Monday, August 31, 2015

Old Movie Review - "Grand Hotel" (1932)

I recently watched "Grand Hotel" - it was not the first time I had seen it, but the topic of this one came up on a couple of Facebook movie sites recently, so I wanted to see it again.

"Grand Hotel" is generally considered one of the best movies that "old"  Hollywood ever made, and it is certainly an important one in the sense that it was the first of its kind.  When MGM decided to make this movie, it pulled together five of the biggest stars of the day, Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery, stars used to top billing and being the star of any vehicle in which they appeared, and put them together in the SAME MOVIE.  Unheard of at the time.  

The story consisted of several interlocking plot lines that took place over a two day period at The Grand Hotel, the poshest hotel in Berlin during the period between the world wars.  Again, this is a plot device that one sees frequently in movies today, but it was something new and different in 1932.

The whole deal worked, because "Grand Hotel" was a huge hit, and it won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1932.  Curiously, though, it was not nominated in a single other category for an Oscar that year, not for acting, directing, or writing, or any technical category.  This has never happened with the Academy Awards, before or since.

The plot lines:

  • A prima ballerina, Garbo, faces a career and a life crisis.
  • A phony "Baron", John Barrymore, is really a thief looking for a score.
  • A dying clerk, Lionel Barrymore, wants to blow everything he has by spending his last days in the luxury of the Grand Hotel.
  • A blustering businessman, Beery, has to consummate a big business deal or face ruin.
  • A young and ambitious stenographer, Crawford, is hired by Beery, and is then faced with some decisions of her own.
In other words, it's a soap opera, albeit a high class one, and to appreciate it, I suppose that you have to look at it through the lens of the audiences of 1932.  I looked up some reviews and critiques of "Grand Hotel" and while everyone recognizes the significance of "Grand Hotel" in film history, many acknowledge that it is overwrought at times and dated in many aspects.  Parts of the movie are terrific: the opening with the lead characters talking in separate phone calls that gives you the set-up for the plot lines, the images of banks of telephone operaters, and the shots from high up down into the lobby of the hotel are terrific. 

As far as the acting goes, Crawford was probably the best of the five leads.  The Barrymore brothers were quite good, although many critics acknowledge that John's performance was pretty hammy.  Beery pretty much chewed scenery throughout.  And as for Garbo, here is where I will commit heresy.  She did nothing for me.  Beautiful, yes, but as an actress, she was, well, not so hot.  I know that Garbo was and remains a Legend, but if you go by her performance in "Grand Hotel", I am here to say that the Emperor, or in this case, the Empress, has no clothes.  To that, statement, though, I make the following disclaimers:  One, this is the only movie in which I have ever seen Garbo, so I realize I shouldn't make a blanket statement like that, and, two, almost every review or write-up you find about this movie acknowledges that Garbo was terribly miscast in this role.

So, there you go...."Grand Hotel".  If you are a real fan of classic movies, I suppose it's one that you have to see, but unlike, say, "Casablanca" or "The Godfather", it's not one that I will stop on and watch to its conclusion if I should stumble across it when flipping throughout the TV channels.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Movies in the 1970's

In a recent posting on Facebook (never mind the context), my old friend Bill Tarrant made the comment that "the 1970's was a great decade for movies."

Hmmm.  I had never really thought about it, but decided to see whether or not I agreed with him on this point.  Being basically lazy, I didn't want to spend a LOT of time researching this hypothesis, so I decided that I would use a fairly small sample size that was, theoretically at least, on the high end of the quality scale, and that sample would be the fifty movies that were nominated for Best Picture of the Year throughout that decade, and I can tell you this, the Oscar winning movies in those years represent a damn good list of quality movies.  The Best Picture winners from 1970 through 1979 were as follows, in order:

Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer

Pretty good list, I'd say.  In fact, using the Bob Sproule standard of  "Is This A Movie That I Will Watch Time and Again As the Years, Go By?" at least five of these movies fall into that category, and I'll leave you to figure out which five from that list I would choose.  (If you know me fairly well, you can probably guess.)

