Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

When bandleader and trumpeter Harry James (playing himself) is drafted, his entire band enlists to accompany him.   However, his main vocalist, Lon Prentice (Dick Foran) is initially classified 4-F due to a foot problem.  One visit to the doctor later, Lon is cured and can enlist with the other fellows.

Private Buckaroo

However, the vain Lon is already an expert shot and finds most Army training and menial duties below him.  To everyone else’s surprise, the base commander (Ernest Truex) gives the order that Lon is excused from any training or duties he doesn’t want to do.  At first, he doesn’t mind, even though his fellow trainees are giving him the stinkeye when they get saddled with his guard rotations.  It’s not until Lon learns that he won’t be shipping out with the rest of the boys, but assigned to a rear echelon desk job that his attitude changes.

Meanwhile, First Sergeant “Muggsy” Shavel (Shemp Howard) is in a rocky relationship with his fiancee Bonnie-Belle Schlopkiss (Mary Wickes).  Not only is she rather shrewish, but USO entertainer Lancelot Pringle McBiff (Joe E. Lewis) is making time with her, and she doesn’t seem at all reluctant.

This 1942 musical is essentially a recruiting film for the Army put out by Universal Studios.  In addition to the above mentioned entertainers, the Andrews Sisters feature heavily.  The more unpleasant aspects of boot camp are skipped over entirely, and it ends with a montage of our brave boys shipping out.

There’s a fair amount of slapstick humor, with Sergeant Shavel taking the brunt of most of it.  The fact that Bonnie-Belle is the dominant one in their relationship is played for laughs, but the domestic violence won’t play as well with a modern audience.  There’s also some period slurs against the Japanese, in keeping with the subject matter.

As part of the mildly military aspect, the base commanders’ nieces have pretty much free run, especially precocious tyke Tagalong (Susan Levine), who gets some of the best lines.

The musical numbers are well worth seeing, but the previously mentioned content may make it a no-go for younger viewers without parental guidance.

Here’s a trailer for the movie.

 

 

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter edited by Mary François Rockcastle

This literary journal is published by Hamline University in Minnesota.  The title comes from another name of the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative agent which turned base metals into gold, in the search for true immortality, as literature turns ordinary words into art.  This issue’s theme is “dark matter” the unknown encountered and given a name by humans in an attempt to categorize it.

Water~Stone Review #15

This issue is heavy on the poetry, unfortunately, most of it is modern poetry which (as I have mentioned before) I do not have the tools to fully appreciate–I can’t even tell good modern poetry from bad.   I did like Ruth Stone’s “Train Ride” which at least has a rhyme scheme and comprehensible imagery.  Also of note is “Song for the Generations: December 26, 1862” by Gwen Westerman.  It’s about the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota as a result of a rebellion, and uses a particular line structure to reflect this event.  (For more on this subject, see my review of The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.)  It’s also the poem in this issue that caused the most dissension in the editorial office, as different families learned different stories of the event.

One of the two book reviews covers three books of modern poetry–because of my previously-mentioned problem, it read like gibberish to me.  There’s also an interview with poet Ralph Angel, and that was mildly interesting.

The fiction and “creative non-fiction” sections are very similar, being mostly melancholy stories about relationships with parents or loved ones that stop rather than have endings.  Of the fiction, the most striking was “Missions, 1969” by Anastasia Faunce.  A little girl is used as a servant at her mother’s moon-themed party, and learns yet another lesson about the casual cruelty of adults.

From the non-fiction section, the two most interesting pieces are “Elegy for the Old NIght Sky and Other Bodies” by Katie Hae Leo, about childlessness, being an adoptee, and dark matter; and “Dust to Dust” by Amy Roper, about the author’s job cleaning fossils for a museum.

There are also visual arts, a section of photographs titled “Open. Shut. Open.”  It’s pretty random-feeling, some are in color, a few are interesting.   Lawrence Sutin contributes two “erasure pieces” in which he has taken old books and erased most of the words to create “found” poetry.  It seems like a mutilation of perfectly good books to me.

The concluding piece is another book review, three books that reflect the reviewer’s hobby of collecting other people’s home movies.

Due to my dislike of modern poetry and the generally depressing nature of most of the prose pieces, I did not get much out of this magazine, despite the above-average quality of writing.  If modern poetry is your bag, I think you’ll appreciate this much more than I did.

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson (playing himself) needs a story for his Sunday slot, and goes to his favorite nightclub, the Trocadero.  It’s hopping as usual, but headwaiter Sam (Ralph Morgan) finds a moment between celebrity cameos and musical numbers to talk to the columnist.  He reveals that things were not always so rosy here….

