Aug 31, 2014

Quote of the Week


She is an urchin pretending to be grown up, having the time of her life in Mother’s moth-eaten finery, tottering about in high-heeled shoes and sipping ginger ale as though it were a champagne cocktail.

-Cecil Beaton, about Marilyn Monroe

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Aug 27, 2014

On Blu-ray: Out of the Past (1947) on Blu-ray and Teresa Wright in Enchantment (1948)

Watching the newly-released Blu-ray of Out of the Past (1947) took home viewing to a new level for me. It's jaw dropping beauty can be described endlessly, but is best experienced.

The picture is sharp and clear, but shimmers with just the right amount of grain to warm the images. I occasionally found myself drawn to the detail in a striped jacket, or marveling at the shades of black and gray in a shot, but never so much that it distracted me from the story. Above all, the enhanced image drew me further into the dark world of this quintessential noir.

With his weary eyes and rumpled trench coat, Robert Mitchum trudges through Out of the Past like a man who knows he is doomed, though he indulges in a few hopeful fantasies. As detective Jeff Bailey, he falls into the grimy world of mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). When he also falls for Sterling's dangerous dame Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), and gets in over his head, he escapes to a small town and starts over again.

The movie begins at the gas station he owns, where one of Sterling's hoods spots him and tries to draw him back into his boss' web. Jeff confesses all about his past to his girlfriend (Virginia Huston) on an all night drive to Whit's estate. They part hopeful, but this is noir, so you know there isn't much room for hope.

Bailey falls back under Kathie's spell, wise to her treacherous ways, but a slave to the sweetness she wields like a caressing weapon. His response to her false apologies: "Baby I don't care." Each time he falls for a fresh betrayal, he accepts it as fate, only muttering, "Oh you're wonderful Kathie." He's wise to everything, but that's never good enough.

This already beautifully-filmed noir especially benefits from the Blu-ray treatment. Every little shade is defined, giving scenes a dreamy texture. When Kathie breezes into a Mexican café in a snowy white dress and matching wide-brimmed hat, you can feel the electricity bristling from her deceptively soft form. Every detail of her guarded expression pops.

In love scenes individual eyelashes can be detected, and light reflects sensuously off skin. When the action heats up, shadows rustle and swoop with startling intensity.

This is the same slinky script I've loved for years, where conversations weave around each other with perfectly-executed ease. Not a word is wasted, though it is not coldly efficient either. It has the same perfect cast, with Dickie Moore especially intriguing, grown-up, but still with his Our Gang pout, as a deaf mute who adds to the inscrutability of it all. And yet it all felt new to me.

I have a renewed appreciation for what presentation can do for a film.

Though Enchantment (1948) was released the year after Out of the Past, it exists in an entirely different world. The doom is just as intense, and the power of the past as brutal, but it is all infinitely more emotional. It's a deliciously melancholy romance.

David Niven stars as Sir Roland "Rollo" Dane, a wealthy Londoner who falls in love with his father's ward. Lark Ingelsby (Teresa Wright) has been raised alongside the high-spirited Dane as a sister, but as they mature, they are powerfully drawn to each other.

The story is framed with a modern sequence set during World War II, when Dane's grand niece Grizel (Evelyn Keyes) comes to stay with him while she serves as an ambulance driver for the US Army. He also receives a visit from Lark's nephew Pax (Farley Granger) who brings up painful memories for Sir Roland. While the old man revisits the past, Grizel and Pax fall in love.

Rollo and Lark's romance meets many road blocks, all due to Roland's sister Selina (Jayne Meadows), who immediately sees that Lark threatens her position as lady of the house. His brother Proutie (Leo G. Carroll) complicates things further by also falling madly in love with Lark.

It's easy to see why everyone goes crazy for the wistful orphan too. Lark floats along with an oddly gentle intensity. She aspires to be a singer like her mother, and vibrates with the powerful emotions of an artist, and yet, she speaks as though every word is perilously fragile. Always a sensitive actress, Wright was perfect for this role which required both delicacy and stubborn rebellion.

