Nov 30, 2014

Quote of the Week


Stardom isn’t a profession, it’s an accident.

-Lauren Bacall

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Nov 29, 2014

On DVD: John Gilbert in The Cossacks (1928)

The Cossacks is the perfect introduction to the swashbuckling, romantic persona of John Gilbert. While the actor proved himself to be capable of playing more than the romantic hero, this is how audiences expected to see him: chasing a girl around a wagon, holding her in a passionate embrace and racing into battle on horseback. In a new DVD from Warner Archive, with a sparkling score by Robert Israel, I enjoyed watching Gilbert at his peak, one year before his disastrous talkie debut in His Glorious Night (1929).

Very loosely adapted from a short novel by Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks explores the lusty life of these hardy southern Russian peasants. Among them is the lazy outcast Lukashka (Gilbert), son of a burly chieftain (Ernest Torrence), who is mocked because he is not willing to participate in their ongoing battle with the Turks. He instead spends his time attempting to woo local girl Maryanna (Renée Adorée, his Big Parade [1925] costar), who finds him attractive, but wants him to fight with the men.

When Lukashka has finally had enough mocking from the villagers, he takes a whip to his overbearing father and then leaps into battle, proving himself even braver than his peers. In his absence, a czarist prince (Nils Asther, looking prettier than them all with his cat-eye guyliner) arrives in the village, in search of a sturdy peasant woman to be his bride and juice up the royal blood.

Of course the young royal sets his eyes on Maryanna, who excites him by rejecting his advances and threatening him with a heavy candlestick. He relishes the challenge, and sets out to break her like a horse. She finds him attractive, but remains loyal to Lukashka, that is, until he returns from battle behaving noticeably cooler towards her.

Gilbert rocking one of many fur hats.
Broken-hearted, Maryanna marries the prince. Jealous Lukashka, who was only being a guy with the whole aloof thing, and who actually still loves his peasant girlfriend, attacks her as she dances with her groom, and the two later end up in a clinch, but the deed has been done. As the married couple races across country in their lavish carriage, they are attacked by the Turks, and find themselves in dire need of some serious swashbuckling. Enter Gilbert.

While The Cossacks doesn't quite rate with the classics in Gilbert's career, it is an entertaining film. This has a lot to do with the star's lively presence. He projects enjoyment so well you can almost see it shivering down his spine. It's easy to understand why silent film was his medium. As good as he could be when he spoke, Gilbert communicated best with his body, and even when he goes a bit over the top with bug eyes or frenzied lovemaking, he's still appealing, because he can make you feel what he feels.

There was also a remarkable amount of detail put into this production. I found it hard to believe that most of it was filmed on a studio back lot. Everything looked lived-in, and while I can't say whether or not it was all authentic, the sets, furniture and especially the costumes were definitely approached with scrupulous care to detail. The look of the wedding scene in particular felt almost like a documentary.

I loved the fast-paced action of the final scenes. There's an amazing special effects shot of an avalanche in particular that I had to go back and check out a second time. It was an intense sequence, ending with some surprisingly brutal torture scenes that that greatly increased the tension. There were also a couple of impressive earlier scenes featuring trick horse riding which were all the more thrilling because it clearly took daring stunt work, and not effects, to film them.

The Cossacks covers just about every cliché of silent movie action, and it does so in a delightful way.

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

Nov 24, 2014

On DVD: Peter O'Toole Breaks Out in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1959)

It's interesting how time can affect the way we view a film, not just because of changing trends and culture, but also in the way we view the actors on the screen. The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a sturdy, low-key thriller, with plenty of high-wire tension, but today it is perhaps best known for featuring Peter O'Toole's first major role in a film. Now his gracefully controlled performance can be enjoyed on a crisp new DVD from Warner Archive.

This is an unusual caper flick, because, for once, the characters do not steal because of greed, the desire to escape to a sunny island or even for thrills. These thieves are raising money to fund the IRA and they plan to do so by breaking into the gold vault in the high security Bank of England. Big on passion, but not so much strategy, they recruit Irish-American Charles Norgate (Aldo Ray), a mining engineer who is unknown in England and knows a thing or two about tunneling under a bank vault.

