Jul 23, 2021

On Blu-ray: Elvis Sees Mid-Century Seattle in It Happened at the World's Fair (1963)

 


There’s not one memorable song in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), a dire condition for an Elvis musical, but there are pleasing elements to this film that never quite comes together. I recently revisited it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Elvis is Mike, a pilot who wants to start his own flying business. He and his copilot Danny (Gary Lockwood) hitch a ride with a fruit seller (Kam Tong) his niece Sue-Lin to Seattle to do business. There the World’s Fair is in full swing, but all Elvis cares about is nabbing an attractive nurse (Joan O'Brien) he meets in the fairground’s infirmary when he has Sue-Lin in his charge and she gets a stomachache from over eating. 

There is a plot of sorts, with aspects about courting women and stranger danger that haven't aged well,  and songs and romance that basically fizzle. The mid-century locations are the draw here. As a native Seattleite, it was an extra delight to see my hometown in the early sixties at the height of a defining event, but there is a more general appeal in getting a time capsule view of fair. 

As much as the city has changed over the years many elements of the fairgrounds remain the same from the Space Needle and the arches at the Pacific Science Center to the Mural Amphitheater and the monorail. What’s fun about the film are the vintage details in the midst of these enduring structures.

One of the movie’s bright spots is Vicky Tiu as Sue-Lin. She’s an adorable kid, with her two perfect braids, impeccable dress, and a straw hat decorated with a pair of cherries. Tiu is also a charming actor and much more appealing as a sidekick to Elvis than O’Brien is as a romantic partner. As good as she is this would be Tiu’s only film; she had bigger plans. She is now Vicky Cayetano, a respected civic leader in Hawaii, president and CEO of the successful United Laundry Services, and a former first lady of the state. 

The movie is also notable for featuring the first screen appearance of Kurt Russell, in his child actor years. He is in two scenes, and he kicks Elvis in the shin in both. Not a bad debut. 

The sole special feature on the disc is a theatrical trailer. 


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Jul 21, 2021

First Episode! Watching Classic Movies Podcast with Guest Christina Rice, Author of Mean...Moody… Magnificent: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend







The first episode of my new interview podcast Watching Classic Movies is now available!

To listen:

Anchor

Spotify

Update: now available on Pocketcasts

The show will be available in more places very soon.



This is one of five weekly episodes in my inaugural summer season. I loved chatting with my first guest, Christina Rice:

There’s more to the actress Jane Russell than those “two things” they announced in the ads for her films. Writer, librarian and archivist Christina Rice can tell you all about it. Her first biography, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel was a passion project. When her publisher suggested Russell as a follow up, she had to think about whether she wanted to write about this star about whom she knew so little. We are fortunate that she went for it, because her book Mean...Moody… Magnificent: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend is just as fascinating and addictive as her debut. We talked about her life, her career, and her must-see films.


You can learn more about Christina Rice at:

http://christinaricewrites.com/

Twitter:  @christinarice

http://janerussellbiography.com

 

Recommended movies discussed:

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Foxfire (1955)

The Tall Men (1955)

His Kind of Woman (1951)

Macao (1952)

Cauliflower Cupids (1970)

Fate is the Hunter (1964)

The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)

The Yellow Rose (TV) (1984)


Stay tuned for a fabulous new guest on Wednesday, 7/28!


Jul 16, 2021

Book Review--Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio

 


Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio 
Andrew A. Erish 
University Press of Kentucky, 2021 

Before I picked up Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, I’d seen a handful of its films, knew of some of its stars, and even vaguely recalled seeing the word “Vitagraph” in the opening credits of films a few times. I didn’t have the faintest idea of how important the studio was though and how many things it pioneered in the industry, like animated films, the essential visual language of film, and even the use of “studio” to describe where movies are made. 

J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith founded Vitagraph in 1897. When they set up shop, movies weren’t yet shown in theaters made for their exhibition, audiences didn’t know the stars of films by name, and the litigious Thomas Edison had the industry in a stranglehold because of his claims to film technology patents. 