As the young Lark, Gigi Perreau is also remarkable, nearly stealing the film in a couple of brief scenes. She perfectly captures the fear, sadness and longing of a girl who has lost her parents and finds her life completely changed. In a scene where young Rollo (played by her real life brother Peter Miles) tries to cheer her up, she transitions from grief to joy in such a graceful manner that it's hard to believe how young she was. Apparently, her performance made such an impression on the set that the crew applauded her.

Having already seen Enchantment, I was surprised to see the DVD cover design. While I would love to see the movie it promises, I have to say there was no one that blonde, busty or lusty in this film. With Ms. Wright in the room, that doesn't matter a bit.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. Enchantmet is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Aug 24, 2014

Quote of the Week

She had a huge amount of charisma. You have no idea. She walked into that room and you could feel her energy. You could just feel it. It was kind of overwhelming.

-Margalo Ashley-Farrand about Kay Francis. She met her at age four, when the actress was having an affair with her father.

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Aug 18, 2014

On DVD: Joe E. Brown in You Said a Mouthful (1932) and Local Boy Makes Good (1931)

I was excited when Warner Archive released several Joe E. Brown movies recently. I'd always liked the comic actor, who was best known for his astonishingly large mouth, but I'd only seen him in two of his later films, Some Like it Hot (1959) and Hollywood Canteen (1944).

His appearance in Canteen was a brief cameo, focused solely on the comedian's ability to wrap his mouth around large portions of food. He was, despite his famous closing line in the film, perfect in director Billy Wilder's Hot, playing the happy-go-lucky Osgood Feeling III, a millionaire who turns out to be much more savvy than anyone gives him credit for. I loved him so much in this role, that I can't believe I never attempted to see more of his work.

I finally remedied that by checking out a pair of early Brown flicks: You Said a Mouthful (1932) and Local Boy Makes Good (1931).

It was interesting to see Brown in his prime, I liked him more than I expected. I think this is because I thought the gags about his mouth size would become tiresome over the course of an entire movie. Sometimes it does get old, but the comedian has a lot more to offer than a wide grin. He lends a nice eccentricity to the familiar comic underdog character. I didn't find him hilarious, but his oddball charm is pleasantly amusing. It's easy to see why he was so beloved.

You Said a Mouthful (1932)

As shipping clerk Joe Holt, Brown is the butt of cruel jokes from his office mates. This despite the fact that he has invented a swimsuit that floats, so that it is impossible for the wearer to drown. When the disgruntled clerk learns he has inherited one million dollars from an aunt in California, he ditches his sorry situation and bolts to the sunny coast. There he finds he hasn't quite hit the payload, but has instead found himself the custodian of the son of his aunt's maid (played by Farina of Our Gang).

The cash-strapped pair boat to Catalina Island in search of work at a hotel, but en route Holt is mistaken for a swimming champion by socialite Alice Brandon (Ginger Rogers). Smitten by the charming woman, he doesn't attempt to clear up his identity and instead enters a race across the Pacific to the mainland. Of course he doesn't know how to swim.

Brown has quirky appeal as the nervous clerk. He can be grating when yelping for help or overemphasizing his thin-lipped mouth, but there's something magnetic about him. There's a lightness to his eyes, a bit of sparkle. Though in his early forties, he radiates youthful hopefulness and a gentle wonder that makes you love him. I found myself gazing at him as I would a handsome leading man or a glamour girl.

While Brown pulls off some amusing physical humor, he's most interesting when he slows down and gives you a close look at that unusual face. In a running gag, every time the comedian concentrates on his interior monologue, he deliberately makes a fist and rests his chin upon it. Then a voiceover with a much stronger, more authoritative voice than his own barks out his thoughts while he blinks into the camera. It's very silly and strangely enjoyable.