Most of the film follows Ray as he quietly educates himself about the bank, claiming an interest in architecture to gain access to high class circles. It's a nice piece of detective work and it's fun to watch him deliberately collect data, thrilling archivists and museum proprietors who do not often get such detailed requests for information. They are too flattered to be suspicious.
O'Toole and Ray

Part of Holgate's quest involves befriending Captain Monty Finch, a bored, but dedicated bank guard (Peter O'Toole) who through his sponsorship gets Norgate an account at the bank and a tour of the vaults. The two seem to enjoy a genuine friendship, or at least mutual admiration, though Holgate doesn't waver in his task. Finch never thinks to doubt him, until one night when the ever present rats suddenly disappear from the bank's basement and the gas lamps mysteriously dim.

The relationship between Finch and Holgate is the most fascinating in the film. Much more interesting than a half-hearted romance between Charles and Iris, a member of the gang, which too obviously only serves to advance the plot. There's also the standard hot-headed youth who is "not so sure about Holgate." The rest tend to blend into the background, though it is always a delight to see character actor Hugh Griffith and his Muppet-level bushy eyebrows.

Aldo Ray always looks, and sounds a little sleepy, which makes him endearing, but not terribly exciting as a leading man. As sympathetic as he can be, O'Toole outshines him in every way. You're supposed to be pulling for Holgate the hope of a revolution, but you want Captain Finch to take him to task.

And he does so brilliantly, O'Toole's reaction to the final denouement is so smooth, so completely satisfying that I had a huge grin on my face. It was all due to him too. If he had been in Ray's role, I know he would have still had me on his side. This is what makes a movie star.

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

Nov 23, 2014

On DVD: Lauren Bacall is Stalked by The Fan (1981)

While The Fan wasn't quite the camp extravaganza I expected, it's an oddly satisfying film. Though the thriller never got my heart pounding, it has such a strong cast that it didn’t fall flat either. I've been curious about this movie for years and in a new DVD from Warner Archive, I finally had the chance to check it out.

Based on a 1978 novel, The Fan stars Lauren Bacall as legendary movie star Sally Ross. The actress is rehearsing for her first starring role in a Broadway musical, though she can't really sing. Since Bacall actually starred in two Broadway musicals around that time, you're basically forced to accept the whole set-up as plausible.

Ross is being stalked by Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), a record store employee who becomes increasingly frustrated by his thwarted attempts to make contact with the star. Determined to get to her, Breen sharpens his straight razor and begins slashing through the people in Sally's life.

Since that part of the plot only fills about half the running time, the movie is forced to meander through relationship drama, long dinners and Sally's arguments with her assistant (Maureen Stapleton). The slackening of pace kills the suspense, and leaves it a bit limp as a thriller, but the actors are so good that it ends up being enjoyable just seeing them do their thing.
Bacall, lovely at 56

Stapleton steals all of her scenes with a familiar no-nonsense warmth. She has a way of reminding you of someone you know, though you can't think of the name. James Garner is also pleasing as Ross' still loving ex-husband, though he's basically in the girlfriend role and doesn't have much to do. He's got nice chemistry with Bacall though and it's charming to see them together. I also loved seeing a very young Hector Elizondo as a police inspector who enchants Ross. He's very slick with his low-buttoned shirt and gold chain. Not many stars can pull that look off.

For most of the movie I thought that Biehn's performance was a bit lackluster, but I eventually realized that the real fault was with the script, and perhaps the pace of the film. There's plenty of nasty slasher scenes with gushing blood, but it feels gross rather than horrifying. The tension never bubbles over, even in the finale. I think given something more to work with, Biehn's baby-faced killer could have been a lot more menacing.

As it is, I didn't believe for a moment that Bacall would need to run from this guy. The first time she's face-to-face with him, she's supposed to look frightened, but appears more like she's ready to kick his ass. And I believed that she could have dropped him right then too.
Scared? Or ready to take out the trash?

Lauren Bacall is an interesting presence in this film. She's not classing it up as much as she seems to think she is, but at the same time, she can't help but be classy. The musical numbers are a glittery, campy mess and enormously entertaining because of it; however, though she barely rasps through her absurd numbers, she's still every bit a star. I was also astonished by how exciting it was to see Bacall's untouched 56-year-old face. I've become so used to seeing frozen Botoxed visages of women of that age that I marveled at the beauty of a naturally aging, and consequently much more effective actress.