Trocadero

The club used to be Tony Rocadero’s Restaurant, and we see the owner (Charles Calvert) at the end of Prohibition getting a legitimate liquor license.  He wants to turn his place into a class joint for the sake of his adopted children Judy and Johnny Edwards (Rosemary Lane & Johnny Downs.)   Unfortunately, he is killed in a street accident.  There’s only enough income from the restaurant to send one of the kids to college; the other will have to stay and help manage the place.

Johnny goes off to earn a degree while Judy takes over as acting manager and star singer of the night spot.  They struggle along until in 1935, the place is broke and about to close its doors.  Musical agent Mickey Jones (Sheldon Leonard) buys ten percent of the business as he’s convinced it can be revived with a new jazz band he’s representing.  Even this might not have worked, but then swing band leader Spike Nelson (Dick Purcell) barges in with his own musical troupe, and Judy takes the risk of having two house bands.

It’s obvious that both Jones and Nelson have more than a business interest in Judy, but she’s got a nightclub to run.  A slip of the tongue renames the place the Trocadero, it shifts emphasis from dining to dancing, and business heats up.

Some time later, Johnny has finally graduated from college, and returns.  Problem!  He’s fallen in love with society dame Marge Carson (Marjorie Manners), whose father (Emmett Vogan) owns a tobacco brokerage.  She’s less than enthused by the tawdry entertainment industry, and wants Johnny to join her father’s business.  So he can’t take over the Trocadero after all.

Judy has her own problems.  Jones is more or less okay with just being friends, but Nelson feels he’s been strung along too long and accepts another gig.  Only after he leaves does Judy realize that she actually loves the lug.

Meanwhile, Johnny discovers at the engagement party that Marge’s relatives are deadly dull people who care only for money and prestige, and look down on “hoofers” like himself.  He dances a fiery rebuttal and calls off the marriage.  He returns to the Trocadero to console his lovelorn sister and finally help manage the place, which is more popular than ever.

Which brings us back to the present day.    But this is a Hollywood musical, and there’s no way it’s going to end on a bittersweet note.

There was a real-life Trocadero nightclub, one of Hollywood’s hottest spots, but its history was nothing like this movie’s version.  Still, it’s a sweet story in its own way, a fantasy of making it in show business.  There are several fun musical numbers, including a grand finale with four, count ’em, four bands combining their talents.  One song in the modern section obliquely references World War Two, which was going on at the time.

As mentioned, there are several celebrity cameos, the most unusual of which is animator Dave Fleischer, with a little cartoon creature that comes out of his pen.

There’s of course lots of drinking, but the cigarette girl isn’t too keen on smoking (at least the Carson brand.)   Johnny and Judy do some playful scuffling, and have perhaps a bit too much chemistry for siblings, but that and the slightly offscreen death of Tony are it on the violence front.  By 1940s standards the movie is surprisingly non-sexist; no one thinks Judy can’t run a nightclub just because she’s a woman.

This is a lovely confection, fun but not very deep, and should be okay to watch with younger viewers.

Book Review: Naked to the Stars

Book Review: Naked to the Stars by Gordon R. Dickson

Section Leader Calvin Truant of the 91st Combat Engineers has not slept in two days, his unit is at less than half strength and their translator is dying, and all the officers have been killed, leaving Cal in command.  The truce with the alien Lehaunan is about to end, and it looks like the village they’re stationed near has been getting reinforcements all night.  So it’s understandable that Cal orders an attack as of the official end of the truce.

Naked to the Stars

 

The 91st takes the village, only to discover it undefended beyond a few mine guards.  Cal abruptly wakes up in an ambulance ship sixteen hours later, with wounds he doesn’t remember getting.   The physical injuries are healed with future medical technology, but the missing hours are still a blank.   The brass won’t let him re-enlist for a combat role unless he undergoes a psychiatric probe, but Cal fears that they might find something that would bar him from service forever, and being a soldier is all he knows.

A recruiter offers a way past this impasse.  While Cal is barred from combat, he could become a Contacts Officer, a non-combatant medic/translator/diplomat embedded with the troops to win alien hearts and minds as the humans conquer them.  It’s not an admired profession, but someone’s got to do it, and it’s a way to get back in uniform.  Cal reluctantly agrees, and completes the training just in time to be assigned to the war against the Paumons.  There, he may be able to confront his daddy issues and the horror that lies within the missing hours.

Gordon R. Dickson was best known for his Dorsai novels, military science fiction about futuristic mercenaries.  This book takes a different tack, as Cal must confront the fact that winning a war isn’t just about conquering the enemy militarily.