Ginger Rogers and Farina are the brightest players in the supporting cast. With her high-pitched baby voice, Rogers is still in the kewpie doll phase: clearly a budding star, but not yet possessing the tartness that would make her our Ginger. Though Farina speaks as if he can hardly form a sentence, as was common onscreen in those more blatantly racist times, he's just as clever and charismatic as he was in his Our Gang shorts. In fact, his wisdom is such an integral part of the plot that I wondered if there was a bit of subversion at play.

Local Boy Makes Good (1931)

In this less inventive, though still enjoyable campus comedy, Brown is John Augustus Miller an anxious botanist and book store clerk who pines for beauty queen and psychology student Julie Winters (Dorothy Lee). He writes her swoony love letters, which he never means to send. When his landlady drops one in the mail, he finds himself under pressure to fulfill his promises of manly feats of athleticism. His bookstore co-worker Marjorie (Ruth Hall) observes with sweet sadness as she has a crush on the botanist cum budding track star.

Miller is a bit of a sad sack when it comes to the outside world. Early on he laments, "I guess I'm not the kind of fella' people wave at. They just point at me." His only true problem is a lack of confidence though. As it turns out, Miller is a natural athlete, and is soon sought after by the college.

Brown makes good use of his surroundings, finding lots of opportunities for gags, whether among the stacks at the bookstore or running backwards to victory on the field. In an exchange with aspiring psychologist Winters, he fends off questions about libido and sex that were risqué even for a pre-code. Its all the more amusing that the scene comes off so innocently. The humor isn't quite laugh-out-loud funny, but there are plenty of clever bits to keep the action moving along.

Though they differ in significant ways, Joe E. Brown reminds me a lot of Buster Keaton, especially in this film. They both played shy, insecure men who were also remarkably fit--even muscular--and impressively athletic when the situation demanded it of them. I was often reminded of Keaton's College (1927) while I watched Local Boy Makes Good.

Other Joe E. Brown titles recently released by Warner Archive include: Broad Minded (1931), Elmer, The Great (1933) and A Very Honorable Guy (1934). The Archive also has several other Brown movies available as well.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Aug 17, 2014

Quote of the Week

Never deny. Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend.

-Jeanne Eagels

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Aug 13, 2014

Book Review--Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley
Jeffrey Spivak
The University Press of Kentucky, 2011

I've been wanting to check out Jeffrey Spivak's biography of Busby Berkeley ever since it came out a few years ago. Recently, I finally had the chance to do so, and it was worth the wait.

The visually inventive dance director was one of the first names I learned as a young classic film fan. I recorded 42nd Street (1933) off broadcast television and marveled at the kaleidoscopic genius of this singular talent.

Berkeley was most famous for arranging cascades of beautiful women into stunning formations that were both graceful and tightly precise. With these complex routines, he brought the musical back from the audience fatigue it had suffered in the early days of sound. Though the dance director (he preferred that title to choreographer) found great success on the Broadway stage before he was talked into trying Hollywood, his visions were made for film. He stripped musicals of their stage bound awkwardness.

While Buzz does delve into both the professional and personal life of its subject, it is most successful in capturing Berkeley at work, creating on the set, shouting with wild-eyed impatience at his cast and crew and yet always willing to have a laugh at his own expense. The director approached his craft with confidence, sure of his vision and ability, whether with a musical or a drama.

Berkeley laid claim to pioneering the "big, beautiful close-up," giving dozens of individual showgirls their chance to shine. He was two ways about his "girls"--sometimes caring for them, often working them to the edge of sanity. While he wasn't wolfish about the beauties around him every day, he did find five of his six wives among them.

What exactly happened with those wives, or much else in Busby's personal life is not made entirely clear in Buzz. He is shown constantly at work, prioritizing Gertrude over anyone else in his life and struggling with alcohol. His spouses claim cruelty and abandonment and for the most part his marriages are not detailed any more than that.
A typically stunning formation from Dames (1934)

There may not have been much more to tell. Berkeley had little time for a social life. He had few friends. When his mother died, he lost his confidante and for a while his will to live.

Talent was never an issue with Busby Berkeley though. His professional success rose and fell with the public taste for the musical, and his own ability to keep his alcoholism and temper in hand.