The print had a lot more grain than I typically see in a Warner Archive release, and I thought it suited the gritty, early 1980s New York setting well. Anything sharper would have felt a little off.

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

Quote of the Week


Elizabeth has great worries about becoming a cripple because her feet sometimes have no feeling in them. She asked if I would stop loving her if she had to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. I told her that I didn't care if her legs, bum and bosoms fell off and her teeth turned yellow. And she went bald. I love that woman so much sometimes that I cannot believe my luck. She has given me so much.

-Richard Burton, About Elizabeth Taylor

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Nov 19, 2014

On DVD: 8-year-old Robert Blake in Mokey (1942)

Robert Blake is one of those actors who has experienced so much drama in real life, that it tends to cast a shadow on his film and television work. We know too much about the real man to separate him from the roles he plays. I suppose that's why I had an uneasy feeling watching him play Mokey, a boy who means well, but keeps causing problems for the adults around him. The film is one of three new releases from Warner Archive, along with Revolt in the Big House (1958) and Corky (1972), which explore Blake's early roles.

Mokey began as a series of magazine stories, which were eventually compiled into a book in 1935. They are apparently based on a real boy who had a good heart, but very poor decision making skills.

In the film, Blake is a young boy struggling with his dead mother's absence. He is essentially being raised by the family maid, played by Etta McDaniel, sister of Hattie McDaniel. His father (Dan Dailey) is always on the road for work, and while he loves his son, he clearly does not understand him, or really how to be a parent at all.

One day he brings home a new wife (Donna Reed), who is agreeable, but young and inexperienced as both a homemaker and mother. Contrary to most movies where a child is presented with a new step parent, Mokey is delighted to welcome his new mother and gives her a warm welcome. The problem is that he keeps causing her trouble and she cannot see how desperately he wants to please her.

The two embark on an uneasy relationship, with Mokey even finding himself on a year of probation for his mischief. In over her head, Reed reacts with anger and shame over the reputation she and her stepson are getting among the townspeople.
Mokey (Blake) driving on his Father's (Dailey) lap. Ah 1942.

It doesn't help that Dailey is never around, though clearly often enough, as he and Reed soon have a new baby daughter. When Mokey unintentionally endangers the girl, his stepmother slaps him and asks that he be sent away. This after calling him a dummy several times and basically being impatient and inattentive to the boy on a regular basis. It's a hideously unsympathetic role, but you do feel some of Reed's pain.

Unusually for a film of the time, the black characters come off much better than the white. There's the usual uncomfortable sprinkling of dialect, but Mokey's maid and his African American pals are the most loyal, loving and happy people in the film. They even take the boy in when he runs away from home. It's particularly nice to see Blake's Our Gang costar Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas in a more substantial role.

Overall, I found this to be an uncomfortable film to watch. I wanted so much for Mokey to be given a break, and the way he was abandoned and dismissed by the adults around him was frustrating. Those elements had a rougher edge than in a typical flick of the era with a misunderstood kid plot. It didn't ever feel like the poor kid was truly loved. Even when he ran away from home, his father seemed more inconvenienced than concerned.

I played the film for family movie night, and while it wasn't a hit, my girls did enjoy Blake. He is the best part of the film, a natural, appealing actor and so darn cute with his big, round eyes and sweet demeanor. While I can't quite recommend the film, I did enjoy watching him and the way he interacted with his friends.

As far as whether this film is appropriate for children, it depends on how much you want or need to explain. It is very much of its time, with many now taboo elements such as blackface and spankings, and a very different view of parenting. My kids have seen many older films and have some understanding of these things. Young ones who are not as familiar with the classics may need more guidance.

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

Nov 17, 2014

On DVD: Albert Finney Goes Psycho in Night Must Fall (1964)

Coming as it did after Albert Finney's lively turn in Tom Jones (1963), it's not shocking that the actor's darker role in the bleak Night Must Fall (1964) did not make a big splash upon its original release. In fact, the contrast must have been quite startling for audiences. Finney was a bit too good at demonstrating his versatility, but as can been seen on a new DVD release from Warner Archive, this is not a film to be dismissed.

