Movie Review: Jesse James (1939)

Jesse James (1939)

3 out of 5 stars

One of the few color films I’ve watched since returning to the Turner Classic Movies channel.  This airing happened to be a premeire for the TCM channel, the first time they’d ever shown the film.    Released the same year as The Wizard of Oz, by a still young 20th Century Fox, Jesse James starred then leading man Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother, Frank James.  Jesse’s love interest, played by Nancy Kelly, garnered more screen time than Henry Fonda, though.

Filmed in Missouri, but not in the James boys’ home town of Kearney, which is just on the other side of North Kansas City from where I live on the Kansas side of the metro area.  Even in the 1930s, Kearney proved to be too modern for the production, so they decided to use Pineville, in the southwestern corner of the state, near the Oklahoma and Arkansas borders.  Ah, Missouri, the only state that borders eight other states.

The treatment of the horses during this film appalled me.  I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who became outraged.  Apparently, this film proved the straw that broke the camels back: “The film gained a measure of notoriety, however, for a scene in which a horse falls to its death down a rocky slope toward the end of the film. This scene was one of many cited by the American Humane Association against Hollywood’s abuse of animals, and led to the association’s monitoring of filmmaking.” (Animal Cruelty, Jesse James Wikipedia article)

Not the best western I’ve ever watched, but not the worst either.  Fun to see so many big name actors early in their careers.  I can officially say I’ve seen a movie starring Randolph Scott now.

And that just reminded me of endless hours on summer vacation in an old van driving across the desert southwest.  My mom would pop in an eight track tape of one of her favorite bands, The Statler Brothers, and I’d here songs like this one called “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”


Opera Behind the Scenes Lecture Highlights

Something in this address seems familiarMy jazzy friend branched out to opera this month.  She invited me to attend a lecture in the ‘At Ease with Opera‘ series sponsored by the Kansas City Lyric Opera Guild.  I accepted her invitation, even though it meant driving back on a Monday evening to within sight (a couple of blocks) of where I had just spent eight or nine hours at work.

Monday, August 27 at 7:00 p.m. University of Kansas film professor John Tibbetts, a longtime classical music and opera enthusiast, will present “Backstage at the Opera: Opera at the Movies.” Tibbetts has made a study of operas as portrayed in film, and backstage scenes and opera intrigues as presented in movies. His presentation will feature excerpts from several such films, with commentary and discussion.

I attended a different lecture presented by the same man earlier in the year, prior to the release of John Carter, on Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I did learn something new about him at his “Backstage at the Opera” lecture, specifically that he was previously a radio announcer on a former radio station (KXTR) in Kansas City.  He also mentioned, somewhat in passing, one of his books entitled Composers in the Movies, where he “surveys different styles and periods from the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s to the international cinema of today, exploring the role that film biographies play in our understanding of history and culture.”  I couldn’t find a copy available at a local public library, but both KU and UMKC have copies listed as available via WorldCat, which I could probably request via InterLibrary Loan.  Not sure I’ll take this research that far at this point.

Tibbetts provided a few examples of operas popping up in films, including:

  • Risë Stevens singing an aria from Carmen in the Bing Crosby classic Going My Way (1944).  Much to my surprise, Stevens is still alive!  And she was born on June 11, 1913, making her 99 years old and still ticking.  “For over two decades (until 1961) Stevens was the Met’s leading mezzo-soprano and the only mezzo to command the top billing (and commensurate fees) normally awarded only to star sopranos and tenors.”  There must be something to June babies and mezzo sopranos.
  • During the cemetery scene in Driving Miss Daisy, the soundtrack plays a popular aria, “Song to the Moon,” from Dvorak’s Rusalka, a Czech opera.
  • A key moment in the Shawshank Redemption features the “Letter Duet” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Tibbetts next played several excerpts from movies that featured backstage moments for various operas.

He began with several clips from The Life of Verdi, a twelve hour mini-series which originally aired in 1982.  These scenes portrayed the power of Verdi’s compositions and how they were used in support of il Risorgimento (Italian Unification).  Often the subtext of the opera emphasized the nationalist desire to get rid of their Austrian oppressors.  The opera Atilla sparked the flame of national pride and caused a near revolution to start in Milan.

