bitter, long-running feud between their two families.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    My favorite version of this oft-filmed classic is Zeffirelli’s Oscar-nominated version. Starring two unknowns in the title roles (17-year-old Whiting and 15-year-old Hussey), the movie remains true to Shakespeare, while making the language more accessible to modern audiences. Both Michael York (as Romeo’s nemesis, Tybalt) and Milo O’Shea (as Mercutio) lend strong support, while Zeffirelli’s unabashed romanticism is enhanced by magnificent period detail and a sweeping score from Nino Rota. The story of youthful rebellion also spoke to basic issues arising in the restive sixties. A top-notch rendering of an eternal classic.


    Downfall (2004)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This shattering entry chronicles the last days of World War II in a shattered and encircled Berlin, from the vantage point of the ever-tightening circle around a broken down, delusional Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz). Seen mainly through the eyes of his young secretary Traudl Junge (Maria Lara), the film faithfully recreates events leading to Germany’s unconditional surrender, while painting a vivid character study of Hitler and his small but faithful retinue. A palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia builds throughout the film, as the day of reckoning approaches when the once proud Fuhrer must admit to the utter failure of his twisted vision.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The film’s intense yet intimate portrayal of Hitler’s demise has the crazy, nightmarish feel of a Bosch painting, with a pervasive sense of unreality. Ganz renders Hitler so expertly that the effect is spooky, as if the dead had been brought back to life. Other searing performances come from Juliane Kohler as a curiously cheery, detached Eva Braun, and both Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch make your blood run cold playing the twisted, ever loyal Josef and Magda Goebbels. Finally, the delicate, wide-eyed Lara beguiles as Traudl, a mostly innocent lamb placed by fate right in the center of the wolf’s lair. “Downfall” was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and with good reason.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 20, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Not-to-Miss Noir

    by John Farr

    John Farr ventures into darkness with three gritty noirs you may have overlooked.


    Raw Deal (1948)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Framed for a crime he didn’t commit by mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), tough-talking gangster Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) breaks out of prison with the help of his gutsy gal, Pat (Claire Trevor). Needing a hostage in case the cops manage to track him down, Joe kidnaps his kindly social worker, Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), and sets off to seek revenge on Coyle and his men.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This hard-as-nails potboiler was made for pennies at a Poverty Row studio by Mann and his legendary cinematographer, John Alton. Like the very best films in this genre, there’s plenty of raw dialogue, heart-fluttering suspense, and a square-jawed tough guy who isn’t afraid to blast away at his nemeses. But the sizzling love triangle that develops between Joe, Pat, and Ann is a perversely clever plot twist that contributes much to the fatalistic tone, with Trevor’s cold-hearted voiceover to top it all off. Burr’s turn as the brutal Coyle (watch out for that fruit flambeé!) is especially nasty. If you’re in the market for a visceral thriller, put your money on “Raw Deal.”


    The Narrow Margin (1952)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Tough-talking LA detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) arrives in Chicago to escort a cynical mobster’s wife (Marie Windsor) to a California grand jury, where she plans to testify against her estranged husband. The mafia has other plans for Mrs. Neall-namely, to rub her out. After his partner is gunned down leaving Neall’s apartment, Brown is on high alert, and must outwit a team of gangsters who follow them onto a sleeper train but seem to have no idea what their female target looks like.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller set almost entirely on a West Coast-bound train, “Margin” captivates thanks to its many sudden plot twists and ingenious central tension: Brown doesn’t know which of the men on-board is a gangster, and the hit men don’t know which of the female passengers to bump off. McGraw’s gritty, hardboiled cop and Windsor’s catty moll play off each other extremely well, and portly actor Paul Maxey adds a bit of mystique as an irritating, perhaps devious passenger. Snappy dialogue, crisp pacing, and even-handed direction keep Fleischer’s “Margin” flying like a bullet. Infinitely better than the 1990 remake.


    Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a female hitch-hiker in trouble one night, eventually loses her, and when she winds up dead, resolves to investigate. The twisty trail eventually leads him to an oily gangster (Paul Stewart) and a duplicitous scientist (Albert Dekker). The trail of mysteries eventually leads to the contents of a stolen box which Hammer’s secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) describes as “The Great Whatsit.” All bets are off as the film builds to its climax.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Aldrich comes close to noir perfection with “Kiss Me Deadly”, transferring the pulp flavor of Mickey Spillane’s books to the screen. Spillane’s battered hero represents the true noir protagonist, devoid of pretension or romance, and Meeker is ideally suited for the role. Hammer’s fundamental concern is his own-and his client’s-survival, and there’s plenty to be concerned about. Ahead of its time when released, “Deadly” is a tense, thrilling masterpiece of Cold War paranoia paranoia. (Watch closely for a young Cloris Leachman in her film debut.)


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