The psychological thriller, about a murderous psychopath who descends upon a country estate, began life in 1935 as a stage play by Emlyn Williams. It was then filmed twice by MGM, first with Robert Montgomery in 1937, which reflects its stage roots much more than the 1964 Brit version.

Finney is Danny, a Welsh bellboy with overpowering charisma who in various ways seduces three women living in a magnificent home. When he enters the scene, he has already impregnated the maid (Sheila Hancock), and will not commit to marrying her. He quickly charms the wealthy widow (Mona Washbourne) who owns the house and she insists on hiring him as her companion. Though her niece Olivia (Susan Hampshire) is more skeptical of the man frolicking in the yard with her aunt, he eventually wins her over as well.

Each of the women notices that there is something off about Danny, though Olivia is the only one to be deeply disturbed at first. The others attempt to ignore what frightens them about him, too enamored of his flirtation to reject him. His rude, aggressive behavior is often misinterpreted as charm, but he has a manic energy that threatens to run him off the rails. There's always the feeling that he'll explode and rip someone's head off.

The audience fears this because in the first scene he actually is enthusiastically chopping a woman's head off. We're spared the sight of that, but as he trots through a grassy field carrying a headless corpse, there's no mystery as to what happened.

Perhaps the thing that was most repulsive to audiences who saw this horrifying opening after Tom Jones is that Finney bounces around with an enthusiasm similar to that character, but with all the warmth drained away. It was as if Jones had turned on them, all his happy wrinkles pressed into cold, emotionless flesh.

Finney has Danny speak like a deranged ventriloquist's dummy, using his familiar staccato delivery to horrifying effect. He seems possessed, and the scary thing about it is that just about everyone around him thinks it's hilarious. The performance is over-the-top, and the music has an unfortunate way of needlessly punctuating Finney's flailing with sensational blasts of sound, but in a film that can drag in spots, sometimes that punch of energy is welcome.

The cast is good, but definitely stuck in the backseat. Washbourne is especially adept at tapping into the widow's vulnerability, but Finney is what makes this film remarkable. His take on the character is not quite as finely tuned as Robert Montgomery's in the more sedate 1937 version, but it is very much of its time and for that reason entirely appropriate.

The Warner disc shows off the strangely dreamy photography to great effect and the production is smoothly executed by Finney's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) director Karel Reisz. This film deserves a wide audience. If it had been released at a different time, it might have even been a minor classic.

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

Nov 16, 2014

Quote of the Week


Her voice is peculiarly personal, with its unaccustomed rhythm and sing-song cadence that develops into a flat drawl that ends in a childlike query. It has a quality of heartbreak.

-Cecil Beaton, About Audrey Hepburn

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Nov 13, 2014

On DVD: Colleen Moore Does the Charleston in Why Be Good? (1929)

Colleen Moore was one of the most popular stars of the twenties, the very image of flapperdom with her blunt bob and snazzy dance moves, but until now, I knew her best for the lavish $500,000 dollhouse she created long after her career had ended. Today, that impressive structure can be seen in the Chicago Museum of History and Industry. Now, thanks to a new release from Warner Archive, her work as an actress can also be admired.

Why Be Good? comes at the tail end of Moore's acting career. It was her final silent film and the handful of talkies she made afterwards were not sufficiently popular to keep her in the spotlight. Already wealthy from wise investment of her astronomical salary, the savvy star decided to call it a day and busied herself with marriage and raising her step children.

For many years it was thought that the Vitaphone soundtrack was all that remained of the film. Archivists will talk though, and it was eventually found that a print did exist. After a 10-year restoration effort, it was recently screened to audiences for the first time in 85 years at the Film Forum in New York City. As much as I would have loved to have seen this fun film with an audience,I had a blast checking it out on DVD.

Though this slightly plotted bit of frivolity was met with critical shrugs upon its release, it now offers an amusing and fascinating look at flaming youth from a 1920s Hollywood perspective.

It is the story of Pert Kelly (Moore) a high spirited young woman who puts on a wild act to impress the boys, though she is really a "good girl" just out to enjoy herself. One night, as she wriggles out of the overenthusiastic embrace of an oily millionaire, she catches the eye of the wealthy young Winthrop Peabody, Jr. (Neil Hamilton). Out with his pals, he is savoring his last night of freedom before he starts work as head of personnel for his father's department store which, of course, is where Pert works as a salesgirl.