The pair probably wouldn’t have stayed in business long if it weren’t for the grit and savvy of William T. “Pop” Rock, the man they hired to steer the company as president. Rock knew how to play the game, he’d even thought about going after Blackton and Smith before they joined forces. With his guidance, Vitagraph still had a rough ride, but was nevertheless able to become the most successful American film production company in the early years of cinema. 

Many of Vitagraph’s performers set the template for the industry: like John Bunny as the friendly, portly comedian, Maurice Costello as cinema's first matinee idol, Florence Turner, the beautiful "Vitagraph Girl" and Jean, the Vitagraph Dog, who preceded many a canine star. These stars were the first to learn what it was like to be adored, sometimes a little too much, by thousands of fans. They ignored the scorn of theater snobs and prospered as worldwide celebrities, though that success was not always enduring. 

Aside from facing frequent lawsuits and jockeying for power from Edison, Blackton and Smith fended off an attempted takeover from businessman Benjamin Hampton, and severe harassment from Paramount films founder Adolph Zukor. There are other factors that led to the eventual downfall of Vitagraph, but it would have thrived longer and been more creative and productive without these pressures. Indeed, it is amazing how long the company endured given all the aggression it faced. 

It’s a shame Vitagraph wasn’t allowed to thrive the way it could have, because if it had, it could have influenced the shaping of a whole industry. Aside from the loss of creativity and innovation, the way in which Blackton and Smith did business could have set a healthier standard for the studios to come. The pair was trustworthy, frequently made handshake agreements, and created a mutually supportive community which several employees referred to as a family atmosphere. This was a place where women in particular could find a more pleasant work environment than in the factories. While a larger salary could easily whisk a star away, everyone who worked with Vitagraph seems to have been happy and often at their most successful. 

While reading the book, I wondered how many of these intriguing films I was learning about I’d be able to find. It turns out that while thousands of Vitagraph films are believed to be lost, there are a few hundred known to still exist and many are easily accessible. This includes several of the titles Erish references. The Eye Filmmuseum YouTube channel and the Library of Congress website and YouTube channel both have several titles available to view for free, and some of them with remarkably good image quality. 

Of the Vitagraph films I’ve watched so far, I’ve been most impressed with the early animation Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), a fun early special effects flick called Princess Nicotine (1909), the moving interracial adoption drama Father and Son (1912), and the slightly ghoulish comedy The Thieving Hand (1908). 

This is a richly-detailed, well-researched, and much-needed history of an important aspect of film history. It deserves to endure as a valuable resource. 

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jul 14, 2021

Introducing My New Podcast: Watching Classic Movies

 


I'm delighted to announce that after years of reviewing podcasts here on the site, I will now be starting my own podcast Watching Classic Movies.

In this interview show I will be talking to all sorts of fascinating people who are knowledgeable about classic film. 

I'm starting with a 5-episode summer season. The first episode drops Wednesday, July 21. Stay tuned for more information about how to listen and what I've got cooking!

On Blu-ray: Costume Dramas Green Dolphin Street (1947) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

 


This pair of dramas newly on Blu-ray from Warner Archive features two vastly different, but equally wrenching explorations of the complications of love. In both cases the turmoil is set in grand locations with actors in lavish costumes. 

Green Dolphin Street (1947) 

Based on the novel by Anya Seton, this drama/disaster film stars Lana Turner and Donna Reed as sisters Marianne and Marguerite, who live with their parents in the Channel Islands in the 19th Century. They both fall for their neighbor William (Richard Hart) who happens to be the son of Dr. Edmond Ozanne (Frank Morgan) who their mother (Gladys Cooper) reluctantly gave up in her youth for a more wealthy and socially-connected husband (Edmund Gwenn). The poor but intriguing Timothy (Van Heflin) watches from the sidelines, in love with Marianne, but aware he can never have her. 