It’s interesting to compare this book to Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, also published in 1961.  Both feature societies where politics is dominated by military veterans, with public flogging, and extensive sections set in boot camp.  But where the Heinlein book had the troopers protecting a largely apathetic citizenry from aggressive aliens who sought only to destroy, in this book, the government suppresses dissent by violence, and is engaged in expansionist colonization with preemptive attacks on technologically inferior aliens on flimsy pretexts.  The books are also almost polar opposites on pacifism, with one discarding it as useless passivism, while the other sees it as a better way forward.

As mentioned above, Cal has issues due to his difficult relationship with his father, who he chose to blame for the death of his mother.  He also has what we’d consider untreated post-traumatic stress that causes him to detach himself from those around him.  This being the kind of novel it is, most of this gets resolved by Cal having epiphanies, rather than therapy.  It also makes him rather unsympathetic in the middle section.

Cal’s relationship with nurse Annie Warroad is somewhat disjointed; much of its development is off-stage, but at least it’s clear that it does develop (as opposed to the usual 50s/60s SF thing of “love happens because the hero gets the girl.”)  The difficulties in the relationship realistically come from Cal’s emotional issues and tendency to push people away.

This is not considered one of Mr. Dickson’s stronger works, in part I think because it has an agenda that plays against the grain of the subgenre.   And given that the Earth is more or less the bad guys in this one, it may not sit well with some more jingoistic readers.  But it’s got some interesting ideas, and is probably available in a used book store near you, or even your library.

Open Thread: Judging by the Covers 10/18/14

Time for another open thread!  Since this went over so well last time, I’m going to post another six book covers from my more obscure posts.  Let me know which ones you like, and what you think the cover tells you about the contents.  Or tell me what kind of cover makes you want to pick up a book.

diedlanceFortress RabaulMurder by SunlightHunting SeasonYou

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road by Bob Boze Bell

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 66 Kid

Bob Boze Bell has been a rock musician, cartoonist, radio host, magazine publisher and other interesting jobs.  And he spent most of his youth in Kingman, Arizona, where his father had gas stations on Route 66.  This is his memoir of those years.

It’s a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photographs and Mr. Bell’s paintings.  Fortunately, he has many family pictures and old clippings to illustrate his anecdotes and historical tidbits.  It’s a fascinating (if possibly biased) look at life in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s.  Mr. Bell is an accomplished writer, and his prose is excellent.

Note that this is not a comprehensive book about the highway itself; it primarily covers the Kingman area and how Route 66 affected Mr. Bell’s life.

At a suggested retail price of thirty dollars, this book is good value for money if you’re interested in Arizona or Bob Boze Bell.  Others might want to see if their library has it for borrowing, as it is a handsome volume.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to close without a reference to the famous song, so here it is:

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

The movie starts with chorus girls’ feet and legs kicking behind the title sequence.  Then the camera is pulled back and we discover that the “chorus girls” are all men.  The Zeta Fraternity of all-male Quinceton University are putting on a drag revue.

All-American Co-Ed

Matilda Collinge (Esther Dale) sees a description (but no pictures) in the paper and strongly disapproves.  As president of Mar Brynn Horticultural College, she would never allow such shenanigans on her all-female campus.   Still, enrollment has been falling off, and the college needs something to boost its profile.

Matilda’s publicist Hap Holden (Harry Langdon), a newspaperman, and her niece Virginia Collinge (Frances Langford) come up with an idea.  Rather than only admitting upper-crust girls, this year the college will offer scholarships to twelve young women from across the country who’ve won contests with their produce (who also look pretty.)

As an additional attention-grabber, these scholarship students will be referred to as “likely to succeed” in direct contrast to the loathsome oafs of Quinceton’s Zeta fraternity.  When this dig comes to the boys’ attention, they decide to dress up Bob Sheppard (Johnny Downs) as Flower Queen Bobbie DeWolfe and submit that picture.  Bobbie is chosen, so now Bob must go undercover as his alter ego, to seek revenge for the Mar Brynn slight.  Hilarity ensues.

This 1941 musical comedy has a disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual college life is purely coincidental.”  It’s from a time when “man in a dress” was considered comedy gold all by itself, and then adds some gags.  Let’s face it, Bobbie desperately trying to not be unmasked before “she” achieves her goal leads to some pleasant silliness.  I note that the disguise is helped by fashions of the day giving every young woman linebacker shoulders.

The first few songs are good, but the final agriculture-themed performance just drags on with labored rhymes.

Less good stuff:  There’s 1940s-style sexism, as Virginia declares, “Girls don’t want minds, Auntie, they want a husband!”  One comedic sequence turns on the stereotype of black people being superstitious and a little dim.  And sexual harassment is played for laughs, because it is just so hi-larious when a man is doing it to another man under the impression he’s a woman.

You may not want to watch this one with younger viewers in light of the last thing, or be prepared to remind them that in real life sexual harassment’s not funny.