Beginning with that night of flirtation, the two connect, canoodle, quarrel and make up in a perfectly predictable rhythm. However, the film compensates for its lack of surprises with loads of charm. As the plot is so lightweight, there's plenty of time for parties: flappers work cloche hats and swinging dresses, frolicking in a posh Manhattan apartment with their amorous beaux.

On the other side of town, a frenzied Charleston contest heats up at the Trucker's Ball. The winner of that contest is the astoundingly fast-footed Pert. She sips champagne out of her trophy cup, but stays just sober enough to maintain her honor.

When her sophisticated act proves to be too good, Pert must prove to her young millionaire that she isn't going to lay a busy sexual history on him after they marry. Though she is undoubtedly aware that there is a double standard at play here, she indignantly, and effectively shames him for his suspicions.

While there's a dip in the action as Junior and his father have a lengthy debate about Pert's "purity," for the most part things move along at a steady clip.

Moore is a bit long in the tooth to be a "good girl" living at home with her parents, but she has plenty of youthful vigor nonetheless. At first she just seemed like a slightly dorky version of Clara Bow, who actually was a bit of a threat to the already established Moore in the early twenties. It took me a while to accept her on her own terms.

She grew on me though. Moore was the smart flapper. She's the one you want in your corner, because you know she's not going to become an alcoholic or a coke fiend and slip into the gutter. Here was a party girl with an eye on the future. Live it up, but keep your virtue and save your pennies.

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

Nov 12, 2014

Retro Review--Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

Retro Review--Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel
Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel
Carlton Jackson
Madison Books, 1990

Who was the person behind the jolly, but strong-willed mammies and maids that Hattie McDaniel played throughout her career? I've asked this question for years, usually while watching her steal whatever brief moments she had onscreen. I finally got my answer in Carlton Jackson's illuminating bio. of the first African American performer to win an Academy Award.

McDaniel was one of those people who was born to perform. She was always charismatic and eager to entertain. After winning a gold medal for her dramatic reading of Convict Joe for the Women's Christian Temperance Union in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, fifteen-year-old Hattie decided she'd had enough of school. She abandoned her studies and followed her father Henry, who had his own minstrel show and her singer and dancer brother into the business.

The actress paid her dues in vaudeville before attempting success in Hollywood. It was tough going at first, and sometimes so discouraging that she could not work up the enthusiasm to respond to letters at home. McDaniel found low-paying engagements singing on the radio or stage, but she was forced to supplement her income working as a domestic.

It was in such an engagement, serving as restroom attendant at Club Madrid, that Hattie began to drum up some support for her singing career. She sang and danced so beautifully and energetically while doing her job, that the ladies she served began to demand that she appear on the club stage. When the owner reluctantly gave her a chance one night, she was a sensation. Her tip saucer was overflowing by the end of the evening.

Exposure like this led to bit movie roles, starting with an uncredited part as a servant in The Golden West (1932). While McDaniel never had much to do onscreen, she was admired for her wit on set. This led to a part in the Will Rogers comedy Judge Priest (1934) which she all but stole from Stepin Fechit. She began to build a reputation.

In a role as a rebellious maid in Alice Adams (1935), she reportedly upset some white viewers with her supposedly uppity ways. She was to cause a great deal more controversy in later parts, because she was at her best when she played a woman more together than her employers. Even in her greatest role, in Gone With the Wind (1939), she is the one with the heart and the strongest moral grounding. Ironically, that has not nearly enough for black activists such as Walter White, leader of the NAACP, who criticized the actress, preferring the all-or-nothing approach to racial equality, rather than her gradualistic philosophy.

Regardless of what critics felt about her breakthrough performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, that role would ensure McDaniels could make a living in the entertainment for the rest of her life. It would win her the Academy Award and worldwide acclaim. She embraced her mammy image, always grateful for the success it had given her. Beyond the role, she would not find as much work in film, but she found larger and more enduring success, and captured enormous public affection, as the star of the popular radio show Beulah.

In a life of steady professional triumphs like these, McDaniel enjoyed the company of good friends and helped many young performers get started in the business. She loved throwing parties and cooking for her guests. The actress only overindulged in food, but she enjoyed her wealth.