Here are the others nominated for Best Picture from those years with appropriate commentary.  If there are no comments, it is most likely due to the fact that I didn't see it.


"Airport" - Yes, Tim Baker, this actually was nominated for Best Picture in 1970.  The Academy was obviously "goin' for broke".
"Five Easy Pieces" - I tried watching this a few years ago and couldn't get through it.  Only the "diner scene" was worth it.
"Love Story" - Seriously, Best Picture of the Year.  C'MON MAN!
"M*A*S*H" - Great movie.  Maybe it should have won instead of Patton.


"A Clockwork Orange"
"Fiddler on the Roof"
"Last Picture Show" - Watched this a few years ago and was amazed how well it has held up over the years.  Inspired a major crush for me on Cybil Shepard that exists to this day.
"Nicholas & Alexandra"


"The Emigrants"

In retrospect, NONE of these movies had a snowball's chance against "The Godfather"!


"American Graffiti" - Absolutely terrific movie.
"Cries and Whispers"
"The Exorcist" - Scared the hell out of you when you saw it.  So much so, that I don't believe that I have ever watched it a second time.  Good movie, though.
"A Touch of Class"


"Chinatown" - Good movie that would probably have won were it not for Godfather Part II.
"The Conversation"
"The Towering Inferno" - Second disaster movie in the decade nominated for Best Picture. Again, C'MON MAN!


"Barry Lyndon" - I seem to recall that this movie got panned when it came out, yet here it is.  I never saw it.  Has anyone?  It may have killed Ryan O'Neal's career.
"Dog Day Afternoon" - Terrific movie.
"Jaws" - Great movie that redefined how Hollywood does business, and a movie that STILL packs a whallop, no matter how many times you've seen it.  "Cuckoo's Nest" was good, but, really, don't you think that "Jaws" should have won that year?


"All the President's Men" - Should have won Best Picture over Rocky.  Great, great movie.
"Bound for Glory"
"Network" - Another really good movie that is amazingly relevant to this day.
"Taxi Driver" - Iconic Scorsese and DeNiro.  "You talkin' to me?"


"The Good-Bye Girl" -  Comedies almost never win Oscars (although "Annie Hall" was the winner this year), but Richard Dreyfuss was Best Actor for this one.  It's classic Neil Simon and how can you go wrong with that?
"Star Wars" - Okay, this was the first in the Canon, and the only one of these that I have seen. Not my cup of tea, but it inspired a legacy that is STILL running and shows no sign of stopping, but "Annie Hall" is still a better movie.  Bazinga!
"The Turning Point"


"Heaven Can Wait"
"Midnight Express"
"An Unmarried Woman"
"Coming Home" - Oscars for Voight and Fonda.  Personally, I thought this was better than the ultimate winner, "The Deer Hunter".


"All That Jazz"
"Apocalypse Now"
"Breaking Away"
"Norma Rae"

All in all, the 1979 movies don't do a lot for me.  I was obviously busy that year settling into a new job and following the Pirates to a World Series victory.

So there you are.  Some really good flicks among those fifty, and some head scratchers, too.  Obviously, there were no doubt many, many other movies from the Seventies that would have contributed to this being a "great decade for movies", and someday I may have the ambition to actually dig into it.  

Thank you, Bill Tarrant, for being the inspiration for this post.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The "Disaster Series" Novels of Max Allan Collins

Back in May, 2013, I wrote about having just read a novel called "The Titanic Murders" by Max Allan Collins.

I mentioned in that post that this was first in a series of novels, what he termed the "Disaster Series", by Collins, an author that I have written about many times on this blog.  In the post linked above, I mentioned that I would like to read all of these novels, and on my recent vacation, I accomplished that fact by reading This book,

the last of the six that I had not read.

