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Zero Hour! (1957)

“Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.”

Zero Hour! is the film that inspired Airplane! and much of the dialogue and scenes were lifted wholesale from the earlier film. With such gems as the quote above, I can see how Zero Hour! was a candidate for spoofing (along with disaster films in general), though it is actually not a bad little B thriller. It’s quite tense at times.

Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) was a squadron leader during WWII, but when he makes a poor decision that costs the lives of six of his pilots during a bombing raid, he is shattered. Over ten years later, his confidence is still shot. He can’t settle down to a job, his marriage is in trouble, and he’s never flown a plane since. When his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell) takes their son and leaves him, he manages to get on the same plane to talk with her.

And then the fish lays waste to half the passengers, as well as the pilot and co-pilot. It’s almost enough to reconcile one to those little bags of pretzels they hand out on flights now.  It’s a potentially fatal case of food poisoning and the only one who can fly is Ted (who, fortunately, had lamb chops for dinner). But not only does he still have a bad case of PTSD, but he’s also never flown a jet. The airline must get someone to talk him through his landing. The man they chose is Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), who knew Ted during the war.

I think what adds a little tension to the film is the fact that literally no one has faith in Ted, including Ted. His wife has no confidence, Treleaven has no confidence. In fact, Treleaven thinks Ted is the kind of guy who always folds up under pressure, but he still has to instill in Ted that confidence he does not himself feel. There’s a lot at stake for Ted. No one respects him, his son could die of food poisoning, and he must wrestle with his sense of personal failure, all during a bad storm.

There seems to have been a whole spate of airplane disaster films during the 1950s: The High and MightyNo Highway in the Sky, and even Julie, where Doris Day notoriously plays a flight attendant who must land the plane after her insane husband shoots the pilot. In Julie, the exact same thing happens, where she has to be talked down by those on the ground with access to radar, who gives her blow by blow instructions via radio.

Perhaps it makes sense, since the 1950s was the first decade where average Americans were beginning to afford flying. We’re so used to flying now, it has less novelty or sense of danger (more like a sense of cramped and disgruntled impatience). Though perhaps that’s not strictly true. There was the recent film Sully, which captured some of the immediacy and potential tragedy of a plan crash. On the whole, I think our fears in regards to planes are more related to terrorism than accidents now. But by pilot error or terrorist, the fear that passengers must feel on a plane, which they cannot control, is still a relatable fear.

I have to comment on how flying is portrayed practically like a holiday (at least until the fish incident). Stryker is able to take his son up to meet the pilot, who gives his son a toy airplane. They serve meals, the seats look roomy, even the airplane bathroom looks about twice the size of the bathrooms today. Since movies tend to err on the side of fiction over fact, I have to ask: does anyone know how accurate that portrayal is? How much has flying really changed over the years?

If you have not seen Airplane!, I would recommend watching Zero Hour! first. I’ve read many people say that after seeing Airplane!, it is impossible to watch this without cracking up every few minutes. I must admit that I have not seen Airplane! yet, but after watching the trailer, laughed so hard that I decided I absolutely had to see it next.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

downloadStories involving special knowledge about the future nearly always appeal to me, so I was looking forward to seeing It Happened Tomorrow, a whimsical fantasy set in the 1890s, starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell. Unfortunately, it was not all that I had hoped for. It’s more of a curiosity, though not without its charms.

Lawrence “Larry” Stevens (Dick Powell) is an ambitious reporter who has just been promoted from writing obituaries. At a party, he jokes with his co-workers that he would give ten years of his life to be able to read tomorrow’s newspaper, but the old timer Pop (John Philliber) cautions him that he doesn’t even know if he has ten years to give. However, that night Pop hands Larry a newspaper that is indeed tomorrow’s newspaper. It says there will be a hold-up at the opera house and Larry makes sure he’s there, even copying down the article from the newspaper so he can reproduce it.

But things do not work out exactly as Larry expects. For one, the police suspect him of collusion and even suspect the woman he has fallen in love with, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell) – a professional clairvoyant who does her act with her hustling Uncle Oscar (Jack Oakie). Essentially, Larry becomes a prisoner to the future, always trying to either fulfill it, ignore it or avoid it. But no matter what he does, he always manages to act in a way that makes the headlines a self-fulling prophecy. The eventual result is comic despair and fatalism.

It Happened Tomorrow feels like a transitional (or filler) film for nearly everyone involved. Dick Powell was about to essay his career changing role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Linda Darnell was transitioning away from sweet ingenues to femme fatales or woman from the wrong side of the tracks and director Rene Clair was partly killing time while stranded in America during the Nazis occupation of France.

download (1)Rene Clair often gravitated towards fantasy and whimsy. His most famous movies include some early French musicals (A nous la liberte) and I Married a Witch and And Then There Were NoneIt Happened Tomorrow is definitely a lesser film, though it’s not a bad film. The pacing seems a little off, and the timing, and the acting and humor is a little broad. Would it have made a difference if Clair had gotten his first choice for Larry, Cary Grant?

Dick Powell, as I said was transitioning away from musicals and about to establish his wry noir persona. He seems much more understated in those films. For It Happened Tomorrow, he’s funny, but seems to be playing it too broadly, which is interesting because in later comedies, like Susan Slept Here, he seems spot on. Perhaps he was simply too old, or simply no longer looked like the eager young reporter he was playing and was trying to compensate?