Still, McDaniels was a troubled person, always burdened with guilt over her success, wondering if she deserved it. Continued public pressure over the kinds of roles she played, troubled marriages and poor health would add to her burden. She would tell friends she didn't feel she belonged in the world.

Jackson tells McDaniel's story efficiently in his brief, but illuminating text. While much of the actress's family had died at the time of his research, he was able to speak with several of her friends and co-workers, many of whom offer revealing insights into the woman who was never as jolly as her public persona would suggest.

There are so few full biographies of African American performers from this age; it was interesting to see Hollywood from the point of view of an actress who knew she could only go so far because of her color. McDaniel played an important role in improving conditions for her race, but while Jackson grants the actress her proper place in history, he emphasizes her humanity before the things she symbolized. This sympathetic approach elevates an otherwise straightforward biography.

Nov 11, 2014

A Restoration to Revive a Film Revolution: Shirley Clarke, A Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985)

With two new releases on DVD and Blu-ray, Milestone Film continues its restoration of the work of filmmaker Shirley Clarke.

The documentary films each feature a mesmerizing character, one whose life is a triumph, the other a tragedy, though both have known their share of highs and lows. A Portrait of Jason (1967) is a significant restoration, the result of five years of fundraising, archive search and work on the film itself. Ornette: Made in America creates its own genre, a mash-up of concert film, documentary, dramatization and experimental style.

Shirley Clarke never reached for a wide audience. The filmmaker made movies for people on her wavelength. She got that her style was unusual, and she embraced that.

Clarke and camera

Still, Clarke managed to make herself a minor legend based on a rebellious, bold and undeniably major talent. Her method is easier to experience than explain. It’s a way of flowing with her subject, basing the rhythm of her films on the characters and action she observes.

Until now, the bulk of Clarke's work has been difficult to see. That is until Milestone Films, which is the husband and wife team Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, pulled off another brilliant restoration--this time bringing Clarke's films to the public-at-large with an ambitious effort known as Project Shirley.

Clarke was born in New York and the spirit of the city always flowed through her veins. With her dramas, documentaries and short films, she would often document the darkest, most desperate stories of its citizens, reflecting her own feelings of being an outcast in society.

A Portrait of Jason (1967) is a tricky film. In portraying one of those citizens, it seduces you into thinking you're seeing a story told straight, which is amusing since it features a man who is the definition of con artist. His name is Jason Holliday, or at least that's what he tells the camera, until he is coaxed into admitting his birth name was Aaron Payne.

And so begins a drunken night in the life of an African American, gay hustler who claims aspirations of cabaret stardom. This combo remains perilous today, in 1966 it was much more so, when homosexual acts were illegal and racism more bluntly apparent.

Clarke filmed Holliday for twelve hours over the course of one evening and early morning. He drinks, smokes, gets high and giggles his way through the story of his life. His words can be enchantingly quotable, but just as often he rambles like the overly friendly party guest who has edged you into a corner. You simultaneously want to take care of Jason and shout at him to get it together, but his flaws are mostly the result of his displacement in a society that rejects so much of who he is.

Jason leans against the fireplace, sprawls across a couch and otherwise lounges, paces and writhes in Clarke's penthouse apartment at the Hotel Chelsea. The setting is simple, and at first the concept appears to be as well. But Shirley's questions and those of her partner Carl Lee get more prickly as the hours pass by. You begin to realize they are angry at him and they are trying to break down his giddy defenses as he becomes increasingly more exhausted.

There is undeniable hurt beneath the jolly way Jason describes his experiences as a houseboy and hustler. He's been treated horridly, and he hasn't been so sweet himself. What he has done to anger Clarke and Lee is somewhat a mystery, though it is clear that the story Holliday tells is piled high with fabrications. As much as Jason refuses to do so, he ends up revealing a great deal about himself and the desperation he feels about his rootless life.

Lending the proceedings another level of perversity, Clarke may be manipulating the image. The camera occasionally goes out of focus, whether by design or technical difficulties, but giving the proceedings a rough, perilous feel either way. In one instance she runs the film forwards and backwards on Jason sitting quietly, smoking, a detail noticeable only because you can see the smoke running in an out of his cigarette. Sometimes the image drops out, and Clarke keeps the sound going. She seems to want to communicate that capturing the moment is of utmost importance.

