Jan 29, 2012

Letty Lynton (1932)

This is a repost (with edits) in honor of the LAMB event taking place on Monday, 1/29.

The pre-code drama Letty Lynton (1932) is best known for two reasons: being unavailable to the general public due to legal issues (you can read about that kerfuffle here) and the “Letty Lynton dress” —a white organdy gown with large ruffled sleeves designed by Adrian—of which Macy’s sold thousands of copies. Since there was so much off screen drama connected to the movie, I was afraid I would be underwhelmed by the movie. Thank heaven I was wrong.

Joan Crawford plays the titular heroine, an American socialite who is attempting to escape her unhappy home life by indulging in an affair with the wealthy, but slimy Emile (Nils Asther) in Uruguay. She knows this man is no good for her, but she's hooked. After several attempts to escape her toxic beaux, Letty finally hops a steamship for home. While onboard, she meets Jerry (Robert Montgomery), a playful, wealthy American. The pair fall in love, and are engaged to be married by the journey’s end. Unfortunately, Emile is determined to win Letty back, and he isn’t going to be nice about it. Letty spends the rest of the flick getting herself out of this situation in a decidedly pre-code fashion.

This simple story is made more intriguing by the well-tuned performances of a solid cast. Director Clarence Brown guides his players with a sure hand, smoothly changing the tone as the drama unfolds--from lightly screwball to depressingly dingy, gently romantic to tense and threatening. Letty’s showdown with Emile is a particularly gripping, horrific scene.

I also enjoyed the easygoing rapport between Letty and Jerry as they got to know each other. Clark Gable was originally slated for the role of Jerry, but I don’t think he could have managed the mixture of playful affection and gravity that Montgomery accomplishes here.

Crawford effectively demonstrates the hurt bubbling beneath her flippant party girl shell. She convincingly portrays a desperate woman, who regrets ever acting on her boredom. Once she was light and happy, but now that she has given in to her lust, she has also unleashed her dark side. She is clearly ashamed of her fall from grace, though she is willing to do anything to fight her way back.

My only complaint is that the ending felt too pat. While I do think it is possible that the wealthy and influential could affect this sort of a resolution, it is a bit of a dramatic letdown after such an intense climax. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that there’s no way the drama could have panned out that way after the code went into full effect.

More Joan posts:

 Here she is on What's My Line?

 Crawford also makes an appearance in this Mountain Dew ad.

Quote of the Week

Gene would shoot each take 40 times, and in those days you worked six days a week, and had Sunday to faint.

-Debbie Reynolds, about working with Gene Kelly on Singin' in the Rain (1952)

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Jan 24, 2012

Review--These Amazing Shadows: Full Version

Film is the art form of the twentieth century, and we have let it go. -Robin Blaetz, Chair of Film Studies, Mount Holyoke College 

So much of film history has been lost, but there’s still a great deal that can be saved if we are willing to do it. -Stephen Leggett, National Film Registry Coordinator 

A couple of days after I posted my review of the documentary These Amazing Shadows, I received an email from one of the directors of the film, Kurt Norton. He mentioned that there was a longer version of the film, and asked if I wanted to see a copy. I sure did!

The version of the film in my previous review was edited for television, and specifically an episode of the PBS program Independent Lens. It runs just under an hour. The full version, which was screened at Sundance in 2011, is about 88 minutes. This is the version which has now been released on DVD and BluRay.

I got a very different feeling from the full-length version of These Amazing Shadows. It went into a lot more detail about the board and their process. It was interesting to see how this diverse gathering of film experts collaborated with and inspired each other. They all seemed dedicated to challenging both themselves and the public by striving to find diverse choices that were worthy of preservation.

This part of the documentary gave me great insight into the reasons members pick films. They definitely aren’t there to pick their favorites, and at least one member said she would actually pick a film she didn’t like if she felt it had merit. It is this spirit that seems to aid the group in reaching a consensus when there are hundreds of titles to consider each year.

It was fascinating to get a peek at the process of selection, but I was even more intrigued by the segments that showed film preservationists at work. What enormous patience it must take to prepare a film, frame-by-frame, for preservation. Watching one woman at work, I figured she had to have a permanent crick in her neck. She sits every work day looking at frail pieces of film, removing small pieces of tape and treating tiny tears.

One of these preservationists, George Willeman, nitrate film vault manager of the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation even coined the phrase “These Amazing Shadows.” In this version of the film, Willeman has a lot more screen time. I enjoyed the charisma and panache he exuded in his entertaining, but also informative segments.

I also loved getting a peek inside a film vault. My stomach dropped as I watched Willeman peel frail bits of material off a damaged reel. It really drove home how fragile these films are, and how important preservation is.

This version of the film also tells the story of the discovery of censored footage from the pre-code Barbara Stanwyck flick Baby Face (1933). While comparing two copies of the film, Willeman realized one reel was larger. When he compared the films, he realized he had found footage that was believed to be lost for decades. The film was finally restored in 2005.

I was also moved by the stories of loss, preservation and restoration in a short film that was one of the special features on the DVD called Lost Forever: The Art of Preservation. This is a closer examination of film preservation, with several of the interviewees from These Amazing Shadows providing background. There are many stories of discoveries made in archives far away from the United States, where films were often abandoned at their last stop after their run had ended.

