Sep 28, 2022

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up

I meandered a lot in my podcast listening this month. There was my mini deep dive in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a dip into an old episode of a regrettably dormant show, and a conversation about a new film that documents the cinematic past. All episode title link to the show: 

Lions, Towers, and Shields 
September 22, 2022 

This is a great discussion about William Wyler’s World War II-era classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), particularly because it goes into how this is still one of the best, if not the best movies about veteran’s experiencing post-conflict PTSD. One of the strengths of the panel host Shelly Brisbin assembles for each show is that she always has guests with a wide array of expertise in classic film, from expert to newbie and it makes for a more well-rounded conversation.


Writers on Film 
June 30, 2022 

I craved more conversation about The Best Years of Our Lives after listening to the previous podcast and found this episode with author Alison Macor a satisfying follow-up. She has written a production history of the film and writing the book has given her a deep perspective on the making of the film and the elements that make it more relevant today than other war-related films of the time.

The Brattle Film Podcast 
September 6, 2022 

Like the hosts in this episode, I have my issues with the way Mark Cousins presented his extensive documentary series The Story of Film (I was also relieved when he chose not to narrate his documentary about women in film), but nevertheless I’m excited that he has completed an update to the series. As a classic film fan, it’s satisfying to see where cinema has gone because I enjoy examining the roots of that in the movies of the past.


Personology 
March 22, 2021 

This was a fascinating history of Howard Hughes which touched on his accomplishments, including in Hollywood, bravery, and the way mental illness made his life exceedingly traumatic.

Sep 14, 2022

On Blu-ray: Flicker Alley Release The Silent Enemy (1930) Reveals a Long Lost Gem


 

The Silent Enemy (1930) is both a cultural curiosity and a deeply entertaining film. Made on location in the Canadian Northwest by director H.P. Carver, and starring a troop of naturally gifted indigenous actors, it gives a glimpse of how fascinating a truly diverse movie industry could have been throughout the years. 

I recently enjoyed the film on its debut Blu-ray release from Flicker Alley. The liner notes for the disc, excerpted from film historian Kevin Brownlow’s The War, The West and The Wilderness are essential to understanding this film that evokes the documentary feel of Nanook of the North (1922). The historian was instrumental in the revival and restoration of the film after producer W. Douglas Burden brought it to his attention, essentially saving it from obscurity. 

While Paramount had granted the contract for the film and studio personnel like Jesse Lasky felt it was well made, it was also a silent when talkies were taking over the industry and thrown into block booking packages instead of given much-needed special exhibition. Thus it never got the attention it deserved, which makes this release welcome and a bit of a miracle. 

It’s the story of the Ojibway tribe in the years before settlers arrived. For this group of hunters and gatherers, hunger is a constant threat. Various factions in the group battle for dominance as they are threatened by famine. There’s plenty of drama among these tribe members, but egos and desires ultimately take a backseat to the ever pressing need to ensure their survival. 

While the intertitles in silent films don’t usually stand out to me except for the odd entertaining line, I was impressed with the powerful and poetic prose here. Prefacing scenes with phrases about “dogs savage with hunger” and a wildcat that is “the killer of the forest, nine feet from tip to tip” gave the story an extra edge and sense of tension. 

I also loved the striking simplicity of the way the ceremonial scenes were filmed. The actors are situated in the center of the frame, which gives them an added sense of power and grounding in their most spiritual moments. The focus is on the people in the pageantry, while the edges of the frame fade into darkness. 

Having recently seen Prey (2022) I was fascinated by the commonalities between the two films. Both stories are entertaining and suspenseful in the way they feature indigenous actors demonstrating their survival skills. While they are dramatically different stories, they share a lot in spirit because of the charisma, drive and ability of their performers, not to mention their great chemistry. It made me think about the decades between the films, how many different kinds of stories could have been told of these people and how that could have dramatically altered our perspective of each other. 

For that reason The Silent Enemy can be forgiven for its magical native framing and the other ways it misses fully appreciating and understanding its subjects. Overall it succeeds, finding the humanity, interest, and excitement in telling the stories of the people who first lived in territories which challenged them, but in which they ultimately succeeded. 