The film isn't for everyone, but if you get Clarke, it is likely you will also be entranced by Jason. They are kindred rebellious spirits, exploiting each other in their own fashion.

Special features include interviews with Clarke, outtakes from the film, color photos of Jason and a clip of his comedy album, but unfortunately not much about what became of the Holliday when filming wrapped.

The production of Ornette: Made in America (1985) stretched out out over several years. Clarke began her relationship with Coleman, and his son Denardo (he started playing drums with his father's band at age ten) in the late 60s, collecting footage that she then put into storage. It was not until the composer returned to his Fort Worth, Texas  hometown for a major concert of his work that she began to piece together the film.

Instead of approaching its subject with chronological storytelling, the film moves with a defiant, eccentric rhythm closely connected to the chaos of Coleman's music. It dips into the musician's past with visual cues, at first mysterious, but eventually familiar. Clarke effectively references these moments to give layers of meaning to her footage.

A flicker of a young actor portraying Ornette as a child during one of his concerts or the overlapping noise of the trains he heard going past his house in childhood in the midst of an interview adds depth and richness beyond straight documentation. Clarke gets how a brief glimpse can be powerful enough to communicate what the limited path of traditional narrative cannot.

This fluidity of storytelling is a perfect fit for Coleman's genius. And he is a genius too. It is great fun to watch his interviews with Clarke. You sense the way he goes through life at play, enjoying the wonders of his mind.

Coleman is focused, calm and in control as he shares his vision with Clarke--the opposite of his chaotic compositions. His gifts so inspire him that he is willing to put himself in physical danger to find a place to properly explore his ideas. He is an artist above all.

This is adventurous filmmaking, seeming wild and chaotic, but deliberately crafted. As with any Clarke film, if you can catch her vibe, you are rewarded with an infinitely exciting vision.

Special features on the disc include an interview with Denardo Coleman, Clarke's amusing short film about her love of Felix the Cat, a couple of interviews with the director and a booklet with reminisces about the production of the film.

More information about the films restored as part of Project Shirley here.

Many thanks to Milestone Films for providing copies of the films for review.

Nov 9, 2014

Quote of the Week


Grace's childlike innocence and joy in everything drew everyone into her little bit of heaven.

-Joan Dale, about her friend Grace Kelly

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Nov 5, 2014

Dead of Night (1945)

Horror movies were generally frowned  upon in World War II era Britain, and even banned from production for a time, but as the world crawled from the fog of war, this spooky portmanteau emerged from Ealing studios. Made up of five segments, it has a framing device in which all the main characters gather to share chilling tales of mysterious happenings in their lives.

The story begins with a successful architect who has been invited to spend the weekend at a country estate. He has never met the other guests, and yet when he sees the group gathered by the fire, he recognizes all of them from a series of disturbing recurring dreams he has been having.

While skeptical of his claim, the guests all have their own unusual dreamlike experiences to share. It seems this crowd has a collective subconscious located in the Twilight Zone. All are delighted to share their frightening tales, as if the horror has faded in memory.

I love the characters' very British take on horror. I'm sure that I would be wetting myself with fright in their position, but the guests cheerfully chat about ghosts, demonic mirrors and possessed ventriloquist's dummies as if it's just a light topic for teatime conversation: "Oh it was just a spot of attempted murder. So frightfully inconvenient!"

There's only the slightest bit of lightness about these stories though--just enough to make the tension bearable. They tap into our deepest terrors, the fear of what is lurking behind a curtain, or whether your next step will be your last. The chilling awareness of a mysterious cry in the attic or an object that seems to have taken on a life of its own. Terror about losing self control.

Though I'd wanted to see Dead of Night for years, I was anxious about it, because I'd heard that one of the stories involved Michael Redgrave tangling with a ventriloquist's dummy that appears to take on a life of its own. I'm terrified of puppets and anything puppet like, so I thought that might be a tough one for me to endure. It was, but it is also the most powerful tale of the five and rightfully the most famous in the film, because it inspires the most animalistic, gut-wrenching fear. The segment could be successful on its own as a short.