Sometimes his cruelty could cause mental anguish, as with Judy Garland, who he directed in several pictures, increasing his pressure on the fragile star with each one. He could also be dangerous in his insensitivity. As director for swimming star Esther Williams, he put her in situations that risked her life, including a high dive that broke three vertebrae in her neck and a treacherous waterskiing scene she filmed while pregnant.

Berkeley could also be inspirational. While he would never win a prize for his personality, stars like Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell and even the battle-scarred Williams were in awe of his talent. He was bubbling over with ideas until the end of his life and he always knew what to do with them.

Buzz goes into remarkable detail about Berkeley's work methods and life on the set, and those elements flow together gracefully. Technical aspects of the work meld together easily with snippets of gossip and insight into all players, from the studio heads to the patient dancers awaiting instructions from their director. It's an enjoyable read, and while Busby the man remains a bit mysterious, his creative life is revealed in perfect detail.

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

Aug 12, 2014


I will approach life with the zest and sassy dance steps of a Kessler sister:

Aug 11, 2014

On DVD: The Hunted (1947) and Stage Struck (1948)

The Hunted (1947)

A low budget, but classy film noir, The Hunted is a minor treasure. It's moody, romantic and above all, it has the gently haughty presence of Belita. A woman of many talents, the star who was most famous for her accomplishments on the ice also carved a niche into movie history with a trio of solid films noir, also including Suspense (1946) and The Gangster (1947).

Belita is elegantly weary, but strangely relatable as Laura Mead, recently released from prison after serving time for a jewel theft for which she pleads innocence. Her former beau is Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster), the detective who arrested her for the crime. He believes she is guilty, and regards her warily because she has vowed to kill him for his lack of faith, but the dreamy blonde still captivates him.

When the attorney who bumbled her trial, another target of Laura's threats, is killed she finds herself under suspicion again. As before, Saxon doubts her claims of innocence, but with his former love back before him in the flesh, he is moved by the memory of their affair.

Belita and Foster have a cozy chemistry, with just enough electricity to give their scenes together a pleasant tension. Saxon may have his qualms, but he's hooked on Laura and he can't help caring for her, even as he fears her.

Foster is a compelling romantic. He's not as rough around the edges as your typical screen detective. You get the feeling he's good to his mother. He pushes Belita away with the things he says and draws her near with eyes that grieve for what they had together.

Belita is worthy of the attention. She has screen presence that neuters the need for great acting. The woman was blessed with the sort of magnetism that can't be taught. She carries herself like an heiress who has lost her inheritance, wistful, and aware that she is slumming.

With her long, swoopy hair and fairy princess features, the skating star looks a lot like fellow noir beauty Veronica Lake, but her glamour is more understated. There's a fragile melancholy about her.

It is surprisingly not jarring to see Belita hit the ice for her skating number, perhaps because it is staged noir style, on a dark rink with a single spotlight. While specialty stars like ice skater Sonja Henie and swimmer Esther Williams were typically given the high gloss treatment in musicals and comedies, the less glitzy feel of this show works well. It gives Foster an opportunity to see Laura at work, succeeding at legitimacy, giving him hope in her decency.

The Hunted is a solid B noir, not quite an undiscovered classic, but enjoyable and worthy of multiple viewings.

Stage Struck (1948)

Though a tad uneven, and much less subtle than The Hunted, Stage Struck is another well-crafted late forties B flick. It is both cautionary tale and detective story, set in the dingy nightclub world along the edges of Broadway. In it, a small town girl is murdered by a sleazy club owner (John Gallaudet) and her older sister (Audrey Long) goes undercover to bring the killer to justice.

It is revealed that Long's sister was the victim of a con targeting young aspiring actresses. Gallaudet flatters these hopefuls, claiming they have promise, but require training. He accepts them in his expensive so-called acting course and then offers to let them pay for the lessons by "hostessing" in his club.