There are two soundtrack accompaniments on the disc: I found both to be enjoyable, but the score was especially impactful, with a bold, timeless composed by Siegfried Friedrich feel that suited the story well. Other special features include an image gallery with pictures from promotional materials and the production and a fascinating audio interview with the film’s producer W. Douglas Burden, conducted by film historian Kevin Brownlow, in which he shares what an adventure it was making The Silent Enemy


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

Sep 7, 2022

On Blu-ray: Paul Newman Directs Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel (1968)


 

Rachel, Rachel (1968) was Paul Newman’s directorial debut and a gift to his wife (he also produced). In the years since her Oscar win for The Three Faces of Eve (1957), he had gone full speed ahead with his career, while she had devoted much of her time to raising their three daughters, working in some capacity, but too guilt-ridden about going on location as her husband did. As an offering and a career boost, the film was a boon for Woodward and Newman. I recently watched it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

Based on the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence, with a script Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern, it is the story of small-town Connecticut schoolteacher Rachel (Woodward) who lives with her controlling, if loving mother. The action begins as Rachel realizes she’s hit the midpoint of her life feeling lonely and uninspired. With a combination of passivity and a tentative sense of adventure, she allows new influences into her life: religion, sex, and the possibility of starting anew. 

The results of Rachel’s willingness to accept change are realistically messy, but worthwhile. When a religious zealot loudly preaches about how we “languish in the deep and lifeless dungeons of ourselves,” she is disturbed, because she feels the sentiment profoundly. An affair with a mildly charismatic, but caddish former schoolmate (James Olson) also opens her eyes, though it is of benefit to her in an unexpected way. 

Rachel’s story unfolds in three worlds: her present, her childhood, and her imagination which pulses madly with daydreams and intrusive thoughts. These three viewpoints make her whole, because we are all made of who we were, who we are, and who we would like to be. Once she has torn away the boundaries of her life, she learns more about the latter and how to move forward. 

It’s a story that could have been glum, with a drab, pathetic protagonist, as is often the case. Often the problem in portraying this kind of woman is that her creators believe she needs to change, to become more appealing to the audience. Woodward, Newman, and Stern all play a role in making this single, virginal school teacher an intelligent, beguiling soul, who is simply stuck and needs to change her circumstances. She is given the grace to be messy while in essence keeping her dignity and personality intact. 

Special features on the disc include a silent real of promo footage for the film and a theatrical trailer. 


Many thank to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review.

Aug 31, 2022

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: August Round-up



This was an especially satisfying month of podcast listening. I loved the conversations and the revelations in these episodes. Show title links to ep:

Unspooled 
August 17, 2022 

This episode perfectly captures the bizarre, brutal, beautiful magic of Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter. I’ve read a full book about the making of this movie and still learned many great tidbits here. Also, co-host Amy has a voice that’s an ASMR dream.
Pop Culture Happy Hour 
July 25, 2022 

I was glad to hear this overview of the new Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman docuseries directed by Ethan Hawke before I watched. It got me in the right frame of mind. Basically, that Woodward is due much more credit for her career accomplishments and that this love story was more complicated than most classic film fans know.
Keep It 
July 27, 2022 

In addition to sharing her views on the new release Nope, film critic Angelica Jade Bastién also has a lot to say about the new Newman and Woodward documentary in addition to a wide-ranging array of views about classic movies. While her insight is always fascinating, a heads up to the more sensitive that her language is colorful and I realize that’s not for everyone. 

The Micheaux Mission 
March 1, 2022 

I love how hosts Len and Vince thoughtfully challenge each other. It’s why this is one of my favorite film podcasts. You rarely see that kind of elegant discourse anymore and it’s so satisfying. This was a good analysis of Losing Ground, notable for being the second feature film directed by an African-American woman, but also an entertaining flick. I also liked the opening conversation about which black films should be added to the Criterion Collection.

Aug 24, 2022

On Blu-ray: Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid (1979)


 

I found the first twenty minutes of The Frisco Kid (1979) so broadly silly and irritating that I didn’t know if I was going to make it. The goofball stereotypes and bad accents had me wondering what I’d gotten myself into. In the end I didn’t fall in love with the film, but while watching a recent Warner Archive Blu-ray release of this unusual flick, I did find myself fascinated by Gene Wilder’s performance. 

In this Robert Aldrich-directed comic western, Wilder stars as a Polish student of Judaism who has failed so badly that he is sent far away to San Francisco to be a rabbi for a small population of Jews in the midst of the 1850s gold rush. Almost immediately he is robbed and loses his transportation to the West coast. He runs into a bandit (Harrison Ford) who is amused by him and can’t stand to see him starve on the open prairie so he helps him travel the Wild West. 