Tibbetts also showed us the sarcastic side of Verdi as he rebuts the censors changes to his Masked Ball libretto.  And finally the obsession of Verdi later in life not only as a composer but as a director of his operas while rehearsing Otello.

Tibbetts put Verdi to rest and took us forward to the 20th century, the 1930s, and the fabulous baritone Lawrence Tibbett (no relation).  He played two clips from the 1935 film Metropolitan (20th Century Fox’s first production following the merger of 20th Century Pictures and Fox Film Corp).  The first, a scene featuring the song “On the Road to Mandalay” and the second of “De Glory Road,” a song Tibbett made his own during his legendary career.



Tibbetts’ grand finale to his “Backstage at the Opera” came from the movie Topsy Turvy, which he highly recommended both as a film and as a glimpse into all that goes into the making of a stage production.  A period piece set at the original premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado in 1885.  He selected scenes 27, 30  and 37 from the DVD.  Those three scenes intrigued me and prompted quite a few laughs.  I may be adding this DVD to my Netflix queue in the near future.

Not surprisingly, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City will end it’s 2012-13 season with the side-splitting comedic masterpiece Mikado next April.

He concluded his lecture with a plug for the October 15th installment called “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Monday, October 15 at 7:00 p.m. ~ “What’s Opera, Doc?” by Dr. Charles Gibbs, a local opera fan. Those of a certain age remember the classic 1950s opera take-off Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and similar characters. If you remember the cartoons you will enjoy this program, and if the cartoons are new to you then you are in for a real treat. Dr. Gibbs will show the cartoons, with introductions and commentary. See if you can spot all of the opera tunes and references!

Movie Review: Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

4 out of 5 stars

When I recorded this movie to my DVR from the Turner Classic Movie channel last week, I didn’t read the synopsis.  I grew up listening to Henry Mancini vinyls my parents owned, and learned to play (and sing) on the piano, at an early age the song ‘The Days of Wine and Roses.’  I did review the rating provided by DirecTV (two ratings actually provided by different services, one of which I believe is Rotten Tomatoes) and noted it received high marks.

After dinner last night, I decided to watch the movie.  Terry had slipped into a food coma while we watch the latest Warehouse 13 episode so I thought it was safe to start a black-and-white movie with the volume turned down a bit, turning closed captioning on to catch any whispered conversations.  I soon realized the story was not what I thought it would be, not that I had any idea what it should have been.  The tone seemed a bit dark even for the early 60s.  But I don’t mean dark as in murder or torture or rape, but the slow, sinister destruction of a bright young couple in the immutable grip of alcoholism.  Fascinating, but unsettling, to watch.  Both Lemmon and Remick deserve their awards and accolades for their performances.

The musical score disappointed.  Aside from the constant repeating motif of the ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ melody, not much music intruded into the drama.  I assume all the music heard at the cocktail parties was composed by Mancini and provided an appropriate jazzy background ambiance.

Robert Osbourne commented that during the filming of Days of Wine and Roses, Lemmon’s father’s health to a turn for the worst.  Lemmon would spend the evenings after shooting at the hospital and before production wrapped up, his father passed away.

During and after the filming:  “Director Blake Edwards became a non-drinker a year after completing the film and went into substance recovery. He said that he and Jack Lemmon were heavy drinkers while making the film. Edwards used the theme of alcohol abuse often in his films, including: 10 (1979), Blind Date (1987) and Skin Deep (1989). Both Lemmon and Remick sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous long after they had completed the film. Lemmon revealed to James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio his past drinking problems and his recovery. The film had a lasting effect in helping alcoholics deal with their problem. Today, Days of Wine and Roses is required viewing in many alcoholic and drug rehabilitation clinics across America.” (Wikipedia article, Filming section).

When Terry woke up, about halfway through the film, at about the point where things really start spiraling downward for the Clays, he got up and made a couple of frozen strawberry lemonades.  He couldn’t resist adding some vodka.  I couldn’t resist the sarcasm … here we were, watching a couple destroy themselves and their relationships with each other, their children, their family, their friends, with alcoholism, and we were drinking alcohol while watching this unfold.

To put this in a bit of perspective, the vodka we bought was the first liquor we’ve purchased in several years.  We normally buy some hard lemonade, wine or beer, once or twice a quarter, which sits in the refrigerator taking up space until we might remember to grab one on a weekend.  The frozen strawberry lemonade tastes wonderful with or without the vodka.

