Gangsters try to steal Robert Ryan's boxing future.
In film noir there are procedural cop movies. The Set-Up is a procedural boxing movie. It tries to take viewers behind the scenes of the violence, bloodlust, and money to focus on the nuts and bolts of the fight game. Starring Robert Ryan as an aging heavyweight and Audrey Totter as his fretful girlfriend, most of the first half of the film takes place in a claustrophobic locker room as boxer after boxer goes out for subsequent bouts of a six card program like gladiators in Rome's Coliseum. Ryan is the main event, and when his name is called the action shifts to the ring for his fight, which is shown in something close to real time.
Ryan is hoping a win over an up and coming young fighter will earn him one last shot at fortune and glory, but he has no idea the fix is in. Somebody should have told him, because if he wins the bout he'll be in heaps of trouble. This is a good flick. It was helmed by Robert Wise, has some fantastic directorial extravagances, and looks spectacular in general, like the gritty documentary photos of Arthur Weegee Fellig, which is no small feat for a film shot entirely on an RKO backlot (Weegee, incidentally, has a cameo as a timekeeper). In the realm of boxing movies The Set-Up stands toe to toe with most. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
She doesn't come with a cup holder but all her other features are top notch.
Above, a beautiful promo image of U.S. actress Susan Hayward made to publicize the 1952 RKO western The Lusty Men, about cowboys on the dangerous rodeo circuit, and their fretful wives. They have plenty of reason to fret, as the movie progresses. This image appeared in a Japanese magazine called Roadshow much later than the 1952 film, around 1972. You can see a previous image of Hayward here.
Anselmo Ballester helped set the artistic standard in the competitive world of Italian movie illustrators.
Anselmo Ballester is yet another virtuoso poster artist from Italy, where cinema promos were taken perhaps more seriously as art pieces than anyplace in the world. We've documented many of these Italian geniuses, including Mafé, Luigi Martinati, Sandro Symeoni, Mario de Berardinis, and others. Ballester, born in 1897, predated nearly all of his colleagues (only Martinati was born earlier) and enjoyed a fifty year career working for studios such as Cosmopolis, Titanus, Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO Radio Pictures. He also worked in commercial and political advertising. For the titles of the above works just check the keywords below. They're in top-to-bottom order in Italian and English.
Glenn Ford meddles in the governance of a sovereign nation. Why? Because he can.
Do you think RKO Pictures actually went to Honduras to film Appointment in Honduras? Of course not. The movie, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1953, was mostly filmed at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Too bad. We were looking forward to seeing what Honduras looked like before it became the disaster we personally know so well, a place of perpetual instability that at times has owned the highest murder rate in the world. We used to go there often, and we were there during one of its periodic political upheavals. Airports closed, bus companies shut, smoke and chaos filled the streets. We were stuck there for a week, but it wasn't all bad. We left San Pedro Sula, drove to the coast, then hopped a ferry—still operating thankfully—to Roatán. If you have to be trapped in a paralyzed country, choose one of its islands. Ah... memories.
Was all of the above a digression? Well, let's come back to it. In Appointment in Honduras Glenn Ford plays a shady character trying to make his way upcountry for reasons unknown. He enlists the aid of a quartet of killers, and kidnaps a married couple to use as hostages. He shoots a few people, and shows no remorse when his henchmen do the same. Yet he's the good guy in this. Eventually we learn that he's bringing money into the country to give to counter-revolutionaries intent on restoring a deposed president to power. There's no discussion of whether he has the right to do this, nor does he have a plan to deal with the chaos that might result from causing widespread violence. He seems to think everything will work out fine, and he can go back to his ranch when all is done. Sound familiar?
Thus we come full circle to our intro, not a digression at all, but a description of the real world result of the type of mercenary entitlement depicted by the movie. Director Jacques Tourneur, who had done so much better with previous efforts like Out of the Past and Cat People, is way too good for this flat adventure tale. Ford is fine, as always, but Ann Sheridan—one of our favorite golden actresses—is just lost, stuck in a character whose motivations are never believable, or for that matter palatable. But even though Appointment in Honduras isn't a good movie, it's an excellent example of mild mid-century cultural propaganda, with its icy disregard for the lives and desires of dark foreigners. Emotions stripped bare, is what the poster proclaims. Motivations stripped bare might be more accurate.