Or perhaps it was because he was playing opposite Jack Oakie, who is the very definition of broad comedy. Oakie has a way of stealing scenes, even at one point wearing one of the loudest suits I’ve ever seen, and he tends to run away with things a little too much at times.

The ending is pretty hilarious, though. Larry has read that he is going to die at a certain hotel the following day and is trying his best to stay away, eventually settling into despair that no matter what he does he will end up at that hotel. He even decides to provide for his widow – Sylvia – by betting at the racetrack, knowing which horses will win and there is genuine suspense as one wonders both how he will end up at the hotel and how he will manage to stay alive.

download (2)Linda Darnell as Sylvia is still mostly in her ingenue phase, though she would play her first femme fatale that same year in Summer Storm with George Sanders. At this point, however, she still doesn’t quite know how to deliver a line or modulate her voice.

Linda Darnell’s career as an actress is a curious one. She began so young (and was initially cast mostly on the strength of her astonishing beauty) that one can literally track how her acting improved through the years. She made her first movie at fifteen (playing a society woman who was supposed to be married to Tyrone Power for three years!) and initially played beautiful ingenues in films like The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.

It is in the late ’40s that she really comes into her own with films like A Letter to Three Wives (a personal favorite), No Way Out, and Unfaithfully Yours. By that point, she also seems to have learned how to use her voice as an asset and not just as a means of delivering lines. She’s especially good at conveying world-weariness with her voice (and uses her voice in A Letter to Three Wives to conceal her vulnerability). Sadly, her career began to peter out at just the age (late twenties) that most great actresses come into their own (like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck).

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Mark_of_Zorro_1940In some ways, The Mark of Zorro looks an awful lot like 20th Century Fox was attempting to garner a little of the success achieved by the 1938 Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. Both are swashbuckling adventures with an outlaw on the side of the oppressed, sword fights, horse chases, a little romance, a little politics, general adventure with a good dose of humor, the hero climbing the balcony to woo his beloved, a confrontation between hero and Basil Rathbone. It even has three of the same actors: Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette and Montagu Love. But I must confess that as much as I have always enjoyed The Adventures of Robin Hood, I love The Mark of Zorro. It is a film that, despite many similarities, stands on its own as one of the most fun swashbucklers ever made.

One of the things I especially like about the film is the scope it gives Tyrone Power to play two different characters: dashing hero and lover, and affected fop…and they don’t skimp on the fop, either.

Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is at a military academy at Spain, but is called home by his father (Montagu Love), who is the Alcade (governor?) in California. But when he arrives home, he is shocked to find everything changed. His father has been forced out of office and replaced by the weaselly Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his bodyguard/enforcer Captain Estaban Pasquale (Basil Rathone), who is very fond if his sword and likes to swing it around for dramatic affect while speaking.

When Diego sees what has happened, he comes up with a quick plan not to reveal that he is actually a fine swordsman and instead pretends to everyone that he is a fop and dandy, too worried about his clothes and slight of hand tricks to concern himself with all the oppression and high taxes enforced by Quintero and Pasquale. His father, and especially his priest, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallete, in a role nearly identical to the one he play in The Adventures of Robin Hood) are disgusted with him, but Diego has a plan. Disguising himself as a bandit, he begins to prey on Quintero and his soldiers and to take back some of the stolen wealth from the peons (the name for the people at the bottom rung of society). However, his plan is not so much about helping peons, as it is about making California so hot for Quintero that Quintero will eventually leave for fear of his life.

Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell

Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell

And that’s what I really liked about The Mark of Zorro. The story not only gives him scope to ride about and fight, but also to scheme and machinate. Don Diego is fighting a two-front war single handed. While he is robbing, leaving his signature Z on every convenient surface, terrorizing Quintero and his cohorts, he is also trying to convince him, in the role of Don Diego, that the masked bandit is probably a madman who will end up cutting his throat. Meanwhile, he is flirting with Quintero’s wife, Inez (the magnificent Gale Sondergaard), who despises her uncouth husband and longs for the glamour and elegance of Madrid, a longing happily fueled by Don Diego.

At the same time, he has fallen in love with Quintero’s niece, Lolita (a very young Linda Darnell, still only 17 or 18), who has developed a crush on the masked bandit, but can’t stand the prissy and languid Diego.

One of my favorite scenes is at a small family party at the Quinteros to celebrate the arranged engagement between Diego and Lolita. Pasquale, a man who prides himself on his swordplay and virility and who has definitely been carrying on with Inez (one suspects they are the ones who propelled Quintero to his current position) is jealous of Diego, who has fascinated Inez with his talk of Madrid, court, fashion and pretty speeches. Inez is jealous of Lolita, because she is younger and engaged to Diego. Diego is trying to keep his flirtation with Inez up, while surreptitiously wooing Lolita (especially through a dance) and Lolita can barely tolerate to even sit next to him (except when they dance and he shows a spark of virility himself).

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone

The inevitable sword fight between Power and Rathbone is also excellent (poor Rathbone lost so many fights, one can’t help feeling a pang of sympathy and wish that he’d win one, just once, since he really is the superior fencer). The fight occurs  in a much smaller space than The Adventures of Robin Hood, less bouncy, but more personal, more face-to face and quite exciting.

The Mark of Zorro is a remake of the silent 1920 The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, but I do not know to what extant the 1940 version owes to the original. Does it have more in common with the silent film or The Adventures of Robin Hood? Does anyone know? The silent film is on my list of films I most want to see next.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Movies

 

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