But still, really, I could have smacked him.

Movie Review: Captains Courageous (1937)

Captains Courageous (1937)

4.5 out of 5 stars

I’m taking full advantage of TCM finally making the leap to HD quality broadcasting.  I have hours and hours of four and five star movies already recorded.  If only I didn’t need to sleep. 

I started watching Captains Courages late Sunday morning.  Terry joined me about halfway through, which prompted me to provide a recap of the first half of the movie.  So many great actors appear in this film:  Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine, Mickey Rooney and of course Freddie Bartholomew.  But the story, written originally by Rudyard Kipling, provided the wind to the actors’ sails in this must-see family adventure classic. 

I haven’t read Kipling’s Captains Courageous, but I plan to download an ebook edition from Project Gutenberg or Feedbooks in the near future and compare the original publication to the screen adapation.  Interestingly, and sadly, Kipling passed away the year before this film was released to theatres.

Movie Review: 36 Hours (1965)

36 Hours (1965)

4 out of 5 stars

I liked this film quite a bit.  Starring such well known actors as “James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Taylor. … On 2 June 1944, a German army doctor tries to obtain vital information from an American military intelligence officer by convincing him that it is 1950 and World War II is long over.”  (Wikipedia contributors. “36 Hours.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Jul. 2012. Web. 25 Aug. 2012.)

Terry joined me for the last half of the film and it kept his interest, which is saying quite a bit for the black-and-white format.  I actually liked the quality of the cinematography, as I’m paying particular attention to gray scale presently as I start learning to sketch with pencil.

In reading through the Background list in the Wikipedia article, I see that science fiction television took this plot and ran with it (ST:TOS, ST:TNG, Mission: Impossible, Buzz Lightyear, etc.).  By the end of the movie, I wondered if James Garner’s characer would ever trust a clock or a calendar again.

Movie Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Box Incident (1943)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Another highly acclaimed western which had the misfortune of releasing the same year as Casablanca.  Not your typical western either.

I spend Sunday afternoons reviewing the upcoming schedule on TCM for likely recordable prospects for the DVR.  I also review their website and send e-mail alerts to myself if the movie I want to watch happens to be scheduled more than two weeks out (the DVR only has fourteen days with of programming at any given time).  The guide on the DVR showed a 94% approval rating and close to a five star rating for The Ox-Bow Incident, so I made sure I got it recorded.

I thought the film very well done.  All the performance appeared to be above par and it was interesting to see Harry Morgan and Anthony Quinn.  The only time I struggled to believe the character came when the letter contents were revealed to the audience.  I could not connect the dots between the man I saw protrayed and the writer of that letter.  No man about to die would write these words to his wife.  Some of them yes, but he would not philosophize to the extent presented in the movie.

Contents of letter from one victim (Martin) to his wife:

“My dear Wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ‘Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you. Your husband, Donald.”

I would have found it much more believable had everything from ‘A man just naturally can’t take the law’ to ‘that ever lived?’ had been deleted.  That whole middle section screams philosophy, not undying love for your spouse.  I’m not saying I don’t agree with the contents, I just don’t believe a dying (about to be murdered) man would write it to his wife.

Astronomy Plus Geometery

I put an appointment on my calendar earlier this week with an alert to remind me to go chasing planets after sunset on Tuesday evening.  I make sure to check Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines’ websites for their ‘The Sky This Week’ observing articles and place the interesting (and observable from my location) items on my calendar.  Here’s the paragraph for Tuesday evening from Astronomy’s web site

Tuesday, August 21 – Our trio of bright evening objects — Saturn, Mars, and Spica — forms a pretty equilateral triangle (5° on a side) in the southwestern sky after sunset. But the highlight of the scene tonight is a gorgeous crescent Moon that hangs just 4° below Mars. Binoculars provide the best view of this celestial gathering. Look closely and you’ll notice the objects’ different colors. The Moon’s color depends largely on conditions in Earth’s atmosphere and could be anywhere from white (under a dry, haze-free sky) to yellow or even slightly orange. Sunlight reflecting off Saturn’s clouds has a golden glow while Mars’ ruddy deserts cast an orange hue. Blue-white Spica generates its own light from a scorching surface nearly four times hotter than the Sun’s.