This is loaded, so answer this next question carefully. Who's the star of this movie?
Jean Arthur, née Gladys Georgianna Greene poses for a promo photo made when she was filming the romantic comedy A Lady Takes a Chance with John Wayne. Arthur was a very big star who began in silent cinema, made the transition to talkies, and reached the height of her fame in her mid-thirties. She was billed above Wayne for Lady, and he was a huge star himself. Some of Arthur's other efforts include Shane and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The photo above dates from 1943, and A Lady Takes a Chance premiered in the U.S. today that same year.
Mexico may be vast, but it’s never big enough to avoid what you’re running from.
With a poster this amazing you’d expect a pretty good movie. It promotes the Japanese run of the thriller Second Chance, which opened there today in 1953 after premiering in the U.S. in July. The film is near impossible to find, but we already possessed a downloaded copy from years back because we long ago sought out all Robert Mitchum’s work due to his utter coolness. Second Chance has not only Mitchum, but the always excellent Linda Darnell, exteriors shot in the Mexican towns of Cuernavaca and Taxco, color film stock (which lost its vividness in the intervening decades), and a 3-D process (of course not replicated for the home viewer).
So, is it any good? Well, when technical innovations arrive in Hollywood, filmmakers often use them as gimmicks, with diminished regard for story flow and physical logic. You see the same phenomenon today with CGI. Because this was RKO Radio Pictures’ first 3-D movie, and it was in Technicolor, many scenes take advantage of those aspects, but fail to build characterization or advance the plot. So there you go. But the locations in hilly Taxco look great, the musical interludes are grandly staged, and it all climaxes with an extended cable car set piece where down-on-his-luck prizefighter Mitchum gets a chance at redemption by taking on hitman Jack Palance. We’ve seen better. But we’ve seen far worse.
She debuted in a film about sailing but her career never got out of the harbor.
Alice Moore was the niece of Mary Pickford, and in this lovely image she’s (we’re informed by the labeling on the back of the photo) wearing a trendy paper hat in French blue with a wildflower wreath. She was appearing in a bit role in the 1934 RKO Radio Pictures musical comedy Down to Their Last Yacht, which was her first movie role. We‘d never heard of this hilariously titled film but we would love to see it. Apparently, it’s about a rich family driven by financial misfortune to living on their yacht, and then—poor babies—renting it out to nouveaux riches for excursions. During one of these jaunts they’re marooned on a tropical island and all sorts of craziness and native dance numbers ensue. Anyway, despite Moore’s famous pedigree, she appeared in only a handful of films, and received credit in only two. Which goes to show that even connections and beauty aren’t guarantees of success in Hollywood. Moore died in 1960 at the age of forty-four.
RKO crime drama overcomes its humble budget to create a bit of magic.
This poster for the RKO crime drama Bunco Squad drew our attention because of the creepy, white-eyed woman at its center. We assumed she represented a phony psychic, and indeed, after an introductory overview of the various types of con artists that prey on the gullible public, the plot settles around a Los Angeles detective’s efforts to take down a ring of fake spiritualists. These spiritualists plan to entice a rich widow to add their organization, the Rama Society, to her last will and testament, after which they’ll arrange her death. There’s a love story here as well, between the detective and his actress girlfriend, and that thread is woven neatly into the crime plot when the detective gets the idea to have her pose as a spiritualist competing for the trust of the rich widow. All of that leads to a pretty cool scene in which one of the villains drops by to threaten the girlfriend, but instead finds himself in a dark room brawling with the detective and his partner, who are dressed in black head-to-toe sheaths that render them effectively invisible. The villain tries the old windmill-with-outstretched-fists technique, but gets his ass tossed out the door anyway, to the great amusement of the onlooking girlfriend. With car chases, fights, gunplay, humor, an interesting set of villains, a cameo by Dante the Magician, and good looks at a lot of gigantic 1950s-vintage autos, we’ll go ahead and call Bunco Squad a winner. It’s cheesy, moralistic, and over-earnest, but if you like old movies in general, you’ll probably enjoy it. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1950.
Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games.
For fans of pulp, Anita Ekberg’s adventure Back from Eternity might be a must see—or at least a good laugh. When stormy weather forces a plane to crash land in the South American jungle, the passengers must survive the conditions, themselves, and angry Jivaro indians who want to make them into a post-flight meal. This is actually director John Farrow’s remake of his earlier film, the plot-spoilingly titled Five Came Back. But even without the earlier title, it's quickly clear that not everyone will get out of this jungle alive, and that who does depends mostly on Rod Steiger, whose character is a criminal on his way to be executed. Try to find this film if you can. It was made on the cheap by RKO, and the airplane footage is hilarious because it’s a plastic model, but you get Ekberg in a wet catfight with Phyllis Kirk, and that alone makes it worth watching, right? Back from Eternity premiered in the U.S. today in 1957. Check the trailer here.
Your big debut, like a dream come true.
The famous Hollywood sign hovers over Los Angeles like a heat mirage, its white lettering visible all the way from the west side on a clear day. And like a mirage, it seems closer than it really is. Success can be that way too—tantalizingly near, yet never within reach. Maybe that’s what Peg Entwistle was thinking when she climbed a workman’s ladder to the top of the letter H in the big sign, and cast herself into oblivion.
Entwistle, who you see above in an early publicity shot, was desperate to be a movie star. She’d acted on stage in New York and done well, but the bright lights of Hollywood beckoned. She plied the L.A. party circuit, met a few big shots, and scored a one-picture deal with the prestigious studio RKO. They cast her in Thirteen Women with Irene Dunn and Myrna Loy, who were both stars. The movie premiered September 16, 1932, and the critics yawned. Two nights later a heartbroken Entwistle scaled the big sign—which back then read Hollywoodland after the hillside subdivision it had been erected to promote.
The H was fifty feet tall and Entwistle wasn’t fooling around. She dove headfirst into the ravine below, the impact killing her instantly. She lay there for two days until cops finally got an anonymous tip about a body in the brush. Entwistle was designated Jane Doe at the morgue, but had left behind a suicide note signed with her initials. So the police went to the press for help. Entwistle’s uncle read the resulting story, saw the initials, and realized his niece Peg might be the body in question. She’d been missing for two days. He contacted the police and was brought in to identify the body.
Entwistle’s suicide note was short and to the point: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Her funeral was held in Hollywood, and her body was cremated, but she would never be forgotten. She remains a symbol of broken dreams, and a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of show business. That was today, in 1932. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1971—Mariner Orbits Mars
The NASA space probe Mariner 9 becomes the first spacecraft to orbit another planet successfully when it begins circling Mars. Among the images it transmits back to Earth are photos of Olympus Mons, a volcano three times taller than Mount Everest and so wide at its base that, due to curvature of the planet, its peak would be below the horizon to a person standing on its outer slope.
1912—Missing Explorer Robert Scott Found
British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his men are found frozen to death on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, where they had been pinned down and immobilized by bad weather, hunger and fatigue. Scott's expedition, known as the Terra Nova expedition, had attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole only to be devastated upon finding that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by five weeks. Scott wrote in his diary: "The worst has happened. All the day dreams must go. Great God! This is an awful place."
1933—Nessie Spotted for First Time
Hugh Gray takes the first known photos of the Loch Ness Monster while walking back from church along the shore of the Loch near the town of Foyers. Only one photo came out, but of all the images of the monster, this one is considered the most authentic.
1969—My Lai Massacre Revealed
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh breaks the story of the My Lai massacre, which had occurred in Vietnam more than a year-and-a-half earlier but been covered up by military officials. That day, U.S. soldiers killed between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians, including women, the elderly, and infants. The event devastated America's image internationally and galvanized the U.S. anti-war effort. For Hersh's efforts he received a Pulitzer Prize.
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