To summarize, here are the six novels in question:

The Titanic Murders (1999) (Jacques Futrelle)
The Hindenburg Murders (2000) (Leslie Charteris)
The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001) (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
The Lusitania Murders (2002) (S.S. Van Dine)
The London Blitz Murders (2004) (Agatha Christie)
The War of the Worlds Murders (2005) (Orson Welles)

The hook or gimmick to each book is that Collins uses a real life person, usually a mystery writer, or, in the case of Welles, a writer/actor/director, as the main character in the book who ends up as the investigator of the murders that have been committed.  I have listed each of them above.  There is a thread of truth in each story.  For example, Futrelle really was a passenger on the Titanic (he did not survive), Christie did work as a nurse's aide during the Blitz, and Charteris and Van Dine did travel aboard the Hindenburg and Lusitania, respectively, although not on the final voyages of those vessels.

These books are great entertainments and I highly recommend them to anyone who likes a old mystery yarn.  You will be impressed with the extensive research that Collins and his team does to put these books together.  For example, an entire chapter is devoted to the less-than-sixty seconds it took for the Hindenburg to burn up and it is compelling. Did you know that there were survivors of the Hindenburg explosion?  I didn't.  And Collins uses a device of several different families listening to Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast simultaneously and their differing reactions to it. Terrific writing.

In each novel, Collins adds a Where Are They Now-type of final chapter or Afterword that makes you wonder "By God, just how much of this story is fact, and how much is fiction?

Really, really good stuff.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Old Movie Review - "Separate Tables" (1958)

Last month I set my DVR to Turner Classic Movies showing of the 1958 drama, "Separate Tables", mainly due to the fact that this movie took down two acting Oscars, David Niven for Best Actor and Wendy Hiller for Best Supporting Actress, and I finally got around to watching it yesterday.

The story takes place in a second rate seaside hotel/boarding house, run by Hiller, and it centers around the goings on of the characters who are residing there.  Niven plays a retired British Army officer, who is soon exposed as a somewhat unsavory person whose foibles are soon exposed, much to the chagrin of Deborah Kerr, the mousey spinster who pines for him but who is heavily influenced by her domineering mother.  The other story line involves an American ne'er do well played by Burt Lancaster, who is engaged to Hiller, but whose life gets complicated when his glamorous ex-wife, played by Rita Hayworth, suddenly shows up at the hotel.

Sound soap-opera-ish to you?  Well, yeah, it sort of is, but the movie (and the play upon which it is based) does address several issues of a sexual nature that must have seemed fairly shocking at the time of its release, and any movie with two Oscar winners in it, plus the always terrific Lancaster, is well worth watching.  In addition to the two acting awards, "Separate Tables" was nominated for five other Oscars, including Best Picture (it lost out to "Gigi").

David Niven was really quite good in it as the stiff-upper-lipped Brit, and he should really be proud of that Oscar win because here were the other nominees of 1958 whom he beat out for the Academy Award - Spencer Tracy, "Old Man and the Sea", Paul Newman, "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof", and Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, both in "The Defiant Ones".  That is a list of Hollywood royalty right there.

As is usually he case, TCM host Robert Osbourne had the following interesting "inside" dope about this movie.  The play by Terrence Rattigan upon which it is based was actually two one act plays that centered on the two story lines, the one with Niven and Kerr and the one with Lancaster and Hayworth.  When performed on stage, two actors played both parts in the separate acts of the play.  The studio wanted to do the same thing with the movie using then husband and wife team of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in the roles.  However, one of producers of the movie was none other than Burt Lancaster, and he wanted the role he eventually played.  When push came to shove, the Oliviers were out, and Niven, Kerr, Lancaster, and Hayworth were in.  The rest, as they say, is history.

To Absent Friends - Melody Patterson

Melody Patterson

Fans of the mid-1960's classic sitcom "F Troop" are saddened today with the news that Melody Patterson died yesterday at the way-too-young age of 66.

"F Troop" centered around the US Cavalry misfits at Fort Courage, located Somewhere in the Indian Territories of post-Civil War America. The main characters were the conniving Sgt. O'Rourke, played by Forrest Tucker and his sidekick Cpl. Agarn (for my money, one of the half dozen or so best sitcom characters ever) played by Larry Storch, who operated their money making schemes under the nose of the inept Capt. Parmenter.  The town general store was run by the lovely Jane Angelica Thrift, better known an Wrangler Jane, who was played by Miss Patterson.  Wrangler's romantic pursuit of the unaware Wilton Parmenter was one of the ongoing bits of the show, which lasted for two seasons.