William falls for Marguerite and when he settles in New Zealand, where he connects with the now successful Timothy after a disastrous mishap in the Navy, he attempts to send for her, but in a drunken stupor writes Marianne’s name in his letter instead. This unlikely mistake forms the basis for considerable heartbreak. It’s the flimsiest anchor for the story and requires a certain level of belief for the film to work at all. 

That error is a weak link in an overlong production that never quite gels. The colonial perspective on the Maori people doesn’t help as seen through modern eyes. 

There’s a certain moody romanticism to it though, helped along by the sweeping theme song which would evolve to become the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is also magnificent; he especially knows how to light Turner to her best advantage. Add to that a nail-biting earthquake sequence and there’s enough to recommend this exploration of desire, loss, and finding satisfaction in unexpected ways. 

Special features on the disc include a radio production of Green Dolphin Street and a theatrical trailer.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) 

There’s a reliable cinematic grandeur to the costume flicks Warner Bros. produced in the classic age. The studio had the formula down: a brightly trumpeting score, glam costumes, settings that are just lavish enough, and a reliable cast of supporting characters. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex has all of that, and the sparkling print on the new Blu-ray elevates it further, but a weak connection between the leads keeps it from greatness. 

In order to succeed, this adaptation of the play Elizabeth the Queen needed chemistry between its queen and earl. While there are moments that Bette Davis (as Queen Elizabeth) and Errol Flynn (as the Earl of Essex) connect, their personal dislike of each other is too evident for them to truly sizzle. Instead of giving the union tension, the conflict makes them appear cold and distant. Davis had not enjoyed her experience starring with Flynn in The Sisters (1938) and she wanted Laurence Olivier to play his role, so it is clear that the contempt was much stronger on one side. 

Independently, Flynn gives a moody, thoughtful performance which feels unusually sincere. Davis is less effective. She can’t help but be grand and imminently appropriate in the role of a queen, but she relies too much on distracting physical ticks: a weaving head, twitching hands, to build her character. The supporting cast is solid in that cheerfully efficient Warner way, with Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell, and Henry Stephenson comfortably revisiting the period film milieu. Vincent Price and Nanette Fabray are also pleasing in roles that came early in their careers. 

Special features on the disc include a carry-over from previous DVD editions of the Leonard Maltin’s Warner Night at the Movies 1939, which includes a newsreel, the musical short The Royal Rodeo, the cartoon Old Glory and a theatrical trailer. There’s also the featurette, Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review.

Jul 9, 2021

On Blu-ray: Another Thin Man (1939) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

I love the way Myrna Loy was essentially typecast as “not bothered” throughout her career. I’m trying to think of a time she yelled or broke a sweat about anything. If it happened, it wasn’t often. She was cool. 

 This pair of Blu-rays, newly-released from Warner Archive, is peak chilled-out Myrna. The house is falling down, bullets are whizzing through the air, and Ms. Loy wrinkles her nose at it all. 

Another Thin Man (1939) 

I’ve always found the third edition of the Thin Man series the most sinister, because the Charles’ have a baby now and Nicky Jr. is always in danger. With all the gunfire, thugs, murderers, and even an attempted kidnapping, you just hope the kid makes it to adulthood. 

Nick and Nora’s interactions with the baby are fascinating. It’s pure fantasy to be delighted to wake up in the middle of the night to play with an awake, but mysteriously not fussy baby, but it’s cute to see their delight in this small person they’ve made. It’s essentially an extension of their take on marriage: why be so serious? Why not enjoy it all? Of course there’s also the always light allusion to their open marriage, but the suggestion is by necessity only a vapor, so that the easily outraged will miss it. 

Based on The Farewell Murder, this would be the last film in the series drawn from a Dashiell Hammett novel. The mystery unfolds at a lavish Long Island estate, where a wealthy colonel (C. Aubrey Smith) is under threat from a mysterious enemy. Chaos, arson, and murder ensue. 