∞ ∞ ∞

Terry and Sean had retreated to the band room for rehearsal and I sat slogging my way through the 49th Parallel, a British WWII film released in the United States under the title The Invaders.  I recorded it a couple of weeks ago off the TCM channel.  It drags and I still haven’t finished it.  So when my phone buzzed with the text message alert, I jumped, literally, at the chance to stop watching the film and start looking up at the sky. 

I took my camera gear and got in the van.  I couldn’t take the Bonneville because Sean’s car happened to be parked in front of the garage.  I didn’t mind taking the van; it’s what I drive every weekday anyway.  I left the house at 8:20, about fifteen minutes after sunset, so the western sky still shown with twilight.  I could clearly see the bright waxing crescent moon, but could not yet see Saturn, Mars or Spica.  I drove west and southwest from Lansing, trying to find a spot clear of trees on top of a hill to setup the camera.

MarsSaturnSpicaWaxingCrescentMoon21Aug2012-2115I ended up driving almost an hour all over the middle of Leavenworth County and even through the small unincorporated town of Jarblo.  I never did find a satisfactory location.  I finally stopped in the parking lot of the High Prairie Church at the corner of 187th street and the end of Eisenhower Road.  The church had blazing bright lights illuminating their building, but I parked far away at the north end of the parking lot and used the van as a shield.  I took several photos with various settings for about ten to fifteen minutes.  I took a few minutes to just look around at the night sky from this location, liking the clear 360 degree visibility (lack of trees and less light pollution, if you didn’t look towards the church building).  I could clearly see the constellations Scorpius, Sagittarius, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, but still only about half the stars in Ursa Minor.  I could not yet see Pegasus as it still needed another hour or two to rise out of the east.

I packed up the camera gear and headed home, using Eisenhower Road to get back to Lansing.  I parked the van, noting that Sean’s car still sat in the driveway.  I returned to the living room, unpaused the 49th Parallel and again attempted to finish the film.  Within five minutes, Terry and Sean came upstairs and Sean said his goodbyes.  I asked Terry if he had even noticed that I’d been gone for an hour.  He had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look that answered my question well enough. 

I stopped my feeble attempt to finish the movie and instead switched to the season premiere of Top Gear, an episode featuring a battle between the three big American auto makers to produce a successor to the reigning but retiring police vehicle of choice:  the Ford Crown Victoria.  The Stig, driving a minivan, managed to evade all three Crown Vics, shaming the hosts (and the cars they were driving).  That initial segment ended in a free-for-all demolition derby of the retiring behemoths.  I made sure to Tweet the abuse to a friend who still owns (and loves) his Crown Victoria.

By the time we finished watching Top Gear, I realized I was up way past my bedtime.  I retreated upstairs and crashed. 

∞ ∞ ∞

I hit the snooze button a couple of times this morning, not happy at all with the shortened sleep.  I made a strong pot of Irish Blend tea to take with me during the morning commute so I wouldn’t nod off and disrupt my riders with an accident or off-road excursion.  I did remember to grab my camera’s memory card so I could download and review the photos I’d taken the previous evening. 

Mars Saturn Spica and Waxing Crescent Moon
Click photo for rest of album

I re-read the paragraph on the web page and decided to test the equilateral triangle theory on my photos of Mars-Saturn-Spica.  I used a nice clear plastic ruler to measure, on my laptop screen, the distance in centimeters between the three corners of the triangle.  The distance between Saturn and Spica and Saturn and Mars appeared to be identical.  But the distance between Mars and Spica was greater by 1.5 to 2 centimeters.  So, technically, my photo did not confirm the observation of an imaginary equilateral triangle. Perhaps earlier in the day (or even the previous day), Mars might have been in the exact position to be equidistant visually from Saturn and Spica, but not last night at a quarter past nine o’clock. 

I still hope to net Neptune this weekend, but my chances are looking slim.  The weather forecast for the next few days includes thunderstorms.  Ironic, that, since my next night to volunteer at Powell Observatory is this coming Saturday.  This would be my third night of the public season, and if overcast, would make it two out of three times cloudy.

M3 Menu Maintenance

M3 (or my blog cubed) menu update: I decided to include a couple of cool links on my Astronomy menu.