The copy on the Blu-ray case claims that this film rivals Wilder’s previous success Blazing Saddles (1974) for laughs. That is far from true, but he does make The Frisco Kid worth watching. It would have been best if he could have completely toned down the Jewish/Polish mugging, but there are plenty of moments he does find sincerity and an appealing gravity in his role as a man who is strong because he refuses to give up his moral code, but he knows when he must make compromises. 

It is a tender performance, full of earnestness that I wish more actors would embrace. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role successfully; it works because Wilder is adept at finding the humanity in any character he plays, no matter how broad. I was continually impressed by how he found depth and feeling in this part with so little of either on the page. 

Two years after his breakout success in Star Wars (1977) Harrison Ford is appealing as Wilder’s savior, if not particularly engaging. He lacks the charisma which brought life to his more legendary roles. It doesn’t help that he and Wilder don’t have a strong chemistry, though that’s not to say it’s entirely absent. 

In essence, the film is enough: amusing enough and exciting enough, but not a must-see unless you are a Gene Wilder completest. Ford fans might enjoy seeing him in an early role, but they could also be disappointed as it pales so much in comparison to his greater productions. 

There is also a trailer for the film on the disc as a special feature. 

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

Aug 17, 2022

On Blu-ray: Errol Flynn in Adventures of Don Juan (1948)


 

Adventures of Don Juan (1948) marked Errol Flynn’s return to the swashbuckling genre that made his name after a nine-year absence. Though more seasoned and slightly humbled by life, Flynn is as dashing as he ever was in a story that amusingly mirrored his own active love life. The film looks and sounds magnificent on a new Warner Archive Blu-ray I recently viewed. 

Flynn’s Don Juan has been so busy with the ladies that he can’t remember the names of his conquests anymore. Escaping his latest scandal, he takes on employment as a fencing instructor for the Spanish monarchy. He has been accepted by Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors) thanks to the encouragement of a mutual friend. 

In his time at the royal court, Juan falls for the reserved queen. He also uncovers a Duke’s (Robert Douglas) devious plot to overthrow the monarchy and go to war with England. While he predictably wins the queen’s heart and conquers the duke, his response to these victories reflects a newfound wisdom in both character and actor. 

Overall this is a triumphant return to swashbuckling for Flynn. The production itself is grand, from the jaunty (if a tad repetitive) Max Steiner score to the impeccably detailed beauty of the sets and costumes. For lovers of the genre and star, this film delivers. 

I came away less satisfied with some of the casting; not because it wasn’t good, but rather because it paled next to the more brilliant pairings in Flynn’s past. Swedish actress Lindfors is an appealing queen, but her chemistry with Flynn is so flat that when they finally find themselves in a romantic clinch, it doesn’t make much sense. Likewise, Robert Douglas is a worthy villain as the duke, but his heavy-handed fencing style made me long for the fleet-footed elegance of Basil Rathbone. 

Special features on the disc are DVD carryovers including commentary by director Vincent Sherman and historian Rudy Behlmer, a Warner Night at the Movies 1948 short subjects gallery including a newsreel, the Joe McDoakes comedy short So You Want to Be on the Radio, the travel short Calgary Stampede, the cartoon Hare Splitter and a theatrical trailer. 


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

Aug 10, 2022

Watching Classic Movies Podcast--George Stevens Jr. Talks About His Memoir My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington



I was honored to spend time with my guest, director, writer, producer, and playwright George Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, creator of the AFI Life Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honors, and winner of honors including the Emmy, Oscar, Peabody Award, and Writers Guild Award. 

He began his career helping his father, Hollywood director George Stevens make films and later moved to Washington D.C. to make films for Edward R. Murrow, where in addition to his eventual work with AFI, he worked with nearly every president from Kennedy to the present day and knew some of the most celebrated artistic talents and political minds of his times. 

Mr. Stevens’ new memoir, My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington is a fascinating document of the different worlds, societal shifts, and amazing people he experienced. I found myself tearing up multiple times reading this moving tale of triumph and loss which celebrates a remarkably rich life. It’s awesome story shared by a kind and humble man. We had a great talk about some of his key moments. 

My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington is a publication of University Press of Kentucky.

George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, directed by George Stevens Jr. is currently available on HBOMax.


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