It's always tricky to see a film that you have wanted to watch for years. Often there is something that doesn't conform to the fantasies you've weaved about it. This was the rare occasion where I got more than I'd hoped for.  Dead of Night explores its horrors in many different ways, with humor, fantasy and very real violence, but all those pieces ultimately meld smoothly together into an effective exploration of the way fear and uncertainty affect us.

Dead of Night has been released on DVD, though it is currently appears to be out of print in the US. A restoration is available in PAL format on Amazon UK. The film has also been shown on TCM and can be rented at

Nov 3, 2014

On Blu-ray: Joan Crawford Goes Mad in Possessed (1947)

This week Warner Archive has given us the gift of Joan Crawford on Blu-ray. As a woman haunted by mental illness and consumed with toxic love for self-centered homme fatale Van Heflin, she suffers deep, chin quivering anguish as only she could.

The power of this film snuck up on me. I first watched it years ago, when the library mistakenly sent the VHS to me instead of what I had ordered, the 1931 pre-code with the same name, and starring Crawford and Clark Gable. The mistake irritated me so much that I almost didn't watch it, but Joan is Joan, so I gave it a try.

I was about halfway through the film before I realized I was no longer disappointed by the mix-up. It isn't a happy story. In fact, it is frequently devastating and even cringe-worthy, but Crawford is so mesmerizing that you stick with her. She makes you feel the torment of her demons and empathize with her pain, though she creates trouble for everyone she meets.

She is Louise Howell a registered nurse who cares for the invalid wife the wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) at their lake house. Though she is in love with engineer David Sutton (Van Heflin), who lives across the water, he has tired of the relationship. Louise can't let go though, and is crushed when he moves away.

What Louise doesn't know is that she is mentally ill, likely suffering from schizophrenia. As she has not been treated, or even diagnosed, she lives in fear and agony, unable to control her actions. Sutton compounds this problem by being monstrously insensitive to her feelings, something he claims as his right, until he realizes this woman's pain is not to be ignored.

This is one of Crawford's best performances, an accomplishment that was recognized with an Academy Award nomination. In a role filled with opportunities to go over the top she maintains a precarious balance in her portrayal of a woman who has lost control of her emotions and the actions they inspire.

While she has plenty of opportunities here to play up to her glamorous image and wear pretty clothes, Crawford is not afraid to strip herself of these trappings. The film begins with Crawford walking forlornly down a city street, face pale, no make-up, looking weary and ill. It is fascinating that this actress so dedicated to playing the role of movie star in real life was able to abandon her vanity in this way. She felt a duty to be glamorous, but wanted to give everything to her craft.

Crawford is even more mesmerizing bare-faced and almost uncomfortably intimate with the camera. In Blu-ray you catch every nuance of her character's agony. You can actually see strings of spit stretching between her lips as she lies under a white sheet in a hospital bed, struggling to speak. This from our Joan! But it is details like these that make her performance so powerful. She is heartbreaking and raw.

I was also charmed by Geraldine Brooks as Graham's grown daughter Carol. She has a lovely, casual air that made her performance feel timeless. I was disappointed to learn that she made few films and spent most of her career in television. She was married to writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) for several years before dying of a heart attack while fighting cancer in her early fifties. I'm all the more grateful that she was able to show what she could do in a strong role such as this one.

All told, this is the kind of film where you feel sorry for everyone. Sure Heflin plays a jerk, but you sense his bewilderment when he can't get Crawford to leave him alone. The rest of the characters, and especially Graham and Carol, work to manage the situation as honorably as possible. There's no real villain because Louise's illness plays that role.

When it comes to pity, Joan always wins, even if she is being insufferable. It's her desperation, the way she feels with such intensity, those enormous, suffering eyes, the pulsing slash of lips. It's all so overwhelming that she always risks make herself a joke. Sometimes she did. In this case she played it just right.

Special features include a trailer and a brief clip in which familiar Warner disc contributors, including UCLA professor Drew Casper and film noir czar Eddie Mueller, discuss Crawford and her impact on noir. Though they are short, these mini film lessons always do much to increase my understanding and enjoyment of the films.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Nov 2, 2014

Quote of the Week

Hollywood does some wonderful things, but by the same token, I've always had the feeling that it sometimes captures somebody with talent just for the sake of owning them.

-Allen Baron

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