One of the great show biz stories is that Miss Patterson lied about her age when auditioning for the part of Wrangler Jane, claiming that she was nineteen years old when in fact she was only sixteen years old when she secured the role.  By the time the producers found out her actual age, it was too late to make any casting change because Patterson and the Wrangler character had clicked with the television audience.

"F Troop" was cancelled after a two year run, and Patterson went on to marry actor James MacArthur of "Hawaii Five-0" fame.  She went on to a career of bit parts in movies, TV shows (including a couple of Hawaii Five-0 episodes with her husband), stage work, and commercials, but, as often happens with the stars of "classic television" shows, she spent much of her later years making appearances at conventions with her "F Troop" co-stars.

If you are fortunate enough to own the DVD sets of the complete seasons of "F Troop", as I am, this might be a good occasion to pull them out, visit the Fort Courage Saloon, and toast one of O'Rourke Enterprises watered down beers to the memory of Wrangler Jane.

RIP Melody Patterson.

To Absent Friends - Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford (#16)

The news of the passing of Frank Gifford one week shy of his 85th birthday arrived while I was on vacation last week, so I was unable to write about it at the time, but the impact the guy had on football and broadcasting is such that I cannot let it pass without commenting on it.  

In its story on Gifford's death Sports Illustrated said it best.  When Gifford came to the NFL and the New York Giants in 1952, baseball was the national pastime, and as far as football was concerned, the college game was far and away the most popular, with the Sunday afternoon pro games almost an afterthought.  Then Frank Gifford of USC, with his football talent and movie star good looks arrived in New York, and the Giants took off.  They won the NFL title in 1956  - Gifford was the NFL MVP that year - and played in the title game, including the 1958 overtime game with the Colts ("The Greatest Game Ever Played"), four more times during Gifford's career.  By the time he retired from football, the Giants owned New York City, pro football had surpassed the college game, and the NFL took over as the sports king pin in American culture and has never looked back.  Frank Gifford played no small part in that metamorphosis.  He was elected to the Pro football Hall of Fame in 1977.

Gifford then went on to a career in broadcasting, most notably a twenty-plus year stint as lead broadcaster on Monday Night Football.

I am sure that in my much younger days, I saw Frank Gifford play football for the Giants on television, and perhaps even in person against the Steelers at Pitt Stadium, but I have to be honest and say that I have no solid memories of him as a player.  Most people alive today and under the age of 60 or so know him only as a broadcaster, and, sadly, most people under the age of forty probably know him only as the the subject of the funny stories his wife Kathy Lee Gifford would tell about him on her morning television shows, and I am guessing that Gifford himself had no problem with that.

RIP Frank Gifford.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Pirate Chat Night 2015

Pirate Chat Night 2015, I believe, can be considered nothing less than a roaring success.

First off, fifty tickets were sold, and all time record.  As we know, life gets in the way of things sometimes, so while not all fifty folks were able to attend, we did get, by my unofficial count, 45 of the original intended attendees to show up on what turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous night.

The pre-game gathering at Dominic's was an absolute blast.  It gets better each year, and I am thinking that next year we should all just meet there for lunch and hang around all afternoon until game time.  What do you all think?

We all know what then happened.  The Pirates held an 8-3 lead over the Diamondbacks before turning the game over to the most reliable back end of the bullpen in baseball, only to see the D-backs score three in the eighth, and two in the ninth, which resulted in Mark Melancon's first blown save since April.  What then followed was six agonizing extra innings, wherein Arquemedes Caminero and Joe Blanton shutout Arizona, whose bullpen was doing the same thing to the Pirates' bats until the bottom of the 15th inning when a two out triple by the unlikeliest of all Pirates, Pedro Florimon (1-for-19 before that at bat) scored Francisco Cervelli all the way from first base.  Bedlam ensued:

The real magic of the night, though, was the fact that the game went fifteen innings.  With each extra frame, PNC Park became less and less crowed, including our own Pirate Chat group.  That, however, only increased the fun.  We were able to move around within our section and talk more freely among ourselves.  My pictures of the event weren't all that great this year, but these might give you an idea as to how we all began to look as the evening went on and on and on...