I added the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), which I follow via NASA‘s RSS feed, as well as the Astronomy Sketch of the Day (ASOD) (also available via RSS).  I especially liked today’s offering:

Great Andromeda Galaxy by Kim Byong Su (via ASOD)
Great Andromeda Galaxy by Kim Byong Su (via ASOD)

I started following ASOD a couple of weeks ago to inspire my own nascent sketching abilities.  Many of the observing awards I want to complete require that astronomical sketches be submitted as part of the log entries to support the required observations.

To help expand my artistic horizons, I ordered a highly recommend book, aptly titled Astronomical Sketching: A Step-By-Step Introduction from (free shipping worldwide). I received two books in the mail yesterday, one of which was the sketching book shown at right.  I skimmed through a couple of the chapters over breakfast this morning.  I will need to assemble a supply list before I take a lunch hour trip to the closest art supply store (just north of me on Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri).  And per advice from my artist son, I should just start sketching daily to hone my observation skills and to get familiar with the media (pencils, papers, erasers, smudgers, etc.).  I would like to start sketching double stars initially, but will have to experiment and practice quite a lot before I will feel confident in sharing any of my sketches here at my blog.

Saturday Shopping Downtown

I ran out of my favorite blend of tea last weekend when my son and daughter-in-law visited us.  I waited impatiently Saturday morning for ten o’clock to roll around so I could head north to downtown Leavenworth to visit the local enclave of British teas, foods and sundries: the Queen’s Pantry.

Favorite Local British Tea Spot
Queen’s Pantry

I brought my empty four ounce tin, already properly labeled for Irish Blend tea, with me to the store.  The store clerk suggested I try some iced Elderberry tea, one of the two special daily teas made available to customers.  I filled a small Styrofoam cup with two or three ounces of the Elderberry and sipped it while browsing through the rest of the store.  I liked the sweetness of the tea and asked her if the iced tea had been sweetened with sugar.  She confirmed my suspicion that any sweetness came from the infusion of elderberries when steeping the tea.  I ordered a couple of ounces to take home, as well as two ounces of Japanese pan-fried green tea, another favorite variety I had run out of.

In one of the windows, a cute four cup tea pot sported the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogan from WWII during the Blackout when Germany bombed Britain relentlessly.  I found a set of matching salt and pepper shakers that I decided to buy, since I haven’t had a matching set for the dining room table in decades.

Keep Calm and Carry On Salt & Pepper Shakers

I asked the clerk if she had a set in a box, as I didn’t want to take her display ones. She assured me they had several more on display and in the back so she urged me to grab the pair and bring it to the counter.  She returned them to their box and rang up my tea and shakers.

Teas: Irish Blend, Elderberry, & Japanese Pan-Fried Green
Teas: Irish Blend, Elderberry, & Japanese Pan-Fried Green

I slipped in the Tune Shop next door, hoping to find some guitar picks for Terry. The selection lacked the brand and size he prefers, but I bought a half dozen just to make him laugh at my inability to select a proper pick.

I almost didn’t stop by the farmer’s market, since it was already past eleven o’clock.  But I needed some honey, and the market is only a couple of blocks away from Queen’s Pantry.  I bought my honey and tried a slice of locally grown Gala apples.  I couldn’t believe they were already harvesting them.  I should probably check my own apple tree to see if the apples are ripe.

Hillside Honey

I’ll be baking more Honey Wheat bread soon, as the temperatures drop, and we use quite a bit of honey when we make a marinade for grilling chicken. I talked briefly to a local farmer and said “Hello” to a class mate of mine from high school who has a stall of soaps and breads.

My final stop before returning home was the local K-Mart/Sears for some triple-A batteries for Terry.  I also bought a couple of frames to finally put Derek and Rachelle’s college graduation photos in.


I’ll get Terry to hang them up in the dining area on either side of the front window.  I also found a new steamer on sale but none available to purchase.  I made it all the way home and all the way to the end of this blog post before realizing I forgot to acquire a rain check for the steamer.  I guess I’ll be making a second trip to K-Mart later today to assure I get the sale price on that item.  The steamer we have is too small (tiny really) and we’d like a new one so we can steam an entire head of broccoli, not just half or a third of one.

I think I’ll warm up some leftovers for lunch and steep some of the Elderberry for a fresh glass of refreshing iced tea to complement it.