The cast is the typical bizarre grab bag that always seems to populate the series. It is unusual to see Marjorie Main, Otto Krueger, Tom Neal, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey, Abner Biebermen, and Shemp Howard all in the same production, but not so unusual in this world. The latter makes an appearance in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable scene: a birthday party for Nicky Jr. full of low-level criminals who have plenty of enthusiasm, but no idea what to do with a baby. 

For no apparent reason but the delight of it, the Afro-Cuban dance team RenĂ© and Estela does a beautifully fluid dance number in a nightclub scene; a setting similar to the Havana-Madrid Club in New York where they performed at the time. 

Special features on the disc include the musical short Love on Tap, the cartoon The Bookworm, and a theatrical trailer.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) 

A harrowing story based on the equally harrowing novel by Eric Hodgins, somehow this tale of a New York couple sinking money into a disastrous home construction works as a comedy. 

It’s a shame that Myrna Loy and Cary Grant never made another film together. They have a similar light comedic style tinged with a sly recognition of the myriad disasters of life. I could see them succeeding together with edgier material, but watching them navigate their money pit while Loy’s ex-boyfriend (Melvyn Douglas) lingers flirtatiously in the background is entertainment enough. It isn’t as sparkling a partnership as Loy and Powell, but they are easy together, with that slight bit of friction necessary for spice. 

As the couple’s daughters, Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall are refreshingly lacking in cutesy behavior. Instead they are clever, analytical observers of their parent’s folly. Louise Beavers is equally charismatic in what should be a thankless role as the family maid, but she’s always fun to watch. 

Special features on the disc include two radio productions of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the cartoon The House of Tomorrow, and a re-issue trailer.


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review.

Jul 7, 2021

On Blu-ray MOD: Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in Children of Divorce (1927)

 


Clara Bow had a knack for communicating her emotions so clearly that you can't help feeling them along with her. If she grieves, you grieve.


While Bow is rightfully beloved for the way she embodied the youthful energy of the jazz age, she was even better when a moment required deeper emotion. Children of Divorce (1927) is a showcase for Bow’s considerable and considerably underappreciated dramatic skills. I recently marveled again at her performance via a new Blu-ray-MOD release from Flicker Alley.


It’s a shame that Paramount production head B.P. Schulberg refused to give Bow better roles, because if he had she probably would have been better remembered for the full breadth of her talents. As it is, she got unimaginative scripts like Children of Divorce, which is essentially a tale of wealthy people making each other miserable because they won’t fight for love.


The film works though and that is primarily due to its stars. As childhood friends who grow up into messy romantic entanglements, Bow, Gary Cooper, and Esther Ralston are deeply appealing. In the case of the latter two, that has more to do with the simple pleasure of watching them in action, but when it comes to this appealing duo, that is more than enough.


On the other hand, Bow has everything: beauty, charisma, and the deepest feeling for tragedy. It is well known among silent film fans that the actress only needed a little mournful music on the set to bring up real tears for her scenes, which came easily when she remembered her painful childhood. Those glistening eyes project pain in a visceral way, as does the subtle flicker of emotions across her face.


Clara Bow’s instinctive, raw performance style gives Children of Divorce a weight it could not otherwise have. Josef von Sternberg was hired to film additional scenes when original director Frank Lloyd’s footage was deemed unsatisfactory and he marveled at Bow, later sharing his disbelief that Schulberg didn’t make the most of her remarkable talent.


Ultimately, her skill could not be obscured. Even in this uninspiring story, she is heart-rending and elicits full empathy from the viewer. Who else could get away with moistening the flap of an envelope with her own tears? It sounds silly. She makes it devastating.


Special features on the disc include the documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl (1999), which is a carry-over from the label’s 2016 DVD/Blu-ray release of the film. There’s also an image gallery with an interesting variety of photographs and promotional images related to the production.

 

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.