By my count, twenty of us made it through all the way to the end of the fifteen innings, and I would like to shout out and recognize those that did.  So I present to you The Fifteen Inning Honor Roll:

Cara Battistella
Craig Britcher
John Coley
Donny and Max Copper
Ryan Frankhouser
Jim Haller
Len Martin
Steve McGlynn
Bill Montrose
Mike Muro
Gary Reiche and his wife
Joe and Alex Risacher
Fred Shugars
Bob Sproule
Elena and Matt Szymanowski, and Matt's buddy, Joey

If I left anyone out, I apologize.

It was terrific night out and a fun time with a lot of great folks, and the Pirates won the game.  The team now sports a record of 3-0 on Pirate Chat Nights.

See you all next year, folks!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Another OBX Vacation in the Books!

For what the 31st consecutive summer, we vacationed on North Carolina's Outer Banks, specifically, Corolla in Currituck County.  What can I say?  The fact that we return again and again tells you that we find this to be a magical and special place, and the 2015 trip was no exception.

I won't bore you all with a lot of stories, but here a few thoughts, impressions, and photos from OBX 2015.

Traffic arriving on any given Saturday is never easy or fun, but for whatever reason, we encountered Traffic Armageddon this year.  I will never be able to convey the true horror of the gridlock we experienced, but suffice to say, it took us over five hours to travel the final 14 miles into Corolla on Saturday.  Never experienced anything like it, nothing even close to it.  It was not one of our finest hours over the years, that's for sure.  However, everything was great once we finally got there!

This is what flew over the beaches on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday:

You never want to see the beach red-flagged, but if you saw the nature of the rip tides those days, you didn't want to go in much over your knees anyway.  All was well for the remainder of the week, though.  Calm and temperate waters, nice waves.  No sharks.  None that we saw, anyway.

As you may know, on our night to make dinner, Marilyn and I always make it a theme night.  This year it was "Beach Party".

Saw some interesting cloud formations one afternoon:

Enjoyed some pool time after coming up from the beach each day:

And continue to be amazed as the "third generation" continues to grow up:

When we first started making these trips, these kids' parents were younger than they are now, and, come to think of it, they actually represent the FOURTH generation of the Moellenbrock family who have made these annual treks.

And in keeping with another tradition, Nathan, Marilyn and I walked up to the beach on our last night to say good-bye for another year.

See you next year, Outer Banks, but, really, we have to figure out something to mitigate that incoming traffic next time around.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

New Experience at PNC Park

I have been attending Pirates games at PNC Park for the entire fifteen years of the Park's existence, and I thought that I had pretty much experienced everything that the place had to offer.  Last night, though, I found out that I was wrong, because last night was our first experience here:

Yep, we sat in the "All You Can Eat" seats, a first for us.  I will explain about how that came about in a bit, but first, a word or two on the experience.  The All You Can Eat seats are in sections 201-205 down the right field line.  Very good seats, and, as the picture shows and the name implies, you get a wrist band and access to a concession area that pretty much allows one to go hog wild when it comes to stuffing yourself.  Between the two of us last night, Marilyn and I consumed (and I am not necessarily proud of this) 3 cheeseburgers, 1 hot dog, 1 order of nachos, 2 orders of peanuts, 2 boxes of popcorn, 2 ice cream sandwiches, and 6 soft drinks (beer is NOT available as an All You Can Eat item, although you don't need to go far to buy some).  We figured that if we were to make equivalent purchases and regular concession stands at PNC Park, which we would not do, we would have spent over a hundred bucks on food and drink alone.

The tickets cost $45, and I am guessing that an equivalent ticket for those sections would cost in the $20-$25 range.  So you pay a premium for all the "free" food, and I am sure that the Pirates are not losing money on this promotion, but, C'Mon Man, you should have seen what some of the OTHER people in our section were packing away.