This was nominated for two Oscars, so clearly has some merit, but it’s a specialty taste.

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and the final product (due out September 2014) will have some changes, including a full index.

Death of a King

This book covers the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, from April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968.  It focuses strongly on Dr. King’s state of mind and thoughts as the year progresses (based on his own words and the memories of his friends and family), with a few digressions to important past events.  As a way to make it feel more personal, the writers refer to him as “Doc,” the nickname his friends called him.

It was a tumultuous year, and not a high point in Dr. King’s life.  It opens with his speech coming out publicly against the Vietnam War, still a deeply unpopular position at the time.  He also worked to widen his civil rights focus to concentrate on the problem of systemic poverty, which cost him support among his followers who felt he should stick to racial issues.  In addition, he was being challenged by younger black leaders who favored the threat (and actual use if necessary) of violence to get their way.

According to this book, during this time Dr. King struggled with issues of depression, his marital infidelity, ill health and private moments when alcohol caused him to lose control of his temper.  But the dark night of the soul was not his only concern, and it talks of his preaching, of his willingness to reach out to his critics and enemies to learn their viewpoints, and of his desire to serve.

Towards the end of the book, it creates a refrain with the end of each chapter leading towards Memphis.  That city’s callous attitude towards its sanitation workers, which had led to the entirely preventable death of two of them, had become intolerable, and led to a strike.   Dr. King was there to elevate the strike into the national spotlight, and to help bring the city to the negotiating table.  But instead, he was assassinated.

This is by no means a complete biography, nor is it meant to be.  Younger readers, or those reading about Dr. King for the first time, will want to read a more general biography first.  That said, the book strongly evokes a particular time in American history, and an important figure in that history.  Snippets of favorite songs and Dr. King’s famous speeches set the tone.

The writing style is intimate, but easy to follow, and moves along quickly.

Recommended to those who want to know more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement.  Parents should be aware that due to its subject matter, some racist language is used in quotes.

Movie Review: Till the Clouds Roll By

Movie Review: Till the Clouds Roll By

This 1946 musical, filmed in glorious Technicolor, is loosely based on the life of songwriter Jerome Kern (Robert Walker).  It opens with the opening of Showboat, the famous Oscar Hammerstein play he wrote the music for.  After several numbers, we skip to the end of the performance.  Mr. Kern asks his chauffeur to take him to a certain neighborhood that has special meaning to him, and we go into a long flashback.

Till the Clouds Roll By

This turns out to be the beginning of his long relationship with music arranger James Hessler (Van Heflin) and his daughter Sally (Joan Wells/Lucille Bremer.  Mr. Hessler is tired of silly love songs and wanting to write a symphony, but Mr. Kern’s music convinces him to arrange again.

Things aren’t doing too well on Broadway, and Mr. Kern has to travel all the way to England, where he meets his future wife, before he can convince a producer to take a chance on an American songwriter.  After a near miss with the Lusitania, Kern and Hessler finally find success with a hit show.

As the years pass, Sally becomes convinced she wants to  be in show business, and Mr. Kern is able to swing her a plum spot in his latest production.  However, the producer of the show takes away Sally’s big number and gives it to established star Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland).  Sally has a fit and runs away to seek her own fortune, not even returning when her father dies.

Distraught after his friend’s death, Mr. Kern is unable to write until  he finally finds Sally singing in a club near the Mississippi, determined to succeed on her own merits.  Heartened, he is also inspired by the river to create the music heard in Showboat.   The flashback over, Mr. Kern worries that this is the natural end to his career.  The chauffeur assures him that it’s not, and drives him to the afterparty.

A quick montage of success later, the now elderly Kern is brought to Hollywood to do music for the movies, and is pleased to see that Sally is by complete coincidence the star of the one he’s working on.  The movie ends with a medley of Kern hits.

Like many musicals, the plot is a little thin, but there are some great musical numbers sung by such luminaries as Angela Lansbury, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra.  And it’s in color, which is always nice.

One interesting bit; the parts with Judy Garland were shot early, and with a different director, Vincente Minnelli, as she was pregnant at the time and they wanted to make sure she wouldn’t show.  Jerome Kern was still alive at this point and visited the set shortly before he passed.

Thankfully, there’s no overt sexism or racism in the movie, although the latter is in the metatext–Lena Horne’s number is carefully framed so that it could be removed by Southern theater owners without causing a noticeable gap, and there are two versions of “Old Man River”, one with a black performer (as part of Showboat) and then at the end with young Frank Sinatra in an all-white showcase.

The romance is kept nice and clean.  There’s some smoking and drinking–one scene takes place during Prohibition with the booze served literally under the table.

This film is in the public domain, so easily findable, and well worth it for the musical numbers alone.

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