At first, Stage Struck has the preachy, statistic-filled feel of an early exploitation film, but without the sleazy thrills they're meant to conceal. As the lead detective on the case, Conrad Nagel goes on about the trouble of these unfortunate women and how such cons affect "thousands of homes," all while offering condescending comfort to the female members of the family. Ralph Byrd provides a warmer counterpoint as his rookie partner.

Things perk up once the action moves to the city. Long is sharp and lively as the girl-next-door with just a shade more nerve than her small town neighbors. She quickly finds herself over her head in the edgy nightclub milieu, but predictably doesn’t see caving in to fear as an option.

The elements of Long's investigation will be familiar to any crime film fan, but the hovering threat of her exposure and some amusing twists near the end provide a few good thrills.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Aug 10, 2014

Quote of the Week

Audiences watched him as they would watch a baby or a white kitten on the screen; the camera loved him.

-Fred Zinnemann, about Gary Cooper

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Aug 6, 2014

Book Review: The Brilliant and Overlooked Fred Zinnemann

Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance
J.E. Smyth
University Press of Mississippi, 2014

Before I picked up Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance, I didn't think I had any set notions about the Vienna-born director's style. I only knew that if I saw his name in the credits of a film, it was inevitably going to be worth seeing. With the interesting exception of Oklahoma! (1955), he focused on crafting some of the best dramas of the studio age and beyond, from Act of Violence (1948) to The Day of the Jackal (1973).

Once I started the book, it didn't take me long to realize that there had always been a common thread that had attracted me to Zinnemann's movies: he gravitated towards stories of misfits and mavericks fighting against the system. With careful attention to historical detail, J.E. Smyth explores the films where he most diligently fought against fascism and systematic cruelty. She reveals a director who quietly, but deliberately funneled his anger about oppressive societal forces, much of which was inspired by his own childhood experiences, into strong work. He used popular films to communicate a serious message.

Smyth pays ample attention each film, focusing entire chapters on the production, reception and history behind projects including High Noon (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953) and The Nun's Story (1959). She finds fascinating details about Zinnemann's process and provides rich background on the events that inspired his work. Each chapter could stand on its own, though it is even more interesting to compare the films, which are striking both for their similarities and differences.
Zinnemann in the forties

While the stories and the world surrounding them vary widely, Smyth finds several interesting connections between Zinnemann's films. I was especially interested in the attention he gave to stories about women, particularly those whose had been overshadowed by the deeds of men who were no more accomplished. In High Noon (1952), he spotlights actresses Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado, powerful figures in the traditionally male-dominated western. Audrey Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave play heroic, complicated roles in The Nun's Story and Julia (1977) respectively.

There is also a strong focus on Zinnemann's compassion for people without a voice, and particularly children. With The Search (1947), he worked in partnership with the equally sensitive pre-stardom Montgomery Clift to alert American audiences to the plight of displaced children who suffered in concentration camps during World War II. While the director was often criticized for the way he told a story, and particularly one as sensitive as this one, Smyth shows the care with which he made decisions for every production. He always strove for maximum impact, and sometimes that required controversial decisions made for complex reasons.

Intelligent and strong-willed, Zinnemann delicately crafted a career of great integrity. He knew how to protect his vision without burning bridges, earning the title of "the iron hand in the velvet glove." He maintained control of his movies by cutting with his camera and approaching producers and studio heads firmly, but cordially. The director was also patient and attentive to his actors, winning admiration, and amazing performances from them. His strength helped him to outlast the studio system and produce strong work until the end of his career, unlike many of his contemporaries.

The Cinema of Resistance is a fascinating look into the work of an uncommonly brilliant and terribly overlooked director.

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

Aug 3, 2014

Quote of the Week

Yeah as far as I’m concerned, digital projection and DCPs is the death of cinema as I know it. It’s not even about shooting your film on film or shooting your film on digital, the fact that most films now are not presented in 35mm means that the war is lost and digital projections — that’s just television in public. Apparently the whole world is okay with television in public but what I knew as cinema is dead.

-Quentin Tarantino

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