No wonder we have an obesity problem in this country.

As to how we came about those tickets, our nephew George, his wife Claire, and their children, Lizzie and Andrew, were on a trip from their home in Socorro, New Mexico that covered State College, PA,  London, England, and Pittsburgh before returning to Socorro.  They wanted to see a Pirates game and wanted seats in the first row of the upper level, so George ordered the tickets, including the two for Marilyn and I, not knowing that he was getting in on the All You Can Eat bonanza.

So the real bonus was not all the grub, but being able to spend some time with these two and their parents at a major league baseball game.

Of course, unless you are a Cubs fan, that game last night (a 5-0 Cubs win) was an absolute bomb of a game.  Long, drawn out, boring, and an awful showing by the Buccos.  Andrew and Lizzie learned an important lesson early in life about sports: When you buy a ticket to a professional sporting event, you are probably going to be entertained, but there is no guarantee of it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ridin' the Rails

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in the Travel section of the Sunday Post-Gazette about the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad which makes a round trip run between Cumberland, MD and Frostburg, MD every day.  Neither one of us, believe it or not, had ever ridden on a train (the NYC subway and The T don't count), so we decided to make an overnight getaway.

We chose a Friday to make the trip because on Fridays the train is pulled by an authentic steam locomotive, so we thought that we just had to go for that.  Alas and alack, when the train pulled into the stain in Cumberland, this is what was leading the way.

Unfortunately, the steam locomotive had broken down early that morning, so we would be pulled by a diesel engine.  Disappointing, but what are you gonna do?  It was still a very fun trip to take as these pictures will attest, and it included a conductor on the train straight out of Central Casting.

 No, that's not Wilfred Brimley.  I asked.

Cumberland, Md, of course, played a key role in the history of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and I got a picture of me with a part of that history.

And we even enjoyed some live music in downtown Cumberland after dinner on Friday night, and yes, I was surprised to see that Mama Cass is still performing.  They were quite good.

I nice little overnight adventure for us.  A very fun trip.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review - "Disclaimer" by Renee Knight

My thanks to old pal, Fred Egler, for the recommendation of "Disclaimer", a thriller in the same vein as Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, and The Kind Worth Killing, all of which I have read and written about on this blog.

Catherine Ravenscroft is a successful documentary film maker who has just moved into a new home with her husband after their only son has moved out into his own apartment.  One night , Catherine starts reading a novel, she's not sure where the book actually came from, when she notices that the standard boilerplate of "any resemblance between the characters herein and any actual persons living or dead is strictly a coincidence" has been crossed out.  Then she gets a VERY uncomfortable feeling when she starts reading, because the book seems to be about her, and it is most unpleasant to her.

The story then proceeds to be told from the point of view of several different characters in addition to Catherine, and there are number of flashbacks to events that took place about twenty years prior to the present day.

I found the novel to be a bit confusing at first until I got the hang of who was telling the story at any given point in the book, and I got the timeline straight in my mind.   However, once I got over that hump, it was a pretty fast and exciting read.  As they literary snobs might put it, this is an "entertainment", and a darn good one.  Perfect for vacation time.

I was especially pleased with how it ended, in that I felt that each of the main characters got exactly what they deserved in this one.

On a scale of five stars, I give this one 3 and 1/2 stars.  Thanks, Fred!

An Invitation

I am asking all of my friends here in the Greater Pittsburgh area, at least, to please consider patronizing an art exhibit that will run from August 22 through September 18 at the Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley, PA.  The exhibit is entitled "A Journey Through Grief" and will consist of art work done by the Children and Teens who have attended sessions at the Highmark Caring Place in Warrendale.

I have seen many of the pieces that will be on display at this exhibit, and all I can tell you is that you will be amazed.  Marilyn and I will be there at the Opening Reception on August 22, and we hope that we will see many of you there as well.  If you can't make the opening, please try to find some time during the four weeks that the exhibit will be in place.

Full details are contained on the invitation below.  Thank you.