One discovery of over 400 reels of discard films buried under the ground really got to me. Movies by stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore were left to rot away. Some of these films could have been lost forever if they had not been found.

It was also amusing to see some of the interview outtakes. John Waters was especially funny, mostly because his opinions about these movies are unusual, but undeniably practical. .

I liked having the opportunity to watch both versions of These Amazing Shadows, because it gave me the opportunity to really focus on different aspects of the film. Though I loved the segments where interviewees discussed different elements of the movies, I was most fascinated by the work of the board and the preservationists. I wouldn't be surprised if this film eventually made it onto the registry itself. It’s a rich document of a worthy cause.

You can read my original review of the film here.

Thank you to Kurt Norton for giving me the opportunity to view this DVD.

Jan 22, 2012

Quote of the Week

Cheap footwear equals low class, with the correct footwear a woman can conquer the world.

-Joan Crawford

Image Source: Classic Film Scans

Jan 15, 2012

Quote of the Week

Technical progress kills a kind of human quality in us.

-Jean Renoir

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Jan 10, 2012

Constellation TV: A New Way to View Films Online

Late last year, I received an invitation to try Constellation TV, a new online theater. Rather than streaming titles at any time, users buy individual admissions to specific show times. This is meant to heighten the social experience of watching the movies in a couple of ways.

Some showings are hosted by VIPs, such as the directors of the movies and people who are knowledgeable about the movies such as film journalists. These guests introduce the films via webcam and then answer questions at the end. Showings without hosts still have social opportunities via a chat bar that can be displayed for the entire film.

Though I was invited to attend a hosted showing, it was at 5PM West Coast Time, which was a difficult time of day for me to manage. I eventually became too curious to try the service to wait for a hosted showing I could attend. I decided to watch Grey Gardens (1975) on a Sunday afternoon.

My first step was to purchase my ticket. That gave me access to the theater, where I could enter any time before the showing. There was a nifty countdown clock which showed me exactly how much time I had until show time.

The main theater screen is set up into a few sections. Along the bottom there is a bar which shows an icon for each audience member. On the right, there is a column for chat, with an entry box at the bottom. Then the movie plays in the remaining space in the upper left portion of the screen (click on the image to get a better view).

It took me a bit of digging to figure out how to make the screen full size. It turned out a little rectangular icon on the left of the screen does that. This is a good option for viewers who wish to hide the chat feature.

There were a couple of technical issues during the screening. For some reason, a line of random characters would periodically flash over the screen:

It happened frequently enough to irk me, though it didn’t quite take me out of the movie. It also stopped to load a couple of times near the end, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to Constellation or my own connection.

Except for a couple of people who popped in during the last ten minutes of the movie, I was alone in the theater for the entire showing. That was a bit of a bummer, but I didn’t necessarily expect to interact with audience members. Still, it was exciting to see those icons pop up. I realized how much fun it would be to have a little chat during certain films. As someone who can’t even stand it when audience members whisper in a regular theater, I thought this was amusing.

Though I didn’t get to have the prime, VIP-hosted Constellation TV experience, I do see some interesting possibilities with this model. If I’d invited guests to my showing, it could have been fun to chat back and forth about Grey Gardens and the loveable Edies. I also think it would be interesting to see a movie introduced by its director or by someone who had good insight into the medium. It would be about as close to a film festival screening experience as you could get online.

I’m planning to keep tabs on Constellation TV. I’d like to see where the company goes with this concept, because there are lots of interesting possibilities. I’d still like to attend a hosted event if the timing works out. I hope that some future hosted events will be scheduled at more convenient times for those of us in PST.

I’m also curious to see what kinds of titles will come out of the Criterion Collection relationship. Some of the classic titles that have been made available include the Seventh Seal (1957) and Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953), both of which were hosted by film experts.With expanded offerings and show times, this could be a fun concept.

Constellation TV

Jan 8, 2012

Quote of the Week

A film is a ribbon of dreams. The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins.

 -Orson Welles

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Jan 6, 2012

#favoritethingsinclassicfilms= Fun+Community-Work-Sleep

 It all started with a tweet yesterday morning:

What followed was an amazing bonding experience among us classic movie geeks on Twitter. Dozens, maybe even hundreds of tweets followed. The simple, open-ended idea gave everyone free reign to be creative in describing the things they loved about classic movies, from great moments and performers, to the way stars used to dress and behave.

The results were entertaining and addictive. I usually check in with Twitter a few times a day, but yesterday I could hardly pull myself away. Even during times when I usually give the laptop a rest, I would check back in and get sucked into the vortex again, reading tweets and writing my own. I finally realized it was past my bedtime and I needed to wrap it up!

Check out some of these posts. I’m not even picking favorites here. I just grabbed a few that I retweeted:

There’s so much more than this to see, but you get the idea. Twenty-four hours later, people are still posting with this tag. It’s been like a party!

If you are not on Twitter, I highly recommend it as a place to meet classic movie fans. If you’re wondering who to follow, just take a look at #FavoriteThingsInClassicFilms and #FavouriteThingsInClassicFilms and you are sure to find many interesting people. I'm there too @classicmovieblg!

Thanks to Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence for an idea that was brilliant in its simplicity. You can follow her at @biscuitkitten.

Jan 1, 2012